Šiauliai (pop. 110 000) is Lithuania's fourth largest city and the largest city in Samogitia.
The main draw here is the world famous Hill of Crosses 12 km north of city center. A very atmospheric place it hosts some 2 million crosses brought in by ordinary people in defiance to the Russian and Soviet occupational regimes. It is all at once a pilgrimage and meditation site, a symbol of Lithuania's non-violent struggle for freedom and a powerful work of art (Lithuanian crossmaking is inscribed in the UNESCO list of immaterial heritage).
Šiauliai downtown has been ravaged in both World Wars. Heavily rebuilt it lacks the charm of either Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipėda. The gone-by eras survive as architectural isles rather than a contiguous Old Town. Mannerist Cathedral and several palaces are the prettiest buildings.
Luckily in Šiauliai, the dominating Soviet architecture is not limited to the boring similarly-looking apartment blocks. The city center was largely rebuilt in the 1940s and the early 1950s, therefore it received a fair share of monumental Soviet historicist buildings. Its heart is Vilniaus street, a.k.a. "The boulevard", a pedestrianized zone.
The commercial center of Šiauliai has moved to 5 large shopping malls all built in the boom times of 2005-2008 (Šiauliai is the top city in the Baltic States in retail space per capita). A miscalculation by developers provides decent shopping, eating and entertainment opportunities for visitors (the malls include cinemas, casinos, bowling and ice rink).
In other terms, Šiauliai is a regional hub as well. It is the smallest Lithuanian city to host a university (albeit one that lacks the prestige to attract students from further away). It also has several theaters and a modern 5500-seat sports arena, while its Gubernija brewery is Lithuania's oldest (est. 1665).
In Šiauliai, it is easy to spend a spare afternoon at thematic museums as the city has many of them (photography, bicycles, chocolate, radio/TV, railroad, cat memorabilia...). Other museums are associated with the local history (restored windmill, ethnography/archeology).
In military circles, Šiauliai is famous for its major airbase used by NATO mission for Baltic States airspace defense. Every half a year a new alliance member sends some of its fighters and pilots here to compensate for the current Baltics' lack of air force capabilities. Šiauliai Airport was selected for having the longest runway in the Baltic States (3 500 m).
Main residential "sleeping districts" of Šiauliai are located southwest of downtown while north of the downtown is low-rise Gubernija district. Šiauliai lacks a river but includes multiple lakes with the largest one - Rėkyva - covering 13% of the municipal territory.
The most magnificent building in downtown Šiauliai is the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Constructed in 1625 this church with a 70-meter tall tower is one of few examples of Renaissance (Mannerism) style in Lithuanian ecclesial architecture.
Other buildings at the main Prisikėlimo (Ressurection) square are mainly Soviet historicist architecture of 1940s/1950s when Šiauliai was rebuilt after World War 2 damage. Unlike the later (1960s-1980s) Soviet concrete slab architecture created with nothing but cheapness in mind the Soviet historicism was promoted by J. Stalin to represent his new empire and carried ideological meaning. One example is the imposing Water tower at the opposite end of Vasario 16 street which was built to provide a secular urbanistic counterweight to the Cathedral.
Vilniaus street, a.k.a. "The boulevard" (traditional high street of Šiauliai) is another place to look for Stalinist architecture. In 1976 it became the first pedestrianized street all over the Soviet Union. While currently partly outcompeted by shopping malls it still is the main downtown hub for restaurants, peaceful stroll and tourist activities. Renovated in 2007 it also has numerous small sculptures.
In the west, the pedestrian zone begins at Vilniaus/Žemaitės intersection. Nearby residential courtyard hides a modest St. Ignacio church (1936; in a courtyard) while Šiauliai art gallery stands streetside. Further eastwards on you pass a small and blunt Radio/TV museum.
The Vilniaus/Tilžės intersection is where the history of Šiauliai began. Now it is marked by a rooster statue that greets visitors daily at 12:00 and 18:00 in many foreign languages. Museum of photography is nearby, offering a neatly restored gallery of photography-inspired art as well as real camera obscura. Bicycle museum is further on. Museum of Chocolate (Tilžės street) is a small-but-modern one, located in a historic Rūta chocolate factory (est. 1913) returned to original owners after the Soviet occupation. Its sweets may be bought here cheaply.
Beyond the Boulevard's eastern end stands the art nouveau villa of a Jewish businessman Chaimas Frenkelis (1908) and the now-disused leather factory that brought him riches. The "villa" is actually a magnificent (albeit compact) palace which now houses a museum on the lives of the urban dwellers, prewar provincial elite and the Frenkelis family.
