How to spend a weekend in Kaunas, Lithuania's vibrant central city
A city with tangible history, old town charm and a booming local arts scene, the city of Kaunas is putting itself firmly on the international map in 2022.
There’s much to be said for taking a turn in the spotlight. Ever since it was launched as a concept in 1985, the role of European Capital of Culture has enabled more than 60 cities to showcase their history, food, art, music, theatre and all-round brilliance to the entire continent. In 2022, the Lithuanian city of Kaunas joins this group, crowning what is already proving to be a fabulous year of celebration in the city.
However, Kaunas was an intriguing travel option long before 2022. The second biggest city in the southernmost Baltic state, it has stood at the heart of Lithuania, on the Nemunas and Neris rivers, for more than a millennium. The lanes of its Old Town proudly retain their medieval heritage and the castle dates to the 14th-century - but Kaunas doesn’t linger in the past. In recent years, the city has developed a distinctive modern and creative identity.
A two-and-a-half-hour flight from the UK, Kaunas is a refreshing weekend destination for British travellers looking for a new city to explore, whether they want to dine well in the restaurants on Laisves Aleja, admire the region’s unique interwar modernist architecture, or simply revel in the vibrancy of what, since 2015, has been a UNESCO City of Design. You're sure to find yourself feeling the sense of marvel and discovery that locals here have coined simply 'kaunastic'.
Kaunas' Old Town features cafes, castles and the Cathedral-Basilica, an architectural jewel not to be missed. Its construction is a prime example of Eclecticism, with its Gothic design taking on elements of Renaissance, Baroque and Neogothic styles over the years.
Day one: enjoy Old Town charm
Start your day by jumping onto the Aleksotas Funicular, an elegant antique that's been whisking passengers up to the top of Aleksotas Hill since 1935. Enjoy panoramic views and a unique perspective of Kaunas’s Old Town before heading down to lose yourself in its cobbled streets and cosy cafes. Top off the morning with a tour of Kaunas Castle, a feast of red brick, with a lone surviving tower standing as a symbol of its former strength.
Pause for lunch at Kaunas’s oldest restaurant, Medziotoju Uzeiga (Hunter’s Inn), which serves a range of hearty stews and fresh fish from a prime position in the Town Hall Square. Once fed, soak up some culture at the M.K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum, which salutes the eponymous Lithuanian painter and is currently hosting a compelling exhibition by famed contemporary artist William Kentridge. Or, head to the Architecture Centre at the Former Central Post in Laisves Aleja, where European Capital of Culture exhibitions such as "1972: Breaking through the wall" provide a glimpse into the darker days of Kaunas' history.
Find a huge range of fine dining opportunities on Laisves Aleja, or sample local craft beer at the likes of Genys Taproom, Laukas, Nuogas or Vingių Dubingių.
Day two: dive into history
Kaunas is the perfect place to delve deep into the history of Lithuania, the first country to break free from the Soviet Union. A simple six-mile drive (or Bolt journey) to the east of the centre, the Pazaislis Monastery is a 17th-century wonder, perched on the shore of Kaunas Lagoon. The sandy beaches on the church’s doorstep, arguably the city’s prettiest water feature, offer opportunities for swimming and boating.
Dive into a darker side of Kaunas’s past at the Ninth Fort, a prison and labour camp during the Soviet and Nazi occupations, with some harsh tales to tell. East of the centre, Sugihara House is named after heroic Japanese vice-consul Chiune Sugihara, who issued travel visas for Jewish families escaping the Holocaust.
Depending on who’s in town, catch a show at the Zalgiris Arena, the largest venue in the Baltics. This 20,000-capacity arena has hosted gigs by the likes of Muse, Elton John and Sting.
The Pazaislis Monastery is also an award-winning film location - recently appearing in the TV series Catherine The Great, starring Helen Mirren.
Day three: explore art and architecture
Kaunas witnessed a huge boom in art deco construction between the two world wars. The Art Deco Museum compellingly dissects the art, furniture and spirit of this time. Elsewhere in the city, as you wander between stops, look out for Kaunas’s impressive street art, with the Wise Old Man mural by the castle a notable example of this. Use the Wallographer’s Notes map to navigate between works, or head to the Yard Gallery to view community street art projects.
Dip into another superb art museum. Kaunas Picture Gallery is running an exhibition by performance artist Marina Abramovic until 31 July, after which the Learning Garden of Freedom – a giant retrospective exhibition by Yoko Ono – will run from 9 September until 4 Dec 2022.
Return to Town Hall Square for one of the many open-air concerts and events taking place throughout the summer months.
As the 2016 UNESCO City of Design, Kaunas has a host of art and design experiences to enjoy, from interwar modernist architecture to contemporary street art.
Plan your trip
You can fly direct to Kaunas from the UK - via Ryanair (ryanair.com; from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted) and Wizz Air (wizzair.com; Luton). In the city, taxis (including Bolt), bicycles and e-scooters are plentiful and the centre can easily be explored on foot.
For more information, visit visit.kaunas.lt/en
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