True Lithuania

Senamiestis (Old Town) Borough of Klaipėda

Klaipėda Old Town is newer than those of Vilnius and Kaunas as it was largely consumed by the great fire of 1854. What you see now was rebuilt afterwards on a grid layout of narrow streets. The widest among them, Turgaus (Market) and Tiltų (Bridges), are also the most interesting to stroll.

One of the main streets in Klaipėda Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Under the Soviet rule, all the imposing Old Town churches were torn down. Many of these elaborate buildings have been replaced by new plain structures, whereas in place of the largest among them, Saint John‘s, there is now an empty lawn. The historical perimeter of Saint John‘s is marked by bushes (between Turgaus, Tomo, Mažoji Vandens and Pylimo streets).

Devoid of impressive spires Klaipėda Old Town has no architecturally dominant buildings and is instead a collection of 19th and early 20th-century residentials with an occasional Soviet building or, even more likely, an empty lot (yet another scar of the WW2 and post-war destruction). It is well worth to find yourself pre-WW2 pictures of Klaipėda and look at them during your tour of the Old Town. Some are available on fences in public places, while the Lithuania Minor (Mažosios Lietuvos) museum in Didžioji street has an extensive diorama of Klaipėda as it once looked. The city is still the same but hurt heavily.

Narrow straight streets such as this one dominate the northern part of the Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Northern Old Town

Teatro square is the main one. Richard Wagner lived and performed here in his early career (1836) while a century later (1939) Adolf Hitler used the theater balcony for a speech days after his troops entered Klaipėda. In the center of the square stands the Anne of Tharau (Taravos Anikė), a small statue dedicated to a character of German 17th-century poet Simon Dach. Like much else of what reminded Germany it was destroyed by the Soviets (but rebuilt after Lithuania regained independence in 1990).

The Drama theatre of Klaipėda (est. 1803, current building 1857) in Teatro square with Anne of Tharau statue. The fence in front of the theater is covered by images of Klaipėda that no longer exists, crowned by tall church spires. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

On the coast of the Curonian lagoon (beyond the Pilies thoroughfare) there stand the remains of Klaipėda (Memel) castle of Teutonic knights, established in the 1250s. The ruins are not that impressive and tampered by Soviets but the museum inside them is modern albeit small.

In the former castle moat prestigious yachts are moored today. These small ships exit to Danė river by passing through a 19th-century manually powered pedestrian swing bridge. 15 minutes of every hour are reserved to passing ships and 45 to the people, meaning that the iconic sight of two dockworkers pushing the bridge is a common one.

The cruise ship terminal at the western end of Danė south bank is a popular stop for Baltic cruises and a location for various ship-based events. This river bank also has several old red brick port warehouses. Next to them there are new buildings with matching exterior volumes but a very different architectural design (either modern brick or glass facades). They are best visible from the New Town (northern) bank of Danė. Further east, the „Meridianas“ barquentine is moored (one of the symbols of Klaipėda). It was constructed in Finland as part of reparations after this country surrendered to the Soviet Union in World War 2.

Old port warehouses on the southern bank of Danė. Two old buildings, one of them housing bar Mėmelis, were recently joined by modern additions with similar volumes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southern Old Town and the immediate surroundings

The southern part of the downtown has another large square: Turgaus (Market). Surrounded by nice buildings on the north side this square is still in its original use with market pavilions. You may buy fruits and vegetables here.

Turgaus Square is effectively the southern limit of the Old Town. Further south the former Southern suburb of Baltikalnė still has some of the pre-WW2 feel in its old single or double floored dwellings albeit these are now intermixed with Soviet apartment blocks. Interestingly one of the area's most iconic buildings is post-1940 and even more uniquely it is a church (Our Lady of Peace). This brown building with a slim tower has been constructed in 1960 using people's donations and volunteer work (they managed to collect 1 million roubles in the years of economic hardships and state atheism). The Soviet government initially permitted the works, but this turned out to have been a ploy. Once the building was completed it was nationalized and its builders arrested. The tower was demolished and a concert hall established in the naves. Only in the year 1988 the building was returned to its intended use. The rebuilt tower may be seen as a monument to the enthusiastic builders of the church.

Baltikalnė: Our Lady of Peace church (left) and old houses at Tilžės street (right). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Map of the Klaipėda Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Naujamiestis (New Town) Borough in Klaipėda

New Town (Naujamiestis) is a borough to the north of the Old Town, separated by the Danė river. Many of its buildings date to the late 19th century with large residentials, merchants residences, and a few monumental public structures.

