As an Australian who lives far from home, I am often looking for a stopover location to break-up the gruelling travel schedule. Hong Kong is definitely one of my favourites, and not just because there is a lot of English speakers there, and my Chinese is terrible despite studying Mandarin for several years at school (as in normal in Australia).
Hong Kong is a big and bustling city which is full of things to do and has everything that a traveller could need. You will never feel like you lack for anything in Hong Kong. However, while the big international city status of Hong Kong provides a sense of comfort, for lovers of nature and history like me, you do not have to go far to find some beautiful hikes, interesting wildlife, and historic and cultural wonders.
Below I’ll go through what I think are the best things to do, and eat, based on my trips to Hong Kong, as well as recommend where to stay and cover some of the basics such as getting around.
About Hong Kong
As anyone with an eye on the news will probably know, Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it became part of China as a Special Administrative Region. In theory this means that Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy, including its own currency and immigration city, and that there is minimal interference from China’s central government. However, in recent years, the central government has been working to take more control of Hong Kong, which has resulted in sustained protests. While locals are fighting to maintain their independence, there is little question that central China is slowly, and successfully chipping away.
The whole of Hong Kong is a little over 2,750-square-kilometres and is home to 7.4 million people. The official languages are Chinese (Cantonese) and English (yay for me), though Chinese is certainly more prevalent. The currency is the Hing Kong dollar (HK$), and it is about 8 HK$ to the US dollar.
Hong Kong covers the Kowloon Peninsula south of the Chinese city of Shenzhen. The area in the north near the Chinese border is relatively sparsely populated, while the southern part of the peninsula, known as Kowloon, is half of the bustling city. South of the peninsula is Hong Kong Island, which forms the central hub of the city alongside Kowloon. East of Hong Kong Island is Hing Kong’s second largest island, Lantau Island, which is home to Hong Kong Disneyland, and also where you will find the international airport. The third largest island is Lamma Island, not far from Hong Kong Island, and I’m mentioning it here since it should be on your list of places to visit!
While Hong Kong is a port city, I have only ever arrived by air – though I have got a boat from the port to nearby Macau and back, but more on that below. To get to and from the airport I usually jump on the Airport Express Train, which will take you directly to Kowloon or the Hong Kong Island Metro Station in about half an hour, and costs a little more than HK$100. Getting a taxi or Uber from the airport is expensive, so I will grab one from the train station in the city if wherever I am staying is not within walking distance.
For getting around Hong Kong in general, you need an Octopus Card, which is valid on all public transport, and can also be used for taxis, and to make small purchases in supermarkets and convenience stores. You can get a card at any of the major metro stations, and top up there, or at local convenience stores.
The metro system will be pretty easy to understand, and covers all of the Kowloon Peninsula up to the border, the northern half of Hong Kong Island, and will get you to the airport and Disneyland on Lantau Island. If you need to use the bus, I suggest Google Mapping it, as it is a bit complicated, but Google seems to have you covered and I never had any problems. Fortunately for me, I have always been able to use my Vodafone SIM card for data in Hong Kong, but I understand that local SIM cards are pretty easy to get with your passport, and that they all come with set up instructions in English.
What To See
I usually prefer to stay in Kowloon when I am in Hong Kong as it is cheaper, and it is usually a stop over for me, and I don’t want to break the bank. I often like to stay at the Hop Inn on Mody or the Owl Hostel down on the waterfront, but The Mahjong a bit further to the east is also excellent. If you are looking for something a bit swankier on the Kowloon waterfront, then the Kerry Hotel is amazing and has some of the best views that you will get.
As a harbour city, Hong Kong is known for its shopping. Here in Kowloon, Nathan Road, otherwise known as the Golden Mile, forms a spine through the centre of the north city from the waterfront to Sham Shui Po and is lined with malls, restaurants, and is always crowded with people. The fancy boutiques with designer labels can be found at the southern end of the mile on Canton Road. No matter how hot the day, if remember to take a jumper with you when exploring the malls here, as the air conditioning is freezing!
