Harbin, also known as the “Ice City”, is one of the biggest cities in China, located in most northeast and coldest region of the country. Its claim to fame is its annual Ice and Snow Festival, which is the largest in the world, and it brings in visitors from around the world during the coldest period of the year. Here are the top things you MUST DO when you visit Harbin.
1. Go to the Snow and Ice Festival. It is the world’s biggest ice festival, and it is impressive! The festival begins in late December and lasts until February. Ice blocks are carved from the Songhua River in the very frigid morning hours and brought over to the festival grounds to create the giant ice buildings and sculptures. Inside the festival you will find all types of buildings and structures made out of ice and activities like sleigh rides (with Santa – ha!) and dog sled rides. While they seem cool, just know that these rides are super short and gimmicky, so beware! Be sure to try out the ice slides located at various buildings/structures. If you want something to slide on, you might want to buy a small butt-sized sled (~10RMB outside the festival entrance and more if inside) to help you slide down.
Watch me play on the slide!
2. Visit St. Sophia Cathedral. Given Harbin’s proximity to Russia and its past Russian rule, there are a lot of Russian influences in the area, including the city’s icon, the St. Sophia Cathedral. It is a smaller cathedral compared to others, but it quite unique to see this structure in Harbin.
3. Enjoy Russian cuisine/sights. Try a Russian meal and take a picture with the many Matryoshka dolls in the city.
4. Watch ice fishing. Underneath the thick layer of ice there are fish available. During the winter, fishermen dig holes in the ice and put out nets to catch fish. It is fascinating to watch!
5. Play on ice. It is quite amazing how the coldest city in China managed to convert the icy and bitterly cold conditions in this city into a money-making machine. Everywhere you go, you will find small operations selling you family-fun activities like snow ATV, tubing, skiing, bike skating, and jeep/sled rides. The local businessmen managed to convert a frozen Songhua river into a family fun zone.
6. Eat popsicle. I am not kidding. Harbin is known for its milk popsicle, with the most famous brand named Modern (馬達爾冰棍). Modern has a small shop on the main shopping/food street of Zhongyang that sells their popsicles, and no matter how cold the weather is, there is always a long line waiting to buy these delicious popsicles. Though the brand originally started with very simple two-flavor selection with no packaging, and now it has expanded to other flavors like mango and durian – I tried it – it’s very good! Supposedly this brand has been around for over 100 years, and it’s been famous for its simplicity in the recipe and in packaging.
7. Eat hotpot in an ice house. Every year Shangri-La builds a seasonal ice house restaurant that serves hot pot. The food is pretty good, and it is quite a unique experience. Inside this ice house, there is an ice bar (not real bar but for display only) – good photo opportunity for sure! Just in case you are wondering, the tables and chairs are not made of ice, unfortunately. To keep you warm during your meal, the tables have heaters underneath, so it didn’t feel cold at all. 🙂
8. Walk down Zhongyang Street. This is a main pedestrian street in Harbin, lined with shops, restaurants and snack stands. This is where you would find the small Modern popsicle store selling thousands and thousands of unpackaged popsicles a day, even on a cold wintery day.
9. Go to a bath house. Because it is so cold, a common activity for locals is a visit to the bath house to soak in hot tubs. My mom and I ended up going to a Japanese style bath house, where you get to dress in a traditional yukata outfit and eat Japanese bento box for lunch. There were both indoor and outdoor bathing options. Though it was a bit out of place being in China and all, the experience was pretty fun! We enjoyed taking photos in our yukata.
10. Try out the local cider. Harbin has a special Russian cider that is brewed locally. It has very low alcohol content and tastes like apple cider, with a splash of vinegar. Try it!
11. Eat dumplings. Harbin is known for dumplings. Go to a dumplings restaurant and try the different hand made dumplings. We sure did…