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One of the major stops on the Trans Siberian route and Trans Mongolian railways is the Russian town of Irkutsk in Siberia. Irkutsk is the gateway to Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and largest freshwater lake and is also a lovely place to explore in its own right. If you’re doing a Trans Siberian railway trip and plan to stop in Irkutsk, be sure to check out this guide to things to do in Irkutsk, Russia for a memorable trip!
Irkutsk is a town in eastern Siberia in Russia and is both the largest city in Siberia and the de-facto capital of Siberia. The population of Irkutsk is over 600,000 making it a fairly sizeable town.
It’s one of the most popular stops on the Trans Siberian Railway and, as such, is popular with tourists, especially during the summer months.
With Lake Baikal just 65km away, the city makes a great base for travellers looking to visit the western shoreline of the lake.
But the city itself is worth exploring too. There’s 19th-century architecture, pretty churches and great places to eat! If you’re looking for places to visit in Siberia then be sure to add this to the list.
Where is Irkutsk?
Irkutsk is in the Siberian region of Russia and is the largest city in Siberia. It’s one of the most popular stops along the Trans Siberian Railway which goes from Moscow to Vladivostok and along the Trans–Mongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing, China via Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It’s around 5,200 km east of Moscow and just over 1,600km from Beijing.
Typical Irkutsk weather
The Irkutsk climate is typically very cold with long dry winters and warm summers that tend to be wetter. The weather in Irkutsk when we visited in mid-July was hot and dry with temperatures in the high 20s-low 30s.
Irkutsk weather in winter sees temperatures of around -20 degrees Celcius making an Irkutsk winter a cold one! The weather gets cold enough in this region to make Lake Baikal the most impressive frozen lake in Russia!
When is the best time to visit Siberia?
Summer is the best time to visit Siberia. June – August is when you’ll get the hotter temperatures, as well as more daylight, meaning you won’t be freezing cold every time you step outside!
However, if you want to see Lake Baikal frozen over then you’ll need to visit in winter. This usually happens for 4-5 months from late January to early May-June (June for the north part of the lake).
How to get to Irkutsk and away
There is an Irkutsk international airport, albeit a small one, and the city is also one of the main stops along the Trans Siberian railway route.
We travelled from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk on the Trans Mongolian train arriving at Irkutsk railway station and left by getting the plane from Irkutsk airport to Beijing.
Trans Siberian Railway to Irkutsk
The most common way for travellers to arrive in Irkutsk is on the Trans Siberian train. Most people travelling on the Trans Siberian express will get to Irkutsk from Moscow or on the Ulan Bator to Irkutsk train.
We caught the train to Irkutsk from Ulaanbaatar. The Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk train takes around 26 hours and arrives at Irkutsk train station from which it’s easy to get to central Irkutsk. For us, this was the endpoint of our Trans Mongolian railway trip, but for many, they’ll be travelling on the Trans Siberian express going all the way from Moscow to Beijing by train.
If you’re getting the Moscow to Irkutsk train (which follows the standard Trans Siberian train trip) it’ll take around 4 days.
You can also go straight from Beijing to Irkutsk but I’d recommend stopping in Mongolia if possible!
You can book your Trans Siberian train tickets in advance (which is recommended) on several different websites. If you’re departing from elsewhere in Russia then I’d recommend RussianRailways.com, New Juulchin tours and if you’re coming from China try CITS.
Check out my post on how to travel the Trans Siberian railway including more information on Trans Siberian railway cost.
Flights to Irkutsk
Irkutsk international airport is super small (with only one gate!) but it flies internationally and domestically to cities in Russia.
We caught a flight from Irkutsk to Beijing with S7 and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the planes. Especially given that everyone had been warning us beforehand about how risky getting a plane from Siberia could be!
I always book my plane tickets through Skyscanner because they make it super easy to find cheap flights.
Where to stay in Irkutsk
Getting to hostels and hotels in central Irkutsk is super easy when getting off the train at Irkutsk Passenger train station. Just catch tram 1 which takes you straight downtown. Take a look at these Irkutsk accommodation recommendations.
Important visa information: In order to get your Russian visa, you’ll need an invite from the hotel or hostel you’re staying at. All accommodation in Irkutsk should be able to help you out with this as they’ll be used to doing so. They usually have a link to a site that can get this confirmation for you. The Rolling Stones, for example, used HotelsPro.
Best hostels in Irkutsk
- Rolling Stones Hostel: Probably the best Irkutsk hostel is the Rolling Stones hostel. It gets incredible reviews on Booking.com and is the hostel we picked for our night in Irkutsk. It’s super clean, has funky music and the private rooms are spacious with comfy beds and absolutely everything you need for your stay. Plus, the washrooms are super clean and the staff are super friendly too! See more here.
- Montana Hostel: Great looking hostel in downtown Irkutsk with private ensuite rooms available.
- Hostel Shiksha: Great location, dorm and family rooms available.
Best hotels in Irkutsk, Russia
Looking for a hotel in Irkutsk? Check out these great options.
- Ibis Irkutsk Central: Nice clean rooms from a branded hotel you can trust
- Zvezda Hotel: This Irkutsk hotel has classically furnished rooms with A/C, tea & coffee facilities, TVs and private bathrooms. Also has a swimming pool within the hotel.
