In the early nineteenth century, many Russian artists, officers and nobles were sent into exile to Siberia for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Irkutsk became the major centre of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city's cultural heritage comes from them; also, many of their wooden houses, adorned with ornate, hand-carved decorations, survive today in stark contrast with the standard Soviet apartment blocks that surround them. The wide streets and ornate, continental architecture led to Irkutsk being called the "Paris of Siberia", although travellers are unlikely to have a difficult time distinguishing the two today.
During the civil war that broke out after the Bolshevik Revolution, Irkutsk became the site of many furious, bloody clashes between the "Whites" and the "Reds" (aka Bolsheviks), and a number of city landmarks remain from that era. In 1920, Kolchak, the once-feared commander of the largest contingent of anti-Bolshevik forces, was executed there, effectively destroying the anti-Bolshevik resistance.
Today, Irkutsk is one of the biggest cities in Siberia, with a growing population of more than 590,000 people. It's home to several universities and a major branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, thanks to its proximity to Lake Baikal.
In July, the average temperature is 18°C (64°F) with a bit of rain, but by January, the temperature plunges in typically Siberian fashion to -19°C (-2°F). Early September finds the local foliage at its finest.
Irkutsk Airport (IATA: IKT) can be reached from either of the two major airports in Moscow, Domodedovo or Sheremetyevo 1. Rossiya Airlines also flies directly to Irkutsk from St. Petersburg and S7 Airlines uses Irkutsk as a regional hub, flying to several cities in Russia, as well as flights to China, South Korea, and elsewhere in Asia.
Arranging to be picked up at the airport prior to departure is recommended, since both flights get in early in the morning and English-speaking taxis are hard to find. If traveling in the winter bring warm clothing on the plane, as you will most likely deplane onto the tarmac.
The airport is located fairly close to the city center and buses, trams, and minibuses run frequently between the airport and Kirov Square (near the Angara Hotel) and other points in the historical center. Travel time from Kirov Square to the airport by bus during rush hour is about 30 minutes and costs between 10 and 20 Rubles.
Wikitravel has a guide to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Most travellers arrive in Irkutsk by the Trans-Siberian Railway. It's about halfway between Moscow and the two eastern terminus cities, Vladivostok and Beijing, which makes it a good place to break the trip, if only to stretch your legs and buy provisions. The Baikal-Amur Mainline, connecting with more northerly cities, also runs nearby.
Apart from Moscow there are also direct carriages from most cities in Russia, Minsk (94h) and from Saint Petersburg (86h) on the Baikal train. Also, a service from Warsaw (113h) was introduced in recently.
Irkutsk is a relatively compact city in the historical center and traffic congestion is not bad for a city of nearly 600,000. It is a very walkable city within the centre, and for those who want to save time or travel between one side of the river and the other, the public transit system is good. Knowing at least how to read the signs on the buses and bus stops is helpful, and on the minibuses, one must call out to the driver to request a stop. Oddly enough, the names of major bus stops are posted on kiosk roofs parallel to the road so that the names are not often visible from inside the bus. Bus and minibus ("marshrutka") fare is usually RUB12. Local etiquette is to pay the driver when exiting the bus and trolley (therefore you can exit it only through the front door). In trams tickets should be purchased from driver, then stamped in the machine on board.
The tourist information office (very friendly and useful) is located in the Europe House, 21 F. Engels St, if you can find it open!
You can rent bikes at Skiwalker in the north-east of Irkutsk.
Irkutsk is home to a remarkable number of historic churches, among them Ascension Church (1747-51), Epiphany Cathedral (1718-46), Our Lady of Kazan Church (1885-92), and Saviour Church (1706-13).
There are also a few historical museums in the houses of Decembrist exiles. The Volkonskiy House, located behind the Transfiguration Church off Ul. Timuryazeva near the bus station, was one of the focal points of the Decembrists' social life in the mid-19th Century. The Trubetskiy House at Ul. Dzerzhinskovo 24, as of March 2008, has a sign on the door (dated September 2006, no less) saying that it is closed for restoration.
Also among the Soviet concrete monstrosities, Irkutsk features street after street of atmospheric, decaying wooden buildings. Most of these are either abandoned or still used as private residences, though, and cannot be entered without permission of the owner, but provide for an atmospheric stroll down the street.
Irkutsk Philarmony. Classic, jazz, folk music performance. on 2, Dzerzhinskogo st.
The City History Museum at Ul. Tchaikovskovo 5 has an interesting and thorough display of Irkutsk from its inception to the present day. It is currently located across the river (on the same side as the railway station) from the city center; take bus 8, 11, 23, or 25 from the Angara Hotel, although one will probably have to ask which stop to get off at. The museum is scheduled to move to a new building in the city center in Summer 2008. Closed Wednesdays and holidays.
The Geology Museum at Irkutsk State Polytechnical University has an extensive display of gems and minerals found in Siberia and the Russian Far East, even a block of asbestos under glass. From the center, take bus 3, 4, or 21 across the river to the Polytechnical University (behind the railway station); the museum itself is in the central of the three southern wings of the university — do not enter through the main entrance, but rather walk around the outside of the building to the right.
