Winter is undoubtably the best time to visit Harbin due to its world-famous ice and snow world festival, held each year and attracting thousands of tourists to admire the stunning sculptures and palaces of ice. However, unless you are travelling as part of an organised tour, most visitors don’t know about some of the other interesting tourist spots in Harbin. This two day itinerary is a suggestion of the best way to visit both the three ice festival sites and some other (warmer…) attractions in a single weekend!
Visit the main ice festival sites and admire the striking Russian architecture in the centre of town.
9:00 Central street
As the most famous shopping street in Harbin, Central Street is a great place to start your adventures. Spend half an hour browsing the shops, stocking up on hand warmers, thermals, and delicious Russian chocolate! Pay particular note to the architecture of the buildings – most have a more European style, built by Russians when this city was the Chinese hub of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
9:30 St Sophia Cathedral – 10 RMB
Just a short walk from Central Street, this former Russian Orthodox Cathedral has been converted into a museum about the history of Harbin’s architecture. However, the outside of the building is the main attraction, and personally I wouldn’t bother paying to go inside.
10:00 Zhaolin Park – 150 RMB
The site of the Ice Lantern Festival, Zhaolin Park is located right next to Central Street. While the sculptures may be more impressive when lit up at night, during the day visitors can still appreciate the incredible detail and skill required. If you’re on a budget however, save your cash for the main Ice Festival and instead continue on with the schedule, giving yourself extra time on Sun Island to admire the main event and/ or visit other attractions there such as the Harbin Polar World, Siberian Tiger Park or the Science Museum.
Enjoy local specialities in one of the many restaurants around the Central Street area. Northern Chinese food is particularly known for being quite heavy and oily (in particular, the stir-fried food), and so local hot-pot is an excellent choice if you want something a little lighter. My personal experiences with more western restaurants in Harbin suggest that in general you’d enjoy the local food more, but if you’re craving a taste of home there are plenty of pizza and fast-food restaurants around, as well as European-style cafes where you can buy salads or sandwiches.
12:00 Flood Control Monument and Stalin Park
Head back to Central Street and walk all the way to the river. Here there is a huge monument in memory of those who died when the Songhua river flooded its banks in 1957. Walking along the river (keeping the water to your right) you find yourself walking through Stalin Park, where younger visitors may enjoy fun sled rides and ice skating.
12:00 – 13:00 Walk across the river
There are several methods of getting across to Sun Island – including bus, taxi or even cable car. But personally, I would highly recommend simply walking over the (meters thick!) ice if it is safe to do so. Not only is walking completely free, you’ll also be able to admire the incredible view and perhaps even watch locals ice fishing or swimming! Be prepared however with warm clothes (there can be a fierce wind along the ice) and hiking boots. If walking isn’t your thing, you can even (for a fee…) get a sledge or go-cart ride across!
13:00 – 15:30 Snow festival – 300 RMB
Probably my favourite section of the festival, but surprisingly less reported on than the Ice Festival, the Snow Festiva consists of hundreds of snow sculptures. These range from small sculptures created by local art students for a competition, to HUGE pieces tens of metres tall. Since many tour groups only visit the main Ice Festival, you’ll be pleased to hear it is much quieter and more peaceful here. While walking around the park is the best way to admire all the sculptures, if you are short of time or struggle on the ice there are also golf buggies (10 RMB/ ride) to carry visitors between the main attractions.
Ice festival – 300 RM
A short walk/ bus ride down the road will bring you to the most famous section of the festival, the Ice Festival. Best seen at night when the ice is all lit up, this incredible festival consists of huge palaces, slides, and sculptures all made from ice cut from the Songhua river. As well as admiring these amazing feats of engineering, you can also enjoy horse-drawn carriages, sledge rides and occasional performances. Be warned that in the evening the temperature plummets even further – you’ll need all your thermals, wooly jumpers, hand warmers, hats and scarves! There are several fast food restaurants within the park where you can warm up and grab some hot snacks. For my top tips on making the most of the Ice Festival, see this article!
Head out of town for a day enjoying winter sports!
