Known as the “Paris of Siberia,” Irkutsk is one of the largest Russian cities east of the Urals. Located on the Angara River, documentation of Russian presence here goes back to the mid-seventeenth century, when merchants came to trade gold and furs with the local Buryat people. In the nineteenth century, many nobles and cultural figures were exiled here, notably members of the Decembrist uprising, who brought intellectualism and artistic cultivation to the area. Today the city is a famous site for ecological research, stemming from its proximity to the southern end of Lake Baikal, which holds one fifth of the earth’s fresh water and in which an astounding 80% of species are endemic.

Main Attractions

Lake Baikal

Ornate house-museums of Decembrists, other exiles

Taltsy Museum of traditional Siberian architecture

Irkutsk History Museum

Near-by attractions: Ulan-Ude, which claims the best view of Baikal’s southern end; Listvyanka, a resort town on Baikal and the Angara; Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia

Location

Irkutsk lies 2,600 miles east-southeast of Moscow, about the same distance between Los Angeles and New York City. Should you wish to get here from the capital by train, get a sleeper car: it’s a five-day trip. Ulan-Ude is directly east of the city across the southern tip of Lake Baikal, and Ulaanbaatar is 320 miles south.

Fun facts

-In the 19th century, gold was discovered in the nearby Lena Basin, and a Siberian gold rush ensued, bring hordes of people into the city. Evidence of this is seen in the sprawling mansions built by wealthy families during this time.

-Despite monthly average temperatures of -10° F and colder in the heart of winter, Irkutsk actually is one of the sunniest places in Siberia year-round.

-Though big cats have been extinct in the region for at least a century and a half, Irkutsk’s coat of arms still shows a bounding tiger with a sable in its mouth. This image has been used by Russian customs officers since the mid-seventeenth century (though not in Soviet times), and actually dates all the way back to the Khanate of Sibir during the Middle Ages.

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