Lithuanian Culture: A Basic Guide

Lithuanian culture dates back to the time of the Baltic tribes. Over history, the culture of Lithuania has evolved. Different periods of history have affected Lithuanian culture, including its time as a grand duchy of broad geographical proportions, its union with Poland, and more recent times—when it declared independence twice, first from the Russian Empire and then from the Soviet Union. Shifting borders, changing regimes and their policies, war, and other factors have also left their mark.

Detail of sash and apron of Lithuanian folk costume
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Lithuania is a member of the European Union and has a strong tech sector, but Lithuanian culture maintains elements from its traditional past. Lithuanian folk art, Lithuanian folk songs, and national dress are reminders that Lithuanians cherish their heritage. Many of the most important writers and artists of Lithuania also have drawn on Lithuanian history and tradition.

No single article would be able to cover all aspects of Lithuanian culture, which is rich and multifaceted. That said, some main aspects of Lithuanian culture and where can you see them in action are discussed below.

Lithuanian Folk Culture

Traditional Lithuanian culture serves as a background to current Lithuanian identity. Why? Because the russification policies of the Russian Empire, by which Lithuania was ruled prior to 1918, and similar policies during the Soviet era attempted to stamp out those traditions—including language, religion, and artistic expression.

That’s why, when you visit Lithuania, you’ll often see proud displays of both traditional Lithuanian culture as well as updated interpretations of elements of folk culture.

If you’re interested in traditional Lithuanian culture in general, a visit to the Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum is a must.

Wooden house in a field and forest
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Folk art

Lithuanian folk art encompasses useful and decorative items that Lithuanians have been producing for centuries using local styles and techniques.

Much of Lithuanian folk art has a distinctive look. Pagan symbols or those taken from nature are characteristic of this art. Whether on papercuts, Lithuanian Easter eggs, or carved distaffs, organic designs or even symbols as old as the ancient Baltic tribes are typical. Wooden carved figures typically have a rustic look.

Wooden carvings in an outdoor market in Lithuania
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If you love folk art or are looking for a unique and beautiful way to remember your trip to Lithuania, consider purchasing folk art souvenirs. Artisans who produce these crafts are responsible for keeping alive tradition—and they’ve also learned rare skills that have been passed down through generations. You’ll be supporting this tradition as well as a small, local business. In return, you’ll have a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted object to treasure or display.

Buy Lithuanian folk art at souvenir shops, outdoor markets, or online.

Lithuanian Folk Dress

Lithuanian traditional dress is marked by the use of natural fabrics, embroidery, and weaving. Layers of fabric, eye-catching color combinations, and local patterns make them special, too. People of Lithuania wore clothing particular to their region even if some elements of their traditional dress shared similarities.

A series of woven sashes in different colors
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One aspect of Lithuanian clothing is the woven sash, made of brightly colored yarns in various patterns. Tied around the waist, it completed the outfit. However, weaving was also important in the other elements of Lithuanian clothing, and the choices of colors or patterns made them reflective of regional identity.

Women’s national clothing is typically vibrant, while men’s traditional dress is less bright. Due to Lithuania’s northern climate, many layers were worn—for women, skirts and a blouse followed by a vest and for men, trousers and boots, shirt, and vest or coat. Natural fabrics, such as Lithuanian linen and wool, are characteristic of traditional dress.

Lithuanian culture dance and costume with flags
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Baltic amber beads often served as jewelry. Amber has been worked in Lithuania since prehistoric times, highly prized for its beauty, value, and mystical qualities. A visit to the Amber Museum, one of the top things to do in Palanga, is an excellent way to learn about amber and its historic importance.

It’s typical to see folk singers in national costume at festivals and outdoor markets in various styles and colors—many of these events take place in Old Town Vilnius. Or attend any folk music festival (see below), and you’re sure to see people in national costume.

Traditional Music and Song in Lithuanian Culture

The song tradition is important all through the Baltics. For Lithuania, it’s the sutarines, or polyphonic songs, that are most often talked about. These beautiful, haunting, and ancient melodies are sung with multiple voices that sing a capella but in different keys, weaving together the parts of the song in ways that may be either complementary or clashing.

In times of old, these songs were thought to be sacred and magical, and they were typically sung by women. Indeed, their origins are very old, and their importance to Lithuanian culture is so strong that they have been inscribed into UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.

Two women dressed in Lithuanian traditional clothing
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Musical Instruments

Lithuania has several indigenous musical instruments.

