There’s one constant in Hong Kong — change! If you visited a few years back, you may not recognize the place. So how did Hong Kong get to where it is today? There are some 2,000 years of Chinese history and traditions there, overlaid with 150 years of British colonial influence. Ceded back to China by the British in 1997, the city remains a Special Administrative Region within the communist Chinese system. Locals still refer to the “border” of mainland China, and visitors from the West must acquire tourist visas in order to cross — although visa regulations seem to be in constant flux, so be sure to confirm the current situation.
In terms of cultural diversity, architectural innovation, infrastructure and cosmopolitan edginess, it’s hard to beat Hong Kong. The city is also one of the most vibrant commercial centers in the world. Hong Kong is the foremost deep-water harbor in Asia, a fact evidenced by the scores of cargo vessels carrying manufactured goods to the rest of the world.
Hong Kong is composed of three main districts. The Kowloon Peninsula houses the famed Ladies’ Market and Temple Street Night Market, the upscale shops on Nathan Road’s “Golden Mile,” several museums and the busy, tourist-friendly Tsim Sha Tsui area. Connecting Kowloon to mainland China are the scenic New Territories, where you’ll find elaborate temples and woodlands. Hong Kong Island, across Victoria Harbour, contains the city’s financial district. Dubbed the “concrete forest,” Hong Kong Island offers a stunning juxtaposition of imposing skyscrapers set against the towering slopes of Victoria Peak. But travel to the other side of the Peak, and you’ll find beaches, islands, an amusement park and Stanley Harbor — with yet another renowned market.
Hong Kong Attractions
The Star Ferry can be found just a stone’s throw from the Ocean Terminal, where cruise ships dock. Connecting Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, the ferry is used mainly by commuters and is an extremely affordable way to begin a tour of Hong Kong Island. The highlight of the island is Victoria Peak, the tallest mountain in the city, and the most popular tourist attraction in all of Hong Kong. The Peak Tram funicular railway takes visitors to the summit for a fantastic panoramic view of Victoria Harbour, Kowloon and the New Territories.
The Peak Tower and Galleria complex atop the summit is filled with restaurants and even a Madame Tussauds Museum. There are also walking trails at the summit, offering a pleasant stroll through lovely gardens and, of course, a breathtaking 360-degree view on clear days. If you’re visiting on your own, it’s best to get an early start. Crowds for the tram sometimes make the wait an hour or more.
In Kowloon, the Tsim Sha Tsui area offers vibrant shopping districts, colonial architecture, modern high-rises and lovely parks. It is home to Nathan Road — a must-see, especially at night, when clubs, restaurants and hotels switch on their gaudy neon signs. Kowloon Park, which is on Nathan Road, is a lovely refuge in the middle of the bustling city, with fountains, a rose garden, a waterfowl exhibit and more. In the morning, you’ll encounter folks of all ages performing tai chi exercises near the outdoor sculpture garden and lake.
There are three institutions on the harbor are worth a visit: the Museum of Art, the Cultural Centre or the Space Museum. Banners announce special shows. A bit farther away, you’ll also find the Science Museum and the Museum of History.
The Hong Kong skyline is transformed each night at 8 p.m. into a tapestry of colored light by means of computer-controlled lasers. The show is synchronized with music and narration. The best spot for viewing the Symphony of Lights is along the Waterfront Promenade, just beyond the Star Ferry terminal.
Hong Kong encompasses an array of outlying islands within an hour’s ferry ride. Each offers a number of outdoor activities that are a marked contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city. Cheung Chau is a perfect getaway for biking enthusiasts, as there are no cars on the island. Lantau Island is home to the ultra-modern international airport, as well as superb beaches, scenic walks and a monastery with one of the world’s largest outdoor sculptures of the seated Buddha. Visit Lamma Island for great seafood and scenic surroundings. Sai Kung, referred to as Hong Kong’s “back garden,” offers numerous outdoor dining establishments. See Viator for day trips to Cheung Chau, Lantau Island and Lamma Island.
If you’ve got a few days in Hong Kong, consider a trek to Macau. The former Portuguese colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1999. The island is about an hour from Hong Kong by “jetfoil” boat, and makes for an amusing excursion. Macau’s primary claim to fame these days is its Las Vegas-style casinos, some operated by Las Vegas gaming consortia. It also has a historic sector that is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Macau is jammed on weekends and holidays with folks coming to party from Hong Kong — and long waits at customs — so it’s best to visit during the week.
If you’d like more adventure, take a visit to mainland China. It’s pretty easy to get to the city of Shenzhen, a special “economic zone” in the southern coast of Guangdong Province. You’ll need a visa, obtainable in Hong Kong, though it can take a day or two to process. A 45-minute train ride will take you to the Chinese border, or you can opt for a one-hour ferry ride instead. Shenzhen is a haven for those interested in fake designer goods, and it also has a few noteworthy amusement parks, in addition to thousands of years of history.
Hong Kong Restaurants
If you’re a foodie, you’ve come to the right spot! Hong Kong’s food lovers will match you bite for bite. From dim sum (little plates or steamer-baskets of tasty morsels served morning through afternoon) and Peking duck to exotic (and questionably ethical) items like bird’s nest soup or shark fin soup, the entire city is one big banquet. But it doesn’t stop there. Creative chefs are also playing with traditional foods and creating innovative new menus.