The borough is spanned south to north by a 3 km long Herkaus Manto street. It begins at Atgimimo square where a gate-like statue symbolizes the unification of Klaipėda region and Lithuania in 1923. The broken end on one side of the gate reminds of the part of Lithuania Minor annexed to Russia. The square itself is a product of the Soviet destruction, as many beautiful buildings used to stand here before the World War 2, including the imposing Klaipėda Market with a tower. Almost entire northern bank of Danė river is similarly destroyed-and-built-anew. However, the Danės street is still pleasant to stroll because of the views of the old town it affords you.

Danės street in the northern bank of Danė river. The buildings in the foreground are all Soviet. The residential 20-floor skyscreaper in the background is post-indpendence (2006). Its form (letter D) symbolises the Danė river. This is the face of the New Town everyone sees from the Old Town but it is somewhat deceptive. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Luckily, in the east-west streets further north more beautiful places remain unhindered. Liepų (Linden) street is arguably the most interesting in the New Town. Here you may find a neo-gothic German Royal Post building (1893) with a large tower. Clock museum is located in a former merchant residence nearby but it barely changed since the Soviet rule and it is a far cry from what it would be in case it would stand in the West. There are other beautiful residential buildings. A sculpture park in the east is the Soviet replacement for Lutheran cemetery. The historic part of Liepų street ends at the remains of red brick gas cisterns in what once was a 19th-century gas factory (1 km east of Herkaus Manto street).

Liepų Street in Klaipėda with the Clock museum (formerly merchant's residence and bank building) and the Post office building. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Opposite to Liepų street is the Naujoji Sodo street where a few old buildings are joined by two new towers. One of these residential blocks has a form of letter K and the other reminds letter D. The nearby Hotel Amberton houses a restaurant in its top floor, offering the best public vantage point in an otherwise lowland Klaipėda.

Additional pretty old buildings may be found in the small streets north of Naujoji Sodo, such as Puodžių. Here is the Klaipėda's only church that was not demolished or closed by the Soviet regime (dedicated to Christ the King). However, it is of little interest as it has a size of a mere village church.

Going further north on Herkaus Manto street you will cross Mažvydo Avenue to the right, a large pedestrianized street where various events take place.

If you will continue strolling Herkaus Manto Street you will pass a nice and large Lietuvininkų square that was laid in the first decades of the 20th century (massive northern side buildings are authentic). A statue for Martynas Mažvydas (author of first Lithuanian printed book) was erected in the center of the square.

At the northern end of historical Herkaus Manto street (beyond the railway overbridge), there stands beautifully restored Gothic Revival German barracks (1907). Since 1993 these 3 to 5 story red brick buildings hosts Klaipėda University main campus (after being abandoned for decades).

Klaipėda university main buildings (meticulously restored former German army barracks). In future it is expected that entire university would relocate here as additional modern buildings would be built in the surrounding open areas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Beyond the campus there are no more historical buildings and a Soviet functionalist apartment building zone starts, quite similar to the one in Southern Klaipėda (albeit smaller). Further north surrounding the long Liepojos street towards Palanga stands an extensive collection of large private homes typical to the 1990s nuoveau-riche.

Map of Klaipėda New Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Seaside Klaipėda

While Klaipėda is a port city its downtown boroughs border the Curonian Lagoon rather than the Baltic Sea. Furthermore, even this body of water is sheltered from the urban life by rows of massive port warehouses and stevedoring enterprises.

But Klaipėda has its own beaches and a resort-like atmosphere outside the city center. If you want to sunbathe, swim or just take a walk in a forest you need to visit the suburbs of Smiltynė, Melnragė, Giruliai or Karklė.

Smiltynė: A secluded tip of the Curonian Spit

Smiltynė is the most unique among those and has the best beach. Standing on the northern tip of the 98 km long Curonian spit peninsula it can be reached only by a ferry. While administratively it is a part of Klaipėda only the new skyscrapers and port cranes on the opposite shore of the Lagoon reminds you of the city. Smiltynė is a glimpse of Neringa, a UNESCO-inscribed pristine landscape, without the need to pay ecological tax (which is mandatory if you drive south from Smiltynė) and possible to reach from Klaipėda center without boarding any vehicle except for the 10 minutes ferry ride. There are two ferry stations, with the northern (downtown) one reserved for pedestrians and cyclists.

A ferry loading passengers and cars in Smiltynė. It might be hard to believe that less than 1 km accross the lagoon from this wooded coast you may find the tallest residential building in the Baltic States and other modern developments. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Smiltynė area is covered by a pine forest with nice paths for hiking and cycling. Its northern end is crowned by the Kopgalis fortress. Built in 1866 it defended Klaipėda from naval attacks. Since 1979 it houses the Lithuania Sea Museum, one of the city‘s most popular attractions. This museum covers both shipping and sea animals, doubling as their zoo. Dolphin shows presented in a purpose-built arena are especially loved by customers.

