For the ultimate winter wonderland fantasy, the Harbin Ice Festival in China (known otherwise as Harbin Ice and Snow World) will blow your mind with the largest ice sculptures in the world. Trust. This China Ice City is like a real-life Frozen.
As the world’s most populous country, it comes as no surprise that China has the largest ice festival in the world, known as Harbin Ice and Snow World. At 600,000 square meters, the Harbin Ice Festival puts those other ice festivals around the world to serious shame, such as those in Sapporo, Norway, Quebec or any other top winter travel destination. The size of the China Ice City itself isn’t the only superlative the Harbin Ice Festival boasts, though. The sheer size of the ice sculptures, with the tallest coming in at around 46 meters tall, stands head and shoulders above other ice festivals worldwide.
Note: These photos were taken with a Canon 80D and DJI Phantom. Check our Essential Cameras for Every Traveler and Traveling with a Drone: 8 ESSENTIAL Tips to Avoid Insanity for more information!
- 1 Harbin Ice Festival in China’s Coldest City
- 2 Carving an Ice City
- 3 A Wonderland of Ice
- 4 Harbin Ice and Snow World by Night
- 5 Harbin, China: A Perfect Winter Travel Destination
- 6 Surviving Harbin’s Winter
- 7 How to Get to Harbin, China
- 8 China Ice City Entrance Fees & Other Information
- 9 Like this post?
- 10 You Might Also Appreciate…
- 11 What’s your favorite winter activity?
Harbin Ice Festival in China’s Coldest City
The city of Harbin, the capital of northern China’s Heilongjiang province, is the coldest of China’s major cities. Luckily, we stayed at the very cozy boutique Harbin Petrochemical Engineering Hotel, which, in spite of its quirky name, was lovely with helpful employees and warm rooms, and located within walking distance to the gorgeous Saint Sophia Cathedral! Outside, however, the average January temperature in Harbin stands a frigid -1.1 F (-18.4 C), with low temperatures below -30F (-34.4C) not uncommon. The sub-freezing temperatures from late November to March create the perfect environment for the immense realm of ice of the Harbin Ice Festival. In March, the incredible ice masterpieces of the Harbin Ice Festival are simply allowed to melt away as the weather warms. It’s a very far cry from the tropical Bali paradise we had just come from!
Carving an Ice City
The massive frozen creations at the Harbin Ice Festival aren’t your average ice sculptures. In fact, the ice constructions towering over the China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World are more properly described as buildings made of ice. Imagine a city made of ice buildings standing several stories tall and stretching for many city blocks in each direction and you’ll have an idea of the splendor of the Harbin Ice Festival.
The giant buildings at Harbin Ice and Snow World are constructed from 2-3 foot square ice blocks carved directly from the frozen Songhua River. 10,000 workers labor beneath sun and moon using chisels, ice picks, and all kinds of crazy saws to carve out thousands of blocks to build the world’s largest ice sculptures at the Harbin Ice Festival. These blocks are then lifted into position using construction cranes to build this incredible China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World.
A Wonderland of Ice
The jaw-dropping ice sculptures that make the China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World such an essential bucket list item are carved into everything from fanciful castles to faithful representations of iconic buildings from around the world. Past highlights of the Harbin Ice Festival have included the Sphinx and Iceland’s Hallgrimskirkja, while this year featured China’s very own Temple of Heaven.
Visitors to Harbin Ice and Snow World won’t only find ice buildings to marvel at, however. The Harbin Ice Festival is sprawling with a fantastical array of other winter wonderland activities, including dozens of ice slides built right into the massive ice sculptures of the China Ice City, ice skating rinks, ice bike tracks, reindeer rides, and posing with snow foxes. The 2015 Harbin Ice and Snow World, for one, boasted the world’s largest ice slide at 300 meters long.
Harbin Ice and Snow World by Night
As if it wasn’t enough to simply possess the world’s largest ice sculptures, the China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World sparkles at night. Yes, it literally sparkles.
Darkness comes early to Harbin in winter, and once dusk rolls around the sculptures at the China Ice City take on a completely different character. Not only are these gigantic ice sculptures of Harbin Ice and Snow World the biggest on the planet, every single ice structure at the Harbin Ice Festival becomes fantastically lit up with brilliantly-colored lighting. That’s right, the entire China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World becomes a vibrant glowing city, a neon color-trip that transports you right in the middle of some epic life-size pinball machine upon nightfall, creating a spectacular feast for the eyes.
The lights at the Harbin Ice Festival are computer-controlled LEDs, which means that not only are the buildings vibrantly illuminated, but they also become part of a gigantic light show. For hours each night, the sculptures at Harbin Ice and Snow World constantly change their shade from vivid green and purple to everything in between. It’s amazing to simply wander the wonderland of the China Ice City by night and let your eyes marvel at what you see before you! Even better? The light displays are accompanied by nightly fireworks, as well.
