Visiting China soon? Start here

Visiting China soon? Start here

Harbin Travel Guide

Region

Heilongjiang

Location

North China

Population

6 million

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Language

Mandarin

Welcome to Harbin!

Harbin is located in the far northeast of China, and it’s known for its cold weather. In fact, this city’s biggest claim to fame is its amazing ice festival, which happens to be the largest in the world.

The capital of Heilongjiang province, Harbin is a big modern city, one of the largest in northeast China, and it’s also a popular wintertime destination.

It was originally a Russian settlement built to support the railway, and still has strong Russian influences as well as European and Japanese.

Over the years, Harbin has had many names and was originally known as ‘Oriental Moscow’.

Typical Harbin architecture

The city’s beautiful architecture. Image by Max Zhang on Unsplash.

Harbin bicycle

Cycling in Harbin’s winter. Image by Christian Pischinger on Pixabay.

A peak into Harbin’s history

When Harbin was first built, it was flooded with Russian and European expatriates and this cultural heritage is very strong in the architecture, beliefs, and culture of the city.

Harbin was also an important Jewish sanctuary in 1920 when more than 20,000 Jews settled there to escape persecution. It became the largest Jewish center in East Asia.

You can still find Jewish cemeteries, schools, and libraries throughout the city. Because of the Jewish influence, Harbin came to be known as ‘Noah’s Ark in the Far East’.

Harbin was also the location of Unit 731 in the 1930s and 40s. Often called the ‘Japanese Auschwitz’, this was the largest bacteriological warfare facility in existence.

The atrocities committed in this Japanese facility killed claimed countless Soviet, Chinese, Mongolian and Korean victims.

This combination of cultures is part of what makes Harbin so unique and fascinating!

Best things to do in Harbin

Make sure you dress warmly when you visit Harbin, as you’ll probably be visiting in winter if you’re like most tourists and want to experience the best the city has to offer.

1. Experience the Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin Ice Festival sculpture

The city’s spectacular Ice Festival. Image by Erica Li on Unsplash.

Most people travel to Harbin for the ice festival. The festival opens on the 5th of January and lasts for more than a month. This makes it the longest as well as the largest snow festival in the world.

The locals have learned to celebrate the cold weather in every way possible during this festival. The city has Harbin Ice and Snow World, which is like a frozen Disneyland complete with frozen castles and sculptures.

There are also a huge variety of events all throughout the month, from art exhibitions to ice lantern shows and sporting events. If you love the winter and want to celebrate it, then this is definitely the place and time to do it.

2. Visit the Church of St Sophia

St Sophia Church

St Sophia Church is pretty during both day and night. Image by Max Zhang on Unsplash.

Make sure you take a look at the Russian Orthodox Church of St Sophia while you’re in Central Street. This red-brick church was built in 1907 and is one of the most important and recognizable landmarks in the city.

If the church is open during your visit, you can take a look at the collection of photographs from Harbin’s history.

3. See the Sun Island ice sculptures

Sun Island ice sculpture

See unbelievable sculptures like this during winter. Image by Akedesign on Shutterstock.

Sun Island is in the Songhua River in Harbin and is a scenic area that’s the second biggest venue for the snow festival. It’s also where you’ll see some of the best ice sculptures you’ve ever imagined.

Most of the sculptures are huge. In fact, in 2007 a sculpture on Sun Island became the world record holder for the biggest snow sculpture at 250 meters (820 ft) long.

The sculptures are best seen in the day and range from famous buildings to animals and everything in between.

While you’re on Sun Island, take the chance to see the miniature Russian Town for a quaint looked at a ‘small town’ in Russia.

4. Go shopping on Central Street

Central Street Harbin

You’ll find some familiar places on Central Street. Image by Cherry-hai on Shutterstock.

Central Street is the best place to go shopping in Harbin, but it isn’t what you might expect. This part of the city is distinctly Western, with lots of architecture from around the world.

When you head into the shops, you’ll find lots of Russian goods, so make sure you stock up on Russian dolls and jewelry.

5. Tour the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base

This is a sobering experience, but an essential one. The museum is built in memory of the experimental base, where thousands of people were killed in the most horrific ways possible.

This is definitely not for the sensitive, as the museum contains photos and equipment that was used on the prisoners. But it’s an important reminder of the dark side of mankind.

This museum is in the south of Harbin, and you can reach it by bus or rideshare like Didi – a great China travel app to have on your phone.

6. Try winter swimming

Winter swimming in Harbin

Winter swimming in Harbin. Image by Giusparta on Shutterstock.

This is only for the brave of heart and the thick of skin. The average water temperature in Harbin is around -25 C (-13 F) and yet the locals still enjoy their swimming in the Songhua River.

Even if you don’t want to risk the swim yourself, or think your heart won’t handle it, it’s still amazing to see the locals drilling holes in the ice and leaping in, so don’t miss out on this spectacle.

