Klaipėda (Memel): What to See, Where to Go and What to Know | True Lithuania
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Klaipėda City: An Introduction

Klaipėda Old Town (Turgaus street) during the annual Sea Festival. This traditional city holiday of Klaipėda that attracts hundreds of thousand people from all over Lithuania and abroad. You may find celebrations, concerts, shows and markets in almost every street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda is the only port in Lithuania and its heart is beating together with the sea, with annual summer Sea Festivals and biennial Tall Ships regattas, Sea museum, Sea faculty in the local University, numerous beaches, and major stevedoring companies.

Ever since its establishment by the Teutonic Knights (as Memelburg) in the year 1252 the city was distinct from the rest of Lithuania. It was ruled by Germans together with the rest of Lithuania Minor. Even its Lithuanian name “Klaipėda”, first mentioned in the 16th century, is believed to be a pejorative, meaning “Bread eater” (as the city dwellers used to eat bread grown by the Lithuanians of surrounding countryside).

On the eve of the World War 2 Klaipėda looked just as it did for centuries: 70% of its people were Germans, while in the surrounding Klaipėda County the situation was reverse with 70% of the population being ethnic Lithuanians. But the War changed everything and the advancing Soviet armies found only some 20 local human beings when they captured the city in 1945.

A German-styled yard in Klaipėda Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda was swiftly repopulated by Russians (22%), Russophones (5%) and Lithuanians from elsewhere (72%). Some of its iconic German-style buildings that survived the war were torn down soon afterwards. Unfortunately, this included all the imposing churches (Saint John church used to have the tallest spire in Lithuania).

However, much more of its past remained visible in Klaipėda than in cities like Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) or Sovetsk (formerly Tilsit) in Russia, where the German history was wiped out almost entirely.

In the Klaipėda Old Town and New Town there are still many pre-war buildings, art nuoveau and wooden frame, even if they are frequently standing side-by-side with newer ones. Among the more interesting is the post building and various red brick port warehouses. Strolling on the straight narrow old town streets may be as rewarding as seeking specific landmarks.

In Smiltynė, the part of Klaipėda that could be reached by ferry alone, there is a former German 19th century sea fortress, currently housing the National Sea Museum, which covers both shipping, fishes and sea mammals, many of which live in large aquariums here.

A view backwards from the Klaipėda breakwater constrasts the mainland port (left) and the Smiltynė resort beaches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Smiltynė together with Melnragė, Giruliai and Karklė (north of the city) are also popular for their beaches.

Most of Klaipėda residents live outside of these picturesque areas however, in the massive Soviet boroughs that adjoin the southern limits of Klaipėda downtown. Most shopping malls and some key entertainment venues are also located there.

The streets of downtown Klaipėda are adorned by numerous small playful statues built in 2006 and later. Among these is a bag of money, a canine "Guardian of the Old Town", a small mouse that supposedly makes wishes come true and a dragon climbing a building wall. They revitalize Klaipėda urban landscape and remind some aspects of the city past and folklore. You never know what you will encounter in that side-street and this makes your time in Klaipėda even more interesting.

More information:
Klaipėda by borough (district): An area-by-area guide to Klaipėda and its sights, with maps and pictures.
Klaipėda by topic: Shopping, Transportation and other topics of Klaipėda.

Map of Klaipėda boroughs.

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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 to the 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 to the 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.

West of Baltikalnė is the site of the former Jewish cemetery, destroyed by Soviets to be replaced by a yard for apartment blocks. After independence, it has been returned to the Jews, now serving as a memorial place and a synagogue.

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. Melnragė I also has the port's short northern breakwater, another good location to watch the ships.

Smiltynė villa

Ships as seen from the Melnragė breakwater. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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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History of Klaipėda (Memel)

The city ruled by German states (1250-1918)

Klaipėda was established on an empty shore by the Teutonic Knights in the 1250s. Invited by the Duke of Masovia to convert or destroy pagan Baltic tribes the Order chose this place for its castle. They called it Memelburg. Memel is the German name for Nemunas river and the early settlers mistakenly believed that the straits linking Curonian lagoon to Baltic Sea are in fact the mouths of that mighty river.

Around the castle, a town of primarily German craftsmen sprung up. The castle itself was constantly upgraded and managed to withstand all the wars against Lithuania leaving Klaipėda and its immediate surroundings the only area of modern Lithuania that has never been ruled by any Lithuanian state until the 20th century.

