By Isaac Roosa
Is a winter trip to Harbin worth it for just the weekend? If you live in Eastern China, the answer is “Yes!” Not only is it possible, but we wholeheartedly recommend it!
You may have been searching around trying to figure out how to “Do Harbin in one Weekend” but have been getting some conflicting information. I know we were… Well, look no further! It took us quite a bit of searching around various forums, YouTube channels and Tripadvisor reviews to finally form a perfect itinerary for a winter weekend in Harbin. You can fly out after work on Friday and be home in time to get some sleep before returning to work on Monday!
If you’re just here for the basic info on the top sights in Harbin, scroll to the end. For a detailed itinerary read on! You’ll also find some tips on flights, accommodation, transport, food and weather. Here we go!
Friday – Arrival
This day is just for arrival and settling in. After heading out of the airport, you’ll get your first of many hefty slaps in the face by Jack Frost. Don’t worry though, because that long line of cars you see are all warm taxis and Didis. Don’t pay more than 200 RMB to get to the city center. We’ll cover transport and accommodation later in this article.
Anyway, unless you got off work super early and somehow arrived before midnight, you probably won’t have time to go out after arriving. We wouldn’t recommend staying out late anyway, because you’re in for a couple of long and chilly days!
Saturday – Sun Island + Ice and Snow World
On Saturday you’ll tackle the first two items on the list. Feel free to sleep in a bit and grab some breakfast nearby. You’re not in too much of a hurry because the main event of the day is in the evening. We arrived late, so we slept until about 9:00, suited up, and were out the door by 10:00.
Your first stop is the Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Expo. It’s best to visit here during the day because at night the lighting isn’t so good, and of course because you want to spend your only night at Ice and Snow World. So, hop in a taxi or Didi and tell them to take you to Sun Island. You can show them the Chinese name and the picture at the end of this article.
We had them take us to Entrance #1. Follow the obvious mobs of people heading to the ticket booth and pay for your ticket. After entering, you’ll be herded by several guides into golfcart-like buses. It’ll take you about 1km to the main attraction of the park… Don’t be sad that you’re passing some statues and pretty scenery; you’re not missing a lot because the bulk of the things to see are at the end of the line. You can always return later if you have time – the park isn’t huge.
Spend a good hour or two walking around photographing the various sculptures and statues. While marveling at the artistic craftsmanship, remind yourself that Harbin does get very warm in the summer, and 100% of these sculptures are doomed to melt! This makes it all the more special to see. I’m intentionally not posting many photos, because you shouldn’t be spoiled!
There’s a café or two by the lake so if you get too cold go and grab some coffee (26 RMB) inside. There are also plenty of outlets to charge your batteries which you are no doubt noticing have lost half their charge already due to the frigid cold.
Head back out and make sure you’ve done a good circuit of all there is to see. When we were there, there was even a place to inner-tube down an icy hill at terrifying speeds – for free! Try it if you dare!
By 14:00 you should be finishing up this leg of the trip. Make your way back to where the bus let you off and head directly in the opposite direction from the entrance to the area, towards the cable cars. We managed to find it with a combination of Google Translate and miming, so I’m sure you’ll be fine!
The Cable Car costs 50 RMB one-way or 80 RMB round-trip. It takes you across the frozen Songhua River to the center of town. It’s up to you if you want to spend the extra 30 RMB to go both ways, but we just grabbed a 40 RMB Didi right to the Ice and Snow World when we got to the other side… After stopping at a shop for some well-deserved Russian vodka, that is!
Again, you can use the Chinese name and picture at the bottom of the page to show the taxi driver that you want to go to Ice and Snow World. Believe me, they’ll know where you want to go!
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the main attraction! Hopefully you’ve managed to make it by 15:00 or so because the sun will set by 17:30 and trust me, you’ll want to see this place both at day and at night.
Don’t head directly for the sign marked “Entrance”. Go to the indoor ticket hall first, pay the ridiculous but worth it entrance fee, fill up on some free hot water, and head to the entrance.