7. Explore Laodaowai

Laodaowai baroque style

Baroque style in Laodaowai. Image by Cherry-hai on Shutterstock.

There are fewer tourists in this part of the city, so you can explore in relative peace. And this street is really worth exploring.

Most of the buildings in it were built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The authentic Chinese baroque architecture and character of these streets is amazing, and will give you a new understanding of Harbin’s traditional side.

This is also one of the best areas in the city to eat, as the food is unique to Harbin.

Where to eat in Harbin

The food in Harbin tends to be a mix of Russian dishes, with heavy breads and potatoes, and northeast cuisine, with large dishes that have strong flavors.

Both kinds of food are delicious and perfect for the cold weather. All you have to do is make up your mind where to eat!

Fried chive dumplings

Delicious fried dumplings with chives. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Orient King of Eastern Dumplings

This chain restaurant is where the locals go to eat dumplings. They’re handmade and packed with stuffing, perfect for wintry weather.

You can also get some great draught beer to have with your meal. The dishes are also temptingly budget friendly.

Address: 81 Zhongyang Dajie 中央大街81号

Suxin Shidu Vegetarian

Trying to eat vegetarian while you’re traveling in Harbin? No problem.

Popular among Harbin’s health-conscious population, this restaurant offers the usual tofu dishes as well as some more unusual vegetable blends.

All of the dishes are cooked according to Buddhist dietary traditions and are worth a try for their uniqueness alone.

Address: 8 Qidao Jie 七道街8号

Lǎochújiā

This restaurant is a good choice if you want to try northeastern dishes. It’s close to Zhongyang Dajie and gets very crowded on weekends, so make a booking or show up on a weekday.

This restaurant is most famous for its hot pot, a perfect way to warm up after a day in the snow!

Address: 118 Wenzheng Jie 118文正傑

Russian Coffee & Food

You have to try some Russian food while you’re in Harbin, and this is one of the best places in the city to do it.

Decorated with antiques, this is the kind of place where you just want to sit with a warm drink and a snack and soak up the heat from the fireplace and the historical atmosphere.

Address: 57 Xitoujiao 西头到街57号

Old Sandpot House 老上号砂锅居

Located on Zhongyang Avenue, one of the most popular areas for tourists, this is a budget-friendly restaurant that offers delicious local snacks like grilled breads and dumplings.

Address: 98 Zhongyang Avenue, Daoli District

The best food markets in Harbin

Eating the local food is a big part of experiencing Harbin’s culture. And the best food is always found on the streets!

Harbin street food merchants

Harbin street food merchants. Image by Max Zhang on Unsplash.

Central Street

This is the main street in Harbin and it’s also where you’ll find lots of shops and restaurants.

You can eat in the local restaurants if you want to, and probably should, but the street food stalls offer food that’s cheaper and just as good, if not better.

Zhongyang Pedestrian Street

Not only can you go shopping on Central Street (also known as Zhongyang Pedestrian Street), the area has lots of stalls selling almost every kind of local snack you can imagine. Make sure that you try the sausages on a stick and fruit skewers for a sweet and sour snack.

The Chinese Russian Market

Located on Jianshe Street in the Nangang District, this is a market with a difference. It offers a huge range of Russian goods, from dolls to vodka. And, of course, you can also buy a range of food products.

Where to stay in Harbin

Some of the Harbin accommodation options are a little quirky, so make sure you check them over carefully before you book.

Budget

The Sweet Post Office Hostel is just two minutes’ walk from Central Street and within walking distance of other attractions like Stalin Park. It’s also surrounded by public transport options, making traveling around Harbin easy.

The hostel offers English language services, heating and air conditioning in all rooms, and comfortable dorm rooms.

Mid range

The Harbin Joy Boutique Hotel is perfectly located in the center of the city. It’s within walking distance of Stalin Park and offers a buffet breakfast.

The hotel has free parking, a shared lounge, and bright, spacious rooms. They also have English-speaking staff to make your stay a little easier!

Luxury

If you prefer a touch of luxury, then spend your time at the Songbei Shangri-La Hotel Harbin.

It has a spa center where you can get relaxation therapies, a sauna, an infinity poll, fitness center, and spacious rooms with locally inspired décor.

The hotel is also within walking distance of Ice and Snow World. There’s also a bar and a café on site serving delicious meals and drinks.

Transport in Harbin

The Chinese government wants to make Harbin an international transportation and business hub for China as well as countries like Japan, Korea and Russia.

As a result, the transport system is fast, effective, and constantly being updated.

There isn’t a lot of English though, so be prepared to use translation apps or have your destination in Chinese characters on your phone so you can get help.

Air transport

Harbin Taiping International Airport

Even Harbin’s airport has a classic Russian feel to it. Image by Vitaliy Kyrychuk on Shutterstock.