Klaipėda in the 16th century when it consisted of a castle (right) and a small town (left).

The agricultural countryside remained predominantly ethnic Lithuanian through ages and the Lithuanian name for the city "Klaipėda" was thus born in the 16th century as a pejorative, literally meaning "Bread eater" and referring to the castle garrison. The region was considered to be part of Lithuania Minor. With the secularization of the local branch of Teutonic Order (1525) Klaipėda (Memel) became part of Prussia's "Lithuanian kreises". During the Napoleonic wars, it even briefly held the status of Prussia's capital as the royal family retreated here from danger (1807-1808).

The 19th century brought growth (5000 to 20000 people), even if hampered by the dangers of Russia's proximity. To the likes of Richard Wagner or Heinrich Schliemann Klaipėda was a temporary career step. Others (among them more and more Lithuanian ex-villagers) arrived for good, however, staffing the burgeoning trade and lumber industries. It was lumber what fuelled the devastating fire of 1854 which caused 2/3 of the city to be rebuilt.

A sketch of the Klaipėda Old Town in 1880 after it has risen from ashes. Towering churches of different denominations and ethnicities reflected the diversity of a frontier merchant city.

Klaipėda region and Lithuania between the wars (1918-1945)

After Germany‘s loss of World War 1 its non-German areas were annexed to other countries, such as Denmark or Poland. While Klaipėda city's population of 45 000 was 70% German, its more populous surroundings were 70% Lithuanian, therefore the entire region had a slight Lithuanian majority and was detached from the German state. Lithuanian state was however not yet born as the Western powers were reluctant to recognize it due to its disputes in the east. Therefore the Klaipėda region was left to be ruled by the League of Nations.

Lithuania received wide international recognition by 1922. The status of Klaipėda region changed in 1923 when a Lithuanian-supported revolt took place and the region was captured by the Supreme Salvation Committee of Lithuania Minor that asked to be accepted into the Republic of Lithuania. All the nations recognized the annexation of Klaipėda but only as an autonomous territory where German and Lithuanian languages would enjoy equal status.

The New Town bank of Danė river with the Market of Klaipėda (left) and the Market (Biržos) Bridge. This is just one of many important buildings demolished by the Soviets after the war. Atgimimo square (New Town borough) was laid in this place.

The autonomy was established but this did not solve every problem. With the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1930s, this ideology became popular among Klaipėda's German population as well. This led to acts of terror and subsequent arrests of the local Nazi groups. In fact, this clampdown against national socialist organizations was the first anti-nazi trial to take place anywhere in Europe after the rise of Hitler (later it was nicknamed "Little Nuremberg").

Germany, a former ally of Lithuania, started pressuring Lithuania for a return of the Klaipėda region. This culminated in 1939 March when Germany annexed the region after an ultimatum, very similar to the one presented to Czechoslovakia for Sudetenland. Adolf Hitler himself then visited Klaipėda.

Buses and new buildings in interwar Klaipėda (modern Herkaus Manto street). Technologically advanced and more Western in its culture, Klaipėda had a profoundly different feel than other Lithuanian cities in the 1930s as it was the only one not to have suffered Russian Imperial regime.

After the World War 2 (1945 and beyond)

The history of old Klaipėda/Memel ended in 1945 when the city had been overrun by Soviet armies in late World War 2. The invading soldiers found only 20 inhabitants left in the city. Others, both Germans and Lithuanians, swiftly evacuated after hearing of Soviet massacres elsewhere. Klaipėda was then repopulated by Russians in the late 1940s. Since the 1950s, the Russians were joined by Lithuanians from other parts of the country. In 1950 Klaipėda became more populous than it was before World War 2 (~50 000 people), in some 1962 it was already double that size.

The total change of population was coupled with the devastation of Klaipėda old town. Soviets decided to demolish all the city's major churches. Many houses in the Old Town and especially the New Town were destroyed as well during the 1940s and 1950s Sovietization of the city. These changes left Klaipėda without some of its original character that once made it unique among Lithuania's cities. People of Klaipėda usually have little connection with the history of their city as their parents or grandparents moved in from somewhere else - some from Samogitian villages, some others from Moscow or Saint Petersburg. So the history now may only be seen in old bricks and sporadic attempts to recreate it by adopting historical names for shops and services. Much of this is to appease German tourists who still make a large share of Klaipėda's visitors.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The demolition of the fire department HQ in 1981 was the last of the historical building demolitions in Klaipėda. On the left a Soviet propaganda poster declares: Our work is for thee, oh Fatherland. ©Albinas Stubra.

