A full guide on what to do in Irkutsk, Russia, the gateway to Baikal Lake.
In Moldova, the country I am from, it is generally considered that only Moscow and St Petersburg are worth any attention among the Russian cities. Many people here believe that outside these two cities every other place is underdeveloped, with awful roads, no infrastructure and nothing to see. I am happy to say that they are wrong: Irkutsk is an amazing city with spectacular architecture and dozens of tourist attractions. So, here is my long list of things to do in Irkutsk, Russia, the city where tourists start exploring the majestic Baikal Lake region from.
What to do in Irkutsk: things to do inside the city
Streets with wooden houses
Siberia is famous for its wooden architecture. I don’t remember seeing so many wooden houses with lacy windows anywhere else.
Naturally, wood is available everywhere in Siberia, so the first houses were wooden. They didn’t have intricate decoration, all these lacy windows and carved canopies appeared later. In Taltsy Ethnographic Museum (more about it below) you can see wooden homesteads with modest decoration, but in Irkutsk houses have different colors and carvings. To see these houses just stroll along Gryaznov, Lapin, Dekabrskikh Sobytiy and Timiriazev Streets.
I don’t think it is possible to go inside these houses. It was clear that people live in some of them, so they are not museums or something open to public.
Shastin Manor must be the most famous wooden building in Irkutsk. It has to be mentioned separately as its decoration is much more ingenious and delicate. Just look at the picture below: there is a reason it is called “a lacy house”.
The manor had a difficult history: it was built in the beginning of the 20th century, but the Soviets took it away for their own needs. It was used as a residential house, then it was supposed to be an art school, but the building was already dilapidated, so it was decided to repair the house. But the work was done poorly, and the proper restoration started at the end of 1980-ies.
But don’t just leave after seeing the house. Walk a bit farther and you will see a square with sister cities.
Address: 21 Engels Street. One of the buildings of the manor houses the tourist information center. Now the administration of Irkutsk for international collaboration is in Shastin manor.
Volkonsky and Trubetskoy House Museums
Before I talk about the houses, there is something you should now. Irkutsk is in Siberia, and Siberia is the place where criminals or undesirable people were exiled in Russia and the Soviet Union.
1825 was the year when the nobles rebelled against the tsarist regime. They wanted to abolish monarchy and serfdom, and strongly opposed the accession to the throne of Nicolas I, who was very unpopular. The rebellion failed, and its leaders and active participants were exiled to Siberia. Princes Sergey Volkonsky and Sergey Trubetskoy were among them. Here I should say that only the rebels were exiled, but their wives decided to follow them to Siberia. Even nowadays there is an expression in Russian – a decembrist’s wife – meaning either a faithful wife who is ready to share all the hardships her husband might face, or a stupid wife who follows her husband wherever he goes. Some people think it was silly of the wives to leave their lavish lives, friends and families behind in the capital and go to cold, harsh and unknown Siberia. Others admired what the wives did, hence the duality of the expression.
Now, back to the houses that are known as the Decembrists’ Museum nowadays. The houses are not far from each other, the distance between them is about 650 meters. They were built closer to the middle of the 19th century when the families were allowed to live in Irkutsk. Now visitors can see the things that belonged to the families, like clothes, toys, furniture, pictures, china, etc.
But just look at the architectural design of these wooden houses: I think it is spectacular!
Personally, I only visited Volkonsky House, as the other one was closed when I went there.
Useful info: the House of Volkonsky is closed on Mondays and every last Thursday of the month, and the House of Trubetskoy is closed on Tuesdays and every last Wednesday of the month. Entrance fee is 200 RUB, you will have to pay additionally 100-300 RUB for taking pictures. More info is here: the website is in Russian only.
130 Kvartal is definitely one of the coolest places in Irkutsk. Basically, it is a pedestrian street with wooden restaurants with various cuisines and some entertainment. Street musicians play here closer to the evening, there is a huge shopping center at its other end, some facilities for kids, the I love Irkutsk sign, the planetarium (I still regret that I did not go there!) and some souvenir shops. Usually the place is full of young people, so the atmosphere is lively.
If you are there, don’t miss Rassolnik Restaurant: it serves many dishes of Russian and local cuisine.
Babr is the symbol of Irkutsk. Actually, its history is very interesting. Babr in the local language means tiger, so the original idea of the coat-of-arms of Irkutsk was a tiger holding a sable in its jaws. This coat-of-arms was approved by Catherine the Great, but about a century later during the new approval a mistake happened. You see, in Russian there is a word bobr, meaning a beaver, so when they in the capital received information that the coat-of-arms should include a babr, they thought it was a mistake, so corrected it into bobr. And it was approved by the emperor. Now, imagine a beaver with a sable in its jaws.
