When I’ve been asked where I’m from, a lot of people I’ve met have expressed their interest in visiting Hong Kong someday. Given the distance of travel from the UK to South East Asia (approximately 12-14 hours or more depending on where you are), this has been a major deterrent for those who aren’t keen on flying. Having lived there for the first 23 years of my life and visits every couple years, there are a lot that I feel my home country has to offer and I’d like to share with you, from a local’s perspective, the best parts to see. To start, I’ll be sharing where to go.
After the first Opium War which took place between 1839 and 1842, Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841 and continued to be for the next 156 years. It’s no surprise that, even after it was handed back to China on the first of July 1997, the country still retains a lot of its European architecture which are dotted around the main districts.
Being a strong financial and technological contender in Asia, cosmopolitan Hong Kong has also seen a lot of developments to attract businesses and tourists alike. To truly understand how the country has been shaped over the years, we need to look at its historical, cultural and political influences that have shaped the way it is today.
Tsing Ma Bridge
Unless you are staying on Lantau Island or around the airport and plan to use the MTR (the network of railways above and below ground which includes the Airport Express train), chances are you will come across this bridge at some point during your stay. The bridge connects the Tsing Yi and Ma Wan districts and is, as you can imagine, the most convenient (and only) way to get to the airport by bus, taxi or car. For the longest time, the Hong Kong Airport was situated in Hung Hom which also a busy residential area. As you can imagine, this caused a lot of noise pollution and traffic for residents in the area and after a lot of complaints, the British government decided to relocate the airport to the outlying Lantau Island. Back in the day, construction of the new Hong Kong International Airport was due to be complete before the handover in 1997, but as construction goes this was not going to happen. Negotiations had to be held between the British and Chinese governments to come to an agreement so the new purpose built airport could be finished. The old Kai Tak Airport building can still be found in Hung Hom and is now used for go karting activities.
Somewhat resembling the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Tsing Ma Bridge is the world’s 9th longest suspension bridge and was built to allow better access to the new airport by means of newly built interconnecting highways. It might not be so much a sight to visit, but it is definitely a noteworthy piece of architecture to behold.
Central: The financial district
View of some of the multistorey buildings in Central
Over the years, the population increased so much that the country had to be extended into the sea to accommodate the 7.8 million people now residing there. When you fly over other countries, you notice a lot of variation in the height of the mountains to the flattened land where houses and buildings have been constructed. In Hong Kong, this is due to the varying height of each building. Due to the lack of landspace, most of the land is flat and instead was extended skywards with taller buildings (as you can see in Central district).
One of the things that you can’t help but notice is all the designer brands dotted around the busiest districts. In Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, it’s not surprising to find Dior, Louis Vuitton Tiffany & Co, Valentino, Loewe, Chanel and Versace all in the same building or in close proximity to each other. Giorgio Armani pretty much has its own building with Alexander House! The bigger brands that attract the attention of mainland Chinese visitors and Hong Kong residents tend to have bigger shop spaces while others attract a small (but no less wealthy) clientele. (The only thing to beware of is sales tax does not apply in Hong Kong, but import tax does. Prices will be much higher for designer goods here compared to Europe and you can’t get a tax refund on import tax).
Central contains a lot of the biggest financial companies as well as other businesses (because of the higher rent and affluence of the area, this is the place to set up if you want recognition for your company’s success) but it also attracts a lot of visitors. Not only will you find designer brand stores here, this is also where you will find thriving Lan Kwai Fong at night full of lively clubs and bars (Chinese people normally don’t drink much at all, so be aware that drinks and cover charges will cost more).
If you’re into the art scene, you can also visit Hollywood Road where you will find art galleries and shops selling antiques and vintage goods. If you take the wide steps up the hill, you can also browse old fashioned stalls selling haberdasherie, costumes and other wares. At the south end of this street, SoHo is the prime food and drink scene.
