Harbin in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang is known primarily for one thing: its world renowned Ice and Snow Festival. It’s a time when the bitter cold of the region is their greatest asset rather than a liability. Unlike most tourist destinations that come alive in the summer and go dead in the winter, Harbin thrives in the winter. It has several nice mountains and wetlands that you could visit during the summer, but if you try during the winter you’re just asking to be frozen. I would not recommend anything like that.
Still, it is difficult to spend the whole of 48 hours visiting ice and snow sculptures! This is the itinerary I had – focused on seeing the sculptures but also taking in what else Harbin has to offer in the winter.
[Recommended Read: Harbin Ice and Snow Festival: A Complete Guide]
Getting In and Around Harbin
If you’re coming from a city like Beijing, the overnight train is a great option. That’s what I did, and the ride was pretty much perfect. I left at around 8pm the night before and arrived at 7am the next morning. It was a bit early, but not too early that it was hard to find buses or hotels open. Harbin has 3 train stations, and the East and West stations are more popular for longer distance-trains.
When you get off the trains, the nice thing is you can immediately hop on the subway. It’s not very useful for tourism purposes, but it is good for getting you to and from train stations. (The problem is there’s just one main subway line, and it goes through the southern part of town through all three train stations but doesn’t go up north towards the river, which is where everything you want to see is located.)
For the most part, you can walk or take a bus. Taxis are available, but buses are far more economical and will take you directly where you need to be. I stayed at the Baixiang Holiday Hotel (Center Street Branch), which was on #8 of West 6th Street. It was about as close to Center Street at you can get! I highly recommend the location, as Center Street is fantastic and any buses you need will stop around there. Buses run often, and cost only ¥1 for each ride. Make sure you have cash, though, because you won’t be able to get change!
Day 1: Jumping Right In
Center Street (中央大街）
Estimated time: 1 hour
Since I lived near Center Street, the first thing I did was walk along it. I was a bit confused at first because it looks like a single intersection on maps, but rest assured it’s an entire lane. When you see a map of Harbin, you’ll notice a large river (the Songhua River) running through the north. The heart of Center Street starts there (1st Avenue) and extends about 15 avenues down. There are high end shops, a tourist information center (with maps in English!) near 6th, and plenty of street food and restaurant options. If you need extra winter clothes, you can find them here as well. Make sure you walk to several shops to make sure you’re not being cheated!
[Recommended Read: Street Food Guide: Harbin, China]
Flood Control Monument, Stalin Park, and the Songhua River Ice and Snow Happy Valley
Estimated time: 1-2 hours
If you continue north on Center Street towards the river, you’ll run into the Floor Control Monument at the top. The surrounding area is Stalin Park, but in the winter it’s not that great of a place. Walk a little further towards the edge of the river, and you’ll see hoards of people already out there. The common activities include:
- Being pulled in a tube
- Arm sledding
- Riding dog-pulled sleds
- Sliding down ice slides
- Ice skating
- Riding horse-drawn carriages
- Driving ice buggies
- Whipping spinning tops
Of course, these are the super technical terms! Ha. This is not a bad place to try them out. The reason is there are crowds of operators trying to lure you in, so you definitely should ask around before committing to anything. Those people do this for a living, meaning they will literally get you sitting in an ice buggy (like a dune buggy vehicle but for ice) and telling you to take a trip, waiting for you to come back to charge you. The nice thing is that, if you pay, they won’t try to cheat you. Once they have the cash in hand, they’re happy to make sure you at least enjoy your time there.
Travel Tips: If you’re planning on going to any other city (I combined Changchun in the Jilin Province with Harbin), wait until you get there. Prices will be cheaper and the ice will be less crowded!
If I had planned out my schedule better, I would have known I could walk across the river (not very far), go slightly left, and see the entrance to the Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo. Or, I could have gone back towards Center Street, towards the left, and taken the cable car across the river. To be fair, my first day was one of the foggiest I’ve ever seen, but still!
Siberian Tiger Park
Estimated time: 2 hours
From there, I went to the Siberian Tiger Park! This is a little far away, but I took bus 29 to the last stop. You can also take 35, but 29 leaves right across the street from the Flood Control Monument. (It also stops by where you can get off for both Ice and Snow World and the Sun Island Expo! Expect to take it a lot.) Once you get off the bus, just keep walking forward. You’ll be able to see the gate that leads to the entrance of the park.
The thing to note here is that the Siberian Tiger Park only takes cash. Who does that now?? Anyway, it cost ¥110 to get it with the bus ride (see next paragraph) and I only had ¥80. I bought a cup of hot milk tea from a vendor next to the entrance in exchange for giving me cash from my WeChat Pay account, but that was seriously not good. There wasn’t even an ATM nearby! The other hing to note was that there was a circus show available. I didn’t have enough cash to attend it, but if you’re interested it could be quite interesting.
The Tiger Bus is something that is automatically assumed that you will purchase, unless you say otherwise. You basically get into a bus that looks like a tiger, and the driver shows you around the entire tiger park. Because you’re in the bus, you can get pretty up close with the Siberian tigers (and some of the other animals)! For my ride, the driver moved pretty quickly (which was unfortunate) but when we got to the feeding area a staff member threw a live chicken out to the tigers there, and we got to see them fight for and eat the chicken! A bit gruesome.