After Lithuania‘s independence, Klaipėda became the second city in terms of foreign investments (yielding only to Vilnius). The first free economic zone in the country was quick to attract industry from as far away as Japan while the port continued to be a major impetus for economics.

Largest completed projects of the era include a gas terminal, "Akropolis" mall (once the largest in Baltics), arena (where matches of Eurobasket 2011 took place), major roads and more.

Klaipėda destroyed fire office

The project of Gandrališkės residential district of 2008. While it was scaled down after the economic downturn, tallest-in-Baltics residential tower has been constructed

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Getting To and From Klaipėda

Klaipėda can be reached by car from Vilnius in 3 hours and 4 hours by express bus. A four-lane highway connects the city to Kaunas and Vilnius as well as Palanga. Another option of traveling to/from Kaunas is by the scenic Panemunė road via Šilutė.

Interesting locations around Klaipėda include Neringa and Palanga resorts. Both may be accessed by frequent buses: Palanga buses depart from the bus station while Neringa ones stop at the Smiltynė Old Ferry terminal (you have to take the ferry by yourself before boarding the bus).

Passenger trains leave Klaipėda station for Vilnius and Radviliškis. Both of these routes have intermediate stops in various towns, among them Kretinga, Telšiai, Plungė, and Šiauliai. The route to Vilnius also stops at Kėdaniai. The route to Šiauliai is more or less direct whereas the route to Vilnius is 100 km longer than the highway route and thus it takes 4-5 hours to go there by train.

Klaipėda has no passenger airport but Palanga airport some 30 kilometers to the north effectively serves Klaipėda as well. It is even branded as "Palanga/Klaipeda" in the timetables of some airlines. Air services from Palanga are limited, however, to just a few destinations. The rest of the European cities might be reached with transfers. Still, transfer flights originating in Palanga may be ~40% more expensive than similar flights from Vilnius, Kaunas, or Riga (some 2, 3, and 4 hours away by car, respectively), where the competition is tighter.

Being Lithuania's only seaport, Klaipėda may also be reached by ferries from Germany and Sweden. The ferries are overnight and transport cars as well as passengers. Cruise ships visit Klaipėda in summer (some also in spring and autumn) as a part of a longer Baltic cruise. However, Klaipėda is a less popular cruise port than those of Estonia and Latvia, likely because Klaipėda is not the capital.

The ferries dock in Southern Klaipėda while the cruise ships mostly dock in Old Town although some dock at Southern Klaipėda.

Container vessel in the port of Klaipėda. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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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Getting around Klaipėda: cars, public transport

Klaipėda Old Town is very small and many of its streets are effectively pedestrianized. Therefore, it would not be logical to use any form of transport there. If you'd go to the New Town, however, the distances become somewhat larger and beyond that (Seaside Klaipėda and Soviet districts) a car or public transport is essential.

Klaipėda is a car-friendly city where traffic jams are rare. The parking is rather cheap and paid in the Old Town (higher rate), New Town (lower rate) and near the beaches in Seaside Klaipėda. Elsewhere, the parking is free.

The only comprehensible public transportation in Klaipėda are buses. Generally, they go to all the districts and many suburbs.

The only area of Klaipėda where the buses don't go is Smiltynė beyond the Curonian Lagoon. It can be reached only by a ferry from either the Old Town "Senoji perkėla" (passenger-only) or the Soviet Districts "Naujoji perkėla" (cars and passengers). In Smiltynė, it is advisable to either walk or use a bike; the distances may be long but the forest paths are generally pleasurable.

A passenger ferry ride from Smiltynė to the Klaipėda Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda cruise port: what to do

Klaipėda became a regular port for Baltic cruises, albeit not one of the most popular ones. Still, Klaipėda offers a large array of sights in or around it. There are several possible directions you could explore.

If you want to spend your day in Klaipėda sightseeing, here are the best ideas how to use your ~7 free hours in Klaipėda port. Pick one, as you won't have time to do several of them.

