A Peek at the Unusual Architecture of Kaunas, Lithuania — a 2022 European Capital of Culture

Walls can’t talk — but in Kaunas, they still tell a fascinating story. This year, the city begins a new page.

Overview of the city of Kaunas, Lithuania
Kaunas, Lithuania, has been named a European Capital of Culture for 2022. Photo: Silvan Bachmann/iStockphoto/Getty Images

When Lithuania's capital was seized by Poland in 1919, the Baltic nation named a small central city as its new political seat. During its 20 years in the role — Vilnius was won back in 1939 — the once-industrial Kaunas would earn the nickname "Little Paris" and see the construction of some 10,000 new public and private buildings. The result: an unmatched concentration of showpiece modern architecture, in addition to the Gothic, Baroque, and Byzantine Revival treasures of earlier eras.

Today, there are more than 6,000 examples of interwar Modernism still standing in Kaunas, which is projected to join UNESCO's World Heritage List as soon as this summer. And the city has been named a European Capital of Culture for 2022 — alongside Novi Sad, Serbia, and Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg — in part because of its distinctive architectural legacy.

Here, three essential Kaunas landmarks, past, present, and future:

A Baroque Retreat

A hall with a checkerboard floor at the Monte Paris hotel and restaurant in Kaunas, Lithuania
A 17th-century hall at Monte Pacis hotel and restaurant. Reda Buténé/Courtesy of Hospitality Complex Monte Pacis

The Pažaislis Church & Monastery dazzles with its late-Baroque style — construction began in 1662 — and recently acted as a backdrop in HBO's Catherine the Great. Reserve a tour to see the grounds of the Camaldolese hermitage, with its hexagonal, Venetian-inspired church and frescoes by Florentine painter Mykolas Arkangelas Palonis. A 17th-century guesthouse has been transformed into Monte Pacis (doubles from $74) — a boutique hotel with plush suites and a fine-dining restaurant (entrées $14–$34) beloved for its list of Lithuanian wines.

An Interwar Icon

The white Art Deco facade of the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas, Lithuania
The Art Deco façade of the city’s M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art. M Mastaviciute/Courtesy of M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art

The simple but grand M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art is the definition of Kaunas Modernism. Designed in 1930 by architects Vladimiras Dubeneckis, Kārlis Reisons, and Kazimieras Kriščiukaitis, the striking crown-shaped front entrance is a nod to the artist M. K. Čiurlionis — the fin-de-siècle painter and composer whose work, a primary focus of the collection, often incorporated crown motifs. The museum will celebrate the Capital of Culture status with a special exhibition: That Which We Do Not Remember (through November 30) by South African artist William Kentridge, who can trace his Lithuanian-Jewish heritage back to Kaunas.

A Contemporary Hub

Rendering of forthcoming Science Island in Kaunas, Lithuania
A rendering of the city's "Science Island," scheduled to open later this year. Courtesy of Science Island

The $28 million National Science & Innovation Center, also known as Science Island, is a peek into Kaunas's architectural future. The sleek, low-slung structure was designed by SMAR Architecture Studio to sit in harmony with the grassy surroundings of Nemunas Island: glass walls overlook an 82-acre park and the copper roofs of Old Town across the river. When it opens later this year, the center will show how sustainability and technology can work in tandem.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Baltic Beauty.

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