The capital of China’s Heilongjiang province, Harbin (哈尔滨) was founded in 1898 with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Since then, the city has evolved from a small rural settlement on the Songhua River to one of the largest cities in northeast China.
Nicknamed ‘the pearl on the swan’s neck,’ due to the shape of Heilongjiang resembling a swan, Harbin is blessed with dry and freezing-cold winters. For some, this makes it an ideal winter destination. This is largely thanks to the city’s annual ice festival; a months-long extravaganza featuring giant lit-up ice sculptures. Now in its 34th edition, the 2018 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival lasts from December 24, 2017 to February 25, 2018.
One of the four largest ice festivals in the world, Harbin’s iteration is a must-see for sheer spectacle alone. But there’s plenty more to the ‘Ice City’ than, well, ice – like locally brewed Harbin beer and neo-Byzantine architecture, or hearty Dongbei food alongside european cuisine. Indeed, the city encompasses a curious mix of cultures, with Russian and Jewish heritage featuring prominently.
These influences are evident from the streets – which wind in typical meandering European fashion – to the dining table, where local Harbin-style smoked sausage is more akin to German food than Chinese.
Aesthetically, the city boasts formidable historic architecture, including the temples, churches (including the famous Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia) and synagogues of Harbin’s Daoli district, a popular tourist spot. Meanwhile those looking for quieter and authentic Chinese culture can visit ‘Old Harbin’ in Daowai district.
Yet there’s something undeniably modern about the city. Take a look at the sculptural Harbin Opera House and Grand Theater. Even better – or at least higher – hop on Harbin’s Ferris wheel for views of the whole city (just remember to bring your coat and an extra pair of gloves).
Attractions: Recommendations for the Best Things to See and Do in Harbin
Harbin International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival (哈尔滨国际雪雕节)
The glittering ice-jewel in Harbin’s metaphorical ice-crown, Harbin’s annual months-long ice and snow sculpture festival is not-to-be-missed. Attracting millions of visitors, both local and international, the festival comprises astounding ice sculpture exhibits that are jaw-dropping in both size and artistry.
Taking place across three major venues, the festival has a different theme every year and is the largest of its kind in the world, boasting the world’s biggest ice sculptures. Marvel at life-sized buildings and dreamy castles. Or enjoy a spot of snow- sports on offer like sledding and ice-skating. The festival typically takes place from the end of December to the end of February.
There are three main parts to the festival: the Snow Sculpture Art Fair, Ice & Snow World and the Ice Festival at Zhaolin Park. Below is a brief rundown of each. Tickets for all three can either be purchased directly at the attraction or online; discounts and group packages are also available.
* Ticket prices listed below for the Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival are as of January 2018.
Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Fair (太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会)
Available for viewing during the day, the Snow Sculpture Art Fair allows you to see massive, larger-than-life sculptures carved out of snow.
Hours: Daily during the festival, 8am-5pm
Admission: RMB330, RMB280 pre-sale online*. Visit the official Snow Sculpture Fair website at xuebohui.com.cn (in Chinese only) for more details
3 Jingbei Lu, within the Sun Island Scenic Area, Songbei district 松北区警备路3号太阳岛风景区内 (451) 8819 2037
Ice and Snow World (冰雪大世界)
Visit Ice and Snow World at night to view the structures lit up in multicolor by thousands of colorful LED lights fitted inside each sculpture. This well-visited part of the festival also typically features slides made of ice. Cafes are spotted around the grounds in case you need a break to heat up when it gets too chilly outside.
Hours: Daily during the festival, 11am-10pm, lights turned on at 4.30pm and off at 9.30pm
Admission: RMB330; RMB310 pre-sale online*; RMB200 for students, seniors and children (ticket sales end at 9pm). Visit the official Ice & Snow World website at hrbicesnow.com (in Chinese only) for more details.
West Section of the Sun Island Scenic Area, Songbei district 松北区太阳岛西侧哈尔滨冰雪大世界景区 (451) 87186103
Ice Festival, Zhaolin Park (冰雪游园会, 兆麟公园冰灯)
In the city center, there's also a lower key festival at Zhaolin Park, featuring smaller sculptures. Also best viewed at night, though cheaper tickets are available during the day.
