Harbin: a comprehensive guide to China’s Ice City

Harbin, China‘s Ice City, was one of the tourist destinations that surprised me the most. Can you imagine visiting an entire exhibition park with 50-meter-high ice-made buildings in which you can climb and slide? Also imagine appreciating gigantic snow sculptures with so many details. It’s wonderful!

Located in China’s Far East (Manchuria), Harbin is where this amazing winter festival takes place.

Harbin Ice and Snow Amusement World, China
Harbin Ice and Snow Amusement World

Harbin was an old fishing village colonized by the Russians who left traces of its architecture, religion, and culture. Today, Harbin is an incredible metropolis with more than 5 million inhabitants. There is a lot to do there, not only at the winter festival. Come and experience the spectacle of creativity, originality, and multiple colors.

In this article, you will find a comprehensive guide to visiting Harbin, China. Check it out!

1. When to go to Harbin?

The best time to visit Harbin is in winter, during the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. At that time, between 15 and 18 million tourists flock to Harbin to enjoy that beautiful spectacle.

Officially, the festival runs from January 5th until the end of February, but the exhibitions are generally open in December and last until mid-March if the weather allows them.

2. How to get to Harbin?

Beijing is the closest tourist city to Harbin. From there, you can take a bullet train to Harbin. The journey lasts around 7 hours.

However, the easiest and most convenient way to get to Harbin is by plane. Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB), which serves Harbin, is located 37 km from the city center.

There are direct flights from many Chinese cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Kunming, and Shenzhen. We arrived in Harbin from Xi’an, on a China Eastern flight that takes about 3 hours.

If you are touring Asia, you can find direct flights to Harbin from Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and even Singapore.

3. Where to stay in Harbin?

Before talking about where to stay in Harbin, it’s important to give you two tips.

The first is to book your hotel in advance, especially if you want to visit Harbin in January. In a search we did in June 2020, we found that many hotels were sold out for January 2021.

The second is to look for a comfortable hotel and, above all, with good heating. In winter, that is very important.

There are basically three regions where you can stay in Harbin: the Songbei District, the Daoli District, and the area around Central Street.

3.1. Songbei

Songbei is home to Harbin’s most luxurious hotels. The region is ideal for those who want comfort and convenience. The hotels are on the north bank of the Songhua River (in Chinese, Songbei means ‘north of the Song’).

Despite being relatively close to Sun Island and Siberia Tiger Park, you can’t get there walking. The nearest subway station is Shimao Avenue, but it is far from most hotels, except for Songbei Shangri-la Hotel Harbin.

In general, you will have to take a taxi or transportation app such as Didi Greater China. Some hotels offer a free shuttle to the parks.

Check out some suggestions (click on the links for more information):

* Guest Review Score on Booking.com

3.2. Central Street

Central Street is a pedestrian street with several shops, restaurants, shopping centers, and cafes. In my opinion, it is the most convenient location to stay in, that is, a region where you can do everything on foot, including, wandering at night. Check out some hotel suggestions (click on the links for more information):

* Guest Review Score on Booking.com

3.3. Daoli

Daoli is the central area of Harbin (downtown). It is a large area that encompasses Central Street, but we prefer to highlight the latter above for educational purposes. In Daoli, we found some value of money hotels. But, they are a little far from Central Street to walk. Check out some suggestions for hotels in Daoli (click on the links for more information):

* Guest Review Score on Booking.com

3.4. Other Areas

We also found hotels with excellent value for money in other regions of Harbin. The hotels listed below are close to metro stations, making it easy to get around the city (click on the links for more information):

* Guest Review Score on Booking.com

3.5. Where I don’t recommend staying?

Our choice of hotel in Harbin was terrible. This is the Harbin Beibei Holiday Hotel Central, which is right next to Central Street. Although very well located, no one spoke English at the reception, the rooms were tiny, and, above all, the heating didn’t work well. Remember:  it was – 20°C (-4°F)!

4. Where to eat in Harbin?

Central Street (Zhongyang St.) is full of restaurants and convenience stores. The problem is that most of them are chinese restaurants, whose attendants don’t speak English and you have a great chance of leaving there without knowing what you ate. But don’t worry! It won’t be anything exotic.

