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).
Surrounded by rivers from three sides the medieval Old Town of Kaunas is located next to the confluence of two major rivers: Neris and Nemunas. This confluence, once important for trade, is still guarded by a tower of Kaunas castle (14th century) that you can climb.
Not far south from the tower lies the Rotušės (City Hall) square, the heart of the city and the location for any celebrations, be it the annual Hanseatic days that remember history of Kaunas as a trade center in era when Hansa Union dominated the Baltic trade, or the Christmas market, or military parades in the days gone-by.
In the center of the square stands the City Hall with a 53 m tall tower. Nowadays it is used for registering civil marriages.
Marriages are also common in the five churches that surround the square so every summer you can see many newlywed couples here. The tallest spire is that of Ascencion Church that is almost universally reffered to as Vytautas church after the Grand Duke who commissioned it in 1399. This oldest building of Kaunas lies to the south of the Rotušės Square next to a gothic residential building known as Perkūnas house.
On the square itself the southern flank is dominated by the Jesuit church. To the west of the square covered by other houses stands another large gothic church dedicated to Saint George and a nicely repaired priest seminary with its own Holy Trinity church. Beyond them there is a Santakos (Confluence) park at the point where Lithuania's two largest rivers converge.
There are many other nice old houses and manors surrounding the square, some of them housing mediocre museums (dedicated to communications, pharmacy, Lithuanian literature, ceramics, among others). To the east of the square is the red brick Kaunas Cathedral that is the largest gothic building in Lithuania.
The main Vilniaus street beside the Cathedral leads eastwards from the Rotušės square towards the New Town. Today it is the most important street of Kaunas with many restaurants available in its old houses. Going east on Vilnius street you pass the baroque God's Body church facade (unfortunately its three towers and the interior was entirely destroyed by the Soviets and only a single room now is left for celebrating mass in what effectively became a multi-storey building).
After passing the underground passage there is the President's residence of interwar Lithuania with a small park. Now it is a museum.
In a seemingly ordinary courtyard at the end of Vilniaus street a gothic Saint Gerthrude church is located. This small church dates to 1480.
Smaller and less busy streets parallel to the Vilniaus street are also a great place to stroll through and see the Old Town of Kaunas which suffered less of the post-war Soviet destruction than its counterpart in Vilnius and therefore is more intact.
The New Town with its grid layout of streets dates to the late 19th century. This district lies entirely to the east of the Old Town. It was built by the Russian Empire as the administrational center of Kaunas Fortress which surrounded the city during the same era.
Because of its military importance there was a requirement that no building may exceed 2 floors (+attic) in size. Therefore even the most important buildings such as the former fortress HQ are not tall, but expansive. The only exception is the Kaunas Sobor (Soboras) in the center of a small square. This imposing Russian Orthodox Church with its shining dome was built for officers of the military fortress. After independence of Lithuania (1918) the Russian military departed and the church became Roman Catholic. It still remains the church of the army.
The independence changed the building size restrictions as well. New Town became the downtown of what effectively became the country's capital. Many stately buildings were constructed here, among them the Central Post building (1931), Parliament building (1928), Officers Club (1937), Savings Bank Palace (1940) and „Pienocentras“ company HQ (1931). Most construction took place in 1930s when the prevailing style was art deco with bauhaus influences. The building facades typically has many rounded geometrical elements and some sharp corners.
Among the more recent additions is Mykolas Žilinskas Art Gallery (near Sobor), the Lithuania's main encyclopedic museum of foreign art (Lithuanian collectors donated the exhibits from Babylonian cuneiform to impressionism).
The undisputed main street of New Town is Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue). Once the only pedestrian boulevard in the Soviet Union the street had been the heart of the city long before Soviet occupation. Most of city's major 1880-1940 era buildings are to be found along this street and Romas Kalanta self-immolated himself against the Soviet regime here as well, triggering a global protest (there is a monument in front of the Musical Theater). In the 2000s however Laisvės alėja somewhat lost competition to the Vilniaus street in the Old Town and new shopping malls. Some restaurants still remain here as well as all the theaters but nightlife is scarce.