Harbin, China: A Perfect Winter Travel Destination
Harbin Ice and Snow World is not the only winter attraction that calls Harbin home. In fact, the China Ice City of Harbin Ice and Snow World is only one of three separate exhibitions of ice and snow sculptures that make up the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
The snow sculptures at Sun Island, adjacent to Harbin Ice and Snow World, are among the world’s largest snow sculptures, with one in 2007 setting the world record at 250 meters in length. The exhibitions at Sun Island are not lit up at night, and only viewable by day.
Harbin’s Zhaolin Park, is home to over 1,000 ice sculptures lit up by internal lanterns in a similar fashion to Ice and Snow World. The smaller scale and lack of crowds at Zhaolin Park can create a more intimate experience than the business of Harbin Ice and Snow World.
But this magnificent cold weather fantasy extends beyond the festivals. During the winter months, the entire city of Harbin transforms into a wonderland of winter activities. The massive frozen Songhua River becomes a giant playground, with ice skating, sledding, dogsled rides, and even inner tubes that are pulled by snowmobiles! It’s quite an experience to simply walk out onto the ice and marvel at its thickness, watching as trucks drive over it without any hesitation.
Surviving Harbin’s Winter
If you want to visit Harbin Ice and Snow World or any other exhibition at Harbin’s International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, you’ll have to be prepared to deal with the winter in Harbin. The Harbin Ice Festival usually runs from late December to early March, or whenever the ice starts to melt away. This means that during this 3-4 month period, temperatures in Harbin will always be significantly below freezing.
On our recent trip to the Harbin Ice Festival in late January, daytime high temperatures ranged from 8F-15F (-13.3C to – 9.44 C), with nightly lows reaching -17F (-27.2 C).This is cold by almost anyone’s standards, let alone our Los Angeles-bred ones. However, the winter in Harbin is extremely dry, with little snowfall and low humidity, meaning that it’s quite possible to keep out the cold with enough layering (quite different than our Jeju Island winter). Dry cold doesn’t seep into your bones quite as much as damp cold does, so bundle up and you’ll be fine.
Wearing enough layers is absolutely key if you want to brave a few hours in the cold to experience Harbin’s winter wonders. I wore 5-6 layers on top and 3 on the bottom. A high-quality wool base layer are must-haves! We love this Smartwool thermal top and this Smartwool thermal bottom. Don’t forget at least two pairs of wool socks and a pair of protective footwear like these Columbia Waterproof Winter Boots.
You can watch my tips on how to survive in a cold winter climate in this video!
If the cold at the Harbin Ice Festival becomes too much, have no fear! At Harbin Ice and Snow World, there are many restaurants and other heated buildings to retreat into if you can’t take the cold anymore. Over the 8 hours+ we spent at the Harbin Ice Festival (yes, we probably broke a record), we were able to be outside for over 3 hours at a time before taking warm-up breaks. A 15-20 minute rest in a warm building, plus some warm soup, will do wonders for your cold limbs!
A key tip to staying warm is to make sure your extremities are kept warm. If your hands and feet are cold, chances are you’ll feel miserable and want to call it quits. I know that I absolutely hate when my feet are cold, so to avoid that hot packs are incredibly handy. You can also put these other places, such as your pockets, to help warm up your hands.
Batteries don’t perform as well in very cold weather, so take care to keep the batteries as warm as possible! You can place hot packs directly on the camera or phone, and make sure you place your electronics in a pocket or bag when you’re not using them if you want to prolong the battery life. Also, make sure to pack a portable charger to take care of any battery loss. We didn’t experience any trouble with our smartphone, Canon 80D, or flying a drone in cold weather because we took these steps!
How to Get to Harbin, China
Harbin is accessible by flights from over 30 Chinese cities, as well as international flights to Russia, South Korea, and Japan. Harbin is also well-connected by China’s railway network, easily reachable from other northern Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenyang, and Changchun.
Once you’re in the cold city, the Harbin Ice and Snow World and the snow sculpture exhibitions at Sun Island are a 10-15 minute cab ride from the city’s center, usually costing around 20 yuan. To avoid being ripped off, insist that the driver turns on the meter. It’s likely that the taxi drivers will understand no English at all, so make sure you have the name of wherever you’re going in Chinese handy.
China Ice City Entrance Fees & Other Information
The entrance fees for the Harbin Ice Festival and its baby sisters are not cheap, but they are fully worth the price. As of 2017, the fees are:
Harbin Ice and Snow World (哈尔滨冰雪大世界): 09:00-12:00: RMB 150 per adult, 12:00- 21:00 RMB 300 per adult. On New Year’s Day, days during Chinese New Year, and the Lantern Festival, admission from 12:00 -21:00 rises to RMB 330 per adult. If you enter before 12:00 you can stay all day and save money by paying half the price of the evening admission.
Sun Island Snow Sculptures (太阳岛): 08:30- 19:30. RMB 240
Zhaolin Park Ice Lanterns (兆麟公园): 09:00 – 21:00, RMB 150, children free.
Visiting Harbin Ice and Snow World is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s 100% worth it to brave the subzero temperatures and witness the world’s largest ice sculptures. I have never experienced anything remotely like the Harbin Ice Festival before, and it will always stand at the top of my list of best winter experiences!
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