This destination trip report will cover the city of Irkutsk, one of the main cities of the Russian region of Siberia.
Paris of Siberia
Many cities have a nickname which refers to Paris. Bucharest is for example known as the “Little Paris of the East” while Beirut is known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. It is not as widely known that the Siberian city of Irkutsk also has a nickname mentioning the French capital: “The Paris of Siberia”, which refers to Irkutsk’s old Czarist-era architecture and decorated wooden houses.
First evening in Irkutsk
Having arrived earlier in the day on a Moscow flight, I was curious to explore Irkutsk myself to see what it has to offer to tourists and if it indeed deserves the moniker of “Paris of Siberia”. Due to my jet-lagged state I however first needed to catch up on some sleep in my Irkutsk hotel, which meant that it was already dusk by the time I finally went outside to explore the city.
For the first time it really began to kick in that I was now really in an exotic faraway place, one which I long wanted to visit before. At -25 degrees Celsius (-13°F) it was rather cold outside. Fortunately I came prepared and had some thermo pants and shirt with me to wear underneath my normal jeans, sweater and thick winter jacket. Siberia in winter is all about dressing in layers. As long as you remember that, it is perfectly fine to head outside into the cold.
As I was still feeling a bit tired, I decided that a short 30 minute walk to a restaurant for some good food would definitely help my body to feel better. For my first dinner in Irkutsk I had picked a Mongolian restaurant called “Kochevnik”, which means “nomad” (the Restaurant is known under both names). It had great online reviews and ratings, and I figured that getting there would make a nice walk through bits of the historic city centre famous for its many wooden houses for a first impression of Irkutsk.
Kochevnik is located in an old building and has a lovely decor inside. As is very customary in Russia, it has a wardrobe where you have to leave your jacket upon entering – with a waiter escorting you to your table. I know you won’t often hear the words “customer service” and “Russia” in the same sentence – but in restaurants and pubs I only had great experiences on this trip (as was the case on my prior two visits to the country). At Kochevnik, the service was smooth, fast and very friendly as well.
The clientele in the restaurant was interesting – some Russians, some Chinese tourists, and a big group of Asian-looking businessmen drinking huge quantities of vodka and other alcoholic beverages. I later found out they were Buryats – the largest indigenous ethnic group in Siberia akin to Mongolians. The region surely is an interesting ethnic mix both in its people and heritage. It really is half European and half Asian.
For food I ordered some Mongolian dumplings as a starter and a beef dish as a main. While the dumplings were a bit average-tasting, I found the main course to be great, with just the exact amount of exotic spices (lots of lemongrass for example) to give it an unique and distinct taste. With two Mongolian beers added to it, the final bill was perfectly acceptable at 15 EUR.
I walked home into the cold after the meal and called it an early night, so I would hopefully be ready early the next day to explore more of Irkutsk.
Even though I wanted to wake up early it did not work out that way. As I was still tired, I slept in much longer than expected and even ended up missing the hotel breakfast. Not a big deal to me – I’m anyway more a person who takes it easy and goes with the flow rather than sticking to a rigid schedule.
After a warm shower I decided to start my city tour, hoping to find a nice cafe along the way for something to eat and a decent coffee. It was a gorgeous day outside with mostly clear blue skies. But even though the sun was shining it was still quite cold at -25 degrees Celsius. You definitely could not take your gloves off for longer than half a minute in order to take a quick picture!
My first stop was the city’s main market which I already spotted the day before as it is basically located opposite my hotel. I like exotic markets – especially when there are lots of weird foods on offer. Unfortunately, this market consisted mostly out of clothes stalls and shops selling household items. The only food available seemed to be frozen fish and pots of preserved and pickled vegetables! That said, it was still fun to walk along some of the stalls and see what is on sale.
My walk continued along a street with lovely wooden houses in all kinds of states of states of disrepair. Although this typically Siberian architecture can be found in many more cities (Tomsk is also very famous for it), there are plenty of gorgeous wooden houses to admire in Irkutsk as well. It gives a lovely impression of how the city once must have looked like in the days of the first Russian explorers and the Czars! Although nowadays it is as likely to see a big BMW parked next to a wooden house instead of an old Lada! The old and modern go hand-in-hand in Irkutsk.