Afterwards, they let you walk through the series of overhead tunnels they have. You can buy meat to feed to the tigers, at varying prices. You can even buy a live chicken or pheasant, but it seemed a little weird to me to feed them live animals.
Estimated time: 4-6 hours
This was the best part of the day! I had no idea that I would spend so much time here, but every minute was worth it. The magnificent grandeur of the ice structures and the sheer scale of everything – INCREDIBLE. This was more than anything I could ever imagine. It’s complete with shows that you can see and activities that you can complete!
Only at night does the entire fortress light up, so you’ll have to wait until afternoon. The nice thing is winter begins around 4 or 4:30pm, so you can easily stay until 8 or 9pm and still see everything! It closes at 10pm, so make sure you give yourself enough time to see everything.
I visited Harbin from 1/1-1/3, and planned it poorly. I should have spent the night of 1/2 at Ice and Snow World rather than 1/1, since New Year’s Day is a national holiday! Every year the exhibition is different, but there were several large slopes that you could slide down on tubes that they provide. Get in line for these early if you’re interested, because the wait could be 2 hours otherwise! For some of the shows, the wait will also be very, very long. Try to ask people how long they’ve been waiting, because you don’t want to spend 4 hours waiting in line to see shows and miss out on parts of the park!
Note also that some shows/exhibits will carve out places for VIPs. These are open to you as long as you spend some money, usually buying souvenirs or food. The amount usually isn’t that much (maybe ¥50/person) but it is an additional expense on top of the entrance fee to look out for!
[Recommended Read: Harbin Ice and Snow World: A Guide]
Ice and Snow World was awesome! It’s expensive (¥330/person) but it was absolutely magnificent. It was exactly what I expected to see when I planned a trip to Harbin! I also had a fantastic time trying out the street foods on Center Street. The sausages are amazing, and I would definitely consider going back to Harbin just to have more. I liked the Siberian Tiger Park because we could feed tigers or watch others feed them, and the tigers could get up on the protective fence less than a foot from the walkway. The ice activities, though expensive, were also unique! I felt I overpaid but wasn’t overly sad about that.
I definitely wish I had brought more cash rather than assuming everything could be paid for with Alipay/WeChat Pay. I probably would have arrived at the Ice and Snow World earlier as well, seeing that there are some activities and shows earlier in the day. It also would help to bring snacks myself! A single cup of hot milk tea was ¥30!! Crazy.
In China, there are many hostels/inns/hotels that can’t take foreigners. I originally booked one only to find out this was the case. It was a major pain to find another place on New Year’s Day, and I ended up paying ¥1500+ for two nights! Not enough to break the bank but I definitely could have found a better deal if I had been cognizant of this. If you can, always try to call up any place (including in Booking.com) to ensure they can take foreigners!
Day 2: Rounding Out the Trip
I had an early train ride to Changchun in the Jilin Province on day 3, so I knew I had to make the most of this day! Luckily, it was a relatively slow day.
Estimated time: 2 hours
This is the second most important part of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (after Ice and Snow World)! It’s on the eastern half of Sun Island, across the Songhua River from Center Street.
I arrived just after 9am because it opened at 8:30 and I wanted to avoid the crowds. I definitely did that, and overestimated how many people would be there! So early in the morning there were probably just a handful of people there. The great thing was that I got many pictures with no people in the background! Do keep in mind that mornings are probably the coldest times of day!
Even though it cost the same ¥330 as Ice and Snow World, this was definitely not as worthy. Most of the expo is a series of small snow sculptures collected from various competitions, which lacked the grandeur and theme element that Ice and Snow World had. They were usually less than 10 ft. tall, significantly smaller than Ice and Snow World, where you could walk into and up buildings! Still, there was a significant variety and short English and Chinese descriptions of each one, which definitely gave each one more meaning.
It did have three really cool giant snow sculptures, though! They were probably the largest I have ever seen and quite intricate. The area in front of them was a frozen pond, and you could pay for different ice activities.
The best way to get there is to walk across the frozen river or take the cable car across! I took the bus, not knowing this, and took far longer than I should have. It didn’t make too much of a difference in terms of crowds, but that might have been my timing also (30 minutes after opening on a Tuesday).
Additionally, when I first went in the main gate, there was a bus that would take us to the core of the expo. It’s free both ways. However, if you take the bus, you’ll miss out on the sculptures that are along that path. You can definitely walk the distance (in maybe 15-20 minutes maximum) and enjoy the sculptures!
Much more than other places, the Snow Sculpture Art Expo has snow everywhere on the ground. If you don’t have boots, you are most susceptible to frozen toes here! Keep that in mind.
[Recommended Read: Harbin Sun Island Snow Sculpture Art Expo: A Guide]
Russian Town and Cable Car
Estimated time: 1 hour
I heard there was a cable car at entrance 3 of the Snow Sculpture Art Expo, so I went! Before I got to the cable car, I saw the Russian town on the left. Since Harbin and the Heilongjiang Province are so close to Russia, the influence is inevitable.
