When you think of Siberia, you probably don't think of cities, let alone very large ones. Yet Irkutsk, capital of the Oblast of the same name in the eastern part of Russia's frozen tundra, is home to more than half a million people. It's also chock full of incredible activities, whether you explore the eclectic mix of Russian, Siberian and indigenous Buryat culture on offer in the city center, or make an excursion to Lake Baikal, the largest body of freshwater in the world and the region's most famous attraction.
Pray to the Savior—or the Prince
Irkutsk might be thousands of miles from the majority of the Russian population, but you can still find plenty of faithful adherents to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Even if you're not a religious traveler, this means stunning Eastern Orthodox architecture, which is a photographer's dream.
First up is the Church of the Savior, a humble 18th-century structure built in the shape of shape—this detail will become important in a couple of sections, so pay attention. You could also visit 19th-century Kazan Church, whose red bricks juxtapose with a bright blue roof.
The most stunning and dramatic piece of Orthodox architecture in Irkutsk, however, is Prince Vladimir Monastery, a huge complex constructed in 1888 to honor the early Russian prince who'd Christianized Russia nearly a millennium before.
Take a History Lesson
Have you ever heard the phrase "banished to Siberia"? Well, it's not just an expression. Participants of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, which you might think of as an unsuccessful version of the 1917 revolution that eventually toppled the Tsars, were sent to Siberia as a punishment, and the Irkutsk Regional Historical and Memorial Museum of Decembrists tells some of their stories.
Another place to immerse yourself in the history of Irkutsk is the Irkutsk Regional Museum, which focuses on the architecture and ethnography of indigenous Buryat people.
Say "Privet" to a Baikal Seal
If the name "Irkutsk Nerpinary" doesn't evoke any reaction in you, no one will blame you. However, once you realize that this place is home to extraordinarily cute Nerps (another name for the Baikal Seal), you'll probably change your tune. If you aren't going to be able to see this magnificent creature in its natural habitat (which is one of the items on this list, as it turns out), the Irkutsk Nerpinary is the best place to say "Privet" (that's Russian for "hello"!) to one.
Go to the Beach
Located within the Angara that flows through the center of Irkutsk, Yunosti Island is far from what you would consider tropical; it doesn't even have sand, as many of the artificial cities beaches around the world do. But if you aren't going to be able to make it all the way to Lake Baikal and still want some time on the water, this might be your best bet, at least within the Irkutsk city limits.
Russian cuisine, in general, is underrated, but the Siberian Buryat community's food you find in Irkutsk is actually unknown to most of the world's population. The staple food for this population is the pozy, a hearty meat dumpling you're supposed to eat with your hands (though no one will judge you if you don't.
Fish, not surprisingly, is also an important ingredient in Irkutsk, given the city's proximity to the world's largest freshwater lake. Popular local fish include Kharius, Omyl, and Sig, which are prepared in different ways depending on where you order them.
Become an Ice Princess
Irkutsk's annual ice sculpture festival doesn't really hold a candle to the one in Harbin, China, but locals nonetheless put up snow and ice sculptures in the city's Central Park (which also doesn't live up to its namesake in New York) every year. If you happen to visit Irkutsk in winter and aren't headed immediately to Lake Baikal, this is definitely something you should check out. Some years there's an ice castle, which means you can become an ice princess (or prince, as it were).
Or Just Break the Ice
Although it's thousands of miles from an ocean, Irkutsk has nonetheless been one of Siberia's most important ports throughout history, a fact that's even more impressive when you consider the city's water is frozen solid for half the year. The aptly-named "Icebreaker" Museum, which sits in the middle of the Angara River and is housed in an actually icebreaking ship that's one of the oldest in the world, tells this story and many others.
Listen to Folk Music
When you hear the name "Irkutsk Philharmony," you probably imagine classical music and ballet performances. While this building is no Bolshoi Theatre, performances of a more classical sort do play here. On the other hand, you should make sure to stop by on your trip, to see if any folk dance and music performances will take place. It could be a great opportunity to experience Buryat culture!
Buy the Best Pair of Boots You'll Ever Own
In case you haven't figured it out, Irkutsk is cold, with temperatures staying below freezing for between 5-6 months per year. As a result, these people know their stuff when it comes to warm clothing—and footwear.
Called "Kamusi" by the Buryat, the deer and elk fur boots you'll see sold all around town are probably overkill for wherever you're taking the back to. Still they're a worthy investment, and you can pretty much be guaranteed your feet will never be cold again.
Catch a Frozen Wave
Finally, we arrive at Lake Baikal. The largest freshwater lake in the world, which has recently become internet famous due to the frozen waves that lap (or rather, don't lap) at its shores during Siberia's long winter, Lake Baikal is close enough to Irkutsk (about an hour by train) to be done as a day trip, though you will probably want to stay longer there (provided you've got your kamusi on)!
In fact, you can circle the entire lake by train, which can take as long as 3 days, though that could be overkill as well.
Take a Bath
The Arshan Resort located in the outskirts of Irkutsk is one of the most notable nature hot springs in Siberia, but don't expect an experience as raucous as the one you'd find at a Banya bathhouse in Moscow or St. Petersburg. The focus here is less on community or conversation, and more on the magical thermal water that seeps up from the frozen tundra of Siberia.
Head to the Far East, or Way Out West
Irkutsk sits much closer to the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway than the Western one, but if you board this epic journey at Irkutsk Station, there's still plenty to explore in either direction. Buy a ticket headed eastward, and marvel at the steppe of Mongolia as your train barrels toward Beijing. Or head west to Moscow, which will feel about as cosmopolitan as Hollywood compared to Irkutsk, despite all the amazing things you did there.