True Lithuania

Cities of Lithuania: An Introduction

Long an agricultural society Lithuania nevertheless has several large cities. Two largest and most interesting among them are the capital city Vilnius (pop 550 000) and Kaunas (330 000), separated by mere 100 km of four-lane highway.

Both of them boast Old Towns with many churches (Baroque dominates the Vilnius skyline while Gothic belfries reign over Kaunas). Both also have extensive 19th-century additions where stately buildings and wide streets remind of the industrial revolution while Orthodox church domes tell of the fact that Russian Empire ruled Lithuania in that era. Unlike Vilnius, Kaunas also has major interwar districts as Kaunas was the seat of Lithuania’s parliament and government at the time.

Aušros Vartų steet in Vilnius Old Town. The Old Towns of Lithuanian cities has narrow streets and many churches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the historical importance of multicultural Vilnius is greater than that of Kaunas and only Vilnius Old Town is inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Further away from the Lithuania’s heartland is Klaipėda (160 000), the country’s only seaport. Built and developed by German Teutonic knights this city is a part of Lithuania only since 1923 when Germany lost World War 1. Its German history was somewhat erased by post-1945 Soviet bulldozers, but there is still plenty to see in its 19th-century grid-layout old town.

Two remaining cities, Šiauliai (110 000) and Panevėžys (100 000) are located in the north. Both were heavily damaged in the World Wars and by the Soviet regime, therefore they are less architecturally appealing. However Šiauliai hosts the famous Hill of Crosses in its environs.

Almost every city of Lithuania has boroughs named “Senamiestis” (Old Town) and “Naujamiestis” (New Town). Senamiestis is typically the pre-1795 district while “Naujamiestis” is the area developed during the 19th-century Industrial revolution. Typically these two boroughs are where the most interesting places, as well as tourist facilities, are located. Together they are usually referred to as “Centras” (“Center” or “Downtown”). Downtowns traditionally are administrational and commercial hearts of Lithuanian cities. The latter fact was shaken recently by the construction of modern shopping malls further away. Many shops and restaurants relocated to these malls. Especially so in the smaller cities.

Junction of Basanavičiaus and Mindaugo street in the Vinius New Town. New Towns of the Lithuanian cities have larger buildings with elaborate historicist facades and wider streets. Building shown here is the Lithuanian Railways HQ (1903). With its 8 storeys it was once the city's tallest seccular building.

Take note that while Old Towns were urbanized in the 18th century or earlier not every building there is that old. While Vilnius and Kaunas indeed has many old buildings almost entire Klaipėda Old Town was rebuilt after a major fire in the 19th century while Šiauliai and Panevėžys downtowns suffered heavy war damage.

All the downtowns are surrounded by enormous Soviet boroughs of apartment blocks. Built to be self-sufficient these boroughs are now referred to as “sleeping districts” (miegamieji rajonai) as people come there only to rest. Nevertheless, these massive homes devoid of any architectural details house the majority of Lithuania’s urban population.

Inbetween the Soviet districts there are some pre-1940s suburbs, now absorbed into city-proper (Šnipiškės and Žvėrynas in Vilnius, Žaliakalnis and Panemunė in Kaunas). They are generally low-rise and largely wooden. While once almost every house there used to be owned by a single family now many of them are partitioned into several apartments. Some other similar districts were destroyed en-masse in 1950s-1980s to make way for Soviet apartment blocks.

After the restoration of independence in 1990, a de-urbanization process began with more and more people leaving the cramped Soviet apartments in favour of their own home in the suburbs. Beyond the Soviet apartment block areas of every city stand the genuine suburbs full of both large “private castles” (of early 1990s era with its cheap construction) and smaller homes akin to those in the West (dating to the 2000s and later). The proportion of the suburban population is however still much smaller than in some western societies.

SEE ALSO:
Getting around the cities of Lithuania.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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