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 witnessing minor exhibits.
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 Hanseatic 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 (1780). 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 Accension 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.
The churches of the square well represent every major pre-1800 architectural style. The southern flank is dominated by the Baroque Jesuit church (1720) and monastery with a summer terrace on top. West of the square behind historic palaces stands another large gothic church dedicated to Saint George (1490s) and a nicely repaired Renaissance priest seminary palace with its own Holy Trinity church (1634). 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 palaces near the square, some of them housing mediocre museums (dedicated to pharmacy, Lithuanian literature, ceramics and sport). Visit them if you are interested in a particular field (e.g. Sport museum may enthrall a collector with its plethora of historical medals and cups - but bore many 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 authentic buildings. Going east on Vilnius street you pass the dilapidated 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 hosts extensive year-long temporary exhibitions.
In a seemingly ordinary courtyard at the end of Vilniaus street a gothic Saint Gerthrude church is located. This meticulous small church dates to 1480.
Smaller and less busy streets parallel to the Vilniaus street are also a great place to stroll and watch 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 Folk musical instrument museum located at Kurpių street has a nice array of Lithuanian traditional instruments (no on-demand audio however).
Nemunas embankment with its modest Lutheran church (1683), gothic buildings and views over Aleksotas is another alternative.
Wide Šv. Gertrūdos and Šauklių street at the north are where the lowland Old Town gives way to Žaliakalnis hill. 15th century St. Nicholas church and former Benedictine nunnery located there are however still a part of a downtown, its cute octagonal tower joining the ensemble of Kaunas gothic buildings.
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 tradition 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 main 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 have 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 now a monument to him in front of the Musical Theater, itself a high-society hub since its opening in 1892, built immediately beyond the former city wall (remains are visible). In the 2000s however the urban entertainment largely relocated again to the Old Town and the new shopping malls. Some restaurants and the theaters remain in Laisvės alėja but nightlife is scarce.
In the eastern reaches of Naujamiestis (at the other 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 (named after Vytautas the Great) 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 the interwar (1918-1940) extension of Kaunas. Some of the era's grandest projects have been constructed here, but the borough still retains its calm suburban feel.
Homes here stand amidst old trees that line up every street. Large wooden edifices are joined by entire streets of 1930s brick villas and a few new houses of the modern elite with swimming pools and fountains. 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 and some have been converted to museums.
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 beautiful but derelict.
A wooden Swiss funicular, built in 1931, offered an alternative. Considered 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.
Church of Christ Ressurection (near funicular top station) is Žaliakalnis's most impressive building. 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.
Streets like Perkūno Avenue let you „breath the air“ of Kaunas elite from almost a century ago. Here stands the historic Sport district, centered around a pedestrian boulevard with a monument for 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. Around it stands the Europe's first basketball-specific arena (5000 seat Kaunas Sports Hall where the 1939 European Championship took place), the Darius and Girėnas football stadium (est. 1926, the largest in Lithuania) and Sports academy buildings. The nearby Radio antennaes in southern Žaliakalnis are the oldest Lithuanian radio station (est. 1926).
Perkūno Avenue is also surrounded by some of the best private homes in interwar Kaunas. If you wonder about their interiors and original owners, check one of the Žaliakalnis memorial museums. There are ones for Kipras and Mikas Petrauskas (opera singers), Chiyune Sugihara (Japanese consul famous for saving potential Holocaust victims by illegally issuing them Japanese visas), Marijona Rakauskaitė and Liudas Truikys (opera singer and scenographer), Galaunė family (opera singer and art historian). Only the first two can be visited without a prior arrangement; Petrauskas's museum is recommended, while Sugihara museum inscriptions lack historic accuracy.
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. 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. Simpler than the pompous edifices of Southern Žaliakalnis they still housed notable families of intellectuals. One may visit the memorial museum of writer Balys Sruoga to see an authentic interior (arrangement not needed).
Next to the modest St. Anthony church there is an Old Jewish cemetery (est. 1861), its sad state of repair a result of Soviet policy against preserving old cemetaries. Unlike many others this one at least was not demolished or redeveloped.
To the south lies the Kaunas zoo (now somewhat outdated it is the largest in Lithuania) and Ąžuolynas (Oak forest) (a pristine land where souheastern extension of Žaliakalnis was planned but never completed). With 770 oaks and 84 ha area Ąžuolynas is the largest urban oak forest in Europe. Mickevičius valley on the eastern end of Ąžuolynas has a pristine mountain creek valley feel in the middle of city.
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.
Ąžuolų kalnas inhabittants famous enough to have their homes transformed into museums were sculptor Juozas Zikaras and writer Juozas Grušas.
