A trip to an ice festival is one of winter’s highlights, something to look forward to once the Christmas decorations have been taken down. Across the world, communities blessed with heavy snow falls and plummeting temperatures make the most of their extreme weather to put on a dazzling show. If you’re keen to take a look, check out our picks for the world’s best ice festivals.
Harbin’s annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is the most famous of its kind in the world, unrivaled in scale. The festival action centers upon several theme parks, the biggest being Harbin Ice and Snow World. Some compare it to a frozen Disneyland, not least because visitors can ride thrilling ice slides. At night, thousands of LEDs illuminate the ice sculptures to create a dazzling display unmatched anywhere else on the planet. Fittingly, it was here in 2007 that 600 sculptors carved the world’s largest snow sculpture. The mind-blowing 656-foot long piece began life as an enormous block of ice cut from the frozen Songhua River.
Organizers of central Norway’s ice music festival decided to add an extra dimension to their sculptures: sound. Musicians play intimate concerts inside igloos on instruments carved from ice; their audience wanders from one gig to the next at their own pace. But because the instruments start to melt on contact with warm human hands, tunes evolve unpredictably, meaning no two performances will sound the same. This year, the captivating melodies will come from Bergsjøstølen in Ål in Hallingdal, a remote village flanked by the Hallingskarvet and Reineskarvet mountains. The culmination of this unique festival, originally held in Geilo, will be a magical outdoor concert timed to coincide with the full moon.
The art of ice carving is alive and well in Fairbanks, Alaska, home to the World Ice Art Championships. Each winter, despite its remote location, foreign guests join locals both to sculpt and to spectate at the city’s Tanana Valley Fairgrounds. Even the volunteers who help ensure the event runs smoothly come from far and wide; help out for ten days and the organizers will give you free accommodation, a hot springs pass, and a day off to admire the works of art. The ice blocks are so clear you’ll hear people speak of “Arctic diamonds,” and while these beautiful sculptures are infinitely more fragile, they’re certainly as pretty as any gemstone.
January heralds Kiruna’s Snow Festival. Begun in 1986, this annual event takes place deep inside the Arctic Circle in the far north of Sweden. At its heart is a snow sculpture competition that draws artists from all over the world, but there are plenty of other wintry activities to keep visitors amused, from dog sledding to figure skating. It’s also the place where Yamaha, Husqvarna, and Honda face off in the battle of the snow blowers, with competitors battling it out to be the first to clear a 20m long, 40cm deep pile of snow. Up the ante and stay at the original Ice Hotel, situated 12 miles down the road in Jukkasjärvi.
Though you’d expect its ice sculptures to steal the limelight, fish are the highlight of this popular South Korean festival. The main attraction of the Hwacheon Ice Festival is bare hand fishing: participants attempt to land trout through holes cut in the frozen Bukhangang River. Clad in only a T-shirt and shorts, these brave, barefoot competitors have just three minutes to jump into the frigid water and grab themselves a fish. If they succeed, there are plenty of folk on hand to prep the catch and serve it up, sliced raw or fried. Alternatively, keep your shoes on and soar over the festival attached to a zipline, race downhill on a snow tube, or join a game of ice soccer.
The Swiss resort of Grindelwald welcomes international artists each January for its World Snow Festival. Skiers have been enjoying the slopes here at the foot of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps since the 1880s but the festival is a relatively recent addition, first held in 1983. Back then, a group of Japanese sculptors created a giant figure of Heidi, the beloved heroine of the Joanna Spyri classic novel. The festival returns in 2022 when ten teams from ten nations will bring their ideas on the theme of “Mountains”.
Downtown Breckenridge, Colorado is transformed into an open-air art gallery when the International Snow Sculpture Championships rolls into town. For five days, teams of artists from all over the world chip away at 20-ton blocks of ice to fashion works of art which are as imaginative as they are intricate. Anything goes: whimsical fairytale characters, astronauts, piggy-back automobiles, a herd of reindeer and even a dancing hippo in a ballet tutu have drawn admiring glances over the years. There’s only one rule: everything must be carved by hand.
The ancient city of Jelgava, located about 25 miles outside the Latvian capital Riga, hosts the annual International Ice Sculpture Festival. The tradition began in 1998 when two brothers, Anrijs and Rinalds Opincāns, were commissioned to create ten ice sculptures to go on display in the city center. A few years later, someone had the idea of adding an ice bar. As time passed the event got bigger and better, with activities for children, live music, and even a fireworks display, and it’s now one of Latvia’s most popular cultural events.
Japan’s most northerly island is the setting for several ice festivals. The largest is Sapporo's Snow Festival which began 70 years ago and now receives over 2 million visitors. Over 100 ice and snow sculptures fill the city’s mile-long Odori Park. On top of that, there’s an ice rink beside the Sapporo Tower and at the Tsudome you’ll find giant slides and a snow maze. But that’s not all: across Hokkaido Island they hold numerous other ice festivals, including Asahikawa Winter Festival, famed for its giant sculptures, and Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, known for its snow lanterns. Chitose Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival and Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan also take place around the same time, making it possible to combine several ice festivals in one trip.
Photo by Erica Li