Hours: Daily during the festival, 10am-9.30pm
Admission: RMB150 (2pm-9.30pm, night ticket sales end at 9pm), RMB50 (10am-2pm, daytime discount sales end at 1pm)
39 Sunlin Jie, Daoli district 道里区森林街39号, (451) 8469 2804
Saint Sophia Cathedral (哈尔滨圣索菲亚教堂)
Located in central Harbin, Saint Sophia Cathedral is a former Russian Orthodox Church and prime example of Neo-Byzantine architecture in China. Founded in 1907, the cross-shaped cathedral stands at 53.3 meters tall over 721 sqm. A striking green dome tops the main center hall while four different tent roofs surround the center dome.
After periods of expansion, closure and restoration, the church now serves as an art gallery, showcasing the city’s architectural developments. A large musical fountain sits in front of the church, providing a pretty scene for photo opportunities. The church – hailed the largest Orthodox Church in the Far East – looks especially majestic at night under bright lights and a dark sky.
Hours: Daily, 8.30am-5pm
Admission: RMB20 (ticket sales end at 4.30pm)
88 Toulong Jie, Daoli district 道里区透笼街88号
Unit 731 Museum (731部队罪证遗址)
Unit 731 was built in the 1930s as a biological warfare research center of the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the site of horrific war crimes, including lethal human experimentation, carried out by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Originally part of a 150-building complex covering 6 square kilometers, the building today serves as a museum with photographs and relics from the period donated by locals as a reminder of the atrocities committed in China during the war. Although a sobering site, the museum is informative and detailed – a must-visit for war or history buffs (though not recommended for children). Guided tours are available, including an audio guide in English.
Hours: Tues-Sun 9am-4.30pm (last entry at 3.30pm)
47 Xinjiang Dajie, Pingfang district 侵华日军地731部队遗址, 平房区新疆大街47号, (451) 87108731 www.731museum.org.cn
Zhongyang Dajie Pedestrian Street (中央大街)
This 1.4 kilometer stretch of cobblestone street is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, with European-style buildings, neo-Byzantine architecture, restaurants, snack stands and more. Most businesses close by 10pm. Make sure to stop by the Madieer Ice Cream Shop (马迭尔冰棒 Ma Die Er Bing Bang), which is a hit among visitors even in the frigid winter months!
Zhongyang Dajie (between Jingwei Jie and Stalin Park at the Songhua River), Daoli district 中央大街
Siberian Tiger Park (东北虎林园)
Popular among tourists, this preserve is the world's largest natural park for wild Siberian tigers, with over 500 purebred Siberian tigers, and at least 100 viewable for visitors. The park also houses white tigers, lions, lynx, leopards, black pumas and Bengali tigers. Tourists are able to ride in a caged bus to watch the tigers roam around in the open-air zone. Visitors can also buy poultry and other meats — as well as live animals — to feed the tigers.
Hours: Daily, 9am-4pm
88 Songbei Lu, Songbei district 松北区松北街88号 (松北开发区松花江北岸, 近太阳岛), (451) 8808 0098 (451) 8808 0680, dongbeihulinyuan.com
Songhua River (松花江)
Image via Flickr
If you're visiting Harbin for the Ice Festival, plenty of daytime activities such as ice skating will be taking place on the Songhua River, which completely freezes over during the winter (November-April). You can get to the riverside by walking from Central Street. There is also a cableway crossing the river that connects Tongjiang Square in Daoli district with Sun Island Park.
Cableway Hours: Mon-Thu 8.30am-7.15pm, Fri-Sun 8.30am-8.15pm
Admission: RMB50 one-way, RMB80 roundtrip
Songhua River Cableway (松花江观光索道), 218 Tongjiang Jie, Daoli district 道里区通江街218号, (0451) 8468 8841
Ask an Expert: Restaurants and Things to Eat in Harbin
Cindy Wang, a Harbin local and self-described foodie, gives us her top picks on things to eat in Harbin.
Things to Eat
Da Lie Ba (大列巴)
Also known as the “big bread,” da lie ba is a round sourdough loaf weighing 2.5 kilograms. The bread’s origins can be traced back to Harbin’s historical ties with Russia, when it was a stop on the trans-Siberian railway and a former Russian trading post, as well as haven for Russian immigrants during the Russian revolution. The da lie ba is savory in flavor, rather than sweet like most Chinese breads, with a crispy outer crust and soft inside.
Di San Xian (地三鲜)
A mix of potatoes, peppers and eggplant, di san xian is one of Harbin’s most famous dishes. And with good reason: The combination of three common vegetables fried in oil and flavored with soy sauce and salt is simply irresistible (di san xian translates to “Three delicacies on earth”). Plus, as well as its great taste, the dish is also vegetarian-friendly.
