Rotuses aikste (Town Hall Square) forms the heart of the Old Town. It’s a pleasant place to sit and to look at the buildings. The area’s baroque character testifies to the prosperity the city enjoyed during the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the largest (and at times most powerful) country in Europe after the Thirty Years War – the mansions lining the square were home to successful merchants.
The White Swan. Take a few minutes to examine the old town hall which was built in 1522 but did not receive the distinctive tapering tower that provides its nickname until 1780. Having served various as an Orthodox church, artillery warehouse, and residence for the czar, it functions today as a "Palace of Weddings," which are celebrated on Fridays and Saturdays – although I did not have the pleasure of witnessing one on my visit.
The statue of Maironis (just off the square) is worth examining. Maironis is the pen name of the priest Jonas Maciulus (1862-1932), a key figure in the Lithuanian national revival regarded by many as the greatest poet in the Lithuanian language. Naturally, honoring a clergyman (and Lithuanian nationalist) would have been strictly forbidden under Soviet occupation, so the sculptor did not name the piece and placed Maironis’ hand on his neck, thus hiding his clerical collar.
The immense single-towered brick Cathedral dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul is Lithuania’s largest Gothic church – it’s worth stepping off the Square and inside to both appreciate its size and the Baroque furnishings. The twin-towered church on the square itself is dedicated to St. Francis Xavier and once formed part of a Jesuit monastery. It was turned into an Orthodox cathedral under Russian rule and subsequently returned to its original purpose, after serving as a sports hall under the Soviets.
The delightful but little-visited Lithuanian Folk Instruments Museum is the finest in the Old Town. Several comprehensive displays depict the wide variety of materials Lithuanians have turned into instruments – wind instruments made with animal horns being apparently the most common and the somewhat scratchy recordings of the instruments being played enhance the effect. An annex depicts instruments donated by visitors from around the world – given how friendly the older women who staff the place are, it’s little wonder they assembled such a bountiful collection!
By the Nemunas River, the so-called "Vytautas Church" (formerly part of a Franciscan monastery) is well worth a look around. According to legend (depicted in modern paintings inside), it was founded by the Lithuanian Grand Duke of the same name in thanks for his deliverance after a defeat by the Tartars in 1398. Whether or not the story is true, the church does date to about that time. Across the road is the Perkunas House, so named because it is widely believed to sit atop a temple dedicated to the Lithuanian thunder god – in any case it’s extremely impressive to look at.
If you have time, cross the Aleksoto Bridge and climb the hill of the same name on the other side (by foot or funicular) for an impressive view over the Old Town and city. If you have even more time, walk along the bank of the Nemunas beside the Old Town to the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris, then walk back by the Neris. You’ll see the remains of Kaunas’ defensive castle at the end of your journey.