If I were to name one of my favourite cities, Hong Kong would definitely be somewhere close to the top. She has the energy of New York, the ruggedness of Sydney and a variety of vistas as London. The duality of this city: dense yet spacious, glamorous yet rugged, gives Hong Kong a certain je ne sais quoi.
A City of Dreams
Hong Kong is a city of dreams: British traders dreamt of fortunes beyond their wildest imagination. Chinese refugees dreamt of a better life after the travails of mid-20th century China. Empires dreamt of a gateway to the riches of China. These dreams are relevant now as they were during this city’s foundations, and a walk along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade puts all this to perspective.
There, on that narrow bit of land that isn’t overly rugged on Hong Kong Island, the towers of dreams hug the shore and foothills, with skyscrapers adding as much to the jagged skyline as Victoria Peak.
The best place to experience Hong Kong is the same way other visitors to this city have done it over the centuries: on water. The Star Ferry has been a reliable mode of transportation for decades, linking the Mainland and Kowloon to Hong Kong Island via terminals at Central and Wan Chai. Fares are cheap, at HKD 2 per trip, and you get a fun cruise while you are at it.
Skyscraper City Snapshot
Getting off the Star Ferry at the Central Pier and walking towards the dense skyscraper-filled core, you cannot help but look up. As far as the vistas go, you see fine urban architecture everywhere, a testament to the dreams and vanities of those who built them.
Head over to Statue Square, which lacks a statue which named the square (the Japanese melted the statue down during WWII, it has not been replaced) and you will get a fantastic up-close view of the iconic landmarks that distinguish Hong Kong. From the portico in front of the Supreme Court, the zig-zag Bank of China building shares a spatial space as the honey-combed CKH Tower and the ever iconic despite being shorter HSBC Main Building.
Look behind you and the IFC 2 and ICC tower round up the lot, without imposing too much on scale. As if to disrupt your image of a forest of skyscrapers, the ever lush foliage around Statue Square will remind you that there are quiet, green oases in any hectic urban centre.
Peak Summit Walks
Just behind the HSBC Main Building, there are walkways that meander up against the foothills of Victoria Peak, passing through the lush rugged landscape compounds of St John’s Cathedral, and onwards towards the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. It is this end of Hong Kong that would disrupt your perception of an eternal, constant barrage of man-made canyons and perches.
Along these walkways, look out for the signs to the Peak Tram. There are many ways to get to the Peak, but the Tram is the most iconic, and also the most crowded with tourists. Use an Octopus Card. It helps to by-pass the long tourist queue. Once you are up there, the view is well worth it.
Once you negotiate the shopping mall that is the Peak Galleria, you will find the stunning Peak Lookout Terrace, where you will be rewarded with one of the most picture-postcard perfect view of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Yet if you take a different path, just next to the Peak Galleria, you will encounter a nice nature walk that brings you around Victoria Peak’s summit, passing smart homes, lush greenery and, just at the back, a wilderness you would not expect to find in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
Forest of Towers, Towers of Forests
The beauty of Hong Kong is in both her man-made and natural wonders. If the greenery behind the Peak, just a 20 minute walk from the endless vistas of skyscrapers, was a treat, just imagine that there is a lot more of that further south.
Aberdeen, on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island, is little visited but has, personally, the most charm. Everything from quaint fishing boats and boat homes to the largest floating restaurant next to the fancy Hong Kong Yacht Club call this place home. Depending on the time of week, you might even catch Dragon Boat Rowers practicing in the harbour.
Exploring the southern coast is straight forward with an Octopus Card and the very frequent busses. Hong Kong’s weekend beach escapes are dotted along this area, and the patches of townships in soaring towers amidst lush green lungs really hammer home the bi-polarity of Hong Kong: super dense, yet super green.
Cruise and Booze
I mentioned the Star Ferry, but if you want a longer experience, with booze, might I suggest Aqualuna? While it may give the impression of a super touristy experience, it is still worth it, personally. It ‘functions’ as a hop-on-hop-off harbour transport, but I just treat it as a 1-hour cruise in Victoria Harbour.
