Things to do in Harbin
Japan, Korea and Europe - these are the usual culprits which pop up when we’re searching for winter destinations. But while these places have colder climates, they also involve long flights and expensive tour packages.
Enter Harbin, a city in China where the temperatures dip below -30C in winter. It’s a popular destination with the Chinese but remains mostly untouched by international tourism. Thanks to Scoot, a few of us took a non-stop direct flight to this city - from very affordable prices. Here's a list of cool things we did there.
1. Gawk at the giant snow sculptures at Sun Island
They say good things come in small packages, but the Harbin Snow Exhibition begs to differ.
One of the sculptors creating lifelike zebras using only water, snow and black paper.
These ginormous works of art can all be found on Sun Island, which serves as one of the official hosting sites for the annual Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin between December and March.
In spring and summer, this same island is a colourful paradise with fields of blooming flowers.
On the island, you can also find a miniature Russian Town. After being admitted entrance with your Russian “passports”, you’ll get to check out dozens of cutesy buildings and figurines.
While not an exact representation of life in Russia, the quaint little ‘town’ has nice zen vibes and is a good place for a relaxing stroll.
Address: 3 Jing Bei Jie, Songbei Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng, China
Opening hours: 8AM-5PM
Price: 330 ($69)
Address: Pingyuan St, Songbei Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng (On Sun Island)
Price: ¥15 ($3)
2. Take your OOTDs at Harbin Grand Theatre Opera House
With its smooth architectural curves and spiky “durian” roof, the Harbin Grand Theatre Opera House is like a distant Chinese cousin of our own iconic Esplanade.
Unlike our own arts theatre, however, this place was almost deserted. The locals and tourists barely visit, so it’s a perfect place to nail that perfect architectural OOTD without having to crop anyone out of your pictures.
The sleek designs and spacious area offers plenty of opportunity to get creative with your poses and angles. Just make sure, you get a taxi to wait for you, or use Didi - the Chinese version of Grab, because it can be hard to make your way to the city if you’re not prepared!
Harbin Grand Theatre
Address: Culture Center Island, Songbei District, Harbin China
3. Dine in an ice palace on frozen furniture
Image credit: @dhaeiday
There’s no shortage of hotpot restaurants in Harbin, but if you’re looking for a frostier dining experience, try the Shangri-la Ice Palace.
Image credit: @gabriella_frattini
Image credit: @thestickmadam
The tables are located in ice igloos, where temperatures hover at a cool 20 degrees below zero. It’s so cold that the vapour from the hotpots condense into snowflakes which drift back into your laps.
Image credit: @wanderlustwlee
Alternatively, you can check out their ice bar, where even the furniture is made of ice. Talk about a cold drink!
Shangri La Hotel, Harbin
Address: No.555 Youyi Road, Daoli District, Harbin 150018, China
Price: Starting from ¥388 ($81)
Image credit: @acidtainton
4. Bluff your friends you’ve gone to Russia
Snap a pic in front of the Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, and you can geotag Moscow without anyone calling you out.
The Russian church was built by the thousands of Russians who used to live in the city and today it’s preserved as a national heritage site.
Volga Manor. Image credit: @kalmba_13
Image credit: @efmymla
On the outskirts of the city, you can find Volga Manor nestled in the countryside. If you’re more into charming pastoral scenes, this Russian-style forest estate should be at the top of your Harbin bucket list.
St Nicholas Art Gallery, a recreation of the original St Nicholas Cathedral that was destroyed during the cultural revolution. Image credit: @hendralinanda
Besides the Russian buildings and pretty views, the estate also features a giant snow slide, a ski slope for beginners, and even a hotel with a restaurant. Be sure to set aside enough time for this attraction, because the list of activities here warrants an entire day’s itinerary!