Here I’ll leave you to your own devices. Every year is vastly different so chances are the sculptures and structures are not the same as when we went in 2018. All I can advise is to try to do a quick circuit while the sun is going down, find some high ground to watch the sunset and turn the ice a gorgeous silvery color, and then be dazzled as lights go on everywhere, giving you a visual feast beyond your wildest imagination.
By 22:00 or even before, you’ve probably been inside and out several times, eaten some greasy KFC or dumplings, lost all feeling in your fingers and toes, and have been sufficiently wow’d by this marvel of man’s artistic manipulation of nature. It’s time to get back into a cosy bed! Take your last few snapshots and head out the main gate where taxis are waiting. We took a Didi around 22:30 and were in bed by 23:00.
Sunday – Zhongyang Street + St. Sophia’s Cathral
Good morning! Again, unless you have a pretty early flight you won’t be in any hurry. Our flight was at 19:55, so we could take our time. Adjust your schedule accordingly and head out a good 4-5 hours before you need to be at the airport. You’ll probably have to check out of your accommodation, but ask the reception, or the AirBnB host, if you can leave some luggage. Our host let us leave our things until 5!
This time you’ll have your taxi or Didi take you to Zhongyang Street. Again, show them the info at the bottom of the page and you’ll be good.
They’ll drop you off at the North end of this old street, and if you have a bit of extra time, head north a bit to Stalin Park before heading south down the historic street. You can once again gaze out at the frozen Songhua River, and if you’re feeling up to it you can skate, sled, slide, or eve drive a car out onto the river! We didn’t have time for those kinds of things so we grabbed a few snapshots and headed down Zhongyang Street. Along the way, you might see the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac all made of ice!
Zhongyang Street is basically a shopping street, but even if shopping isn’t your thing it’s a lot of fun. You’ll pass various shops selling Russian goods, a few Russian restaurants, interesting architecture, and of course, countless advertisements made of ice sculptures! Including lunch at one of the many pubs and restaurants, expect to spend about two hours on Zhonyang.
The streets are numbered on a grid, just like New York, and your next destination is on W 14th Street. Take a left onto this street and keep going until you see St. Sophia’s Cathedral. No need for more of a description because the massive Neo-Byzantine dome of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral will be a dead giveaway after 500 meters.
Spend a nominal 15 RMB on a ticket inside and pop in for an interesting experience. Having lived in Europe for quite some time, it was a bit odd for us to see how this church had been first closed down and then converted into a museum. The altar and pews are gone, and in their place are historic artifacts and photos. Not much information is in English, but it’s worth a quick look, especially for the cheap price.
Grab a few more photos from the back side of the Church, then get into one of the many taxis waiting behind it.
We had enough time to spare to also head to Zhaolin Park, but we decided against it. We felt like we had already been sufficiently satisfied with our experience of Harbin. Also, we read that it was best viewed at night, and that wasn’t an option for us. We’re not at all saying it’s not worth the trip, because we simply don’t know. Go for it if you have the time and energy! Take a look hereto help make your decision, or just play it by ear.
What we can say is not worth it during the day is the ice bar at the Shangri-La hotel. We wasted a bit of time going there and found that 1) it wasn’t open for business and 2) it’s more of a restaurant than a bar. It was kind of cool, but not worth the time. If you have an extra day and 300+ RMB to spend on dinner per person, go for it.
Head back to your hotel, hostel or BnB, grab your stuff, and head back to the airport! From the city, it should be around 180 RMB to get to the airport. Again, don’t pay more than 200. If you don’t use Didi, take a metered taxi to avoid any scams.
On the plane, browse through your photos, relish in this thrilling experience, post a few snapshots to social media to make your friends jealous, and take a well-deserved nap on the flight home. Go to sleep that night with visions of brilliantly-lit ice dragons swarming in your mind!
Our go-to website for flights literally anywhere is Skyscanner. You can read more about it here. With the help of this website, you can book a flight from Shanghai to Harbin only a few weeks in advance for around $450 per person. We went with China Eastern Airlines to get there, and Spring Airlines to get back to Shanghai (PVG). With a little luck and flexibility, you should be able to get a similar price.
