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, making 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 35th edition, the 2019 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival lasts from December 24, 2018 to February 28, 2019.
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 table, where local Harbin-style smoked savory red sausage is more akin to a mild German style than Chinese.
Aesthetically, the city boasts formidable historic architecture, ranging from temples, churches (including the famous Russian Orthodox Church of St. Sophia) and synagogues. These mark 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 Harbin. Take a look at the sculptural Harbin Opera House and Grand Theater. Better – or at least higher – yet, hop on Harbin’s Ferris wheel for views of the whole city (just remember to bring your coat and an extra pair of gloves).
For more to see, taste and do in the Ice City, check out our guide below.
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)
Image via Quanjing
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 multiple 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 and enjoy the snow-sports on offer, like sledding and ice-skating. Be sure to visit at night - when you can view the structures lit up in multi-color by thousands of colorful LED lights fitted inside each sculpture.
Established in 1985, the festival's exhibits are crafted by ice sculpture experts from all around the world. As such, the festival is not only an attractive wonderment but also an opportunity for cultural exchange.
The three major venues are Sun Island, Ice and Snow World and Zhaolin Park.
Sun Island houses the Snow Sculpture Exposition and the world's largest indoor ice and snow art museum.
Ice and Snow World was built in 1999 and is a massive ice architecture park. Its design was inspired by world-famous architecture such as the pyramids of Egypt, as well as traditional Chinese tales.
Last but not least, Zhaolin Park is a must-visit for its beautiful ice lanterns, which are made by carving and decorating piled up snow. A multitude of objects are carved from the ice, like European-style churches, gardens, fantastical creatures and waterfalls.
The festival typically takes place from the end of December to the end of February. Accordingly, the weather is cold – scratch that, freezing – at temperatures ranging between -25 and -10 degrees Celcius – so it pays to bundle up. Thermals, a warm coat and wind jacket, thick boots, gloves, scarves, earflaps and a wooly hat are all par for the course.
Altogether, the ice festival ensures that Harbin is enveloped in a magical cloak of joy during the coldest months of the year. It's a spectacle that must be seen up close to fully appreciate its magnificence.
If the festival falls within the Chinese New Year period, it's likely the parks will be extremely crowded and accomodation hard to come by — and expensive. Tickets must be purchased for each venue of the festival, with different prices for different tickets (free up to RMB330). Tickets for all three can either be purchased directly at the attraction or online; discounts and group packages are also available. Zhaolin Park has waived the ticket fee for 2019.
How to Get There
The festival is spread across different venues, with each easily accessible via bus or taxi. During the festival, special buses run across the city, shepherding