Whether you’re a romantic who gets blown away by fairy castles and frozen lakes, or you feel the need for some self-imposed time trials on ice slides, then the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is the place for you! There’s a myriad of activities on the snow, ice and in the city that will keep you more than entertained and mesmerised over a long weekend.
The annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival officially launches at the beginning of January and runs until the end of February in the capital of China’s Heilongjiang province. The event has become one of the biggest snow festival destinations in the world. It is ranked alongside the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan and Canada’s Winter Carnival in Quebec. And it’s not difficult to see why!
The size of the snow sculptures are truly amazing, the kaleidoscope of colours behind the ice installations are spectacular, and the ice activities make Harbin a real winter wonderland.
Last weekend, we were lucky to experience this year’s festival, which was themed “Pearl in the Crown of Ice and Snow”.
The event has several theme parks including Sun Island, Harbin Ice and Snow World, and Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Garden Party. If you are in Harbin for a long weekend, then you may also want to add Central Street (Zhongyang Dajie) and the Church of St Sophia to your itinerary to get a feel of the Russian influence in this city.
Sun Island is located on the north banks of Songhua River. Here you will find the International Snow Sculpture Art Expo with all the magnificent snow sculptures. You’ll also find a large area with all types of activities such as ice slides, bicycle rides on ice, snow tubing and more.
Since we arrived towards the tail end of the festival, some of the smaller snow sculptures closer to the entrance were looking a bit worse for wear but once you get to the main attraction none of that seems to matter.
If you’re lucky, you might even get to see some of the squirrels running around looking for food!
Tip: wear lots of warm layers as the average temperature in Harbin ranges from -25ºC (-13ºF) to -10ºC (14ºF). There is a coffee shop on-site so you can go in and out of there to thaw out as needed. We were lucky to be there when it was only around -8ºC (17ºF) so we were able to stay out for a couple of hours with the kids without needing to go inside for warmth.
Harbin Ice & Snow World
This is one of the star attractions of Harbin during Winter and it is best viewed at nighttime when the skillfully-carved ice masterpieces are lit up. The translucent pagodas, windmills and castles glow in bright neon colours creating a magical place to stroll. For a quick tour of the festival you can hire one of the many horse and carriages to take you around. You will only get one lap around so be sure to take it all in!
If you want to try and capture the ice-magic with your camera you will need a sturdy tripod. Watch out for the staff promoting their own photography services that seem to pop up in the middle of your shots!
Tip: It is very cold at night and I would highly recommend you take hand and foot warmers in addition to the extra layers you need to put on.
Central Street (Zhongyang Dajie)
The city of Harbin has an interesting history (which was apparently once under Russian rule) and Central Street is a great place to walk and see the influence Russia has had on the city’s art, food, fashion and architecture.
Nearby is one of the most visited attractions – the Orthodox Church of St Sophia. Unfortunately, in 1907 the interiors of the Church were stripped and now it’s a museum hosting a photographic exhibition about Harbin history. None of the captions are in English but it’s still interesting to see the images that are a part of Harbin’s history.
Tip: Don’t forget to look-up in St Sophia Church and admire the ceilings!
Of course, if you have time there are many more sights and activities to do during the ice and snow festival including the Ice Lantern Garden Party in Zhaolin Park, seeing the swimmers brave sub-zero temperatures during the winter swimming performance on Songhua River, or enjoying some Russian cuisine in the many cafés and restaurants of Harbin.
The festival truly is remarkable and enjoyable for young and old.
For more stories on ice and snow festivals read my article on Longqing Gorge.