The southern limit of Šiauliai downtown is marked by a railroad. Both rail and bus stations are located there, the latter incorporated into Saulės miestas, one of the Šiauliai's major malls (the name means "Sun city" and is a popular nickname for Šiauliai). Saulės miestas is good for shopping and eating but lacks entertainment.
The Neobyzanthine style of St. George Catholic church (near the railroad) reminds of its Russian Orthodox origins. The church was completed in 1909 to serve the Russian Imperial garrison. When Lithuania regained independence (1918) the Russian army departed and the building was ceded to the Roman Catholics.
A small number of Russian Orthodox people remained and they were allocated a place for a new church in the Old Cemetary in northern downtown near Talkša Lake. This lake surrounded by parks and greenery provides recreation. Centuries ago the Salduvė hill east of Talkša hosted a wooden castle which defended Šiauliai. Saulės Laikrodžio (Sundial) square south of Talkša is crowned by a sculpture-sundial that is a modern symbol of Šiauliai.
Gubernija district to the north is Šiauliai oldest addition. Its namesake brewery is the oldest industrial one in Lithuania (est. 1665) but its territory is closed to visitors (Gubernija beer may be tasted anywhere in Šiauliai or indeed Lithuania however).
Entire northern Šiauliai is low-rise and includes both older homes and the "modern palaces" of 1990s nouveau-riche. Architecturally unappealing (built with only the size in mind), these buildings nevertheless represent an era.
Tilžė, another one of the great malls of Šiauliai, is in Tilžės street that traverses Gubernija north to south.
Žaliūkiai is a similar district south of the railroad that limits Downtown. Žaliūkiai windmill is a reconstructed mill there which now serves as a museum representing the life of a mill-owner (it lacks any descriptions though).
Soviets expanded Šiauliai southwards. The areas immediate south of the railroad, as well as Žaliūkės, were left for industrial development. Some factories have since folded and one of them was redeveloped into Bruklinas outlet mall (~35 000 sq. m).
The bulk of city dwellers (~65 000) now lives at compact yet dense concrete slab boroughs of Lieporiai and Dainiai 5 km southwest of downtown. The residentials were completed in 1970s-1980s but main public buildings were constructed only after independence. Expressionistic Immaculate Conception church (2009) now serves the local parish, its form aimed to symbolize hands in prayer pose. Two large malls next to each other (Akropolis and Arena) are the neighborhoods' commercial heart. Akropolis (40 000 sq. m) is by far the bigger one and has a casino, ice rink, and a cinema. Šiauliai arena (5500 seats) is home to the local major league basketball team and attracts people from all over the region to the concerts it hosts.
East of downtown on the eastern bank of Lake Talkša there is an extensive Salduvė park and beyond it the Salduvė hillfort with its fortifications no longer existent.
Zokniai airport southeast of the center is a major NATO airbase that safeguards entire Baltic States airspace from intrusions (most serious airspace breaches are typically done by the Russian air force). It has two runways and its 3500 m runway is the longest in the Baltics.
Lake Rėkyva south of Šiauliai is the largest wetland lake in Lithuania and it has no natural rivers feeding nor draining it.
The most important place of interest in the area is the Hill of Crosses north of Šiauliai. Visited both by pilgrims and irreligious tourists this place is a remarkable symbol of Lithuanian peaceful resistance to the Soviet occupation. People used to bring crosses to a hill once crowned by a medieval castle. The atheist Soviet government used to tear all the crosses down and persecute the pilgrims, but very soon the crosses would spring up again, restoring the number to hundreds and thousands.
In 1990 when Lithuanian independence was restored 14 387 large crosses and 40 944 small crosses were counted, covering an area of 4602 square meters. By 2007 the number surpassed 200 000. In 1997 a Franciscan monastery was built next to the hill. The monastery chapel (open for visiting) has a large window with the hill visible in the background instead of altar paintings.
The atmosphere in the Hill of Crosses may be surreal. Thousands of large wooden crosses are used as platforms for many times that number of small ones, all of which beautifully chime in the wind. Most of them bear inscriptions with names of the people and their reasons for erecting the cross. There are crosses built by biker clubs, political parties, ordinary families, pilgrims from far away lands, priests and every other category of people you may imagine. They thank God or ask for his guidance, remember life-changing events, seek help for some particular groups of the population. The inscriptions are largely Lithuanian, but you may find those in countless other languages representing different Christian denominations. The crosses are eagerly erected up to this day as you can see in the recent dates inscribed on some of the crosses.
