True Lithuania

Šiauliai Travel Guide: Introduction

Šiauliai (pop. 110 000) is Lithuania's fourth largest city and the largest city in Samogitia.

The main draw here is the world famous Hill of Crosses 12 km north of city center. A very atmospheric place it hosts some 2 million crosses brought in by ordinary people in defiance to the Russian and Soviet occupational regimes. It is all at once a pilgrimage and meditation site, a symbol of Lithuania's non-violent struggle for freedom and a powerful work of art (Lithuanian crossmaking is inscribed in the UNESCO list of immaterial heritage).

View from one of the 'summits' of the Hill of Crosses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šiauliai downtown has been ravaged in both World Wars. Heavily rebuilt it lacks the charm of either Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipėda. The gone-by eras survive as architectural isles rather than a contiguous Old Town. Mannerist Cathedral and several palaces are the prettiest buildings.

Luckily in Šiauliai, the dominating Soviet architecture is not limited to the boring similarly-looking apartment blocks. The city center was largely rebuilt in the 1940s and the early 1950s, therefore it received a fair share of monumental Soviet historicist buildings. Its heart is Vilniaus street, a.k.a. "The boulevard", a pedestrianized zone.

A Soviet historicist apartment building in the Vilniaus boulevard. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The commercial center of Šiauliai has moved to 5 large shopping malls all built in the boom times of 2005-2008 (Šiauliai is the top city in the Baltic States in retail space per capita). A miscalculation by developers provides decent shopping, eating and entertainment opportunities for visitors (the malls include cinemas, casinos, bowling and ice rink).

In other terms, Šiauliai is a regional hub as well. It is the smallest Lithuanian city to host a university (albeit one that lacks the prestige to attract students from further away). It also has several theaters and a modern 5500-seat sports arena, while its Gubernija brewery is Lithuania's oldest (est. 1665).

Bruklinas, one of the five large shopping malls in Šiauliai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In Šiauliai, it is easy to spend a spare afternoon at thematic museums as the city has many of them (photography, bicycles, chocolate, radio/TV, railroad, cat memorabilia...). Other museums are associated with the local history (restored windmill, ethnography/archeology).

In military circles, Šiauliai is famous for its major airbase used by NATO mission for Baltic States airspace defense. Every half a year a new alliance member sends some of its fighters and pilots here to compensate for the current Baltics' lack of air force capabilities. Šiauliai Airport was selected for having the longest runway in the Baltic States (3 500 m).

Main residential "sleeping districts" of Šiauliai are located southwest of downtown while north of the downtown is low-rise Gubernija district. Šiauliai lacks a river but includes multiple lakes with the largest one - Rėkyva - covering 13% of the municipal territory.

For maps of Šiauliai see the articles on Downtown Šiauliai and Šiauliai Outer Districts.

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