Luckily, the locals didn’t change the concept entirely, but they had to do something to make the tiger look like a beaver, so they added a big tail and webbed feet. That’s why the animal looks so strange. The mistake was corrected in 1997, but this babr still remains the symbol of Irkutsk.
If you want to see it, Babr sculpture is right at the entrance to 130 Kvartal.
I have a difficult relationships with museums, as I am interested mostly in ancient history. I did not go to any museums in Irkutsk, but you might consider these ones:
– History Museum of the city of Irkutsk in Frank-Kamenetskogo Street
– Exhibition of military equipment in Karl Marx Street
– Local history museum in Gagarin Boulevard
– Museum of City Life in Dekabrskikh Sobytiy Street
– Museum of Tea in Dekabrskikh Sobytiy Street
– Experimentary in Lermontova Street
– Museum of Retro motor vehicles and Soviet objects in Podgornaya Street
– Bronstein Art Gallery in Oktyabrskoy Revolyutsii Street
– Museum of Baikal fauna in Sukhe-Batora Street
Sukachev Museum of Art and Manor
Vladimir Sukachev was quite a prominent citizen of Irkutsk. He was a well-known philanthropist: he opened five schools for children from poor families, a shelter for juvenile delinquents, a school for the blind. His wife was totally supportive of his initiatives, and she herself opened a school for girls, where the students were provided for free with uniforms and books.
When he was elected mayor, Irkutsk started to really prosper. This is when electricity and telephone communications were installed. He wanted the city to be greener, but there was no money, so he donated his own for the purpose. Sukachev was interested in science and sponsored numerous expeditions. I think you understood already that he was an exceptional man.
Now the manor where he lived is a museum that exhibits objects belonging to the family, including furniture, china, books, musical instruments, personal things, etc. In addition, there are paintings, a couple of sculptures and a winter garden.
When I was there, in the building nearby there was an exhibition of small stone sculptures of local artists. If you are into arts, you will enjoy it.
Personally, I did not go there for the museum, but for the house itself. Just look at the wood carving! And I was really keen to walk in the park around the manor.
Useful info: the museum is closed on Mondays. The entrance fee is 150 RUB, and the fee for photography is 100 RUB. More info is here.
I love Russian churches, and it’s not because I am religious, I admire their architecture. I have never seen two similar churches in Russia, and, though they follow specific patterns in construction, all of them have different ornaments and colors.
The churches in Irkutsk are exceptional as well. Some have more modest interior and exterior, others have intricate decorations on the facade and rich interior. I didn’t go inside all the churches I saw in Irkutsk, but I didn’t need it as I am mostly interested in architecture. Below are the churches that, in my opinion, deserve a visit:
– Kazan Church: this one is the most beautiful in Irkutsk. Just look at its vibrant red color, fantastic sculptures at the entrance, flowers in the garden, a fountain with swans. It is a spectacular place!
– Roman Catholic Church: this one definitely stands out. It’s not an Orthodox church, so its architecture is different.
– Epiphany Cathedral: this church located at the Lower Embankment looks like out of a fairy tale. Just look at its decoration and ornaments, its windows with grids and golden domes!
– Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: another church with vibrant colors and spectacular ornaments. It is located nearby 130 kvartal, so you won’t miss it.
These are some of the bigger and most spectacular churches I have seen in Irkutsk. There are smaller ones like Harlampios Church, Spassky Church, church in Jerusalem Hill and many-many others.
Znamensky Monastery is a famous place in Irkutsk. Just like Kazansky Church, it is located quite far from the center of Irkutsk, so there are not many people there. When I was in Irkutsk, the main church was under reconstruction, so I did not see much. I guess many people go to the monastery to see the monument to Kolchak, a legendary admiral of the White Army. It is believed that this is the place where he was shot and thrown down in the water.
Lower and Upper Embankments
The Angara River roughly separates Irkutsk into two halves, so there are many places where people can get closer to the water. And Lower and Upper Embankments are the most popular of them.
The Lower Embankment is in Nizhnyaya Naberezhnaya Street, behind the Eternal Flame and Kirov Garden. It is a nice area for slow walks with amazing views of the river and churches nearby. Needless to say, the locals love it, so you will see many families here. The impressive monument to the founders of Irkutsk is there as well. A bit farther, vibrant yellow Moscow Gates rise: this triumphal arch was erected in 1811 to commemorate the tenth anniversary from the accession to the throne of Emperor Alexander I.