Jantando em Harbin, China
Dinner in Harbin, China

One of the most fun culinary experiences we had was at a Mall restaurant on Central Street. Verbal language didn’t work. We tried mimics, but it didn’t work either.

There was a large central pot with a hot broth and a series of side dishes around it. In the end, we understood that some were to be put in the broth to cook and others not! Of course, we didn’t do that. We probably eat raw things that should have been cooked and we cooked things that should have been eaten raw. We’ll never know, but we did satisfy the hunger.

Jantando em Harbin - O que colocar na panela
Having dinner in Harbin: what should we put in the hot pot?

On another occasion, I ordered what I thought was a mushroom cream and what came were some raw and tasteless mushrooms. I had to find a Pizza Hut to complement the meal.

Anyway, on Tripadvisor, the restaurants below are well recommended. But remember that they were ranked according to the Chinese taste!

5. What to do in Harbin?

The winter festival is the most important event in Harbin and comprises of three main attractions: the Snow Sculpture Art Expo at Sun Island, The Ice and Snow Amusement World, and the Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park.

5.1. Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World

Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World, China
Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World

In 1999, to welcome the beginning of the new year 2000, Harbin municipality built a replica of Disneyland, with colored and illuminated blocks of ice. Since then, the construction of a theme park has become a tradition and has been gaining more and more prominence, becoming the main winter attraction in Harbin.

Occupying an area of 600,000 square meters and using more than 300,000 thousand cubic meters of snow for its construction, that theme park is all fun for adults and children.

Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World, China
Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World

Visitors can walk around the giant ice sculptures, as if they were in a small town. It is possible to climb the buildings, enter them and even play. There was a giant ice slide but the line was too long.

Each year, the park theme is different. What does not change is the certainty of a park built basically of ice blocks, with eating areas, cultural activities and winter sports. We had the chance to watch a diving competition in the frozen waters.

Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World, China
Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World

You can visit the park day or night. Although the night ticket is almost 3 times more expensive, it’s worth it. The stunning colors and light effects, now controlled by technology, in artistically created pieces, make the experience even more enchanting.

In short, it is very difficult to describe how gigantic, fantastic, and fun this park is!

5.2. International Snow Sculpture Art Expo

International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin, China
International Snow Sculpture Art Expo

It is a huge park with snow sculpture exhibitions in various sizes and formats, which takes place every winter in Harbin [featured picture]. Among the winter attractions of the city, it’s the one that opens the earliest to the public and remains accessible for almost 2 months.

Each year a different theme is chosen and artists from countries like Russia, France and Canada are invited to present their works.

Snow Sculpture Expo Harbin, China
Snow Sculpture Expo Harbin

In fact, it’s a competition and, therefore, every year, expectations are exceeded and tourists are amazed by fantastic sculptures that get a touch of color at night.

My memory is of a huge white park, with sculptures so perfect and gigantic, that they didn’t even fit in the photo!

It was an indescribable experience! You will need 2 to 3 hours to visit all of it.

5.3. Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park

Harbin Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park, China
Harbin Ice Lantern Fair in Zhaolin Park

This park, located in the city center, close to Central Street, is a taste of what you will find at Harbin Ice & Snow Amusement World and at the International Snow Sculpture Art Expo at Sun Island.

As it is smaller, with smaller and less worked sculptures, I recommend that you visit it before visiting the previous two, as otherwise, the impact will be not so great.

Harbin Ice Lantern Fair, China
Harbin Ice Lantern Fair

The first edition of the Ice Fair Lantern at Zhaolin Park took place in 1963 and, since then, replicas of iconic buildings, world-renowned personalities and drawings of legendary animals, and figures built of ice and snow have attracted the attention of many tourists.

At night, the sculptures illuminated with colored lights give an air of fairy tale and magic to the place. You must meet him after sunset when the lanterns are lit. Be sure to visit it!

