(Last updated on: 23/12/2021)
I visited the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival and Snow Town last Christmas and it was an incredible experience! Experiencing -30 degree temperatures and gazing at the spectacular ice sculptures was a truly special experience. If you have the opportunity to visit the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival along with the picturesque Snow Town, I highly recommend it!
Prior to our trip to Harbin, we found that there was very little information available about it online in English. As is always the case when travelling in China, this makes planning your trip a little bit more challenging! So, now that our trip is finished, I have decided to write up all of the details for you!
- Why visit Harbin and Snow Town
- Weather in Harbin
- Harbin packing list
- What is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
- When is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
- What happens at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
- How are the sculptures built?
- Where to stay during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
- Harbin travel itinerary: Other places to visit
- Harbin Ice and Snow Festival- further reading
Why visit Harbin and Snow Town
If you are looking for the ultimate winter adventure then Harbin is your place! Boasting some of the coldest temperatures in the world, Harbin is home to the famous Ice and Snow Festival, held annually each December-February (exact dates vary each year). If skiing is your thing, there is one of China’s best ski resorts located close by and if you fancy doing a bit of husky sledging then Snow Town is the place to be. There is a Siberian tiger park and some pretty cool Russian architecture in the area too.
Weather in Harbin
Harbin is known for its icy cold winters. Whilst the summers are relatively warm, I don’t know why you would want to visit at that time of year- the city itself is an old, run down, smog-filled concrete jungle that has little appeal to most tourists during the summer months. But during the winter, the city really comes to life. Yes, you might need to wear four jumpers underneath that snowsuit to prevent hyperthermia from kicking in, but it will all be worth it when you see the magnificent snow sculptures lighting up the crisp, cold night sky.
When visiting Harbin during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, expect temperatures to be in the range of -10 to -30 degrees. Weather this cold can be dangerous, especially for children, so it is essential that you travel with enough winter clothes.
Harbin packing list
You can DIE from weather this cold, so it is super important that you pack appropriate winter gear. I recommend the following:
- Snow boots with fur lining
- Fleece neck warmer
- Hand warmer pads (you can put these in your cloves and in your shoes- you will need to use a few each day)
- Ski jacket
- Thermal underwear (or thermal trousers and tops to wear underneath your clothes)
- Ski gloves
- Under gloves (yes- you will need to wear more than one pair of gloves!)
- Enough clothes to allow for 3-4 layers per day (avoid cotton as this won’t dry easily if you get wet/sweat)
I also recommend that you buy a warmer for your camera, like this one, as mine kept dying from the cold!
What is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is the main reason that most people choose to visit the area. The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, otherwise known as the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, is an annual winter festival. It takes place in Harbin, located in Heilongjiang in China. The festival is the largest snow and ice festival in the world. Back in 2018, the festival attracted 18 million+ visitors and generated a huge 28.7 billion yuan – equivalent to $4.4 billion!
The first festival took place in 1985. However, the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival originates with the traditional ice lantern show that first happened in 1963 alongside a garden party. Later, in 2001, the Harbin Ice Festival merged with the Heilongjiang International Ski Festival. This is when it got its new formal name, the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Now, having taken place for 36 years, the festival is considered to be one of the best winter events in the world. If you are in Heilongjiang around this time of year, a visit to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival cannot be missed.
When is the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
The festival takes place officially from January 5th until late February. In reality, it often starts a bit earlier and lasts a little bit longer – as long as the weather conditions are right. We visited at the end of December and all of the sculptures were there ready for the show. Ice and Snow World, for example, tends to open as early as December.
What happens at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival?
Ice sculptures are built throughout the city, and there are plenty of celebrations. There are also two main exhibition areas, known as Sun Island and Ice & Snow World. You can also visit Zhaolin Park for the Ice Lantern Festival.
Sun Island is where you will find a concentrated area of ice sculptures. It is located on the opposite side of the Songhua River from the city itself. Artists from across the world come to China to build incredible sculptures from ice and snow.
The sculptures cover miles and miles of ground, and are best seen in the day as they aren’t lit up of an evening. These are some of the most intricate and detailed ice sculptures in the world – a true show of remarkable talent.
It generally takes 2-3 hours to explore Sun Island, and there is a ticket price. This is around the 300 yuan mark. Opening hours are from 8am-7pm, and it makes for a great afternoon outing in Harbin.
You can find Sun Island at 3 Taiyang Avenue, Songbei District.
