A few weeks ago the husband, kiddo and I got the chance to spend a long lovely weekend in Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas. It wasn’t our first time there, but it was the first time the husband has been invited by the City of Kaunas to give a live drawing performance at the Scandinavian Days week. Pretty neat.
The kiddo also turned 3 during the very warm and sunny weekend, so many a happy memory was made. It left me thinking just how Kaunas has grown on me over the almost three years we’ve lived in this country. Going back just feels good every time, and I think I’m finally able to pinpoint some reasons why. Here goes:
It’s uniquely Kaunas
I know, kind of an obvious thing to say, but hear me out: I live in Vilnius, a city that primarily brands itself as the capital of Lithuania and likes to represent itself through very grand and, dare I say it, generic national symbolism. There are many wonderful things to be said about Vilnius, but what I continue to find oddly absent here is a stronger, more tangible sense of localism. Like, what does Vilnius want to say about itself as Vilnius?
Kaunas on the other hand is, or at least appears to be, celebrating its own stories, people and places in a more site-specific manner, without erasing their grittier parts. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say whether it’s all just a clever city branding strategy connected with the city’s role as the European Capital of Culture 2022 or reflective of the actual identities of local people, but I will admit that I buy into it 100%, the hipster tourist that I am. When in Kaunas, I truly feel I am in Kaunas and nowhere else.
It has superb modernist architecture
Speaking of localism, Kaunas is my other favorite small city in the world for architecture (the other one is Salem MA, thank you for asking). I’m a sucker for modernism and Art Deco and boy, do those two come in plenty here. Combining European and national influences, the bulk of Kaunas’ modernist architecture was built between 1920’s and 1940’s to bolster the city’s power as the temporary capital of Lithuania. Today the city center is tentatively listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The only thing that could possibly make it more noir is if everyone around was wearing trench coats and fedoras and smoking long cigarettes — one can dream.
The street art is legit
Kaunas may not be the next Berlin or London when it comes to street art, but that would be setting up an unfair standard anyway. The truth is that it has a lovely street art scene in its own right. The most famous example is the Courtyard Gallery (pictured below), a communal art project that has taken over one city center courtyard over the past several years, but quirky and colorful pieces can be found all over town. Nice for kids and grown-ups alike.
It’s (relatively) kid-friendly
Right, so no part of Lithuania, except possibly the insides of Ikea, has been designed with accessibility in mind. The streets are not always in top condition and there are a lot of unnecessary stairs and ridiculously steep slides that make moving around with a stroller and suitcase (or god forbid, a wheelchair) an actual health hazard. Somehow, though, the Kaunas center almost makes this feel like a non-issue. It’s pleasantly small and has a number of public parks, top-notch playgrounds and services within a walking distance. We can let our little monkey run wild within reasonable limits and still have a relaxing time. Everybody wins!
The second hand shopping is good
The Lithuanian people I know who love thrifting all seem to agree about one thing: the best second hand markets and boutiques are found outside of Vilnius, in certain smaller towns but especially Kaunas and Klaipėda. I haven’t personally been able to completely confirm this yet, as our family trips rarely lend themselves to the kind of leisurely perusing of vintage candy that I otherwise enjoy, but I’m not one to argue with an unanimous expert opinion.
This time I only managed to quickly swing by Humana, a chain of charity shops whose Vilnius stores rarely yield any great discoveries, so I was delighted to find a very now (if the fashion blogosphere is to be believed) pearly handbag for myself and an embroidered dress for a mystery unborn dark folk princess, for a combined price of 8 euro. So far so good.
Mtevani motheloving Georgian Cuisine
I’m not saying that we’ve ever had a bad meal in any of the Kaunas restaurants we’ve eaten at. We haven’t. But listen, I’m a simple woman and when something just works, I try not to fix it. Mtevani Georgian Cuisine right on Laisvės Avenue is that kind of a thing: easy, affordable, with friendly service and food so tasty I can have a simple lobio (that’s Georgian bean soup for the uninitiated) with a piece of bread and call it a day.
Actually, one of my favorite memories from Kaunas is ordering takeaway from Mtevani and eating it at our Airbnb next door, with the kiddo fast asleep and rain pouring down our window. Just writing this is making me hungry, and I just ate. Where was I again?
It has an abundance of abandoned places to explore
All cities have abandoned places if you know how to look for them, but if you’re pressed for time or don’t quite know where to start, Kaunas has got you covered with some former military and industrial sites that are easy to find and provide historical intrigue beyond the more obvious tourist spots.
That said, I won’t mention their names here because though they’re far from being secret, I really do want to encourage everyone interested in urban exploration — that’s the art of finding and visiting abandoned places — to learn to do their own research. This fundamentally important part of the hobby often gets overlooked by folks looking for a quick photo op. Worry not though, the only thing you need to is to throw a few obvious keywords at Google and go.
It’s just fun even if you end up doing absolutely nothing
As proof I offer this image of our Saturday evening: dinner from the hotel restaurant eaten in bed, because our little one’s epic meltdown one hour earlier prevented us from attending the Mayor’s reception that concluded the Scandinavian Days. And honestly, it was a great dinner in the best of company.