5.4. Siberian Tiger Park

Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin, China
Siberian Tiger Park

Siberian Tiger Park is China’s second-largest nature reserve (over 1 million square meters) for Siberian Tigers.

These tigers were at risk of extinction. Less than 500 of them live outside captivity. This park was created in 1986 and today there are more than 800 tigers sheltered on the site, although you can see 100 at most. In addition to the tigers, it’s also possible to see lions and cougars.

Walkways at Siberian Tiger Park, Harbin, China
Walkways at Siberian Tiger Park

The tour starts with a short explanation and a visit to the museum. Then, you go through some walkways to see the tigers. In the end, there is a small ‘Safari Tour’. Onboard a closed car, you can get a little closer to the tigers that stretch themselves trying to get the few rays of winter sun.

It is possible to hire some other activities such as feeding the animals or interacting with the young tigers (extra cost). Today, there is a certain concern with the sustainability of this park, since tigers are reproducing a lot, and maintenance is getting extremely expensive.

The tour to Siberian Tiger Park usually lasts about 2 hours and can be combined with the International Snow Sculpture Art Expo at Sun Island.

5.5. Central Street (Zhongyang St.)

Central Street, Zhongyang St, Harbin, China
Central Street: where all visitors get together at night

Despite the low temperatures, the streets of Harbin are full of tourists, mostly Chinese. At night, people get together Zhongyang St. (Central Street), a pedestrian street with several shops, restaurants, malls, and cafes. In this street, the tourist can also watch some ice sculptures.

Be sure to try the fruits on a stick for sale on the street. It’s incredible! The strawberry I ate was frozen!

Russian Chocolates at a Supermarket in Central Street, Harbin, China
Russian Chocolates at a Supermarket in Central Street, Harbin

Harbin had and still has a strong Russian influence, which can be seen in the shop signs, in the music played on the streets, and even in chocolates with packaging with the faces of President Vladimir Putin and other Russian characters. In fact, the city belonged to Russia’s concession area between 1896 and 1924 and was home to several generations of Russian immigrants.

5.6. St. Sophia Cathedral

Saint Sophia Cathedral, Harbin, China
Saint Sophia Cathedral

Saint Sophia Cathedral is located in the central district of Harbin, Daoli. It was built in 1907, in Byzantine style, and is the largest Orthodox church in the city.

Majestic, in the middle of the square of the same name, the Cathedral is very reminiscent of the cathedrals of Russia, which always yield beautiful photos, especially at night. It is possible to visit its interior. The ticket costs 20 yuan per person (students have a discount).

5.7. Stalin Park and Songhua River

Frozen Songhua River, Harbin, China
Frozen Songhua River, Harbin

Stalin Park is a public area where locals and tourists can enjoy winter sports. At this time of year, Songhua River, in front of the park, is frozen and numerous options for activities, such as ice hockey and ice skating can be performed on-site. It’s worth spending a few hours playing there or just enjoying the intense activity of tourists and locals.

Playing on Songhua River in winter, Harbin, China
Playing on Songhua River in winter

Just be careful, there is snow everywhere in the park and it’s a frozen river! Everything is very slippery, especially for us who are not used to practicing these activities.

You can also climb the bridge, which divides Harbin into north and south and take beautiful pictures of the frozen river and Stalin Park.

5.8. Ice Palace Restaurant & Bar

Ice Palace Restaurant & Bar, Harbin
Ice Palace Restaurant & Bar

The Ice Palace Restaurant & Bar is all built of ice and decorated with themes of local folklore. It is located in the exclusive 5-star Shangri-la Hotel Harbin.

5.9. Temple of Confucius

Chinese thinker and philosopher, Confucius is one of the most important people in the field of education and his work has worldwide influence. It is very common to find Temples of Confucius in Asian countries, like the ones we have already visited in Vietnam and Taiwan.

The 23,000 square-meter complex started to be built in 1926 and is very beautiful. It has 3 internal patios and its buildings have the architectural style of the Qing Dynasty. The main buildings are covered with yellow tiles, which is a privilege only for real buildings.

