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.
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.
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.
Getting around the cities of Lithuania.
Vilnius is the Lithuania's capital and its largest city (population 550 000). Officially established in the 14th century (but likely dating to an earlier era), this city is well-known for its UNESCO-inscribed Medieval old town (the largest in the Eastern Europe). After all, Vilnius has been a capital since at least the 14th century and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania used to be the largest state in Europe back then.
Vilnius has been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city for centuries, as evident in religious buildings of 9 different faiths, each of them pre-dating World War 1. Today that atmosphere still remains, with ethnic Lithuanians making less than 60% of population (Poles – 19,4%, Russians – 14,43%, Belarussians – 4,19%).
Despite harboring many faiths and a remarkable religious tolerance, Vilnius always has been a religious city. It is said that you can see a church spire from any given site of its narrow Old Town streets. While not entirely true, the density of lavish baroque Catholic churches funded by the local wealthy families there is indeed one of the largest in Europe. Saint Peter and Paul church is famous for its interior with over 2000 statues while Saint Anne gothic church is known for its fine exterior, supposedly loved by Napoleon Bonaparte. Four other Christian denominations, as well as Judaism and Karaism, also have their centuries-old houses of worship in Vilnius.
With its location in the heart of Europe (according to the French geographic institute, the center of Europe is in a certain well-marked spot north of Vilnius) Vilnius was at the crossroads of many different armies and empires, Napoleon’s being just one of them.
The scars of the more recent occupations are felt better. You may visit the Parliament and Vilnius TV Tower where Russian soldiers killed 14 armless pro-independence civilians in January of 1991. Museum of Genocide Victims and Tuskulėnai memorial are located where Soviets used to torture, murder and secretly bury Lithuanians in 1940s-1980s (hundreds of thousands perished during that brutal occupation). Paneriai memorial marks the place where Nazi Germany killed a large share of Vilnius Jewish community during World War 2 (in 1931 Jews made up 27,8% of Vilnius inhabitants and the city was nicknamed Jerusalem of the North).
Being a modern capital, Vilnius also has a new skyscraper district, centered around the Europos square. Moreover, the city is the best place in Lithuania for shopping, offering diverse opportunities such as Akropolis and Ozas shopping malls and the bazaar-like Gariūnai market. Together with Kaunas, it offers the widest array of museums: multiple art museums (both old art and modern art), the National museum and more. It is in Vilnius where there are the most cultural activities. It is here where the nightlife is the best in Lithuania.
Vilnius by borough (district): An area-by-area guide to Vilnius and its sights, with maps and pictures.
Vilnius by topic: Shopping, Entertainment, Churches and other topics of Vilnius.
Kaunas is Lithuania’s second largest city (population 325 000) resting at the confluence of country’s two largest rivers, Neris and Nemunas. For centuries it has been smaller than Vilnius, but only a bit, therefore Vilnius vs. Kaunas rivalry is felt everywhere from basketball matches to internet forums.
Kaunas medieval old town is smaller but more intact than that of Vilnius as it suffered less of the Soviet post-war destruction. It is dominated by the churches at the Rotušės (City Hall) square and a wide Vilniaus street as well as by the restored Kaunas castle near the confluence.
Away from the city center and close to the hydroelectric dam that dammed Nemunas river stands the impressive Pažaislis monastery (built in 17th-18th centuries), a pearl of late baroque in the Northern Europe.
What makes Kaunas really unique is, however, its heritage from later eras. It is here where the Russian Empire built a 1st class fortress (in 1882 - 1915), its forts, batteries, barracks and redoubts surrounding the entire Kaunas city. The majority of these fortifications can still be seen today and are in fact the best-preserved 19th-century fortress of this type in the world.
In the city itself, you can see other remains of the Russian Imperial military, such as the garrison church ("the Sobor"), warehouses and derelict barracks where nothing is changed since they fell into disuse after the World War 1.
Another era well visible in Kaunas is that of the interwar independent Lithuania. Vilnius was captured by Poland in 1920 and Kaunas became a temporary capital “until Vilnius is liberated”. As such it expanded swiftly (population increased by 66% in mere 16 years) and received many new public buildings as well as large private homes. Urban plan for Žaliakalnis hill district was laid back then with its imposing art deco Church of Christ Ressurection. 1922–1940 buildings also exist in the New Town which continued to serve as the city center throughout the period.