I think that the Upper Embankment in Gagarin Boulevard is more monumental, if I may say so. The square is bigger, there are a couple of beautiful buildings nearby, and the monument to Emperor Alexander III makes it even more impressive. Even the atmosphere here is different.
There are steps here, and I recommend to go there on sunny days, sit and contemplate the river, Yunost Island and the fountain in front.
Yunost and Konnyy Islands
Yunost (youth in English) and Konnyy (horse in English) Islands are basically a huge park with entertainment facilities for kids and adults. There are cafes and restaurants, a volleyball court, shooting range, and even something called a railway for kids (it is my understanding that this is actually a railway with trains).
There is even a building that might remotely be considered a replica of Sydney Opera 🙂
Kirov Garden and Speransky Square
Speransky Square is very popular among the locals. Its main part is Kirov Garden with benches and a fountain, and this is the place where they put the Christmas tree in winter and celebrate Maslenitsa (Pancake Week) in March. Victory Day parade takes place in the square itself.
The square has a long and interesting history. It was known as the Kremlin Square in the 17th-18th centuries and was a popular market place. In the 19th century the square became bigger, but in 1879 a fire destroyed almost half of the existing buildings. It suffered another blow when the Soviets came to power: they demolished Kazan Cathedral (different from the one I mentioned above) that could fit 5,000 people and built the House of Soviets instead. The administration of Irkutsk now occupies this house.
Do you want to see the statue of Vladimir Lenin? If you do, Lenin Square is the right place. It is right in the city center not far from 130 kvartal. While the statue is definitely imposing, I like the small garden with a sundial behind it.
And the fountain in front of Vampilov Theater is a nice place to be when the sun is shining brightly 🙂
Cow, bull and monkeys
I came across this place by pure accident: I was going back to my hotel after walking around the Upper Embankment and saw some fancy sculptures. I went to this small garden and wasn’t disappointed. Where else could I see a fountain with swans, a cow, a bull, three monkeys and two kids reading?
The garden is behind a long building on the intersection of Marat Street and Karl Marx Street.
Karl Marx Street
Karl Marx Street is one of the main streets in Irkutsk. It is lined with buildings with amazing architecture, there are many restaurants and shops here.
Personally, I was fascinated by the building of Irkutsk Academic Drama Theater, and I have heard that it is even more spectacular inside. Of course, it’s not the only notable building here.
There are many museums in this street, like the Gallery of the Siberian Arts, local history museum, the Exhibition of military equipment, etc.
Oh, you can’t miss the central market! I don’t have any pictures as the place is crowded, and I preferred to be constantly moving 🙂
This is the beating heart of Irkutsk, and you can buy anything here, starting with socks and ending with watermelons. Well, depending on the season 🙂
I noticed that fruit and vegetables look much fresher and more appetizing there: after going to a couple of supermarkets in the city, I sincerely recommend to buy them at the market. And they are usually cheaper.
Useful info: there is a bus station here as well, I took a bus to Listvyanka from here. Well, I wouldn’t say that it is a proper station, mostly buses waiting for passengers. I don’t remember seeing a ticket desk anywhere, but I know that one can buy tickets online from the central market to Listvyanka.
Angara is one of the oldest icebreakers in the world: it was built in 1900 in Newcastle, the UK. It was used to break the ice to let Baikal ferry to cross the river while the railway was being built. When the Circum Baikal Railway was built, the company-owner couldn’t take care of two ships, so Angara was left out.
After the October Revolution it was modified into a passenger ship. When the Civil War started, both parties used it as a war ship. But the most gruesome episode in the history of the icebreaker happened in January 1920 when the White Army fled the city and 31 hostages from the prison of Irkutsk were killed. These people opposed the government of Kolchak, so they were taken out to the deck one by one and ordered to undress down to the underwear. Then a man would knock them senseless and throw overboard.
Until 1975 it was mostly in reparation docks, and it was decided to scrap it. Luckily, they forgot about the icebreaker, and in 1987 it was decided to repair it and convert into a museum.
But enough about the history 🙂 Let’s talk about the icebreaker as a museum. Frankly, I was disappointed with the exhibition, because it is very small: there are some maps and miniature ships. The most interesting part of the icebreaker is the engine room, but it is really hard to guess what these machines did. I needed a guide, but, to be fair, I did not ask for one, and I should have done it.