On Karl Marx street I found a nice French bakery – which turned out to make some good coffee and pastries. I opted for a cappuccino and a croissant with cheese and ham as a light breakfast to really get the day started.
Walking closer to the city centre, the style of the buildings slowly changed. Instead of predominantly wooden houses, the classical, ornate Czarist architecture with its trademark pastel colours got the upper hand. These buildings and the leafy city centre boulevards definitely give Irkutsk somewhat of an European vibe. The actual street scene with lots of Asians (ethnic Buryats as well as tourists and businessmen from nearby China and Mongolia) walking around however still makes you realise that you are far away from the Moscow heartland.
Right in the heart of Irkutsk is Kirov Square – which is basically a large park surrounded on all sides by busy boulevards and a few important city buildings such as some regional administration offices, one of the city’s main hotels (the Angara Hotel), a museum and some university faculties.
The park made for a lovely walk as it was full of ice sculptures, including a giant ice throne which seemed popular with Asian tourists for selfies. There was even a slide made out of ice, which was used quite intensively by the local kids on this gorgeous winter day.
Even though I had no clue who most of the people depicted in the ice sculptures were, I did manage to recognise one. One of the ice sculptures clearly showed Father Frost (Ded Moroz) and his granddaughter and helper Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). Ded Moroz is basically the Russian version of Santa Claus, with Ded Moroz being in a notably better physical shape than Santa. It’s basically the difference between having to push-start your Lada each day or driving your Chevy to the nearest KFC drive-through. Also, while Santa Claus is dressed in a Coca Cola-red suit, Ded Moroz is dressed in blue-and-white clothes.
Mighty Angara river
At the far end of Kirov Square was some giant Soviet-era building, which seemed like the archetypal regional administrative headquarters or something similar. Behind it you can however find one of the nicer parts of Irkutsk with a couple of interesting sights and some fine views.
First of all there is a war monument with eternal flame, then there are a couple of beautiful Orthodox churches and to top it all there is a lovely riverside boardwalk along the Angara river. The riverside promenade made for a nice stroll as it gave gorgeous views over the river, the church domes, the other river bank, and most of all of the actual river itself. Somehow I was fascinated just staring at the river, as it was so cold that there was smoke coming from the water. It was however not a place to linger too long around in winter, as there was lots of wind chill due to the freezing winds blowing from the river.
Continuing my walk
As I was freezing my ass off at the riverside it was time to head back inland to continue my walk. The rest of the city was pretty much the same as the streets I admired before: ornate Czarist buildings, wooden houses, a couple of Orthodox churches and a few ugly Soviet structures. I wasn’t really complaining at all. I loved the looks of the city and the pleasant vibe on the streets. Besides, I prefer strolling randomly through a city and occasionally sit down for a meal and drink to soak up the atmosphere over ticking off major landmarks, sights or museums according to a preset list.
Czars and communists
Another interesting area of the city can be found around the city’s theatre and State University building. Both stately buildings are worth a quick peek. Nearby, there is a large waterfront park which would make for a great stroll if it wasn’t this cold. After a few quick pictures I hasted back land-inward again.
Equally interesting is the contrast between statues in this part of town. Near the waterfront is a large statue of Czar Alexander III, which must obviously have been placed there only after the fall of communism as the former Soviet government had all older statues of the Czars removed when they got in power. The statue of one Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin) has however survived the times since the USSR and has not been removed. You can still find it about a block away from the statue of one of his old Romanov enemies. It’s a fun contrast!
Halfway along Ulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street) stands a statue of Babr. Babr is a bizarre mix between a beaver and a tiger and is the symbol of the city of Irkutsk. The statue marks the beginning of the Irkutsk Arbat, the Siberian answer to Moscow’s famous pedestrianised street full of restaurants and bars. The Irkutsk Arbat felt like a brand new city rejuvenation project and did indeed have some appealing looking restaurants. At the end of the street you can also find a brand new shopping mall for those who fancy some window shopping.
On recommendation of a friend, I stopped for lunch at Rassol’nik, a cute-looking basement restaurant which indeed turned out to serve some good food. As a starter I had a fish soup – which was excellent. For my main dish I ordered some pelmeni (Russian-style dumplings) which were decent.
