A small town of Trakai, just a short drive from Vilnius, the capital, is one of the main tourist attractions in Lithuania.
Local and foreign visitors come to see its impressive Medieval Castle located right in the middle of the Galvės lake, as well as enjoy the nature and some local ethnic food.
So here are some suggestions of places to see and things to do for those, who are visiting Trakai for the first time.
To start with – a few scheduling suggestions. If your schedule is flexible, try to avoid the wet and dreary late autumn and early spring months (November, March, April) when the trees are bare and the snow is melting or has not come yet.
Winter months, on the other hand, can be a beautiful time to visit if you like snow and don’t mind the cold.
If at all possible, try to time your trip in the middle of the week, to avoid weekend crowds – it does become really busy, especially on nice days and in the summer.
Suggested Walking Route from the Railway Station
Take a very comfortable train from Vilnius railway station and about 30-40minutes later you will get off in Trakai.
Be prepared to walk a bit – the castle is about 2.5km from the station and you can either walk along the lake or follow the main street of the town. The signs in the railway station show you a general direction, but it’s really impossible to get lost.
Discover Lithuanian Karaim history and traditions
If you are going through the town, you’ll get a chance to admire wooden architecture, telling the story of Karaim and Tartar (Turkic ethnic groups) communities, who were resettled in this and other parts of Lithuania in the 14th – 15th centuries by Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas.
In Lithuania, Trakai has always been the administrative, spiritual and cultural centre for Karaim ethnic group, who had autonomy and self-rule until the end of 18th century.
As you walk along the main street, you can see the Karaim cultural centre where this community gathers to mark various occasions and celebrate their heritage.
Just before you turn to the castle area, on your left there is a Kenesa, a Karaim worship place (one of three in the world). Visits have to be arranged in advance.
Karaim religion (Karaism) is based on the Old Testament, rejecting all later additions and interpretations of the Book. Ethnically though, Karaims are not Jews, but belong to some of oldest Turkic tribes.
Take a picture at this landmark and keep the Karaim story in mind, since you’ll come back to it again in a short while.
The Lake Castle
A few meters further down the road and on the right handside you’ll see a sign saying Castle – you can’t miss it.
You will see the lake in front of you and a few stalls with souvenirs – amber, woollen clothing and linen items, clay souvenirs – everything you’ve ever dreamed of…
Leave the souvenirs for later and head over the bridge to the main attraction – the Lake Castle.
Towering over the calm waters, it tells the story of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania and its golden age, when the territory of the country spanned from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
The castle museum has an extensive collection of artifacts and interesting historical displays about the castle, the town, the country, its history and people.
However, if you are used to visiting castles and palaces with elaborate interior designs and décor elements, this castle might come as a disappointment since décor elements have not survived the turbulent twists and turns of historical events.
NOTE. If you are carrying a camera, apparently you have to buy a separate ticket in order to be able to take pictures inside. I did not realize that, hence there are no pictures of castle interior here.
The good thing about the castle is that today it is used for concerts and events (for example Lithuanian National Filharmonic Society hosts regular concerts here), so look out for any announcements and you can time your visit to coincide with a beautiful musical soirée or even symphony or opera performances. Keep your eyes open!
After admiring the historic displays in the castle, stroll around the castle on the island or head back to the mainland to shop for a few souvenirs along the way.
When you get hungry in Trakai….
….. it’s time to remember the Karaim community.
It is a tradition for us, Lithuanians, to eat some kibinai, traditional Karaim pasty and meat dish, whenever we visit Trakai.
One of the best places to rty them is Kybynlar , a restaurant which seems to put a lot of effort into presenting the Karaim culture through their cuisine.
Apart from being able to order traditional kibinai (or kybynlar), you are also offered traditional meat soups, pies and other dishes, giving you a true flavour of Lithuanian Karaim cuisine.
And all this without a hint of pork on the menu (unusual in Lithuania), since, as you remember, the Karaim adhere to Old Testament beliefs and traditions.
Kibinai have become so popular in Lithuania, that many cafes, shops and street vendors offer them as a fast food option. A lot of commentators note that the small size of Karaim community is disproportionate to its strong influence in Lithuanian cuisine.
Admire the landscape
After trying a dish or two from the Karaim menu, and if you’ve got some more time left before catching the train back to Vilnius, do take a leisurely stroll along the lake – admiring the castle, lake and forest views and their colours, especially if you are visiting in autumn.
Last time I visited Trakai, I spent the most amazingly peaceful autumn Wednesday in this place, normally bustling with local and foreign visitors.
The suggested route above would give a first-time visitor a good idea of what the most important landmarks in this small town are. However, if you are planning to stay around a little longer, or this is your second or third visit to the place, look through this website of Trakai Tourism Information Centre, you’ll see there’s so much more to this vibrant, historic town than I could cover in this brief description.