St Sophia’s Cathedral
Address: 88 Toulong St, Daoli Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng, China, 150010
Opening hours: 8.30AM-5PM (You can still visit the exterior of the church after closing hours)
Address: Volga Manor China, Heilongjiang, Harbin, 香坊区 027 County Rd, 成高子镇民强村
Opening hours: 9AM-6PM for most of the attractions
Getting there: You can take a bus or taxi, but the best option is to book a car and a driver for a day, which will cost around ¥400 ($83)
Price: Starting from ¥120 ($25)
5. Walk over a frozen river
In winter, Songhua River freezes into the biggest ice cube you’ve ever seen. The ice is a meter deep - thick enough for skating, sledding, ice top spinning and all kinds of wintery festivities.
Spanning across the river is the Harbin Cable Car. Even if you’ve taken the cable car across Sentosa before, I’d still recommend hopping on this ride. The view of the vast river and the frozen city is stunning, and you get to set off from a large European castle too!
Harbin Cable Car
Address: 218 Tongjiang St, Daoli Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng, China
Price: Starting from ¥50
6. Step into a movie scene at Snow Town
Shuangfeng Forest Farm is a small village buried in the mountains, a whopping 300km away from Harbin. The ride took six hours, but when we finally arrived, it was well worth the trip.
If the little wooden houses and thick snowy roofs look like a scene out of a movie, that’s because it is. The village is so aesthetic, it’s been featured as the winter backdrop in more than a dozen Chinese films and tv series.
The prettiest sights can be found in a specially preserved area called Dream Garden. The view gets even better when night falls, because colourful lights illuminate the village, giving it a fairytale appearance.
Along the main street, you’ll find stalls with wares ranging from toys to frozen food and grilled meat. There’s also plenty of steamboat and barbecue restaurants offering satisfying hot meals.
While the buildings are made primarily of wood, the facilities indoors have become much more modernized and comfortable. We spent a night at one of the little town’s inns, and our rooms were clean, spacious and came with heated beds as well as wifi.
We booked a tour on Chinese travel website Ctrip for just ¥835 per person, which included most of the attractions, two days of accommodation, food and transport, as well as a guide who was extra patient with our poor Chinese.
Tip: The tour was a good experience for us, but if you’re thinking of booking one too, be sure use a reliable agency, and check your itinerary to see what’s included, and what’s not!
7. Go beyond the wall at the Ten Mile Art Corridor
The snowy trees and pale landscape at the Ten Mile Art Corridor were a dead ringer for the woods outside the iconic wall in Game of Thrones.
Craster’s Keep, anyone?
Don’t be a Jon Snow here, because you’ll need to know what to wear. Windproof clothes are a must. Make sure you get solid boots too, because slipping on the ice and getting snow in your shoes are no fun at all.
A local guide will bring you through the forest, where you get to see quirky sights like this little stream that bravely defies the harsh winter by refusing to freeze despite temperatures being below 40°C.
There’s also a blessed shrine, where you can score some extra huat by tying a red ribbon nearby.
Rumour has it, there’s even a camp of highwaymen hidden in the forest, and they’ll challenge you for a passphrase if you are unlucky enough to bump into them. Answer them right, and they’ll invite you into their home for some warm sake.
Get the answer wrong, however, and they’ll be less kind to you. Apparently, they forcibly take foreign women as wives and use the men as slaves.
At least, that’s what our guide told us. We’ll let you decide if it’s true.
8. Catch the sunrise on a mountaintop
Image credit: HeilongjiangChannel
Two other highlights near Snow Town are Yangcaoshan and Tudingshan. These mountains are more than 1.6km above sea level, and award-winning photographs have been snapped here. If you don’t have a problem with getting out of bed early, they’re also good places to catch the sunrise.
Image credit: Mafengwo
The cold and the altitude can make for a taxing climb. Luckily, there’s a much quicker alternative - the snowmobile. You don’t even have to know how to use one, because a qualified staff member will ride with you.
Price: Starting from ¥280 ($58)
9. Ski To Your Heart’s Content All Year Round
For all you adrenaline junkies out there, it’s time to get your ski gear out, because Yabuli Ski Resort has the largest ski slopes in all of China.
Even if you’re a complete amateur at skiing - like us - that’s fine, because there are plenty of professional coaches around. For ¥240, they’ll give you one-on-one ski tuition over the next two hours.
