True Lithuania

Klaipėda City: An Introduction

Klaipėda Old Town (Turgaus street) during the annual Sea Festival. This traditional city holiday of Klaipėda that attracts hundreds of thousand people from all over Lithuania and abroad. You may find celebrations, concerts, shows and markets in almost every street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda is the only port in Lithuania and its heart is beating together with the sea, with annual summer Sea Festivals and biennial Tall Ships regattas, Sea museum, Sea faculty in the local University, numerous beaches, and major stevedoring companies.

Ever since its establishment by the Teutonic Knights (as Memelburg) in the year 1252 the city was distinct from the rest of Lithuania. It was ruled by Germans together with the rest of Lithuania Minor. Even its Lithuanian name “Klaipėda”, first mentioned in the 16th century, is believed to be a pejorative, meaning “Bread eater” (as the city dwellers used to eat bread grown by the Lithuanians of surrounding countryside).

On the eve of the World War 2 Klaipėda looked just as it did for centuries: 70% of its people were Germans, while in the surrounding Klaipėda County the situation was reverse with 70% of the population being ethnic Lithuanians. But the War changed everything and the advancing Soviet armies found only some 20 local human beings when they captured the city in 1945.

Klaipėda was swiftly repopulated by Russians (22%), Russophones (5%) and Lithuanians from elsewhere (72%). Some of its iconic German-style buildings that survived the war were torn down soon afterwards. Unfortunately, this included all the imposing churches (Saint John church used to have the tallest spire in Lithuania).

A view backwards from the Klaipėda breakwater constrasts the mainland port (left) and the Smiltynė resort beaches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, much more of its past remained visible in Klaipėda than in cities like Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit) in Russia, where the German history was wiped out almost entirely.

In the Klaipėda Old Town and New Town there are still many pre-war buildings, art nuoveau and wooden frame, even if they are frequently standing side-by-side with newer ones. Among the more interesting is the post building and various red brick port warehouses. Strolling on the straight narrow old town streets may be as rewarding as seeking specific landmarks.

In Smiltynė, the part of Klaipėda that could be reached by ferry alone, there is a former German 19th century sea fortress, currently housing the National Sea Museum, which covers both shipping, fishes and sea mammals, many of which live in large aquariums here.

Smiltynė together with Melnragė, Giruliai and Karklė (north of the city) are also popular for their beaches.

The streets of downtown Klaipėda are adorned by numerous small playful statues built in 2006 and later. Among these is a bag of money, a canine "Guardian of the Old Town", a small mouse that supposedly makes wishes come true and a dragon climbing a building wall. They revitalize Klaipėda urban landscape and remind some aspects of the city past and folklore. You never know what you will encounter in that side-street and this makes your time in Klaipėda even more interesting.

More information:
Klaipėda by borough (district): An area-by-area guide to Klaipėda and its sights, with maps and pictures.
Klaipėda by topic: Shopping, Transportation and other topics of Klaipėda.

Map of Klaipėda boroughs.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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