Lithuania’s capital city hasn’t always been Vilnius. Learn what you should know about Lithuanian historical capital cities and what events led them to become so important over the centuries.
Kernave—Lithuania’s First Capital City
Kernave is a hilly site in southeastern Lithuania. Thousands of years of use by tribes made it an unsurprising choice as Lithuania’s first historical capital city. With important resources nearby, such as the river and forest, as well as defensive capabilities due to the naturally swelling hills, medieval Lithuanians felt at home here. Kernave was Lithuania’s historical capital city in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Kernave is within an hour’s drive of Vilnius and can be included as a part of a broader exploration of nearby attractions. Here, the five hills on which hill fort structures were built in the Middle Ages remain. They are a dramatic reminder of Lithuania’s Baltic pagan past and its start as a significant military player in Europe during medieval times.
Trakai may be visually a more impressive example of Lithuanian historical capital cities than Kernave—and it certainly attracts plenty of visitors as one of the top things to do in Lithuania. The reconstructed castle on the lake, the Island Castle, which incidentally looks like it is floating on water, is a major draw.
Prior to the Island Castle being built, there were two other castles that served as the residences of many Lithuanian dukes, the remains of one of which can be seen in various stages of reconstruction—clearly, Trakai was a well-defended area befitting a Lithuanian historical capital city.
The capital of Lithuania was moved from Kernave in the 14th century by Gediminas, and Grand Duke Vytautas was born in what is known as the Peninsula Castle.
However, in addition to Lithuanian castles, the village of Trakai is also lovely to discover with its wooden houses, culturally rich heritage, and other elements that tell the story of Trakai’s prominence in Lithuanian history.
Trakai is also a short journey from Vilnius and is beautiful year-round, whether in the brightness of summer, the subtlety of spring, the fresh whiteness of winter, or fall’s golden colors.
Be sure to visit Uztraku Manor while you’re there, enjoy a leisurely boat ride on the river, and try kibinai, pastries particular to the cuisine of the Karaim ethnic group that has strong links to Trakai.
Kaunas—Lithuania’s Interwar Capital
Kaunas was the capital city of Lithuania between WWI and WWII—from 1920 to 1939. When Vilnius, the capital before WWI, was annexed to Poland, the capital of Lithuania was moved to Kaunas. During the interwar period, Kaunas thrived with an intellectual culture and as a manufacturing and design center.
Kaunas has been designated a European capital of culture (2022), and it was also awarded the title of UNESCO City of Design. It’s an excellent destination for those who want to get outside of Vilnius and explore more of Lithuania. Often called Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas is also the second biggest of Lithuanian cities.
Kaunas’s old town has a feel different than that of Vilnius. Its main boulevard, Laisves Avenue, is lined with shops and restaurants and and culminates in an Orthodox church.
Furthermore, visitors can view a reconstructed castle by the riverside, discover Lithuania’s favorite artist, Ciurlionis, and visit the popular Devil’s Museum.
Visitors to Kaunas can also learn about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat, who issued visas for Jews Japanese visas so they could escape Nazi terror.
Book a stay at the monastery hotel Monte Pacis or enjoy a dinner at its restaurant.
If you want to continue your exploration further, check out all the sights of the surrounding Kaunas District.
Vilnius—Today’s Lithuanian Capital
Vilnius is Lithuania’s current capital city (and the first on the list of Lithuanian cities)—though it is also the longest-lived of the Lithuanian historical capital cities.
The story goes that Grand Duke Gediminas, after a strenuous day of hunting, fell asleep. He was then visited by an iron wolf in his dreams, which howled and told him to found the city of Vilnius in the spot it occupies today.
While archeological evidence indicates this location was already used by people prior to Gediminas’s apocryphal visitation by the iron wolf, it was this Grand Duke of Lithuania who transferred the capital of his domain to Vilnius from Trakai in the early 14th century. You can see his castle on a hill behind the Vilnius Cathedral—a symbol of the city.
Thus began the expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania—and thus Vilnius. Today, Vilnius’s old town is a protected UNESCO Heritage site and has well-preserved medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical buildings. Seeing the old town is one of the most interesting things to do in Vilnius.
Today, Vilnius is the locus of discovery of Lithuania for many travelers to the Baltic states. Some visitors never see any other city in Lithuania except Vilnius and may stick to only seeing the Baltic capitals.
Whatever a tourist chooses to do, Vilnius is worth spending at least 2-3 days in. Shopping for Baltic amber, Lithuanian linen, Lithuanian folk art, or Lithuanian clothing brands can take the better part of an afternoon.
Likewise, visitors may also want to taste Lithuanian specialties such as cold pink soup or kugelis. Vilnius also has a thriving brunch scene. Uzupis and Zverynas, two of Vilnius’s neighborhoods, can be explored further for shopping and dining.
Vilnius annual events include outdoor markets, festivals, and—during the month of December—Christmas activities. Of course, one-off events, many of them reasonably priced, happen throughout the city in its various events venues.
Vilnius may be small compared to some European capitals, but that’s what makes it so special. Visitors won’t feel consumed like they might in a large city, and most of what is worth seeing is within walking distance.
Visiting Lithuania’s Historical Capitals
One of the best ways to see the Lithuanian historical capitals is to hire a guide who can take you to Kernave and Trakai so you can understand the development and growth of Lithuania from these centers of government. Of course, you can also visit on your own—many people easily incorporate a visit to Kaunas or Trakai into their stay in Vilnius.