Where East meets West
Hong Kong is one of those epic world cities – a vertical city, a huge concrete jungle and the gateway to China. Hong Kong translates as ‘fragrant harbour’ a reference to the old spice trade which made the city rich. We thought the city was a fascinating blend where Chinese tradition mixes with the West. It’s busy, gritty, futuristic looking and packed full with people, like a more exotic version of New York City.
Hong Kong is made up mainland China and of lots of islands – 236 to be exact. We spent our time between 3 areas – Hong Kong Island and just over the water, the peninsula of Kowloon, plus the largest island of Lantau.
Our hotel was located on Hong Kong Island in Causeway Bay one of the main districts for tourist hotels, we stayed for 3 nights. Hong Kong is famously expensive and so was our ‘reasonably’ priced hotel, so if you’ve banked any points here’s the best place to use them!
If you’re staying in the chilled out Mid-Level area, don’t worry you won’t have to walk up the hill, as the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator takes tourists and residents to and from Mid Level to Central. The escalator goes down in the morning and changes direction to up mid morning. Getting around was easy too, we didn’t use any taxis, just lots of walking and also used the excellent and efficient MTR underground trains. Phil loved the MTR as they offered free wifi underground, he looked just like everyone else, glued to their smartphone screens. The MTR trains were also fast, ran on time and clean too!
We started our sightseeing day on Hong Kong island with a trip to must see Victoria Peak, named after Queen Victoria. To get to the highest point in Hong Kong top you take the historic Peak Tram from Central. This funicular railway has been in operation since 1888, and ascends at a steep angle of 27 degrees. Considering we were in Hong Kong low season the tram was absolutely packed just imagine what it would be like in high season! Despite the crowds it was good fun with views got better and better as we made our way to the peak.
Exiting the station you get the jaw dropping view, but if you want the full 360 panoramic view from an even higher vantage point, then you can pay for Sky Terrace 428 as we did. It’s Hong Kong’s must see attraction and it’s all about those sweeping views, with Hong Kong Island in the foreground and the Kowloon peninsula in the background. It’s just an incredible urban view, Manhattan eat your heart out! Hong Kong wins hands down, with the biggest number of skyscrapers in the world, literally hundreds of them as far you can see.
In the foreground is Central – the financial district with many magnificent skyscrapers, including the HSBC Tower designed by Sir Norman Foster. This building follows the rules of Chinese feng shui designed so the front faces water and its back is to the mountains. HSBC even bought the land infront of them to stop anyone else building, so perfect feng shui!
We managed to grab a quick photo in-between the crowds with our fetching lanyards the ticket price gives you an audio guide too. If you don’t fancy paying the price for Sky Terrace 428, then you could try the Peak Circle Walk, a hiking path along the highest point of Hong Kong island which offers similar views and known to be popular with photographers.
Skyscrapers are the beating heart of Hong Kong. Perhaps the most iconic is the Bank of China Tower, which has its own observation deck on the 43rd floor, and the best part is it’s free to visit, but you will need to bring ID to get through security.
If you want even more aerial views you can get the opposite view from the observation deck of Sky100 in Hong Kong’s tallest building The ICC located in Kowloon. You could also try the highest bar in the world – the swanky Ozone bar on the 118th floor of the Ritz Carlton.
Man Mo Temple
In the Mid Level area is a really small but beautiful temple, Man Mo. It’s the oldest in Hong Kong and dedicated the God of Literature and the God of War.
It may look modest from the outside, but inside is a delight!
We been to many temples around the world, but none have smelled as good as this one! The air is full of smoke from the incense and a little over powering when you enter, but smells lovely. Look up and above your head are dozens of large bell shaped coils of incense. It’s full of interesting things and free to enter, we left a small donation for taking these photos inside.
The next must see and do is the Star Ferry, offering great views from the water of Hong Kong Island. It has 3 routes, we took the one that runs between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui for the best views. The Star Ferries have been crossing the harbour for over 100 years.
It costs $2.50 HKD per trip and takes about 10 minutes and run frequently, you can pay a little extra to sit upstairs. You can’t leave Hong Kong without taking at least one Star Ferry crossing a classic Hong Kong experience, simple yet unforgettable.
Avenue Of The Stars
On the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade is Avenue of The Stars. A somewhat weird clone of LA’s Hollywood Walk of Fame complete with hand prints, bronze stars and statues dedicated to Hong Kong’s Film and TV industry. We didn’t recognise any of the bronze stars apart from the biggest martial arts stars – Jackie Chan, Jet Li and the legendary Bruce Lee who grew up in Hong Kong before moving to the USA.
It’s packed here with tourists all desperate to get their selfie sticks out and get the best photo especially at the Bruce Lee statue, which Phil found very amusing! We loved the fun atmosphere. It’s another great place to walk and take in more of that Hong Kong Island skyline.
This place is bonkers! and was definitely the most interesting part of Hong Kong where luxury stores and famous brands fill massive shopping malls, streets are bustling and the pace of life is fast. We skipped the bling for street life along the back streets.
