Hong Kong is such a feast for the senses, it reminds me of a movie set. Maybe we are too romantic, but when we stand at the railing of the famous Star Ferry as it glides across the harbor, ride a rickety old tram as it winds its way across Hong Kong Island, or marvel at the stunning views afforded from atop Victoria Peak, we can’t help but think we must have somehow landed in the middle of an epic drama where the past has melted into the present. So many images float by, wooden boats bobbing up and down in the harbor beside huge ocean liners; crumbling tenements next to ultramodern high-rises; squalid alleys behind luxury hotels; elderly people pushing wheelbarrows as Rolls-Royces glide by; market vendors selling chicken feet and dried squid while talking on cellphones.
In fact, one of the most striking characteristics of Hong Kong is this interweaving of seeming contradictions and the interplay of the exotic and the technically advanced. There are as many skyscrapers here as you’re likely to see anywhere, but they’re built with bamboo scaffolding and in accordance with the principles of feng shui. Historic trams rumble through Central, while below ground is one of the most efficient subways in the world, complete with the world’s first “contactless” tickets, cards that can be waved over a scanner without even taking them out of your purse or wallet. The city has some of the best and most sophisticated restaurants in the world, but it also has dai pai dong, street-side food stalls. Hong Kong is home to one of the world’s largest shopping malls, but lively makeshift street markets are virtually everywhere.
A bit of history
With a population of seven million and a total land area less than half the size of Luxembourg, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The best place to appreciate this is atop Victoria Peak, where you can feast your eyes on Hong Kong’s famous harbor and, as far as the eye can see, high-rise apartments and office buildings. If Hong Kong were a vast plain, it would be as ugly as Tokyo. But it’s saved by undulating mountain peaks, which cover virtually all of Hong Kong and provide dramatic background to the cityscape and coastal areas. Indeed, viewed from Victoria Peak or the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Hong Kong offers visitors something highly unique, the chance to experience a vibrant Chinese city without sacrificing the comforts of home. To be sure, much of Hong Kong’s Western fabric comes from the legacy left by the British, who ruled the colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China as a Special Administrative Region (thus the SAR abbreviation you’ll see there and throughout this post). British influence is still evident everywhere, from Hong Kong’s school system to its free-market economy, from its rugby teams to its double-decker buses, and from the English pubs and tea in the afternoon to orderly queues. But though the city was molded by the British, it has always been, at heart, Chinese, with Chinese medicine shops, street vendors, lively dim sum restaurants, old men taking their caged birds for walks, and colorful festivals.
It’s this juxtaposition of the past and present, and the extreme differences between street life and the high life, that has fueled my love affair with Hong Kong for more than 20 years. Ancient temples stand alongside some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers; quaint villages slumber on the fringes of densely packed satellite towns; colorful traditional festivals share the stage with highbrow entertainment. I can eat dim sum for breakfast, cross Victoria Harbour on the historic Star Ferry, hike through a tropical landscape, scout for souvenirs at a street market, get a massage at a state-of-the-art spa, and zip over to Macau for a Macanese meal, all in 1 day. Hong Kong’s talent at constantly reinventing itself never ceases to amaze me; the promise of boundless possibilities draws us back again and again.
Hong Kong was founded as a place to conduct business and to trade, and it continues to serve that purpose both aggressively and successfully. Hong Kong is the “Wall Street of Asia,” with banking, international insurance, advertising, and publishing among its biggest industries. Hong Kong boasts the world’s 13th-largest trading economy and is one of the world’s leading exporters of toys, garments, and watches. Little wonder, then, that as a duty-free port, Hong Kong attracts approximately 29 million visitors a year, making tourism one of its leading industries.
What to do
Hong Kong is perpetually revving up its sightseeing potential, opening new attractions and revamping older ones, expanding museums or developing new ones, and redesigning organized sightseeing tours to reflect the territory’s changing demographics. On the other hand, if all you want to do is hike or lie on the beach, you can do that, too.
If you really want to do Hong Kong justice, plan on staying at least a week. However, because the city is so compact and its transportation is so efficient, you can see quite a bit of the city and its outlying islands in 3 to 5 days, especially if you’re on the go from dawn until past dusk. In fact, some of Hong Kong’s greatest sites are seen from public transportation. To get the most out of your time, it makes sense to divide the city into sections when planning your sightseeing.
For specific ideas on how to spend your days in Hong Kong, be sure to read my recommended itineraries. In addition, you might find it useful to read over the suggested walking tours, since they include stops at several of Hong Kong’s top attractions.
Four activities we would recommend to every visitor to the SAR are: Ride the Star Ferry across the harbor, take the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, ride one of the rickety old trams on Hong Kong Island, and take a ferry to one of the outlying islands. Nothing can beat the thrill of these four experiences, or give you a better insight into the essence of Hong Kong and its people. What’s more, they’re all incredibly inexpensive.
Hong Kong Ferries
The stars of the Hong Kong stage, of course, are the Star Ferries, green-and-white vessels that have been carrying passengers back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island since 1898. The entire ride from pier to pier takes about 5 minutes, with approximately 400 crossings a day.
Because a 5-minute ride isn’t nearly enough time to soak up the ambience of Victoria Harbour, another great way to relax and view the skyline is on a ferry to an outlying island. While most of Hong Kong’s 260 outlying islands are uninhabited. These ferries, which depart from the Central Ferry Piers, are by far the cheapest way to see Hong Kong’s harbor, with most trips lasting less than an hour. Some even offer an outside deck, where you can watch Hong Kong float past. In fact, part of the fun in visiting an outlying island is the ferry ride there and back.