Harbin Taiping International Airport is 32 km (20 mi) from the center of Harbin or about 45 minutes’ drive. It offers flights to and from most major cities in China including Shanghai and Beijing.

You can get to Harbin Airport using a shuttle bus or by taxi.

High speed rail

Harbin Train Station

Harbin has some big train stations. Image by Chunleizhao on Pixabay.

Harbin has a well-developed high-speed rail system that can take you to and from most major cities in China.

There are four main railway stations in the city, making this the best and easiest way to travel from Harbin to other cities like Beijing, Changchun or Dalian.

Long distance buses

There are six main coach stations in Harbin that offer long distance buses to more than 20 major cities in China.

This is a cheap way to travel from Harbin to cities like Beijing, Nanjing, Jilin, and Shanghai. There’s also a coach that will take you from Harbin to Vladivostok in Russia. The trip will take you about 12 hours and you will need your passport to board.

Try to avoid taking the buses in winter as they aren’t heated, and the roads can be unsafe in the snow and ice.

City buses

There are more than 100 bus routes in Harbin, making buses a cheap and easy way to get around the city. Most of the buses cost 1CNY, but you will pay double for an air-conditioned bus. Make sure you have exact change, as the buses don’t give any.

There are also two special tourist buses in Harbin. One travels to the Sun Island scenic spot and the other travels through all the major tourist spots in the center of town.

These buses are a great way to explore the city and they cost the same as the regular buses.

Taxis and rideshare

Taxis are plentiful and fairly cheap in the city, but the driver probably won’t speak English, so have your destination written down. Also, make sure the driver uses the meter or agrees to a price in advance to avoid disagreements.

If you catch a taxi during the peak season, don’t be surprised if your driver picks up other passengers on the way, as this is a common practice in Harbin.

Rideshare is also a great way to get around the city. Use local provider Didi (China’s Uber) which has a built-in translation feature to help you communicate.

Cable car

Harbin cable car

The cable car is fun and touristy. Image by GG6369 on Shutterstock.

If you need to travel across the Songhua River to Sun Island, then you can take the cable car from Tongjiang Street. The trip takes about six minutes and it’s a great way to see the city from above.

Ferry

The ferry is another option when you want to travel to Sun Island, as long as the river isn’t frozen. The ferry operates from late April to the start of November and takes about half an hour to make the trip.

You can catch a ferry from the docks at Tongjiang Street, the Flood Control Monument, or Jiuzhan.

Traveling outside Harbin

Most of the best day trips from Harbin have to do with skiing or the snow in some way.

But there are some other things to do close to this freezing city.

Harbin ski resorts

Skiing Harbin

Skiing near Harbin. Image by Nastraea on Shutterstock.

This one should be automatic. You can’t visit the ice and snow center of the world without going skiing. Harbin offers nearly perfect skiing conditions, a long snow season, and lots of great snow resorts.

Some of the best ski resorts near Harbin include Yabuli, Jihua, and Mao’ershan. They can all be reached in an hour or so.

Hot springs

Getting warm in Harbin is a priority, and where better to do it than in a hot spring?

Located just an hour and a half away from Harbin by car, Yingjie Hot Springs offers the perfect snow experience. You can ski all day and then get warm in the hot springs!

China Snow Town

China Snow Town

Snow Town is made for tourists. Image by Dashu Xinganling on Shutterstock.

China Snow Town is a small village located in the Shuangfeng Wood Farm in Hailin City. It’s 278 km (173 mi) from Harbin, and is a winter paradise in the colder months.

During winter, you can marvel at the wooden houses and enjoy almost any winter sport, including skiing, dog sledding, snowtubing, or snowmobiling. There are also museums and performances as part of the Harbin Snow Festival.

To get to the town, you can take the tourist bus from Harbin Nangang Bus Station or go on a private tour.

Videos about Harbin

Get a visual taste of Harbin before you visit!

Here’s a nice overview of some of the best places in town, such as St Sophia Church.

Or if you prefer to watch videos without a voice-over, check out this one which peacefully films the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

Don’t forget…

 

It’s easy to forget a thing or two before you head to China.

So, here are some reminders for you:

  • The right visa – if you’re only staying for a quick trip, you may be eligible for visa-free travel.
  • Cash or Alipay – your credit card may not be accepted, so bring yuan or use Alipay.
  • VPN app – if you want access to all your favorite websites and apps in China, you’ll need to download a VPN before you leave your country. Get a VPN that works in China.

Have a wonderful time in Harbin!

Questions and comments

Let’s chat about Harbin!

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Page last updated 2 June 2022. Main image credit: Marc Mooney on Pixabay. Commercial relationship disclosure: The Helpful Panda has commercial arrangements with organizations that may appear on this page, such as affiliate links. See our terms for more info.

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