Lithuania’s only port, Klaipeda is where the Dane River meanders down to meet the Baltic Sea. Founded in the 13th century when a castle was constructed here, Klaipeda has known turmoil and tragedy. It was originally part of the Prussian Kingdom and what is today a charming port city has also known grand scale destruction through both Soviet occupation and the bombings of World War II.
With such a far-reaching story, Klaipeda is rich in history, home to a lovely old town of cobblestone streets and a collection of half-timbered buildings dating back to the 1700s. It is also a city liberally sprinkled about with some fantastic sculptures ranging from the tiny mouse which is said to be magical to a collection of wonderful wood carved gravestone markers in an old cemetery. While lovely architecture and historical interest abound here what Klaipeda is perhaps best known for is being the gateway to the incredible nature-rich and giant dune-filled sand bar known as the Curonian Spit. Belonging half to Russia and half to Lithuania, the 100 km long spit is a destination all of itself filled with beautiful buildings, multiple museums, a beach which stretches on seemingly forever and a host of attractions for nature lovers.
Once the sun starts to sink Klaipeda is full of some wonderful bars which include cozy cellars, riverside gems and a rooftop terrace with a sensational view. Whether you decide to immerse yourself in history, explore the city’s more natural side or opt for a bit of both you are not going to be short of ways to fill your day here.
A Morning in Klaipeda
Your day begins with an easy stroll which will allow you to take in several of the city’s best sights in one go. Your morning continues after your coffee break with a visit to where everythingstarted for Klaipeda –at its 13 the century castle site.
A Riverside Park, the Old Town and a Sculpture Treasure Hunt
Despite its small size Klaipeda has an awful lot going for it. Its riverside is tranquil and lovely, its old town exceptionally picturesque and the whole is liberally scattered about with a collection of sculptures which range from the decidedly charming to the unique and unexpected. Your morning begins with a leisurely wander which will allow to you enjoy a bit of everything. Where Klaipeda’s sculptures are concerned they are not all large and obvious, in fact some take some real tracking down. This, should you choose to take on the challenge however, adds a real element of treasure hunt and extra interest into your Klaipeda explorations.
Your walk begins in Dane Park(Danes Skverelis) which is a lovely little urban oasis stretching along the riverbank. The old-fashioned fishing boats and watercraft here add color and character while lording it over them all is the Meridianas. You will see this beautiful vintage boat before you reach the bridge, displaying its collection of pristine white sails and which now houses a restaurant inside.
You will encounter several sculptures here in Dane Park and its waterfront –two of the most notable are the Mermaid and the Fisherman who stands perched upon his rock. The beautiful bronze Mermaid is based on a local legend which recounts the story of a Curonian youth who fell from his ship, his body pierced with arrows and was carried away by the sorrowing mermaid so his body could not be hung from the castle’s turrets by his enemies.
While you are in the vicinity you might like to make a short diversion to see one of the town’s loveliest buildings –the Central Post Office. Dating from the 1900s and one of the city’s rare examples of an historical structure which managed to survive unscathed during World War II, this majestic building is often mistaken as a museum although it actually still functions as a post office. The interior is every bit as lovely as its facade with many interesting features while the buildings which were once used to house the mail horse-drawn carriages can still be seen to the side.
From Dale Park you can cross into the compact Old Town of Klaipeda via the Biržos Bridge. This, as the name suggests is the city’s oldest area, filled with cobblestone streets and a plentiful supply of historic buildings, charming little shops and atmospheric cafes and bars. Klaipeda’s oldest buildings are easily spotted as they represent a beautiful German-influenced style known as Fachwerk –used since the city was founded -in which wooden timbered frameworks were interspersed with clay and brick. The best examples of these can be seen in the northern section of the Old Town although none predate the 1700s; on the streets further south few of these historic gems survived a great fire which swept through the city in 1854.
This 19th century fire is not the only disaster and grand-scale destruction which has befallen Klaipeda. Much of historical value was lost during bombings in World War II while the 20th century Soviet occupation years were also to take their toll. A huge scale restoration project which took place during the 1970s and 1980s has restored many of these lovely buildings to their former glory.
One of the best Old Town spots to admire Klaipeda’s architecture is the small Theater Square, considered the heart of this charming city. Atop the square’s fountain which dates from 1912 can be found one of Klaipeda’s most famous sculptures –Ann of Tharau (Taravos Anike) -unfortunately not the original which was one of the World War II fatalities.
