Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, holds many surprises even for experienced travellers.
If you’re looking for a new destination to discover in Europe, put Kaunas on your list.
Kaunas has unique museums, fascinating architecture, excellent street art and a bright future as the 2022 European Capital of Culture.
After visiting Estonia and Latvia a couple of years ago, I had one more Baltic country left to see.
Lithuania looked gorgeous in all the tourism brochures and I decided to spend the better part of a month in the country.
Kaunas was my first stop and Vilnius, the capital, was the second (read about Vilnius here).
First Impressions of Kaunas
My first impression was that the city was pretty and quiet.
Even the main street in the Old Town on a Friday evening, where the cafes and restaurants were full of people, just felt lively, but not crowded.
That was very refreshing.
There’s an authentic feeling in Kaunas that I liked a lot.
It seems that in a couple of years tourists will be flocking to Kaunas. As one of the 2022 European Capitals of Culture, the city is going to grow in popularity very soon.
It’s nice to discover a city while it’s still an “off the beaten path” destination, and just before it becomes touristy.
How Long to Stay in Kaunas
Kaunas is ideal as a European city break destination.
You can see it in about 3 days. That’s enough for essential sightseeing in Kaunas.
I’ve heard from other tourists I met that they only came for one day. I think that’s not quite enough to enjoy the place, though it’s doable with a tight itinerary.
If you have time and prefer slow travel like me, you can stay a bit longer, get to know the place and see the different sides of the city.
I chose to stay longer, took guided tours and went on some day trips from Kaunas as well.
There are many reasons to visit Kaunas. Here are the highlights and the most interesting things to do and see in Kaunas:
Walk Around The Old Town
I think the best place to start your visit to Kaunas is in its pretty Old Town.
With its cobblestone streets, galleries, cafes and old, colourful houses, the Old Town certainly has its charm.
During the day, you can visit the City Museum in the Town Hall, the Kaunas Castle, various churches and many small galleries and design shops.
In the evening the main street of the Old Town, Vilniaus Gatve, is really lively with plenty of bars and restaurants and a great vibe.
Visit Kaunas Castle
On the sightseeing list in any visit to Kaunas, the 14th century castle by the river played an important historical role in defending Lithuania from the Crusaders.
These days, only part of the original castle is left and has been restored.
It has a museum with permanent and temporary exhibitions you can visit to get a taste of the history of the place.
Be prepared to meet a knight when you go downstairs. Also, you just might meet a ghost, or so I’ve been told 😉
Appreciate the Modernist Architecture of Kaunas
One of the things Kaunas is known for is its architecture.
Between the first and second world wars, for almost two decades, Kaunas was the temporary capital of Lithuania.
Vilnius, the official capital, was under Polish rule during that time.
This new status meant that the small town needed to grow and transform itself quickly.
It needed a lot of new buildings, both public and residential, and those were in the styles that were trendy in Europe at the time.
That’s how Kaunas became an open air museum of modernist architecture. It is one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Design and its modernist architecture may be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in future.
When you walk around Kaunas these days, you’ll see that some of these modernist buildings have been renovated or at least re-painted and they look wonderful.
Others are yet to be renovated, but are still interesting to look at.
The unique architecture you can find in Kaunas was one of the reasons I decided to visit it.
Kaunas Tourism kindly assigned to me a tour guide who’s a specialist in the history of architecture in the city (amongst other things).
My guide, Dalia Leonavičienė, took me to see some of the most prominent modernist buildings in Kaunas.
V. Putvinskio street in the city centre, not far from the main street, Freedom Avenue, is where we spotted an impressive number of interesting buildings.
The styles range from Art Nouveau to Art Deco and Bauhaus, but are all very clearly the local version of these styles.
Many buildings were built in the functional Art Deco style, with a focus on practical buildings rather than overly decorated ones.
You’ll see a lot of clean, vertical line, alongside curved balconies and here and there some hints of floral decorations.
You’ll notice many buildings around Kaunas with the European Heritage Label on them. These are buildings with some historic and cultural significance.
Find out more about architecture in Kaunas
Kaunas Tourism produces a beautiful illustrated map called Modernist’s Guide that you can pick up at the tourist information centres in Kaunas.
For those who want to dig deeper: The transformation of Kaunas into an elegant European capital was documented in a book called Architecture of Optimism: The Kaunas Phenomenon 1918-1940.