When it comes to budget travelling in comfort, you can’t beat AirBnB. We found a place just a 10 minute drive to most of the main attractions for $84 for the whole weekend, for three people. If you break it down, that’s $14 per person per night. There are hostels for cheaper than that, but this place has had private bedrooms with huge beds and was very quiet. It’s a matter of preference, but we usually go with AirBnB. The host didn’t even speak English, but we got their WeChat info and used that to communicate the whole time and had zero problems even though we arrived at 1:00 in the morning! Here’s a link to the place we stayed.
Verdict: If AirBnB isn’t your thing and you don’t mind spending extra, there are plenty of nice hotels in the area. Check out Booking.com or CTrip. If you want even cheaper than AirBnB and don’t mind sleeping in a dorm-style room, you can find beds for as little as $7 each on Hostelworld.
Like with accommodation, this is down to comfort to cost ratio. For transport in general, you’re looking at three possibilities:
- Public bus – Cheapest, but slow, and very difficult to navigate if you can’t read Chinese.
- Taxi – Trustworthy, no risk of a scam, don’t need to speak Chinese, but a bit more expensive than Didi. Just show the driver the name of the place in Chinese, at the end of this article. Make sure they turn on the meter! If you do speak a bit of Chinese, you can negotiate with most drivers and even hire them for the entire day as a private driver!
- Didi – Similar to Uber. This is our preferred method. It’s super cheap and you know how much you’re going to pay before you even order the taxi. We probably took a dozen Didi rides on our trip and never waited longer than five minutes or paid more than 50 RMB, aside from the airport ride (180 RMB). Even if you don’t speak Chinese, you can open this article on your phone, copy the place name where you want to go, and select the first option on the list. From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory. The driver will no doubt try to call you, but if you don’t speak Chinese just ignore it and wait. Be sure you’re in an easy place for the driver to spot you, and be on the lookout for your car. Note: You need a Chinese bank account and a Chinese SIM card for this app to work properly.
Verdict: If you have experience with Didi, or are a bit adventurous, go with that. If not, a taxi isn’t too much more expensive. Don’t do the bus, because it’s not worth the hassle.
This was actually challenging for us because we are vegetarian. We ended up eating a lot of fast food French fries, plain rice, and boiled vegetables. If you’re a carnivore though, you’ll find eats everywhere, from street food to fine dining. Search around here if you’re a foodie!
Harbin is COLD! The weekend we went, temperatures approached -30°C (-22°F). At this temperature, you can lose feeling in your hand just by taking a gloveless selfie. Come over- prepared, because you can’t be too careful. Wear thick boots with several pairs of socks, at least three layers on your legs, another four on your upper body, a good pair of cloves, a warm hat, a scarf, and even a head/neck warmer if you have one. I even wore a face mask, so the only part of me that was visible were my eyes. You might look like an arctic ninja, but you’ll be glad you thought ahead! We also brought a lot of disposable heat packs to stick on our backs, in boots, gloves, underwear, you name it. Don’t underestimate the cold!
Details about each site (With original photos)
#1 – Ice and Snow World
Chinese Name: 哈尔滨冰雪大世界
Address: No street address. Just show your driver the Chinese name and/or the picture.
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/ycj9gd6c
Price: 330 RMB for adults, 200 for kids. Free for kids under 120cm
Opening Time: 11:00-22:00
More info here.
#2 – Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Expo
Chinese Name: 太阳岛国际雪雕艺术博览会
Address: Same – No street address, just show the photo or name to the driver.
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y6wqlcmw
Price: 330 RMB for adults, 200 for kids.
Opening Time: 8:30-18:30
More info here, but the pricing is outdated.
#3 –Zhongyang Street (Central Street)
Chinese Name: 中央大街
Address: Zhongyang Dajie, Harbin. Get dropped off near Stalin Park (斯大林公园)
Google Maps: https://tinyurl.com/y89n7l3g
Price: Free! Only what you want to buy
Opening Time: 24/7
More info here.
#4 – St. Sophia’s Cathedral
#5 – Zhaolin Park Ice Lantern Show
Still not convinced? Check out some of TheTravelBugBite’s videos of our 2018 Harbin experience!
Tips? Questions? Comments? Feel free to leave them below. Whether you have you own experience to share or if you’re still unsure about your trip and need some help, please share!