Lake Baikal is the jewel of Siberia and you should by all means plan as many days as possible for your visit here.
From my experience, I would recommend using Irkutsk as your basis while organizing some side-trips around Baikal. I personally spent only half a day in Irkutsk, which I regret deeply. I felt I could easily find things to do and see in Irkutsk for 1-2 full days.
The City of Irkutsk
On your first day, start by exploring the city at your own pace. Irkutsk is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its unique architecture. Expect to be amazed by the traditional wooden houses that bring elegant decorations and lace-looking carvings on their facades and especially on the windows and roofs!
The House of Europe is a complex of many charming wooden houses that used to be grand mansions of their times. Nowadays some of them are operating as museums, one has been converted into a luxurious hotel, and another one hosts the main tourist information office of Irkutsk.
Within the grounds of the complex, you will also find a special area dedicated to the sister cities of Irkutsk. The concept of sister cities accounts for a formal agreement between geographically, politically and culturally different locations. Sister cities aim at establishing stronger ties between them. They strategically support each other’s economy and maintain long-lasting relationships of peace and friendship.
For a blend of old and new, head to the 130th District. This is hands down the most favorite hotspot among locals and tourists alike. Historical houses have recently been restored and are now used as shops, restaurants, and cafes. Street performances, people watching, sunset gazing, everything you are looking for you will find it here!
Hip and fun, the 130th District is definitely the place to be!
I can list at least 20 different places to visit while in Irkutsk. No matter if you are interested in museums, art, architecture, history, politics, religion or food, this place literally has it all!
Did You Know? Irkutsk is also referred to as “The middle of the Earth” since its distance from all three oceans (Arctic, Indian, Pacific) is nearly the same!
The Circum Baikal Railway
For no reason should you miss the scenic Circum Baikal! This wonderful 5-hour journey along the coastline of Lake Baikal promises spectacular views that will take your breath away. Amazingly, this route was also part of the old Transiberian Route!
You can enjoy this picturesque ride by using the totally inexpensive local modern train called “Matanya” for as little as 2,5€! By all means, avoid the agencies that will offer you the same tour on an expensive touristic steam train for the ridiculous price of 75€! The route is the same. The stops are the same. The only thing that is different is the price, for just an extra pick-up and drop-off service from/to Irkutsk.
While working on your itinerary, keep in mind that Matanya runs every Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. The train departs from Slyudyanka 1 train station at 13:37 p.m. sharp and arrives in Port Baikal station at 18:30 p.m.
From Port Baikal you can take the last ferry service “Port Baikal – Slingshot Berth” (at 20:15 p.m.) to reach the popular village of Listvyanka and stay there for the night. The ferry ticket will cost you no more than 1€ while the ride takes roughly 15’.
There are frequent buses (at least one per hour) heading to Slyudyanka from Irkutsk’s train station. The bus ticket costs less than 3€ and time-wise the journey lasts for approximately 2 hours.
If you are into some more exploration around Baikal, I recommend getting to Slyudyanka early in the morning. Even if there are not so many things to do here, you can still enjoy a nice stroll along the beach and by the lake. Make your way to the favorite secret gem among locals, the Shamanka Cape. Reserve at least 3 hours for walking to Shamanka Cape and back to the train station.
And in the case you decide to have an overnight here (like I did), I highly recommend staying at the Delight Guest House. The owners, Evgeny and Rufina, are such a wonderful couple! They will welcome you in their house as a friend, and will treat you with plenty of home-made mouthwatering sweets over a warm cup of tea!
Listvyanka is a small village located right on the shore of Lake Baikal. Having an overnight here allows you to take as much time as you want to explore the village on the very next day.
Contrary to what people had told me, I found Listvyanka less interesting than expected. It’s small, really small, so within 2 hours you have seen pretty much everything! If you are a low paced traveler, for sure you can enjoy some scenic hikes around the area. But in the case you cannot really afford much time, then rest assured that a short visit is more than enough!
Don’t leave the place without trying the traditional omul fish. This local delicacy cannot be found anywhere else in the world! And the fish market of Listvyanka is the best place to taste it!
Heading back to Irkutsk you can either board the Trans-Siberian train once again or plan an extra 3-days for Olkhon Island. If I could turn back time, I would definitely have adjusted my itinerary accordingly.
I might have not made it to Olkhon Island myself, but I have collected some useful info for those interested!
- The best way to get there is by using the local buses of the Olkhon Express company. In the summertime, there are four (4) different buses to choose from (two in the morning and two in the afternoon).
- It takes 6 hours to get to Olkhon from Irkutsk, meaning half a day to get there and another half day to come back. Having said that, it comes without saying that you need a minimum of 3 days for such a trip!
- Ticket reservation is mandatory at least one day in advance.
- The bus ticket costs 1.000 RUB for a one-way trip (approximately 14€).