Smoked Red Sausage (红肠)
Harbin’s smoked savory red sausage has a milder and more eastern European flavor than its Chinese counterparts. The sausage was first made in 1909 by Lithuanian staff in a Russian-capitalized factory named Churin Sausage Factory, in Harbin’s Daoli district. Usually made from ground meat with salt and spices, the fragrant sausage can be eaten directly without cooking – on its own or with bread and vegetables.
Unlike most travel guide’s “must-visit” places that only seem to be frequented by tourists, Laochujia is actually a favorite restaurant of Harbin-locals. The famous dish that represents Harbin, Guobaorou (锅包肉, fried pork cullet with sweet and sour sauce), was invented by an ancestor of the restaurant owner and the family’s recipe is still served today. Another authentic Dongbei cuisine offering includes Lapi (拉皮, green beans or potato noodles mixed with savory dressing).
318 Youyi Lu, Daoli district 道里区友谊路318号
Portman Western Style Restaurant (波特曼西餐厅)
Harbin culture would not be complete without its Russian influences and nor would a food recommendation be complete without mentioning Russian food. Portman is one of the oldest Russian restaurants in Harbin and still serves high quality Russian food (I remember how excited we were when our parents took us there for a ‘treat’). Now the restaurant incorporates many fusion dishes but the Guanniu/ Guanxia/Guanyang (罐牛/罐虾/罐羊, beef/shrimp/lamb) is still a top choice. The borscht (红菜汤 in Chinese) is also a local favorite.
12 Xidazhi Jie, Nangang district 南岗区西大直街12号
Dongfang Dumpling King (东方饺子王)
Dumplings are a typical Dongbei food – though unfortunately they hardly appear on restaurant menus featuring Dongbei cuisine. Go to Dongfang Dumpling King for the best dumplings in Harbin (and possibly the entire Northeast). The Sanxian Dumplings (三鲜水 饺) never disappoint. The filling of grounded pork is dramatically elevated with sea cucumber and scallop. And try the Songhua Jitui (松花鸡腿, chicken leg wrapped in thousand year egg) – if you dare.
Hotels: Where to Stay in Harbin
Kempinski Hotel Harbin (凯宾斯基酒店)
Kempinski Hotel Harbin lies in front of the famous Harbin Ice & Snow World and is blessed with stunning views of the festival’s ice palaces as well as panoramic river views of the wetland landscape. Top-notch facilities ensure a comfortable and memorable stay. Treat yourself at Kempinski The Spa, which uses professional spa products, or work on your fitness at the hotel’s comprehensive fitness center. Or merely indulge at one of Kempinski Harbin’s multiple bars, restaurants and delis, which offer authentic European and Chinese cuisine, and German beer.
199 Chuangxin Yi Lu, Songbei district 松北区创新一路199号 (86 451 5877 7777, https://www.kempinski.com/en/harbin/ kempinski-hotel-harbin/)
Wanda Realm Harbin Hotel (哈尔滨万达嘉华酒店)
If you’re looking for a sumptuous and decadent stay in the Ice City, look no further than Wanda Realm Harbin Hotel. Decked out with warm furnishings and glamorous detailing, Wanda offers a delightful old-world charm. Facilities include ski storage, hairdressers, car rental, and well- fitted gym and spa facilities. The hotel is located a short 20-minute drive from the city center and only a few minutes drive from Harbin West Railway Station. Wanda Realm is a great-value choice complete with all the trappings.
158 Zhongxing Dadao, Nangang district 南岗区中兴大道 158 号 (400 699 8818, http://www.wanda-harbin.com)
Holiday Inn City Centre (哈尔滨万达假日酒店)
A popular choice due to its superior city center location – a mere five minutes walk from the famous Saint Sophia Cathedral – Holiday Inn offers reliable and convenient accommodation. The hotel boasts plenty of features to suit the busy traveler or family: Businesspersons are catered for with four meeting rooms and an on-site business center, while food lovers will, well, love the Holiday Inn’s dining options – a French-Asian fusion restaurant and a Cantonese- style restaurant. Rooms include both standard and suite options.
90 Jingwei Jie, Daoli 道里区经纬街 90 号 (86 451 8422 6666, www.ihg.com/holidayinn/hotels/us/en/harbin/hrbch/hoteldetail)
Harbin is notorious for its incredibly cold winters, with temperatures sometimes dipping to as as low as −38°C (−36°F), while daytime temperatures average around −12°C (10°F) between December and February.