1.Traverse the Curonian Spit. Skip Klaipėda itself altogether and go to explore the Lithuania's (and maybe Eastern Baltic's) most famous natural sights, the "Lithuanian Sahara" of traveling sand dunes. It is possible to do on your own, as the passenger ferry to the Curonian Spit is frequent and it stops next to the main cruise port. Once on the Spit, there are hourly buses that traverse the entire peninsula. Key stops include the Nagliai Nature reserve (you need to ask the driver to let you off there), Juodkrantė resort and Nida resort with its breathtaking Parnidis dune. A short hike on dunes in Nagliai reserve and some time in Nida would likely be the best-spent time in the Curonian Spit, although to feel less time pressure you may also go directly to Nida and just spend several hours there. Nida is 50 km south of Klaipėda, so plan your time to get back accordingly.

2.Spend the day in Smiltynė. Smiltynė is the northernmost tip of the Curonian spit where the ferry from Klaipėda Old Town arrives. After crossing the lagoon by ferry (see above) you should not board any bus, but instead, explore the area on foot. Officially it is part in Klaipėda, though those forested shores seem a world apart. Smiltynė includes Klaipėda's best beaches, some old buildings and the Sea Museum with its dolphinarium (with regular dolphin shows), sea animal zoo and Lithuanian shipping exhibits. You may also watch modern ships coming and going into the Klaipėda port from the breakwater.

3.Explore Klaipėda on foot. Although the city has been ravaged by the Soviets with nearly all of its churches destroyed, the Old Town and 19th-century New Town are still picturesque. The city is unique as it has been developed by two cultures, its population consisting of Lithuanians and Germans for a long time. The key sights include the Theater Square, Castle remains and Tiltų street in the Old Town, as well as Liepų street in the 19th century New Town. More somber sights are the Museum of Lithuania Minor and the Soviet-destroyed Lutheran Cemetery, both testaments to how the Klaipėda of the old was destroyed in the Soviet genocide of the 1940s and repopulated by people from elsewhere. You may also shop at the Akropolis mall.

4.Go to Palanga. Take a walk from the ship to the Klaipėda bus station and take one of the every-15-minutes buses to Palanga, the Lithuania's "summer capital" and primary resort. There, you can visit not only the long sandy (often crowded) beaches, but also the Lithuania's top Amber museum with a collection of amber jewelry, pieces of amber with prehistoric animals/insects, and more. The museum is located in a former Tiškevičius family palace and surrounded by one of the Lithuania's prettiest parks. A walk to the end of the sea bridge is another must to the visitors of its resort, while architecture buffs may search for pretty wooden villas from the 19th-century era when count Tiškevičius has established the resort.

5.Explore the northern seaside of Klaipėda. First, go through the New Town to Klaipėda University. From there, you can take an hourly city bus (number 24) to the northern suburbs. In these suburbs, there are several resorts, such as the historic Giruliai resort which also has the remains of Nazi Germany defensive battery on the beach. The main natural landmark is the Olando Kepurė cliff near the northern end of the bus route.

Note: the suggestions there assume that your cruise ship would stop at the main cruise port in the Old Town Klaipėda. Some cruise ships dock further south.

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Entertainment and Recreation in Klaipėda

As a seaside city, Klaipėda has much of its entertainment related to the sea. Beaches are popular in summer, with the best ones in Smiltynė. Angling and other water activities are also popular at the Curonian Lagoon.

That said, being the Western Lithuania's largest city Klaipėda also offers many other types of fun. Nightlife is mostly located in or around Klaipėda Old Town.

Pleasure ships moored at castle anchorage in summer. Like every summer, travelling funfairs come to Lithuanian seaside ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda Old Town and its immediate surroundings also host the city's two theaters: musical theater and drama theater. Both perform in Lithuanian but the musical performances should be easier to understand for foreigners.

New entertainment buildings have been largely constructed in Southern Klaipėda and require a long walk, a drive or a bus ride from downtown. They include Akropolis mall (which hosts the Klaipėda's only modern cinema and ice rink) and Švyturys arena (the main venue for gala concerts and basketball games of local "Neptūnas" team).

Football games (team "Atlantas") are played at a stadium north of New Town.

For those preferring a calm stroll to active entertainment Seaside Klaipėda has the most to offer. Consisting of massive pine forests and shorelines with just a few buildings here and there it is among the best locations for walking and bike-riding in the entire urban Lithuania. Smiltynė neighborhood (accessible by ferry) also offers Dolphinarium shows, best enjoyed by kids.