In the eastern reaches of Naujamiestis (at the end of Laisvės alėja) there is the Ramybės (Calmness) park. This used to be Kaunas prime cemetary until Soviets demolished it (1959), destroying the elaborate tombstones and memorials (among them Darius and Girėnas mausoleum). Few of them have been rebuilt (Homeland defenders, 1941 June uprising). Luckily three religious buildings which once centered minority sections of the cemetary survived intact and are still city-wide hubs for the Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities. Lithuania's only non-wooden mosque subtly unites art deco style with Arabic influences. One Russian Orthodox church (Ressurection) dates to 1862 while the neighboring one (Virgin Mary Revelation) was constructed by Lithuanian government in 1935 after the Sobor was ceded to the Catholics.
Northern part of Naujamiestis is centered around Vienybės (Unity) square. This patriotic heart of pre-WW2 Kaunas hosts Freedom statue, sculptures of the Lithuania‘s founding fathers, a grave of an unknown soldier and other monuments (rebuilt after Soviet destruction).
Major national museums were also constructed here. National Vytautas the Great War Museum (1934) is the most famous. It shares its building (a nice example of monumental art deco) with Čiurlionis art gallery , dedicated to Lithuania‘s most famous symbolist painter. The War museum tower houses a 49-bell Belgian carillion. Created in 1935 it is still played every Saturday and Sunday afternoon (16:00) providing free concerts for everyone in the Unity square (video).
Further north, right in the line of interwar apartment buildings next to the slope of Žaliakalnis hill, there is a newer Devil museum of sculptor Antanas Žmuidzinavičius who collected various statues of devils and other demons from all over the world.
In the south of Naujamiestis right next to Nemunas river stands the largest shopping mall in Kaunas known as Akropolis (80,000 m²): a repurposed pre-war factory with new multi-storey parking towering above Karaliaus Mindaugo Avenue on the bank of Nemunas. Akropolis also serves as an enterainment hub with ice rink, cinema, bowling and many restaurants. In the island of Nemunas the new Kaunas arena stands. With 17 000 seats this arena is the largest in the Baltics providing home to international gigs and Žalgiris basketball team.
Holy Cross (Carmelite) church is partly outflanked by these modern developments but it still hosts a nice Baroque interior with 17th century frescoes.
Žaliakalnis is a calm district where homes stand amidst old trees that line up every street. A large share of buildings are large wooden ones. They are joined by entire streets of 1930s brick villas and a few new houses of the modern elite with swimming pools and fountains.
Žaliakalnis was largely built from scratch in the era of independent interwar Lithuania (1918 - 1940). It was a district of new prestigious private homes. Many of its art deco "little castles" and wooden masterpieces now bear plaques with the names of interwar high society members who used to live there.
Southern and Central Žaliakalnis: Interwar elite neighborhood
Žaliakalnis name means "Green hill" and it lives up to its name. From the New Town it can be reached by accending several pedestrian streets named "Laiptai". "Laiptai" means "Stairs" and these streets in fact are long flights of stairs that used to be travelled daily by the commuting Žaliakalnis inhabittants of the 1930s. Kauko laiptai are among the more beautiful.
A wooden Swiss funicular, built in 1931, offered an alternative. Considered to be part of Lithuania's technical heritage it still travels up and down Žaliakalnis hill, although today most people use buses, trolleybuses or private cars instead.
Streets like Perkūno Avenue (Southern Žaliakalnis) are not only letting you „breath the air“ of Kaunas elite from almost a century ago. They also include some of the largest projects undertaken in the Lithuania of 1920s and 1930s. Here stands the 5000 seat Kaunas Sports Hall where the 1939 European Basketball Championship took place. Next to it is Darius and Girėnas football stadium (est. 1926, the largest in Lithuania) while tall radio masts remind of the first Lithuanian radio station (est. 1926). The wide pedestrian boulevard approaching this sport zone also includes the central building of Lithuanian Sports Academy and a monument to Darius and Girėnas, the first Lithuanian pilots to cross the Atlantic (also the pioneers of transatlantic air mail service), an important feat in the dawn of the aviation. Radio antennaes in southern Žaliakalnis are the oldest Lithuanian radio station (est. 1926).
