“Hēunggóng”, “He-Ong-Kong”, “Xiānggǎng”, “Fragrant Harbour”, “The Pearl of the Orient”
A well deserved time to return to this fascinating city almost 7 years after the first time, and once again as part of a much wider trip across some Asian/Southeast Asian countries. It is still the fact that no matter how many times I come to this part of the world, that I enjoy more the more times I return especially with Southeast Asia as the favourite from everywhere I’ve been in the world.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, or let’s keep it short as everyone else in the world does, simply Hong Kong, while not a sovereign country itself, it enjoys its freedom of economy and people’s right as part of “One Country, Two Systems”. This was the deal agreed between the United Kingdom and China when the colony was handed over to China back in 1997. On a same note and same year, the nearby ex-Portuguese colony of Macau was handed over to China with the same principles in the agreement. Now to anyone’s eyes, it’s hard to say you are in “China”, especially if you’ve been to mainland China itself, not to mention there is not even need to apply for a visa in order to visit Hong Kong or Macau is you are a citizen from Europe and most of the Western World countries.
At almost 7.5 million inhabitants considering such a reduced space, it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. With not much space to even build, the sky is the limit they say. Towers, towers and more towers, with some latest additions becoming super tall skyscrapers with some truly icons designed by the top world class architects. It is out of question the city will impress any visitor for its incredible skyline. Merely built in just few years, aligning both banks of the impressive Victoria Harbour as if it was an avenue. However, not everything is as shiny as it might appear on a first look. Just behind such glorious skyscrapers of beautiful care for design, lies a maze of tiny streets with high-rises of awful taste and dubious designed communal blocks where millions of people live in tiny spaces. Nevertheless, even such constructions have become a sight on their own among the tourists looking to get great pictures, especially of the thousands of windows and air-con units on their neverendingly high patios.
Overall you will see and feel very safe anywhere in the city. A city easy to navigate your way around pretty much across any neighbourhood day and night, with a great transformation as the sunset comes when the streets of Tsin Sha Tsui gets overfilled with people and street markets, neon lights and adverts everywhere, and the incredible night view from the Avenue of the Stars towards the skyline of Victoria Harbor at night, with daily shows of lights and sound projected over the skyscrapers of Central, Wanchai and North Point.
Among the many old Chinese temples and British colonial structures, notably the Victorian architecture, like mushrooms grow towers of any shape and height in a maze of irregular streets each at a different level especially in the Western area, Sai Ying Pun district. Hong Kong is not a flat city, but instead built around the many hills and mountains, and while it could actually be difficult to walk the streets behind the water front it is not due to the many escalators built in place to save the difference in levels. What is best, these escalators are even covered under a roof to protect from the rain. Very handy to be honest, making it even more comfortable to mover around.
Other than the easy to walk and wander through the districts of Sai Ying Pun (Western), Central, Wanchai and Tsim Sha Tsui across the harbour, there are three great ways to enjoy the city from its public transportation. One is taking any of the many double-decker trams (people refer them as ding ding) running parallel to the Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong is the only city in the world to still run 100% on double decker trams, and one of only 3 networks using such trams being Blackpool (UK) and Alexandria (Egypt) the others. The second fantastic option is taking the Star Ferry from Central to Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon). This is the most inexpensive way to admire the grand Victoria Harbour and the imposing skyline at both sides. Lastly, the Victoria Peak Tram which links Central, from right behind the Bank of China Tower to the highest peak on Hong Kong Island offering grand views of the island, the harbour and beyond.
Although the city is not too big at first look, you will need to consider at least three full days to completely enjoy and visit, however if in your plans is the visit of Macau, then you need to calculate an extra day for sure. Coming this far certainly you do not want to rush the sightseeing or end up completely exhausted bearing in mind the weather can be difficult to coop during the long summer months, which is hot, very humid, and occasional heavy rain falls.
