At the confluence of the Neris and Neman rivers, Kaunas has a picturesque location and a well-preserved Old Town. But alongside the cobblestone streets, grand church domes and a charming castle, the New Town of Lithuania’s second city is dotted with galleries, studenty drinking holes and co-working spaces abuzz with tech start-ups. Kaunas also has appealing Modernist flair, thanks to its angular interwar buildings.
While its tenure as European Capital of Culture for 2022 is a little way off, the city is preparing for the spotlight – so it’s perfect timing to explore Kaunas before the crowds get there.
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What to do
The main square of Kaunas’ Old Town is a marvel of historic architecture. Kauno rotuses aikste (Town Hall Square) is lined with houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the peachy-coloured Baroque Jesuit Church. The square’s focal point is the 53metre-high tower of the elegant town hall, which houses a museum of local history. Open 10am-6pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm Sunday, €2.50 (£2.10).
Just west of the town hall is the Maironis Lithuanian Literature Museum. This beautifully furnished space is devoted to one of Lithuania’s most famous poets – but whether or not you appreciate Maironis’s work, it’s worth a visit for the lavish, rococo styling and the city’s oldest vaults. Open 9am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday, €3.
Less than five minutes’ walk north of the main square is Kaunas Castle. Though only a third of it has survived various floods and reconstructions, this Gothic edifice is a great photo opp. The round tower is capped with a conical roof that resembles a witch’s hat; inside it hosts rotating art and culture exhibitions. Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm Sunday, €2.50.
Devilishly good museums
More than 3,000 diabolical figurines are amassed inside the Zmuidzinavicius Museum, aka the Devil’s Museum. Kaunas locals have art collector Antanas Zmuidzinavicius to thank for this Mephistophelean museum, which displays rough-hewn wooden devils and figures from recent history reimagined as Lucifer himself. Open 11am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday (until 7pm on Thursdays), €4.
The Devil’s Museum is operated by the multi-venue MK Ciurlionis National Museum of Art. The motherlode of masterpieces by celebrated Lithuanian symbolist artist Ciurlionis can be found opposite the Devil’s Museum on Putvinskio gatve in one of the largest and most venerable galleries in Lithuania. Step inside the forbidding, concrete MK Ciurlionis Museum of Art and be awed by light-flooded galleries hosting a huge collection of Ciurlionis’s dreamlike paintings. Open 11am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday (until 7pm on Thursdays), €5.
Roosting by the Kaunas Reservoir, this splendidly Baroque monastery, 10km east of the city, makes an inspiring half-day trip. The monastery survived looting in the First World War and conversion into a hospital under Soviet rule, and was finally restored in the 1990s. Pick a sunny day to stroll through the attractive gardens and peep inside the marbled, fresco-laden church. Open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Friday, 10am-4pm Saturday, €6.
Lithuania’s bleak Second World War history is essential to understanding Kaunas. When the city was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, massacres of Jewish people began very soon afterwards, including the infamous Kaunas pogrom. The Ninth Fort, a defensive building and former prison, was the site of some of Lithuania’s worst wartime atrocities. Today it houses the excellent Ninth Fort Museum, which lays bare this important history. It’s 7km north of the Old Town. Open 10am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday, €3.
Where to stay
Fairy lights, flag-bedecked walls, table football and the odd stray guitar... The Monk’s Bunk (+370 620 99695) is a classic backpacker den, designed to encourage mingling. All the essentials are in place – such as a shared kitchen and super-fast wifi – rooms are bright with pine bunk beds, and there’s bike rental available. It’s less than 10 minutes’ walk from New Town attractions such as the Devil’s Museum and St Michael the Archangel Church. Hostel beds from €12 or private rooms €54, bed/room only.
Also in the New Town, Hof Hotel has cosy, contemporary rooms with a whiff of retro style in their velvety curtains. You’ll wake up to a kaleidoscopic breakfast of salads, cheese platters, coarse rye bread and other traditional Lithuanian staples. Ample one- and two-bedroom apartments with small kitchenettes are also available. Doubles from €64, B&B.
Daugirdas revels in regal, old-world glamour. Inside a building whose bones date to the 16th century, each room at this Old Town hotel has classical style (wooden furnishings, neutral tones) along with amenities including air-con and minibar. The restaurant resides in the hotel’s frescoed cellars, giving you centuries of history to ponder over a plateful of duck breast or hot apple tart. Doubles from €75, B&B.
Where to eat
Kaunas’ favourite bakery is Motiejaus Kepyklėlė (+370 616 15599). Stop by in the morning for an omelette with freshly baked bread, a wedge of poppyseed cake and good coffee. Open 7.30am-8pm Monday to Friday, 8am-8pm Saturday, 9am-7pm Sunday.