Be Astounded by the Resurrection Church
It is unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.
A prime example of modernist architecture, this beautiful Art Deco church has a unique design and an interesting history.
The bright white building with the clean vertical lines are very impressive to look at and you can see the church from many parts of Kaunas.
As you get closer, you notice more details and you can go inside to view the interior which retains the same style down to the painted glass windows.
The story of this church is fascinating.
During the Nazi occupation, the authorities used the building as a storeroom.
Later , the Soviets forced its architect to convert the interior into a TV and radio factory.
In the post-Soviet era, from the 1990s up until today, the rehabilitation project of the church has been going on gradually and steadily.
Take the elevator to the roof for a panoramic view of Kaunas. You can see both the new town and the old town from there. It will also give you a sense of how green the city is.
Enjoy the Brilliant Street Art in Kaunas
There’s a lot of brilliant street art in Kaunas 🙂
I’m going to give you just a small taste of the marvellous street art you can find around Kaunas, because I’ll soon publish another blog post all about street art in Kaunas. Sign up to my mailing list to get updates about new posts.
The Wise Old Man
The famous mural of artist Jurgis Mačiūnas, a surreal painting of him with a pipe, is one of the more famous pierces of street art in Kaunas.
Jurgis Mačiūnas was a Lithuanian artist who founded the experimental art movement Fluxus in the 1960s.
The mural is on 3 Janovas Street and you’ll see it clearly above a parking lot when you exit Kaunas Castle.
The Yard Gallery
An initiative by artist Vytenis Jakas turned a residential courtyard in the centre of Kaunas into a street art heaven.
When you walk around the yard, you’ll find creative art pieces in every corner an on every wall.
Take your time exploring this place, but do bear in mind that people actually live there, so be considerate.
The Pink Elephant
This massive, Instagrammable pink elephant is a piece of street art you cannot miss on E. Ožeškienės street, not far from the Yard Gallery.
It is very unlikely to pass by it without stopping and smiling.
Then of course you’ll have to wait your turn to take a selfie with it, because it’s a petty popular spot for selfies..
You’ll find more street art in the beautiful illustrated map produced by Kaunas Tourism.
See the Town Hall and Kaunas City Museum
In a large square in the Old Town, which used to be the market square, stands a tall, white building. This is the historic Town Hall.
It’s been preserved over the years and today serves as both the city hall and a museum that’s worth a visit.
The Kaunas City Museum is the place to learn about the history of Kaunas through photos, films, maps, archaeological findings and more.
Go down the very narrow stairs four metres underground to see the temporary exhibition and a creepy room that used to be the city’s prison cell.
The Tourist Information Centre in the Town Hall
Just before you leave the Town Hall, make sure you visit the Tourist Information Centre located near the entrance.
They have a wonderful series of illustrated maps that are really well done and made me wish every city would have maps like that.
The maps cover every interesting aspect of the city with the right amount of detail and are super useful.
They all have English and Lithuanian versions and some have versions in more languages.
Discover the 2022 European Capital of Culture
In 2022 Kaunas is going to host no less than 300 international art events.
It was selected to be the 2022 European Capital of Culture and the preparations for 2022 are already underway with a variety of projects.
They focus on many different areas, from collecting residents’ memories to integrating the international community in the city.
I got to meet with some members of the team who are in charge of the preparations.
My feeling was that they are very keen on involving the public in the artistic and cultural projects.
It means that the projects are mostly created by and with the participation of the local community.
That gives them a feeling of authenticity. I think it’s ideal for a city that isn’t too big, but isn’t small either.
These initiatives have met with a positive attitude from residents, who are happy to collaborate.
You can see the full 2022 program here. Here are two examples of projects that I found very interesting:
The Memory Office
One of the most impressive projects is the Memory Office. Everyone is invited to share their memories from Kaunas and those are collected, mapped and presented online and in a series of postcards.
I did a self guided audiovisual walk based on a route created as part of this project, called The Spirit’s Guide to the Old City.
It’s a very interesting concept where you download the guide and let the spirit of a person who lived in Kaunas take you around the old town.
In a soft and only slightly creepy voice, she tells you stories about the streets, the houses and the people who lived in them.
It takes just over an hour to listen to the entire recording, but completing the tour took me longer.