The Irkutsk Regional Museum at Ul. Karla Marksa 2 (across from the Alexander III memorial on the Angara embankment) has an interesting ethnographic exhibit on indigeous peoples including Even and Buryats, and a display on Irkutsk in the 20th Century. Closed Mondays.
Sukachev Art Museum at Lenina 5. Probably Siberia's best collection of fine art, including several early icons, Russian secular art of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, including a few works of Repin, a section of Mongolian and Chinese art, and a section of European art including a collection of lesser-known Dutch masters. Closed Tuesdays.
The Sukachev Estate at Ul. Dekabristov Sobytii 112 near the TANK bus stop. The estate of a 19th-century mayor of Irkutsk showing life of the upper classes at the time, in a series of log houses that he lived in.
Visit local Orthodox churches and Roman-Catholic church in city center.
Tucked away in the residential area of Irkutsk is a small Nerpinary. The Nerpinary is home to two Baikal seals. For a small price you can go and see these seals perform a small presentation and paint a picture! which you can even purchase after.
Ice-breaker "Angara", the oldest amongst steam ice-breakers in the world, built in 1900 in Newcastle, now a museum docked at the city's port.
Knyaze-Vladimirsky Monastery ul. Kashtanovskaya 52. Built in 1888 in honour of Prince Vladimir who baptisized Rus.
Irkutsk is now constructing its business centre Irkutsk-City not far away from the historic centre. A couple of high-tech buildings are there, but more is left to be built.
There is a big dam and hydroelectricity plant in Irkutsk. You can take trolley bus number 8, which will drive across the dam. Afterwards, you can walk to a fuel station, where you can see the power plant very well. Afterwards, you can walk across the dam. Beside the plant, it's also possible to go up and down the dam itself. Not many people seem to consider the dam and hydroelectric plant as an interesting sight, so you'll be more or less alone there.
In the winter, the central park has many ice sculptures as well as an ice castle that you can walk around in. There are ice slides in this park also. Most Russians stand up and slide on the soles of their shoes. The park is very lively at night with tourists, even though the temperatures drop well below -20 degrees C.
Hold the right hand's thumb of statue of famous Russian writer A. Vampilov, who was born near Irkutsk, which is located near Drama theather on Karl Marx street for good luck and happiness in your life. It is a new and popular tradition in Irkutsk, started from Vampilov's anniversary.
Visit Angara embankment at the end of Ul. Karla Marksa in the evening, the place for meeting of the youth.
Walk down Ul. Uritskogo, a pedestrian street with shops and cafes.
Wood carvings, birchwood boxes, and lacquer boxes are typical souvenirs of Siberia. A few hotels have souvenir stalls in the lobby, and the Regional Museum at Ul. Karla Marksa 2 has a decent selection in their gift shop as well.
Kamusi are winter boots used by native Siberians made out of deer, elk, or other fur. One place to buy is at a small shop across from the bus station at Ul. Oktyabrskoi Revolyutsii 20B called "Aikhal". It's in a courtyard behind some kiosks, so it takes some searching. They have kamusi for men, women, and children, with prices starting at about RUB3000.
Irkutsk has lots of restaurants offering Russian, Siberian, Buryat, Mongolian, Japanese, Chinese and European cuisine. For a local speciality, Omyl, Sig and Kharius are local fishes found in the lake Baikal (available in many restaurants). Cold smoked kharius is good with beer. Hot smoked kharius you can find in Listvyanka or Kultuk villages near Baikal lake. Price depends on fish size and is usually about RUB150-25 for one. In the Central or New market (Noviy Rinok) you can buy kharius and sig caviar - tasty.
Kochevnik on Gor'kogo Street, nice Mongolian restaurant with relaxing atmosphere.
Seul at Ul. Dekyabrskikh Sobytii, Korean and Chinese.
Siberian Village (Сибирская Деревенька) at the Angara Hotel on Kirov Square, Siberian cuisine, a stylish place representing an entire village.
Rus at the hotel Rus, Russian.
Cafe Shokolad at Ul. Dekyabrskikh Sobytii 102 behind the wedding palace, is a clean, modern cafe with good salads, reasonably-priced main courses, and, as their name suggests, sumptuous desserts. A bit outside the historical center (near the TANK bus stop), it is a good place to relax after an excursion to the Sukachev Estate down the street.
Pizza Domino with no relation to the US chain, is at Lenina 13A across from the Lenin Statue. They do pizzas, soups, and other quick meals. Very cheap, and open 24 hours.
Pizza Pinnochio near the Angara Hotel on Kirov Square and other locations; quick and inexpensive pizzas that are sometimes reheated in a microwave.
National Buryat big dumplings (boozy, pozy) you can find in Amrita cafés. It's a special Buryat fast food chain with some cafés in the middle of town. Cheap, tasty. Pozy is a steamed meat (beef with pork) big dumplings must be eating using only hands. First small bite at side of the booza bottom - carefully drink hot meat bouillon. Next bites - finishing this booza.
Balsams Buryatia and Amrita are very nice Buryat alcoholic drinks (costs about RUB180 each 0.75L). Thay are also very helpful against cold. Balsam Buryatia was consecrated by Dalai-Lama XIV, as it says label on the bottle.
Some locals have rooms for rent.