While this is certainly an experience that must be had, I prefer to do my shopping in the markets. The most famous market in Hong Kong the Temple Street Night Market, not far from Nathan Road in the Jordan area. Here, you will find traders selling clothes, jewellery, art and trinkets, as well as a variety of delicious street food to satisfy your belly. The market actually opens at about 2pm, and if you are planning some serious shopping it can be good to go in the late afternoon when it is less busy. But the market is its most interesting and atmospheric when everyone has finished work for the day, so from about 8pm onwards.
Hong Kong is more about high-end shopping and has less in terms of the cheap knockoffs that you find in other parts of China. But if that is what you are looking for, then head to the Ladies Market, a bit further north in Mong Kok. I have to admit to buying far more pairs of sneakers here than I will ever sensibly be able to wear.
But Kowloon is not all about shopping, it is also home to some of the city’s most interesting sites. First on my list would have to be the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery, which is quite far out from the city centre, but is just one train and about 40 minutes, so pretty easily accessible. The complex consists of five temples, four pavilions and one pagoda, but most importantly, a 430 step ascending concrete pathway that is linked by hundreds of life-sized golden painted Buddha statues, which lead you up to a great hall, where you will find the eponymous 10,000 Buddhas. Each Buddha statue is unique and worth taking the time to examine, plus the complex is nestled in an area of notable natural beauty. All in all, a worthwhile day or half-day out.
Closer to the city centre, but still quite far north of the harbour, is Wong Tai Sin Temple, which represents Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism in one complex. The complex itself is stunning, and I learned while there that the structures of the complex represent the five geomantic elements of Feng Shui: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. While this is call, the real reason that this site is so popular is that it is a centre for the Chinese Fortune telling practice called Kau Cim. At the temple you are said to be able to gain accurate fortunes when it comes to love, career and health. I may have had my fortune told, and now just waiting to see…
There is no shortage of good places to eat in Kowloon, and I usually follow the age-old traveller advice of just looking for busy places full of locals and going there. I would definitely recommend heading to Lau Sum Kee near the harbour for delicious traditional noodles in wonton soup, or One Dim Sum, where you can gorge yourself on some amazing dim sum for less than US$20. On the morning after a big night out, I have to admit to going all Australian and heading to the Australian Dairy Company in the Jordan area for a classic Ozzie brunch.
A big night out in Kowloon will probably start with a drink at Ozone, the world’s highest bar located on the 11th floor of the ICC building as part of the Hong Kong Carlton-Ritz. While it is the best place to look out over the city while sipping a cocktail, I will only ever have one, or maybe two, here as it is expensive, very very expensive. When I a ready for some more affordable drinks I like to head to the Kowloon Taproom for a few beers, or Scarlett on Austin Avenue for a more laidback vibe. I’m not really one for clubbing myself, so as the night wears on, instead I like to make my way to Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, which has a lively live band and is always full.
Hong Kong Island
Accommodation is generally more expensive on Hong Kong Island than Kowloon, but it can be worth it as you feel a bit more at the heart of things here, and the area is also more walkable, so it is easy to get to everywhere on your list. If you are looking for hostels, the Check Inn HK near Victoria Harbour is good. Thee are no shortage of four and five-star hotels lining the waterfront, such as the Hyatt Centric Victoria Harbour and the Harbour Grand Hong Kong. If you are looking for something a bit more affordable, there is also an Ibis and a Holiday Inn on the waterfront, which are good if basic compared to some of their neighbours.
Probably the first thing to do when arriving on Hong Kong Island is to look back at Kowloon. The Symphony of Lights takes place at 8pm every night, and 40 buildings on the Kowloon side of the river are lit up in the dazzling light show. Victoria Harbour is the best place to view the spectacle.
After that, the first thing on every tourist’s list is probably Victoria Peak. Standing at 552 metres, it towers over the city and offers spectacular panoramic views. The best thing to do is get the old-fashioned tram up to the peak, which is of course topped by a shopping centre as well as a viewing platform, and then take one of the many beautiful green walks back down. While at the top, make sure to seek out the Lion’s View Point Pavilion, a cool Chinese pagoda full of lion statues which makes a great point for photos.