The most impressive of all Žaliakalnis buildings is undoubtedly the Church of Christ Ressurection. Its construction started in 1933 with the aim of creating the largest church in the Baltic States. However the unfinished building was turned into a factory by the occupying Soviets. Construction was eventually completed in year 2003 and the white tower of the church is now easily visible from most of Kaunas. You are able to visit not just its massive plain interior but also accend the elevator to the flat roof crowned by a unique chapel. Marriages are performed there with great views to the entire city center of Kaunas.
Take note that there is another church of Christ Ressurection that served the community while the main church was unusable. However if you will see them both you will certainly know which is the monumental one.
Among the honorable inhabittants of Southern Žaliakalnis was Chiyune Sugihara, a Japanese consul to Lithuania who saved 6000 Jews from the Holocaust by ilegally issuing them Japanese visas in 1940. Former Japanese consulate is now a little museum primarilly visited by Japanese tourists (unfortunately, its plaques are not all historically accurate).
To the east lies the Kaunas zoo – now somewhat outdated it is the largest in Lithuania. It is separated from Perkūno Avenue by Ąžuolynas (Oak forest) – a pristine land where souheastern extension of Žaliakalnis was planned but never completed. With 770 oaks and 84 ha area it is the largest urban oak forest in Europe.
Eastern Žaliakalnis: The garden city
The 1923 concept of a "planned garden city" was fulfilled the most faithfully in Eastern Žaliakalnis anchored on diagonal and crescent streets north of the Oak forest. Its vision was created by a Danish engineer Frandsen, who was also responsible for contemporary Copenhagen urban plan. However Frandsen's utopian hopes of relocating the entire Lithuanian government to patriotically-shaped buildings here were not fulfilled and the district was built up by largely wooden homes instead. The inhabittants of the area included famous poets, opera singers, diplomats and politicians. Valdas Adamkus, recent president of Lithuania (1998-2009), was also born to an intellectual family of Eastern Žaliakalnis.
Next to the modest St. Anthony church there is an Old Jewish cemetary (est. 1861), its sad state of repair a result of Soviet policy against preserving old cemetaries. Unlike many others this one was not demolished or redeveloped.
Ąžuolų kalnas: A calm outback
Savanorių Avenue coincides with the historical Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (constructed in 1830-1835) and it is the 19th century roots of Žaliakalnis. Here stands the gothic revival Saulė (Sun) gymnasium (1913), the first Kaunas official Lithuanian school after Russia scrapped the Lithuanian language ban (1904).
Neighborhoods north and west of Savanorių Avenue are known as Ąžuolų Kalnas (Oak Hill). This area has a suburban feel as its wooden buildings are smaller. Many of them have been replaced by modern single-family dwellings. Historical Kaunas art school (1924) occupies a green yard of the former 9th battery of the Kaunas fortress. Its romantic fence with 48 owl sculptures (originally 52 for 52 weeks) is the symbol of Ąžuolų kalnas. The materials for its construction have been gathered from the fence that surrounded whole Kaunas city in the 19th century fortress era.
Aleksotas district is immediatly beyond Nemunas river from the Old Town but it has a certain suburban feel, just like the entire southwestern Kaunas. The Nemunas valley, deep by lowland Lithuanian standarts, means that Aleksotas has a lower part and the higher part built atop a wooded hill. This hill can be accended by another of the Kaunas interwar funiculars still running on its Swiss machinery manufactored in 1935.
The best vantage vantage point in Kaunas is near the funicular upper station. You can see most of the historical boroughs of the city with Old Town dominating the foreground. This place may be reached by stairs or by car as well as the funicular.
In the higher part of Aleksotas the Darius and Girėnas airfield is located. Built in 1915 it was the main airport of Kaunas until 1980s when it was replace by the new one in Karmėlava suburb. Now it is overtaken by sports aviation but Aviation museum is also located here. You should probably skip it if you aren't a fan of aviation; that said the museum has interesting pictures and aircraft models from interwar Lithuania when the country was known for its aircraft manufactorers and had a mighty air force with some 100 fighter planes. There are some Soviet aircraft and helicopters in the exposition outside. Darius and Girėnas airport one of the oldest continously operating airports in Europe. However, with old buildings replaced by new ones that dawn of the aviation era remains largely in the museum pictures.