The kankles, or zither, is a string instrument with a trapezoid-shaped body associated with death and mourning—the kankles was often built by the player themselves. Making and playing this instrument were surrounded by superstition and ritual.

Among traditional Lithuanian wind instruments are the birbyne, or reed pipe; skuduciai, or panpipe; and the molinukas, or whistle, which was useful for herders or used as a toy by children and typically made of clay.

The kleketas, or rattle, was also imbued with mystical meaning and was used in rituals and to banish evil until it was incorporated into ordinary music-making.

Men in Lithuanian dress with folk instruments
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The accordion was a latecomer to the Lithuanian musical scene, but even today, accordionists busk on the street or play at outdoor markets. In fact, so important are accordions to Lithuanian culture that accordionists have elevated themselves to local pop-star status, and an annual accordion music festival draws both professional and amateur players as well as accordion music enthusiasts.  

Folk Music Festivals

Folk music festivals are some of the best places to enjoy this aspect of Lithuanian culture. You can listen to traditional Lithuanian music at such festivals as:

Lithuanian Language

Lithuanian language is one of the many languages of the Baltic countries, but it stands out for being the oldest Indo-European language today with elements that still link it back to Sanskrit. That makes it a deeply important aspect of Lithuanian culture.

When early peoples migrated across continents, they took with them their language. In many cases, these languages evolved beyond recognition from their original form. However, Lithuanian’s slow evolution gives it a special status as a strong link to those early peoples. It reflects the preservation of a linguistic culture despite the passage of time and challenges posed by occupation.

As a result, Lithuanians treasure their language, one of the two surviving Baltic languages.

Aerial view of a spiral column monument in a square
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Unfortunately, for outsiders, it’s difficult to learn. It bears little resemblance to the languages of the much larger Slavic language tree, perhaps except for some grammatical structures. And while it uses the Latin alphabet, diacritical marks and diphthongs may trip up even the most careful learner. On the other hand, if you’re intent on dipping your toe into the waters of Lithuanian language, both online and in-person courses offer lessons from native speakers who can guide you on your journey into this ancient tongue.

If you’re in Marijampole, take note of the monument to the Lithuanian language proudly on display on the main square.

Lithuanian Religion

Lithuania may consider itself a Catholic nation, but the reality is more complex.

A majority of Lithuanians do, indeed, personally associate themselves with Catholicism and would consider it to be an integral aspect of Lithuanian culture. This religion has been the faith of the leaders of Lithuania since the Middle Ages, and its ties to Catholicism grew along with its ties to Poland. (It should be noted that Poland, which identifies as Catholic even more strongly, and Lithuania were once united as one country.) However, Lithuanians attend church less than their Polish neighbors.

Low angle to side of neo-gothic church
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Lithuanians are often called “the last Pagans in Europe,” and indeed, they held out against conversion to Christianity even after their neighbors had embraced the Church (with the help of the Teutonic Knights, of course). Even when King Mindaugas converted in order to be recognized by the pope, he is said to have continued to follow his Baltic pagan belief system.

Indeed, Lithuanian holidays are imbued with remnants of the pagan style of worship and Baltic paganism hasn’t completely died out. Lithuania continues to preserve ancient pagan sites as well as other aspects of paganism in Lithuanian Easter traditions, Lithuanian Christmas traditions, Uzgavenes (Carnival) and other holiday customs.

Masked celebrants outside for Carnival
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In addition to the Catholic majority, Lithuania has followers of the Orthodox Church—some of them Russian speakers—Lutherans, and Muslims.

Judaism in Lithuania

Lithuania’s Jewish population was historically very large but was decimated in WWII. In fact, the Jewish population of Lithuania, which began to grow in the time of the grand duchy, played an important role in economics and trade. Vilnius was an important Jewish center.

Aerial view of Vilnius Synagogue
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To get acquainted with the Jewish history of Lithuania, it’s possible to visit sites related to Judaism, such as synagogues or former synagogues, or book a walking tour of Jewish Vilnius.

The Karaite or Karaim, a Jewish minority that settled in Lithuania from Crimea, still live in Trakai—visitors can eat Karaite delicacies, visit an exhibition about their history, and see their traditional architecture, which lines the town’s main streets.

Food Culture

Traditional Lithuanian food is based on local and seasonal ingredients. Traditional dishes often require long cooking times. Potatoes, pork, mushrooms, beets, and cabbage feature heavily in its typical dishes.

Table spread with food typical to Lithuanian culture
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The national dish is called cepeliniai, or zeppelins, which are dumplings made from mashed potatoes and cheese or meat filling. Another recognizable dish is found in the summertime. It’s called saltibarsciai, a cold pink soup made from beets and kefir.

