Slicing a north-south swathe through the mountains and coniferous snow forests of Siberia, visiting Russia’s Lake Baikal (Ozero Baikal) is a world-beating experience - and that’s no exaggeration. At over 1.6 km deep, Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an undeniable sparkling jewel in Siberia’s crown. From finding out what you need to know before you go to Baikal, to discovering what makes it special, read on for your Lake Baikal travel guide.
As well as being the world’s deepest freshwater lake, at 25 million-years-old southern Siberia’s Lake Baikal is also the world’s most ancient - for adventurous history buffs, surely a reason to visit Lake Baikal in itself. With its administrative centre in the city of Irkutsk, it’s roughly the size of Belgium, and holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Interestingly, while the lake is fed by more than 300 rivers, it’s only drained by one, the Angara, with River Selenga - an important habitat for birds - forming a large delta on its eastern shoreline.
Alongside being blessed with staggering biodiversity (more on that below), Lake Baikal is also known as the Sacred Sea, with its voluminous crystalline waters sparking many myths. Among the lake’s local legends is that of a water beast named Lusud-Khan (Water Dragon Master) by the region’s indigenous Buryat people. Said to resemble a giant sturgeon, with a protruding snout and armour festooning its back, sightings have been reported for hundreds of years, with some suggesting this legendary lake monster is represented in the Stone Age petroglyphs located along the Baikal cliffs.
If being the world’s deepest and oldest lake wasn’t enough, Lake Baikal boasts plenty of attractions and activities to keep all kinds of travellers energised and entertained. And utterly awestruck, for that matter.
Watch wildlife wonders: with over 80 percent of its 3700+ species found nowhere else on Earth, it’s little wonder that Lake Baikal is often called “The Galapagos of Russia”. The most famous of these endemic species is the slinky silver-grey nerpa, the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal. Believed to have become trapped here when the last Ice Age retreated, nerpa are now a protected species. To spot them, your best bet is to visit Olkhon Island, the Svyatoy Nos Peninsula, and the remote northern shores of Lake Baikal.
The gleaming waters of Lake Baikal are also home to over fifty species of fish, among them the endemic scaleless golomyanka fish, and the omul, a member of the salmon family and local speciality that looms large on menus. Then there’s the highly prized Baikal sturgeon that can produce up to nine kg of caviar on reaching maturity. As for land-based animals, the jagged forests around Lake Baikal offer opportunities to experience a veritable Siberian safari that might afford sightings of brown bears, reindeer, elk, moose, wild boar, Siberian roe deer, polecats, ermine, sable, lynx and wolverine. Oh, and actual wolves inhabit the wooded steppes.
Enjoy outdoor adventures: during the summer months, when hydrofoils and ferries make regular journeys to lakeside settlements, horse-riding, hiking and fishing are among the activities travellers enjoy during visits to Lake Baikal. Come winter, when the lake is frozen solid, ice roads criss-cross its expanse, and attention shifts to sledding, skiing and skating. For the truly adventurous, taking a trip to the Khamar-Daban Mountains south of Baikal offers arguably the most exhilarating opportunities of any Lake Baikal travel experience. It’s a draw for cross-country skiers and hikers who can handle untamed nature, replete with jaw-droppingly jagged ridges.
Experience Shamanism in epic surroundings: Lake Baikal’s awe-inspiring Olkhon Island - the third largest lake island in the world - is home to the shamanistic Buryat, whose spirituality is centred on the sacred Shaman Rock formation, and visible island-wide in the vivid prayer ribbons and flags entwined around trees and poles.
Large enough to have lakes of its own, Olkhon Island’s landscape is an extraordinary mix of taiga, grassland and forests - it even has a small desert. Best explored on foot, by bike or on horseback, it’s a heavenly haven for tranquillity-seekers who also enjoy getting active outdoors, with dozens of archaeological monuments to explore along the way, and herds of wild horses to watch out for.
Uncover Baikal culture: certainly the most tourist-oriented town in the area, Listvyanka makes a great base from which to launch your Lake Baikal adventures, and has plenty to keep you there for longer too - it has an excellent market (think fresh food and funky gifts) and a scattering of museums.
The Baikal Museum, for example, offers a virtual dive down to Lake Baikal’s depths, while the open-air Architectural and Ethnographic Museum Taltsy (20km from Listvyanka, and accessible via public transport) is a highlight of Lake Baikal tourism for confirmed culture vultures. Exhibits include reconstructions of traditional Buryat dwellings and 17th-century Cossack era buildings, with an area devoted to the indigenous nomadic Evenk people. It offers plenty of fun hands-on activities too - from clay doll-making and birch bark weaving, to stilt-walking.
