Winter in China is a blast (of icy cold air).
To be honest, winter isn’t my favorite time to travel. As an Australian, I hate the cold.
Once the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), I do my best to hibernate and wait for spring.
Despite this, I have done a fair bit of winter travel in China.
And I can tell you that China has some amazing places to enjoy the cold, with ice festivals and ski resorts in a number of northern provinces.
Whether you’re coming to China to sightsee, get involved in outdoor activities or just admire the winter scenery, here’s some information to help you.
What’s winter in China like?
Winter starts in December in China and extends until the end of February.
There’s little rain throughout China at this time of year but snow and strong winds are fairly common. However, this is just a general guide, as China’s so huge that the weather varies wildly from one place to another.
As you head north, China’s winters tend to be long and cold, with a lot of snow. In fact, in certain places in northern China, the winter often extends well past the end of February.
And, the average January temperature in winter drops as low as –10°C (14°F) , so you’ll definitely need your cold weather gear!
The weather in China warms as you head south. In central China, winters are still cold and snowy, but the start of winter is later, and the winter overall tends to be shorter.
Once you come to south China, you’ll find milder winters and temperatures that start rising well before the end of the official season.
There’s no snow, and the average temperatures at this time are more reasonable, around 15°C or 59°F. For a heat-loving person like me, this is much more comfortable!
Winter temperatures in China
Planning on traveling to specific cities? Then take a look at this temperature guide for the different parts of China.
|Beijing (north)||21 to 38 F / -6 to 3 C||18 to 35 F / -8 to 2 C||23 to 42 F / -5 to 6 C|
|Shanghai (east)||39 to 51 F / 4 to 11 C||35 to 46 F / 2 to 8 C||38 to 49 F / 3 to 9 C|
|Guangzhou (south)||53 to 69 F / 12 to 21 C||51 to 65 F / 11 to 18 C||55 to 67 F / 13 to 19 C|
|Chongqing (west)||47 to 54 F / 8 to 12 C||44 to 52 F / 7 to 11 C||47 to 56 F / 8 to 13 C|
As you can see, the Chinese winter season is coldest up north, while in the south it’s quite pleasant.
This is because the south of China is located in a subtropical climate zone.
The dangers of winter travel in China
There are two main disadvantages to traveling in China in winter. The first is the cold itself.
Don’t underestimate how cold it can get, particularly in north China, and make sure that you bring all the cold weather gear you need. This may include thermal underwear, coats, boots, thick sweaters and trousers and face masks.
The second disadvantage is the air pollution on some days. China has a serious pollution issue especially in smaller and lesser-known cities.
Although they are taking steps to decrease the pollution in certain cities, it can still be overwhelming if you’re used to clearer air like me.
The pollution is particularly bad in winter as the coal-fired generators crank up production and the cold air traps the pollution.
When I was in China, the pollution in winter gave me a permanent, hacking cough that didn’t go away until the weather warmed up.
But I was luckier than some of the others who traveled with me because they got sick and struggled for weeks to get rid of their symptoms!
Here are some ideas to help you survive the pollution in China:
- Check the air pollution forecasts in the areas you’re traveling to
- Avoid the outdoors during bad pollution days
- Avoid the north of China in winter
- Wear a mask when you’re outside.
And, it goes without saying that you should eat healthy foods that are rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables, which are plentiful across the country.
What to pack for winter travel in China
You will need winter clothes when you travel in winter in China.
However, the type of winter clothes will depend on where you’re going, the weather forecast, and your own cold tolerance.
I can tell you that when I traveled to Shanghai in winter, I wore almost every piece of clothing that I owned. And I was still cold under all that, despite the fact that Shanghai’s winters are much milder than other parts of the country.
So, do your research before you go and consider how used to the cold you are.
Just to get you started, here’s what I generally recommend you take for central and northern China:
- Layers that you can take off as hotels, restaurants, and buildings (in the north) will be heated
- Thick sweaters
- Winter pants
- Scarf, gloves and beanie
- Padded coat
- Thick socks
- Warm night clothes.
For northern China, you should also bring thermal underwear. Trust me, it helps!
If you’re heading up to Harbin or plan to enjoy winter outdoor activities at ski resorts, then make sure you pack snow gear and any equipment that you need, though you can rent that too.
Note that the list above isn’t appropriate for the mild south of the country. I recommend you check out blogger Mike’s awesome packing list for China for more guidance.
The best places to travel in China in winter
The winter months can be a great time to visit China because there are usually fewer tourists around and the prices are cheaper than usual.
This will give you the chance to explore popular cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong.
These cities are amazing in any season, but there are also some places that are extra special in winter.
Here’s where I recommend you go to make the most of China’s winter wonderland:
Located in far north China in Heilongjiang province, Harbin is a relatively small city that doesn’t get a lot of attention for most of the year.
It has bitterly cold winters, with average lowest temperatures of around –22°F (–30°C). But it’s these temperatures that make the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival so amazing.
The festival starts on the 5th of January and runs until the end of February.
It’s an international festival that attracts around 18 million visitors every year and features truly astonishing ice sculptures that are placed throughout the city.
The main places to see the sculptures though are on Sun Island and at Ice and Snow World.
Harbin also has amazing outdoor activities, from skiing to snowboarding and every other snow-based sport that you can imagine.
Head to the Yabuli Ski Resort in Harbin if you want to really indulge your inner snow bunny!
If you’re going to be in northern China to see Harbin, then you should explore Beijing while you’re there.
The winters in Beijing are long and cold and the beginning of winter is earlier than you might expect, but the history, culture, and food in the city will keep you warm.
Beijing is not only the best place to see the Great Wall of China, it also saw the rise and fall of numerous dynasties.
