We visited Harbin from 16 to 19 February 2012 with our two children aged 10 and 11. We travelled outside of the main ice festival dates (the official Ice Festival runs from 5 January to 5 February) and this has its advantages and disadvantages. We flew from Shenzhen airport with China Southern which we booked through Travelzen (HK$3637 adult, HK$3192 child). We took a taxi from the airport at Harbin to the Shangri-la (taxi 180RMB but could have negotiated lower) arriving at the hotel after about 45 minutes.
One thing to note is that the taxi’s boot (the trunk if you are American) was not too large and we had to have one of our cases in the back of the taxi with us. If you are bringing a lot of winter clothing, this is something you should bear in mind.
Arriving early evening at the hotel, we ate in the hotel and then swam in the pool. The next day we walked along the river and our children enjoyed playing on the frozen river. The frozen river was quite a spectacle. In the late afternoon we went to Sun Island to see the Snow sculptures. Arriving so late in the afternoon, we were pretty much alone in the park.
The next day, we went to Zhaolin Park to see the Ice Lanterns. However, the park was not open until 3pm and looking inside the park, it did not look all that large or impressive. The other snow and ice sites were much better value for money. We therefore walked down Zhongyan and Shang Zhi Streets to see the Russian architecture and visited Saint Sophia Cathedral.
Zhongyan Street has more stately Russian architecture and you could be walking down any European high street. The buildings on Shang Zhi Street (and on some of the side streets ) are much more down to earth and to an extent more run down but have much more character. There are still a few wooden buildings and many brick terrace buildings in these areas, although it is hard to say how long these will survive with the redevelopment ongoing in the area.
We then walked back to the Shangri-la via the Harbin Flood Memorial and along the river banks seeing many people enjoying winter activities on the frozen river. After a quick break, we took a taxi to the Ice and Snow Festival spending about four hours at the festival.
Visiting Harbin later in the season is a good idea to avoid the crowds. All the Snow and Ice Festival sites were uncrowded which was excellent for our kids (no queues for the ice slides!). Also, the temperature was a bit warmer than in January which made it a bit more bearable (still exceedingly cold though). However, the disadvantage is that some of the ice and snow sculptures are starting to show the signs of wear. However, on balance, we felt that it was worth visiting later.