That’s because it encourages you to stop and look around, explore and contemplate and can be quite thought provoking.
It makes you look at the streets and buildings in a new way.
The Mythical Beast of Kaunas
This brilliant story-telling project took me by surprise: It invites everyone to make up fictional stories, fairy tails and legends about the city.
These stories will be used in many different ways.
They’ll be used to publish a children’s book, to invite artists to make art based on stories and even to create an augmented reality tourist route around Kaunas .
Freak Out at the Devil’s Museum
This museum is peculiar, verging on bizarre, and it is just fascinating!
No surprise it’s a very popular place to visit in Kaunas.
True to its name, this is an entire museum about the devil. It features a huge collection of devils from around the world spread over three floors.
The first two floors display the devil in Lithuania. Texts in English give you essential context about Lithuanian folklore, beliefs, stories and legends and more.
That’s how I found out that the devil invented vodka 😉
The devil appears in many forms and on anything from sculptures, pictures and masks to coffee sets, mugs and pipes.
On the top floor you can learn about devils in different countries and cultures around the world, their myths and fairy tales. The range of styles is pretty amazing.
Make Some Noise at the Folk Music Museum
I really love musical instrument exhibitions. I’ve already been to a few of them, in Málaga, London and Brussels, so it was a joy to find one in Kaunas too.
The Museum of Lithuanian Folk Instruments in the Old Town is one of the Kaunas attractions that you shouldn’t miss, especially if you love culture and entertainment.
It’s an interactive museum, where you can play many of the instruments yourself and listen to recordings.
A large part of the exhibition is dedicated to the kanklés, a traditional Lithuanian string instrument with a bright, clear sound.
You can see how it’s developed over the years and play it yourself.
Another room on the second floor of the museum has folk wind instruments from Lithuania, from clay whistles to ancient trumpets.
Experience Riding the Kaunas Funiculars
The two old funiculars in Kaunas are still in use and I recommend you ride both of them for the unique experience.
The first one is Žaliakalnis Funicular which takes you up to the Resurrection Basilica.
You enter a carriage that looks a bit like it was taken from an old movie, and it starts running mysteriously without a driver.
When one carriage goes up, another one goes down.
When you reach the top, you’ll see the man who’s in charge of operating the carriages from a small control room.
The second funicular is Aleksotas Funicular. It goes up a green hill by the river.
When you reach the top you’ll see the river and the whole Old Town from above.
It’s a beautiful view with all the red roof tops, the water and the trees.
These funiculars are tow of the oldest in the world that are still running.
Thanks to the high quality of these Swiss built funiculars, the original mechanics of both are still in use since the 1930 (!)
Discover Sugihara House
This private museum is dedicated to the unbelievable story of Chiune Sugihara.
Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who single-handedly, by bending some rules, managed to save about 6,000 Jews during WWII.
His position as vice consul allowed him to grant transit visas to Japan.
He used it generously when thousands of Jews lined up outside his house asking him to help them escape from Europe.
Once in Japan, they moved on to different places where they could find shelter.
Though Sugihara was not officially allowed to issue so many visas, he ignored the rules, wishing to save as many people as possible.
This defiance later cost him his job and he became a “persona non grata” in Japan. A movie by that name was made about him.
The museum has a short documentary film that introduces you to this remarkable story.
After watching the film, you can view the impressive collection of photos and documents, all with clear explanations in English.
You can also visit more places around the city that have a connection to Sugihara, using this illustrated map.
Enjoy Santaka Park
Right next to Kaunas Castle is a large green park that’s perfect for some relaxation time.
Santaka means confluence, and the park is right next to the confluence of the Nemunas and the Neris rivers.
This special location turned it into a pagan place of worship.
Lithuania was pagan in the days before Christianity and many of the old traditions remained in place, even after the country became Catholic.
Today you can still see the altar of the pagan rituals.
See the Kaunas Photography Gallery
A lovely photography gallery in the Old Town, close to the Town Hall that’s well worth a visit.
It runs temporary exhibitions is a spacious white hall and also has a small bookshop with some interesting titles.
Visit the Design Shops in Kaunas
The Old Town of Kaunas is full of local design shops that I really enjoyed exploring.
Local crafts, such as ceramics, are popular there, as well as linen clothing and accessories and amber jewellery.
