Harbin, in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province, isn’t on most travellers radar for ten months a year. However, when the winter chill really sets in, a magical kingdom grows up, Frozen-style, made of ice and snow. It becomes one of the greatest places to visit in China. This annual festival is Harbin’s huge party piece, and this your ultimate guide to Harbin Snow and Ice Festival.
Harbin Snow and Ice Festival
Nearly every year since 1963, (with a respite for the cultural revolution) Harbin has transformed into a real winter wonderland. The Harbin Snow and Ice Festival is a celebration of all things frozen. It has grown in size, scale and popularity every year and now attracts 10 -15 million visitors every year., not bad for an attraction that only lasts a maximum of two months. The festival is so popular that it reached the top of my bucket list and inspired a whole Trans-Siberian adventure in 2019.
Unlike Elsa’s magical blasts, creating these ice palaces and snow sculptures takes some serious hard work. The process of creating the festival begins in December when the ice is mined out. It takes up to 10,000 workers to cut and move such vast quantities of ice. There are artists from up to 12 different countries, that transform the snow and ice into buildings and artistic pieces, competing for the grand prize…although I don’t know what that is…maybe just the glory.In 2019, the year we visited, the festival covered 600,000m² (that’s about 50 times the size of Trafalgar Square). Squeezed into that area were over 100 monuments made from a whopping 110,000m³ of ice and 120,000m³ of snow. It is the world’s biggest ice festival (which isn’t much of a surprise with those figures) and one of the world’s biggest snow festivals.
The Snow and Ice World
- 300 RMB – Adult Ticket 12:00 – 21:00
- 330 RMB – Adult Ticket on Special Holidays 12:00 – 21:00
- 150 RMB – Adult Ticket 09:00 -12:00
- Best seen in the morning for emptier photos
- Best seen in the afternoon/evening session to enjoy the lights
- You need to have your ticket before you pass through security. When we visited, the ticket desks were in a separate tent over to the left of the picture below.
The Snow and Ice World is the main attraction in Harbin. If you are on a tight budget and only want to pay one entrance fee, make it this one. The huge structures re amazing and within the site, you will see some snow sculptures too so you won’t be missing out.
The Ice Sculptures
The problem with seeing perfect photos in glossy brochures is that it’s actually incredibly difficult to get a sense of scale when it comes to the ice and snow world. It is with astonishment that you really take in the size of the sculptures around you. Life-size buildings, up to 46 m tall, built from what looks like frozen breeze blocks truly take the breath away.
Arriving in the daytime, these impressive edifices are impressive enough but once the light begins to dim something magical happens. From inside the ice a glow. One by one be something around you light up in neon pinks, greens, blues and oranges, often all at once. These LED shows are computer-controlled and quite spectacular (if a little gaudy). Some buildings pulse and flash in time to the music pumped over the speakers, giving the whole place the atmosphere of a fairground.
The best thing about scrolling through the pictures below is that every year, the displays are entirely different so you won’t be looking at spoilers, just inspiration.
Rising above the freezing sculptures there is a series of ice slides for your entertainment. It is worth noting that the queue for these can be extensive so make sure you are nice and warm before you join because your core temperature will drop with so little movement.
We tried out two of the slides. The first was shallow and graves press in a shared tube. It was quite bumpy but fun to enjoy as a couple and it had a great view over the site.
The second slide saw us queueing for much longer when we finally got to the head of the queue we saw that we were each designated and ice run and hopped into individual slides. The plastic sledges hurtled down slim tracks as the bright lights flashed past us all I could hear was Mr Fluskey is giggles and all he could hear was my streaks but it was great fun and worth the wait.
For something a little less high octane, we tried riding ski bikes on a round track. We opted for a side-by-side tandem and we were terrible but it was fun to try and get the blood pumping so it helped us warm up a little.
TOP TIP: The festival is sponsored by food and drink providers and it is definitely worth poking your head into every one of their buildings. We ate dinner at a famous fast-food chain where seats were at a premium and we felt we had to rush back outside. Later in the evening we looked into the Budweiser area which was half empty, super warm, and alongside the cold beer, served warm milky drinks which saved Rosie’s fingers and sanity.
Sun Island Scenic Area Snow Sculptures
- 240 RMB – Adult Ticket 08:00 – 17:00
- Best seen in the day time as it is not lit up at night.
Normally, this park is a great place to grab a tan on a summer stroll, but when it is too cold for a strap top, it is the location for the Sun Island Scenic Area Snow Sculptures. Visit in the day as the sun brings the snow to life.
The Snow Sculptures
The snow sculptures of sun Island are a more artistic and detailed craft than the monsters at Ice and Snow World. However, it does have its fair share of three-storey pieces. Take a stroll around this giant park and you will stumble upon some beautifully carved white works. It is mind-bending when you actually consider that they are made of snow and yet some seem to defy gravity. For anyone that has seen their snowman topple over, it seems impossible.
As with Ice and Snow World, there are some snows slides here for the more adventurous among you. Grab a tube and try out the long shallow slide or (and I wish we’d had time to try this) you can opt to be dragged around by a snow tractor in a frozen re-enactment of beachside thrill-seekers floating behind a speedboat.