Aleksotas was considered to be a separate town until 1919. In fact it was on different Governorate of Russia with Kaunas being the capital of Kaunas governorate and Aleksotas being part of Suvalkai (Suwalki) governorate. The differences between these two governorates were no small deal: not only the laws were different but also the calendar. Kaunas Governorate had the old Julian one and was lagging two weeks behind Aleksotas where Gregorian calendar was used.
As such, Aleksotas bridge was nicknamed "time machine". This was not the bridge you see now however, as the current one was built by the Soviets after the previous one was destroyed in World War 2. The monumental columns of Aleksotas bridge (rebuilt in 1948) are the last place in central Kaunas where the Soviet symbols are still not removed. They are safeguarded for their architectural value. This sometimes raise heated arguements as some politicians prefer to cover them.
Compared to Žaliakalnis Aleksotas is less interesting.
Aleksotas map is included in the map of Kaunas fortress area.
Still sometimes called by its Yiddish name "Slabotkė" Vilijampolė was the Jewish district of Kaunas. Unfortunately, little remains of that era with the Jewish community largely destroyed during World War 2 and many buildings demolished afterwards.
Southern Vilijampolė (the area around Jurbarko, Veliuonos, Linkuvos streets) remains more authentic, with its primarilly wooden buildings crowded on small lots along narrow streets, a few of them still unpaved.
The small rental apartments in architecturally unimpressive buildings once housed poor Jewish and non-Jewish families (rich Jews left Vilijampolė for better boroughs in the 19th century but were forced back during the German occupation in 1941). Even the local Catholic church building lacks the typical glory: built as a simple two-story house it received a tower only in 2004.
Northern Vilijampolė was largely rebuilt by the Soviets in Stalinist (a few buildings around Sąjungos square, itself a former cemetary) and Functionalist (further north) styles. The street layout has also been changed there.
Unappealing looks earned Vilijampolė a bad reputation, not helped by the infamous Daktarai gang of early 1990s which was based there.
Žemaičių road in northeastern Vilijampolė climbs a hill and from there you can enjoy a good panorama. Unfortunately, it is Vilijampolė itself that is most visible there and the lovelier neigborhoods (Old Town, New Town) are on the background. Therefore other vantage points such as the top funicular station in Aleksotas offer better views.
Just like Aleksotas, Vilijampolė was considered to be a separate town until 1919. Vilijampolė stands on the opposite bank of Neris river from the Kaunas Old Town and on the opposite bank of Nemunas river from Aleksotas.
Vilijampolė map is included in the map of Kaunas fortress area.
The massive ring of fortifications, batteries and other installations that surround the city of Kaunas is indeed impressive. Unlike in many other places where such magnificient urban fortresses existed in Kaunas you can still see a large percentage of all this.
The Mighty Red Forts of the Fortress
All 13 forts still exist in various stages of decay. The first circle (1st-8th forts) surrounds the city center completely whereas on the intended second circle only one fort (the 9th fort) was completed and additional 4 (10th-13th) under construction by the time Germans captured the entire fortress after a mere week of siege (fortress commander was then tried by the Russians). No two forts of the 1st circle are more than a couple kilometers away from each other so that no enemy could easily enter the city without deadly barrage from the surrouding forts.
Two of the forts have been turned into museums. The 7th fort in the northern part of the 1st circle is the Fortress museum. Owned by a group of military history enthusiasts it is continuously improved although not yet complete. The museum that is set up in the 9th fort (the newest of the completed forts) is dedicated to the genocides of people of Lithuania because the 9th fort used to be a prison (since 1920s) and a place of mass killings in the World War 2. The museum was established by the Soviets to portray Nazi German brutality (some 15 000 Jews were murdered here) but the place is now expanded to include Soviet massacres as well.
The 6th fort also served as a Soviet and German prison but it stands largely abandoned, its eerie walls overgrown with grass. Paintball is now played in some of the buildings. The nearby 6th fort roundabout where three major streets converge is overlooked by a small "forest" of large crosses. These were built by people largely in 1991 and represents the then contemporary strive for independence. There are crosses for Iceland and Denmark (a gratitude for recognising independence), another one for the liberators of Kuwait (Gulf War). Some later crosses are related to other problems, such as abortions and organized crime. A small column calls for peace on earth to prevail.