From Irkutsk, you could look into booking an expert-guided day tour to Listvyanka. And if you fancy overnighting, Dream of Baikal Hotel is an elegant option, and a mere hop, skip and jump from Lake Baikal.
When to visit Lake Baikal very much depends on what you want to do when you get there. In short, the lake is usually frozen between January and May, making it ideal for the likes of snowmobiling, dogsledding and skating, while the summer months will better suit hikers and water-sports-lovers. Here’s an overview of what to expect through the year.
Summer: mid June - mid August
With low rainfall and an average temperature of 18°C in July, summer is by far the busiest season around Lake Baikal, especially on Olkhon Island. This is when its waters are at their warmest, sunsets are their most to-die-for, and the area is primed for walking, swimming, or general chilling in the Siberian sunshine.
Autumn: mid August - mid November
Come late August, the crowds have thinned, but it can get pretty rainy. And, while the temperature is still pretty clement in September, the waters of Lake Baikal might be too cold to swim. Through October and November, the weather takes a decidedly dodgy turn - rain and storms are frequent.
Winter: mid November - mid April
As the temperature dips (averaging -18°C through the winter months) so too do visitor numbers. All of which means visiting Lake Baikal between November and April allows you to experience its wintry majesty in relative solitude. By January Lake Baikal freezes to a depth of up two metres, its water transformed to a deep shade of solid sapphire that gives the feeling you're walking on glass. With snowfall (prohibitively) heavy through February, March is the best time to visit Lake Baikal to enjoy winter sports.
Spring: mid April - mid June
With the weather somewhat unstable in April and early May, late May and early June is ideal for travellers seeking a spot of solitude in stunning surroundings. You’re unlikely to get a tan, but it’s relatively mild and you’ll have Lake Baikal to yourself (almost).
Before your Lake Baikal trip, it’s worth bearing a few basic things in mind so you can make the most of it, whatever time of year you choose to travel. First up, cash. ATMs are thin on the ground, so be sure to budget ahead and exchange what you think you’ll need. Secondly, language. English isn’t widely spoken, so you’d do well to have a couple of Russian phrases up your sleeve, or maybe even brush up on your Buryat. Failing that, you can get by with the universal language of charades.
When visiting Lake Baikal during the summer months, you’ll want to come armed with bug protection, and bear in mind too that temperatures drop a fair bit at dusk, so don’t forget to bring clothes to layer up with. And it goes without saying that you’ll need serious cold weather garb to keep out the frost during winter.
By train: Lake Baikal is a key stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway - the world’s longest railway line, with 9289 km of tracks connecting Moscow with Vladivostock in the far east.
By plane: fly to Moscow, and then take the 5.5-hour flight to Irkutsk - gateway to exploring Lake Baikal. Served by Aeroflot Airlines and Sibir Airlines, there are usually a few flights a day. From Irkutsk, you'll be in Listvyanka after a 2.5-hour car or bus journey, while Olkhon Island is around seven hours away.
Lake Baikal is in southern Siberia, a mammoth mass that stretches between the Russian federal subjects of Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and the Buryatia to the southeast, with its administrative centre in the city of Irkutsk. Lake Baikal boasts 27 mostly uninhabited islands. At 45 miles long, Olkhon Island is the largest.
Listvyanka has a tonne of excellent accommodation options. Take your pick from budget-friendly (and generally friendly) hostels like Hostel Baikal, or mid-price, magically-situated Hotel Nataly - it's surrounded by picturesque pine forests. Then there's the superbly positioned Baikal Seasons Hotel. 2.5 miles from Listvyanka Bus Station (with a shuttle service available), its enchanting fairy-tale-esque wooden cabins and playground make it a great option for families, though you'll need slightly deeper pockets to stay here.
Meanwhile, on Olkhon Island, travellers on a budget might want to check-out Baza Otdykha Pervaya Expeditsiya - pretty basic, but a stone’s throw from a beautiful beach. At the other end of the scale (though still good value), Villa Malina Olkhon Baikal is super-close to the island’s Sacred Shaman Rock, with a great restaurant, and a smattering of pretty beachfront bungalows in addition to its main building.
In a word, no. If you plan ahead to get a decent deal on your flights, accommodation options cover everything from basic rooms in guesthouses for around £40 a night, to more luxurious options costing upwards of £100 a night - something for every budget. And getting around is pretty good value too. A marshrutka (minibus) from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, for example, costs the equivalent of a couple of dollars.
Not only is Lake Baikal safe to swim in, but it also boasts some of the purest water in the world. The only drawback is the temperature - even during the warmer months, a dip in the lake is pretty invigorating.
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Top image: Sacred Shamamka Rock on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal © gans33/Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her