Harbin, in China’s far north, has made a name for itself as a winter hotspot thanks to the Harbin Ice and Snow World, a neon-clad Narnia of frozen fairy-tale castles and ice slides. But the city is also famed for its early 20th-century Russian architecture, marking the era when China permitted Russia to build a railway line through Manchuria to shorten journey times on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

St Sophia is just one of many unexpected but impressive reminders of the Russians who once lived in Harbin © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

Pockets of Harbin's Russian heritage (along with significant Jewish heritage) still endure, best enjoyed on foot during the city’s temperate summers, but wrap up warm and any season will do.

Start: Church of St Sophia
Walking distance: 3km

St Sophia – an unorthodox surprise

The sight of the Church of St Sophia – emerald domes soaring above malls and cookie-cutter sprawl – begs the question: What is a Russian church doing here? During the early 20th century, Harbin, a fishing community on the Songhua River, grew into a Russian city in all but name. Built in 1907 and expanded in 1932, St Sophia was the largest orthodox church in the far east, serving 100,000 Russian railway workers and settlers. By the 1980s, it was all but swallowed up by encroaching buildings, and was used as a warehouse. Fortunately, private donations helped clear the the square and secure its protected status.

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The interior of St Sophia is as beautiful as the exterior © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

Inside, a secular photography exhibit introduces old Harbin which, at its peak, was home to around 50 churches and synagogues. Sadly, most of these have been lost to development (and rampaging Red Guards) over the years and are nowadays threatened by the city’s gentrification.

Once you’ve explored the interior, head down the front steps of the church and leave the square by its southwest corner. Head west along Toulong Lu, crossing an old iron footbridge. Keep going until you hit the timeworn cobbles of Zhongyang Dajie, and turn right.

Harbin’s grandest street and a look at Jewish life

Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue) is Harbin’s most famous thoroughfare. Formerly known as Kitayskaya Street (Kitayskaya means Chinese in Russian), it runs northwards for a mile to the Songhua River. But to march up as most tourists do can be an anti-climactic experience, especially since the surviving Baroque, Eclectic and Art Deco buildings today mostly shelter international chain shops.

Time travel requires a bit of imagination, so picture the scene a century ago: fur-clad shoppers stepping out of department stores into waiting automobiles, clerks hurrying between banks and insurance offices, and literati lounging in establishments like number 58 – formerly a Jewish restaurant, it’s now a Uniqlo.

Jewish bakeries, too, would have been a fixture along Zhongyang Dajie. The local business at number 45 comes close – it has a pre-prepared bagel sandwich, proper coffee and a second-floor terrace with delightful views over the cobbles.

Leaving the main street for a while, turn right down Dongfeng Jie one block to Tongjiang Jie. You can’t miss the 7 Days Inn chain hotel – a historical building now dressed up in the brand’s gaudy livery. From the front steps, you can gaze across Tongjiang Jie at the stately Harbin Main Synagogue and Jewish Middle School.

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Once the focus of religious life for Harbin's large Jewish community, Harbin Main Synagogue is now a music venue © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

In the 1920s, Harbin was home to around 20,000 Jews, and this street was the centre of Jewish life in the city. The synagogue housed a youth hostel until recently, but was restored at considerable expense and converted into a delightful concert hall staging classical string performances. The Jewish Middle School next door is now a private music academy. The staff are happy for visitors to poke around inside.

If you have time and interest in finding out more about Jewish life in the city, go south 500m to the New Harbin Synagogue with its fantastic exhibits on Jewish Harbin. Otherwise, continue north along Tongjiang Jie and soon you’ll pass the splendid Turkish Mosque. Sadly closed to visitors, it’s still worth admiring from the outside.

From here, wheel around and take Hongzhuan Jie back towards the main street. The building at number 45 is a former Jewish hospital. If the door’s open, you can take a peek at the old red-brick courtyard in the back. Just inside the entrance is the excellent Luyu Coffee, worth a pit-stop for its original windows, lofty ceilings, and artistically crowned cappuccinos.

The red-brick courtyard in the old Jewish Hospital, now a great place for coffee © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

At the end of Hongzhuan Jie, back on Zhongyang Dajie, glance right at the grand old Modern Hotel, then skip across to number 120, noting the bare-breasted statues topping the Romanesque entrance columns as you enter. These former offices of a Japanese company are now the Harbin Tourist Center. Climb the staircase and hurry through the awful digital exhibit, then go out through a side door into an antique stairway with a slam-door elevator shaft.

The interiors here are joyously original, and home to a few shops and offices, so you’re free to wander about. The third floor reveals a silk boutique with restored features and lovely views over Zhongyang Dajie from a little balcony.

Back down on the street, next door to a shop selling Harbin sausages, is number 129, a tiny Russian store – more of a hallway – with a preserved interior. It hawks Russian bread, knick-knacks and chocolate.

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Russia Coffee & Food cafe is a treasure trove of one person's life in Harbin © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

Continue walking north until you get to Xitoujiao Dajie. A little way east along this intersecting street is the delightful, not-to-be-missed Russia Coffee & Food. A time warp of a place, this restaurant is decked out with the worldly effects of Nina, a Harbin resident from 1911 to her death in 2001. Everything from her piano to silverware, tea sets and grandfather clock is on display, including a series of portraits and photographs. The cafe owner purchased her estate when she died, and, luckily for us, elected to put them on display. Have a tea (or vodka) here, but skip the underwhelming Russian food.

A river ramble

Leaving the cafe, take the underpass beneath Youyi Jie, pausing briefly to glance eastward at the old tram station topped by a clock tower. Continue on to Harbin’s Flood Control Monument on the south bank of the Songhua River, whose former deadly floods are the reason the monument was built.

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Join the crowds for a stroll along the Songhua waterfront © Tom O'Malley / Lonely Planet

Here you can sink a Harbin Beer or three at one of the tents either side of the Flood Control Monument, before promenading westward through Stalin Park, named in 1953 to celebrate Sino-Soviet camaraderie. Look out for a few old wooden restaurants from the Manchukuo period, where you can round off the walk with some food. Or, if you’ve got the energy, catch a ferry or cable car across the water to Sun Island, where a series of kitsch attractions may not tempt you, but the chance to enjoy a waterside picnic or bike ride might.

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