The following is a quick overview to some of those services and products that students often need in the course of a semester or summer abroad. This covers everything from haircuts to pharmacies and gyms to computer repair. Students should generally expect to need to speak at least some Russian when seeking out these experiences – that’s part of study abroad!
1. A Practical Introduction to Irkutsk
Irkutsk is a welcoming city that, despite the quiet, friendly, small-town feel, boasts a wealth of museums and theatres, an active youth culture, and many opportunities for outdoor adventure.
Students interested in environmental policy or history should know that Irkutsk is often considered Russia’s environmental capital. Those interested in studying Russian should know that English is relatively rare in Irkutsk. This, combined with the friendliness of the locals, makes Irkutsk an ideal location for true Russian immersion.
Irkutsk is low, spread-out city. Despite a population of 600,000, the city feels small. The city center is still dominated by older, pre-soviet, wooden buildings, giving Irkutsk a distinctly Russian, distinctly provincial feel. Irkutsk is also a young city; young people migrate here from all over Siberia seeking educational opportunity and employment. Students find meeting local peers and finding entertainment – from coffee and clubs to sports and regional travel – quite easy.
Irkutsk gets light rainfall. January temperatures can reach lows of -40º F, but this rare. Winter temperatures average around -5º F and summer temperatures range in the 70s. You’ll want to pack for your chosen semester, and will definitely want good walking shoes for getting around the city, but rain gear is generally unnecessary.
Irkutsk’s quaint charm, cultural offerings, and surrounding natural beauty make for an active and rewarding study experience.
2. Eating Out
The following list is a quick list of recommendations based on SRAS’ long history in Irkutsk. It is meant to supplement the broader range of reviews on this site for various Irkutsk eateries.
Local, Traditional: Poznaya 38 is a Buryat/Russian chain. Their namesake is the poz, a traditional Buryat dumpling. They also serve borshch and other traditional Russian foods at very low prices, though portions are pretty small. You pay immediately after ordering. Mors, at Stepana Razina 5, a short walk from the university, is a great alternative to traditional stolovayas—it’s a quieter atmosphere and the food is better. For an exceptional find, try Buuznaya inside of Sports Palace Trud at 12 Karla Marksa. They’ve been a long-time staple in Irkutsk serving up exceptional Buryat food in a hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. It makes for a great pit stop on your way to Yunost Island.
Food Culture: For more upscale Russian cuisine, try Rassolnik in 130 Kvartal, which specializes in domestic and local foods served with style. Ulus serves some of the best Buryat food anywhere in a traditional atmosphere. This one comes highly recommended.
Must Try: The two other major former Soviet cuisines, besides Russian, are Central Asian and Caucasian. Both are readily available in Irkutsk and are must-tries. There doesn’t seem to be bad Caucasian food, so try any of the many Georgian places are you are likely to encounter. To name a few, Khinkalnaya No 1 and Kinza have been popular with students. For good Central Asian, see Chaikhana Ok Saroy, a hole-in-the-wall favored by those visiting from Central Asia. For a more upscale experience, try Chaikhana Kazan Topchan but keep in mind that the sushi and Russian dishes on the menu are not Central Asian. Stick to the plov and lagman…
Asian: Irkutsk is a transport hub connecting Russia with China. Asian influences in the city are palpable. Try the Orion Chinese Restaurant. An average dinner costs $10 to 15, which is above average for Irkutsk, but the meals are big and tasty. Alternatively, try Kioto, a very good Japanese place (dinners start at $17 to $20). Another Chinese option is the comfortable Harbin, with inexpensive lunch specials and a wide range of other menu options for lunch or dinner. For great Korean, try Kimchi.
Vegetarian: Govinda, a long-standing Indian-inspired vegetarian café opened by Irkutsk’s Hare Krishna community, is another great place for a very affordable lunch or dinner. The café is beautifully decorated and offers a sort of Russian-Indian fusion in buffet style, so getting food is very quick.
Brew: Tochka is a pub based in a historic building and offering exceptional food with several local beers on tap. Harats is a chain of Irish-themed pubs. They are popular student hangouts and offer occasional live music. Khmelnoe Podvorye has good food and local brew – including beer, wines, and infused local vodkas. In the Lisikha neighborhood, where many host families live, is Black Magic Bar an atmospheric pub with good beer and food and occasional live music.