We also found a steeper slide that looked more our speed.
In front of one particularly giant piece, visitors skidded, slid and sniggered on a frozen patch dotted with strange ice vehicles. It was a truly bizarre scene.
Zhaolin Park Lantern Festival
- 200 RMB – Adult Ticket 10:00-21:00
- This exhibition space tends to open earlier in the season than the larger sites
- Best seen in the afternoon/evening session to enjoy the lights
Smaller in scale than the other payable sites, the ice models in Zhaolin Park are also on the smaller side. Mind you, at up to three metres tall, they still aren’t tiny and there are some smaller ice buildings/slides. The ice carvings are generally more detailed and intricate than their more showy snowy brothers across the river. Similarly though, they are cheerfully lit once the day fades.
During our visit to Harbin, we decided to save some cash and didn’t pay to enter so we have no photos to share.
Other Things to Do and See in Harbin
If you have time to wander in Harbin a little, keep your eyes out for these sights.
Ice Around Town
Whereas most of the ice action is concentrated on the festival sites, you will still be treated to ice sculptures throughout the centre of town.
Zhongyang Dajie (Central Street)
This pedestrianised thoroughfare is the premiere place in Harbin for a wander, being almost a mile long and totally traffic-free. The architecture is strangely European with cast-iron street lamps, cobblestones and trees lining the street. This is due to it being constructed by the Russians in the late 1800s and their use of architecture from all across Europe. If you fancy a bit of shopping, you will find lots of familiar brands here, as well as plenty of local shops.
If you haven’t had enough ice already, keep an eye out for Madieer’s Ice Cream. These perfectly creamy ice lollies are a local delicacy and surprisingly welcome, even in the freezing temperatures.
St Sophia’s Church
Originally built as a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in 1907, St Sophia’s Church is a little piece of Russia within the Chinese city. It was a real amuse bouche for our trip into Russia on the Trans-Manchurian railway . The church was actually built when the city was connected to the Trans-Siberian by rail, in 1903.
After the closure of religious sites with the rise of Communism in the late 1940s, the building fell into disrepair. It took big fundraising efforts in the late 1990s to bring it back to its former glory, and it now houses Harbin Art Museum. The large Russian contingent in Harbin may not be able to worship here, but at least it is back to its shiny self.
Harbin Flood Prevention Cenotaph Square, The River and Stalin Park
The Harbin Flood Prevention monument sits proudly at the top of Zhongyang Street in Cenotaph Square, part of Stalin Park. The large tower commemorates the city’s fight against a great flood in 1958 and memorialises all those who perished in floods in years before that.
Walking west, through Stalin Park, the frozen river provides its own entertainment. Brave souls take to the ice that is almost a metre thick to build snowmen, try out the frozen attractions and at one spot, we even found a fair. Loud, obnoxious music is the soundtrack to the stroll so don’t expect a relaxing tie.
No, this isn’t a high line course, but the cable car that runs across the Songhua River between this elaborate building and Sun Island. It is possible to catch the cable car to the festival but at 80 RMB for a return, it isn’t the most cost-effective way to travel.
Where to Eat in Harbin
Orient King of Dumplings
Dumplings are a thing of joy. Steaming plates of jiaozi, boiled North Chinese dumplings, are whisked to tables in this slightly fancy but unremarkable dining room. From pork to prawn and onto veggie options, there is something for even the fussiest eaters. Best of all, there is an English menu so there is no guesswork involved…for you. The English menu is only in English so ask for both and you can match up the selections.
Carl Damo Bar
If the cold weather has chased you inside, and you fancy a proper drink to warm up, Carl Damo is a great option. This underground bar serves up American classics like pizza, toasted sandwiches and chicken wings. To wash them don, there is a sizable drinks menu. The owner has an intriguing collection of memorabilia and photography (much of it, taken by himself). Add in the retro American soundtrack and you’ll find that this is a great choice for a lost evening.
Where to Stay in Harbin
This self-assuredly cool hostel is near Harbin West train station but quite far from town. Front desk staff use a fun translator if they don’t speak English and the modern decor is surprisingly cosy. Rooms at Hash International Youth Hostel are on the small side but each is clean, modern and has plenty of outlets (important when you need everything fully charged in preparation for the cold).
Shangri-La is a byword for luxury across the globe and this Harbin property is no exception albeit a muted luxury. If you are familiar with Chinese hotels, this will all seem very familiar. Located in the central Daoli district, it is a great location for exploring on foot. IThe hotel rises high above street level so the views of the city and Songhua River are stunning. Best of all, there is a spa with hot tubs, steam rooms and a swimming pool, perfect for warming up after a snap in the cold.
How to Get to Harbin
Fast trains from Beijing arrive at the huge and exceedingly shiny Harbin West Railway Station. The ride from Beijing takes around 8 hours by bullet train. There are also slower sleeper trains that chug in from all over China. Getting hold of tickets can be done 20 days in advance, and we recommend doing this in good time as this festival is so busy. We recommend using China Highlights for your train ticket needs, they have always done a great job for us.