The tradition of erecting crosses here might have started under Imperial Russian rule in the mid-19th century. A legend tells that one person from Jurgaičiai promised God that he would build a cross on this hill in case his disease would pass. The disease passed and the man kept his promise - later to be followed by others. There are other stories, such as the one about a person whose daughter was ill and who received a vision that he should build a cross there. Whatever the reasons for its inception the place became an important pilgrimage site and erecting a cross here became a popular way to thank God.
The Lithuanian art of cross-crafting (kryždirbystė) is inscribed into the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage. Not long ago most of Lithuania's roads were adorned by many large wooden crosses. Today there are few roadside crosses left but the Hill of Crosses is an important monument to this art. 50 of its crosses are regarded to be of major cultural significance.
Like every Lithuanian city, Šiauliai is well accessible by bus but unlike many Šiauliai also enjoys good connections by rail. Trains go both to Klaipėda (via Telšiai, Plungė, Kretinga) and Vilnius (via Jonava, Kėdainiai, Kaišiadorys) as well as to Panevėžys.
Road connections to Šiauliai are not perfect as they are limited to 2 lane roads if you want to go anywhere further than several neighboring towns.
Šiauliai Airport has an international status but is actually operating as a NATO airbase with its civilian flights limited to cargo. The passenger airport most people of Šiauliai use is Riga International. Being only 100 km away it is closer than any of the major Lithuanian airports. If you arrive at Riga then Šiauliai (and the Hill of Crosses) are possible to visit en-route to either Vilnius or the Lithuanian seaside with a detour.
If you are not too fond of independent travel the Hill of Crosses is included in many tourism agency itineraries of Lithuania.
History of Šiauliai is that of perpetual change as the city suffered many rearrangements and destructions. Maybe this is appropriate for a city first written about in a chronicle describing a nearby Saulė battle (1236).
In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1253-1795) most of the lands were nobility-owned and non-taxed. The remaining state land (so-called Economies) had to cover the costs of the entire central government. Since 1616 Šiauliai was part of the Grand Duchy’s largest Economy. After becoming its heart, the city was rebuilt on Neoclassical grid layout (18th century); the first industries (including Gubernija brewery) were established.
Šiauliai importance was cut short by the Russian Imperial occupation (1795-1915). The Economy was transferred to Zubov family of Russian nobles, favored by czarina Yekaterina II. These reforms were met with dismay by the locals who then participated in 1831 and 1863 failed revolts. After the latter people began to secretly erect crosses on a hill 12 km north of Šiauliai as a symbol of defiance, starting the world-famous Hill of Crosses.
Belated Russian Imperial industrialization hit Šiauliai with a full swing in ~1870s-1910s. Šiauliai’s new status as a railway hub made it a convenient location for factories. Frenkelis’s leather factory, founded in the 1890s, became the largest in Russian Empire. It employed 1000 people out of the total population of ~15 000.
World War 1 devastated Šiauliai. 85% of buildings have been destroyed and in 1915-1920 the city suffered alternating German, Russian communist and Russian monarchist occupations. In 1920s-1930s independent Lithuania Šiauliai was rebuilt and known to foreign diplomats as “one of only two real Lithuanian cities” (the other was Kaunas; Klaipėda and Vilnius were Lithuanian-minority at the time). Frenkelis factory never achieved past production levels but the city continued as an industrial center, providing Lithuania 85% leather, 60% shoes, 75% textiles, 35% sweets. Water pipes, sewerage and telephone networks have been installed in 1920s-1930s.
World War 2 ravaged the city once again, 80% of its buildings destroyed, many people murdered, expelled or forced to flee. Rebuilt on a scaled-down Stalinist grandeur the downtown was swiftly repopulated by villagers and Russians. The industry (now nationalized) has been joined by the Soviet military and its massive Zokniai air base. In 1960s-1980s a new industrial district was constructed in the south and massive concrete slab boroughs (Lieporiai, Dainiai) in the southwest. Totalitarian atheist regime was defied by Lithuanian people who continued to expand the Hill of Crosses despite a constant KGB surveillance and repeated destruction.
After the independence restoration (1990) the city was developed as a provincial hub for northern Lithuania, getting its own university and the local bank gaining nationwide prominence. In 1997 Šiauliai diocese was erected, centering at the Ss. Peter and Paul church (built 1626), a pearl of Renaissance which symbolically unites all the periods of city history.
Nevertheless in Lithuanian minds, in investments and tourism opportunities, Šiauliai remained a distant 4th city, lacking the charm of either Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipėda. Its population declined from 146 000 in 1989 to 108 000 in 2011 due to emigration and internal migration.