The Peak is the highest point in Hong Kong where you will get the best view overlooking the city. It is also one of the most expensive areas to live for the best view in the whole country alongside the Mid-Levels. The Peak can be accessed by using the peak tram near St John’s Cathedral in Admiralty. Before you can start your journey to the highest mountain, you’ll need to first get a ticket (see here for up to date prices). You can get a ticket to ride on the tram only, or you can also pay to access to the Sky Tower (to go to the top of the building) for a great view of the city and read about the history of the Peak.
At first you’re left to wonder at first why the seats are at such an angle, but all becomes clear as the funicular railway makes its steep ascent up the hill. At its best point (also probably for safety reasons), the tram will go at a slightly lower speed and you’ll see a great view of the city. If you don’t manage to get that perfect shot, you can get a static view from the top of the Sky Tower.
There are a variety of shops selling innovative and niche technology as well as traditional Chinese souvenirs. You can also visit the Peak Galleria for other shops as well as Madame Tussauds to see Bruce Lee, other Asian A-listers, the Monkey King and the Buffalo Demon King.
Hong Kong is translated into ‘fragrant’ (heung) and ‘harbour’ (gong). It was once a country that imported a lot of its goods like herbs and spices from nearby countries because of its ideal location on the South China Sea. We’ve been afforded the luxury of being able to enjoy some of the best of everything around the world, from Häagen-Dazs ice cream, imported fruit, vegetables, sweets, soft drinks and meat at City Super to designer brands. The most historical point of import has been the port at Victoria Harbour. The piers are now used for ferrying passengers to and from various areas of Hong Kong as well as to outlying Hong Kong islands and Macau, a former Portuguese colony about an hour’s journey from Hong Kong.
The harbour brings one of the best night views in Hong Kong and is regularly used for special firework events for Chinese festivals, including Chinese New Year, as well as for New Year’s Day. Walking along the length of the harbour in Tsim Sha Tsui, you will soon find the Walk of Fame, similar to the one in Los Angeles.
You’ll also find a lot of street businesses trying to lure you to have your picture perfect photo op captured or your caricature drawnm but feel free to walk away without speaking to them. Some can be quite expensive and you might prefer to take your own photo. Some will try to persuade you even harder if they feel they’ve got your attention.
There are plenty of shopping malls nearby and if you walk slightly further away from the historic clock tower, you will also find Hong Kong’s one and only five-star luxury hotel, The Peninsula (guests are picked up and dropped off in Rolls Royces) and the newly built 1881 Heritage shopping area.
The Clock Tower: one of the landmarks at Victoria Harbour, Tsim Sha Tsui
Mong Kok Lady’s Market
Because of its proximity to China (if you take the East Rail towards Sheung Shui, you can travel to Shenzen which is the nearest mainland town), we get a lot of bargain deals from the mainland which makes Hong Kong a great place for getting your designer goods as well as bargain goods for dirt cheap prices. Similar to the Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets in Chiang Mai (see my previous post on this here), Ladie’s Market on Fa Yuen Street is the place to go for fashionable items from clothing (including traditional Chinese clothes) to phone cases and screen protectors, novelty items and sometimes stalls selling replica designer bags. Be sure to sharpen your bargaining skills though, the stall holders are used to bargaining and sometimes try to cut a mean deal, but if you know your way around haggling, you can potentially bring down the price of that new cheong sam (traditional Chinese women’s dress)!
The street spans about 3 or 4 blocks and are packed with stalls. The centre of the street is left for pedestrians, but it can be quite jam packed when groups stop to browse a stall’s wares and there are no clear paths for flowing directions of human traffic. For this reason though, you need to be especially careful with personal belongings. I would recommend carrying personal belongings in a money pouch around your waist and under your shirt or top, and if you’re planning to bring a bag to carry a small shoulder bag (the size of a small handbag and no bigger than an old fashioned fanny pack)which makes it difficult for others to access while walking past.