And relics of this history are all over the city, from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace, Hutongs, and Temple of Heaven.
You can also take the chance to see the Ice Lantern Festival at Longqing Gorge, where more than 400 ice sculptures of dragons, castles, temples, and more are displayed.
And, you can see all of this history covered in white snow and with delicious dishes like Peking duck to warm you up at the end of the day.
Now, we’re going to go a little bit warmer.
Sichuan province is in China’s southwest and the temperatures in this area are much more reasonable, so it’s a great place for cold weather haters or to escape a cold wave.
The maximum average temperature in this province in winter is around 9°C (48°F).
And Sichuan province is also famous for its spicy but delicious food, so make sure you try out the local specialties during your stay.
Here’s where I recommend you go in Sichuan province in winter:
- Chengdu for pandas
- Xiling Snow Mountain, which is the largest ski resort in China and offers a range of popular winter sports
- Jiuzhai Valley, for nature turned into an ice sculpture
- Mount Emei for the iconic snow-capped mountain scenery against white clouds
- Hailuogou Glacier Park for awe-inspiring scenery and to be reminded just how small human life really is
- Mount Qingcheng to learn more about the Taoist way.
This is for all the people out there like me who prefer warm weather. The best way to beat the cold is to visit a beach destination!
Located in southern China’s Hainan province, Sanya is famous for its scenery and warm, tropical environment.
The winter average temperature is 27°C (80°F) so it’s a great place to relax on the beach and get some sun.
Sanya sees a lot of tourists, both Chinese people and foreigners including Asian and Russian holiday seekers.
It has endless sea, beautiful bays, nice restaurants, water sports of all descriptions, and some important Buddhist sites for you to explore.
Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) really is a great place in every season but in winter, it’s otherworldly.
The beauty of the mountains frozen in snow can’t be understated and you’ll get some amazing photos during your stay.
And once you’re done, make sure you stop by the hot springs at the foot of the mountains to warm up your bones.
This city is located in Inner Mongolia, and do you really need an excuse to travel there?
Well, if you do, then what about the city’s Ice and Snow Festival? Opening in January, it features local snacks, ice sculptures, snowmobiles, fireworks, and the whole world encased in ice.
Traveling to Hohhot in winter is more of an off-the-beaten-track adventure, one that will be filled with a unique culture and delicious food.
You’ll also get the chance to visit sites like:
- Mausoleum of Genghis Khan near Ordos
- Inner Mongolia Museum
- Buddhist temples like Dazhao and the Five Pagoda Temple.
I highly recommend jumping on a tour if you’re not confident traveling in China without knowing a word of Chinese.
Located in southern China in Yunnan Province, Kunming is another destination where you can escape the cold winter.
The coldest month in Kunming is December, with average lows of 4°C (39°F) and highs of 14°C (58°F), which means lots of comfortable days to explore.
While you’re in Kunming, you can spend time watching the birds at Green Lake or Dian Lake, exploring Yuantong Temple and Kunming Dragon Gate, and learning about the culture of the Yi ethnic minority.
And if you have the time, take a side trip to Dali or Lijiang for a more laidback vibe, historic old towns, and scenic parks.
This city, located in Jilin province, is famous for one thing – its rime.
This is the frost that forms on cold objects when water vapor freezes rapidly and it’s simply stunning in Jilin.
Now, this might not sound that interesting, but Jilin rime is actually considered to be one of the four natural wonders in China.
This whole land looks like a fairyland in winter, with trees that seem to have been turned into silver and jade. This effect is particularly good on Wusong Island, where you’ll take pictures that have to be seen to be believed.
And while you’re in Jilin City, when you’re not marveling at the trees, you can:
- Explore the scenery zones of Songhua Lake
- Enjoy the ‘natural oxygen bar’ of Jingyuetan National Forest Park
- Be part of the Changchun Snow and Ice Festival at Changchun Ice and Snow New World.
And, it’s not that far from Harbin, where you can continue your frosty adventure.
Psst! A quick travel tip
Are you heading to China soon to experience the winter?
If you want to use Wi-Fi, you won’t be able to survive without a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
The Chinese internet is censored and without a VPN you’re not going to be able to access all your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, and many more.
Just remember to download the VPN before you arrive as VPN sales are blocked in China.
My best recommendations for traveling in China in winter
As I’ve already said, winter isn’t my favorite time to travel, so my advice is to prepare well for the cold with the right clothes. And don’t forget to take the occasional day off from exploring to nest in the warm indoors.
If you’re in northern China in the winter, then you can’t miss the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.
Not only is it so famous that it draws in Chinese people and tourists from around the world, it’s also visually spectacular.
But if you’re more a beach lover like me, then head to Sanya in the south. There’s no need to pack any winter clothes!
Discover every Chinese season
I’ve written about all the different seasons in China, so take a look:
Main image credit: Songshu888 on Pixabay. Average temperature figures courtesy of Weather Spark.
FAQ about the Chinese winter
What’s winter weather like in China?
China is a huge country and the climate differs depending on where you are. Generally speaking, in the north of the country winters are bitterly cold with temperatures dropping below zero. In the south of China, winters are bearable and there’s no snow.
Is Chinese New Year celebrated in the winter?
Yes, in China the Spring Festival (also known as Chinese New Year) is in January or February, depending on the lunar calendar.
Is winter the best time of year to visit China?
No, unless you love colder weather or you want to do snow sports and winter activities in northeastern China. Spring or autumn months are best for traveling.
What is the coldest month in China?
January, where it can get to below zero in the north of the country. While conditions can be extreme in the north, southern China (Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Hainan Island, etc) is relatively comfortable.