Harbin, being in the northeastern part of China near the border of Russia, is one very cold city in the winter. But instead of holing up inside, the residents in Harbin transform the city into a festive winter destination.
Before going to Harbin, I really only knew one thing about it: that it was host to the largest ice festival in the world. I have to admit, that was the sole reason that I even booked my ticket in the first place. And while the Ice Festival is impressive and a must-see attraction, there are many other things that make Harbin stand out and help visitors and locals beat the winter blues.
Here are 8 things you can’t miss when visiting Harbin in the winter:
1. Visit the Ice & Snow Festival
This was by far the highlight of my trip to Harbin. It is one of the largest festivals in the world and I can’t stress just how impressive it is. The sculptures are bigger than life and get more creative the further you walk. There were life-size ice castles, ice stairs, slides, you name it. I could have spent hours there but it is also the coldest I have ever been in my life!
Check out The Ice & Snow Festival for more information and photos!
2. Admire the ice AND snow sculptures
There are art contests all over the city but the best snow sculptures will be found at the Harbin Sun Island (ironic..) International Snow Sculpture Art Expo where the best of the best compete. You can also find ice and snow sculptures walking down the main street and ice sculpture contests in the main park: Harbin Ice and Snow World.
3. Play on the interactive ice sculptures
During the winter, there are ice and snow sculptures placed along the central street Zhongyang Dajie. Some of them are meant to only admire the artist’s work, while others are carved with entertainment in mind. Along Zhongyang Dajie, there was a large surface made from numerous ice blocks that passersby could attempt to walk on. You may walk away with a bruise if you aren’t careful but it’s not every day you see a massive block of ice in the middle of a pedestrian street!
If you head further up Zhongyang Dajie to the Songhua River and the Flood Control Tower, a small (compared to the other ice castles in Harbin) ice castle lies on the edge of the walking path. After walking around it, you will notice that it is actually an ice slide that shoots you out onto the frozen river below.
4. Eat a popsicle in the snow
Sounds crazy, right? Turns out, it’s somewhat of a tradition to enjoy an ice cream in the freezing cold weather! The up side to this is that it won’t melt while you eat it. There is a fantastic ice cream parlor right near the food stalls on the central street called Ma Dieer Office of Cold Drinks. There are more ice cream options if you step inside, but most people are quite content picking up a popsicle from the stand outside for a mere 5¥ (less than $1). The popsicles are creamy and delicious and a must-try even if it’s snowing!
5. Buy something Russian
Harbin was once under Russian rule. During the construction of the China Eastern Railway, thousands of Russians moved to Harbin for employment opportunities, though Harbin was not even established as a city. Thus, a lot of Harbin’s architectural influence stems from the Russians inhabiting the area.
Today, Harbin’s unique Russian background is seen through many aspects of the city. Apart from the architecture, you can get a feel for the culture by trying any of the Russian restaurants or by perusing some of the local shops. Many of the shops sell Russian chocolate, sausages, vodka, dolls and many other little trinkets.
6. Try a Russian sausage, candied fruit stick or any of the tasty snacks from the food stalls.
The sausages are not to be missed! Head to the food stalls on Zhongyang Dajie to get a 10¥ ($1.60) sausage on a stick. They are juicy and delicious and you will probably end up coming back each day! If you make it past the sausages, there are a number of other treats to try or to admire if you aren’t brave enough!
Another popular treat are the candied fruit sticks. The fruits are dipped in a taffy-like syrup that hardens over the fruit. A popular option is a Hawthorn stick; a type of fruit that looks like a small apple. The candied fruit were tasty, but I must say, I had pieces of taffy crumbling all over me and went home in a sticky mess.
7. Try a snow activity on the frozen Songhua River
There are many activities available to do on the Songhua River. You can go ice-skating, ride a tricycle on ice, go on spinning tops or take a tube ride across the frozen river. Further down the river, I discovered a small group of people who were snow kiting! I signed up for lessons the next day and had a blast learning how to do it. It’s exactly like kite surfing only done on a snowboard and a frozen river. It’s not every day you can partake in these activities, so take advantage while you are there!
8. Visit the Saint Sophia Cathedral
One of the most famous buildings to see in Harbin is the Saint Sophia Cathedral, which was built back in 1907. With its neo-byzantine architecture, one might feel like they are actually standing in a square in Russia instead of China. However, it hasn’t functioned as a church since the communist party took control of all Russian churches circa 1950. Today, the cathedral stands as an art and architecture museum.
To this day, going to Harbin to see the Ice and Snow World has been one of my favorite experiences ever. The tasty treats, hot drinks, Russian architecture, INSANE ice displays, fun winter activities–I loved it all.