Ngong Ping 360 and the Tian Tan Buddha
Cable cars at Ngong Ping 360
Tian Tan Buddha
When I was young, travelling to see the Big Buddha (also known as the Tian Tan Buddha) was a trip in itself. Today, this has been developed with the Ngong Ping 360 project (which opened in 2006) with cable cars taking you from the Ngong Ping MTR station to the village of Ngong Ping where you will find traditional Chinese sweet delicacies, musical instruments and other souvenirs. When you reach the end of the village, you’ll see the Big Buddha in the distance.
As you can imagine, being such a large structure, it will be seated quite high on the mountain for it to be seen from a great distance. You’ll need to walk the 268 steps to get to the Buddha, but I promise it’s well worth it! Inside, you’ll find small shop stalls selling religious artefacts (pleaes note that these are not for decoration and should only be used for religious purposes) and you’ll also find a bit of Chinese culture. You’ll see marble slabs and wooden plates with stands surrounding either side of the interior section. These are markers for ancestors and relatives that have passed. Similar to how ashes are stored in a Columbarium, Chinese people often rent out a compartmentalised housing for their loved ones’ remains at Buddhist monasteries (for some who have access to land owned by their namesake village, some also have larger gravesites dotted on the mountainside). Here, families visit their loved ones at particular Chinese festivals to pay their respects and offer incense, flowers and paper money to take care of them in the afterlife.
If you’re interested in Buddhism and learning how this is incorporated into Chinese culture, the Po Lin Monastery is one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums and has been dubbed ‘the Buddhist World in the South’. There is also a vegetarian restaurant which is a popular place to visit.
Tin Hau Temples
Speaking of religion, Chinese people aren’t raised strictly Buddhist. We believe in a form of Taoism which also incorporates Buddhist teachings. So while we believe in the Buddha, we also believe there are various deities who are responsible for different aspects of our world and we should respect them all. There are various Tin Hau Temples built across different districts in Hong Kong, but the most prominent ones are in the Tin Hau area of Causeway Bay and Yau Ma Tei (both accessible by bus or MTR). Tin Hau is the Goddess of the Sea and being a country on the coast of China, it is important for us to respect all deities of the 5 elements. At the temple in Causeway Bay, you can also find alters for Bao Kung (Judge Bao) and the God of Wealth. For more information on the Tin Hau Temple in Causeway Bay, click here.
Sam Tung Uk and Hoi Pa Village, Tsuen Wan
In such a developed country as Hong Kong, a lot of the historical buildings are hidden away. Before the introduction of high rise buildings, Hoi Pa Village and Tak Wah Park gives you an insight into how Hong Kong people used to live. There are still villages with buildings made from brick with old fashioned carved wooden furniture dotted around the New Territories, but unless you know someone who can take you to their namesake village, you would hardly know where to start to look for one on your own. Hoi Pa Village is one of the most highly recommended areas to give you a glimpse of life before technology and modernity.
To get a truly reminiscent view of Hong Kong from the past, also visit the Sam Tung Uk Museum which is a short walk from the Tsuen Wan MTR station. Here you can see artefacts from the past such as cooking over a massive wok over a log burning fire, agricultural tools and a wedding sedan chair. The Chinese way of life is so different from, say, how Scottish people lived, but you might be able to draw similarities.
Disneyland Hong Kong
This isn’t so much something unique to Hong Kong, but if you’ve got kids (or want to experience all of Hong Kong with childlike abandon), it’s the only Disneyland that I know of that offers all rides, instructions and shows in Cantonese, Mandarin and English! If you prefer amusement parks but want something you can only find in Hong Kong, Ocean Park a marine mammal park, oceanarium, animal theme park and amusement park, that offers rides as well as a few animal exhibits (although please avoid the dolphin show for animal welfare concern reasons). You also get to ride on the cable cars for a fantastic view of Hong Kong.
If you feel I’ve missed any attractions that are a must see for visitors, let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to update my list!
Next up, I’ll be talking about my favourite foods in Hong Kong.