The first settlement in the place of present-day Kaunas dated back to the 10th Century, but its first mention in written sources was in 1361. In 1362 the Teutonic Knights captured and destroyed the castle but were fought back in 1404. The castle was rebuilt in the early 15th century, and the city started to grow as a trade center and a river port. In 1441 it joined the Hanseatic League, and Hanseatic merchants opened offices there. The 17th and the 18th Century were marked by several Russian attacks, a Swedish occupation, plague and fires. Russia occupied the city in 1795, and Napoleon's army devastated it twice. When Poland seized Vilnius, Kaunas served as a temporary capital until 1940. Between the wars Kaunas was the largest city in Lithuania, and it prospered as an industrial center. World War II came with a German occupation and massacres of the Jewish population. Under Soviet rule, Kaunas became the center of spiritual resistance and national identity. In May 1972 a man of the name of Romas Kalanta set himself on fire in the Musical Theatre square in protest against the Soviet regime. Nineteen years later, in 1991, Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union.
The city's main pedestrian street, called Liberty Boulevard, stretches between the town's oldest quarter known as senamiestis and the Neo-Byzantine St. Archangel Michael Church. Most of the city's stylish hotels and restaurants are found there. Interestingly, the street has been declared a 'non-smoking zone'.
The old town is a charming place with many architectural monuments: the 13th-century castle, the Old Town Hall that the locals affectionally call 'the white swan', and the compelling Gothic-style Vytautas church. Its streets and squares are full of galleries, restaurants, bars and souvenir and craft shops. Also in the old town is the only Devil's Museum in the world. Its collection comprises over 2000 sculptures and carvings of devils, many of them works of folk art from all over the world. The Museum of Modern Art contains interesting avant-garde works by representatives of the Fluxus Movement (initiated by Kaunas-born Jurgis Maciunas).
The Pazaislis complex, consisting of a monastery and a church, is the largest monastery in Lithuania. Completed in the early 18th Century, it is a beautiful example of Italian Baroque architecture. For some time under Russian rule it was used as an Orthodox church. The Soviet regime converted it into an archive, a hospital and an art gallery, and only in the 1990s was it returned to the nuns of the Convent of St Casimir and reconstructed. The church is the site of an annual music festival.
Kaziukas Fair of folk crafts, music and dance is held in March every year. If you happen to be in Kaunas during the fair, do not forget to buy a heart-shaped honey biscuit to take home to your loved one. The cultural calendar of Kaunas also includes an international jazz festival, an international dance competition, an international poetry competition and a folk music festival. Kaunas City Day in May is celebrated with processions, concerts, fairs and street stalls selling handicraft items and farm produce.
Kaunas is a major educational center with 11 universities and colleges, home to over twenty thousand students. The city is proud of its basketball club, one of the strongest in Europe.