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 (closed on Sundays).
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 decimated and forced to flee during World War 2; many buildings were 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 panorama of the city. 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 19th century 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. Every fort is designed to resemble natural grass-covered hills for the advancing enemy, but inside the territory there are many semi-subterranean structures (barracks, escarpments, warehouses, tunnels).
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 concrete 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 in the forts) but the place is now expanded to include Soviet massacres as well.
The remaining forts are largely abandoned and while most can in theory be visited, muddy/dirty paths provides the sole access to many of them. One derelict fort that you can easily drive directly into is the 6th fort which also served as a Soviet and German prison. Its eerie walls overgrown with grass and 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.
Šančiai Borough: Abandoned Barracks and Warehouse Church
Together with the military installations many new streets were laid, new districts were built with barracks for the soldiers, warehouses and other infrastructure.
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 or even 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, an interwar building (1938). Next to it still stands the old church, converted from a military warehouse after Šančiai became a civilian district.
Military cemetary where soldiers of World War 1, World War 2 and other eras lie is also in Šančiai. Lithuanians, Germans, Russians and others have 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 the now abandoned Saint Sergei Russian Orthodox Church once used by the soldiers of nearby barracks. Several old barracks still survive 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 developments are architecturally interesting, such as the postmodern 1000 litų building in Petrašiūnai.
Another type of Soviet districts are the Industrial zones, located in eastern and western Kaunas.
Expecting World War 3, factories had extensive nuclear shelters built underneath. One such shelter was converted into the Atomic bunker museum (Western Vilijampolė), hosting a quality collection of war communication, civil defense and intelligence devices. The emphasis is on Cold War era Soviet technology; KGB surveillance systems are the prime exhibits.
The suburbs of Kaunas are unique for having a separate Lithuanian word to describe them all: Pakaunė.
The Pakaunė village that sees the most foreigners is undoubtedly Karmėlava where Kaunas airport is located. It has little to offer but is famous for its Cepelinai, the traditional Lithuanian meal is provided here far bigger than usual. Look for signs "Hyper Cepelinai", "Cepelinai XXXL" and similar in the village. The taste of such giants may differ from the true deal somewhat but this fails to discourage Lithuanian emigrants on short visits back who gouge the oversized versions of the meal that is effectively *the* symbol of Lithuanian cuisine.
The population of Pakaunė is growing even though the city itself plummets. People leave the city for private homes there: large self-designed mansions in 1990s and more modest yet elaborate today. Many of the new residential suburbs replace old "collective gardens", a uniquely Soviet program of allocating urban dwellers some suburban land to farm and spend summers at.
The most unique place there is AB spaustuvė, an illegal printing house for censorship-free materials under the Soviet occupation. Vytautas Andziulis built it slowly and secretly under his garden greenhouse and managed to operate undetected from 1980 until 1990 independence, printing 138 000 books with his Spartan machinery (assembled underground using the parts government discharged). The place now operates as a museum that unites well-hidden original "printing dungeon", pre-PC era printing machinery, Andziulis's symbolic art and the heroic-yet-tragic stories of Lithuanians who defied the occupational censorships they endured (Russian Imperial, Nazi German and Soviet). Ab spaustuvė also gives you a glimpse of Pakaunė with a large Andziulis's home which housed his unsuccesful legal printing business in 1990s (like many early trial-and-error enterpreneurs Andziulis was outcompeted by modern machinery). Pre-arranging the visit at the War Museum may be necessary.
Raudondvaris suburb west of Kaunas is famous for its "castle", actually a 17th-19th century manor that has been built to look like one. This is the first of the Castles of Panemunė.
On the southern bank of Nemunas the Zapyškis village is famous for its unusual small gothic church (~14th-16th centuries). No longer used for religion since a new church has been built uphill (1942) it is now an atmospheric venue for sporadic summer concerts hailed for great acoustics.
Some famous places are located near the outskirts of Kaunas but are parts of the city-proper or described as such for clarity: the 9th fort of the Kaunas fortress, Pažaislis monastery and the neighboring Kaunas Reservoir.
Medieval merchant city (before 1795)
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 magnificent 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 voivodship at the time. It was part of Trakai voivodship of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and had a peak population of 10 000.
Fortress city of the Russian Empire (1795-1918)
First time Kaunas came to political prominence was only after the demise of the Grand Duchy. In 1843 Russian Empire (which has captured Kaunas in 1795) chose it as the capital of newly formed Kaunas Governorate that included approximately half of today's Lithuania. Moreover, Kaunas was made the seat of 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 personnel 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 have been constructed in the world ever since.
