The city celebrated its 350th birthday a few years ago, hard to imagine. It is not a hectic, cosmopolitan place but definitely a thriving city with beautiful architecture. Famous are the 19th old wooden houses of Irkutsk with beautifully painted window panes. Some of them are nicely renovated, whereas others look neglected.
These, plus a couple of museums and beautiful churches can be all visited in a day or two if you are in a rush. Literally, every traveler on the Transib stops here, but mainly to take a peek of Lake Baikal. From Irkutsk it is about 70km to the lake, follow the Angara River till it spills into the lake.
Discovering Irkutsk by following the Green Line
Irkutsk’s sights can be easily explored by following a green line painted on the sidewalk, by using the corresponding city map you always know where you are and what you are seeing. A long stretch takes you along Karl Marx Street with is grand buildings, unfortunately many disfigured by modern advertising.
This is where you find lots of shops and a few restaurants. Among the popular places is a beer cellar, where native Buryat girls dressed in Dirndl serve Hacker-Pschorr from Munich and the guy at the entrance reminds of a wanna-be-Tyrolean.
The Green Line takes you to beautiful churches with their onion-shaped domes shining brightly in the sun. The interior is often rich, especially the altars are decorated with plaited gold. In all churches you find a box with light scarves near the entrance and I noticed that all Russian women covered their head while in church.
A must visit are the homes-turned-into museums of famous “Decembrists”. These were nobles who rebelled against the czar’s total rule as early as 1825. The coup failed though and they were all sent to the mines of Siberia, but somehow managed to live a comfortable life in Irkutsk.
Their wives made a big fuss about following their husbands and claimed to have brought civilization to the far east of the empire.
The Green line also runs down to the Angara River, the riverside is a bit disappointing. Lined with a concrete wall, there is neither shade nor any greenery whatsoever to make for a pleasant stroll, especially in this heat.
Transport and Accommodation:
All sights in downtown Irkutsk can be reached on foot.
Price for taxi from the airport to the center: 220 Rubel. Be aware you people who approach at the arrival area and whisper “taxi”. They are not real taxi drivers, just people trying to make a quick buck, the guy who approached me asked for 500 Rubel.
Accommodation: I certainly cannot recommend the Baikaler Hostel, which is basically an apartment. The owner was quick answering my mails, although the brevity of his message- two to three word- was irritating. The place is very very cramped, there is no common area, just a small table in the small kitchen. All rooms face noisy Lenin Street.
I arrived at 4am, super tired. Luckily the taxi driver did not give up pressing the bell at the Baikal Hostel and eventually some sleepy voice answered. Knowing my room would not ready until noon I appreciated crashing in the only available bed in the dorm. Soon traffic on busy Lenin Street started and made sleep impossible, so I decided to check out the city. My room was still occupied when I returned and I was passed on to women called Galina, who lives in one of these old wooden houses, with a huge cat and as many tourists she could squeeze into her tiny house.
Most tourists in Irkutsk stay in local homes. Many have turned professional hosts, like Gallina.
I have no clue how many of us stayed in this not really big wooden house, since there was no communal area to meet. Gallina cooked up the storm in her super hot little kitchen. Breakfast was filling and tasty. She also has a flat in an adjacent apartment building which is a bit less cramped and with a large communal kitchen area.
All hosts organize transport to and accommodation on the island of Olkhon if you have time to go there, which I would strongly recommend.