Never let it be said that ‘second city’ means ‘second best’. From Barcelona to Milan, Europe is alive with cities that, though not national capitals, are brilliant for a mini break. Kaunas is part of this conversation, with Lithuania’s second city in no way eclipsed by the capital Vilnius. Indeed, it’s been a capital in its own right of late; it was one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2022. Kaunas has everything you want from a weekend destination — a lovely old town, great food, busy bars. Then there’s its street art scene, which shows off the city’s cultural side in serious style. Here’s a selection of its finest murals and the trail they provide through the city centre.
1. Respect your elders
You don’t have to wander far through the Old Town to find one of Kaunas’s most fabled landmarks. The ‘Wise Old Man’ has become an Instagram staple; an enormous mural that dominates the entire side of a former shoe factory on the leafy avenue of Jonavos street. The giant gentleman in question — wearing a red bodysuit while smoking a pipe bigger than his own head — is Jurgis Maciunas, a Kaunas-born artist who carried Lithuanian modern art into the wider world in the mid-20th century. He would have known the surrounding streets and buildings well — including Kaunas Castle, the medieval stronghold whose striking red-brick tower stands directly opposite the painting.
2. The walls have eyes
The castle and the Old Town sit in the crook of the elbow formed by the meeting of the Neris and Nemunas rivers. There are other historic sights here, such as the 15th-century Cathedral Basilica. But walk east, into the more modern confines of the New Town, and you can find another dramatic slab of street art. The Yard Gallery (Kiemo Galerija) spreads its colours across a residential courtyard off E. Ožeškienės street. It was created by local artist Vytenis Jakas, who moved into one of the building’s apartments a decade ago and decided that its walls needed brightening up. The curious variety of murals here (a stork, a boy at the foot of a staircase, a Pierrot clown with a camera) shows he achieved his aim.
3. A spot of stargazing
Continue a couple of hundred metres east on the broad drag of K. Donelaičio street, and you find an example of street art at its most mischievous. This sculpture in the garden of the Vytautas, the Great War Museum (which covers Lithuania’s fight for independence), reflects the city’s harmony between history and modernity. After dark, an idea by the contemporary street artist Morfai is revealed. A classical sculpture by Bernardas Bučas appears to be scattering the stars that have been daubed on the wall behind.
4. The fabulous feminine
Just a few steps further east along K. Donelaičio street, in a courtyard of Kaunas University of Technology (at Mickevičiaus street 37A), another grand sweep of spray paint holds pride of place. Crafted by Lithuanian muralist Linas Kaziulionis, ‘Contemporary Ladies’ combines past and present in daring fashion. It takes two female figures from paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (‘La Belle Ferronnière’ and ‘Lady with an Ermine’) and transports them into the 21st century, as young women wearing headphones.
5. A beautiful broadcast
Wander a block south from K. Donelaičio street, and you’ll soon hit Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue), the tree-lined boulevard that crosses central Kaunas for a mile (the longest pedestrian street in Eastern Europe). Before you reach it though, you should pause at S. Daukanto street 28, where, once again, the walls tell a story. This address is home to a studio of Lithuanian National Radio. The mural on its side was commissioned for the institution’s 90th birthday in 2016, and saw artist Tadas Vincaitis dip into nine decades of Kaunas’s history. Thus, the flames of war flicker but a gramophone plays as a child stares hopefully through the fire and a rose blooms amid the chaos.
Plan your trip
Flight time from the UK to Kaunas is around two and a half hours with direct options from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London Luton and Stansted available. For more information, go to visit.kaunas.lt/en
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