Kaunas will surprise even the most discerning traveller. The first surprise we got was realising we had packed with the wrong temperature in mind. Stepping off the plane late at night we were met with a balmy seventeen degrees and the weather stayed hot and sunny throughout the next three days. Thank you Lithuania! We were also surprised to learn that practically everyone speaks English, so no worries about trying to grapple with Lithuanian (one of the oldest languages in the world!) and everyone is welcoming and friendly.
Walking through history
The best way to explore this charming city is by foot and there are a number of highlights that are best visited on a walking tour. Kaunas has a fascinating history and a tour gets you the inside track from local guides who are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about their hometown. Highlights include the funicular and your guide can get you access to see the 100-year-old inner workings at the end of the line. Another is the inspiring community art space tucked away in the courtyard of a small residential complex that you would otherwise pass by. You will walk through the city’s timeline from its medieval origins to Tsarist military fortress in the middle of the nineteenth century through brutal Nazi occupation and Soviet rule during and after WWII. The architecture alone tells this story and it’s one of the greenest cities you’ll ever find. Pagan beliefs in the gods of the natural world are still very much part of Lithuanian culture and the city’s abundance of old trees are testament to that. The linden tree-lined Avenue of Freedom (Laisvės Alėja) stretches for nearly two kilometres from the impressive Byzantine-style Church, built by Tsar Alexander II, right into the heart of the Old Town. This route is a pleasure to walk as it is completely free of traffic and there are plenty of cafes (try Spurginė for the outstanding donuts) and lovely public parks to take a little rest in.
If you haven’t overdone it with the donuts then head for lunch at Monte Pacis Hotel and Restaurant. Set inside the complex of the Pažaislis Monastery, Monte Pacis is a treat for the senses. Located only a ten-minute drive outside the city centre, it’s an oasis of peace and tranquility and can be reached either by taxi or the number 9 and 12 trolleybus. Still a working monastery, the grounds are filled with fruit trees that are tended by the nuns in residence and the on-site restaurant is supplied with the freshest produce right on its doorstep. The restaurant’s décor and ambience is exquisitely well matched to its surroundings and feels like a natural extension of the monastery. Every effort is made by the restaurant owners to maintain the respect and gravitas that should rightly be afforded to this seventeenth century gem. Blessed wines are bought in from monastic vineyards around Europe and are paired expertly to each of the four or six-course tasting menus by professional sommeliers. The food itself is delectable and presented beautifully and might just be the most superb fine-dining experience I’ve ever had!
After lunch we headed back into the old town to visit the Lithuanian Folk Music Museum which is housed in beautifully restored 16th century buildings. This hidden gem is an innovative and entertaining museum that uses interactive technology to showcase Lithuania’s folk music and lets visitors get hands-on experience playing unique indigenous instruments. From climbing pan-pipe musical stairs to engaging in group folk-song-karaoke this place is fun for all ages and you will definitely learn a thing or two! The ladies who run the museum are extremely helpful and only too delighted to explain how the instruments work and how to use the excellent digital interfaces. We made a good effort playing clay whistles, a huge herdsmen’s trumpet and a beautiful guitar-like instrument called a kanklés and of course we thought we sounded fantastic – don’t know if the museum staff would agree though!
Nordic Nosh in Uoksas
Playing all that music certainly builds up your appetite and we were ready for our next meal. We headed to Uoksas and were immediately impressed with the friendliness of the staff and the modern Nordic-style décor. We quickly tucked into the fresh traditional bread with herby burnt butter while we perused the extensive wine list. We decided to trust our server with the wine pairings for each of the five courses and she didn’t disappoint. Each course affirmed the chef’s dedication to local, seasonal produce that he uses to create innovative variations on traditional Baltic dishes. Delicious combinations like beef and pistachio, cabbage slow cooked in hay, roe and duck egg were all new to us and we demolished every morsel! The dramatics of dessert topped the evening off with a deconstructed Lithuanian honey cake revealed in a swirl of liquid nitrogen. You also have to get the specialty coffee, slow filtered and worth the wait!
