With Russian and European flourishes shaping its architecture, the city of Harbin in China offers a unique Chinese travel experience. The capital of northern China’s Heilongjiang province, Harbin has begun to flash on the radars of Western travelers with its awe-inspiring Harbin Ice Festival, boasting the largest ice sculptures in the world. The past few decades have seen Chinese tourists flocking to the frozen city for the spectacle of towering ice structures, glassy ice blocks in the day, and glowing psychedelic artwork at night. But outside of the Ice Festival, the city of Harbin itself is quite unique from the rest of China (giving us a very different experience than our visit to Beijing for Chinese New Year). Harbin’s location near the Russian border has left quite a strong Russian and European influence upon the city. These influences are best seen in Harbin’s architecture, most notably the Byzantine-inspired Saint Sophia Cathedral.
Here’s our guide to the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, China!
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- 1 Russian Influence in Harbin, China
- 2 Visiting the Saint Sophia Church
- 3 The Saint Sophia Cathedral: A 10-Second History
- 4 Tasty Treats at Saint Sophia Square
- 5 What to Bring If Visiting in the Winter
- 6 Like this post?
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- 8 Have you ever traveled to China?
Russian Influence in Harbin, China
If there’s one thing that makes Harbin so unique in China (besides being the location of the largest ice festival in the world), it’s the city’s beautiful Russian influence. But how did this happen?
It started with a train. As head of the Russian-financed Chinese Eastern Railway, modern Harbin attracted a heavy settlement of Russians in the early 20th century, only a few years after its founding. By 1917, ethnic Russians composed a whopping 40% of Harbin’s population.
The Russians left their most visible mark on Harbin’s architectural styles. Harbin’s grand distinction in China lies in its plethora of historical European-style buildings, dating as far back as the early 1900s. You’ll find these Russian-styled buildings around the city, but the epicenter of Harbin’s Russian aesthetic is concentrated around central Harbin’s pedestrian street, Zhongyang Dajie (中央大街步行街).
A walk down Zhongyang Dajie in Harbin doesn’t feel like China at all. If not for the Chinese writing on storefronts you’d be forgiven for thinking for a second that you were in St. Petersburg or Moscow! Indeed, Harbin has been nicknamed “The Oriental Moscow,” and “The Oriental Paris” because of its stately European architecture. A short walk from Zhongyang Street, you’ll find the famous Russian church of Harbin: the Saint Sophia Cathedral.
Visiting the Saint Sophia Church
When we visited Harbin for Chinese New Year, the Saint Sophia Church was at the top of our list of things to see, second only to the Harbin Ice Festival. Because of its central location, the Saint Sophia Church was easily accessible from most of the Harbin sights we visited. In fact, we were able to walk to it from our hotel, the boutique Harbin Petrochemical Engineering Hotel (how’s that for a hotel name, eh?). In addition to being walking distance to the Saint Sophia Church, this cozy boutique hotel was close to the central walking street and the Songhua River, making it ideal for our short holiday trip. It was quite cold when we visited in January (this is the coldest major city in China, after all!), but we were well prepared with our winter travel packing list.
The Saint Sophia Cathedral: A 10-Second History
A symbol of Harbin, China, the Saint Sophia Cathedral perfectly exemplifies Harbin’s Russian influence. The church was originally built in 1907 after the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which connected Vladivostok in Russia with northeast China. The original wooden church was renovated and enlarged to its current, red brick form in 1932. The Saint Sophia Cathedral now stands as the largest Eastern Orthodox church in Asia outside of Russia.
We ended up visiting the church every day during our visit to Harbin, China, returning at different times each day to appreciate its beauty in various lighting, but also to stuff our faces silly with the treats from the surrounding food stalls.
Tasty Treats at Saint Sophia Square
Vendors around the square sell tasty snacks such as the popular Chinese favorite tanghulu (bingtanghulu) 糖葫芦. This delicious traditional Chinese snack of candied fruit is ubiquitous throughout Northern China. Frozen inside a layer of crystallized syrup, fruits such as strawberry, pineapple, kiwi, and Chinese hawthorn are stuck on bamboo sticks to be happily crunched on. It can be a bit tricky to eat these in Harbin’s freezing winters, as it’s already so cold outside, but they are still quite tasty! You can also get snacks like egg waffles and grilled squid.
What to Bring If Visiting in the Winter
We mentioned that we had visited Harbin in the winter and that it was cold. But seriously, it was COLD. We’re talking sub-freezing temperatures like we had never known! If you’re visiting Harbin for the Harbin Ice Festival, make sure to check out our Essential Winter Travel Packing List so that you’re fully prepared for the chill!
In summary, you’ll want to bring:
- Good Winter Shoes
- Wool Socks
- Thick Lined or Padded Pants
- Shirts/Sweaters for Layering
- Thermal Underwear or Wool Base Layer
- Thick Coat
The Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, China is one of the city’s top attractions, for good reason. It is quite interesting to view Harbin’s Russian influences, and this church looks like it was torn straight out of Russia and plopped right down into China! A visit to this church is a must-do for anyone traveling to Harbin, China.
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin, 聖索菲亞教堂 // Софийский собор в Харбине
The church and square are located at 150000道里区松花江南岸 on the corner of Toulong Street (Toulong jie) and Zhaolin Street (Zhaolin jie) in central Harbin’s Daoli district.
The church is open from 8:30—17:00, with a RMB 20 admission fee.
Bus: 1, 2, 13, 15, 64, 66, 113
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