For Sports: Bier Haus is a more upscale, German-themed place to get a beer and watch a game with a giant meat-heavy meal.
For the Homesick: Rio Grande serves very passable Tex-Mex. Studio Coffee, in addition to a bewildering selection of coffee also has American-style pancakes on the breakfast menu (served till noon). Asador Steak House has your fix for burgers and steaks. BBB is an upscale Belgian-themed restaurant with Irkutsk’s top-rated burgers. Domino Pizza is not to be mistaken for Domino’s. It’s Irkutsk’s local 24-hour pizza parlor and has been for years. It serves pizza by the slice for about $3.00 as well as Russian fare.
Coffee (and Free WiFi!): The coffee scene in Russia was late to start, but is blooming rapidly. Irkutsk is no exception. Studio Coffee will feel like home to any Westerner. The atmosphere is European, a testament to the owner’s travels to the West. The coffee selection is vast, as are the options for snacks and meals. Belaya Vorona is a small oasis with free Wi-Fi and a very relaxed, intellectual environment with occasional evening events, such as an open mic, poetry readings, or craft night. Traveler’s Coffee is a successful chain that was born in Siberia (Novosibirsk) and now has locations across Russia. Castro Cafe is another popular, Western-style cafe where you can often meet Russian students doing homework or just hanging out. You’ll also find small places offering to-go coffee at many popular bus stops and elsewhere throughout the city (although many won’t offer seating or WiFi).
Dancing: Clubs popular with students include the Wild Horse Saloon, which also has a fairly limited but ecclectic menu and karaoke as well. Rock ‘n Roll Pub is much more all about the drinks and live bands. Another karaoke bar, the Gentle Bulldog is also a steak and sushi house.
Fast Food: The local fast food standby is shawarma, a meat-and-vegetable wrap of Middle Eastern origin. ZakuCity is a local chain specializing in these – and has burgers and other fast food items on offer. ShaurMeals is riding the wrap-and-coffee trend in Russia, so has a good selection of drinks as well. Demos Grill offers more Greek(ish) wraps. And for those looking for American selections, you’ll find a veritable explosion of KFCs and Subways happening right now as well as a few Burger Kings… but still no McDonald’s.
Groceries: Slata and Spar are the two main grocery stores around Irkutsk. If you are looking for something specific, Irkutsk’s largest supermarkets are O’Kei and Lenta. Both locations require you to sign up for a club card in order to get the best deals, but the joining fee is very cheap, and if you shop there more than once, it is worth it. These large supermarkets also offer the cheapest prices, and by far the widest selection, including for homewares like cheap plates, cups, and tea pots. For organic, locally produced goods, Ecobazar is a small store with two locations. The Central Market is one of the oldest rynoks in Russia. It’s been recently updated and renovated and now sells almost exclusively fresh produce and meats.
Water/Water filters: The water in Irkutsk is officially safe to drink. Some locals argue against the assessment, however. If you don’t want to run the risk, boil and refrigerate it or buy bottled—a 10–liter bottle is about $1.50. Water filters can be bought at any larger grocery store or homeware store for $5-10.
Rynok: The rynok is a Russian bazaar – with lots of small stalls, often offering clothes, food, cleaners, pots and pans, and just about everything else under the sun for some of the cheapest prices in town. Volzhskii Rynok is near to some of the univeristy dorms. The China City Rynok has wares direct from China. You can haggle prices down to about the lowest you’ll find, but it’s also known for low-quality goods.
Shopping Malls: Irkutsk also has several very modern, American-style malls: Modniy Kvartal, Komsomoll, Snigir, Novyi, and Lermontova are the big ones. Here you’ll find clothes, electronics, food courts, and, in many, even movie theaters, sports clubs, and more.
Souvenirs, Antiques, and Local Crafts: Information coming.
Clothing: In addition to the malls and rynoks above, the city’s major shopping district runs from the Central Market up to Karl Marx Street. On Uritskovo Street, which runs between the two, you’ll find a number of familiar brands like United Colors of Benetton, Reserved, Addidas, and Columbia Sportswear. For a Forever-21-type store with frequent sales, see Two Thousand. Irkutsk’s largest second hand store is called Slivki.