Ice and Snow World
Known as a colourful Disneyland made from ice, this is the most popular part of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. There is an ice maze, and hundreds more ice sculptures shaped into palaces, buildings and more. Many sculptures have slides down the side so you can experience an adrenaline thrill from up high. Walk inside and around the sculptures, and marvel at their size and beauty.
These ice sculptures are lit up at night to create a glorious, majestic scene. It really is like something out of a winer fairytale! Visit at night to see Ice and Snow World at its very best. The ideal length of time here is 3-4 hours, and again the entrance fee is around 300 yuan. Open from 11am-9.30pm, you cannot miss this if you’re in Harbin during the winter months.
Ice and Snow World is located on the Songhua River north bank in the Songbei District.
Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Festival
More ice sculptures – this time carved into fun figures like animals, lanterns, and magical characters. Zhaolin Park is more so focused on children, and there are ice slides here too. It tends to open later than the other parts of the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival: early January, usually, which sadly meant that we didn’t get to try this out for ourselves. This magical area is perfect for an afternoon or early evening of exploration! Spend 2-3 hours here with the kids, and enjoy free entry too.
Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Festival is located at 74 Youyi Street in the Daoli District.
How are the sculptures built?
The ice sculptures throughout Harbin are absolutely mesmerising. They’re certainly not something you see every day – but how do they do it? Ice is retrieved from the Songhua River, and carved into blocks using swing saws. Sculptors work day and night using ice picks, chisels and different types of saw to create intricate designs and architectural marvels out of the ice.
Deionised water is also used sometimes. This makes ice that is completely transparent – as clear as glass, and perfect for see-through sculptures. Lights are added in all different colours to illuminate the beautiful ice sculptures, and slides are carved into the sides of them too. From palaces to mythical creatures, lanterns to animals, there are some incredible scenes to see during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.
Where to stay during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
When it comes to booking accommodation for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, choose somewhere in the Songbei area. This means you’ll be central for all of the main aspects of the festival itself, plus the area is beautiful as it is. Daoli is another great choice, if there is no availability in Songbei. It gets busy in Harbin over the winter months – known as the Oriental Moscow, the City of Ice is incredibly popular. Whether you’re planning a one-time holiday or you’re off travelling, don’t overlook Harbin when it comes to visiting Asia.
JW Marriott Hotel Harbin River North
Perfect for staying in close proximity to Ice and Snow World, you can’t go wrong with a Marriott hotel. They’re a chain you can trust, with spacious and comfortable rooms as well as a fitness centre, panoramic views of the city and three restaurants. There is an indoor pool and free WiFi, as well as free parking if you have hired a car in Harbin or driven here from elsewhere. Daily housekeeping is available, and so is room service – and with massages on offer at the spa, you can add a nice relaxing element into your winter break! Taiping International Airport is less than 20 miles away, making the JW Marriott Hotel Harbin River North ideally located for pretty much everything.
Ibis Harbin Songbei Wanda City Hotel
For budget accommodation near to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival, you can’t go far wrong with the Ibis Harbin Songbei Wanda City Hotel. There is a 24-hour front desk, room service, various room options, vending machines, luggage storage, housekeeping, bike/car rental services, a business centre and more. Ice and Snow World is 4.2 miles away from the hotel, Sun Island is around 4.3 miles away and Zhaolin Park is 6 miles away. This means you’re in prime position for the whole festival! If you’re hoping not to spend too much on your trip to Harbin, the Ibis is a great option to make your money go further.
Songbei Shangri-La Hotel Harbin
If it is luxury you’re after, head to the north bank of the Songhua River and arrive at the Shangri-La in Harbin. The great luxury of this hotel is an experience in itself – even if you don’t end up staying here, a visit to one of the restaurants or the bar is a must. And when the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is in town, there is even a seasonal ice bar and restaurant at the Shangri-La!
The outlets are constructed from ice and decorated in regional folklore, which features wintry and ethnic lifestyles. The Ice Palace Restaurant, which has an inside temperature of minus 18 ℃, has four private rooms and seats 90 people, who can enjoy several of hot pots such as Rural Spicy and Seafood flavor in a cool environment surrounded by colorful ice lights. Hot pot prices start from RMB158 per person. The Ice Bar can accommodate about 30 people and serves vodka, whisky, Glühwein and various hot drinks. The Ice Palace Restaurant opens daily for lunch from 11:30 to 14:00 and for dinner from 17:00 to 21:30, while the Ice Bar opens from 10:00 until 22:00.
Other than this, the hotel is a stunning place to stay. There are 396 rooms and suites as well as a dedicated ‘family floor’, home to 20 deluxe family rooms and six themed family suites. With review views, kids’ programmes, a health club, crisp decor, event spaces, an infinity pool and so much more, it is no surprise that the Shangri-La is one of the best places to stay during the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.