A dolphin show in Klaipėda dolphinarium. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

All the Lithuanian seaside resorts are located less than 50 km from downtown Klaipėda. As such, in summer it may advisable to seek entertainment and recreation there. Palanga excels in its nightlife (at Basanavičiaus street), gigs and fun but it can get crowded. Neringa offers a much calmer, cleaner and somewhat more expensive fare of pretty landscapes, forests, and emptier beaches. Additionally, many weekends are festival weekends somewhere on the Lithuanian seaside.

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Festivals and Celebrations in Lithuanian Seaside

In summer the spotlight of all Lithuanian life moves to the Seaside. Klaipėda, Palanga, and the Curonian spit become the stages for many major events, celebrations and gigs.

Many summer weekends have a weekend-long annual celebration going on somewhere in the Seaside, with tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) inland dwellers attending and participating. Many events are sea-related (dedicated to shipping, fishing) but there are also modern musical festivals. Seeking to become a year-round resort Palanga has successfully established some festival weekends outside season.

Sea festival regatta in Klaipėda, one of many sea-related events. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A drawback is that many of these annual events lack a specified date meaning that every year they move in time a little. There are approximate dates however and you may Google up the exact weekend the year you visit. Moreover, pre-booking a hotel may be essential in some celebration weekends.

List of annual celebrations and events

These are just the more famous events. Additionally, every resort has a "Season opening" (May) and a "Season closure" (September) weekend. There are also many non-annual fests at the main venues or right on the beach. Among the more interesting venues is the Klaipėda Musical Ferry that offers concerts while sailing in the Lagoon.

Name Date Location Event
Palanga smelt holiday Mid-February weekend Palanga Entire Basanavičiaus high street is turned into a large open-air restaurant for smelts in this culinary/fishing holiday. If you prefer catching a smelt yourself, you may do so at the Sea Bridge where there are angling contests. Or you may swim in the cold sea yourself with a group of “health fanatics”.

The smelt holiday brings shards of summer lifestyle into deep winter with Palanga resort getting crowded, its visitors eating outdoors and some swimming in the sea. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Name Date Location Event
Ship parade and regatta Third Saturday of May Klaipėda The start of summer is marked by a parade of ships in the Curonian Lagoon and a massive firework. A regatta takes place the same day.
Benai, plaukiam į Nidą Final weekend of May Nida (Curonian Spit) The oldest summertime seaside musical festival in Lithuania (est. 1994) offers open-air concerts of different musical styles.
Lagoon region fisherman’s holiday (Pamario krašto žvejo šventė) Mid-July weekend Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit) Fishermen from all over the lagoon meet up in Juodkrantė showing off their livelihood/art to thousands of tourists and letting them taste traditional fish recipes. Now they may be a minority but before the 20th century, everybody in Juodkrantė used fishing for subsistence.
Thomas Mann festival Third week of July Nida (Curonian Spit) The Curonian Spit was ruled by Germany prior to World War 1 and even after becoming Lithuanian it used to be favored by German artists and writers. Thomas Mann spent a couple of summers there and the art festival named after him includes concerts and fairs held all over Nida.
1000 km race Late July weekend Palanga Lithuania’s prime road race attracts many international teams. There are few limitations: old stock cars, Lamborghinis, buggies, and formulas all drive the same circuit. Trackside events include concerts a line-up of racecars in central Palanga prior to the race. The circuit is established by secluding a part of a highway.

The cars line up next to Palanga main square for the annual 1000 km race (July). Spyker car is in the foreground. The race is followed by many publicity events and is well reported by the Lithuanian media. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Name Date Location Event
Nida Jazz marathon Final weekend of July Nida (Curonian Spit) A festival that brings international jazz to atmospheric spaces of Nida (old Lutheran church to a pier).
Sea Festival Late July-Early August (one weekend) Klaipėda The main festival of Klaipėda with its roots in 1934 when it was started to promote Lithuania as a naval country. Currently, it attracts hundreds of thousand people from all over Lithuania. There are concerts, parades, fireworks and other events typically located near the sea or the lagoon, while some key ceremonies are directly related to the sea.
Palanga Table (Palangos stalas) Late September weekend Palanga A long table spans across Basanavičiaus street full of various meals. A great emphasis is put on healthy foods in this culinary festival.
Autumn equinox September 20th-22nd Juodkrantė (Curonian Spit) In this ceremony hay sculptures (crafted by artists that Spring) are set on fire in Juodkrantė Bay, symbolizing the defeat of Pagan gods.