The Lagoon coast has a concrete embankment. A 1,5 km stroll to the Sea museum will take you past pre-war resort villas, a selection of dry-docked fishing vessels (some of which you may enter) and a reconstructed 19th century fisherman farmstead. You may still skip the walk and use carriage or electrict train.

The Baltic coast offers Klaipėda's prime beaches. Both coasts meet north of the Sea Museum with the Curonian spit ends, with port breakwater serving as its 1 km long artificial continuation. The footpath on the breakwater provides good contrasting views of the port, the beach, and the sea.

Smiltynė villa

A lagoon-side villa on the footpath between Senoji Ferry and the Sea Museum in Smiltynė. Such buildings are common in Seaside Klaipėda. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Melnragė, Giruliai and Karklė: Klaipėda's northern resorts

Melnragė, Giruliai, and Karklė are on the forested mainland shores north of the city-proper. There are actually two Melnragės, sometimes distinguished in maps by Roman numerals I and II. Melnragė I is immediately beyond the port zone. It is a kind of a suburb with resort facilities as well as a supermarket. Melnragė II, 2,5 km to the north, has fewer buildings and is centered around the beach.

The central part of Giruliai is some 400 meters away from the shore next to the northern boundary of Klaipėda city. However, some of the buildings are closer to the sea. Akin to many of the Lithuania's resorts Giruliai has both pre-war villas and Soviet "tourist bases" in its limits. The suburb has its own train station, but there are just a few daily passenger services, therefore, it might be better to use Klaipėda public buses or bicycle to come there (there are bicycle paths). Car parking in both Giruliai and Melnragė is payable.

Memel-Nord battery 1 km north of Giruliai is the best-surviving Nazi German military installation of Klaipėda's 1939 defensive ring which allowed the city to withstand 115 days of Soviet siege in 1944. The rather extensive bunkers may be freely entered; part of them are converted into a bowdlerized museum/experience with period images, dishes and weapons on display (some swastikas are replaced by pluses and actors/guides wear modern German uniforms rather than WW2 ones).

Memel-Nord battery aiming facility

The aiming facility of Memel-Nord is out in the beach. The bunkers where the actual firepower rested are better concealed and partly bombed. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Olando kepurė, 2 km further north, is the highest sea shore in Lithuania. 25 m tall ice-age cliff offers commandeering views from its top. The feature's name means "Dutch hat" and it previously helped the ships to navigate.

Karklė is the final stop of the seaside public bus. This former fishing village (now a small resort) is notable for Lithuania's sole seaside cemetery (used primarily for the drowned prior to the 20th century). Ironically it is now on the verge of being consumed by high tides with bones washed away regularly.

Olando kepurė uprooted tree

View from the top of Olando kepurė. An uprooted tree that lies in the beach once grew on the cliff. During storms the sea submerges entire beach and erodes the cliff. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Map of the Seaside Klaipėda is here.

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Soviet Boroughs in Southern Klaipėda

As an important seaport Klaipėda was rapidly expanded during the Soviet occupation (1945-1990). Its population increased more than fourfold (from 45 000 to 203 000). Most of the newcomers of the 1960s and later received flats in massive apartment blocks in numerous new boroughs. The majority of these were built south of the downtown along the Curonian lagoon, giving the city its present "long and narrow" form.

These densely populated boroughs are anchored on three main north-south thoroughfares: Minijos Street, Taikos Avenue and Šilutės Road. These roads, four-lane or wider, are crossed by similar east-west perpendicular highways, forming a massive grid layout of districts covering some 1 square kilometer each.

Never an example of great workmanship quality these neighborhoods are filled with hundreds of energy-ineffective buildings that are now slowly crumbling, modified by countless ad hoc additions by people living there (glass balcony covers, satellite antennas). All the apartment buildings in the entire borough are built on just several different designs: for example, in southernmost districts, there are 5 and 10 stories versions of similar-looking buildings. There are large open spaces between them, overfilled with cars (it is hard to distinguish a courtyard from a sidestreet or an alley). In other words, save for the irregular grid layout, the Klaipėda Soviet districts are similar to those in any other Lithuanian city.

A typical Soviet residential building in southern Klaipėda, Varpai district, Smiltelės street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, unlike some areas of Vilnius and Kaunas the Soviet boroughs of Klaipėda were not skipped by the progress. Many of the city's modern flagship projects have been taking place here rather than in the downtown. Near the intersection of Taikos Avenue and Kauno Street, you can find Akropolis - 75 000 square meters in gross floor area it is the largest shopping center in the Western Lithuania. Klaipėda's second largest mall BIG is 3,5 km further south on Taikos Avenue now joined by modern office blocks.

