Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania and a former temporary capital. It is served by the freeways Via Baltica (E67) and Vilnius-Klaipėda (A1). Kaunas is located at the confluence of the two largest Lithuanian rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, and near the Kaunas Reservoir, the largest body of water entirely in Lithuania.
Before Lithuania regained independence, the city was generally known in English as Kovno, the traditional Slavicized form of its name; the Polish name is Kowno. The traditional Russian name is Ковно, although Каунас has been used since 1940. The Yiddish name is Kovne (קאָװנע), while its names in German include Kaunas and Kauen.
On the site of the current Kaunas old town at the confluence of two large rivers, a settlement had been established by the tenth century AD. It is believed that the town was founded in 1030, but it is first mentioned in written sources in 1361. In the thirteenth century, a stone wall was built as protection from constant raids by the Teutonic Knights. In 1362, the town was captured by the Teutonic Knights, who destroyed the Kaunas Castle. The castle was rebuilt at the beginning of the 15th century.
In 1408 the town was granted Magdeburg Rights by Vytautas the Great and became a center of Kaunas Powiat in Trakai Voivodeship in 1413. Kaunas then began to gain prominence, since it was at an intersection of trade routes and a river port. In 1441 Kaunas joined the Hanseatic League, and Hansa merchant offices were opened. By the 16th century, Kaunas had a public school, a hospital, and a drugstore, and was one of the best-formed towns in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1665, the Russian army attacked the city several times, and in 1701 the city was occupied by the Swedish army. The Black Death struck the area in 1657 and 1708, and fires destroyed parts of the city in 1731 and 1732.
After the Partitions, Kaunas was one of the centres of the November Uprising (1830-1831) and the January Uprising (1863-1864). To suppress the local population, the Russian authorities subsequently placed a huge military garrison in the town. The Russian military fortifications from that time still survive throughout the town.
Kovno Governorate with a center in Kovno (Kaunas) was formed in 1843. In 1862 a railway connecting the Russian Empire and Germany was constructed, making Kaunas a significant railway hub with one of the first railway tunnels in the Empire, completed in 1861. In 1898 the first power plant started operating.
Between the World Wars industry prospered in Kaunas; it was at the time the largest city in Lithuania. Under direction of the mayor Jonas Vileišis (1921-1931) Kaunas grew rapidly and was extensively modernised. A water and wastewater system, costing over 15 million Lithuanian litas, was put in place; the city expanded from 18 square kilometers to 40; more than 2,500 buildings were built, including three modern bridges over the Neris and Nemunas rivers. All the city streets were paved, horse-drawn transportation was replaced with modern bus lines, new suburbs were planned and built (Žaliakalnis neighborhood in particular), new parks and squares were established. The foundations for a social security system were laid, three new schools were built, and new public libraries, including the Vincas Kudirka library, were established. Vileišis maintained many contacts in other European cities, and as a result Kaunas was an active participant in European urban life.
During the inter-war period Kaunas had a Jewish population of 35,000-40,000, about one-fourth of the city's total population . Jews were concentrated in the city's commercial, artisan, and professional sectors. Kaunas was also a center of Jewish learning. The yeshiva in Slobodka (Vilijampolė) was one of Europe's most prestigious institutions of higher Jewish learning. Kaunas had a rich and varied Jewish culture. The city had almost 100 Jewish organizations, 40 synagogues, many Yiddish schools, 4 Hebrew high schools, a Jewish hospital, and scores of Jewish-owned businesses. It was also an important Zionist center.
Jewish life in Kaunas was first disrupted when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in June 1940. The occupation was accompanied by arrests, confiscations, and the elimination of all free institutions. Jewish community organizations disappeared almost overnight. Soviet authorities confiscated the property of many Jews while hundreds were exiled to Siberia. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Activist Front, founded by Lithuanian nationalist émigrés in Berlin, disseminated anti-semitic literature in Lithuania. Among other themes, the literature blamed Jews for the Soviet occupation.
Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Soviet forces fled Kaunas. Immediately before and following the German occupation of the city on June 25, the anti-Communist German organized insurgents began to attack Jews, blaming them for Soviet repressions, especially along Jurbarko and Kriščiukaičio streets. They murdered hundreds of Jews and took dozens more Jews to the Lietūkis garage, in the city center, and killed them there.
The Nazis eventually established the Kaunas Ghetto, which by the end of the war would be nearly completely liquidated.
After the proclamation of Lithuanian independence in 1991, Soviet attempts to suppress the rebellion focused on the Sitkūnai Radio Station, which were a critical part of the remaining free media. They were defended by the citizenry of Kaunas.
Ethnic composition in 2001, out of a total of 378,943:
The council is the member of The Association of Local Authorities in Lithuania.
Central Kaunas is defined by two pedestrian streets: the 2-km-long Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue), a central street of the city, lined by linden trees, and its continuation, Vilnius Street, leading to the oldest part of Kaunas. Some of the most prominent features in Kaunas include:
Kaunas is home to the Žalgiris basketball club, one of Europe's strongest, which plays home matches in Kaunas Sports Hall. The city is also the birthplace or childhood home of many of the country's top basketball stars, among them Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, Linas Kleiza and Šarūnas Jasikevičius. The main stadium of the city is S.Dariaus ir S.Girėno Sporto Centras (total capacity 9,000), which is also the Lithuanian soccer club FBK Kaunas's and Lithuanian national football team home stadium.
Kaunas is often called a city of students; there are about 50,000 students enrolled in its universities.