With regards to food, you are in the right place! Dim Sum is almost everywhere, and so plenty of noodles and rice dishes. Highly influenced by the Chinese cuisine, you can find a blend with the European, and of course get anything you could ever think of. This is a city with almost any Western and Occidental food chains that exist. To find a good place is not difficult, but to find a space to sit or empty table can be hard especially during the lunchtime and dinner. It is easy to realise which places are the best ones by the queue outside and how busy can get inside even though most places have several floors; be patient though, it’s worth the wait. Another important tip here, do never judge the place for its look. The busy restaurants are not looking the most appealing with regards to decoration, care, mess, and without an escalator and lift to reach the upper floors might be a push back in your principles. Wait a bit if needed be to be sat at a lower floor. Expect to find a great selection dim sum everywhere (small dishes served in steamer baskets), dumplings and wanton mee (soup of noodles with dumplings filled generally with prawn and pork); and of course green tea and their highly ranked Hong Kong style milk tea (black tea with evaporated milk).
For more information about the city’s history check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Hong Kong’s currency is the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Hong Kong:
- Tram trip From Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan. This route runs parallel to the coast line of Victoria Harbour, and takes you on a journey of contrasts between East and West. Taking one of those double decker trams is a must do, although you will be taking them quite frequently for their great convenience and areas the link.
- Hong Kong Island The southernmost island was the original administrative colonial centre, where you can still admire most of the historical buildings and the many new (and not so new) skyscraper icons. Most of the built-up area is along the northern shore, overlooking Victoria Harbour, while the rest remains a protected natural park.
-Sai Ying Pun Also known as Western Hong Kong, is one of the original historic colonial neighbourhoods. Located on the lower slopes of Victoria Peak. Most of the sights are along High Street, Queen’s Road, Centre Street, First, Second and Third streets.
-Des Voeux Road The main boulevard in Hong Kong Island and major transportation hub along. The trams run through it all the way from the very west to the east end.
-University of Hong Kong Main Building At the west of the district, on Bonham Road. A grand Victorian construction. The best way to reach it is by MRT, station HKU, exit A2, which is also a great point to start the walking tour of the district itself.
-King’s College Continuing ahead along Bonham Road. Built in 1926 in neo-classical style is one of the oldest surviving pre-war government schools in Hong Kong.
-Centre Street Connects Connaught Road by Victoria Harbor with the heart of Sai Ying Pun district. Easy to walk due to the many escalators, so you do not need to make the difficult effort to climb up the hill. It links all other major streets from the original British settlement.
-Old Lunatic Asylum Located as you come up via Centre Street then heading west on High Street.
-Old Mental Hospital The next building after the Asylum, only the facade remains with a new building implemented behind.
-Man Mo Temple Located on Hollywood Road was built in 1847, one of the oldest in the city.
-Central Where you will find most of the sights in the city. The hub for politics, administration and finances. The once heart of the colony, it is now the heart of the super powerful Asian Tiger.
-Mid Level Escalator The longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. Connects Des Voeux Road (where the trams pass) with the upper streets along Jubilee and Cochrane Streets.
-International Finance Centre Designed in 2003 by genius architect Cesar Pelli (1926-2019), it is one of the tallest he ever designed at 415 meters high. A sister smaller tower completes the complex with a shopping mall on the basement. On the level 55 you can enjoy one of the free viewing platforms in the city.
-Statue Square One of the many in this area with several architectural landmarks.
-Cenotaph Erected in memory to those killed in World War I, an identical copy to the one found in London.
-Court of Final Appeal Built in 1912 in neo-classical style, is one of the most representative of the former British colony rule, with facades at Statue Square and Charter Garden.
-HSBC Headquarters Designed by architect Norman Foster, is an unique skyscraper in the sense that it was designed and built in prefabricated modules shipped from Glasgow which could be disassembled in case the handover of the colony from the British was not accomplished as stipulated. The lion statues adorning the main entrance on the street are duplicates of the original ones found in Shanghai’s office. Such lions are the symbol of the bank; and similar casts can be found in other cities in the world where HSBC has headquarters.
-Charter Garden Right at the other side of the Court building, surrounded by some some iconic skyscrapers of the 21st century.
-Bank of China The original headquarters, a beautiful art-deco style building.
-Cheung Kong Centre Completed in 1999 was designed by Cesar Pelli (1926-2019) and follows the conventional style of an office block to balance the mix of different shapes of the buildings in the area.