Not far away from Akropolis between Minijos Street and Baltijos Avenue, you may find the Klaipėda Arena was constructed for 2011 Eurobasket championship. Seating 5500 spectators this arena hosts many gigs and sporting events, e.g. the home games of Klaipėdos Neptūnas basketball team.

The tall skyscraper you can see north of the area is Pilsotas, the tallest residential building in the Baltic States (112 m high, 34 floors). The owners of prestigious apartments in the middle and upper floors may see the Lagoon, entire width of the Curonian Spit and the Sea through their enormous windows. Less affluent people live in modern new buildings nearby which, together with Pilsotas, form the new Gandrališkės residential development. If not for the financial crisis of 2008 the most magnificent addition of the area, 170 m tall Kuršas apartment tower, would have already crowned the neighborhood.

The 2011 Klaipėda arena with Pilsotas tower visible in the background on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The massive Soviet infrastructural projects still survive, albeit adapted to the market economics. Among them is the formidable International Ferry Terminal in the extreme south of Klaipėda. Opened in 1986 for a railroad ferry service between the Soviet Union and East Germany it still greets ships from the lands beyond the Baltic Sea. However, smaller RORO ferries for cars and trucks largely displaced the enormous train transporters "Vilnius", "Kaunas" and "Klaipėda" once inscribed into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest in the world. More destinations have been added - you may reach southern Sweden in addition to Germany.

A smaller local ferry terminal Naujoji Perkėla at Varnėnų street is the main access point to Smiltynė and Neringa. The entire length of southern Klaipėda is flanked by port buildings and warehouses on its Lagoon coast.

The spiritual vacuum created in Klaipėda by the Soviet destruction of almost every church in the city was filled in the early 1990s by constructing new religious buildings. They were built from scratch in the Soviet districts where the most people live instead of attempting to recreate what was destroyed downtown. In Smiltelės Street a new religious center was built with the Roman Catholic Saint Joseph church on the southern side and the Archangel Michael Russian Orthodox church on the opposite side.

Like many of massive 1990s churches, Saint Joseph's in Varpai-Laukininkai-Jūrininkai district is under construction for more than 10 years, but already consecrated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Map of the Soviet boroughs in Southern Klaipėda is here.

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Map of the Outer Districts of Klaipėda

This is the map of Seaside Klaipėda and the Soviet boroughs of Klaipėda.

Map of the outer districts of Klaipėda. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Day trips from Klaipėda

Neringa is not only the favorite day trip from Klaipėda but one of the most favorite destinations in Lithuania. This string of fisherman villages that became clean prestigious resorts boasts spectacular nature and many opportunities for calm tourism. You will need to use a ferry to Smiltynė and then a bus that traverses entire Lithuanian zone of the narrow peninsula. Juodkrantė is 21 km away from central Klaipėda, while Nida at the southern limit of Neringa is 50 km away. If you have your doubts, let me say that many cruise ship passengers opt to spend their Lithuanian day in Neringa and therefore skip Klaipėda altogether.

Another possible day trip is the Palanga resort, 26 km to the north (highway, frequent bus services). This is the resort to choose for crowds, night entertainment and a flavor of kitsch. That said, there is much to see in Palanga including a large amber museum inside a 19th-century palace that is surrounded by probably the best park in Lithuania.

A trip to the south will reveal you the mainland Lithuania Minor. The largest town here is Šilutė (54 km away). Near Šilutė is the Nemunas Delta Regional park, a great location for birdwatching, angling and boat tourism (at costs lower than in Neringa). There you may find Rusnė with its landscape flooded by Nemunas every spring (61 km to Klaipėda). Even closer is the village of Minija / Mingė (51 km) that is nicknamed "Venice of Lithuania" because the building facades here face the unbridged River Minija and people use boats to visit their neighbors on the opposite side. All three and the Ventė horn ornithology station may be easily visited on a single day trip, but you will likely need a car.

A somewhat longer drive away from the shore to Samogitia National Park (~75 km) will allow you to descend into a shaft where Soviet nuclear missiles once waited to be launched (now a Cold War museum). Nice manors of Kretinga and Plungė may be visited en-route.

For shorter and more casual family trips one may choose a dinopark in Radailiai with its moving sculptures of pre-historic animals and a mini-zoo in Jonušai which is not really that small with tigers, kangaroos, warthogs and other animals. Both are ~10 km from Klaipėda. Another positive trip is to the "Nature pearl" park north of Klaipėda which has some live dear but its main draw is the repository of various exotic hunting trophies of a local businessman.

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