The square’s most striking building is the neo-classically designed Drama Theaterwhich is thought to date from at least as far back as the 1800s. It is also known to be the site from which Hitler delivered a speech to the populace after the German Reich seized the city as their own during the Second World War. The Old Town is the site for several of the city’s most charming and unique sculptures so you can tick several off your list here in one go as you are wandering the old streets. The Magic Mouse -one of the city’s most visited sculptures and also one of its smallest -is located here on Mesininku. Just 17cm tall, this bronze mouse sitting atop a stone bears the words ”convert your ideas into words and words will become magic”. It is said wishes whispered into the ear of this little creature will come true.
Others nearby are the Old Town Post sculpture with its pigeons on Tiltu street, the three meter red steel Dragon located on a wall down an otherwise nondescript alley which doubles up as a rain overflow pipe and the Basket with Coins. This latter sits on a stone plinth –also in Tiltu Street -its bronze basket on its side spilling out its coins which represent various countries of origin. This element celebrates the multi-cultural aspect of Klaipeda’s sea-trade industry and status as a port. One of the Old Town’s quirkier sculptural offerings is the small pink granite and bronze Cat with the Face of a Gentlemanwhich does indeed show a human face complete with moustache on a cat’s body, strolling casually along a pavement edging in Kalviu Street square. Perhaps the hardest to spot of all the sculptures unless you know where to look is the Chimney Sweep. Not far from the river’s edge near where the ship Meridianas is moored you will need to look up. There, perched on the gable end of a house with one leg jauntily kicked out and sporting a top hat, you will see this lovely sculpture.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as the city’s sculptures are concerned. If you want to ‘collect’ them all you can pick up a map from the Tourism Information Center in town
Morning Coffee in Klaipeda
Once you have decided to call a halt to your sculpture hunting and Old Town wandering you are perfectly placed to choose from a variety of cafes for a morning pause. For the highly picturesque make your way to the Friedrich Passage, sometimes called the Freidrich Arcade –a long thin courtyard with a long, long history. This is where you will find Gurman’s Tea and Coffee House where if tea is your preferred refreshment you are going to have more than a hundred types to choose from. There are also plenty of sweet and savory treats to keep you going until lunchtime.
Another Old Town choice which constantly attracts rave reviews is Terminalas Kavos Studija which serves decent coffee and the chance to play one of the musical instruments filling the place should you have the inclination and skill.
If you have a sweet tooth and don’t mind strolling back over the other side of the river Vaniles Namai is a lovely little space of exposed brick walls and wooden tables with some outside pavement tables. Vaniles Namai, besides operating as a cafe is also a dessert emporium of the highest quality. If you can’t find something that catches your eye here among what can only be called edible works of art you are probably immune to temptation. The cafe also offers some classy box selections of their finest treats which make great gifts.
Klaipeda Castle Museum
Alternatively titled Memel Castle, this attraction is rather more archaeological site and museum than castle, most of it having been finally destroyed during the years of Soviet occupation. The moat-surrounded castle dates back to the 1200s and the museum here is relatively small, covering both the history of the castle and the town which then grew around it. Its principal exhibits are found in an atmospheric underground tunnel from medieval times which make it worth visiting.
The major highlight of the site is the state-of-the-art and highly emotive 39/45 Museum found in the castle’s eastern extremity, once a wartime explosives storage facility, which tells the tale of Klaipeda’s World War II years. Under severe pressure, Klaipeda and its environs were handed over to Germany in 1939 as Hitler rose to power. Through the medium of videos, documents, photographs and exhibits such as weaponry of the time you will be able to follow this tragic period of the city’s story along with accounts of the persecutions of the Lithuanian people which occurred.
In 1944 Klaipeda was a besieged war zone as the Russians advanced; they finally took Klaipeda in 1945 as the war drew to a close. By this time almost 60% of the city’s structures were destroyed in one form or another. With the before and after photographic exhibits here you will easily be able to compare how the city looked prior to the war years and its gaping spaces at the end where once stood centuries-old buildings and churches. The unique and emotive Memory Hall of the 39/45 Museum displays a long glass case where, after brushing sand from the surfaces you may discover anything from a child’s toy to some ordinary household item, once owned by a soldier or city resident.
