Harbin, the capital of the northernmost province in China, is home to the biggest winter festival in the world: the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. It has three venues and gets more than 10 million annual visitors! They come to Harbin to see how snow and ice are carved into absolutely gorgeous structures.
I can personally affirm how worth it a visit to Harbin is! It will be bitter cold, but the views are certainly worth it. If you are considering Harbin, this is how to visit everything, and why you should brave the cold!
What is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is the largest in the world in terms of visitors (10+ million/year), size (600,000m2), and height of the structures. It is a collection of sculptures made of either ice or snow! There are three different exhibitions of the festival:
- Ice and Snow World
- Sun Island Snow Sculpture Expo
- Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Festival
From about Christmas to the end of Chinese New Year, each of these three exhibitions will be open to the public! They officially open after January 5th (the exact date varies a little by year) but you can go before then (as I did). From there, it’s basically just a giant play area or museum! You can walk through each of the exhibits and marvel at the detail on the smaller ice and snow carvings, or thoroughly appreciate the large structures.
Each of the exhibitions focus on something slightly different! The staff makes them completely brand new every year, so the themes and setup vary by year. Still, I outline each of the exhibitions in the sections below.
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Travel Tips for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
If you are going to Harbin, make sure you’re prepared! Temperatures during the day are no warmer than -15°C (-5°F) on a warm day. At night, you’re looking at -30°C (-22°F) or colder. Most people aren’t suited to survive at those temperatures, nor are the tools that we use.
Cells phones, cameras, battery packs, etc. are vulnerable to the cold! Not only will some of them shut down when they get too cold, prolonged exposure could lead to permanent battery damage. If you’re using something repeatedly, try to put it somewhere close to your body (inside an inner pocket for example) or near a heating pack. You can easily buy heat packs outside the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival gates from street vendors or along the shops of Center Street in downtown Harbin!
In addition to layers warm enough to keep the heat in, pay attention to your feet, hands, and face. These are either exposed to the cold or easy to be frostbitten! Chances are that if you’re moving around, you will be okay, but it’s best to not have to worry. You can solve these by wearing appropriate shoes, hats, gloves, and even masks. If Harbin is only a single stop that you’ll make in cold weather and you don’t want to buy special gear, you can try these hacks instead:
- Grab a pollution mask for your face – your cheeks’ll be warm and you won’t be breathing in stuff that will sit in your lungs
- Wear long socks and/or extra long pants to cover your ankles between your pants and shoes
- Buy hand warming pouches to keep your hands, electronics, and even your feet warm
- Tie your hair back if it’s long; otherwise if you breathe on it, it could ice over
- Put your feet in socks and plastic bags before putting them in your shoes to protect them from wind and snow
WeChat and Alipay will suffice for most expenses, but a select few places will only take cash! Luckily entrance tickets are payable with your phone, though.
Harbin is very dry. The trick is that hauling a regular water bottle or even a hiking water bladder will result in ice cold water when you need it. Some of this is inevitable, but if you have an insulated bottle, you won’t have to choose between drinking not-water like milk tea, ice cold water, or drinking nothing at all.
Ice and Snow World, 冰雪大世界, is AMAZING. It’s the best exhibition in the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, at least in my view. The best way to get there is bus! Plenty of buses stop at the entrance of the Ice and Snow Festival stop. You could take 47, 29, or any other line that stops there. In Chinese, it’s 冰雪大世界 (Bīngxuě dà shìjiè).
Ice and Snow World is mainly known for its large ice sculptures and buildings! You can walk up several of them, and slide down or take pictures from the top. There are also shows with dancing, animation, and just about anything you can think of! The lines for the large slides and some shows are very long, so make sure you get in line ASAP if you want to experience them. The best way to play this is to get to Ice and Snow World at 2 or 3pm, and leave the sculpture-admiring for after sundown!
Once you get to the bus stop, you’ll have to walk about 5-10 minutes towards the entrance. There will be plenty of people along the roads selling different products that you might need! Things that could definitely help you include:
- Shoe spikes
- Plastic sleds
I bought a pair of shoe spikes and a plastic sled for ¥10 each! The shoe spikes will keep you on your feet rather than your behind, and the plastic sled will allow you to slide down all of the small ice slides or slopes without getting your clothes dirty. One of the vendors said, “The slides are an essential part of Ice and Snow World! You’re spending ¥330 to get in; you can’t possibly pass up the slides for ¥10, can you?” Great point. My little sled was green! Pay attention though, as these sleds are rather thin. You’ll see chips of colored plastic all over the small slopes in the park.
[Recommended Read: Harbin Ice and Snow World: A Guide]
Sun Island is an awesome place because it lets you get away from the city! It’s where Ice and Snow World is, and of course hosts the Snow Sculpture Expo as well. The Expo is home to snow sculptures only – they’re all solid white.
It’s located across from the Ice and Snow World entrance, but about 1.5km away. If you take buses 29, 47, or another, you can get off at 太阳岛道口, or Tàiyáng dǎo dàokǒu. If you come from downtown Harbin, it’ll be right before the Ice and Snow World stop. You could walk, but the better option is shuttle bus. If you walk forward (toward the Ice and Snow World stop) a little and then to the right, there will be a bus that goes to the front entrance of the Expo. Alternative options are the cable car or walking across the frozen Songhua River. The cable car leaves one block west of Center Street at the river’s edge from the third floor of a mall, so you can see it as you approach. You could also just walk across the river if you want some exercise!
This is the only part of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival open during the day. These are all snow sculptures, so they do not light up different colors but the detail on them is easier to see! With snow, you can also have larger actual artistic sculptures (not little buildings) like the ones from my pictures.
There is a main portion of the exhibition where the majority of the snow sculptures are displayed, but don’t let this be the only place you tour! Walk around to the frozen lake for activities on the ice and look for the other sculptures in the area. When I went, the far end had a nice slope that you could slide down on a tube. It’s not as long as the two from the Ice and Snow World but it seemed slightly steeper. Plus, I didn’t have to wait at all!
[Recommended Read: Harbin Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo: A Guide]
The entirety of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival started with ice lanterns! The Zhaolin Park exhibition is the oldest one of the three that make up the festival. The exhibition in 2018 was #44, but the tradition started long before that. The ice lanterns are slabs of ice carved into a variety of different shapes. Since the ice is colorless and transparent, they outfit the sculptures with a variety of lights!
On some level, the ice lanterns resemble the large buildings and structures in Ice and Snow World. However, the lanterns are primarily smaller than a person and surround sculptures from a variety of different artists. The park is one street east of Center Street and open during the day (and cheaper!), but visiting during the day doesn’t allow you to see all the colors that come with it. There aren’t other activities (such as the ice skating, slides, etc.) in the park. This is also much smaller than the other exhibitions, so you most likely won’t be spending too much time here.
If you have limited time, Zhaolin Park is the part that you can cut corners on. The ice sculptures are impressive, especially considering how many of them there are, but individually they’re not much different from your standard hotel or wedding ice sculpture.
[Recommended Read: Harbin’s Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair: A Guide]
If you need have two days to visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, this was my itinerary:
Did you visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival? What was your favorite part?
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