Food appears in every possible setting — from elegant hotel and romantic alfresco dining to the basic “come-as-you-are” food stalls, called dai pai dong. Of course, the most popular type of cooking is Cantonese-style. But you’ll find restaurants that specialize in cuisine from every region of China. You’ll also find an abundance of Western dining options, including the usual fast food suspects.
Texture has a major role in Chinese cuisine, with items like pig ears and chicken feet playing to sensibilities very different from Western tastes. Behind many ingredients, though, is the Chinese belief that food is like medicine. It can improve your complexion, your virility or your luck.
Hong Kong is home to the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan. This dim sum hole in the wall turns out spectacular items made to order. A line starts forming at least a half hour before the doors open each day. If you’re not lucky enough to get a table at the first seating, the genial owner will put your name on the list and give you the approximate waiting time, easily passed by investigating the nearby street market and surrounding food shops. Trust us, the wait is worth it — items like the pork buns or steamed shrimp and spinach dumplings redefined dim sum for us. Tim Ho Wan has a few other outlets, including one in the train station, Central, Hong Kong Island. These lack a bit in character (a tad plastic) and conviviality, but the food is nearly as good there as it is at the mothership.
A five-minute walk from the cruise terminal, Jade Garden (up the escalator at Star House on Salisbury Road) serves classic lunchtime dim sum in a vast room. (Dinners are regular Cantonese fare.) There are no carts; just check off your choices on a paper list, with help from photos on the menu.
For a memorable splurge, head to Michelin two-starred Bo Innovation for lunch or dinner. Alvin Leung, known as the “Demon Chef,” applies modern culinary techniques to create captivating twists on traditional Chinese dishes (or, as he calls it, “X-treme Chinese cuisine”). His radical take on soup dumplings is one of the world’s great bites, and dishes like oysters served with a vapor that evokes the aroma of Hong Kong’s harbor make dining a multisensory experience. Reserve in advance, and if you’re able to book the “chef’s table” (actually a bar overlooking the kitchen), it’s possible the Demon himself will serve you while describing the origin of each dish.
The InterContinental Hotel’s highly regarded SPOON by Alain Ducasse is an excellent choice for a contemporary take on classic French cuisine. You can order from the ever-changing a la carte menu (recent offerings include steamed seared sea scallops with gold caviar or French pigeon with figs) — or you can opt for the “SPOON Experience” menu, an eight-course degustation option personalized by the kitchen.
In the Kowloon district of Hung Hom is the 45,000-square-foot “concept” dining plaza, Whampoa Gourmet Place. Thousands of diners flock each month to the complex’s myriad restaurants, which serve traditional cuisine in settings reminiscent of Hong Kong dining establishments of the 1940s and ’50s. Service is friendly, the prices are extremely reasonable and it’s another good place to sample dim sum.
Shopping in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a shopper’s haven, offering everything from modern mega-malls to traditional outdoor markets. Shop around and you’ll find a head-spinning array of deals on electronics, duty-free goods, Chinese antiques, clothing, jewelry, fine teas and much more. Beware of fake name-brand goods.
Jade holds great symbolism in Chinese culture, and it’s a great souvenir whether you buy the faux version — like most of the stuff on display at the Jade Market (bargain hard) — or the real thing. For the latter, be sure to buy from a reputable dealer, like Chinese Arts & Crafts on Canton Road; be prepared for sticker shock. Look for necklaces, pendants and other jewelry. For kitschier souvenirs, look for weird and wonderful iPhone covers, or snap up a few “Bruce Lee is my homeboy” T-shirts at the markets.
Stanley Market, on the south side of Hong Kong island, is a collection of tiny indoor and outdoor shops selling goods from all over mainland China. You’ll find loads of bargains on silk robes, jade jewelry (or at least jewelry that’s supposed to be jade) and small porcelain items.
Hone your bargaining skills at the Temple Street Night Market, located (of course) along Temple Street and open each evening. Things really start to bustle between 7 and 10 p.m., when locals and visitors alike gather to eat seafood at the dai pai dong (food stalls) and haggle over clothing, watches, sunglasses, imitation designer handbags and more.
For a unique shopping experience, check out the Yuen Po Bird Garden, or Hong Kong Bird Market, in Mong Kok, where birds of all varieties chirp away for prospective purchasers. Just around the corner are colorful flower and goldfish markets.
Nathan Road is the heart of Hong Kong’s shopping district, spanning about two miles of department stores, malls, Chinese emporiums and individual stores selling everything from cameras to luggage. Don’t miss the side streets off the main drag for more great deals.
Hollywood Road is a mecca for antiquers, with shops and galleries lining the street. The area around nearby Western Market (a beautifully restored colonial building with nothing much exciting inside) is filled with food shops that sell all sorts of Chinese delicacies, including birds’ nests and shark fins for soup. As you explore these areas, keep an eye out for small, local street markets that stretch up narrow streets or stairways.
Each afternoon the Ladies’ Market springs up along Tung Choi Street, offering clothing items, souvenirs and tchotchkes like dim sum fridge magnets. As is true for all these markets, bargain your heart out.
–written by Gayle Keck