Kaunas is Lithuania's second-largest city, as well as a university town and a center for industry. Before World War II, Kaunas was the national capital. It is 55 mi/85 km west of Vilnius, which was then part of Poland.
Like many cities in the region, Kaunas is divided into an Old Town and New Town. The major sights can be seen on foot. Visitors should begin in Rotuses Square in the Old Town, walk up Vilkiaus Street to the New Town pedestrian street, Laisves Aleja (Freedom Boulevard), and continue to St. Michael's, an Orthodox church that was turned into a museum of stained glass by the Soviets.
Rotuses Square, in the Old Town, is dominated by the white, five-story Town Hall with its graceful steeple. The building looks like a church and is so elegant that townspeople call it the White Swan. Also in the Old Town are the Gothic Church of St. George and the nearby 11th-century Kaunas Castle, which contains a history museum. Two other churches of note include the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica (the largest Gothic building in Lithuania) and the Holy Virgin Mary of the Assumption Church (the oldest brick building in the city, built in 1399). Vilniaus gatve is the prettiest street in the Old Town and makes for a pleasant stroll.
Laisves Aleja, in the New Town, is lined with stores, restaurants and cafes. Also on the street is a small park in front of the Music Theater. The park, now a national shrine, is where the young Lithuanian student Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in 1972 to protest the Soviet occupation. People often leave flowers at the site.
Other New Town sites include the Devil's Museum, containing 800 folk-art depictions of Beelzebub, including Hitler and Stalin, and the M.K. Ciurlionis National Museum of Art, a wonderful collection of the artist's work. Nearby, a row of traditional wooden crosses and busts of famous Lithuanians leads to the Freedom Monument. The monument disappeared during the Stalin years and was only rediscovered in 1989.
Just outside town is the Pazaislis Monastery and Church, a baroque Venetian edifice with rich decoration and frescoes. Also out of town—but considerably more somber in atmosphere—is the Ninth Fort, where 80,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis.
The Open Air Museum of Lithuania in the village of Rumsiskes, east of Kaunas, should not be missed. It showcases dwelling houses, farmstead buildings and folk-art monuments transferred from all ethnographic regions of the country in a beautiful location near the Kaunas Marios (man-made sea).
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