Hot Town, Summer in the City: Irkutsk, Siberia

Hot Town, Summer in the City: Irkutsk, Siberia

Spending a summer day in Siberia, Russia may very well shatter any preconceived notions you may have about this part of the world, thought of as inhospitable, frigid, and forlorn.

I joined other travelers spending an August day exploring the Siberian city of Irkutsk from sunup to sundown.

Visitors snap photos where many Irkutsk pioneers first settled in the 1600s, along the Angara RiverPhoto credit: Helen Holter

Visitors snap photos along the Angara River where Irkutsk pioneers first settled in the 1600s 
Photo credit: Helen Holter

“Paris of Siberia”Irkutsk is sometimes called the “Paris of Siberia,”  known for its history, arts, and culture. In part this is because so many educated political exiles – including the Decembrists after their failed 1825 uprising – were sentenced to Siberia’s labor camps and, denied permission to return to their homes after serving their time, chose to settle here. Their families set up schools, offered language and music lessons, and held concerts and readings in their homes.

Decembrists' Museum in Irkutsk, Russia

The study in Maria Volkonsky’s Irkutsk home, now the Decembrist Museum, where she gave lessons and arranged concerts 
Photo credit: Helge Pedersen

Today Irkutsk is a city of 600,000, yet still retains an old-fashioned charm with its parks, old and new decorated wooden houses, and riverside views. It’s also a popular stopover for travelers – less than 50 miles from Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake.

Here are some of the experiences Irkutsk has to offer on a sunny summer day:

Classic wooden Siberian architecture in Irkutsk

Classic wooden Siberian architecture in Irkutsk
Photo credit: Michel Behar

1. The Angara RiverMore than 1,000 miles long, the rapid-flowing Angara is the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal. With its cool breezes and water views, the river embankment is a popular place to stroll, meet friends, or enjoy a local festival. The ubiquitous padlocks of love fill the railings along the river, placed by romantic couples symbolically locking their hearts together and tossing the key into the river. Nearby, a statue of Czar Alexander III – the catalyst for building the Trans-Siberian Railway – towers over a friendly scene of children playing along the embankment.

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2. Cathedrals and Church BellsThe heart of Irkutsk’s old town is home to three historic churches: the 1706 white stone Spasskaya (Savior) Church, converted to a shoe-making shop in Soviet times; the 19th century neo-Gothic Polish Cathedral; and perhaps the most famous, Bogoyavlensky (Epiphany) Cathedral, with its sacred bells pealing from green, salmon and white towers topped with Russian domes – a color-splashed style known as “Siberian Baroque.” Worshipers exit morning services, bowing and crossing themselves three times before returning to their daily lives. 

During Soviet times Bogoyavlensky Cathedral was used as a bakery <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

During Soviet times Bogoyavlensky Cathedral was used as a bakery
Photo credit: Helen Holter

3. WWII Memorial and Eternal Flame on Kirov SquareKirov Square has long been a gathering place for Irkutsk residents and travelers – it’s hosted everything from farmers’ markets to fairs and celebrations.

  • Opened in 1975 on the war’s 30th anniversary, the WWII Memorial’s white marble walls are carved with the names of Irkutsk natives honored as “Heroes of the Soviet Union” in WWII, also known as the “Great Patriotic War.”
  • The nearby Eternal Flame Memorial was first lit in 1975, using fire transported from the eternal flame at Moscow’s Kremlin Wall.
A young boy places flowers at Irkutsk's Eternal Flame <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

A young boy places flowers at Irkutsk’s Eternal Flame
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


4. Icebreaker AngaraOne of the oldest icebreakers in the world, the Angara was first used on Lake Baikal as a ferry; today it’s a floating museum on the Angara River, and locals sunbathe, kayak, and swim near the retired vessel.

It's believed the icebreaker <i>Angara</i> set a world record by sinking three times <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

It’s believed the icebreaker Angara set a world record by sinking three times
Photo credit: Helen Holter

5. Central MarketPacked with summer fruits and colorful vegetables, Irkutsk’s covered circular market sells smoked omul – fish unique to Lake Baikal – along with Siberian favorites such as farmer’s cheese, caviar, and kvas, a refreshing drink made from fermented black bread.

Irkutsk's labyrinthine Central Market  is open year-round, even when temperatures hit -30°C  <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Irkutsk’s sizeable Central Market is open year-round, even when temperatures hit -30°C
Photo credit: Helen Holter

(click on photo for larger version)


6. Wooden HousesIrkutsk’s old town is filled with blocks of old traditional Siberian wooden houses.

  • Adorned with intricate fretwork and colorful shutters, the old town’s relatively untouched houses are a highlight for many visitors to Irkutsk.
  • Known as the “Kvartal Project,”  an area of dozens of wooden houses in one of Irkutsk’s historic districts has been reconstructed, transforming a once-dilapidated neighborhood of crumbling merchant mansions into pleasant streets lined with cafés, restaurants, and offices.

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7. Volkonsky (Decembrist) House MuseumThis historic two-story wooden house was once the home of Maria and Sergei Volkonsky, exiled for his part in the failed 1825 Decembrist Uprising. Under Maria’s guidance, the home became a local cultural haven presenting classical concerts and literary readings, a legacy that continues today.

It took more than a decade to restore the Volkonsky House, reopened as a museum in 1985 <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

It took more than a decade to restore the 19th century Volkonsky House, reopened as a museum in 1985
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Travel to Siberia MIR

Siberia is alive with history, adventure, and natural beauty. On MIR’s small group tours and Trans-Siberian journeys, you can explore the culture and history not only of Irkutsk, but of the entire vast region. MIR’s Siberian experts also can hand-craft a custom, private journey that focuses on your interests, preferred destinations, and timeline.

See all of our Siberia travel options

MIR is celebrating 30 years travel experience to Russia, with Siberian affiliate offices in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude offering on-the-ground support, as well as tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Contact MIR today at info@mircorp.com or 1-800-424-7289.

 

Top photo: A popular pastime on a sunny Siberian afternoon in Irkutsk: eating ice cream. Photo credit: Helen Holter

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2015

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