-Bank of China Tower Designed by architect I.M. Pei and completed in 1990, it is one of the most distinguished in the city for such a clever and stylish design, following the Feng Shui. You can go up to the free viewing platform at floor 43.
-Former French Mission Building Right behind the Cheung Kong Centre. Although it mostly dates from 1917 in the purest of the neo-classical style, it is an enlargement and reconstruction of the 1846 building.
-St John’s Cathedral Completed in 1849 in Gothic revival style becoming the oldest Anglican church in the Far East.
-Murray Building Built in 1969 to house governmental offices, with the peculiar design of the windows oriented in a way that avoid the excess of direct sunlight. Completely redeveloped into a hotel in 2018, work done by architect Norman Foster.
-Duddell Street Steps and Gas Lamps Taking Queens Road towards the west, just behind the HSBC Headquarters, it’s on the second little alley. The city’s last four working gas lamps are now a monument.
-The Bishop’s House Just few meters west from the Duddell Street Steps ahead along Ice House Street, one of the most impressive mansions from the colonial times. Designed in 1848 as a school for Chinese students.
-Foreign Correspondents’ Club Occupying the Old Dairy Farm Depot since 1982, such club moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1949, and still one of the most prestigious.
-Tai Kwun Centre On Wyndham Street, not far from the Correspondent’s Club. A massive complex of historic buildings with 21st century additions in what used to be the former prison. One of the key additions here is the extension by architects Herzon & de Meuron. Plenty of art shops and galleries, bars and restaurants around.
-Saint Paul’s Church Heading uphill from the Foreign Club along lower Albert Road and then onto Glenealy.
-Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Continuing uphill along Glenealy Road you will find it almost hidden behind the residential buildings along all sides bearing the front entrance.
-Government House If you continue from the Cathedral downhill Glenealy, then onto Upper Albert Road you will pass by the main gates from where you can see this beautiful building inside, although entrance is forbidden by the security guards.
-The Helena May After the Government House continuing along Upper Albert Road. Built in 1914 and unchanged ever since its conception as a private members club.
-Peak Tram to Victoria Peak The station is in Garden Road next to the Helena May house. Expect long queues, but it is a must do. It costs 37 for a single or 52 HKD for a return ticket and you can easily pay with your Octopus card. I strongly recommend you go up by tram, and by bus on the way down which costs 9.8 HKD and drop you in Central, Exchange Square or Admiralty MRT Station. Check the weather in advance, and hopefully try to select a clear day. Also it’s very important you know what time is the sunset and calculate your way up with enough time to catch the light, wait for the sunset, and the amazing night time views.
-The Peak Sky View Should you wish to get an even better view than the one you have on the upper station of the tram, then this platform is your best bet. The highest point of view anywhere in Hong Kong. If you get a ticket once at the peak station, then it costs 52 HKD, however if you combine it with a return ticket on the peak tram, then it costs 99 HKD for adults, 47 for seniors.
-Lugard Road Viewpoint I totally recommend you to avoid going to the Peak Sky View and pay for something that you get actually much better and for free at only 10 minutes walk. Follow from the Peak Station Lugard Road and enjoy the entire city and beyond without obstruction.
-Hong Kong Park Behind Queensway Road and the Bank of China Tower, one of the oldest dating from the colonial times.
-Flagstaff House Within the Park, opposite the Bank of China Tower. Built in 1846 is the oldest Western style building in Hong Kong. Was the residence of the commanding British military officer, nowadays the Museum of the Tea Ware.
-Wan Chai The next area on Hong Kong Island, east of Central, turns more residential the farther you go, but still contains some sights and landmark constructions especially near the water front.
-Pacific Place Mall In the boundary with Central, in Queensway, was built in 1980 but recently redesigned by renowned designer Thomas Heatherwick.
-Hung Shing Temple Small Chinese temple on Queen’s Road East dating from 1847.
-Hopewell Centre One of the few round shape buildings in the city. Worth to mention here because of the great panoramic views you can get from the glass elevator, and all for free. Simply access the building, get to level 17, and then change for the glass elevator to level 62. At the top there is a revolving restaurant, you can either wander around or simply head back down right away.
-Wan Chai Post Office On the same street of the Hopwell Centre a block ahead. Very small reminiscent of the colonial past.