Positively stuffed and grinning ear to ear we slowly, very slowly, walked back to our hotel to plan the next day. The Park Inn by Radisson is only a ten minute walk from the restaurant which is perfect for an easy stroll after dinner. The ground level bar with floor to ceiling windows and big couches is a great way to relax with a beer and a look at the map. If you’re feeling lucky you can take a spin into the on-site 24-hr casino. However, the thoughts of the lovely hot shower and large, comfy bed awaiting you upstairs might change your mind!
The next morning we were ready to eat again and dived into the huge breakfast (straight to the hot buffet) in the hotel’s stylish dining room. Everything is on offer here including delicious cold meats and cheeses as well as a healthy array of fruit and cereals. Fed and happy, we headed out and took a bus instead of walking and got off near the Old Town. The bus service is fast, frequent and cheap with real time information displayed at the bus stops. Cycling is easy and accessible too with plenty of city bikes for rent at convenient locations around the city, look out for the orange City Bee bikes. Either way you’ll find your way to the many interesting sites of Kaunas, some of which are handily close to each other.
The Devil's in the detail
The Devil’s Museum was our first stop and you could easily spend an hour here alone. It’s an amazing collection of, you guessed it, devils! Devils from nearly every country and from centuries past, this is the only collection of its kind in the world with a staggering array of figurines, sculptures, and crazy looking carvings of devils along with folklore and fairy tales to go with them. At only €3 and only a short walk from the Old Town you’d be mad to miss this museum.
Across the street you can’t miss the National M. K. Ciurlionis Art Museum dedicated to the pride of Lithuania, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, one of the pioneers of abstract art in Europe and also a prolific composer and poet. His paintings are truly out of this world, you find yourself lingering over some of them for longer than you’d expect - simply mesmerising. We certainly had never heard of him before but now we have a new favourite!
Tequila and tacos
Feeling fully cultured and inspired we decided to try something different for lunch and headed to Agave in the Old Town square. We weren’t expecting to find the best Mexican Restaurant we have ever been to, in Lithuania, but we did and it will be hard to beat! It has tables outside to admire the square and enjoy the sun but we headed downstairs into the cozy red brick basement that is reminiscent of the colonial buildings from Rodrigo’s Mexican roots. Rodrigo is the chef and owner and his meticulous attention to detail from the décor to the food matches his passion and pride in his nation’s cuisine. The bright and colourful bar has over 90 different authentic tequilas which Rodrigo uses in his cooking and his excellent margaritas. Get stuck into the Tacos Yucatecos (no need for knives and forks), you’ve got to try the drunk chicken (slow cooked for hours until it falls off the bone), and his desserts are to die for!
If you don’t spend the rest of your day drinking magnificent margaritas, which we were very tempted to do, make your way to Kaunas Castle. Kaunas’ restored medieval castle is ideally positioned near the confluence of the rivers Nemunas and Neris. It’s a beautiful redbrick fairy tale building and the green spaces around it lead right down to the river bank, ideal for a picnic. It houses a museum of medieval artefacts from its basement right up to the top of the round tower where there is a great view from the balcony. The basement has a holographic medieval knight you can interact with and you can put yourself in the stocks to get a flavour of some medieval punishment! If you happen to travel here during the Kaunas Hanseatic Days Festival, as we did, this is the centre of activity with tons of market stalls, real-life sword battles between knights in full garb, medieval song and dance and handcraft workshops. You can try your hand at archery and then get ready for an evening’s entertainment of folk metal and fireworks along with fine craft beers and barbequed meats galore.
Traditional Lithuanian cuisine
We were sad to realise we’d be spending our final few hours in Kaunas and opted for a more traditional last meal. Vista Puode (“The Hen in the Pot”) is the creation of husband and wife team Greta and Egidijus who took inspiration from their childhood, spent in their grandparents’ homes in the countryside. It’s seasonal, local, home-cooked food given a modern twist without losing any of its authenticity. You can sit outside under the linden trees or enjoy the bright, spacious interior laid out in three different areas all decorated in pastel shades with fruit and vegetable murals on the wall. The food is delicious and you can come here for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Give yourself two days in Kaunas so you can explore the city at a relaxed pace. It has a really chilled out vibe and you should follow suit. We will definitely go back to try all that delicious food again and explore a little bit more.
More Adventures Below