At 392 mt Victoria Peak is Hong Kong Island’s tallest hill, which naturally makes it the best place for spectacular views of the city and surrounding areas. Be sure to bring your camera. If possible, go on a crystal-clear day, since fog and smog can greatly curtail vistas. Victoria Peak has always been one of Hong Kong’s most exclusive places to live, since, in addition to the views, the Peak is typically cooler than the sweltering city below. More than 120 years ago, the rich reached the Peak after a 3-hour trip in sedan chairs, transported to the top by coolies. Then, in 1888, the Peak Tram began operations, cutting the journey from a grueling 3 hours to a mere 8 minutes. In 1989, the older, cast-iron green funicular cars with mahogany seats were replaced by new, modern cars imported from Switzerland, which increased the passenger load from 72 to 120 people. If you want to know more about the tram’s history, stop by the Peak Tram Historical Gallery, ensconced in the Peak Tram Lower Terminus, which you can see for free with the purchase of a tram ticket.
Upon reaching the Peak, you’ll find yourself at the very modern Peak Tower, designed by British architect Terry Farrell, which looks like a Chinese cooking wok. Head straight for the rooftop Sky Terrace viewing deck, where you’ll be privileged to view one of the world’s most breathtaking 360-degree vistas, with sweeping panoramas of Hong Kong Island, the South China Sea, the skyscrapers of Central, boats plying Victoria Harbour, the ever-expanding construction on Kowloon peninsula, and the many hills of the New Territories undulating in the background. An open-air gallery displays historic photos of old Hong Kong. Peak Tower is also home to a handful of Chinese, Western, and Japanese restaurants, as well as some fast-food outlets and a shopping arcade designed to evoke traditional Hong Kong street scenes. Also here is Madame Tussauds Hong Kong, with more than 100 life-size wax figures of national heroes, politicians, historical figures, Olympic medalists, movie stars, and musicians. In addition to the usual figures, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp, the Beatles, Winston Churchill, there are also local and Chinese heroes like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Bruce Lee, Canto-pop star Andy Lau, and basketball star Yao Ming. In the scary section “Scream,” live people portray psychopathic killers who are on the loose in an insane asylum.
But the best thing to do atop Victoria Peak is to take a walk. One of our favorite walks in all of Hong Kong is the hour-long circular hike on Lugard and Harlech roads, both located just a stone’s throw from the Peak Tower. Mainly a footpath overhung with banyan trees and lined with lush vegetation, it snakes about 3.5 km along the side of the peak, offering great views of the Central District below, the harbor, Kowloon, and then Aberdeen and the outlying islands on the other side. Along the path are signboards identifying flora and fauna. You will also pass several of Victoria Peak’s mansions as you share the path with joggers, tourists, and locals out for a leisurely stroll. At night, the lighted path offers one of the world’s most romantic views. Don’t miss it.
For the best view when riding the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak, try to get a seat at the front, on the right side of the tram. From 1908 to 1949, the first two seats at the front were reserved, for the governor of Hong Kong.
Riding a Tram
Just as the Star Ferry is the best way to see the harbor, the tram is the most colorful and cheapest way to see the northern end of Hong Kong Island, including the Central District, Western District, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay. In fact, the tram is so much a part of Hong Kong life that it was chosen for Hong Kong’s exhibit at the Vancouver 1986 Expo. Dating from 1904, the tramline follows what used to be the waterfront (before the days of land reclamation). Old, narrow, double-decker affairs, the trams cut through the heart of the city, from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east. In any case, if you’re in Central, you can board the tram on Des Voeux Road Central. Climb to the upper deck and try to get a seat in the front row. We especially like to ride the tram at night, when neon signs blaze overhead and the streets buzz with activity.
Nightlife in Hong Kong seems pretty tame when compared to Tokyo or Bangkok. With the world of Suzie Wong in Wan Chai now a shadow of its former wicked self, Hong Kong today seems somewhat reserved and, perhaps to some minds, yawningly dull. For the upper crust who live here, exclusive membership clubs are popular for socializing and entertaining guests, while the vast majority of Chinese are likely to spend their free evenings at one of those huge lively restaurants.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the SAR has nothing to offer in the way of nightlife, it’s just that you probably won’t get into any trouble enjoying yourself. To liven things up, Hong Kong stages several annual events, including the Hong Kong Arts Festival in February/March, and the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March/April. Other cultural events are presented throughout the year, including theater productions, pop concerts, and Chinese opera and dance performances.
Most of Hong Kong’s bars and clubs are concentrated in just a handful of nightlife districts. In the Central District, most popular is Lan Kwai Fong, in the vicinity of Lan Kwai Fong and D’Aguilar streets, where a multitude of bars and restaurants have long added a spark to Hong Kong’s financial district. Nearby, SoHo, along the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator south of Hollywood Road, boasts an ever-growing number of ethnic restaurants and bars. Wan Chai has also witnessed a revival with a spate of new bars, restaurants, and strip joints, while Knutsford Terrace, a small alley on the north end of Tsim Sha Tsui, is popular for its open-fronted bars and restaurants. You can party until dawn; indeed, some bars and discos don’t take off until after midnight.