My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Understand
Yakutsk is becoming famous for one thing - its extreme climate that has allowed it to be the coldest big city on the planet.
Temperatures regularly drop to minus 60 degrees here (that's almost as cold as Antarctica on most days in winter). The city has 300,000 inhabitants and is not a research outpost, but most people here live a surprisingly urban life despite the rough temperatures.
The headline temperatures are a bit misleading though, as the city enjoys 300+ sunny days and minimal humidity. Daytime temperatures around -20 can feel warmer than daytime in San Francisco (given that you bring decent clothing). There is very little precipitation in winter and winds are usually calm.
Yakuts have rather isolated ways and barely interact with the rest of the world (or even with most of Russia) but are generally friendly and happy people. However, you can't escape the notion that they would much rather be left alone.
English is rather rare here and a few words of Russian will help you a lot. It's a good idea to at least learn the numbers and some basic words for everyday use.
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Get Around
Traffic usually flows pretty well in the city. There is no Uber but plenty of taxis. I usually asked someone to call me a taxi, but there is also a handy app called inDriver. It's hard to use though, as you have to specify the correct pickup and dropoff address in Cyrillic and also offer a fare to the driver. Once mastered, I never waited more than 2 minutes for a cheap cab.
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Safety
90% of the city center (and all the areas you'll likely visit) are safe at night and in the daytime (Russian cities are generally safer than most US cities; there is less sharp contrast between high crime and low crime neighborhoods - I'm looking at you East Palo Alto).
Since there is little wind and a good amount of sun here, the weather can be deceiving, and if not equipped with the right clothing, the temperatures can encroach all your layers after a few minutes. If you don't have all the right amount of layers on, you can only be outside for 5 minutes or less before frostbite becomes a real danger. During December and January, 20-30 minutes is the maximum outdoors exposure time even with proper clothing, as any exposed skin will start to burn.
To give you an idea, you should bring two down jackets and warm winter jackets, long, warm underwear and snow pants, as well as insulated boots with warm socks for the winter days. A Yakut will usually wear a hat and a fur hoodie on top of that and put on a face mask too if things get really chilly.
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Sights
The Kingdom of Permafrost (Царство вечной мерзлоты)
This is the most touristy place in the city, though there are no English signs. Yakutsk is built on permafrost; while summer temperatures dip into the triple digits, the ground four feet under stays frozen year-round. The 'Kingdom' is basically a large tunnel driven under a mountain that keeps freezing temperatures throughout the year.
Since Yakuts are great ice sculptors, it is a perfect way to preserve the best sculptures for many years to come.
The entrance fee is 500 RUB. It takes about 30 to 45 minutes to walk through the lovely installation that makes use of many colored lights. It's all done with great care. I really liked this place.
Just opposite is a 'typical Yakutian' farm house that has been turned into a very touristy restaurant and attraction center. It's fun for some pictures, but not worth lingering there if you ask me.
Yakutsk only has a small area of old houses left in the old city. Nevertheless, it's quite scenic and well-restored. There is also a pretty impressive orthodox church right next to it.
Ice Park 202 (Ледовый Городок)
On the frozen river is another ice sculpture park that blows The Kingdom of Permafrost out of the water on a clear, sunny day. When I was there it was just stunning, with the bright lights and the sparkling Frozen-themed ice sculptures on the snowy river.
Mammoth Museum (Музей Мамонта)
The local university hosts the leading mammoth museum in the world. Mammoths, which look like very hairy elephants with tusks, were native to most of Siberia until 20,000 years ago. The museum is quite small, but I was lucky enough to get a private tour from the delightful museum director, Sergey.
The museum charges 250 RUB and is closed on Sunday and Monday. However, the museum might open for you on a Monday if you ask nicely.
Mammoths are still being found on this planet; just a few years ago, a very well-preserved carcass was found in the permafrost and researchers extracted liquid blood from it.The Mammoth Museum actually offers private trips to extract known mammoth skeletons if you sponsor the mission (it usually runs at $5,000 per person). Talk about a unique vacation. "What did you do for the summer?" "Oh I just unearthed a gigantic mammoth from the Siberian permafrost!" If you are lucky, you get to keep the permafrost.
In winter, Yakutsk' rivers and canals are all frozen several feet deep. The locals use them as gigantic ice skating rinks. Ice skating is everywhere and even if you don't skate, walking on the rivers is great fun.
Cross Country Skiing
Since running is rather tricky here, the locals have places for cross country skiing all over the city. You can likely rent equipment as well.
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Eat & Drink
Yakutsk is by no means a foodie paradise. The permafrost means that most crops can't grow here. Food needs to be trucked in (via frozen rivers!) or by air. At least keeping it frozen isn't a big deal here.
Yakutian specialties are frozen fish slices eaten raw and meat dishes without spices. Most dishes include some form of soup, which is great when you are cold for sure, but also offers no excitement to your senses.
Khachapuri (Ресторан "Хачапури")
Georgian food is usually the trump card in most Russian cities and so it is in Yakutsk. Khachapuri is a gorgeous place in a new building overlooking an intersection. The service is somewhat friendly, but prices are high and the food is just OK. There is no competition in town, so this is easily the best restaurant in Yakutsk.
Right next door is Coffee Cake, which offers decent coffee and tea in a pretty setting.
Traveler's Coffee (Lenin Prospekt)
This Russian coffee shop chain has two outlets in the city; the better one is located on Lenin Prospekt. It offers some awesome tea creations and good coffee. The food is OK too, but seemingly half the menu was always sold out when I visited.
Prices are high, though; expect them to easily be 50% more expensive than Starbucks.
StudLove is a small cafeteria/eatery next to the Mammoth Museum. I thought it had a decent atmosphere, but the food wasn't much to my liking. It's cheap, though!
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Where to Stay
Yakutsk has a shortage of quality hotels and only booking.com has a decent selection. The hotel I booked had no entrance or lobby and just did not respond to calls on a Sunday morning. Most likely you will end up with a middling hotel or apartment. Many of the hotels provide a free airport transfer, though, which you should accept.
My 14 Favorite things to do Yakutsk - Day Trips
The Lena Pillars is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a few hours outside of town. It's a good place in summer and looks great on the pictures, but it is likely not worth your time in winter.
Oymyakon is one of the world's coldest cities - it cools off even more than Yakutsk. If you are chasing the extreme lows, take the trip!
The coastal city of Magadan does not have too much to offer, but it's a great open road experience to hit for 24 hours. Needless to say, switching off your ignition in winter will likely be the end of you and your car. Don't travel by yourself but instead take a trusted local who has experience on this frozen road. It is one of the great adventures of our time to do this road trip in winter.