The city of Harbin in northeast China is famously home to the biggest ice sculpture festival in the world. Founded in 1897, Harbin is also one of China's newest cities and much of its Russian-style architecture dates from then. Harbin appeals to all ages, and there are lots of good reasons to plan a visit.
Harbin Ice Lantern Art Fair (December-January) attracts visitors from around the globe. However, you can see illuminated ice sculptures all year round at Sun Island Park.
Visit the Manchurian tigers and other big cats at Siberian Tiger Park; you can buy strips of meat to feed them by hand.
See the breathtaking Russian buildings on Zhongyang Dajie and the nearby St. Sophia Orthodox cathedral.
Try any of the Russian restaurants along Zhongyang Dajie for Russian food with an Eastern twist.
Harbin nightclubs mean low-priced drinks, floorshows, and lots of fun. Be sure to visit the Russky vodka ice bar that pops up each year if you're visiting in winter.
Harbin's most beautiful construction and the heart of its Orthodox Christian community, Saint Sophia is a reminder of the city's past, as it passed from Russian to Chinese control. The church is a stunning example of Orthodox architecture in the central Daoli neighborhood, which was built by the Russians as a fitting end point for their Trans-Siberian Railway. Easily the biggest Orthodox church east of the Urals, it stands 53 meters tall and is crowned with a Byzantine green dome, cutting quite a dash in the heart of town. A heartening museum on the site also documents Harbin's multicultural heritage.
In keeping with the city's theme of multiculturalism, visitors shouldn't miss Harbin's impressive synagogue during their stay. Far eastern Judaism may be little known, but it certainly played a role in the Jewish past, as this synagogue demonstrates. Built in 1921 by Russian Jews, it was well restored in the early 2000s, and now takes its place among the city's religious attractions. An engaging museum upstairs tells you everything you need to know about how it all came about.
Also known as "Central Street", Zhongyang dajie stretches for around a mile in the center of town (unsurprisingly), and it's a real stunner. Built in a self-consciously "Russian" style, which appears very unusual after visiting other Chinese cities, it's a veritable open-air art gallery, thanks to its endless stream of beautiful storefronts and private residences. There are upscale eateries along the way, so it's a great place to make a pit stop, while highlights include the elegant Jiaoyu bookstore, and the Art Nouveau Mod-Er Hotel.
Also dubbed the "Temple of Bliss", Jile is the center of Harbin's Buddhist community, and well worth seeing. The largest temple complex of its kind in north-eastern China, the site is crammed with attractive statues of Buddhist saints, such as Sakyamuni, and centers around a graceful seven-tiered pagoda, which is the nexus for the working religious duties of the monks who live there. But don't worry. They are happy to receive visitors - and thousands arrive every week to see the architecture and pay their respects (and alms, if you're feeling generous).
Harbin's undisputed entertainment hub, Sun Island's name is a little deceptive. As the city has very cold winters, and pretty warm summers, it would be better called Sun and Ice Island - and offers plenty to do, whatever the weather. In the winter, it becomes Polarland, and hosts a world famous ice festival, complete with fabulous works of art and amusement park-style rides. In the summer, the amusements continue, but the rest of Sun Island is achingly scenic, with its Flower Garden and Deer Park sure to win the hearts of all who visit.
Visit from December to January for the ice sculpture festival or plan a vacation in August for the Harbin International Beer Festival. Harbin is China's most northerly large city, and daytime temperatures of 10.4 degrees are average for January. Be sure to pack warm clothing.
Fly from Los Angeles to Harbin Taiping International Airport (HRB), or catch a connecting flight from airports in Russia or Japan. The airport is 21 miles from the city center and taxis cost ¥100-120.
There are regular trains from many Chinese cities. Take a taxi from outside Harbin Railway Station to your destination in town.
Harbin is easy to reach by road, and drivers can take the China Highway 102 via Changchun.
Reach Harbin by bus from Jilin or Beijing, or take the daily service from Vladivostok in Russia. Changtu Keyun Zhan terminus is opposite the rail station.
Book a stay in mid-range hotels like Hotel Ibis Harbin or Modern Hotel Harbin, or choose the upmarket Shangri-La Hotel for elegant rooms, a river view, and pool.
Daoli - you'll find the Cathedral of St. Sophia, now home to the Harbin Museum of Architecture, in this central district.
Sun Island - head to the Sun Island area for the Ice Lantern Festival and the Siberian Tiger Park.
Old Quarter - this Songhua River neighborhood is noted for its Baroque and Byzantine-style Russian architecture.
Over 100 bus routes offer visitors a convenient way to get around Harbin. Ticket prices are between ¥1-2.
Taxis are also cheap and plentiful. Be sure to check that your driver switches on the meter at the start of your journey. A 5-mile trip runs between ¥30-40.
Rent a car with a Chinese driver from ¥600-1,000 per day and see this vast city at your leisure.
Shop in Zhongyang Dajie, the city's main shopping area, or explore Russian night markets and huge department stores like Lane Crawford, Parksons, and Euro Plaza at Guogeli Dajie.
Local supermarkets include Carrefour, Trust-Mart, and Metro. Expect to pay ¥11 for a quart of milk and ¥13 for a dozen eggs.
Visit the popular LaoChang ChunBing in Zhongyang Dajie for Chinese cuisine. Lunch in a basic restaurant is ¥44, while upmarket restaurants charge ¥450 for dinner for two with dessert and wine.