The Black Ghost and the Swinging Bridge
While you are in the vicinity of the castle you are well placed to take in a handful more of the city’s lovely sculpture series as well as take a look at the Swinging Bridge which crosses what was once the castle’s moat in former times. If you time your visit right you will be able to watch this bridge in action –an hourly event in which the bridge is opened by a manual turning of a wheel to allow boats to pass beneath.
Right next to the Swing Bridge can be found the most spine-chilling of the city’s statues –the Black Ghost.This cloaked and hooded 2.4 m figure holding his lantern aloft appears to be hauling himself onto the bank, only his upper half visible until you peer over the edge. The bronze sculpture is based on a local legend and ghost story which dates back to medieval times.
A little further back on the waterfront going towards the castle can be found the elegant abstract Four Winds sculpture created by blacksmiths from several countries during a 2007 exhibition in the city. Standing 3 m tall, this windswept-looking piece is intended to demonstrate that “everything can be created from iron: nails, sea and even wind”.
A further stroll towards the seaward edge of the quay will bring you to Childhood Dreams which depicts a small boy and his dog, the child happily waving at the ships as they pass. The intention behind this charming piece is rather a touching one –so that no visitor to the city would leave by boat or ship without a friendly goodbye.
Alternative Museums in Klaipeda
Klaipeda is relatively small but it still has several museum choices. The Castle Museum tends to be the most visited for the castle’s historical element and also because of the excellent 39/45 Museum. However,the atmospheric History Museum of Lithuania Minoris another little gem housed inside one of the city’s oldest buildings dating from the late 1700s which was once part of the castle’s lands.
Here you will discover the city and its area’s story of evolution including its centuries as part of East Prussia with plentiful maps, photos, newspaper cuttings and old postcards to demonstrate the changes. The whole is an eclectic and often fascinating mix of Prussian artifacts, antique furniture, coins, folk dress and items such as weaving machines and straw bee hives which tell the story of the area’s traditional trades. The war years are also covered with an array of chilling photographs in which almost every building visible is covered in swastika flags.
The city also has two niche museums –the well-respected Clock Museum with its gorgeous sundial garden and antique timepieces and the Blacksmiths Museum. This latter is housed inside a former famous blacksmith’s forge which has been reconstructed to show how it would have been during the early 20th century. The exhibits here include displays of black smithing tools and paraphernalia along with some lovely wrought iron weathercocks and other iron sculptures.
The city also has art galleries two of which are the Pranas Domsaitis Gallery with its collections of the 19th century expressionist painter from which it takes its name and the Baroti Gallery housed inside a former warehouse which hosts touring exhibitions.
Lunch in Klaipeda
When you decide it is time to pause your explorations for lunch you may be surprised to learn that Klaipeda has a diverse culinary scene. Not surprisingly traditional Lithuanian fare dominates but alongside this you can also find Italian and pizza, Asian, Mediterranean, American-style burger and rib joints, sushi and some fabulous fusions which might present you with some never-before experienced taste sensations.
If you want to keep it traditional and also want a highly pocket-friendly choice simply make your way to almost any restaurant or bar and opt for the ‘day lunch’. This is normally made up of a soup plus a choice of main dishes and all of it will cost less than a Starbucks coffee back home. For those keen to sample Lithuanian fare with flare such as bean soups, borschts, baked duck and fish head to Stora Antisin the Old Town. Your surroundings in this gorgeous 19th century brick vaulted cellar are exceptional and ideal for those to whom ambiance matters every bit as much as high quality food. Surrounded by antiques and fascinating artifacts along with gleaming glass and crisp table linen your lunch here is likely to be highly memorable.
Another choice for the food passionate is Momo Grill located the other side of the river from the Old Town. Highly popular with the locals, this steakhouse restaurant offers some light dish lunch options in a simple but tasteful interior of wood and tile. The professional chef owner appears to really care about his customers’ satisfaction and enjoyment while the staff here are known as being exceptionally friendly and welcoming.
If you don’t want to stray too far from the center of town Klaipeda still has plenty to keep you occupied in the afternoon such as brewery tours, boat trips, waterbikes and a sculpture park set amid a beautiful old cemetery. However, one of its principal gems requires a short 10 minute boat ride across the lagoon from one of the two ferry ports. Here you will find the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Curonian Spit National Park –a 100km long strip of nature and escape bordered by both lagoon and Baltic Sea which feels a world away from the city. Made up of desert-like landscapes of giant sand dunes, beaches, forest, fishing settlements and farmsteads of the ethnic Curonians and historical features,the Curonian Spit is a destination of itself and one which many visitors here consider an essential inclusion in the day. Only half of this spit belongs to Lithuania, the southern section belongs to Russian.
