Hong Kong may be small but it’s immense in its sheer overwhelming magnitude of things to see. Unlike other well heeled tourist cities, uncovering HK’s hidden secrets is a little bit more tricky with most visitors failing to see the real strength of the city beyond the well trodden tourist traps. Having lived here for three years and played host to countless visitors, this is my quick glance guide to getting the most out of Hong Kong.
What to Do
You’ll have to mix this up depending on the season and your tastes but this is a pretty catch all selection. Remember, summer is swelteringly hot and humid – aim to stay indoors or by water – and always carry water! Winter is surprisingly cold, but not in a “I’m so cosy” way but more like having a cold, wet flannel draped around your neck so plan for some good comfort eating time!
Visitors to HK always ask about the shopping most likely due to the cities unshakeable link with “fakes”. Truth be told for the best fakes, great copycat tailors and best prices you’ll need to schedule in a day trip across the border to Shenzhen (don’t forget your passport) where this handy guide will help you navigate the chaos.
If you don’t fancy the schlep then you’re best alternative is to hit up Hong Kong’s infamous markets. They’re exhausting, unbearably hot in the summer, but a great place to snap up a bargain if you don’t mind competing with the crowds. The most popular spot is the Ladies’ Market in Mongkok, filled with clothes, handbags, accessories, sunglasses and electronic items. Head there in the afternoons or on weekends, arm yourself with plenty of cash and a bottle of cold water and be prepared to haggle your sweaty socks off. Never pay more than 50% for something and don’t be surprised if you realise when you get home that the quality isn’t what you thought it was….
Whilst you’re in Mong Kok, if you fancy seeing some other markets, check out the stinky but quirkily cool Bird Market, more fragrant flower market or if you’re looking to shop at night head closer down to the harbour front to sample the smaller and thus more accessible Temple Street Night Market which is lined with hawker restaurants where you can sample some truly local seafood.
If you’re after more high end designer wares then Hong Kong has no shortage of malls filled to the rafters with catwalk ready items. Some of the bigger ones to check out are Harbour City, IFC and Pacific Place – but don’t go expecting to find many high street stores, the focus here is purely designer. For a more curated offering check out Hong Kong’s own Lane Crawford department stores with a fantastic range of stylish labels.
For the middle ground, Hong Kong’s homegrown fashion scene is on the rise. Small boutique shops with all sorts of trendy items are popping up all over town. For a bit of a browse, head to Sheung Wan and wonder the streets around Tai Ping Shan and the new trendy PMQ building. Or head to the shopping mecca which is Causeway Bay where you’ll find a mix of high end designer shops, international chain fashion stores and more independent quirky boutiques like those found in Island Beverly with a focus on Korean fashions.
Some of Hong Kong’s famous landmarks are definitely worth a visit, but avoid the crowds with these nifty tips. Only head up the Peak (on HK island) if it’s a clear day or you’ll just be met with smog filled vistas of nothingness. Skip the tram queue and grab a taxi to the top (or the number 15 bus from Exchange Square in Central) and then get the vintage style Hong Kong tram back down for the experience without the wait. Once up the peak you can pay the premium to go to The Peak Viewing Platform but if you want to save some pennies then in the building behind, where Stabucks is, you can go to the roof for free and get almost the same view. If you have time and the weather is nice then go for the hour long walk around Lugard Road which has you circle the peak on a footpath affording you 360 degree views of the island and perfectly demonstrating the contrast between the city, the harbour and the sleepier southside.
The best way to get a feel for the city itself is simply to walk around. Start in Sheung Wan and wonder the winding streets filled with a mix of hipster hangouts and old school Hong Kong shops and restaurants. Check out the CBD in Central and then go up the world’s longest series of connecting escalators to take you into the very westernised Soho area. Grab a tram along to Causeway Bay which will take you through Wan Chai and then do a spot more shopping around Times Square.
If you want some respite from the crowds, jump on a ferry and head to the hippie vibe Lamma island. Get the ferry to the main town of Yung Shue Wan from the Central Ferry Piers and then either camp out here for a seafood lunch or if you’ve got some unspent energy then follow the signs for Sok Kwu Wan for a scenic hour long walk over the centre of the island, with great views and the reward of an even sleepier more authentic seafood lunch at the other side. Check out the ferry timetable for your return to make sure you don’t end up stranded.
There is so much more to Hong Kong than the jam packed streets and assault of vertically competing buildings. To get some more space head to the island’s South side where Stanley is a tourist favourite; with a small market, a pedestrianised mall and arcade and a beach where you can surf and paddle board, it’s the perfect day out destination. Or if you’re really feeling intrepid then explore the national parks of HK (surprisingly accounting for 60% of the landmass…) and get hiking. Easier ones include Dragon’s Back but check out this round up to get some inspiration.
Hong Kong really comes alive at night. For real night owls there are two main hubs where you’ll want to check out. Wan Chai, famed for being the haunt of the sailors back in the day it still has a slightly seedy, all night party atmosphere and lots of Ladies’ Night deals for women. A little more high brow but barely is the famed Lang Kwai Fong, a small strip of bars and clubs that are filled to the rafters of partying hoards. For a raucuous night on the more civilised side of things head a little away from LKF to the streets around Wyndham Street, Hollywood Road and Soho.
