Most cities that face a winter as bitter as Harbin’s more or less shut down. The inclination to hibernate is understandable, given average daily temperatures in January of -18°C (-1°F). But here the locals take the opposite approach, carving up 200,000 cubic meters of pristine ice to erect a massive, illuminated outdoor kingdom.
Over the last few decades, Harbin’s immense, colorful ice sculptures and a spirited winter festival have attracted travelers looking to venture away from China’s beaten paths. But the city is no stranger to the international spotlight: Long before snow-hardy artisans carved ice blocks from its frozen river, Harbin stood as China’s cultural outpost in the North. Waves of Russian traders and immigrants settled here in the city’s early days, leaving their imprint on the fashion, cuisine, and architecture alike.
Today, Harbin is home to some 10 million people, making it China’s largest northern city. The extreme winter means residents don layers of wool sweaters, thick scarves, and the occasional fur coat to stave off the bitter cold and enjoy the city every day. Here’s how travelers to Harbin can do the same:
Regardless of season, Harbin provides a picturesque backdrop for city wanderers. Thanks to Harbin’s historic role as the final stop on the Russian Empire’s China Railway, the cobblestone streets and Neo-Byzantine buildings of its old quarter invoke Moscow more than Middle Kingdom. The city embraced the builders and workers of the Eastern Railway, encouraging tens of thousands of diverse settlers to flock there in early 20th century. At one point Russian and Jewish migrants made up at least a third of its population.
Harbin today is largely Chinese, though the legacy of its early cultural fluidity lives on. The intricate masonry and towering arches of the Saint Sophia Cathedral offer a prime example of China’s Russian Orthodox architecture. And the Modern Hotel was once the heart of Harbin’s Russian community, opening in 1914 with a cinema that could seat 700. Foodies have a number of ways to explore the history too: Katusha offers one of China’s best borscht soups, while Russian Khleb bread and Hongchang smoked sausage provide a hearty, warming meal.
The gargantuan ice sculptures on display as part of Harbin’s annual Ice & Snow Festival attract wintertime visitors in droves. The artistry of the work is surpassed only by its scale: intricate ice palaces rise up next to snowy renditions of China’s great wall or the terracotta army. The transition from day to night is even more dramatic—the entire ice village bathes in meticulously planned LED lighting. The evenings culminate with a sizzling hot pot dinner served inside one of the many temporary igloo restaurants that pop up for the season.
The Ice Festival begins in early January, but most sculptures are ready by late December. This can be the best time to visit, offering far fewer crowds and a behind-the-curtain view of the artists perfecting their masterpieces. The extent of their dedication is even more admirable when one considers the fact their work melts away after just a few weeks’ time. And for those who miss the festival, Harbin offers plenty of other winter fun, from guided ice fishing trips to dogsledding tours, or the quiet ski slopes at the nearby Yabuli resort.
When the snow thaws, visitors stay busy with plenty of warm-weather attractions throughout the city. As host to the country’s oldest brewery, it’s no surprise the city loves its ale—the annual Harbin Beer Festival is a must-visit if you’re in town mid-summer.
Warm afternoons feature the scent of open-air barbecue from the Harbin-style lamb kebabs or Chuar meat sticks sold from street carts in the historic Lao Dao Wai district. Outside the city, those seeking a serene experience can observe cranes at the Zhalong migratory bird wetland, or take in the autumn color change and fresh air of the forests of Huangtou Mountain. Come evening, visitors can enjoy cocktails at late-night institution Coco, or take in a lively cabaret at the Rainbow Bar.
Harbin may not be well known to the world, but within China the word is out. Whether gazing at an intricate ice masterpiece or enjoying a local brew during the bustling beer festival, travelers will find a distinct experience in Harbin, regardless of season.
As part of the 2016 China-US Tourism Year, China has launched a series of events and resources to help foreign travelers experience China’s rich cultural heritage and spectacular natural landscapes. To plan your trip, visit www.travelchina.gov.cn.
This article was produced on behalf of Visa by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.