Harbin is a city in Heilongjiang, the northernmost province in China. It’s a fascinating and very cold place where Russian influences in construction prevailed in architectural developments in the late 19th century, along with the creation of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. By and large, this city is most revered for its incredible jaw-dropping ice sculptures that take place during the Ice Festival every winter. Interestingly, you can see these sculptures year-round which is good to know because Harbin is full of special things to do and see besides those gorgeous ice sculptures (which we’ll get to in just a moment).
So take a trip up to Harbin and discover 13 things you should do and see while you’re there.
1. The Siberian Tiger Park
This is probably not the place for you if you’re an animal rights activist or a vegan, but getting a chance to get up close and personal with Siberian tigers is a unique opportunity that you’ll find here in Harbin. Ride on a bus through the park for a tour of the tigers or walk around an enclosed area where you can purchase raw strips of meat to feed the tigers with. Not completely by hand of course, which should be comforting since you’ll likely leave with all your appendages intact. You can also feed the tigers live animals if you choose, though for foreigners this is a little daunting especially since the selection of live animals to feed the tigers with can consist of things like goats and cows for a fairly hefty sum. Still, if you avoid this aspect, you will get to see these majestic predators in action.
2. Unit 731 Museum
This historic museum won’t leave you with a happy-go-lucky feeling afterward. But rather, it is a tribute to the thousands of people killed by the Japanese between 1939 and 1945. Victims of these experiments and murders conducted by the Japanese to better their biological warfare hailed from Mongolia, China, and North Korea. If you’ve ever wondered why Chinese people feel so strongly against Japanese people, this museum will shed some light on a horrible time in history hopefully to prevent such atrocities from ever occurring again.
3. Harbin Polar Land
On the other side of the river, you’ll find Harbin Polar Land. This place is home to an array of fish, sting rays, polar bears, sharks, penguins, seals, beluga whales, jellyfish and even arctic foxes. While there is of course a fee to get inside, there are daily exhibitions for a seal and walrus show as well as a show with a beluga whale and those don’t require additional fees. During tourist season, it can get a bit crowded here, but in the off season, you’ll find it an enjoyable stop on your itinerary.
4. Historic City Centre
As mentioned, there is a huge Russian influence in Harbin. At every turn, you’ll find old Russian buildings and interesting Russian handicrafts that make for fantastic souvenirs. The walking street here, known as Central Street (Zhongyang Dajie in Chinese), is a pretty and cobbled car-free place to walk around that leads you to the Songhua River. At this end, you’ll find Stalin Park and the Floor Monument. You’ll also find a ton of Russian eateries and bakeries here which give you an authentic Russian flavor without having to cross the border. Keep walking to the west of this historic area and you’ll find the Old Quarter with more old Russian architecture to look at that dates back to the late 19th century. Grab some Russian pastries to go and enjoy them as you walk around here.
5. St. Sophia Cathedral
One hugely surprising fact about this stunning cathedral is that it’s never been a real church. It was taken over by the Communists before it could be blessed by a priest. Today, it serves as the Museum of Architecture for Harbin with a showcase of old photographs depicting the development of Harbin. It’s a nice place to duck in from the cold to behold the cathedral’s beauty while learning more about Harbin.
6. Dragon TV Tower
There are tons of TV towers in China, but the Dragon Tower in Harbin is the tallest steel building structure in East Asia. Up at the top, you can enjoy splendid views of Harbin from above. If you’ve been to other Chinese cities and gone to the top of the tower, it’s always worth a look. As you may have guessed, there is a revolving restaurant with a buffet at the top though it’s on the pricey side and you can surely find better food down below for less. Head back down to the base of the tower and you can see some exhibitions that will round out your visit.
7. Enjoy the Sauna
Harbin is a city of sauna culture. You’ll find these sauna houses all over the city in every range possible. Some are low-end, some are mid-range level, and others are so upscale you’ll forget you’re in China altogether. As the locals like to use these to shower in since some of them don’t have a shower in their homes, choosing one that’s more upscale will give you a better experience. You can also get a massage at the sauna houses too. It’s a nice way to detox from the Chinese air and feel invigorated even on the coldest of days.
8. Sun Island Park
In the winter, this area is part of the Ice Festival and where you can see snow sculptures. The river freezes over and you can walk across it. But in the summer, the ferry offers a splendid chance to enjoy a peaceful boat ride. The park is a nice place to relax on a warm weather day. You should know though that if you go to the Sun Island Scenic Spot, there is an entrance charge. The gardens here are worth visiting though as they are beautiful and filled with chipmunks, squirrels and deer. For a small fee, you can buy special food to feed the deer too.
9. Temple of Heavenly Bliss
In this Buddhist temple, you’ll find three unique sections and each one has its own entrance fee. There is also an amusement park here too. Not a bad way to spend the day, though while the entrance fees aren’t terribly steep you may wind up spending more yuan than you were hoping to. Still, it’s a pretty place that you’ll be glad you visited, plus you can get to it from the subway which is always a bonus when traveling in China.
10. Confucius Temple
Close to the Temple of Heavenly Bliss, you’ll find this temple. One of the best features of it is that it has gorgeous gardens and it’s very well-maintained too. There is no entrance fee to worry about either, however you’d better bring your passport along or you’ll be turned away.
11. Harbin Provincial Museum
Walk in and you’re bound to be a little perplexed. You’re looking for a museum, but everywhere you look you’ll see shops. But keep on forging your way into the building and in the center of it, you’ll find this little museum. It takes up two floors and offers some interesting exhibits, however none of them are in Chinese. No matter though. You’ll get to see some interesting things and then have the chance to keep warm while shopping, which is always a plus. This is another place where your passport is asked for so bring it along. The museum is free which means you’ll have more money in your pocket for souvenirs.
12. Botanical Gardens
If you’re in Harbin during the frigid winter months, you won’t see much garden. This is a summer attraction which offers a peaceful retreat from the cacophonous sounds of China. It’s definitely worth wandering around to behold the beauty.
13. The Ice Festival
And of course, there is the Ice Festival, which is what put Harbin on the map. During the Ice Festival, the temperatures are well below zero, so you’d better pack accordingly. It is the height of tourist season for this northern city too, so expect more crowds. Despite this, Harbin is so lovely at this time of year, even if you may feel like your long underwear has frozen onto your body.
If you’re coming to Harbin for the Ice Festival as many people do, we recommend visiting Zhaolin Park. You can easily walk to it from the Central Street. Here you’ll find both ice and snow sculptures. And if you need to duck in from the cold, you’ll find an indoor section as well that provides a nice retreat from the cold. At night, it’s stunning with all the lights on the sculptures.
Sun Island is also part of the Harbin Ice Festival. However, these massive snow sculptures are best to see during the day. Walk across the frozen river or flag down a taxi to see these snow sculptures. Ice and Snow World is another part of the festival, where the nighttime is the best time to truly see it. Indoor sections are available at this part where you can warm up with good food or line up to ride on the ice slides or catch a show.
The Ice Festival takes place every year from January 5th to February 5th, and there are entrance fees to get in unless you go to the free part of Sun Island to see the snow sculptures. However, if you arrive just after the festival takes place, you can still see the sculptures before they melt from the warmer weather. You can also get a sneak peek before it opens but some of the sculptures won’t be finished at that time.
If you’ve come to Harbin for the Ice Festival, please don’t miss out on the rest of what this special city has to offer. The Russian influences melded with the charm of Chinese culture make it a truly spectacular place. There’s much to eat and drink here from Russian and Chinese cuisine and because it is cold most of the year, you’ll find a warm and welcoming culture here that’s unlike any other city in China.