Maybe it is the cobblestone byways that meander through Kaunas and appear more suited for horses than horsepower. Perhaps it is the unexpectedly historic architecture or the hulking castles and churches that whisper of medieval derring-do. While modernity certainly intrudes (it would not be an Eastern European metropolis without its Prada and Pietro Filipi stores, now would it?) somehow or other this Lithuanian city, despite its many recent changes, has the feel of an old-world diorama sprung to life.

This old-meets-new attitude is readily apparent in the city’s burgeoning culinary scene. Like the nation itself, food culture has blossomed, and you can sample everything from Greek to Chinese. When I first arrived in the city via Ryanair from Stockholm, I was overwhelmed, to be sure. My first time in an area where the majority of the population did not speak English, I simply let myself wander through the meandering streets, digesting the sights and sounds of this city of 350,000.

In search of local fare, I ended up at Bravaria, a restaurant located next to an ice skating rink on the third floor of Akropolis (a “chain” of large Lithuanian shopping malls also found in the capital Vilnius and Klaipeda) that is a bit of a Lithuanian culinary theme park. Rustic furniture, staff in national costumes, and a menu laden with blini, pancakes and giant dumplings called zeppelin (if one has a sour cream addiction, they will not be disappointed), California spa and wine country cuisine it is not. But portions were tasty and sizable, and the bill for lunch was only the equivalent of $5.66 (15 litas, at roughly 2.65 litas to the dollar).

As I ate my zeppelin and drank strawberry lemonade (a treat I had not had in quite some time), I let my guard down. I was mesmerized as a tiny figure skater spun and performed triple kowtows across the smooth ice, enmeshed in the midst of an intricate dance that after countless hours of practice had become embedded in her muscle memory. Despite the bustling crowd all around, and the incessant braying of Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” coming from the mall’s sound system, I dozed off in the most relaxing chair I’d sat in since studying for my Victorian Literature exam back in Sweden a couple days before. When I finally regained consciousness, I promptly ordered some more zeppelin.

The dining scene in this emerging city with a dark past was surprising. Western stereotypes of poverty and desolation in the Baltics abound, yet the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. This was especially true at Bernelių Užeiga, a restaurant recommended to me by the staff at historic Hotel Metropolis (which served as base of operations for the duration of my three-day stay) and popular among the “cool crowd” (artists, designers, models, and journalists) along K. Donelaičio street, near the city center, and the impossibly massive St. Michael the Archangel’s Church. If such a thing as pan-Baltic cuisine exists, this is the place that invented it. Bulvinių kukulių sriuba (minced potatoes boiled in milk) served with sweet and sour sauce dribbled on top, dešra sausages with Italian gnocchi, and other items are staples du jour on the eclectic menu, and at less than $8 for dinner, it’s also a real bargain.

Though the menu is hip and modern, Bernelių Užeiga’s atmosphere is decidedly old-fashioned. Wooden tables with low lighting were set in the upstairs dining area, and the whole building distinctly reminded me of an oversized log cabin. This traditional feel was also reciprocated by the staff, who like the waiters and waitresses at Bravaria also wore the national costume that, on the surface, appears very similar to that of southern Germany and Austria. But they were talkative and cordial, and when my waitress discovered I was an American from Portland, Ore., actually sat down for a lengthy conversation about my beloved Portland Trail Blazers NBA basketball team and former superstar center Arvydas Sabonis (a Hall of Fame player who played for the Trail Blazers and who is originally from Kaunas; as far as many Lithuanians are concerned, Sabonis is an incarnation of God). A classic Lithuanian film that was projected onto a blank wall a few minutes later (a special treat that Bernelių Užeiga shows every Tuesday) meant that by the time I finally left, I’d been there over three hours.

Lithuania is also known for its tasty beer, and the staff at Bernelių Užeiga recommended I try some. I obliged, sampling a local “alus” that ranks among the heartiest I’ve ever had. The rye flavor was almost overpowering, the consistency feeling almost as if I were drinking liquefied bread. Unsurprisingly, the aftertaste lasted for hours. I departed back to Metropolis, prepared for an early night in, followed by a long day of adventuring.

But once again I was given another recommendation, this time by a young woman named Baiba working at the front desk. She told me I should try one of the local nightclubs, adamant that Kaunas has one of the liveliest night-lives in Eastern Europe, and that since she’d be off work in 10 minutes, I should join her and her friends for a night on the town. Not one to pass up an opportunity to meet locals, and see as much of a mysterious city I had done precious  little research on before arriving as possible, I agreed.

Along bus route no. 29 (from Kaunas International Airport to the city center and the mammoth Devil Museum, a museum that – as the name suggests – is dedicated to the Devil) at Maironio gatvė 19 we found ourselves at Exit. Lauded by Baiba as the best place to drink and dance in town, it was easy to see why: the easygoing, friendly staff were personable despite the large crowd and nightclub atmosphere, and with over 100 beers on tap, over 50 wines, and a plethora of cocktails and specialty drinks (including, of course, a healthy selection of Russian vodka), there’s something for every taste and price range – even such American staples as Budweiser ($4) for those longing for a taste of the West. The music, a mixture of House and Trance, was loud but not obnoxious. I eventually ended up drinking more out of a necessity to keep myself hydrated than to expand my spirituous horizons.

My eventual departure was the low point of my trip. The warm, welcoming Lithuanian people and surprisingly sumptuous cuisine had made a strong impression on me, and I wished it wasn’t so expensive to change one’s airline tickets in order to squeeze even a few more hours in this delightfully stimulating city,

Kaunas is an alluring mishmash of architecture — from Gothic to neo-Classical and more — and locals say it has one of the world’s largest assortments of Baroque buildings. Whatever the style, the place is nice to gaze upon, whether you are lugging around an architectural tome or, as I did, simply enjoying going astray among the narrow streets and meeting strangers. While it’s easy to get lost, the friendly locals are more than willing to point you in the right direction, and a good meal (or drink) is never far away.

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