The Curonian Spit
Your ferry arrives in the village of Smiltyne which is officially part of Klaipeda and has beaches and a couple of small but interesting museums. One of these is the Museum of the National Park which is housed inside three lovely renovated buildings and a great way to introduce yourself to the spit’s flora and fauna as well as learn something of its archaeology and landscape.
Otherwise Smiltyne is really the gateway to the rest of the area’s charms and they are plentiful.
The Lithuanian end of the spit is home to two major settlements –Juodkrante, the more northerly of the two and Nida which is close to the Russian border and the area’s largest village. As you travel this beautiful corner of Lithuania you will discover a rich cultural heritage; the original Curonians were an ethnic blend of Lithuanian, Latvian and German cultures and although many fled during the Soviet years of occupation traditions are still kept alive to this day. One element of this which you will encounter time and again is the beautiful and highly artistic weather vanes. Once used on boat masts to determine from which village the fishing crew derived from, they are now used as decoration and adornments around villages and private gardens.
Charming little Nida with its tiny restaurants and shops and the spit’s best collection of historical fisherman homes manages to pack a great deal into its tiny surroundings. With a population of just over 1000 people, Nida is home to several beautiful sculptures including Jurate and Kastytis which depicts a Lithuanian folklore legend of a goddess and her fisherman lover, the lovely bronze Neringa based on another Curonian legend and the giant Elk –the largest creature living on the spit. Nida’s quay is also home to a series of waterfront weather vanes and a cemetery with some exceptionally lovely carved wooden gravestone markers. Additionally, it has a collection of museums which are all tiny and so take up little time but will acquaint you instantly with aspects of the area’s fascinating history. One of these is the Fisherman’s Ethnographic Homestead, a former fisherman’s home displaying artifacts, furniture and household goods of the time.
Other offerings include the V and K Mizgirai Amber Museum, the Curonian Spit History Museum which has exhibits on traditional crafts and livelihoods along with some archaeological finds dating from the Stone Age and the Thomas Mann Museum–a writer who once lived here.
Although tiny Nida has several cultural attractions what it is actually best known for is its dunes. The Curonian Spit is home to the largest drifting dunes on the continent sometimes referred to as the Lithuanian Sahara. The shifting nature of the sands has resulted in several fishing villages from earlier times becoming completely buried. One of the two most impressive dune ranges –Parnidis -is found just south of the village and accessed via a footpath which edges the lagoon. If you have the energy to scale the 52 m highest point your reward is an incredible view of the dune system which crosses the border into the Russian territory, the beach, forests and the tranquil lagoon which sits between the spit and the mainland.
The other main dune system is the Dead Dunes which are located between Nida and Juodkrante near the village of Pervalka.
Juodkrante has a population of just 700 people and dates back to the 1800s with several buildings of that era still remaining, mostly now functioning as hotels. Although even tinier than Nida, Juodkrante also has a fair share of attractions. Take a stroll along the 2.4 km long lagoon-side quay and discover more than 30 stone sculptures along the way from a series entitled Earth and Water. Alternatively you can make your way to the Weather vane Gallery to pick up your very own Curonian weather vane or amber souvenir.
Yet another of the village’s attractions is the open-air sculpture gallery known as the Hill of Witches, arguably the most popular of the spit’s sites. Here you can wander a beautiful forest trail which winds over the hill encountering some fantastical carved wooden sculptures along the way. Collectively representing a myriad of characters from local folklore, wandering here will bring you face to face with fiends, dragons, witches and peasant heroes and villains.
Sculptures of a very different kind can be found in Amber Bay just north of the village at certain times of the year. The sculptures here –some of them huge -are set right in the water and are woven from straw and reeds and then set fire to where they stand during an autumn folklore festival. Amber Bay is so called for the vast hoard of amber found here in the 1800s, some of which can be seen at the Amber Museum in Nida.
Head south from Juodkrante and you will arrive at one of the continent’s largest heron and cormorant colonies.
It is incredibly easy to get from the Klaipeda mainland to the Curonian Spit. There are two ferries per hour during the summer which run from 6.00 am until midnight. Once on the spit buses run regularly from the port to all of the area’s main villages.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Klaipeda
Sundowner drinks and a relaxed dinner are every bit about location and atmosphere as their culinary quality. Here in Klaipeda there are all kinds of choices ranging from candlelit cellars to riverside beer gardens and a sunset view from the deck of an old ship to the high-rise vantage point of an alfresco roof terrace.