Temporary capital of interwar Lithuania (1918-1939)
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. In 20 years the city was transformed from a provincial outpost into a modern city, "swallowing" 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.
Cultural heart of occupied Baltics (1940-1990)
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 Nazi Germany (its 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.
Second city of modern Lithuania (1990-)
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.
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.
Direct rail connections to the west of Lithuania have never been built however, therefore rail is only convenient to go from Kaunas to Vilnius and certain towns in Sudovia region (Marijampolė, Kybartai).
Both the Kaunas train station and Kaunas bus station are located in the New Town next to each other.
Kaunas International Airport is the 4th largest in the Baltic States after the three capital airports. It has been 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 Airport is located next to Karmėlava suburb north of the city. The suburb is best known for its extra-large cepelinai national meal eagerly gouged by emigrants returning for holidays. These are served at multiple restaurants; authentic cepelinai are smaller however.
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).
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.
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), Mickevičius valley (Žaliakalnis) has a mountain creek valley feel and poet Mickevičius connections, 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.
Shopping scene of Kaunas is dominated by three large shopping centers. Each of them has shops of every kind, while the first two also has great entertainment and eating opportunities.
"Akropolis" mall (80 000 m2) is located in downtown. It doubles as an entertainment zone offering ice rink and cinema.
"Mega" mall (72 000 m2) is located on Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda highway and thus is the easiest to access if you are just passing by Kaunas.
"Urmas" (70 000 m2) is a kind of shopping park with most shops accessible directly from outside. Developed from a marketplace it has a distinctively different feel from the other two Kaunas malls as it is oriented mainly at shopping.
Beyond those, every district has smaller stores available. Big malls have effectively killed Kaunas high street (Laisvės alėja) however, with little shopping available there (after all, Akropolis is just 500 m away).
Kaunas may have lost its status to Vilnius but it still hosts numerous national events as it is closest to the geographic center of Lithuania. Kaunas biker festival, operetta festival and agricultural fair have importance reaching beyond the Lithuanian borders.
|MAMA music awards||Early Janurary||Music awards and concert||Best Lithuanian musicians and singers of various genres are elected by a jury. The gala format is joined with a public concert that easily sells out Kaunas arena in what aims to be the prime annual event of Lithuanian music.|
|Independence day parade||February 16th||Parade||A massive grassroots parade with flags and patriotic chants in downtown Kaunas.|
|Ką pasėsi agricultural fair||First week of April||Fair||International showcase of agricultural vehicles and a fair of seeds and plants in Kaunas suburbs. ~20 ha territory also hosts concerts.|
|Kaunas Jazz||End of April–start of May||Music (jazz) festival||Born together with independent Lithuania in 1990 the festival brings local and foreign jazz musicians (~20 bands annually). Some concerts are free and some even take place in the streets.|
|Lithuanian Basketball League final series||Around April||Professional sports||Since 1998 the right to contest the champion rings of Lithuania’s major league is always won by “Lietuvos Rytas” of Vilnius and “Žalgiris” of Kaunas teams (pouring fuel into the eternal Vilnius vs. Kaunas rivalry). “Žalgiris” plays its home games in the modern 15 668 seat arena (largest in the Baltics) and it takes 4 victories to triumph.|
|Bike Show Millennium||A weekend in the beginning of June||Biker festival||One of the largest biker festivals in Europe Bike Show Millenium fills the old Kaunas airport with bike parades, races, stunts and concerts. Recently it has been expanded to include quads and automobiles.|
|Pažaislis music festival||Entire summer||Music (classical) festival||While it started as a true music festival at the Pažaislis monastery garden in 1995 today it is a catch-all name for many classical music events taking place all over Kaunas and its suburbs throughout the summer. The concerts in churches are usually free.|
|Kaunas castle operetta||Start of July||Music (operetta) festival||Eastern Europe’s sole operetta festival is held annually near the Kaunas castle.|
|Akacijų alėja (Acacia Boulevard)||The Saturday closest to July 6th||Music (sung poetry) festival||A massive sung poetry concert. This genre is a very popular “alternative music” in Lithuania characterized by a single musician, single instrument, no special effects and thought-inspiring lyrics. Taking place in a Kaunas suburb of Kulautuva on Nemunas bank it is free but therefore crowded (~15 000 spectators).|
|Kaunas cinema festival||Late September-Early October||Cinema festival||Largest cinema festival in Kaunas takes place in Romuva interwar cinema. Various non-Hollywood films and documentaries are presented in the original languages with Lithuanian subs.|
|Christmas||December 25th||Christian holiday||Recently Kaunas became famous for the artfully inventive Christmas trees in its main Rotušės square.|