The souvenir shops of the Old Town have a lot of hand made items on display, which makes them much more interesting than standard souvenir shops.
I recommend you go to M. Valančiaus Street in the Old Town, a small street close to the Town Hall, for some fancy fashion boutiques and galleries.
Explore the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art
M. K. Čiurlionis is a was a multi-talented artist, known primarily as a painter and musician.
If you like late 19th century art, I recommend you see the permanent exhibition of paintings by Čiurlionis. His work mixes the various artistic styles of that era in an original and innovative way.
The museum is housed in a beautiful Art Deco building, another example of the unique interwar architecture in Kaunas.
The museum has permanent and temporary exhibitions, as well as a concert hall and a nice museum gift shop.
Visit Kaunas Lagoon and Pazaislis Monastery
A short drive from the city centre, Kaunas has its own lagoon – a beautiful artificial lake, ideal for a relaxed boat trip.
We took a boat trip with Party Cruiser around the Kaunas Reservoir.
We got off the boat where you can do a 1.6km trail in the woods.
The lagoon is close to Pažaislis Monastery. It was closed when we visited unfortunately, so we could only see it from the water.
If you visit when it’s open, you’ll get to see some Italian Baroque architecture and frescoes at this cultural monument.
Explore the Open Air Museum in Rumšiškės
Just outside of the city there’s a massive ethnographic open air museum.
It’s so large you can easily spend half a day or more there.
A museum of this size requires some guidance. We took a tour with our guide, Linas Daubaras, who drove us from Kaunas to the museum.
We entered the museum with the car, because it was a hot day.
You can also walk, but due to the size of the place and the distances, I think it’s easier to drive into the museum.
This way you can stop the car wherever you like and get off to have a look at interesting houses.
Houses and buildings from different parts of the county were brought to this huge park to demonstrate how people used to live in previous centuries.
You can enter some of the houses and see the interior, which was fascinating.
Our guide explained what each room was used for and gave us the some context that was essential to understand what we were looking at.
So for instance, we saw a model of what used to be a typical Jewish house, and we saw the difference between how rich and poor people used to live.
Relax at the Birštonas Resort
Very close to Kaunas there’s a charming little spa town called Birštonas.
It is known for its healing mineral water and it’s a great place to visit during your trip to Kaunas.
I spent a weekend there and had a wonderful time. Read all about it here.
Take a Walk Along the Rivers
As Kaunas is at the confluence of two rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, there are plenty of places where you can take a leisurely walk or bicycle ride by the water.
During my visit there was a heatwave and it was really nice to take a stroll by the river and cool down.
Where to stay in Kaunas
Kaunas is not too large and a it’s a walkable city, so you’ll be able to see most of its attractions on foot.
Depending on how long you’re going to stay in the city, there are three options as to the best places to stay in Kaunas:
1 – Stay in the Old Town
I chose to stay in the Old Town when I first arrived in Kaunas. It’s close to many of the main attractions and it’s so pretty over there.
The Airbnb apartment I stayed in was at a perfect location just around the corner from the Town Hall and a couple of minutes from the Castle.
2 – Stay near the bus and train stations
Just before leaving the city to move on to Vilnius, I got another Airbnb apartment literally across the street from the central bus station. The train station is a short walk from there.
The location is very convenient, especially if you’d like to explore more places in Lithuania, and the apartment is modern and beautifully designed.
3 – On the main avenue in the new town
Freedom Avenue (Laisvės alėja) is the main street in the centre of Kaunas.
Staying there, you’ll be close to many attractions in the new town. As the city is walkable, the Old Town is just a short walk from there.
Some of the top-rated hotels around Freedom Avenue include:
🏨 Hotel Kaunas – A 4-star hotel with an indoor pool and free breakfast.
🏨 Hotel Metropolis – Located in a historic building just off Freedom Avenue.
🏨 Hof Hotel – In an excellent location a couple of minutes form Freedom Avenue.
How to Find Out More about Kaunas
The Kaunas tourism board has a comprehensive, user-friendly website.
They also produce a series of beautiful illustrated maps covering different themes, from street art to Jewish heritage.
You can pick up the maps and guides at the tourist information centre in the Town Hall, at Kaunas Airport or at the central bus station.
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I’d like to thank Kaunas Tourism for inviting me to explore the city. All opinions are my own.