The resort provides rentals for all kinds of ski equipment too, so all you really have to bring is a sense of adventure.
Yabuli is located about three hours outside of Harbin, near Snow Town. If you’re looking for a closer option, Erlongshan Ski Resort is only an hour’s drive away from the city.
Both of these places have their own arsenal of snow making machines, in case the snowfall isn’t thick enough during winter. When the snow melts in summer, these resorts transform into aesthetic staycations, with verdant pine forests and lakes.
Within Harbin itself, it’s ski season all year round at Wanda Indoor Ski Park, which has slopes of every difficulty, including the longest indoor ski slope in the world.
10. Take a stroll down an European-style street
Back in the Russian era, Zhongyang Dajie, or Central Street, was a trade hub of Harbin. Today, the place has been dubbed as a “real-life gallery of European art”, and it’s the most scenic street in all of Harbin.
The street is reserved for pedestrian traffic only, so feel free to amble down the cobblestone road. Inside the traditional European-style buildings, you can find trendy brands like Under Armour and Nike, as well as plenty of eateries.
One of the restaurants we enjoyed the most was Eastern Dumpling King. It’s easy to see why they’re a Chinese speciality, because the ones we had were deliciously juicy. I was never a fan of cabbage, but after a plate of their white cabbage dumplings, I simply had to order a second one.
The menu offered more types of dumpling fillings than I even knew existed. And when we checked the bill, it cost the four of us only twenty Singapore dollars for a super satisfying meal.
Out in the street, you can find yang rou chuan, or lamb skewers sold by stalls for just ¥5 ($1). This chinese version of our satay can be found almost anywhere in China, but sinking your teeth into the warm, succulent and well-spiced meat is especially satisfying in the cold.
Another popular treat is the Madier Ice Cream Pop (¥5). If you think it’s too cold for ice cream in winter, think again, because the milk pops are actually warmer than the chilly air outside. They have a milky, chewy taste similar to the white rabbit candy that we couldn’t get enough of as children.
11. Explore Frozen-style ice castles
The Ice and Snow World is probably the first thing that pops up when you google Harbin, and a ticket costs ¥330 ($69). But the price and popularity are justified because witnessing these sprawling, frozen works of architecture is once in a lifetime experience.
The place is open during the day, but I’d recommend that you visit in the evening. That way you can watch the lights turn on as the sun sets, transforming the place into a whimsical display of lights.
Alternatively, you can check out Wanda Realm (¥198) at Wanda Mall, or the Ice Lantern Display (¥150) at Zhaolin Park. Both of these are less pricey options, but still dazzling nonetheless!
A smaller and more affordable version of Bingxue Ice World.
Bingxue Big World
Address: Songbei Ave, Taiyangdao Residential District, Songbei Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng, China
Address: Zhao Lin Gong Yuan, 377 Sen Lin Jie, Daoli Qu, Haerbin Shi, Heilongjiang Sheng, China, 150010
Address: 158 Zhongxing Avenue, Nan Gang District, Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, P. R. China 150080
Scoot to Harbin
Here in the sweltering heat of Singapore, summer is a year-round event. Luckily, an escape to the cool-weather-all-year-round Harbin (average temperatures are around 20°C during summer) takes less than six hours, and it’s really affordable too. Plus, the place has a good mix of attractions and culture, so you’ll have lots to do no matter which season you visit.
Reaching Harbin was the easiest part of the trip, because all we had to do was hop on a Scoot flight. We flew at night, so the comfy seats on the flight was a huge plus.
If the midnight munchies hit you during the flight, Scoot has got you covered too. We ordered the Stew Chicken with Rice and the Roasted Chicken Thigh with Honey Garlic Sauce. These came steaming hot, and accompanied by drinks and Cornflake Rittersport.
For those night owls out there, Scoot also offers in-flight entertainment and WiFi, starting from just US$6!
Scoot flies to Harbin from just $175 (one-way all-in fare), so it won’t even put that huge of a dent in your wallet - yes, it’s time to stop complaining about the heat and indulge in this cool getaway year round.
This post was brought to you by Scoot.