Personally, I have only visited Maoershan – a small ski resort (or rather, collection of two/ three slopes) which is just a short train journey from Harbin and makes a great day trip for those craving to be back on the slopes or wanting to try out a local pastime. There are several ways of getting there, the easiest being to join an all-inclusive tour group (from a tout on Central Street/ your hotel), expect to pay around 200-300 RMB. Alternatively, take the train (15 RMB – bookable on ctrip or at the train station), then take a bus or taxi to Harbin Institute of Physical Education Ski Field where you can hire skis and purchase tickets (approx. 150 RM).
There are also several other skiing areas near Harbin, in particular Yabuli Ski Resort, also a short train journey away, is one of the most famous in China and has significantly more runs than those nearer Harbin.
Relax your tired legs and have a soothing massage in one of the many traditional spas or saunas found all over Harbin. Note that the local custom is to bathe naked, which might be a bit of a shock to some international visitors who may want to check out the more European style spas in many international hotels instead!
Learn more about local culture and history at various museums and temples around town.
9:00 Unit 731 Museum
Take bus 338/ 343 to this free museum on the Japanese invasion during World War 2. The museum itself is the remains of the original “scientific research” site set up by the Japanese to experiment on captured Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians. Be warned, some of the displays and photos are very graphic, documenting some of the atrocities carried out during the war. Outside the main museum building, there are several other buildings to visit – in particular the frost laboratory, animal centres and offices. Note that you need your passport to get in and there is a rigorous security check.
11:00 Beer Museum – 50 RMB
Located a short walk round the corner from Unit 731, the Harbin Beer Museum is a great way to see the making of and taste a local brew. Harbin beer is one of the most popular in Northern China and sold all over the country. After a tour of the museum, take the bus 333 back to the city centre then change to Subway Line 1 and get off at Harbin Engineering University (GongCheng DaXue).
Enjoy lunch at any of the local restaurants around the university, where cheap and tasty local stir-fry dishes are readily available.
13:00 Temple of Bliss (Jile Temple) and Seen Tiered Pagoda – 10 RMB
Soak up the atmosphere at this ancient Buddhist temple, one of the most impressive I’ve seen in China. The site is dominated by a giant golden Buddha statue, surrounded by several prayer halls. The main courtyard contains several incense burners, statues and paintings – although a giant TV screen does somewhat detract from the scene. Located just next door, your ticket will also grant entry to the Seven Tiered Pagoda – a very impressive structure standing out against the shorter residential buildings around.
14:30 Confucian Temple
If you haven’t had your fill of temples yet, a short walk away is a Confucian Temple. Temples dedicated to the ancient scholar Confucius can be found all over China, and are particularly interesting for their striking Qing Dynasty architecture, stone carvings of Confucian quotes, and relaxing gardens. In this particular Confucian Temple, there is also a small exhibition on the Siberian people and culture.
16:00 Dragon Tower – 150 RMB
Take a taxi to the Dragon Tower to end your day with incredible views over Harbin. While the building itself isn’t particularly attractive, from the top visitors can enjoy panoramic views from the caged outdoor walkway, or stand on a terrifying glass floor. Inside the building, there is also a restaurant and several shops to explore.
If you’re pressed for time, focus your attention on the main sights – in particular I would recommend: Central Street, St Sophia Cathedral, the Snow Festival, the Ice Festival, Unit 371 Museum, and the Temple of Bliss. These could easily be visited in just two days – making a perfect weekend trip.
This itinerary has been designed with winter visitors in mind, however in the summer many of these attractions are still open, with the obvious exception of the Ice Festival. Get your fix of the famous Harbin love of snow by visiting Harbin Polarland, and relax in the Botanical Gardens or Sun Island – where the main Ice Festival is held in the winter months. If you fancy a break from the city, Maoershan is not only a ski resort but also a beautiful mountain scenic spot open to walkers during the summer – there is even a new raised glass walkway!
Getting there and away
The easiest way to get to Harbin is by train – the city has excellent rail links to most other Northeastern cities as well as a fantastic overnight service from Beijing. As part of the Trans-Manchurian Railway, you can also visit Harbin en route to Russia, or use it as a base for exploring other cities in the area such as Shenyang.
Travellers from further afield may wish to take advantage of Harbin’s airport. Although international services are limited mostly to asian countries, it is possible to fly from elsewhere in the world if you stopover in cities such as Beijing or Hong Kong.