City Guide: Harbin
Harbin is one of the Northernmost and also coldest cities in China. At the same time, Harbin is famous for its Snow and Ice Festival, which was a great reason for me to visit. Yet, there’s much more to see in Harbin than just ice!
If you are trying to look for cities that look really uninviting on paper, Harbin might have a good chance of winning the title. The city is incredibly cold in winter, has tons of industry and pollution and just doesn’t seem like a place that’s worth going. Nevertheless, I actually thought that Harbin is one of the highlights in China, mainly due to the fascinating Snow & Ice Festival, but also due to its Russian heritage. If just doesn’t feel like your typical Chinese city as much as for example Guangzhou or Chengdu do, but instead much more like a Russian metropolis located within China.
The famous and fascinating Snow and Ice Festival Harbin
The main reason to go to Harbin is the Ice and Snow Festival Harbin, which usually happens in January and February each year.
During this seasons temperatures in Harbin range between -40 and -10 degrees Celsius and I was lucky enough to be there on a “hot” day with temperatues just a little bit below 0 degrees.
This incredibly cold makes it possible to build tons of different ice sculptures and full buildings just from ice, which is a fascinating art.
It’s tough to really sum up the whole Snow and Ice Festival in words as it’s just incredibly interesting to see it in person.
You can spend a full day just walking through the festival grounds, which you have to pay a (hefty) entrance fee for.
It’s absolutely worth it though as there are all kinds of really beautiful and incredible massive buildings, which you just wouldn’t believe are just built from ice.
There are also various of other sorts of snow and ice art objects, which add some special atmosphere to the place.
I don’t want to lose too many words on the Snow & Ice Festival Harbin as it’s just something you need to see yourself – however be aware of the freezy temperatures, which might not be for everyone.
Harbin Polarland & Harbin Opera House
The Snow & Ice Festival Harbin is the most famous exhibition with ice sculptures, but there are actually a couple more areas in the city, which offer something similiar. One of those is Polarland, which I skipped during my visit, but might be an interesting alternative for you.
You can also find a couple of other attractions, including a tiger park and a historic Russian village, here. Personally, I’d highly recommend to visit the Harbin Opera House on the other side of the river bank though as this is really an incredible highlight in Harbin.
If you just look at the pictures I’m providing here, you’ll see that this is actually more than just one of many Opera Houses.
The whole design reminded me a bit of the Opera House in Sydney, but it’s a much more approach.
An added value are the great views of the city, which you can get when visiting the Opera House.
While there are special opening times for visitors, you can go there anytime and just walk in the outer areas, I’m actually not even sure whether it’s worth it visiting the inner parts.
Anyways, definitely visit the Opera House of Harbin, even it’s quite a way to go from the city center.
Zhaolin Park & Sofia Square in Harbin
Not only the outskirts of Harbin, but also the city center itself has quite a bit to offer. This is mainly due to interesting Russian architecture.
Yet, there’s also a nice park called Zhaolin Park, which also houses some exhibitions of the Ice & Snow Festival (so, most of it was already gone when I visited).
However, the park is quite nice even without the ice sculptures, so it’s definitely worth visiting thanks to its cute little bridges and buildings.
Speaking of buildings, one of the most interesting spots in Harbin can be found at Sofia Square, which is the historic main square of town.
The centerpiece of this square is the Russian-Orthodox Sofia Square Church, which could also be located in Moscow or Saint Petersburg (actually there’s something similiar in Nice as well).
Not only the church is interesting though as there are a couple of historically inspired buildings as well as a “skelleton” church – not sure what that’s standing for.
Anyways, definitely visit Sofia Square before venturing to the main street of Harbin.
Zhongyan Street & the historic city center of Harbin
Once you’ve visitied Sofia Square, you may walk along Zhongyan Street to get a better idea of the historic routes of Harbin.
All the buildings really don’t feel a lot like China, the only street that resembles this architecture that I know in the whole country can be found in Xiamen.
Not only can you still find some quintessentially Russian buildings, but also some restaurants and bars with a Russian touch.
If you make a little detour, you can also find a historic synagogue, which I thought is cute.
This street is also one of the most important shopping streets in Harbin and it’s leading to the Sidalin Park and the fascinating Friendship Palace (which is soon to be the home of a new Indigo Hotel).
The Sidalin Square is quite beautiful already and comes with a nice statue.
But the real highlight are the little Russian inspired buildings by the large riverbank.
Speaking of the river, it’s obviously frozen in winter, which means that people decide to go ice skating here – really a cool experience as the views are endless.
Another spot worth visiting is People’s Square, maybe a kilomter away from the Friendship Palace. Here, you can find a couple more really nice historic buildings.
Generally speaking though, Harbin really has a lot to offer in its city center and even if you are in town just for the Ice Festival, definitely pay a visit to the center of Harbin.
Overall impressions of Harbin
Harbin doesn’t have the fascinating skyline of Shanghai and also not the historic relevance of Beijing, but I really enjoyed my visit. That’s not only because of the really fascinating Snow & Ice Festival, but also because I very much enjoyed the modern part of Harbin (Opera House) and the historic routes of the city, particularly the Russian influences. Harbin just doesn’t feel like a typical Chinese city and that’s something really fascinating in a country with so many similiarities when it comes to architecture!
Do you have any questions about Harbin? Feel free to ask or share your impressions in the comments!