Another great natural day out on Hong Kong Island is Dragon Back Ridge, which is about an hour out from Victoria Harbour on the train on the south east side of the island. Despite the fact that the trail is pretty busy, it still feels like an idyll, and the views out over the South China Sea are breath-taking. The seven-kilometre hike takes about two to three hours and is pretty easy, so you can do it in your trainers, and no need to bring boots just for this (though you could buy some at the Ladies Market…).
On the south west side of the island you will find a completely different experience in the form of Ocean Park, the theme park the dominated the area pre-Disney, and is still pretty special, mostly due to its pair or Pandas, Ying Ying and Le Le. Admission isn’t cheap, costing about HK$500 per adult, and I have to admit that once was enough and I have never been back.
Back in the city centre, there is again no shortage of shopping on Hong Kong Island, which is again lined with modern shopping malls. The City Plaza is worth visiting as it mixes shopping with a wide variety of entertainment options, including an ice-skating rink. The Island Beverly Centre offers something a bit different as well, with signature cub shops no bigger than 100 square feet. It is great for tech and quirky toys.
For something a bit different, head to the Cat Street Antique Market, which has been functioning for over one hundred years. Even if you don’t buy anything, the Chinese and Colonial antiques are worth exploring. It is also right near Man Mo Temple, dedicated to the Gods of Literature and War (an interesting combination). Prepare your nostrils for an onslaught, incense is heavily used here, but it is quite the sanctuary in the centre of the city.
When it comes to food, there is no shortage of excellent restaurants in the area. My favourite, which I always visit while there, is Tim Ho Wan in Sham Shui Po, a Michelin-star, but still affordable dim sum spot. It is just wrong how many BBQ pork buns I can eat in a single sitting. Well worth the inevitable wait. I’m also a fan of Wooloomooloo, an Australian steakhouse chain that has taken off in Hong Kong (considering the amount of Chinese food I eat in Australia, I figure its allowed). The steak is good, the wine is good, and their Wan Chai steakhouse has amazing river views.
When it comes to a night out, I often like to start the evening at The Wanch, which has been a live music venue since 1987. Since my clock is often off while travelling, I often find it convenient to arrive in the early evening, around 5pm, for their happy hour prices. One of the few perks of jetlag. In general, walking the streets of Lan Kwai Fong will turn up interesting bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
I only went to Lamma Island because I have a friend that lives there, but I certainly was happy that I did. It is a traditional Chinese fishing village that has been “hippy-fied” by foreigners making it their home. It is a great place for hiking (in fact, foot and bike are the only way to get around as there are no cars), and sampling fresh and simple seafood.
You can get a ferry from Victoria Harbour which takes about 20 minutes, and will leave you at one of the two major villages: Yung Shue Wan or Sok Kwu Wan. There is a four-kilometre walking trail between the two, so it is easy to explore both in a single day while experiencing the island. Bring a swimsuit, as there are lots of options for ocean swimming along the way. I recommend starting your day at Ying Shue Wan, exploring the local markets, which have a distinctive European style. Then plan to land in Sok Kwu Wan for a late lunch or early dinner as there is a row of restaurants there overhanging the water serving up crags, prawns, fish and squid. This is also a great place to see the sunset before heading back to civilisations.
Launtau Island, the large island in the west, is most well-known for being the home of Hong Kong Disneyland, which I must admit I have never visited, but I’m sure its fabulous if you are into that type of thing.
But there are other reasons to visit Lantau, one of the main ones being the Tian Tian Buddha, otherwise known as the Big Buddha, a 32-metre tall Buddha statue that sits above the Po Lin Monastery. The best way to get to Ngong Ping village, where the Buddha is located, is to get the 360 cable car from Tung Chung Town Centre, easily reached via the metro, and take the 20 minute scenic journey over the island. As well as the Buddha itself, the surrounding temple complex is fascinating, and a great place to learn a little more about Buddhism (or go to Tibet, that was cool too).
Lantau is also home to Tai O fishing village, a traditional village that is still full of stilted homes over the tidal flats. While the surviving village is picturesque, it is also quite sad. It used to be the largest village on the island, with a population of around 30,000, and now has about 2,000 residence. It is a sad story of decline. Today, the whole village closes down at around 6pm, so make sure you arrive early enough to explore before the streets are deserted. When looking for food, head to Market Street, where you will find all the fresh seafood that you need. Also make sure to visit the Hung Shing Temple dedicated to the sea god, which dates from the 18th century. To get there, take the bus from Tung Chung Town Centre.