Harbin travel itinerary: Other places to visit
Whilst a visit to the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival is without a doubt the highlight of any trip to Harbin during the winter months, I recommend that you combine it with a visit to some of the other major attractions in the area.
220km away from Harbin is Snow Town. This village is picture-perfect. It is small, covering an area of about 17,916 hectares and it is at an elevation of about 1,100km. Snow Town is famous for the thickness and high viscosity of its snow. The town is shaded from the wind by the surrounding mountains, so its buildings keep their picture-perfect snow capped roofs throughout the winter.
For me, Snow Town was a major highlight. Authentically Chinese, it offered a charm that I had never experienced elsewhere in China. Warm water was waiting for you in every restaurant and the people were incredibly friendly. At night the village is lit up and it feels almost magical. My kids loved tobogganing and playing in amongst the hundreds of snowmen!
Siberian Tiger Park
This safari style zoological park is home to some gorgeous Siberian tigers. They are some of the most majestic animals in the world! The park covers almost 1.5 million square metres, making it the largest natural park for Siberian tigers in the world. They are an endangered species, and this park (established in 1996) keeps them safe in an effort to preserve the species as a whole. You can also see Bengali tigers here as well as lions, lynx, black pumas, leopards and white tigers.
Children under 1.2 metres get in free, with children between 1.2 and 1.4 metres paying 65 yuan. The adult entrance fee is 110 yuan. This includes the bus tour, and you are able to buy (live) poultry to feed the tigers with during your trip.
A quick note on this place- for any of you who follow me regularly you will know that I am not a fan of wildlife tourism and there are a lot of ethical questions when it comes to visiting zoos. Whilst the safari part appears to be well maintained with good treatment of the animals (although we never really know), once you get to the zoo part the tigers are kept in very small enclosures- I do not condone this. Also, feeding live animals to the tigers may be disturbing for young children so I do not recommend staying in that area too long either.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
Saint Sophia Cathedral is a typical Russian orthodox church that dominates the skyline of Harbin. It has beautiful architecture, with golden crosses and onion domes. The cathedral has now been turned into a museum displaying photographs of the city’s architecture from past to present. The entrance fee is ¥20.
Unit 731 museum
This is one of the lesser-known attractions in Harbin and if dark tourism is your thing, then you should definitely pay this museum a visit. Sometimes called the Auschwitz of the East, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army was a covert chemical and biological warfare research unit that tested on human victims. When visiting here you will learn about the atrocities that occurred, and they really were bad- I do not recommend taking children. This unusual tourist attraction is not for the faint of heart. Entry is free.
Yabuli Ski Resort
Just a couple of hours drive outside of Harbin (which is a short distance for China!), you will find one of China’s best ski resorts. China is not exactly famous for its skiing, however this resort is very highly rated. You can take ski lessons, hire a private chalet or stay in a resort. The best known resort in the area is Yabuli Club Med- it doesn’t come cheap but the reviews are outstanding, so worth the money if skiing is your thing! I would recommend staying here for 3-4 nights.
Harbin Polarland is a one-of-a-kind experience and one of the most unique things to do in Harbin. It is the first polar amusement park in the world, and forms part of the Harbin International Ice and Festival. There are themed performances by beluga whales and their trainers, and plenty of different species to discover. From Mumble the Antarctic penguin to polar bear brothers Tangji and Hede, you’ll find plenty of cuties here.
In terms of visiting aquatic animals parks, this is something which raises ethical questions for many. Always do your own research and make your own decisions as to whether this is something you want to partake in – the reviews for Harbin Polarland are quite mixed. Personally I was rather disturbed by the small enclosures and use of animals for entertainment, it was something I might have expected to have seen in the Western world 2-3 decades ago.
Eat at an ice restaurant
Have you ever eaten at an ice restaurant? You can during a winter trip to Harbin – from the end of December, a restaurant made entirely from ice and decorated with regional folklore style decor. It is located outside of the Shangri-la Hotel. The restaurant has an inside temperature of -18℃, with four private rooms seating 90 people. The lit-up ice is incredibly atmospheric, and you can choose to come here for lunch (11.30-2.00) or dinner (5.00-9.30), or enjoy the ambience of the ice bar from 10 am until 10 pm. This is a fantastic unforgettable experience, and something that really does feel like a must-do when visiting Harbin. Try out a hotpot or a very warming curry!
Harbin Ice and Snow Festival- further reading
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