Aqualuna is a harbour cruise on a traditional Chinese junk, complete with dragon pennants and red sails. A late afternoon cruise around 3pm, is perfect, as you meander from the Central Pier, towards Wan Chai, then in to the harbour westbound, before turning back towards Kowloon, at the TST pier and back to Central. Bring your fan and sunnies.
If you still feel the need to be a bit posh, then head over to the Ritz-Carlton at the ICC in Kowloon. The Lounge at the 103rd floor is spectacular, especially as dusk approaches, and Hong Kong before you shifts to evening mode as the city lights turn on and the catamarans come in to harbour from Macau.
Local Eats with Local Beats
Dim sum is, well, a must in Hong Kong, and everyone has a spot. If I am pressed for time but need my dim sum fix, then the Tim Ho Wan outlet just underneath the City Air Terminal check-in area at Hong Kong Station is my go-to point. Their original outlet is in Mongkok, but beware of the queue.
For something more local, then walk around Sheun Wan and follow your nose and ears. You can easily spot many good, local dim sum eats here, amidst the wonton shops and dried herb sellers.
One of my current obsession is this little store called Litte Bao. Imagine soft, steamed buns with a pork filling. Simple, yes, but be prepared to wait an hour. You can always leave your name and number, and then go out for a drink. Thank god this is at the periphery of SoHo, where the options for drinks are endless.
Winding Streets = Booze Control
SoHo, at the city’s Mid-Levels, easily accessible from the financial district of central via the Mid-Levels Escalator, lives up to her name. Like Soho in London, this ‘South of Hollywood’ Road area is filled with fancy bars, nice pubs and an energy that sucks you in to an alcohol-lubricated singularity.
The area is not as popular as Lan Kwai Fok, which is a good thing! Quaint English pubs, Jamaican grub and the iconic Iron Fairies are within her environs. The winding steps, narrow streets and steep inclines will ensure you sober up just a bit before the next stop.
But for something more posh, then the M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental’s upper most floors should satisfy. The bar has a great energy, the mixologists make delectable cocktails and the sofas are super comfortable. Come in before 7pm and request a seat by the window: you do not want to miss the show.
The Glittering City
Every evening at 7pm, there is a light show, where the iconic skyline of Hong Kong ‘sings’ in a Symphony of Light. The perch at the M Bar puts you literally in the middle of the show, but for the best view, then head over to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where the split-level observation deck joins in as part of the display. Truly, a glittering city.
Hong Kong has always mesmerized me and keeps calling me back. Sure, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, with sights and sounds that remind you of how unequal the world can be, but it is also a city where you feel the urgency to better yourself. Hong Kong, like all the great cities of the world, reminds you to always get moving while showing you both the gritty and the glamorous.
Out and About: Get an Octopus Card. The 3-day MTR pass with return Airport Express is well worth it, and you can top-up the card for use on the city’s ferries, trams and buses.
The MTR connects major nodes in the city well, both Island and Kowloon Side. The trams are a fun way to explore the city, and the buses are regular and convenient to venture further afield.
The city is very walkable. A day exploring this beautiful city should give you a thorough leg workout.
Stay: I have a preference to stay on Island-side, but good value can be had around the Tsim Sha Tsui area.
Little Bao – 66 Staunton St, Hong Kong. There is usually a queue. Leave your name and number and go for a drink in one of the nearby bars before coming back for a nibble. Worth it.
Aqualuna, Central Pier 9 – Instead of the usual ferry piers towards Kowloon and the outer island, walk along the walkway to the right, past the Maritime Museum. There is an adjoining pier, Pier 9, where the Aqualuna calls.
Tim Ho Wan – 12A, Hong Kong Station, Podium Level 1 IFC Mall. This is right under the Hong Kong Station City Air Terminal check-in facility. Michelin stared affordable eats? Yes please!
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.