For the first timers, Hong Kong’s nightly light show in the form of Symphony of the Lights, is unmissable. Set to music and best seen from Kowloon side it’s onat 8pm daily. Catch the iconic Star Ferry over at sunset then grab a drink at either Ozone, the world’s highest bar or Felix bar at The Peninsula before heading back to the harbour front at 8pm to watch the show and hear the accompanying music.
Another Hong Kong staple is grabbing a drink with a view. Your options are endless, but aside from the aforementioned ones over on Kowloon some of my favourites include Wooloomooloo’s rooftop in Wanchai, Sevva in Central and Café Gray at Upper House hotel. Or check out one of Hong Kong’s popular speakeasy bars if you can find them….my favourites are 001 and Feather Boa.
If you’re visiting anytime apart from high summer and find yourself in town on a Wednesday night then head down to the racecourse in Happy Valley for a night filled with gambling, beer and a great atmosphere…
Then there’s the food. Hong Kong is a city obsessed with food and there is something for every budget and taste.
Check out my break down by type to whet your appetite:
- Dim Sum – a Hong Kong staple. For a non-daunting introduction try the famous xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung or sample a Michelin starred dumpling at Tim Ho Wan in the basement of IFC. For a communal atmosphere head to Maxim’s City Hall
- Simple Chinese food – Grab a quick lunchtime snack from a dai pai dong (street stall), try the ones at the end of Stanley Street in Central by Shelley Street. If you’re in a group either head for Sichuan spiciness at Red Pepper in Causeway Bay or be prepared to drink out of cups whilst watching dancing waiters at Tung Po in North Point’s Food market – a true local favourite with great Chinese food and an unrivalled atmosphere.
- Fancy Chinese food – whilst eating like a local is the cheapest way to dine around Hong Kong, fancy food deserving of a special occasion is done mightily well. My absolute favourite is the incredibly atmospheric China Club. A colonial feeling atmosphere filled with an incredible range of artwork and waiters in white tie, there couldn’t be a more picturesque way to eat Peking Duck. It’s a private member’s club though so get your concierge to try and book you in well in advance.
- Old favourites – with a thriving expat community there is no shortage of great places to eat. For spicy Chinese food head to Chili Fagara on Graham Street. If you don’t mind waiting try out trendsetting Asian themed Yard Bird or Chachawan. If South American is more your thing see if you can find the hidden hideaway that is Brickhouse or for dinner in a more green setting check out Jason Atherton’s new Aberdeen Street Social in the bang on trend PMQ building.
- Off the beaten track – if you want to eat out of the throng of things then I suggest you grab a cab down to Repulse Bay on the South Side and eat at Spices where a delicious range of Asian foods are served up with a beach as your backdrop in colonial infused surrounds.
- Dinner with a view – it’s not just the bars and prices that are sky high, there’s plenty of restaurants with a view too. To look back over the island check out Hutong; tasty if somewhat overpriced Chinese food with a mesmerising view back over the harbour. Then there’s Café Gray with a warm, intimate atmosphere and delicious French food. Finally, for my absolute favourite with a more quintessential Hong Kong rooftop view try and nab a table at the unbeatable Liberty Private Works; an unforgettable private kitchen with exquisite food.
Where to stay
This wouldn’t be a very good travel blog if I didn’t help you find a hotel. But it all depends on your budget.
If money is no object then if you’re coming in winter I would say put all your money into Upper House. Occupying only the top floors of this Admiralty building it’s incredibly stylish, cool and has some of the best views in town not to mention one of the coolest bars. But it’s 100% indoors (aside from the cute Lawn area) so if coming in summer I would plump for the Four Seasons – impeccable in every aspect, one of its biggest selling points is the harbour front pool. No better place to lie down and watch the world go by. If you need to stay on Kowloon side (which is a whole different insight into the city) then there is the quintessentially Hong Kong Peninsula but I would actually say go for the more classic Intercontinental, again, for that harbour side pool spot.
If you have a bit of a budget to work around then Hong Kong can be a bit more challenging but thankfully some new boutique hotels have come along to mix things up a bit. Try Ovolo’s hotel, or the new Pottinger hotel which are both very centrally located. If you don’t mind being a little further out then check out Causeway Bay’s J Plus Boutique Hotel. If you just want the cheapest thing possible then either try Air BNB or the cleverest penny pinching option, the YMCA over in Tsim Tsa Tsui with smart and neat rooms with a great view and rock bottom prices.
So, there you go. An intensive summary of the main things to do, see, eat and experience when visiting Hong Kong. Having lived here for three years this guide is literally only scratching the surface of what their is to explore in the Fragrant Harbour – so get in touch if you have any more detailed questions! And check out my other website Sassy Hong Kong if you’re looking for up to the minute news on what’s going on, and Sassy Mama if you’re travelling with kids!