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In this guide, we will discover some of the top things to do in Harbin, China’s frozen northern city on the border with Siberia.
Where is Harbin
Harbin is located in China’s far northeastern Heilongjiang Province (the area is also sometimes referred to as Manchuria). It is closer to Vladivostok than Beijing.
Harbin is China’s coldest city with winter temperatures dropping to below -30 Celsius. The short Summer lasts from June to August and the city benefits from warm, sunny days with heavy downpours during this time. Spring and Autumn are practically non-existent and last around a week between summer and winter.
Getting to Harbin!
Harbin is easily reachable from Beijing by plane and train! Flight time from Beijing is 2 to 2.5 hours and costs from ¥1,500 ($230). You can book cheap flights through Trip.com.
There are direct fast trains from Beijing to Harbin every day and the journey takes between six and eight hours. See How to Buy Train Tickets in China, or book an e-ticket direct through Trip.com.
There are weekly train services between Harbin and Khabarovsk and Vladivostok in Russia.
Getting Around Harbin
The area around the Songhua River, Central Street and St Sophia is easily navigated on foot. In winter the streets can be covered in ice and they are not gritted as is common in the west. Go with caution!
There is a metro with one line and expansions in the works. Handy for getting to the station, shopping malls, bar street and the Unit 731 museum.
Taxis are ubiquitous and fares start at ¥8. Harbin’s taxi drivers have something of a reputation for being a little crazy and not paying attention to conditions, traffic or anything else, and I can 100% confirm this as true.
Things to do in Harbin
Having lived in Harbin for a year back in 2015/2016, I found that other than the winter activities, there wasn’t a great deal to do in the city, mainly because of the cold. However, for those taking a short trip, there is plenty to keep you busy in both summer and winter.
Winter is the best time to visit as there are hundreds of events put on every year, from the famous Snow and Ice Festival to activities on the frozen Songhua River and Sun Island. There is also the nearby ski resort at Yabuli which is where China’s national Olympics team trains.
In summer it’s nice to walk the pedestrian areas around Central Street and St Sophia and then down to the river and Sun Island. You can take the rare opportunity to enjoy a cold beer or meal outside which isn’t possible for most of the year!
Whether visiting in winter or summer, be sure to marvel at the Russian architecture that makes this city unique, and sample some traditional Russian food from borsht to pelmeni (dumplings) from one of the many restaurants in the city.
Be aware that a lot of smaller attractions in China are closed on Mondays.
My Top 10 Things to do in Harbin
So, here are my top 10 Harbin Attractions:
Harbin Snow and Ice Festival
The world-renowned Ice Sculpture Festival is part of a wider series of events that go on all winter. The ice festival is the pinnacle, with recreations of famous world landmarks made entirely of ice. It usually starts on 5th January each year and lasts until some time in March. The ticket price is around ¥300.
Saint Sophia Cathedral
Probably the most well-known Harbin landmark, Saint Sophia Cathedral is a typical Russian orthodox church complete with golden crosses and onion domes. It has now been turned into a museum displaying photographs of the city’s architecture from past to present. Entrance ¥20.
Zhongyang Dajie (Central/Walking Street)
Considered the longest pedestrian street in all of China, this charming cobbled thoroughfare is lined with Russian bakeries, souvenir shops and restaurants. It starts off across from the Holiday Inn on Jingwei Street and finishes up at the Flood Defence Memorial on the Songhua River. Entry: Free
The River acts as Harbin’s playground in winter as the ice freezes to around one metre in thickness. You can skate, sled, hire a snowmobile and more. In summer you can take a boat trip and even swim (though I wouldn’t recommend it being so close to the busy city). Entry: Free (there is a charge for boats and cable car).
There is a cable car crossing the river to Sun Island that runs year-round. In summer you can also take a boat and in winter you can walk across the frozen river. The island has a large park with a small swimming beach (see above) and a few restaurants. Free (there is a charge for boats and cable car).
Stalin Park stretches for almost two kilometres along the southern bank of the Songhua River. The Park was created in 1953 and reflects the friendship between China and the Soviet Union. There is a statue of Stalin (allegedly) but it has been covered up for some years after he fell out of favour for obvious reasons. Entrance: Free
If you are looking for peace and tranquillity among some traditional Chinese architecture, the Confucius Temple is the perfect escape. The largest such temple complex in northeastern China. Entrance: free
Unit 731 Museum
During the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Manchuria and set up a base in Harbin to create a biological and chemical weapons program. Known as Unit 731, the program was headed by General Shiro Ishii. Unit 731 used the local population and prisoners of war as test subjects, conducting depraved experiments to further the Japanese war effort. Not for the faint of heart. Entry: free
If you are in Harbin for any length of time during winter, once you have hit all the major sites you will find the only thing left to do is to hit up Harbin’s vibrant bar scene. One of the best places to do this is “Bar Street” (Qiao Nan Jie).
Get off the metro at Hagongda or Xidaqiao and then pop into any of the establishments across from the railway tracks. Most of the bars have some form of entertainment such as pool, beer pong, live music, quiz nights etc to keep the ex-pats from going crazy during the long winter months.
Yabuli Ski Resort
The town of Yabuli is a ski resort 180km east of Harbin and is home to the Chinese winter Olympic team. There are five daily trains and the journey takes around three hours. There are 17 different slopes ranging from beginner to advanced and plenty of instructors and tour companies offering packages (though not all have English-speaking instructors).
In addition to skiing and snowboarding, there are other activities including hiking, snowmobile, sledding and more.
Food & Drink in Harbin – Top Picks
Hamama’s Kofi House (Western)
A nice little cafe in Jiaohua close to HIT. You can eat in and take away a selection of hot and cold drinks, salads, sandwiches and cakes.
Address: Room 104, No 2 Mugong Street, Nangang District, Harbin, China.
The best and most authentic Russian restaurant in Harbin. Excellent home-cooked classics such as borscht, stroganoff and mimosa. The dining room is an ornate affair and looks like it’s straight out of an 18th-century Russian novel. At the end of Central Street and Turn right. Opposite the Flood Control Monument.
Address: Zhongyang Main Street, 261, JinDi Hotel, First Floor, Harbin, China
The following bars are all located on Qiao Nan Jie. Nearest metro; Hagongda and Xidaqiao.
A decent large bar with a good selection of beers and cocktails. Thursday is quiz night. Occasional live music.
Live music every night. Reasonable prices for drinks and large selection of shots. Hookah available.
A mix of Chinese and foreign punters. Pool table.
My favourite place when I lived in Harbin and home from home. Mainly a Russian crowd. Cheap beers and cocktails, hookah, beer pong. Quiet during the week but gets busy towards the weekends.
Where to Stay in Harbin
On my last trip to Harbin (January 2021) I stayed at the Xiwu Boutique Express Hotel next to Harbin East Railway Station. The room was ¥250 ($40) per night, in a great location next to the subway and the room was large, warm and comfortable. You can book directly through Trip.com.
If you are looking for a cheaper alternative then you can find many hostels across the city on Hostelworld.
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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