Kernave: Lithuania’s Medieval Capital

If you’re interested in Lithuanian history, Europe’s medieval past, or the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, you may be drawn to visit Kernave, an important site as well as a beautiful and haunting destination for tourists. Many Baltic travel guides overlook Kernave in favor of places such as Trakai, and while Trakai is certainly an important previous capital of Lithuania, too, Kernave has a different sort of character.

A visit to Kernave will have you imagining life as it was for generations past and how people lived, evolved, defended their communities, and developed systems of government throughout the centuries. So what can you expect from a visit to Kernave, Lithuania?

A landscape with fall leaves and green, rolling hills in Kernave, Lithuania

What Makes Kernave, Lithuania, Important

Kernave is a town in southeastern Lithuania, but when Lithuanians talk about Kernave, it isn’t typically the town they are referring to. Rather, it is the historical and archeological site that was the medieval capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th–14th century. Its use by the dukes of Lithuania secured its importance. In the 14th century, the capital of Lithuania was moved to Trakai.

However, Kernave was an important location for people living in and moving through the area for centuries. From the Stone Age to the Iron Age, tribes used the area for hunting and later farming. Some clues also point to the area having been used for pagan worship.

Kernave has offered a wealth of archeological information to tell us about how people lived in what is now Lithuania in centuries past—they left tools, burial plots, and evidence of dwellings and defensive structures.

In fact, Kernave is so important, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 and now enjoys protected status.

Rolling hills in Kernave, Lithuania, with stairs in the foreground and trees in the background

Kernave Hill Forts

The most striking part of Kernave is the hills where wooden hill forts were originally built. These gently rolling hills—natural, rather than human-made formations—offer sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and the Neris River below. You can ascend them using the stairs built into the sides or wander around in their shadow. As the day turns, the hills of Kernave will look different as the sunlight catches them at various angles.

Kernave is also beautiful in all seasons. The bright green of early spring, the dense foliage of the surrounding forest in summer, the autumn leaves in fall, or a dusting of snow in winter all make Kernave’s hill fort hills striking. It’s no wonder ancient people came here century after century.

The duke’s castle was located on Aukuras Hill (Altar Hill), which is the central hill. The oldest evidence of settlement has been found on this hill, testament to its long use. The other hills are called Castle Hill, Mindaugas Throne Hill, Lizdeika Hill, and Kriveikiskis Hill, the last of which may have been used for religious rites. Remember, this was the time of Baltic paganism, and the Lithuanians are known as the “last pagans in Europe.”

Nearby, an oak forest maintains the memory of pagan nature worship with wooden sculptures.

Before you enter the hill fort area, you can learn more about Kerbave’s history from the informational boards posted for visitors.

Stones outline the foundation of a former church in Kernave, Lithuania

Museum and Open-Air Exposition

To get an idea about the medieval town of Kernave, some buildings have been constructed in the style of this period. These log-house-type structures, made without the help of metal fastenings, had plank-style roofs. Many had ovens, as well, made of clay, used to prepare food and warm the interiors in the frigid northern winters.

The Kernave Museum offers an in-depth look into the story of the site, providing information on its development as a settlement and defensive area and displaying archeological finds, such as tools, weapons, pottery, and jewelry.

A field separates the viewr from a river hidden partially behind trees in the distance

Visiting Kernave, Lithuania

Kernave, Lithuania, makes an excellent day trip from Vilnius. You can plan to spend half a day there, exploring the hills, popping into the church, and visiting the museum. If the weather is nice, you may want to pack a picnic lunch.

You can reach Kernave in under an hour from Vilnius. By car, take the A1 or A2 highway and use 108 to 116 to reach Kernave. You can also take the A2 and exit onto 171, which will turn into 116.

You can also catch a bus from the Vilnius Bus Station to Kernave. Buses run several times a day.

Tips for Visiting Kernave, Lithuania:

  • Dress for the weather: Most of Kernave’s sights are outdoors, so make sure your clothing choices fit the day’s forecast.
  • Incorporate Kernave into a day of further sightseeing: For example, you may make a stop on your way to Kaunas, or head to Trakai for the second half of the day.
  • Consider hiring a guide: Licensed guides can take care of transportation and offer a deeper look into the day’s sights, which can make for a richer experience.

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