Kaunas may be Lithuania's second city but it is not that far behind Vilnius in both size and importance. Ryanair flights and good road/rail access opened up Kaunas as a weekend destination. Here are some ideas to spend your couple of days in Kaunas.
1.Spend time (and maybe sip a drink) in the historic heart of Kaunas, the Rotušės square which is still surrounded by authentic buildings, churches and the city hall (Old Town).
2.Enjoy the incredible view of Kaunas Old Town and its gothic spires from Aleksotas vantage point (Aleksotas).
3.Take a short trip to Pažaislis monastery, one of the prettiest Baroque complexes in Northern Europe. In summers you may swim in the local Kaunas Reservoir beach nearby (Pažaislis).
4.Learn about Lithuania's most famous painter and his symbolist works right in his prime shrine, the M. K. Čiurlionis Gallery (New Town).
5.Walk under the tree shades of Laisvės Avenue, noting the prime Industrial Era and Interwar architecture en route (Central Post, Officers' Club, Sobor, Interwar Presidency, Musical theater) (New Town).
6.Listen to a free evening carillon concert in Vienybės square while looking at its monuments dedicated to the Lithuanian freedom (New Town) .
7.Walk the Vilniaus street, a new-old hub for Kaunas downtown cafes and entertainment with authentic pre-20th-century buildings. Don't forget to take a detour to the small Gothic St. Gertrude church (Old Town).
8.Visit at least a single fort of the pre-WW1 Kaunas fortress (best surviving European fortifications of the era). 9th fort with its sad past and museum is the most popular, but renovated 7th fort and dilapidated 6th fort are more off-the-beaten-path alternatives (Fortress districts).
9.Ascend the Žaliakalnis hill district in a funicular to see the massive art deco Ressurection church and other key projects of Interwar independent Lithuania, standing amidst historic private homes where luminaries used to live (Žaliakalnis).
10.Take a stroll in one of many Kaunas parks, such as Santakos (confluence) or Basanavčiaus, both offering interesting views of Lithuanian prime river Nemunas.
While Kaunas is Lithuania's second city, a considerable number of top national museums are located there. A lot of them either date to the era Kaunas served as temporary capital of Lithuania (1920-1940) or are otherwise influenced by that period.
Art museums and galleries
All the Kaunas art museums are located in the New Town.
Mykolas Čiurlionis art gallery is the top location to see the works of Lithuania's most famous artist (a symbolist painter and a composer) who has an asteroid and a mountain range in Russia named after him.
Mykolas Žilinskas art gallery is the main Lithuanian encyclopedic repository of international art, ranging from Egyptian mummies to modern era. Everything was bequeathed by a Lithuanian-American art collector Mykolas Žilinskas. It's not Louvre but it has a few great underrated artworks.
Museum of Devils presents a unique-in-the-world collection of devil and demon statuettes based on Lithuanian and foreign mythologies collected by painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. His own works are exhibited in the next building.
Historical and cultural museums
War museum (New Town) gives information on Lithuanian warfare from the ancient times to recent NATO missions. Underground crypt and surrounding memorials glorify those who created modern Lithuania or died for it.
Sports museum (Old Town) is full of cups and prizes ever won by Lithuanian sportsmen internationally, in Lithuania or Lithuanian diaspora events. It will interest collectors of such items and fans of professional sports but may bore the others. A circus section is available nearby.
ab printing house (Suburbs) is an underground (both literally and metaphorically) institution where locals printed illegal press to circumvent Soviet censorship. The location itself is the most intriguing. Prior arrangement is needed to visit as the premises are still owned by the same dissident family.
Kaunas castle (Old Town) is mostly destroyed, but the rebuilt tower has a minor Medieval exhibition.
VII and IX fort museums present the history of Kaunas fortress and (especially) the later usage of these buildings for Soviet and Nazi German imprisonments and extrajudicial killings. IX fort museum is the more throughout and famous one.
Kaunas interwar presidency (Old Town) offers temporary exhibitions focusing on the interwar lifestyle of Kaunas city.
Museum of literature is rather empty, explains works of merely a few writers and may be not very interesting to foreigners who are not literature buffs.
A few of the historic museums are also rich in old technics, with old weapons available in War museum and old printing materials exhibited in ab printing house.
Atomic bunker (Kaunas Soviet districts) is a major private collection of KGB surveillance devices, gas masks and other peculiarities of the Cold War, housed in an underground nuclear shelter. Arrangement recommended for visiting.
Aviation museum (Aleksotas) has a couple of aircraft and much information on Lithuanian aviation history (with old pictures) including (of course) the Lituanica flight.
Museum of National musical instruments (Old Town) offers a complete array of ethnic Lithuanian musical instruments (used by folk originally and by "folk orchestras" today). However it is not possible to listen to their sound.
Retromobile museum (Aleksotas) is a middle-sized garage of restored old vehicles, especially Soviet ones. Prior arrangement needed to visit.
In the interwar Temporary capital era Kaunas housed all the Lithuanian luminaries of the era and their impressive houses are often open for visitors, offering a glimpse of rather luxurious interwar lifestyle.
Ones most seeping in the local spirit (and not requiring a prior arrangement to visit) are those of opera singer Kipras Petrauskas and composer Juozas Gruodis. Writer Balys Sruoga lived in a rather more plebeian house. Japanese tourists love the Chiyune Sugihara museum dedicated to their consul who helped Jews escape Nazi Germany, but it has less of that authentic "taste of history".
All the above memorial museums are located in prestigious Žaliakalnis borough. Interesting homes beyond it are those of writer Salomėja Nėris (self-designed building in the suburbs) and star-priest Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas (apartment near the Old Town church he worked at).
Museum of zoology is the Lithuania's largest repository of taxidermist works as well as beetles and butterflies, both local and foreign
If you prefer live animals, you'd like Kaunas zoo more. Both were started by naturalist Tadas Ivanauskas during interwar period and both seem somewhat shabby today - if one was in similar places in foreign countries and is not particularly fond of them one won't find much of interest.
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 the 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 the 1300s had German merchants of Hanseatic league among its inhabitants. In this era, the first churches were built. After Lithuania's Christianisation, they were soon joined by more magnificent gothic religious buildings in the 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 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 cemeteries. By the 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 the construction of a new one further from the 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 the 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 the Soviet occupation of Kaunas (1940-1941 and again after 1944), the city's high society and the middle class faced heavy repressions. Tens of thousands were killed or exiled to Siberia, many to their deaths, others were murdered outright. 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 the population by 1959, in Kaunas their share never exceeded 10%. This was very important because in the Soviet Union Lithuanians had to learn the 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 the 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 the 1970s it was in Kaunas where student Romas Kalanta self-immolated in protest against 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 the 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 the year 2010. Ryanair dominates its passenger flights offering high-frequency flights to the 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 vans. Direct intercity buses link 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 parking lots, but parking at the sides of the streets is both abundant and cheap by western standards. 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).
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 a 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 a 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 cemetery.
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 slowly ceded 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||The 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.|