The highlight of the meal were however the waitresses – whom both seemed to be delighted (although initially a bit shy) to talk to a western tourist in the midst of winter. They told me that while there are some western tourists in the summer season, it is much more rare to see them in winter. While we were talking about traditional soups, I mentioned that I grew up eating traditional Dutch pea soup (which I intensely dislike). One of the waitresses then told me that they also have a traditional pea soup in Russia. Within minutes she came back with a complimentary bowl of it for me to taste and to see if it was any better than the Dutch variant! Of course, I could not refuse such a nice offer even if I was not really hungry anymore after the pelmeni. Luckily, I found Russian pea soup to be very tasty and I had no problems finishing the entire bowl.
There is only one thing which I vehemently hate about Russian cuisine: the overuse of dill. In my opinion dill is a demonic weed which overpowers and ruins all other possible flavours of a dish. Russians are so crazy about dill that they even have dill-flavoured crisps, put it on sushi and pizzas, flavour cocktails with it. It really cannot get crazy enough for Russians when it comes to dill (warning: clicking the link might spoil your appetite if you hate dill).
Another fun dilly detail: Shaun Walker, the Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent, got so sick of the ubiquitous dill that he started his own anti-dill group called ‘Dill Watch’. It seems I am not the only one!
At the far end of Arbat you will find Irkutsk’s Central Park. As it is located on a hill, there are some decent views from here over the city. Even in winter it makes for a fun stroll through the snowy grounds.
As the sun was setting, I decided to call it a day. On the way back to the hotel I headed to a local shopping mall close to my hotel to stock up on some snacks and a bottle of Chilean wine to eat and drink in the hotel as I had a bit of work to do and did not feel like going out again after the long city walk. I was definitely impressed by what I had seen so far. The Paris of Siberia might perhaps be a bit too much of a stretch as the cities are not similar at all, but Irkutsk certainly is beautiful and has lots of local charm on its own right.
A trip to Lake Baikal
From Irkutsk I made a two-day-long trip to Lake Baikal, staying for two nights in the town of Listvyanka. You can read more about that adventure in the separate Lake Baikal chapter. As I wasn’t sure if could make it directly from Listvyanka to Irkutsk Airport with public transport in time for a 1pm flight back to Moscow (answer: it’s easily possible!) I however ended up booking one last night in Irkutsk after my two nights at Lake Baikal.
A third and last day of Irkutsk exploring
Having seen pretty much the entire city centre already in the one-and-a-half days before heading out to Lake Baikal, I decided to take it easy on my third day in Irkutsk. The only real bit of sightseeing I planned to do would be a walk across the bridge over the Angara river towards the train station.
The sole reason for heading to the train station was sheer curiosity. The Trans-Siberian Railway had always fascinated me and I love train travel in general. As the weather was again quite pleasant at -20 degrees Celsius with the sun slowly breaking through the cloud cover, it made for another excellent day for a walk.
Irkutsk railway station
The Irkutsk train station building was not as big as I expected for such an important railway junction. This was probably mostly due to the fact that the station building was the original old Czarist-era station and not a more modern construction. The station therefore still had a lovely old-fashioned feel to it with its magnificent blue-coloured facade.
Just looking at the railway departure board and seeing trains to and from places such as Vladivostok, Ulan Ude, Chita and of course Moscow (a five days train ride away!) got me quite excited to make such a trip once in my lifetime.
After eating some Mongolian, Russian and Georgian food in the past days I had my eyes set on another ethnic cuisine: Uzbek. As the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan was of course formerly part of the Soviet Union, it is quite easy finding some Uzbek food in most of the major Russian cities. A quick Google search indeed confirmed the existence of such a restaurant in Irkutsk as well.
The restaurant (Uzbekiston Restaurant – the ‘o’ in the name is not a typo) was a bit tricky to find. It was located near the drama theatre in a sort of entertainment complex what I understood from the online description. Even though I could not find any sign outside pointing at the existence of the restaurant, it became a bit more clear once I stepped inside the actual entertainment complex and inquired with the receptionist sitting behind a nondescript desk. The lady offered to hang up my coat at the wardrobe, after which she led me through an unsigned door to the basement.