- Historic Hotel Central: All rooms have a flat-screen TV with and a private bathroom. Breakfast is included.
- Good Cat: Private rooms with shared bathrooms, slippers and tea sets are provided. There’s also a kitchen on-site to cook your own meals.
Best things to do in Irkutsk
Wondering what to do in Irkutsk during your trip? Be sure to check out this list of what to see in Irkutsk and the surrounding areas.
Best tours in Irkutsk
Short on time and looking for a quick Trans Siberian railway tour in Irkutsk? Check out these awesome tours.
- Irkutsk City Tour: This Irkutsk sightseeing tour takes you through the historic core of Irkutsk with a private guide.
- 2-day Olkhon Island: Irkutsk tour: Transport to and from Irkutsk. Includes accommodation, dinners and a guide.
Go on a church tour
Irkutsk is full of beautiful and extravagantly decorated orthodox churches. Krestovozdvizhenskaya Tserkov’ and Spasskaya Tserkov’ are the two churches especially worth a visit. My favourite was Krestovozdvizhenskaya Tserkov’. Taking a church tour is one of the best ways to learn more about each individual one.
Note: If you want to go inside the churches be prepared to cover up your shoulders, heads and above your knees. A lot of the churches have shawls and wrap around skirts you can borrow if you’re not.
Visit Lake Baikal
You can’t come to Irkutsk and not visit Lake Baikal which you may also hear being referred to as “Irkutsk Lake” or the “Siberian Lake”.
Lake Baikal is one of the oldest geographical features in the world. It stretches 636km from north to south and is up to 1637m deep, making it the world’s deepest lake. Astonishingly the lake contains nearly one-fifth of the planet’s unfrozen freshwater. Fed by 300 rivers, it’s drained by just one, the Angara near Listvyanka.
There are many different ways you can visit it, from visiting one of the towns along the lake shore or heading out to Olkhon Island both of which are listed in more detail below.
Take a trip to Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island is one of the most popular excursions from Irkutsk. Getting from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island takes a long time (at least 5 hours each way), but the island is picturesque and a great way to see Lake Baikal.
Check out this guide to Olkhon Island
Listvanyanka is the closest town on Lake Baikal from Irkutsk and it’s also one of the oldest settlements at Baikal Lake. It’s small but has plenty to keep you entertained for a day or two.
Things to do in Listvyanka:
- Hike some of the Great Baikal Trail
- Learn about the lake at the Baikal Museum
- Take the chair lift to the top of Chersky Stone for a great view
- Visit the fish market
- Visit a Russian Banya (sauna)
Getting to Listvyanka from Irkutsk
The easiest way to get from Irkutsk to Listvyanka is to catch the Irkutsk to Listvyanka bus which takes around 1 hour 40 minutes, costing around 140 rubles each way.
The bus goes from Irkutsk Bus station. The route number is N 524 and it leaves every hour.
From June to September you can also take a boat form the Raketa pier in Irkutsk to Bolshiye Koty which stops at Listvyanka along the way. www.vsrp.ru.
Visit the Central Market
One of the top Irkutsk attractions is the Central Market. This huge market sells everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to clothes. It’s a great place for a wander when you’re in the city.
Ride the Circum-Baikal railway
The Circum-Baikal Railway is a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway and is arguably the most beautiful. Travelling alongside Lake Baikal, the train makes several stops where you can get out for a short while to get better views.
There’s the electric train which is more of a commuter train, and the steam train which is ideal for tourists as it tends to make longer stops.
See the Babr symbol of Irkutsk
The symbol of Irkutsk is the Babr which is an old Russian word meaning ‘Siberian Tiger’. The tiger has been on the city’s coat of arms since Irkutsk was established and there’s a sculpture of the Babr in a small square by Lenina Street.
Chill out in Irkutsk’s beautiful parks
I was surprised by the number of beautiful parks and fountains in Irkutsk. It wasn’t something I expected and made a pleasant change from visiting Beijing and Ulaanbaatar where there was a distinct lack of parks.
They’re not all grassy parks, more concrete ones, but there are still trees, fountains and plenty of benches making them great for a rest while you’re exploring.
Try pine cone preserves
Pine cones are something you’ve probably ever eaten before but in Russia, you can! They’re cooked into preserves like jams and honey and are said to ease asthma and bronchitis.
Look for products like honey with the pine cone clearly visible in the jar, or on the label and give it a taste. It also makes a great Siberian souvenir!
Try Baikal fish
When eating out in Irkutsk restaurants be sure to try some Baikal fish known as omul. Baikal omul is a whitefish species of the salmon family special to Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia. It’s considered a delicacy and will be super fresh in Listvyanka if you’re planning a trip there!
Take the Irkutsk walking tour
One thing we found pretty cool about Irkutsk was that they have a walking tour that’s mapped out on the pavements for you. As you walk around you’ll see a green line which takes you from place to place and there are information boards along the way too.
I’ve never seen this anywhere else before and thought it was a great idea!
Top tip: If you’re staying in The Rolling Stones hostel they’ve got a great Irkutsk map which has this green walking tour as well as another one.