A fascinating history of British, Chinese, and Japanese occupation make Hong Kong a destination that is totally foreign, yet somehow familiar. The restless city is the backdrop for Wong Kar-wai’s dreamy film masterpieces, and it remains a global financial and cultural powerhouse.
The city portion of Hong Kong flanks the harbor between two mountainous land masses: Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island. If you think San Francisco is hilly, it’s got nothing on Hong Kong. Because of limited flat land and nowhere to build but up, Hong Kong is the world’s fourth most densely populated territory. It boasts the largest number of high rise buildings of any city, and the tenth tallest building in the world.
Hong Kong is 12th on the Human Development Index and plays host to a truly impressive public transportation system. Despite all the dim sum, Hong Kong men and women have the longest life expectancies of any country in the world. It is incredibly easy to start and run a business there, with limited government involvement. Hong Kong has a higher per capita income than the United States, but an even higher income equality than the US. The currency is permanently pegged to the US Dollar.
A subtropical climate means Hong Kong is very hot and humid in the summer and pretty warm in the winter. I visited in early Fall, and it was most definitely T-shirt weather. Sweaty days were interrupted only by not-too-cold AC in most places and water dripping from window AC units twenty stories above.
I only spent a little over a week in the city in September-October 2016, so this guide is by no means complete or definitive. But I hope you’ll find some of these tips useful for your next trip.
Photos from my 2016 trip are here.
Must Visit: Walks
Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok)
Kowloon is one of the densest city districts in the world. Walk around this vast set of neighborhoods, and you’ll feel like you’re in Blade Runner. This is truly a place that never sleeps.
In the south, by Chungking Mansions, people will shamelessly approach you trying to sell you a suit or a watch. There’s a lot of high-end shopping along Nathan Road, but you’ll also find world-class restaurants at ground level and on the seventh floor of some random building. There are streets upon streets of hardware stores, food vendors, pet stores, clothing retailers, fortune tellers — you name it.
It smells and it’s noisy. Sometimes you’ll just sense how much is really going on around you. It’s overwhelming in a good way.
Start at the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station with the intention of going north. Nathan Road is the central axis, with diverse neighborhoods flanking it on both sides at least up to Mong Kok.
If a neighborhood could be the perfect mix of east and west, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Wan Chai. Between the tourist traps, you’ll find an equal amount of local gems and foreign establishments. Start at the Wan Chai MTR station, exit A3. Johnston Road is the central axis here, but you’ll find great haunts to the north and south. Be sure to visit the open-air market and look for a great restaurant or coffee spot on one of the super-steep hills. And maybe catch a ride on one of the double-decker trolleys.
Sheung Wan / Central
Wait, I thought this was Hong Kong, not New York. Imagine Sheung Wan and Central as one of the hip Brooklyn downtowns with hills. This place is full of expats, but that’s not a bad thing: you’ll find lots of good food with a modern flair from all over the world if you’re getting tired of Dim Sum. Also here: the world’s longest escalator system, plenty of good shopping, crazy-expensive antique stores, and REALLY steep streets to get lost on.
Start at either the Central or Sheung Wan station and walk up the hill. Perhaps your feet will thank you for using the escalator. A good central axis is Hollywood Road, but don’t just stay here. Get lost. It will probably be worth it.
Watch the weather, because if it’s a sunny day, you have to visit the peak for some of the most stunning views of the city. Even if it’s hazy, the trip is still recommended. Get there a few hours before dusk. It’s worth it to see the sunset and observe the city’s transition from day to night.
Take the Peak Tram funicular railway from Central/Admiralty to the top of the hill. Skip the Sky Pass and ticket line. Instead, head right to the turnstile with your Octopus Card (loaded with at least $45). You’ll save $43 and avoid most of the tourists. Try to sit on the right side of the tram, where you’ll have spectacular views on the way up.
When you get to the top, skip the observation deck. Ask the information desk for a map. Head outside and walk down Lugard Road. It’s worth the walk because there are multiple lookout points with incredible views. If you want, you can continue along the 2.8 km Circle Walk for a waterfall and several views of the south side of Hong Kong island.
A great photo spot for the Peak Tram is the Barker Road station. From the peak station, walk down Old Peak Road. In front of the red house, hang right on Barker Road and it will be ahead on your left.
Must Visit: Food & Drink
HK01 Space, Wan Chai
This cafe’s oolong thé au fromage is like nothing I’ve ever tried. It’s a mildly sweet tea with milky, frothy cheese on top. HK01 Space is associated with a local Chinese-language publication, but don’t be intimidated: it’s a comfortable, not-too-crowded spot with wifi for those times you just don’t feel like walking anymore.
127 Queen’s Road East, Ground Floor
MTR: Wan Chai, Exit B2
Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai Pan-Fried Buns, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
Overwhelmed by the crowds and suit salesmen around Chungking Mansions? Grab the signature pan-fried buns from this Michelin-starred stall for a cheap, filling snack. These buns have more meat and a thinner, crispier dough than what you’ll find at dim sum restaurants. You may opt to eat your buns and relax at nearby Kowloon Park. Just be forewarned: don’t let the steaming hot liquid shoot into your eye like I did.
48 Lock Road, Ground Floor, Shop 6A
MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui, Exit A1
Tim Ho Wan, Sham Shui Po
Formerly the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan is a lot like the countless other dim sum spots in the city. Except for their pork buns. They’re sweeter and a bit less doughy than your typical Cantonese bun. Not that the other buns aren’t good. But these are different, and you must try them. The other items here are delicious, too. There are additional locations but I only visited the spot in Sham Shui Po.
9-11 Fuk Wing Street, Ground Floor
MTR: Prince Edward, Exit E
The Police Married Quarters was an apartment complex that housed new police recruits following the Chinese Civil War. After the police abandoned the buildings in 2000, the complex was considered for cultural redevelopment. Today, PMQ houses numerous artists’ studios, boutique shops, galleries, cooking schools, and restaurants.
35 Aberdeen Street
MTR: Sheung Wan, Exit A2
Pricey but solid selection of yakitori (chicken skewers). Don’t worry about a language barrier because most of the expat employees probably don’t know a word of Cantonese.
33 Bridges Street, Ground Floor
MTR: Sheung Wan, Exit A2
If you’re like me, you need your eggs, sausage, and espresso for breakfast. Breaking news: Classified has the full story. There are multiple locations, but I can vouch for the cozier Wan Chai location over Sheung Wan’s busier scene.
31 Wing Fung Street, Ground Floor
MTR: Admiralty, Exit F
The city’s numerous MUJI stores sell cold, mostly unsweetened tea bottles for very few of your HKD.
The Octopus Card is widely accepted at businesses citywide, and represents a good cash alternative when credit cards are not accepted. You have to reload them with cash, but you can do so at any MTR station and at 7-Eleven convenience stores.
Airport Express Train: Zip from the airport to the city (and back) in 24 minutes for $100 HKD. Top tip: Within 24 hours of your departure, you can check in and leave your bags at Kowloon or Hong Kong Station, then breeze right through the massive ticketing hall at the airport. Your airline may or may not offer this service.