6. Summer in Harbin: things to do

It’s possible to visit Harbin in the summer, but the trip will be more focused on historical and cultural activities. During the summer, you can enjoy the Russian influence in Harbin, observing, for example, the architecture of the central region (Daoli) or the Saint Sophia Cathedral.

6.1. Unity 731 Museum

Building on the site of Harbin Bioweapon Facility on Unit 731
Building on the site of Harbin Bioweapon Facility on Unit 731 (credits: 松岡明芳, CC BY-SA 3.0)

You can also visit the Unit 731 Museum, which refers to one of the most terrible chapters in Sino-Japanese history but little known to Westerners.

Based in the Pingfang district of Harbin, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army between 1938 and 1945 committed one of the greatest crimes against humanity, leading to the deaths of thousands of men, women, and children. As a result, it came to be called Auschwitz of Asia.

The site conducted lethal experiments on humans, aimed primarily at the development of biological weapons. Among these experiments carried out on prisoners, one can cite vivisection, research, and development of biological weapons that cause epidemics, grenade tests, and flame throwers, syphilis transmission and forced pregnancy in women prisoners.

The unit was supported by Japanese universities, which provided doctors and research staff. Unfortunately, in Japan, no one has been brought to justice for the crimes committed. In a secret post-war settlement, the US government granted researchers immunity from penalties in exchange for details of their experiments (source: Wikipedia).

6.2. Harbin Grand Theatre

Another attraction that deserves to be visited is the Harbin Grand Theater, a beautiful Opera House built in 850 thousand square-foot. Recognized by Unesco as a City of Music, the Grand Theater is the headquarters of the Harbin Summer Music Concert, an event that takes place annually there.

6.3. Harbin International Beer Festival

In early July, you can also participate in the Harbin International Beer Festival, similar to an Oktoberfest, but in China. With songs, shows, parades, energy, and, of course, a lot of beer from various parts of the world, including German, Russian and Chinese ones.

7. What can ruin your trip to Harbin?

7.1. The Cold

Walking with temperatures that can reach -30°C (-22°F) is challenging. Fortunately, when we were there, the temperature was milder, reaching only -20 ° C (-4°F), which, for us, is already very cold.

But, it’s not just people who suffer from low temperatures. Some electronic devices may just stop working! I remember having to warm up my cell phone so that he could take the wonderful pictures again.

Have health insurance. In that intense cold, you can get sick.

7.2. Language barrier

When you go to Harbin, you must be aware that speaking English, Spanish, German (or any language other than Mandarin) won’t help you. Even in hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions, very few people speak English.

While writing this, I asked myself: why didn’t I use Google Translator to ease all of this?

Our mistake! In fact, the only Google service that works in China is Google Translator. You can also use it in Offline mode, leaving the languages to be translated preloaded.

8. Essential tips for visiting Harbin

8.1. Hire a tour agency

Harbin is one of the few places we have ever visited that I recommend not doing everything on your own. I suggest you have a guide or at least your pre-arranged itinerary and tickets.

8.2. Dress in Layers

The most important tip to protect yourself from the cold is to dress in layers, like an onion. Place one outfit on top of the other, ending with a waterproof jacket and windbreaker. Don’t forget the hat, scarf, earplug, and glove.

8.3. Self-heating Warm Body Stickers

Self-heating Warm Body Stickers, Harbin, China
Self-heating Warm Body Stickers

In the various shops on Central Street, it is possible to buy activated carbon stickers to put on your hands and feet. This helps to keep them warm and have a little more comfort. In fact, they are not always ‘stickers’, but they must be kept in contact with the skin.

8.4. Take a lot of pictures

At Harbin festivals, everything is beautiful. It is so beautiful that it deserves to be registered. Speaking of photos, this is a separate chapter. Although the desire to photograph everything is immense, the effort to remove my warm glove made the number of clicks much less than expected.

9. Why should you visit Harbin?

Because it’s amazing! I have never seen a modern tourist attraction as fantastic as this. Even today, when I look at the photos, I don’t believe in what they were able to build those sculptures! Just get to know this fairy tale and draw your own conclusions. And take many photos, if the cold weather allows you to do so…