Together with the military installations many new streets were laid, new districts were built with barracks for the soldiers, warehouses and other infrastructure.
Šančiai Borough: Abandoned Barracks and Warehouse Church
Among such districts is Šančiai to the southeast of the New Town. Red brick 3 stories barracks still line the Juozapavičiaus Avenue there. Some of them are restored and turned into hotels or apartments. Many others stand abandoned, some of them decayed to a mere outer shell with nothing purposefully changed since the times of the czar a century ago.
Another interesting building in Juozapavičiaus Avenue is the Jesus Heart church. Its industrial-style walls do not let one forget that this building was built as a military warehouse and was converted to a church after Šančiai became a civilian district.
Military cemetary where soldiers of World War 1, World War 2 and other eras lie not far away from each other is also in Šančiai. Lithuanians, Germans, Russians and others found their final resting place less than "a cannonshot away" inbetween them.
Panemunė Borough: Barrack Zone That Turned Into Resort
On the opposite bank of Nemunas from Šančiai is Panemunė, another district built for 19th century barracks. Barracks of Panemunė are concentrated in two groups, both visible from the main Vaidoto street, the smaller one to the north and the larger one to the south, surrounding a stadium (the southern group of barracks served as Lithuania‘s military academy in the 1930s).
Panemunė also has a fair share of interwar wooden and brick buildings as its calm atmosphere between Nemunas river and Basanvičius park was sought for by Kaunas residents of the era. In fact Panemunė was a recognized resort. The pre-1940 buildings are mostly on the outskirts of the district whereas the center of Panemunė is dominated by Soviet apartment blocks.
Basanavičius park (280 ha) north of Panemunė is larger than the borough itself and a popular place to stroll.
Freda Borough: Botanical Garden and Old Cemetary
To the west of Panemunė lies the district of Freda. Once it was home to the Central Fortification of the fortress that was effectively a ring 0 of its defensive might. In every place not covered by the rivers this additional circle made the last major obstruction for the enemy before he could finally conquer the heart of the city.
Next to the former Central Fortification and the small Freda manor the Kaunas botanic garden is now established. In summer tickets are sold whereas in winter it is free to visit. Not far away along a new district of modern homes (called Freda Township - Fredos miestelis) a 19th century cemetary remains. First commander of the Kaunas fortress as well as German soldiers of the World War 1 are buried here next to now abandoned Saint Sergei Russian Orthodox Church once used by the soldiers of nearby barracks. Several old barracks still remain in the neighborhood.
Napoleon Hill near Piliakalnio street between Freda and Panemunė is the location where the French Emperor's doomed invasion of Russia began by crossing Nemunas (trees now obstruct the views he saw).
The Pažaislis monastery dating to the 17th-18th centuries is a wonderful example of late baroque. The central domed church is surrounded by additional buildings forming several courtyards. Pažaislis monastery grand courtyard is the place for closing concerts of the annual Pažaislis festival of classical music.
The monastery may be visited for a fee every day except for the "Days of silence" that are declared by local nuns. It is to the east of Kaunas city center.
The monastery now stands next to the Kaunas Reservoir (Kauno marios) made after the Kaunas Hydroelectric Plant dammed the Nemunas river in 1960s. The reservoir submerged many villages yet it created a popular place for recreation. North of the monastery Kaunas yacht club stands with many affluent people of Kaunas owning yachts in the Kauno marios. Others may be sunbathing or swimming in its beaches available on all shores of the Reservoir, including near Pažaislis Monastery.
Petrašiūnai cemetary (2 km walk from Pažaislis monastery) is the burial place for the famous people of Kaunas (previously of whole Lithuania). The pantheon is in northeast divided into sections by occupation (scientists, priests, sportsmen, artists, Soviet political prisoners...). Alpinist section styled as a hill is interesting. World-famous burials include archeologist Marija Gimbutienė (Gimbutas) and semiotic Algirdas Greimas.
Pažaislis may be reached by trolleybuses (Kauno marios stop).