The Russian town is just a tiny replica of what a Russian town might look like. The entrance tickets are around ¥30 (though I can’t remember exactly). You can walk in and see the little statues (including Russian dolls of Vladimir Putin and his political team! Ha!) and shops. You can buy Russian-style art and see some furniture and living spaces from the WWII era. When I was there I saw a “Russian Santa” that you could pay to take a photo with, but he paled in comparison to your typical mall santa.
Since it was a shop visit and not very expensive, I think it was worth it. However, there wasn’t much actual culture to experience. Apparently there are sometimes shows you can attend, which would definitely be more meaningful, but unfortunately I didn’t get to see one when I walked through.
I continued on to the cable car, which I got all to myself! The weather was clear and I could even see the tops of the snow sculptures when I looked back at Sun Island, which was awesome.
St. Sofia Square and Cathedral
Estimated time: 30 minutes – 1 hour
I didn’t go into the St. Sofia Cathedral because I didn’t have much time in the area, but it’s absolutely beautiful! The square is surrounded by a variety of stores that you can go to if you need or want anything. The best time to visit is probably dusk, because the lights around the cathedral will be gorgeous.
Keep in mind that during the winter sunset is usually around 4:00-4:30pm. The Cathedral closes at 5pm. I didn’t go in because of time and the fact that I’ve been to many cathedrals around the world and didn’t expect too much different from the interior. The square was a plus for sure, though!
Estimated time: 2 hours
This is the oldest portion of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. I expected it to be similar to the ones I had visited earlier, but it was markedly different. It wasn’t nearly as large (though still rather formidable). Like the Snow Sculpture Expo, its main “content” is sculptures from different contests. Zhaolin Park is a nice area to walk through at any time of the year, and during this festival they line all the walkways with ice sculptures! They reminded me of what I might see at a nice event or a wedding, just with what seemed like a thousand of them throughout the park.
Unlike the other two portions of the festival, this park included few opportunities for activities. There was a small section of the park with larger structures that you could climb up and slide down, but they weren’t much different from the ones in the other parks. The nice thing is that this costs just about half of the other fairs and expos, and is one block east of Center Street.
[Recommended Read: Harbin’s Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Fair: A Guide]
I definitely benefitted from the more relaxed schedule I had this day. Rather than always watching the clock, I could move through these places pretty fluidly. I took some time in the early afternoon to rest, so I could gear up for a night at Zhaolin Park. It turned out that just meant I could spend an evening relaxing and re-watching Dr. Strange, which was perfectly fine with me!
I definitely enjoyed the cable car, and highly recommend it if you go on a day that isn’t cloudy/foggy.
I opted to have a free afternoon, but I realize now that I could have taken it and gone to a museum in town. Japan invaded Northern China in September of 1931 as part of the Mukden Incident, or Manchurian Incident. This was part of their quest to take over the entirety of Asia, and caused great social and political pain to the Chinese, especially in the Heilongjiang Province. Harbin has a museum commemorating this, and I’m a little sad I missed it!
I was also blind sighted by the Russian town. I hadn’t expected it to be there, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity! That messed up my schedule quite a bit because I couldn’t have as much time for lunch and rest. I wish I had known it was there.
Harbin is absolutely an AWESOME winter destination, and I’m very glad I went. It was also the coldest I’ve ever, ever been, I seemed to adjust better than I expected. The ice and snow sculptures are seriously world-class, especially the ones that they ask you to pay for!
I would say that 2 days was just about perfect. I arrived from Beijing before 8am on 1/1 and left for Changchun at 9:30am on 1/3, so that left me with two full nights to see the Ice and Snow World and Zhaolin Park Lantern Festival. Luckily, I don’t think I would have benefitted from any more or less time there, especially since I wanted to maintain a good pace. I definitely didn’t want to feel I had to spend all my waking hours outside because of the stress and danger to my health it would have presented. Nor did I want to miss out on something in Changchun because I planned Harbin poorly. For the most part, that worked out!
[Recommended Read: Baixiang Holiday Hotel, Harbin, China: A Review]
There weren’t many things that I could have changed about my itinerary to make my trip better. It worked out pretty well. What could have been better are things I’ve already mentioned above:
- Negotiating more for the Songhua River Ice and Snow Happy Valley activities
- Checking whether my hotel could accept foreigners before getting to town
- Visiting the museum on Unit 731, which was the Japanese equivalent to Nazi experimentation during WWII
- Visiting Ice and Snow World on the less busy night, and Zhaolin Park on the busier night
The one piece of advice I have for you wasn’t something that I could control! But, if you can, try to visit later in the winter season (late January, early February) without coming on Chinese New Year. When I went, the Sun Island Expo and the Zhaolin Park Festival both had unfinished sculptures! They weren’t the majority on Sun Island, but at Zhaolin a significant chunk of the park was missing. I would highly recommend visiting later if you can so you can see all it has to offer!
Have you been to Harbin in the winter? What did you do differently?
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