Locally caught smoked fish is widely found in Nida and along the Curonian Spit.

Lithuanian desserts are often found at the holiday table and at family gatherings. Their recipes often use honey—important to Lithuanian cuisine—as a sweetener. Poppyseeds and the local soft cheese are also frequently incorporated into the dishes. Possibly the most famous of Lithuanian desserts is the sakotis, Lithuanian tree cake, which is made when batter is poured over a turning spit.

You can try Lithuanian cuisine at restaurants throughout Lithuania that specialize in traditional dishes. You’ll have a full array of options to sample, from charcuterie boards made of local dried meat and cheeses to the famous cepeliniai, to local fruit wine or mead. If it’s on the menu, definitely try kugelis, a potato-bacon casserole.

Of course, if you want to experience the flavor of Lithuanian culture at home, cookbooks featuring Lithuanian recipes are widely available.

Art

Lithuanians often cite Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis (1875-1911) as their most famous, most prominent artist. This artist-musician worked in the beginning of the 20th century creating ethereal, haunting imagery. This imagery is so important to Lithuanian culture it can be found on tote bags, magnets, and other souvenir items today. The Ciurlionis Museum in Kaunas has many of this artist’s works on display.

Painting with two kings holding a light
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However, other Lithuanian artists have made their impression on the international art scene.

Vytautas Kasiulis (1918-1995) was an artist who worked in Paris after the USSR annexed Lithuania. He’s so important to Lithuanian art history that he has his own museum in Vilnius, the Vytautas Kasiulis Art Museum. His colorful works depict everyday scenes in Paris, landscapes, and still lifes imbued with energy and movement.

Aleksandra Kasuba (1923-2019) was an artist who fled to the United States after WWII with her husband. She made her name as an artist who mingled architecture and sculpture, creating tiled artworks for squares and the interiors of buildings. She played with space and material and even with scents and color, always pushing the boundaries of the expected to emerge into something new. Her fascination with architectural spaces culminated in the house she built for herself, based on the shape of a snail’s shell, in the New Mexico desert. A major exhibition of her work was held at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius in 2021.

Literature

When it comes to literature in Lithuania, one thing is certain: Lithuanians love their books. The Vilnius Book Fair, which takes place every February, is a huge event attracting publishers, authors, and readers. Book stands appear at outdoor markets. And bookshops are readily found in shopping centers even as summertime pop-up tents.

Open-air library stand in a city square
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Lithuania also has a strong poetry tradition, which makes sense considering Lithuania’s development of a sophisticated song tradition. Poetry festivals are held throughout the year to showcase both classic and new talent. Druskininkai Poetic Fall is one of these festivals.

Many Lithuanians will say that, if you were to read any book of Lithuanian literature, it should be Vilnius Poker by Ricardas Gavelis. This long novel is a twisting tale of mental health issues, of the city of Vilnius, and of the end of the Soviet regime.

However, books in English that may be more accessible to a Western reader can be found, such as the young adult novels by Ruta Sepetys. Between Shades of Gray is a story of the Soviet-era deportations of Lithuania and people trying to survive when all odds seem against them. Though the book is fiction, many real-life stories of the deportations of the people of the Baltic countries that happened in the 1940s and beyond have been written. However, not all are as accessible as Between Shades of Gray.

Aerial view of book stands at a book fair
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For Lithuanian literature translated to English, Vilnius Review, an online journal, is an excellent resource. It publishes essays, poetry, novel excerpts, interviews, and short stories by Lithuanians writing today.

Online and at bookstores in Lithuania, a small selection of works in translation are available.

How to Learn More about Lithuanian Culture

The best way to learn about Lithuanian culture is to make friends with Lithuanians who can help you look at the world through their cultural lens. You’ll see differences and similarities between Lithuanian culture and your own and begin to understand where they come from. You’ll also be introduced to important cultural (or pop-cultural!) figures and references.

Of course, a look into Lithuanian history is also helpful. Lithuania was under various regimes during its development, the policies of which affected the cultural development of society here. For example, creative expression was stifled under the Soviet regime, which meant artists, musicians, and writers had to make important choices about how they would present their work to the world.

However, seeking out culture is one of the top things to do in Vilnius, but you’ll also encounter it throughout other Lithuanian cities. For example, consider a visit to Kedainiai, Kernave, or Kaunas, including the Kaunas district. The area around Ignalina is also culturally rich in addition to being naturally beautiful.

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