Like the Old Town, Kaunas’ New Town has a main square (Nepriklausomybes aikste), centered on a striking building, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Fortunately, you won’t have to twist your tongue asking for directions since the neo-Byzantine Church, erected in 1891-3 to serve the local Russian garrison (and stress Russian hegemony) is quite tall. Ironically, it was converted into a Catholic church after Soviet occupation ended, and upon Lithuania’s entry into NATO, became the country’s official "NATO church," which flags inside attest to. The church’s interior is interesting, and it affords an excellent view over Laisves aleja, the tree-lined pedestrian artery of the New Town.
Taking the parallelism with the Old Town still further, across the square, a controversial sculpture stands in front of the Mykolas Zilinskas Art Museum. However, rather than politics, the gigantic male nude’s prominent, well, maleness, is what has set tongues wagging. The museum itself holds the country’s most interesting temporary art exhibitions of international contemporary artists, but its permanent collection is quite disappointing. Its spacious front courtyard offers an excellent vantage point on the square.
The superb MK Ciurlionis State Museum has a far better collection of both Lithuanian art in general and the art of the eponymous painter, Lithuania’s most famous, in particular. A special wing, which has recently been refurbished and rivals newly refurbished galleries anywhere else in the European Union, contains most of the master’s works, arranged chronologically under soft light because of their fragile nature. Ciurlionis, also Lithuania’s greatest modern composer, typically painted his highly mystical works, many of which have musical titles, directly onto cardboard. Photography is forbidden inside and regrettably no books of his works were sold at the time of my visit to the museum. For a selection of his paintings click here. The museum’s exhibition on the traditional Lithuanian art of wooden cross-carving is also outstanding.
Across the street is Kaunas’ other true must-see, the delightful Devil Museum, the first of its kind at its founding in 1966. Its original contents came from the collection of Ciurlionis’ friend and fellow painter Antanas Zmuidzinavicius, who had amassed 260 (that’s 13 devil dozens) of the creatures on his death. The collection now apparently numbers in the thousands – with the first two floors devoted to devil figures from Lithuania and the top floor to examples from around the world. The sheer number of variations on the same theme is overwhelming, entertaining, and even educational.
If you have time, you may want to step inside the Vytautas the Great War Museum, the huge concrete edifice dominating Vienybes aikste, a square which contains the administration buildings of the city’s two universities. Despite the name, the museum covers history as well as war, and its archaeological exhibitions are its finest point. The military collections are fairly uninteresting and the sewn-together flight jackets of Steponas Darius and Stanislovas Girenas, a pair of local heroes who died attempting the longest non-stop trans-Atlantic flight, is downright gruesome. The Freedom Monument in front honors heroes of Lithuania’s independence movement with an eternal flame that had to be hidden during the fifty-year Soviet occupation.
If you have time, and are traveling with children or nature lovers, visit the Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum, which reputedly had the Soviet Union’s largest collection of stuffed animals. Children will also probably appreciate a ride up the Zvaliakalnio Funicular. If you happen to be interested in modern art, visit the Kaunas Picture Gallery, which has good temporary exhibitions and a permanent display honoring Jurgis Maciunas, a Lithuanian expatriate who founded the Fluxus movement.