Space is obviously an issue here where the streets off the main Nathan Road are narrow and crammed full of more people and buildings. Pedestrian walkways even go over streets! every inch of space appears to be used for something or other.
If you’re into photography like Garth, there are endless photo opportunities Kowloon.
Garth was addicted to photographing the fading grandeur of these classic neon signs which are slowly being replaced with more efficient LED lights, which aren’t quite as magical.
The streets just look so exotic at night, lit by coloured neons and fluorescent light from street food shacks. The air is filled with the smell of Cantonese food everywhere you walk too. It really does feel like you are in a spy movie, waiting for a big car chase at any moment!
Temple Street Market
Markets are everywhere, the most famous are Ladies and Temple Street. We had a quick look at the Ladies Market which despite the name is the place to go for mens and ladies clothes, lots of leather goods and fake bags. But by far the liveliest was the night market on Temple Street, it’s right next to another sight The Tin Hau Temple. We loved wandering this one. The brightly lit individual stalls were packed full of stalls selling electronics, fakes, T-shirts and even herbalists, as usual haggling is expected at markets. Garth wanted to take an ariel shot of the market from the car park opposite, but it was all dark so we decided not to! After an hour of browsing we only bought a waving cat fridge magnet – very cool.
Easily the most interesting part of Kowloon was Mong Kok. We love sightseeing but also love immersing ourselves in local culture. Mong Kok is gritty, it’s urban and it’s home to various local markets, including a flower market on unspurisngly ‘Flower Market Road’, the Jade Market selling jewellery made with Jade which is said to bring good luck.
We made a point of going to see ‘Goldfish Market’ after Garth had read about, it sounded visually interesting. The market is on Tung Choi Street, but also spreads across a few neighbouring streets, they are packed with back to back aquariums. We must have seen literally thousands of goldfish and tropical fish in small plastic bags lining shop walls and racks on the street pavements – a really bizarre sight and quite a shock to be honest. Goldfish symbolise wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture and are incredibly popular with Hong Kong residents, as most people can’t have pets living in small and high rise apartments, birds are also popular.
In the same streets we witnessed tiny turtles and huge koi carp for sale and then further along puppies and cats in shop windows, it was a sad sight, being animal lovers we’d seen enough and it was time to move on. We were going to look at another nearby market on Yuen Po Street of song birds, where people actually take their birds for a walk! but the thought of seeing more caged animals was enough for Garth so we skipped it.
We had no idea what those things were top right in the picture above, so with a quick ‘whats app’ to our friend Tim, a Doctor of Entomology, and he replied ‘They look like Geoducks to me”. But we were still none the wiser and don’t know if you eat them, look at them or run away from them!
Phil being an engineer was fascinated by the bamboo scaffolding we kept spotting all over Hong Kong, it must be really strong, even if it does look a little dangerous!
Eat Dim Sum
Food is Cantonese in Hong Kong, the same as Chinese takeaways in Britain, in Kowloon we had our first dim sum in China. Hong Kong is renowned for some of the best dim sum restaurants in the world, and even have the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant Tim Ho Wan who specialise in dim sum. We wanted to visit one of their 3 restaurants across Hong Kong, but sadly we didn’t make it. Dim sum is really popular, so much so, people eat it for breakfast.
Did you know there are more restaurants per square foot in Hong Kong than any other city in the world? with a significant number of restaurants selling shark fin soup we even saw snake soup!
We took the MTR train to Tung Chung on Lantau Island (you will have arrived here if you came by plane) Outside the station are signs to the cable car and it was just a short walk to reach the terminal of Ngong Ping 360. As you can see the weather was terrible, and it was getting worse by the minute! Such a shame as the views from the cable car ride were supposed to be stunning, especially over the South China Sea but we were heading up further into the clouds!
The cable car took 30 minutes to reach the top, and the weather was awful, the visibility shocking, at times we could only just see about a metre ahead!
We wanted to see the island’s biggest attraction – The all bronze Tian Tan Buddha better known as ‘The Big Buddha’ one of the world’s largest buddha statues. At 34 metres tall Tian Tan is described as “the world’s largest sitting outdoor Buddha”. But when we arrived we couldn’t see it all, I know 34 metres tall and not even a hint of it!
To get there we had to climb 268 steps in the pouring rain! We should have been rewarded with gorgeous views across the mountains, but alas just more clouds!
We waited and waited when we got to the top to catch a brief glimpse of Buddha in-between a break in the clouds, this picture shows the moment the cloud broke for a few seconds, it was actually quite magical, as the Buddha faded in and out of view through the clouds. Most Buddhas face East but Tian Tan faces towards Beijing.
We then explored the Po Lin Monastery. Did you know when you visit a buddha, the etiquette is to buy 3 incense sticks which represent earth, heaven and people, you should light these and place them in the sand pots to signify your arrival to Buddha.