Russian language menu
Judging by the barren looking entrance hall of the entertainment complex I did not expect to find a cavernous, cosy and beautifully decorated restaurant downstairs behind the door. The place was literally huge! It consisted out of multiple seating areas, one even more gorgeous looking than the other. The curtains, pillows and original Central Asian artifacts did add enormously to the vibe. The service and food turned out to be equally great. I started with some tasty manti (Uzbek dumplings), followed by some excellent plov (traditional Uzbek rice stew) with chicken and pomegranate seeds as a main.
I had no clue what the dessert was which I ordered. The menu was in Russian language only and although I could make out the words for ‘manti’ and ‘plov’, I had no clue what the description read below the picture of the spectacularly looking dessert which grabbed my attention. It did taste as nice as it looked, although I’m still not sure what it actually was even after eating it! The whole meal was very affordable, with three courses and drinks costing just under 15 EUR.
With my visit to Uzbekiston restaurant also came an end to my time in Irkutsk, as afterwards I decided to head back to my hotel to rest a bit and to eat dinner later in the hotel restaurant.
I tremendously enjoyed my time in Irkutsk. Especially when you combine a stay in Irkutsk with nearby Lake Baikal – it makes an excellent destination. I know most people visit these places in summer. It should be an entirely different place then, with hot summer weather and days spent swimming in the lake.
I would however strongly make the case of visiting the city and the lake in winter instead of summer. The freezing temperature, the snow, the ice – it just has something magical. The city and the lake have a charm on its own in winter which cannot be described and just has to be experienced. Visiting Siberia in winter is pushing your own limits a bit – even though admittedly I found it much easier to deal with temperatures of -25 degrees Celsius in Irkutsk than -10 degrees in cities like Helsinki or St. Petersburg as the freezing winds from the sea bring a much higher level of humidity there.
Irkutsk has a rather pleasant cold – a cold to which you get used amazingly quick. And all these beautiful wooden houses and ornate Czarist buildings just look a wee bit prettier in a snowy winter landscape than in summer. Besides all the sights, Irkutsk is also an amazingly fun town – with plenty of good restaurants, cafes and pubs to keep you entertained for a few days. It is definitely worth more time than just a day as stopover on a Trans-Siberian itinerary. I for one hope to come back one day and to explore more of the city and its environs!
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Wizz Air economy class from Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A day in the Norwegian capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways night train from Oslo to Stavanger in a private sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. A day in the city of Stavanger, Norway
6. Review: Stavanger Airport North Sea Lounge
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper business class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Celebrating carnival in the Netherlands
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France business class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot business class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot domestic business class lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport
14. Review: Aeroflot business class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Exploring the Siberian city of Irkutsk (current chapter)
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel
20. Review: Domestic business class lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot business class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24-hour stopover in the Russian capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ business class lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport
25. Review: Aeroflot business class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM business class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM business class lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
27. Review: Air France business class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
28. A short stopover in Paris
29. Review: ‘Sheltair’ business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
30. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
31. Review: Old City Hotel & Apartments, Baku
32. Baku: a captivating mix between old and new
33. Review: Azerbaijan Railways night train from Baku to Sheki in a private sleeper
34. Sheki and the Caucasus foothills
35. Visiting Azerbaijan’s second-biggest city of Ganja
36. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku
37. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class lounge Baku Airport
38. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines business class Baku to Paris (Airbus A320)
39. Review: Air France business class lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2F
40. Review: KLM business class Paris to Amsterdam (Boeing 737-800)
41. Review: KLM business class Amsterdam to Bergen (Boeing 737-800)
42. Review: First Marin Hotel, Bergen
43. Visiting the Norwegian city of Bergen
44. The Bergen Railway from Bergen to Oslo
45. The scenic Flam Railway from Myrdal to Flam
46. Review: Saga Hotel Oslo Central
47. Review: SAS economy class Oslo to Brussels (Boeing 737-600)
48. Review: Diamond Lounge (non-Schengen) Brussels Airport
49. Review: TAROM economy class Brussels to Bucharest (Boeing 737-800)