Irkutsk is arguably the most beautiful city in Siberia. Most tourists visit Irkutsk on their way to China, Mongolia or Baikal Lake without spending enough time to explore its magnificent wooden houses. We spent three whole days wondering around and soaking up its decadent atmosphere. Though a bit younger than Krasnoyarsk it has maintained most of its historical buildings, with neoclassical palaces popping amongst the hundreds of colorful two storey wooden houses. Irkutsk lies on the confluence of Angara and Irkut rivers, and there are pretty green areas all along the coast.
While we loved Irkutsk’s historical architecture, we thought that practically everything built in the last couple of decades is absolutely bad looking. On the other side, the lady at the Laundromat said the city is finally becoming beautiful. There is an entire neighborhood backed by Chinese investors, that replicates old houses but overdoing everything that could be overdone. Well, apparently some of the houses were brought from elsewhere in Russia. Anyway, Happy Frog sincerely hopes that big investors do not develop this city; otherwise its outstanding heritage will be gone forever. Long live Old Irkutsk!!!
Irkutsk Historical Center
Irkutsk’s historical center is at the confluence of the Angara and Irkut rivers. It revolves around the main square, Kirov, where the City Hall and the Regional Administration buildings are. Until the beginning of the 19th century, Irkutsk was just a sleepy little town. Many intellectuals flocked to the city after the revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Though in exile, they built numerous elegant wooden and brick houses all around Irkutsk. The best way to explore the historical center is to follow the so-called green line. It’s a walking route that includes 30 historical buildings from churches to museums and private houses.
The Best Walks
Two streets are great to begin strolling around without following any strict route. Karl Marx Street, previously known as the Big Street, is Irkutsk’s main drag. Museums, theaters, shops, restaurants, and other historic sites line the 2-kilometer long street. If you are into something more lively head to pedestrian Uritskogo Street. This crumbling little shopping street starts at Karl Marx and ends at the Main Market. Most of its shops and restaurants have a quirky late 20th century feel. If your thing is nature, walk to the end of Karl Marx Street, and cross a small bridge to access Yunosti Island.
The intellectuals exiled in Irkutsk during the 19th century brought with them a special taste for art and architecture. Thanks to them Irkutsk today is known for its numerous wooden houses. Although scattered all around the city, the best place to find then them is around the following streets: Dekabrskikh Sobytiy, Babushkina, Karl Liebknecht, Volodarskogo, and Bogdan Khmelnytsky. In the same area, we visited the delicately decorated Europe House, home to the tourist information office and Museum of Urban life. Other interesting wooden houses are the Sukhachev Manor, the Volkonsky Manor, and the Trubetskoy Manor.
Irkutsk’s religious history goes back to the Cossacks who arrived in the 17th century. They carried Orthodox shrines and soon started building temples. Today Irkutsk houses numerous Orthodox churches, some over 300 years old. In fact, both the Epiphany Cathedral and the Znamensky Convent date back to the late 17th century, when they were wooden temples. Other interesting historic churches are the Spassky Temple, the Holy Trinity Church, the Holy Cross Church, the Kharlampievskaya Church, and the Kazan Church. Your visit to Irkutsk must include the Polish Church, the Irkutsk Synagogue and the Irkutsk Cathedral Mosque.
There is no doubt Irkutsk is a city of museums. After all, it is the biggest city in the area. Actually, Irkutsk was the capital of East Siberia. If you are short of time, go to the Irkutsk Regional Art Museum. The four buildings are historic, one of them is the Sukachev Manor. The museum has over 20,000 pieces. The Irkutsk Regional Ethnographical Museum is inside three beautiful historic buildings and has history and nature departments. The Icebreaker Angara Museum is actually inside one of the oldest icebreakers in the world. Additionally, all previously mentioned wooden manors host small museums.
When we first saw the 130 Kvartal, we were wondering if it was fake. Though we love traditional Irkutsk wooden houses, these are new. We did like the area though, as it is the liveliest place in town. Irkutsk’s best restaurants and coffeehouses are here. Our favorite one is Georgian Khinkalnaya. The 130 Kvartal is a pedestrian street that leads to a fancy shopping center (apparently the only one in the region). Notice the large statue of Babr monster at the beginning of the street. It’s the symbol of Irkutsk.
Great Base for Exploring Nature
Pretty much nobody comes to Irkutsk without planning to spend some time discovering beautiful nature of Siberia. Most tourists go to Listvyanka, an hour and a half southeast of Irkutsk. The place does offer an insight to the Baikal Lake and is also the starting point of Great Baikal Trail, but that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, Olkhon Island offers much more. The largest island on Baikal Lake is famous for its spectacular cliffs, taiga, steppe, desserts, and beaches. If you are into something unusual, Arshan in Buratya is a charming little spa town. Located under the Eastern Sayan Mountain Range, it has several waterfalls and Buddhist temples.
Hotels in Irkutsk
Irkutsk occupies a relatively large area. Nevertheless, most attractions are in the historical center. We stayed in the 130 Kvartal at the fabulous Berezka. Our comfortable room was warm and had views. The Angara Hotel on the main square is a brilliant option. This completely refurbished communist gem is now one of Irkutsk’s best hotels. If you are into historical wooden houses, then the Yakovlev Hotel is your best bet. If you rather stay in an international chain, choose the Courtyard by Marriott.