High Life & Stanley
This rainy weather was like being home in Blighty! but we soldiered on an took the Big Bus to Stanley to have a look around (Phil loves the Big Bus Tours yes they are super cheesy, but you get to see all the sights and get your bearings) Getting there proved to be most interesting part, because leaving Hong Kong we travelled along tall fly over roads that went right past hundreds of enormously tall and thin blocks of flats. Despite pouring with rain, it was a fascinating insight to high life living passing really close to these tower blocks.
It was such an incredible sight, literally hundreds of small homes all back to back, utilising every piece of space. They may look ugly on first sight, but the whole collection has an urban charm about them painted in different colours. It’s clear there is a severe shortage of land which makes Hong Kong the world’s most expensive city to buy a home, but despite the appearance, Hong Kong isn’t the most densely populated city in the world.
Over in Stanley, their market seemed to offer better quality clothes than the ones in Kowloon, and clothes were cheap. There were also plenty of arts & crafts gifts too, so perfect if you are buying presents to take home, but we defiantly preferred the tech stuff, crappy tourist fakes and atmosphere of night markets in Kowloon, yes we’re that classy!
We had a wander around Stanley’s streets, the beach and promenade were lovely. Despite the rain, we found a perfect spot to grab lunch overlooking the rainy bay. At first we thought we’d been scammed by the owner who didn’t speak English, which was unusual as most people do, but we hadn’t and he served up a great meal and lots of free beers, we realised this must have been what he was trying to tell us.
The beaches here must be amazing in the summer, and they’re an easy escape from the city centre. The one in this photo is Repulse Bay named after where the British fought off (repulsed) the pirates in the South China Sea.
Symphony of Lights Show
We were so excited to see this free nightly light show, after being billed “The World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show – a nightly multimedia show involving more than 40 buildings” so we headed to Kowloon and managed to get a seat at The Kowloon Public Pier which seemed to be the most popular spot to watch the show, the place filled up pretty quick as it got closer to showtime nightly at 8pm
Showtime! You know when you build something up in your mind? well the show was really dated, it must have looked amazing 10 years ago, but not that special today as technology’s moved on a fair bit with light shows that now use techniques like projection mapping.
The Symphony of Lights mainly consisted of lights on the edges of buildings flashing on and off to the sound of the music being pumped out, quite repetitive and overly long. However the green lasers on a few buildings looked great, they should have used them more. The show was only 15 minutes, but it felt longer! An English commentary alternating with Mandarin was played out to the watching crowds. It taught us a lesson not to build up our expectations of places! Putting the show aside, there’s no questioning the skyline of Hong Kong Island looks spectacular at night.
As we were leaving at the airport, the Hong Kong tourist board were doing a survey of visitors leaving. She asked us one specific question about this nightly show, when we said, ‘the show felt a little dated’ she gave us a big grin, I think she’d heard that once or twice before!
Lan Kwai Fong back on Hong Kong Island is a good place to go if you’re looking for lively nightlife. Bars, clubs and restaurants line these noisy and busy few streets, packed with people, where isn’t in Hong Kong?
Victoria Peak at Night
Garth really wanted to go back to Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Peak to see the city at night, it was really worth the effort going back, those skyscrapers are just incredible all lit up, way better than the daytime. Easily the most spectacular skyline in the world. We thought the view during the day was impressive but at night it turns into a full on Bladerunner landscape! If you love sic-fi movies like Garth does, then you’ll be blown away.
It was ridiculously cold at night, and we’d not brought warm enough clothes as we decided to travel really light! so we didn’t stay long outside, instead treated ourselves at the restaurant underneath called Wildfire. We had tasty pizza in the warmth with that amazing view as the backdrop.
Also on Hong Kong Island check out the iconic double decker trams that have been running for the last 110 years, on first glance they reminded us of the Knight Bus in Harry Potter! You simply board at the rear and exit at the front, this is when you pay HK$2.30, whatever the journey length.
If you’re British then everything seems strangely familiar. The road signs and traffic lights look exactly like UK ones, and traffic in Hong Kong still drives on the left – remnants of the former British colony are everywhere. Hong Kong’s British rule began in 1841 and ended in 1997 with an historic handover to China.
Hong Kong is the perfect stopover destination for long haul flights, as the airport is one of the world’s busiest hubs in Asia for connecting flights, we did this trip on our way back from Australia. We’ll certainly will make use of a connection again in the future as we left Hong Kong wanting to see even more.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Hong Kong Tips
- Tip #1: Buy an Octopus card from 7-Eleven stores for getting around – tap in and out of the MTR, trams or the ferries.
- Tip #2: Even though Hong Kong is now a part of China, it retained its own currency – the Hong Kong Dollar.
- Tip #3: Feeling Posh? Have silver service afternoon tea at the oldest hotel in Hong Kong – The Peninsula.
- Tip #4: Tipping is not generally expected – except in western style hotels and restaurants.
- Tip #5: Are you superstitious like the Chinese? Then visit a fortune teller outside a temple and get your fortune told!