Hong Kong is one of my favourite places in the world. There is so much to see and do. I have been four times and still don’t feel I have seen everything. It is an over used cliché but Hong Kong truly is a fusion of East and West, where British colonial history, ancient Chinese culture and financial modernity collide. Its setting around Victoria Harbour is spectacular and for me tops any harbour front area in the world.
With 7.2 million people across an area of 1100km2 it is the 4th most densely populated territory in the world. This high density of people naturally means space is at a premium, forcing buildings to be built sky-high on the steep hills of Hong Kong Island and across the flatter district of Kowloon. Property prices are insane. It is consistently ranked as the least affordable city to buy a home globally, with average flat prices at 19 times gross annual median income. You pay about 145000HKD (About $18582 or £14087) PER SQUARE METRE in Hong Kong Island. Many people are forced to live in the relatively cheaper New Territory areas such as Lamma Island, Cheung Chau and Peng Chau.
Hong Kong used to be a British colony after the cession of Hong Kong Island from the Qing Empire following the 1st Opium War. The colony expanded to Kowloon in 1960 and the New Territories were added after a 99 year lease of from 1898. The region was briefly occupied by the Japanese during World War II before the British regained control in 1945. In 1997 following the Sino-British Joint Declaration Hong Kong became a special administrative region of the China whilst retaining a high degree of autonomy. This ‘one country, two systems’ means Hong Kong maintains a separate economic and political system from China whilst benefiting from China’s military protection and foreign affairs.
Hong Kong is gloriously hectic but somehow it all just works, this is in thanks mainly to the fantastic public transport system. The Mass Transit System (MTR), trains, buses, overland double-decker trams and ferries all help people get around the frenzied city. To give you an idea of the demand for these services the East Tsim Tsa Tsui MTR station has over 15 entrances and exits! Riding the old double-decker trams feels like going back in time to Victorian Britain and the funicular train to Victoria Peak reminded me of the Festinnog railway, with much better views! The Star Ferry is a must do journey taking you between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island for the equivalent of about 50 pence one way.
Here are my highlights for any trip to Hong Kong, if you have visited and feel I have missed anything out please feel free to add a comment.
The classic way to reach the famous Victoria Peak is by the funicular tram running from Garden Road in Admiralty. If you don’t want to queue for the tram taxis and buses will also take you to the top. The Peak has been developed extensively since my first visit in 2004 and now has an abundance of places to eat and shop. If you go up later in the day you can wrestle for a viewing spot to see the Symphony Of Lights show. This was OK but I would not rush back to see it again. Definitely visit Victoria Peak but do not expect it to be a quiet experience, you will be batting those pesky selfie sticks out the way before you know it.
Food walking tour around Sheun Wan:
Located in the North West of Hong Kong Island, here on the winding streets you can check out the local shops selling dried sea food, herbal medicines and bird’s nest soup. The latter sells for a ridiculous $2000 a kilo and I was amazed to see boxes of this delicacy sat outside the shops street side. They must be very trusting in Hong Kong! This area feels like you have stepped back in time to old China.
The escalator connects Central and Western Districts, with the SoHo and residential districts of the Mid-levels, from Queen’s Road to Conduit Road. In the morning rush hour it runs downhill, then from 10:30 a.m. until midnight it switches direction and runs uphill. More than a transportation option, it has transformed into a very unique micro-culture with bars, restaurants, shops and market stalls along the elevated path, businesses that had previously existed only at street level
This is a whole separate topic on its own. From street food noodles to Michelin Star restaurants Hong Kong has an amazing range of culinary experiences. We tried Dim Sum and fortunately had a Cantonese speaking friend with us who helped us order a great range of dishes, including the not too nice chicken feet. For those that don’t know Dim Sum is prepared as small bite-sized portions of food served in small steamer baskets or on small plates. Dim sum dishes are usually served with tea, and together form a full tea brunch. Other delights include the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world, Tim Ho Wan, where you can try the famed barbecued pork buns. Also try visit a traditional tea house or seek out a gourmet hawker stalls often in government-run food markets where you can wolf down the crispiest cochinillo asado (roast sucking-pig), and inhale fluffy soufflé, all for the price of an entrée.
On my first visit to Hong Kong, I spent 2 days on Lantau Island. From here we were able to visit the The Tang Tian ‘Big Buddha’. My preconception was that this was some ancient Chinese relic but it was actually completed in 1993, still it is impressive in its scale.
If you get a chance and perhaps on a longer visit to Hong Kong it is worth moving over to the other side of the island to visit Stanley Market. Although quite touristy it is great for some souvenir shopping. For me it was nice to get to away from the busier parts of the region and visit a relatively quiet side to it. There is a beach too that looked quite well maintained although it was bucketing it down with rain when I was there.
Temple Street Night Market:
Kowloon for me feels more like China than Hong Kong Island. The neon lights, the tiny back streets and the night markets all exude a feel from a less modern time. Temple Street night market is great place to see a cross-section of Hong Kong on one street. Here you can pick up some great fake clobber. Just be careful as Chinese medium size clothing is often quite small on a Westerner, so unless you like ultra tight tops go for a size larger.
This race course encircled by 30 storey high apartment blocks must surely rate as the most amazing setting for watching horse racing in the world. Typically races are held at night so it becomes even more spectacular under the lights. As mentioned in my Macau blog the Chinese love to gamble. The Hong Kong Jockey Club holds a government-granted monopoly on horse racing so gambling is legal here.
Avenue Of Stars:
Hollywood’s walk of fame with an oriental twist. Located in Victoria Harbour in Tsim Tsa Tsui have your photo taken with the statues of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan!
As you can see there is a lot to see and do in Hong Kong. It is the perfect place to visit for a 4 or 5 day stopover on the way to mainland Australia New Zealand, China and other Asian destinations. For my next visit I plan to visit some the less busy outlying islands to see a bit more away from the bustling centre. Happy travels!
Fast Facts About Hong Kong:
1) The name ‘Hong Kong’ is Cantonese for ‘fragrance harbour’
2) It contains the most skyscrapers in the world, nicknamed the ‘vertical city’, twice as many as New York City
3) 90% of journeys are taken by public transport
4) Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world. It has more Rolls Royce’s per person than any other place in the world.
5) The main languages (official) spoken in Hong Kong are Chinese Cantonese and English
Top Tips For A Visit To Hong Kong:
1) Take the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour for a cheap and fun way to see the Hong Kong skyline from the water
2) Stay in Kowloon to get a more authentic Chinese experience
3) Use the escalators to get up to Mid-Levels, stopping off at each street for a history lesson and sight-seeing
4) Grab a beer from a local shop, sit by the harbour on Kowloon and watch the twinkling lights of Hong Kong Island
5) Get an Octopus Card for integrated travel on the many modes of transport
Photo credit must also go to Phil Howarth