Harbin, home of the world’s largest Ice Festival, is a small city located in northeast China, with strong cultural and culinary influence from Russia. Because the city’s main attraction is its annual Ice Festival, held late December through early February, a visit to Harbin is going to be a very cold one. Here are some tips for what to do in Harbin and how to survive the biting cold weather.
How cold is it, really?
The winter temperature in Harbin ranges from -25°C (-13°F) to -12°C (10°F). This weather is how they are able to keep all the beautiful ice and snow sculptures from melting.
What should I wear?
If you’re used to cold weather, you likely have all the gear already – thermal underwear, gloves, hats, scarves, earmuffs, snow boots, wool socks, and a thick jacket! My jacket was specifically marketed for extreme cold weather and came down to my knees, so it really helped keep me warm.
Especially if you are not used to cold weather, don’t skimp on packing! Expect to replace your innermost layer of clothing daily, but repeat your pile of extra layers of shirts, sweaters, leggings, and long underwear to keep your whole body warm. Every photo I took in Harbin was just of me in my big puffy jacket, so repeating layers shouldn’t make much difference!
How else can I keep safe and warm?
- Take it slow. Harbin is best enjoyed over 2-3 days, rather than trying to stay outside for long days and freezing yourself!
- Make sure your shoes have enough wiggle room that you aren’t cutting off circulation by wearing extra thick, even double-layer socks. If everything is too tight, you’ll end up still feeling cold.
- Try bringing a hot water bottle, or buying one on your trip, as they are easy to find in China. Perfect to keep in your bag or pockets and help keep your fingers toasty.
- Take breaks! There is no shame in popping into a shop, doing a little dance to warm up, and leaving. Most of the things you’ll want to see in Harbin are outside, so you’ll definitely want to huddle inside when you can, to prepare you for more adventure!
I’ve got my winter gear! Now, what do I do in Harbin?
The main draw to Harbin is the main ice festival venues, but there is more to do and see through the town, and small ice sculptures everywhere you walk! I’d suggest starting with a stroll down Zhongyang Street.
Zhongyang (Central) Street
This main road is the perfect place for a casual walk while you’re on the search for food and shopping! The shops range from modern stores to local shops where you can buy quality Russian goods. I think Zhongyang Street is the best way to start your trip because you’ll have many opportunities to wander inside warm shops and adjust to the weather. You’ll also get a feel for what’s to come as you walk by the snow-covered ground and mini ice sculptures on the sidewalks.
Zhongyang Street has not only restaurants but also an abundance of street food options, so don’t be afraid to feast! My personal favorite winter street food is tanghulu, fruit on a stick which is dipped in crunchy sugar syrup.
Play on the ice, and walk across the river!
After walking down Zhongyang Street, you’ll run into Stalin Park and the Songhua River. This river is completely frozen over in the winter, and in fact, ice blocks taken from the river are used to make the ice sculptures for the festival.
Because the river is frozen over, you can walk right onto it! There are hundreds of people hanging out, taking photos, and playing ice games. You could always ice skate (or, in my case, “skate” in your boots), or you could opt to rent one of the ice bicycles, tubes, or other ways to get around.
But don’t stop at the edge of the river! Across the river are the two biggest attractions of the festival, Ice and Snow World and Sun Island Park. Most people cross the river on the cable car, which is just a short walk to the left once you hit Stalin Park. This provides a beautiful view of the city and the river. But as you float high above the river, you’ll notice small, ant-sized people trekking across the ice. If you’re up for the adventure yourself, it should only take about 30 minutes to walk across the river. And don’t worry, it’s safe and many people do it every day!
Ice and Snow World
Ice and Snow World opens in the afternoon but is the most beautiful to see at night. This “Ice City” has large scale ice sculptures that are lit brilliantly with multicolored lights. There are ice buildings you can walk into, ice slides for your kids, and ice towers to walk up for perfect pictures.
Ice and Snow World is going to be busy and chaotic, but well worth seeing the incredible ice art before it melts! New themes and sculptures are created each year making your trip a unique one that you can’t really replicate!
Zhaolin Lantern Park
If you will only have one free night to explore Harbin, make sure to see Ice and Snow World, but if you’ll have extra time, the third and smallest venue of the festival, Zhaolin Lantern Park, is filled with over 1,000 ice sculptures, including animals, ice lanterns, and magical creatures. Like Ice and Snow World, it is best visited at night. While this park is more targeted toward activities for kids, it’s still a beautiful place to visit.
Don’t leave without seafood!
I can’t finish out without mentioning the street food you can’t leave Harbin without! Harbin cuisine, a mix of Shandong and Russian cuisine, utilizes simple but delicious flavors. There are night markets and food stalls everywhere, so look out for one serving treasure crab. This dish serves succulent crabmeat inside a crab shell, where it is grilled with oil until it is bubbling, then topped with either a garlic or cream sauce. An absolute can’t miss!
The Central Street and Huanghe Road are bustling gathering places for dining or good foods in Harbin.
Good Choice for authentic Northeastern food. The specialties are a Stewed Pork Ball (Stewed Lion Head), Fried Pork in Scoop, Smoked and Boiled Duck with Spices
Average cost: CNY30-50 per person
Address: NO. 43 Garden Street, Nangang District
(video credit: Clockwork Lemon)
A trip to Harbin may be freezing, but it is also fun, colorful, and the perfect opportunity to see some of the most magnificent ice art in the world. Stay warm!