-The Blue House On Stone Nullah Lane only meters ahead from the post office. One of the greatest example of the traditional architecture fusion of European and Chinese that once was everywhere to accommodate the population.
-Pak Tai Temple At the end of Stone Nullah Lane. Small yet very historic, one of the oldest in Hong Kong from 1783.
-Central Plaza Building Another of the very recognisable skyline landmarks due to its triangular shape and top. It was the tallest building in the city until 2003. From Monday to Friday and only during business hours, you can get to the viewing platform at level 46 completely free of charge.
-Golden Bauhinia Square Here is located the golden bauhinia flower monument, which is the coat of arms of the city, and site of the handover ceremony of the colony in 1997 from the British to the Chinese. From here you will get some of the best views of the harbour overlooking Tsim Sha Tsui.
-East Only worth if you have plenty of time to spend in the city, although nice to do if you are taking the trams to the very end of the line at the east. Very residential, home to plenty of the famous states with micro apartments you see in the movies.
-Montane Mansion Just off Mount Parker Road tram stop, near Quarry Bay MRT station. One of the most famous states in Hong Kong where to get the picture of the narrow alley and patio with thousands of windows and air-con units.
- Kowloon – Tsim Sha Tsui Just across the harbour from Hong Kong Island and already in mainland China. The second most visited area and a must when sightseeing the city.
-International Commerce Centre At 484 meters tall, it is one of the tallest buildings in the planet, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) in association with Wong & Ouyang. A viewing platform at level 100 offers incredible 360 degrees views; The Sky 100. Tickets can be booked in advance, costing 188 HKD for adults, 128 child and senior.
-Star Ferry It runs between Central and Tsin Sha Tsui pier for just 2.5/3 HKD depending if you want lower or upper seats. It is not only the cheapest way to cross the Victoria Harbour, but the most incredible for the views you will get.
-Clock Tower Right as you arrive to Tsin Sha Tsui pier, or East Tsin Sha Tsui MRT station. It is the only remain of the old train station.
-Cultural Centre This multipurpose venue is home to a concert hall, 2 theatres and galleries under a concave roof.
-Time Ball Tower Built in 1881 as a marine chronometer.
-Old Marine Police Station Dating from 1881, nowadays transformed into a luxurious shopping mall.
-The Peninsula Hotel Opened in 1928 as the first Peninsula hotel and flagship of the chain ever since. Once the most luxurious east of Suez, it is still today one of the top among the rich and famous.
-Avenue of Stars From Tsim Sha Tsui pier or MRT station is Hong Kong’s very own Hollywood Walk of Fame about the many Hong Kong and Chinese movie stars. Of course the highlight in here is the statue of Bruce Lee.
-Symphony of Lights Every day at 20.00pm, you can admire the world’s largest permanent light and sound show, projected on the skyscrapers. Quite worth to see and enjoy it as you walk and relax along the Avenue of Stars.
-Signal Hill Tower In the garden of the same name, was built in 1907 in Edwardian style in replacement with the older Time Ball Tower nearby to accommodate a time ball which was used as a marine chronometer until 1933.
-History and Science Museum Showcasing the history of Hong Kong from prehistory to modern days. On Chatham Road that links Bruce Lee statue and the Promenade with the Polytechnic University.
-Jockey Club Innovation Tower At the Polytechnic University Campus, not far north behind the waterfront, was completed in 2013 designed by Zaha Hadid (1950-2016). The nearest MRT station is Hung Hom.
-Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple Although quite far from the other tourists sights by the waterfront, it is easy to reach by metro just across the Wong Tai Sin MRT station (Kwun Tong Line). A very large Taoist complex with gardens, lakes and bridges.
Chek Lap Kok International Airport is one of the largest and most modern in the world, considered by many as a masterpiece not just only in its architecture but the engineering behind it. Built on an artificial island reclaimed to the sea, was designed by Norman Foster. Offering direct flights to every continent, it is by far the best way to reach it even if you include a stop-over in your flight route.