Modern Kaunas still searches for its identity in a way. Its major pedestrian high street Laisvės Alėja (Freedom Avenue) has recently “died out” with most businesses moving to the Old Town or the new shopping malls Akropolis and Mega. Approximately 100 000 people left Kaunas for good in the past 20 years, but the annual influx of students to its numerous universities never allows the city to age. And the local Žalgiris basketball team is still the most followed sports franchise in Lithuania.
The city attempts to shed its somewhat negative image through various ad campaigns, such as the one declaring "It is possible to live in Kaunas as well". Unsold outdoor advertisement space of the city is also used in other interesting ways, including the posters promoting the 10 commandments or quoting "Le Petit Prince".
Some of the major national museums are located in Kaunas rather than Vilnius: the War museum and the Gallery of Lithuania’s most famous symbolist painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (early 20th century) are among them. The Museum of Devils with a collection of devil and demon figurines is probably the most unique.
Kaunas is also the 4th largest city in the Baltic States by population (surpassed only by the three capitals). Among the region's 5 most populous urban areas Kaunas is the most culturally homogenous (over 90% of its people are ethnic Lithuanians).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
Panevėžys (pop. 100 000) is Lithuania's 5th largest city and the largest city in Aukštaitija region. Heavily hit by the World Wars and post-war demolition Panevėžys of today is different from the city it was before the war. Only some old buildings remain amidst post-war Soviet public buildings and apartment blocks.
In the Panevėžys Old Town probably some half of the buildings are pre-1940s and the other half is newer. As they stand side-by-side or on opposite sides of the same streets, it is hard to immerse yourself in that atmosphere of centuries gone-by that you could feel in Vilnius or Kaunas.
The key features of the central Panevėžys are the Senvagė (billabong), a popular "lake" for strolling around, and the triangular Laisvės square that serves as the central square of the city. A few more interesting buildings in this area include a modest church (Holy Trinity, 1808) and an old factory. Two theaters (drama and musical) are also located in the area, as is the municipality, city library, courthouse, and other institutions. Trade, however, has largely moved to the shopping malls elsewhere.
Districts that surround the downtown are dominated by suburb-style single-story single family dwellings. The oldest among them date to the 19th century when the first streets were laid in these areas, but the majority are newer, with recent homes having replaced the older ones. The majority of churches are located in those districts, including the wooden Lutheran (east of the downtown), Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches (both west of the downtown). Among these smaller houses of worship, the square castle-like tower of the Lutheran church is the most interesting feature.
Panevėžys Cathedral, south of the downtown, is the most impressive among the city‘s religious buildings. Completed in the 1920s for the newly erected diocese this nicely restored church still boasts a solemn light blue interior adorned by murals such as that of the spires of diocese‘s main churches behind its altar.
Another imposing church is the neo-gothic Saint Peter and Paul's (1885) that stands north of the downtown, beyond the Nevėžis river.
The Ekranas stadium where the local football team plays is also in the near north of Panevėžys. The modern multi-purpose Cido arena with velodrome and basketball court is in the near west. Built for the Eurobasket 2011 it hosted the coveted games of Lithuanian national team and now is the home of Panevėžys basketball team as well as various events.
Beyond the low-rise districts of Panevėžys stand the Soviet apartment blocks. They are most prominent in the western and southwestern parts of the city where Panevėžys expanded in years 1945 - 1990. In the very north of the city (north of the railroad) stands a Soviet low-rise district known as Rožynas.
Panevėžys bus station is next to the Laisvės square (downtown) whereas the railroad station is in the north of the city. It is only served by infrequent Šiauliai-bound trains.
Panevėžys is the central point between Vilnius and Riga and therefore a good stop if you go this way. Babilonas real estate project covering the area of 80 ha is only 2 kilometers from the Vilnius-Riga road on the western outskirts of Panevėžys. Here are located two major shopping malls and smaller shops.
One day trip possibility is Pašiliai European bison park (30 km south of Panevėžys) where a bunch of these majestic animals live in a large enclosure and can be spectated. There is also a post-WW2 Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan defensive installation nearby, reconstructed to help you catch a glimpse of what the life in eternal danger in the forest should have been.