Once a week the sleeper that connects China to Russia as part of the Trans-Siberian railway arrives. The Trans-Manchurian route passes through Harbin en route from Beijing to Moscow…..but the less said about that train the better.
Harbin has a small airport, Harbin Taiping International Airport, 37km out of town. Flight arrive here from all over China, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and Japan. Flights from Beijing will get you to Harbin in two hours, and those travelling from Shanghai will take three. Arrivals need to catch a taxi into town, these will probably be shared with other travellers for reasons that will be explained in the next section.
Getting Around Harbin
In Harbin, taxis are cheap but in short supply., this means you are very likely to have to share. Drivers are keen to fill the car and locals won’t think twice about squeezing with you and your bags. You will also come across a fair few drivers that will refuse to take you in town. Don’t be disheartened, it is nothing personal, just keep trying.
There is a metro system in Harbin but it is not in any way extensive. Two lines currently run, the most useful connecting Harbin’s South Railway Station to town. Being that most trains arrive and leave from Harbin’s West Railways Station, you can see what I mean.
Finally, buses are a great way to travel around. Yes, they are subject to traffic delays but they go everywhere you will need to reach. There are over 100 routes and the ones we need most are the numbers 47 and 118. These will get you to the festival sites. Buses only run until around 19:00-19:30 so if you are out and about late at night, you’ll need to catch a taxi home. Most of these buses are cash only so make sure you have exact change to hand.
Extra Tips for Your Guide to Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Obviously, the short season means it will always be busy. However, to avoid the very worst times which make travel more difficult, hotels fuller and pricier and tickets to the sights more expensive, there are some dates to steer clear of. The week around Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival and the Lantern Festival.
Forget fashion, at temperatures of -25°C you need to focus on staying warm. Decent snow boots (fully waterproof) and many socks will keep your toes toasty. Layer up, creating air between the layers keeps you warmer so ensure your top layer is loose. Finally, a longer coat that coves the thighs is going to keep your whole body warmer.
Protect Your Hands
If you find yourself getting icy hands find somewhere warm and warm them up slowly rather than running them under hot water or wrapping them around a hot drink. Warming them slowly and increasing the circulation by rubbing them or doing some light exercise prevents frostbite or chilblains.
In China, you won’t have access to Google but you will have Bing and Apple Maps. Bing can take some getting used to, and some websites are filtered out by the great firewall, but Apple Maps will help you navigate easily.
Most visitors need a visa for China (please do check your countries requirement
s before you try to travel) However, there are some countries that can visit Harbin visa-free for 72 hours. It is mildly complicated, but if you fly into China from Seoul, and out to another location in a third party country (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) you do not need a visa. If you think it may apply to you, check out the Wikipedia article.
Cold, Hard Cash
Or should that be hard to get cold cash? Finding an ATM that accepts your credit/debit cards can be tricky, even with the pre-loaded Revolut/Monzo style cards. We would recommend having some cash with you before you get to Harbin. We didn’t have any and tried four cards before finding one that would work in the ATMs. Plus, just using card may not work either. We struggled to find one that the ticket desks at the Ice Festival accepted.
Don’t forget to keep hydrated. The air in Harbin is dry so drink lots of water or warming tea.
Electricals don’t like the cold. Phone and camera batteries will die at an alarming rate when the temperature drops below zero. Make sure everything is charged, you aren’t using your phone for gaming in the meantime, you are keeping them as warm as possible (my phone was tucked by my body the whole time) and spare batteries or battery packs are a must-have.
Traverse the Ice
It is possible to walk across the frozen river to the festival but if you planning to do so, be aware that it does take a long time and it adds to the time you are out in the cold.
What to Pack for Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
We bought single use heat pads for our boots. Walking on cold snow can really chill the toes and once my toes are cold, I can’t warm them up by myself…and I am NOT nice when I am too cold. My solution was to never let them get frosty in the first place. Stuck to the underside of my socks, these were great!
It may be winter but the sun can be extremely bright and with all that snow around, headaches or snow blindness can be a genuine worry. Pack you sunnies and you will protect your eyes and avoid squinty photos! Consider the kind of sunglasses that wrap around your face as these are much easier to pair with hats, ear muffs and other warming necessities.
Somewhere between an electric blanket and wearable tech, heated clothing is a marvel of the modern age. Rechargeable batteries warm up wires that run through the clothing, blocking cold from sneaking down to your skin. For the Harbin trip, I had a heated jacket and heated gloves. Yes, this may be “wimpy” but both of these were absolute lifesavers. My heated gloves were the only things that stopped me from throwing a wobbly in China and Russia whenever the temperature dipped below -8°C.
Check out my full blog reviews of my heated goodies below:
Final Thoughts for This Guide to Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
It might seem crazy to travel all the way to north-east China for some snow but it is entirely worthwhile. Forget Frozen, forget Narnia, this is an icy fantasy brought to life. Harbin itself is a pretty cool place to explore, with its splashes of Russian influence, obsession with neon and eclectic Chinese personality.