Like other cities of Lithuania Kaunas has a fair share of dull Soviet micro-districts that were built to be self-sufficient but today are nicknamed "sleeping districts" because many of their inhabittants supposedly come home only to sleep as they work and spend free time away from their districts.
Most of these districts are north of the city center, between the downtown area and the Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda highway. Therefore the large white housing projects is the first and only glimpse of Kaunas seen by those travelling between Vilnius and Klaipėda, which is deceptive. Soviet districts of Kaunas include Šilainiai, Kalniečiai, Marvelė, Milikonys, Dainava, Eiguliai, Smėliai and others. Much of them was built after completely obliterating the previous suburbs that used to stand in their locations.
A different type of Soviet district is Birutė on the other (left) bank of Nemunas. It consists of single-family homes rather than multistorey housing projects.
In general the Soviet districts of Kaunas have little in particular to offer but it may be interesting to see at least a single one to understand where the majority (some 65%) Kaunas inhabittants live at.
After independence these boroughs received new churches and retail buildings. All the major shopping malls save for "Akropolis" are located there. "Mega" mall (72 000 sq. m) next to Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda road attempts to posit itself as a tourist sight for its 10 m tall shark-filled aquarium. While an interesting free sight if you need shopping, it is not on par with foreign oceanariums.
Only a minority of new developemnts are architecturally interesting, such as the postmodern 1000 litų building in Petrašiūnai.
Thanks to its location on the confluence of two major rivers Kaunas was important for trade since its establishment in medieval era. By this time most of the trade went by rivers as there were no roads in Lithuania and everything was surrounded by lush forests. Unfortunately, rivers were also used by enemy forces and the main enemy of Lithuania in those days were the Teutonic Order. Kaunas castle was built in the 14th century to deter them from this strategic location.
Kaunas of 1300s had German merchants of Hanseatic league among its inhabittants. In this era the first churches were built. After Lithuania's Christianisation they were soon joined by more magnificient gothic religious buildings in early 1400s as the city expanded still centered around the City Hall square.
Despite its mercantile importance Kaunas was not a capital of any voivoship at the time. It was part of Trakai voivodhip of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and had a peak population of 10 000.
First time Kaunas came to political prominence was only after the demise of the Grand Duchy. In 1843 Russian Empire (that have captured Kaunas in 1795) chose it as the capital of newly formed Kaunas Governorate that included approximately half of today's Lithuania. Additionally it was made the seat of a Catholic diocese. Political and religious importance was followed by military one as the Imperial government chosen the city as a site for a new class I fortress.
The city was transformed by massive construction. Nine forts sprung up around the city (in years 1882 - 1915), with redoubts, batteries to support them and the Central Fortification as the inner ring of defense. To the east of the Old Town the New Town was built with all the administration and housing for officers as well as the impressive Sobor and what is now known as the Freedom Avenue. Soldiers lived in yet other new or heavily expanded districts: Freda, Panemunė, Šančiai. Many of them continue to lay there in cemetaries. By year 1896 military personell made up 28% of the entire Kaunas population of 68 000.
The fortress was never completed with a new fort erected every few years. After the first outer circle of defense was completed (seven forts by 1891) the government ordered construction of a new one further from city center. However, the advent of modern warfare changed everything and when the war against Germany finally started (the fortress was built mainly having such conflict in mind) in 1914 the mighty Kaunas fortress fell after a siege that lasted only a couple of weeks (1915). No new fortresses of this size were constructed in the world ever since.
In 1918 Lithuania became independent, but with the Polish occupation of Vilnius city (1920) Kaunas was declared "Temporary capital" and therefore the seat of government, parliament and president. This was the golden age of Kaunas. The city "swallowed" suburbs of Vilijampolė and Aleksotas while the number of people increased by 66% (92 000 to 153 000) as urbanization drive reached the agricultural Lithuania. New stately buildings sprung up in Naujamiestis and the district of Žaliakalnis was laid for elite of the day. Almost entire high society of Lithuania resided in Kaunas - the country's top politicians and army officers, artists and sportsmen, local and foreign diplomats. It was a place of Lithuania's only international airport with flights to Koenigsberg, Riga, Smolensk and beyond; the home to Lithuania's sole opera theater, publishing houses, political intrigues and so on.