Small and cozy is the way you could describe the majority of Klaipeda’s drinking venues whether it is pubs in the Old Town or wine bars by the waterfront. One such of this category is Herkus Kantas which will be especially appealing to beer fans. This cellar-located bar, very popular with locals but often off the radar for visitors, features specialty and high quality artisan ales and craft beers sourced from micro-breweries in Lithuania with plenty of choices from further afield too. Another choice for beer aficionados who enjoy their sundowners alfresco is the Beer Garden.
Those whose preferred tipple is wine can check out the cozy and tranquil little Achtung Baby which also has open-air seating if you prefer to be outside.
If there is anything which beats sundowners it is sundowners which actually allow you to watch the sun sink down the sky into the sea from some vantage point. While sipping your cocktail at the open-air Sky 21 rooftop bar of the Amberton Hotel you get to have exactly this along with spectacular views of city, port, Curonian Spit, sea and lagoon from 21 floors up. Additionally, the hotel often hosts concerts here at sunset so you can enjoy some entertainment with your pre-dinner drinks.
All of the drinks venue choices mentioned here also serve food so if the atmosphere and menu suits you can easily transition from drinks time to dining, sometimes without moving a muscle. The Amberton Hotel’s high-rise Vivalavita Restaurant is the most refined of the choices. Here, besides the gorgeous views you will find a lounge-type casual elegance surrounded by giant black and white cinema stills taken from the classic vintage Italian movie La Dolce Vita. The menu is a mix of classic and modern cuisine with plenty of seafood choice and if you have never sampled crocodile steak before now is the time to change that.
It would be impossible to talk about the Klaipeda dining scene without a mention of one of its best-loved treasures –the Meridianas ship. Impossible to miss, this tall, many-masted beauty dating from the 1940s once functioned as a training vessel but today remains permanently anchored in the Dane River and has become a fine dining seafood restaurant. Dining is of course alfresco from the ship’s deck, the views are lovely and the food luxurious and exceptional.
Those who would prefer more casual and traditional Lithuanian dining surrounded by locals might like to check out the Old Town’s Klaipedos Senamiestis. Functioning as both bar and restaurant this Klaipeda gem has been on the city scene for almost as long as any of its bars. Its prices –some of the best around considering the quality of the food –along with its cozy lounge-like areas and its warm service ensure its continuing popularity with those who call Klaipeda home.
An Evening in Klaipeda
Klaipeda is relatively small and doesn’t have an enormous menu of things to do in the evening outside of finding some cozy pub or bar to enjoy a few after-dinner drinks.
If you want to combine your evening of relaxation with a little live music the city has a few choices especially in the summer months. A little south of town you will find Pica PUB which stages live music while both the roof-top terrace of the Amberton Hotel’s Sky 21 bar and the Beer Garden-both more centrally located -also host regular events. Perhaps the best known of the live music venues is Jazzpilis, considered by some as the best jazz club for miles around and which despite its name stages a variety of musical genre events besides. The cellar-like Jazzpilis is especially atmospheric and known for its exceptionally hospitable staff. If you are one of those who likes to get up and dancing to your live music the riverside-located Bluez is a good choice and hosts bands and musicians from Wednesday to Saturday nights every week.
Those who prefer classical music and orchestral concerts can head to Klaipedos Koncert Sale who have a full calendar of events listed on their website.
Guided Canoe Tours
For an entirely different way to see Klaipeda by night you can climb aboard a hand-crafted wooden canoe and paddle your way down the Dane River. Suitable for complete novices, you will pass the Old Town’s historical buildings, sculptures, castle fortifications, boats and picturesque embankments all atmospherically lit and romantically reflected in the river’s calm waters.
A night stroll, besides helping you walk off any dinner excesses, allows you to see some different parts of the city night-lit. It also gives you the opportunity to tick a few more of the city’s beautiful sculptures off your list before your day draws to a close.
The quay area has a few sculptures you may not already have covered in your day such as Kiss.This charming bronze piece depicts a child standing on tiptoes ready and poised to deliver a kiss to any takers. It is said the kiss is really intended for the Childhood Dreams sculpture of a boy and his dog which sits across the water and which you may have visited earlier.