The fastest way to reach Kowloon or Hong Kong Island is via the Airport Express train. It travels via Tsing Yi (70 HKD), Kowloon (105 HKD) and Central (115 HKD), taking merely 20 mins to the final station where you can interconnect to the MRT Island and Tsuen Wan lines free of charge and continue your journey to the final destination.
A cheaper second option to the Express train is to take the Airport Bus A for 40 HKD heading directly into Central. While lastly, the cheapest way and still comfortable and taking merely 15 minutes extra than if taking the Airport Bus is to grab the S1 shuttle bus from outside the arrivals hall heading to Tung Chung MTR station, and change there for the Tsuen Wan MRT line which passes via convenient stations for tourists and major hotels along its way such as Olympic, Kowloon and terminates at Hong Kong Station, side by side with Central. The overall cost for this option will be 20 HKD.
Coming from neighbouring Macau is straightforward and actually quick. It’s around an hour via bus along the recently opened bridge, and pretty much the same time by TurboJet or Cotai Water Jet ferries, which are way more fun than a bus. These depart/arrive at Sheung Wan Pier, very near Central and are as often as every 15 minutes during the day, and half-hourly on the night, 24 hours a day.
Now, considering you are next door to China, the city of Shenzhen just across the border, you can take the metro in Hong Kong to the last stop at Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau, both are the terminus of the East Line. Once there and previous customs clearance and passport/visas formalities, you can take the Shenzhen’s metro and continue your journey to the city centre. It is the only city in the world where you can cross the country’s boundaries by metro, only customs in between.
Across the whole of Hong Kong the best way to move on any public transport and even shop for your groceries is getting an Octopus card. This is a touch-in touch-out value stored card similar to what is in use in plenty other cities in the world. It costs 150 HKD, however it is 50 for a refundable deposit and 100 in credit. You can top up any time at any station, and can be used in the metro, bus, trams and Star Line ferry. Also you will appreciate that you can pay almost everywhere with it in shops, supermarkets, vending machines… For anyone arriving into Hong Kong for the first time, you can get the Octopus card at the Airport’s train station, and whenever you are finishing your trip if you are not planning in returning any time soon, then return the card so you can get the 50 HKD from the deposit and any unused value.
The metro (MRT) is extremely efficient and covers every area you would ever need as a visitor. The tram line does the rest, being a tourist sight on its own costing only a flat fare of 2.6 HKD regardless of distance travelled. And once you are familiar with the very efficient and great bus network, you might prefer using these so you get to see the streets and live as you pass by.
As last to consider, the famous Star Ferry connecting Central with Tsim Sha Tsui in just 11 minutes for merely 3.7 HKD payable with an Octopus card or cash/bank card. An icon and landmark on its own over 120 years old.
Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world in terms of accommodation, together with Singapore, Tokyo, Paris, London, New York City. Space is very limited to build, and overall room space can be very reduced. It is in the other hand incredible the choice you have here, with so many amazing properties that it is hard to even decide. Every hotel chain, name it and you have it here, from the ultra-luxurious to the more modest ones and the wide variety in between; and of course, a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes with plenty of choice for backpackers. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click or Ebookers.
In the most recent trip in 2019 we stayed at the Wharney Guang Dong, right in the heart of Wan Chai at number 73 Lockhart Road, the very same street which becomes increasingly active during the night with plenty of restaurants, bars, shops and thriving nightlife merely 3 blocks ahead from the hotel. As for the location it could not be any better, few minutes away from the metro, the trams and lots of buses everywhere, also near the Star Ferry and the Macau ferry dock. A very large 4* property with incredibly friendly and welcoming staff, very helpful at all the times. Super comfortable and quiet bedrooms with every facility needed, and a great Western and Oriental breakfast. Highly recommended without hesitation.
Back in December 2012 knowing we were going to spend New Year’s in the city, we decided to get a nice place with views over the Victoria Harbour. Our candidate was The Butterfly on Waterfront. Located at 94-95 Connaught Road West, in Hong Kong Island, with tram and buses literally behind the building, was a perfect location in order to reach most of the tourist sights at short walking distances. The staff was brilliant and friendly, and offered us a room at the highest floors available where the views were amazing. The room was very cosy and comfortable, but quite small. Very quiet and overall well kept. It is definitely highly recommended to anyone.
Album from the trip during winter 2012