Electronics: DNS is a local chain of electronics stores with a good selection of just about everything from computer equipment to tea pots. Modniy Kvartal one of the larger shopping malls has several electronics outlets as well including an MVideo, a Russian chain that is now Europe’s largest electronics retailer. For phones and Internet dongles, Evroset and Svayznoi are the big retailers. The major service providers, MTS, Megafon, and Beeline, also have branded stores. For more on cellphone and Internet service, see our Guide to Irkutsk Budgets.
Eyeglasses and Contacts: Optika na Sovetskoy can sell you disposable lenses, cut glasses, etc. If you know your prescription, no doctor visit is needed. If you don’t, then they can test you. Ochkov.net is Russia’s largest retailer of contact lenses and related supplies.
Pharmacies: Bring a supply of needed medications with you. However, if you need something, look for the international symbol of a green cross or the word “аптека.” If looking for something specific, try looking it up on Wikipedia in English and then clicking on “Russian” in the language menu on the left panel.
Books (Russian or English): There are several good bookstores in Irkutsk, and books are generally much cheaper than in the US (though books in English are a bit pricier). If you are looking for books in English, the easiest fix will likely be to just download Amazon’s Kindle App for your phone. Hard copy English books can be found at that Russian chains ProdaLit and Chitay Gorod. For used books, try Knizhnaya Lavka. It’s tiny, but you can usually find some sort of treasure.
Arts and Crafts: Information coming.
Cell Phone and Internet: For more on cellphone service, see our Guide to Irkutsk Budgets.
Public Transport and Maps: While fairly efficient, Irkutsk public transport is not the easiest to navigate. See IrkBus, an online public transport map, and Irk.ru, which can give you each numbered route (in Russian) and the destinations along the route. 2Gis also gives very accurate directions from point to point—similar to Google Maps—complete with the bus/marshrutka/tram you’ll need to take to get where you want to go. Yandex Maps of Irkutsk also show daily traffic levels, which can be very useful when determining which route to take to class in the morning. Maps.me can also be downloaded and used offline. It shows hiking routes and lookout points, although in general it is not as detailed as 2gis.For more on public transport costs, see our Guide to Irkutsk Budgets.
Banks: There are Sberbank and VTB branches all over the place; those are reliable and recommended. The Vneshtorgbank at Sverdlova, 40 is also particularly recommended if you need to cash Visa or American Express travelers checks. It has a good exchange rate, and commission for the transaction is 0.5% to 2% of the face value of the check, depending on the type of operation and currency. Most stores, restaurants, and cafes accept credit cards as well.
Medical Services: If at all possible, call your insurance before seeing a doctor. Often, there are certain doctors they want you to see or that will directly accept the insurance. The main clinic is the Regional Clinical Hospital of the Irkutsk Region and they have English-speaking staff – but not obviously in all specialties or at all levels of staff. You’ll probably still want some translation help if you need to go and are unsure of your language skills. You might also see this list of health facilities from Visit-Irkutsk.com.
Gyms and Fitness: There are plenty of gyms all over Irkutsk. Near the university are Sezon and Champion which both offer modern facilities and plenty of equipment. Sezon also offers exercise classes. Closer to the dorms and Lisikha is Sportmax which is cheaper, at only 1000 rubles (under $20) per month. Rocky is a Russian chain that offers boxing classes and Siberia offers martial arts. These are fun, but pricey. Amira offers fun dance classes. For yoga (very popular throughout Russian), try Vector Fit where you can get a three-month membership for around $130 and several types of yoga on offer. In winter, make sure to try skating, a favorite local pastime. You can skate right on the Angara River, once it’s frozen, around the Icebreaker Museum or in numerous other locations throughout the city. For skiing, another popular local pastime, see Dinamo (cross-country) or Eastland (cross-country and downhill).
Computer Repair: Interstore has two convenient locations and can fix iPhones, laptops, and other electronics.
Dry Cleaners: Snizhinka is a large local chain that offers both laundry and dry cleaning.
Charitable Giving: There are bins that accept used clothing in the Slata located near the university (Сухэ-Батора, 7)—donations will be given to Vtornik, a charity shop. Two crisis centers, Мария and Милосердие, accept women’s clothing and other items.
Post: The main branch of the post office is located across from the circus in the center of town. As you enter, turn left immediately into the post office section. They have fax services if you need. There are post offices throughout the city for sending letters or packages. There are also DHL offices in Irkutsk. More on post services in Russia.