After Soviet occupation of Kaunas (1940) the city's high society and the middle class faced heavy repressions. Tens of thousands were killed or exiled to Siberia. The majority of Kaunas Jews, mostly residing in Vilijampolė district, were killed by the Nazis (their occupation lasted from 1941 to 1944). By 1945 the city population went down to 80 000.
Despite heavy losses Kaunas remained a center of Lithuanian culture it became between the World Wars. Unlike in Vilnius or Klaipėda where Russians made a third of population by 1959, in Kaunas their share never exceeded 10%. This was very important because in Soviet Union Lithuanians had to learn Russian language while Russians were not taught Lithuanian at schools thus making Russian the lingua franca for interethnic communication. In Vilnius and Klaipėda therefore Lithuanian language became less commonly heard in streets while in Kaunas it remained prevalent. Even in sheer numbers there were more Lithuanians in Kaunas than either Lithuanians in Vilnius, Latvians in Riga or Estonians in Tallinn, this making Kaunas a kind of cultural heart of the occupied Baltics.
A Lithuanian writer Tomas Venclova claims in his book that in some 1950s Kaunas was regarded by Lithuanians to be more of a city than Vilnius as in Kaunas the lifestyle was urban whereas in Vilnius, not a true capital of independent state for centuries, a more rural lifestyle prevailed with its residents herding chickens or pigs.
Other Lithuanians regarded people of Kaunas to be good entrepreneurs, something that was illegal in the Soviet Union. In 1970s it was in Kaunas where student Romas Kalanta self-immolated in protest againt the Soviet rule triggering further student demonstrations. It was the Kauno Žalgiris basketball team which battled CSKA Moscow in what effectively became political battles on basketball court.
Under the Soviet rule the city had been expanding northwards and was connected to Vilnius and Klaipėda by four-lane highways. Continuing urbanization increased its population to 214 000 in 1959 and 376 000 in 1980.
In 1990 Lithuania was re-established with capital in Vilnius. The importance of Kaunas somewhat declined since and its population numbers were hit hard, decreasing from 418 000 in 1989 to mere 321 000 in 2011. A large share of Kaunas elite moved to Vilnius and many emigrated abroad.
While the post-independence economic growth started in Vilnius by ~1995 and then went to the seaport of Klaipėda it reached Kaunas by around 2003 with new office buildings and two major shopping centers (Akropolis and Mega) constructed. After Lithuania joined the European Union Ryanair started flying to Kaunas and brought in more tourists. In 2011 the 17 000 seat Kaunas Arena was opened and it was the place of the final matches of the 2011 European Basketball Championship.
Classical forms of entertainment are concentrated in the New Town. All the theaters are near Laisvės alėja (Freedom Avenue). As the plays of Drama theater are in Lithuanian the Musical theater and Pantomime theater may be more interesting to foreigners.
Romuva, the traditional gala cinema of Kaunas (est. 1939) is also in Laisvės alėja.
Recently the New Town hub of entertainment has moved southwards to Nemunas coast. Enormous Akropolis mall there includes multiplex cinema, ice rink and bowling facilities while the nearby 17 000-seat Kaunas arena is the largest in the Baltics and thus the location of gigs by world-famous stars. Žalgiris basketball team (the prime sports franchise in Lithuania) plays its home games there.
The hub of outdoor entertainment and nightlife has moved from New Town to Old Town (mainly to Vilniaus street and Rotušės (City Hall) square). These locations now have many bars and nightclubs while Laisvės alėja empties in the evenings with many of its historic restaurants closed for good.
Kaunas is known for many calm parks popular for strolls. Every borough has its own, each with unique location. Santakos park (Old Town) is at the confluence of two major rivers, Nemunas island park (New Town) is, well, an island, Ąžuolynas (Žaliakalnis) is the largest urban oak forest in Europe (770 oaks in 84,42 ha), Basanavičius park (Panemunė) at the Nemunas bend is known for its sheer size (280 ha - comparable to that of New York Central Park) and nice vistas of its Trijų mergelių (Three girls) pedestrian bridge, Botanic park (Freda) hosts multitude of exotic plants while Pažaislis forest (Petrašiūnai) borders historical Pažaislis monastery and Petrašiūnai cemetary.