Useful info: the entrance fee is 150 RUB.
Another square with fountains, Trud (labour in English) Square is in front of the Circus of Irkutsk. It is a lovely area with benches, crowded on sunny days. If you know anything about Soviet movies, then you might want to see the monument to Leonid Gaidai, the legendary Soviet director, and to three of the most popular comic characters of Soviet films – Trus (Coward), Balbes (Simpleton or Dummy) and Byvalyy (Seasoned or Experienced).
But I wouldn’t say that this place is a must: if you are not nearby, I would not try everything possible to get there.
Lisikha Park and the church
Lisikha isn’t far from Angara Icebreaker. It is a small park with a Jewish cemetery and the Church of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity and their Mother Sophia. While it is calm and peaceful as no tourists come here, this isn’t the place I would put to my bucket list, unless you have some spare time after visiting the icebreaker.
What to do in Irkutsk: day trips
You don’t have to explore Irkutsk only, there are many amazing places outside the city. For many of them a day is enough.
I love this place! Spectacular doesn’t cover its natural beauty!
If you hear the word steppe and expect endless flat fields, you are wrong. Tazheran Steppe is a huge area with various landscapes, including mountains, hills, valleys, stone formations, lakes and caves. It was formed about 400 million years ago and is home to about 150 minerals, sapphires and rubies among them. I have heard stories of people finding some precious minerals here. Frankly, it is quite possible you can stumble upon any of these stones, but I doubt it will be rubies 🙂
My opinion is that one day is not enough to explore the place, but I did not have much time, so opted for a 1-day tour. More info is here.
Taltsy Museum is about 50 kilometers away from Irkutsk, and buses leave for it almost every hour, so getting there is easy. But why should you go there? The answer is: to see how people in Siberia lived.
A bit of history of the place. In the 1960-ies there was a plan to build a hydroelectric power station in Ust-Ilimsk on the Angara River. It meant that two historically important wooden buildings – a church and a tower – that made part of Ilimsky Ostrog, a settlement founded in 1630, would be deluged. The Soviet administration was keen to conserve these architectural masterpieces, and they decided to set up an open-air museum. The church and tower of Ilimsky Ostrog were moved to Taltsy, and then other wooden buildings of Irkutsk Oblast, mainly houses where peasant farmers lived. They literally moved the buildings from their original locations to Taltsy!
Taltsy Museum is a place to see how people lived before. The houses contain original objects like crockery, clothes, instruments, machinery. Walking from one house to another it is easy to understand how life was organized at those times, how people lived in these dark rooms, entering through low doors, lying on Russian stoves. It is an incredible experience!
One day is more than enough for the museum, I would say, you would need about 5 hours to see everything. Read more about my trip to Taltsy here.
Listvyanka is a village at the shores of Baikal, about 70 kilometers away from Irkutsk. The buses that take people to Taltsy, actually head to Listvyanka and stop along the way at the villages.
Listvyanka is famous for its Baikal Museum, and I can confirm that it is worth every penny! In addition, I strongly recommend visiting the Gems Museum and Retro Park of Osipov family and climb to Chersky Stone for stunning views.
You can read more about my trip to Listvyanka here.
Circum Baikal Railway
This is a famous train ride along the shores of Baikal. It starts in Slyudyanka village and ends at Port Baikal opposite Listvyanka with 5-7 stops along the way. If you are lucky, the views will be spectacular!
I know that it is one of the most popular things to do around Baikal, but before you even buy tickets make sure you have a window seat and the weather is nice. I was a bit disappointed by the ride, and I will write about it later.
I did not go there, and I regret it thoroughly. I don’t know much about the place, except that it is of stunning beauty.
The depression is surrounded by mountains, so you can imagine the views! There are lakes there, volcanic fields, cute villages, hills. The place must be stunning in autumn when the leaves turn red and yellow.
Tunkin Depression is far from Irkutsk, about 200 kilometers away, so you will have to either rent a car or opt for an organised tour.
By now you might be wondering that I have not mentioned Olkhon Island. The reason is simple: even a week isn’t enough to really see the island. I have a couple of guides for Olkhon, take a look here and here.
Now back to Irkutsk: I spent six days in the city, and I would have loved some more time to explore Tazheran Steppe, visit Tunkin Depression and go to a Buryat (aboriginal people) traditional village. Unfortunately, I was short of time, but I hope I have given you some ideas for your trip to Baikal 🙂
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