Make sure you prepare properly for your trip to Harbin by packing thick coats, hats, gloves and boots for when you venture outside, as well as wearing multiple layers underneath (long underwear recommended). Heating pads (保暖热贴, baonuan retie, literally 'thermal heat stickers'), warm hats and ice-friendly fur-padded boots can also be easily purchased around the city if needed.
Summers are much more pleasant, with temperatures peaking at around 23°C (73°F) in July.
Here's an average annual temperature chart for Harbin.
Chart via Wikipedia
How to Travel to Harbin
Image via Wikimapia
Located around 45 minutes away from the city center, Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB, 哈尔滨太平国际机场) has daily domestic flights departing to and arriving from dozens of cities within China. International flights are also available to and from places like Vladivostok, Osaka, Seoul and Los Angeles. There are two terminals.
Most hotels offer valet service to and from the airport, however if you decide to take a cab the fare will cost around RMB100-130. Beware of fake cab scams (more on that below).
There are also several shuttle buses operating between the airport and city center for just RMB20 per ticket. Four different routes taking approximately an hour are available, with buses departing from 6am all the way up until 8pm. Schedules vary. Rides can be purchased from the ticket office at the airport.
The city has two main operational train stations: Harbin West Railway Station (哈尔滨西站), Harbin Railway Station (哈尔滨站). Both service high-speed (G) trains and normal (Z,T and K) trains to and from Harbin.
Harbin West is the terminus of Beijing-Harbin and Harbin-Dalian high-speed railways. Destinations for Harbin West Railway Station on the high-speed train include Shanghai Hongqiao, Beijing, Dalian North, Shenyang, Qingdao North and Tianjin. Normal-speed train destinations are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Changchun, Tianjin, Qiqihar, Manzhouli and Hailaer.
Harbin Station (otherwise known as "City Railway Station") is located in central Harbin's Nangang district. Destinations for Harbin Railway Station on the high-speed train include Beijing, Changchun West, Shenyang and Qiqihar. Normal-speed destinations are Beijing, Changchun, Shenyang, Tianjin and Qiqihar.
A third station, Harbin East Railway Station (哈尔滨东站), is located in located in Daowai district. Otherwise known as "San Ke Shu Zhan" (Three Trees Station), Harbin East operates normal-speed trains to Chifeng, Dandong, Binjiang, Jiamusi and Heihe.
Long Distance Bus
Long distance shuttle service between Harbin and other cities is available from a few bus stations. The main one is Nangang Bus Station (南岗客运站).
Located just across the street from the Harbin Railway Station, Nangang Bus Station (otherwise called '长途客运站, or Changtu Keyun Zhan) sells long distance bus tickets for most cities in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning provinces (Mudanjiang, Qiqihar, Changchun, Dalian, Shenyang, Wudailanchi and Yanji) as well as Beijing.
Here, you can also purchase international bus tickets to Russia. If you'd like to cross the border into Russia, one international coach departs daily at 7am en route to Vladivostok. Head to the Russian travel agency on the second floor to purchase tickets for the 12-hour bus ride, which should cost around RMB500. Bring your passport; other paperwork may also be required.
Local Transportation: Getting Around Harbin
Image via Flickr
For the most part, getting around Harbin by taxi is cheap and convenient, however it can be difficult to hail one during the Ice Festival. Cab drivers have also been known to pick up multiple passengers at once during rush hour.
Look out for black cab scams, and when taking short journeys around the city make sure to tell the driver to turn on the meter (请打表, qĭng dă biăo, 'please turn on the meter') instead of negotiating a price so as to avoid being ripped off.
Taxi fares start at RMB8-9 for the first three kilometers, and from there no more than RMB2 will be added for each extra kilometer.
You can also book a cab or private car in Harbin from the DiDi Chuxing app, which now offers service in English.
Harbin's public bus system is pretty extensive, featuring over 100 routes with stops all around the city. Fares typically cost RMB1-2 per ticket.
Image via Sina
Opened in 2013, Harbin Metro currently has two lines (Lines 1 and 3) in service spanning 23 kilometers and stopping at 22 stations. Line 1 travels from East Railway Station to South Railway Station, while Line 3 is the city's only loopline, connecting Yidaeryuan and Haxizhan. A third line is planned to be completed by the end of 2018.
This post was last updated on January 5, 2018.