For brunch or lunch in an agreeably contemporary setting, Vista Puode uses seasonal ingredients to drive a menu of modernised Lithuanian classics. Whether you’re here for a wooden platter of charcuterie and beer snacks, saltibarsciai (rosy-pink cold beetroot soup), or baked cheesecake, it’s all scrumptious and prettily presented. Open 8am-11pm daily.
A more rustic lunch choice is Medziotoju Uzeiga, styled like the most elegant of hunting lodges. This long-standing family restaurant (established 1965) is bedecked with mounted deer heads, hunting pistols and animal skins. The menu, too, follows the same theme: there are game dishes, such as deer stew and boar medallions with wine sauce, along with Lithuanian mainstays of herring and kepta duona (garlicky fried rye bread). Open 11am-midnight daily.
Moksha offers one of Kaunas’ most distinctive culinary experiences. Piquant tamarind fish, nourishing daal, original salads (such as broccoli and goji berry) and an abundance of vegan options are prepared reverently in this restful and irresistibly fragrant restaurant. Open 11am-10pm Monday to Friday, noon-10pm Saturday.
Where to drink
It’s never long before coffee aficionados in Kaunas find Green Cafe. Beyond the brews (35 different kinds), this simple, stylish place offers very good gateaux and pastries. Open 8am-9pm Monday to Friday, 10am-7pm Saturday and Sunday.
Bar Godo, with its bookish interior and inviting retro feel, is as good for craft beer as for cocktails. It’s a prime hangout for Kaunas’ artistic, guitar-toting set. Bar snacks of stuffed pancakes and dumplings sop up the effects of the bourbon cocktails. Open noon till late Monday to Friday, 1pm till late Saturday and Sunday.
Mix with a progressive-minded crowd of artists, students and revolution-inclined locals at Kultura, a satisfyingly rough-and-ready bar sharing the same outdoor terrace as the art gallery next door. Much like the conversation, views from the outdoor tables are more edgy than scenic, but bar staff are welcoming and there are occasional events to rattle the rafters. Open noon-1am daily.
Where to shop
To ogle juicy fruit and veg, and pick out a jar of honey or jam to take home, make for Kaunas’ Central Market. This indoor market is the biggest in Lithuania. Self-catering travellers can stock up on dairy, local meat and just-picked produce. If you’re eating on the hoof, it’s also a good spot to grab readymade food (look out for aguonu vyniotinis, poppyseed rolls). Open 7am-5.30pm Thursday, 7am-4pm Saturday, 7am-3pm Sunday.
For a more durable souvenir, amber has long had mythical associations in Lithuania. Pre-Christian legends describe the hardened resin as being the residue of tears from an ancient goddess. Look for the sign Suvenyrai-Dovanos on the Old Town’s main drag Vilniaus gatve for an entrancing range of amber jewellery and ornaments. Open 10am-6.30pm Monday to Saturday, 10am-5.30pm Sunday.
Right next door is Lino Namai, an emporium of crisply designed clothing, classy tablecloths and comforting bed linen. Lithuania prizes its quality linen and this outlet’s creations are authentic but exceedingly wearable. Open 10am-7pm Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm Saturday.
Wearing a crown of Gothic spires, the red-brick House of Perkunas has metamorphosed from late 15th-century merchant house to a theatre school and literary hub. Open 10am-5pm Monday to Friday, €2 ($2.20).
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
Lithuania adopted the euro in 2015.
What language do they speak?
Lithuanian, but English is widely spoken (and to a high standard, particularly among the under-35s).
Should I tip?
Add 10 per cent to the bill in restaurants (but check that a service charge hasn’t already been included). There might be a tip jar in cafes and bars, but tips aren’t expected. Taxi drivers and hotel staff generally don’t expect tips.
What’s the time difference?
Lithuania is two hours ahead of the UK and seven hours ahead of the US east coast.
What’s the average flight time?
Ryanair and Wizz Air flights link London and Kaunas in two hours and 40 minutes.
Lot flies from Newark to Vilnius or Kaunas via Warsaw in 10h 45m+.
The Old Town is easy to ramble through, though there are trolleybuses and buses for destinations further across town (buy paper tickets from newspaper stands or get a contactless card and load it with credit). Bus 29 connects the centre of town with the airport.
On the south bank of the Neman, hike up to Aleksotas Observation Deck or catch the funicular: the view across the river to Kaunas’ spires and ochre rooftops is inspiring.
An ever-evolving street-art scene gives colourful expression to Kaunas’ present and past. Portraits of bygone Kaunas residents are presented at the open-air Yard Gallery (E Ozeskienes gatve 21A) but the city’s favourite mural is a huge pipe-puffing portrait of artist Jurgis Maciunas, on a factory building at Jonavos gatve 3.
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