Non-downtown parks on the banks of Nemunas also include beaches. Kaunas Reservoir is the favorite place for water recreation (swimming, sunbathing, yachting) but swimming is also possible in Nemunas itself at Basanavičiaus park or in western Kaunas in Lampėdis billabong.
The Soviet boroughs also have some parks, entertainment and nightlife catering the local residents but they are known as "sleeping districts" for a reason. The only exception may be "Mega" shopping mall near Vilnius-Klaipėda highway which is a northern alternative to Akropolis and hosts some entertainment, including cinema.
Being the main city closest to the center of Lithuania Kaunas is easily accessible by car and bus. Major four-lane highways directly connect it to Vilnius and Klaipėda. Via Baltica road (mostly two-lane) go southwards to Poland and northwards to Latvia via Panevėžys.
The direct rail connections to the west of Lithuania were never built however, therefore rail is only convenient to go from Kaunas to Vilnius and certain towns in Sudovia region (Marijampolė, Kybartai).
Kaunas International Airport is the 4th largest in the Baltic States after the three capital airports. It was chosen as the first Ryanair hub in the Eastern Europe in year 2010. Ryanair dominates its passenger flights offering high frequency flights to United Kingdom and Ireland as well as scarcer routes to places like Germany or certain Southern European resorts. Unlike its Vilnius counterpart the Kaunas airport is outside the city limits but it is still frequented both by city buses and more expensive private micro-buses. Direct intercity buses links the Kaunas airport to Vilnius and Klaipėda but it is cheaper although time-intensive to transfer in Kaunas city.
Kaunas public transport consists of buses, trolleybuses and micro-buses. Trolleybuses and buses are municipal-owned. They use the same ticket. Trolleybuses serve the trunk routes and are more frequent (typically one every 10-20 minutes). Trolleybus network is limited to the districts north of Nemunas river. Buses serve the less popular routes, including suburban (some go once in 2 hours so better check the timetables). Micro-buses (shared taxis) are private and they are both the most frequent and fastest form of transportation.
The public transport system works from 5:30-6:00 to some 22:00-23:00. At nights there are only very limited services of special bus routes marked with letter N. The airport bus is synchronized with flight times and operates longer. There is a modern information system at the main stops where special screens show the upcoming transport and waiting times. Destination of every bus and trolleybus is written on the vehicles themselves, but take note that the Lithuanian dative case is used. Therefore ending of the word is different than you would expect; e.g. a bus going to Šilainiai borough would be marked "Į Šilainius".
The timetables and routes of Kaunas public transport are available here.
There are no public underground parkings, but parking at the sides of the streets is both abundant and cheap by western standarts. Furthermore the downtown is relatively compact (3,5x1,5 km) and parking in the surrounding low-rise districts (Žaliakalnis, Aleksotas, southern Vilijampolė) is both free and easier.
Leaving your car in the multi-storey parking of "Akropolis" shopping mall in the New Town district (Karaliaus Mindaugo avenue) is another alternative if you don't mind exploring the downtown on foot (Old Town is 2 km away from there).
Kaunas is the metropolis closest to the geographic center of Lithuania and if you anchor your trip here you may see some of the marvels of the region.
1.Rumšiškės open-air ethnographic museum. 23 km to the east (highway, non-express buses Kaunas-Vilnius stop 2 km from the entrance). It is well worth a visit to see authentic wooden buildings brought here from all over the country.
2.Castles of Panemunė. While the entire lenght of Panemunė road may be traversed en route from Kaunas to Klaipėda, it is possible to visit the main castles in Raudondvaris, Raudonė and Panemunė as a day trip from Kaunas. They are 10 km, 60 km and 70 km away from the Kaunas center respectively. Nice towns such as Vilkija or Seredžius may also be visited en route.
3.Kėdainiai. 50 km to the northeast this town is among the few in Lithuania that has centuries old brick buildings. It was once ruled by the mighty Radvila family and the glory may still be felt.
4.Birštonas (42 km south). This mineral spring resort in a Nemunas river bend is not Druskininkai, but it has its finer points with a former castle hill and a restaurant on high Nemunas coast.