Siberia – home to the Buryats and the Decembrists. The eclectic mix of ethnic minorities, indigenous populations and Russian Slavs has created a diverse city, located 5,197.1 km from Moscow.
As a vegetarian, I sought out the places that didn’t just offer meat and potatoes. We found lots of cool spots on Karl Marx Street, where our hostel (Best Hostel Irkutsk) was located, simply by exploring the area. We also turned to Trip Advisor for recommendations.
Here’s a list of my top 6 places to eat or drink in Irkutsk:
1. Real Zames (pelmeni restaurant): located on Karl Marx Street, Real Zames is the King of dumplings – offering a wide variety of the freshly-made Russian pelmeni (and vareniki) for you to try. This includes the traditional pelmeni with minced venison, as well as vegetarian and international fusions.
What is Pelmeni? They are little, folded dumplings, which are believed to have originated in Siberia. Vareniki, on the other hand, are slightly bigger dumplings and are thought to have originated in the Ukraine.
Real Zames is fitted out in industrial style, having left its piping and brickwork exposed, and uses tin enamel plates. Be sure to check out the creative light fittings and the chair pillows shaped like pelmeni!
2. Cheshskaya Pivovarnya (microbrewery): hidden away in the backstreets, this microbrewery offers local brews and an escape from the tourist traps. On our visit, they had two pilsners to try: jasne pivo (light beer) and chemne pivo (dark beer). The staff were super friendly and liked to practise their English. The brewery also offers a hearty menu (although we saved ourselves for Mamochka-1).
3. Mamochka-1 (stolovaya restaurant): also located on Karl Marx Street, this ‘stolovaya’ restaurant offers traditional Russian cuisine and some international dishes for cheap prices. Its interior is a mishmash of old newspapers and Soviet bric-a brac, which adds to its quirky, accessible appeal.
Stolovaya restaurants are basic, utilitarian cafeterias left over from Soviet Russia. At Mamochka-1, you either pay per weight or per item of food, depending on what you order. The food was average but very well priced. It also sells Slovak lagers.
4. Govinda café: also cheap, this cafeteria offers vegetarian and vegan food. Like other Govinda locations around the world, this café offers Russian-inspired dishes as well as the more customary Indian-style cuisine. And like Mamochka-1, you either pay per weight or per item of food, depending on what you order.
5. Engineeria Coffee House, La Boulangerie & Patisserie and The Library Bar:
Engineeria Coffee House, located on Karl Marx Street, is a hub for coffee connoisseurs. It’s a bit pricier than your average café but you can feel confident you’ll get a decent cuppa while you’re there. However, they aren’t big on their food selection, especially before 10am.
La Boulangerie & Patisserie, opposite Engineeria Coffee House, opens early (before 10am) and it was here that we enjoyed fresh croissants each morning. We found that not many places open before 10am. Needless to say, this Boulangerie gave us the opportunity to breakfast like a Decembrist, who apparently brought over European taste and culture to Siberia, and were particular fans of the French.
The Library Bar, located on a corner and next to La Boulangerie & Patisserie, this bar seemed to be the spot where the local youngsters liked to have their early evening drop. They offer cocktails and draft beer, and an interesting decor inspired by Russian literary greats.
6. Block 130 (Irkutsk Sloboda): this ‘historical’ zone is a replica of old wooden structures from the 18th century, now mostly restaurants, cafés and souvenir shops. Located in the heart of the city, Block 130 is guarded by Irkutsk’s coat of arms, the Babr – a Siberian tiger with a sable in his mouth.
Here, you can satisfy your Western culinary desires (if that is what you crave) and mix with the local Russians that like to crowd its streets at weekends. It’s worth having a look around, even if you don’t stay for a bite, as the place gives off the impression that you’re on the set of a vintage Russian Country & Western film fused with a contemporary Siberian shopping mall.
Accommodation: we stayed at Best Hostel Irkutsk, located on Karl Marx Street. We emailed them to reserve our beds. The first night, we had a 4-bed room to ourselves. Once we had arrived and decided upon of travel plans, we decided to extend for another night. Unfortunately, this meant my dad had to change rooms. He slept in a male-only 8-bed room.
Despite it being one of the cheapest places we stayed on our railway journey, the place was clean and the staff were friendly. Payment was made upon arrival.
Transport: we found it super easy to walk everywhere. At the tourist information centre, we received a map of free walking tours, which came in handy. For longer distances, we took the tram.
Travel advice: most places open at 10am or later in Irkutsk, including the cafés. This made it a little challenging for us as our hostel didn’t serve food, but being located in downtown Karl Marx Street meant that we found some places that opened ‘early.’
The outskirts of town come across as a little rough, so be aware of pickpockets.
Photo: making pelmeni at Real Zames on Karl Marx Street, Irkutsk, Russia