If you want to stay on the island, you can set up camp near Ngong Ping at the Ngong Ping YHA Youth Hostel, or completely get away from it all at the Cove Hostel Beach Ranch. The Airport is also on the island, and you’ll find the Novotel Citygate Hong Kong a good choice nearby.
While you are in Hong Kong, you might be tempted to cross over into mainland China and explore nearby Shenzhen. This is easy or difficult depending on your country of origin. For example, Australian and British Citizens can get a short-term visa to visit the city, but U.S. Citizens currently cannot. The visa can be purchased on the border and offers you five days in the city. This is the same visa that you can get for stopovers in Shenzhen when flying between Europe and Australia.
Shenzhen itself is a city of 10 million people, and like Hong Kong is a special economic zone, and a hub for trading with the rest of the world. Fun fact, it had China’s first McDonald’s. Shenzhen is great for shopping, and the surrounding countryside, which you can access, is also pretty spectacular. The nearby Nanshan mountains offer some great hikes, and the Dameisha coastline not only offers beaches, but also interesting corals and caves.
Macau is also just an hour away from Hong Kong by ferry and is worth visiting. Another Special Administrative Region of China, it offers a unique mix of Chinese and Portuguese culture, and is also the only place in China where casinos are authorized. Read my full review on visiting Macau.
Where to Stay in Hong Kong
Hop Inn on Mody – Kowloon – $
In the centre of Kowloon right near the harbour, this hostel offers a range of privates and dorms, so it is appropriate for couples as well. The showers and the Wi-Fi are good, and it has a generally welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
Owl Hostel – Kowloon – $
Another great hostel in Kowloon near the main harbour, it advertises itself as a hostel, but specialises in budget private rooms, including family rooms. The Wi-Fi is good, and sometimes nothing beats having your own bathroom.
The Mahjong – Kowloon – $
A little bit further away from the main harbour, this hostel offers dorms only, so is best for single travellers. They offer good Wi-Fi and the staff are great at helping organise everything you need to make the most of the city.
Check Inn HK – Hong Kong Island – $
Offering a mix of privates and dorms, this hostel is no frills in order to keep prices down, but it is clean, friendly, and had everything you need when you plan to spend the majority of your time exploring Hong Kong.
Ngong Ping YHA Youth Hostel – Lantau Island – $
If you decide that you want to pass a night on Lantau Island, then this is a great option that allows you to stay right near the Big Buddha. Offering dorms and privates, it is basic, but is a great base camp for setting out on the surrounding hikes.
Ibis Hong Kong Central – Hong Kong Island – $$
While far from the most exciting hotel brand, Ibis in Hong Kong offers clean and functional rooms in the centre of the city at an affordable rate. It is ideal if you are travelling on a budget, but aren’t interesting in staying in a hostel or sharing a bathroom.
Holiday Inn Hong Kong Soho – Hong Kong Island – $$
Another less than exciting international hotel brand, this hotel is ideally located, and offers a safe a comfortable space to lay your head after a night on the town. If you are looking for an affordable place to sleep, shower and fill up on a good breakfast, it is a great choice.
Bali Hotel Resort – Lamma Island – $$
Close to Lamma Island’s main town, this is one of the few accommodation options on the iland (unless you o=go for Air B’n’B). The rooms are air conditioned, which is a blessing in the hotter months, and light and airy. They also offer free Wi-Fi in what can seem like the edge of beyond.
Man Lai Wah Hotel – Lamma Island – $$
Also located near Lamma Island’s main town, you can wake up to beautiful island views, and a pinging cell phone thanks to their free Wi-Fi. The staff are friendly and you will feel welcome.
Cove Hostel Sea Ranch – Lantau Island – $$
Offering dorm accommodation only, this is probably the nicest place to say in the eastern part of Lantau Island, and is close to many of the hiking trails that you will want to try while there. Bathrooms are good and Wi-Fi is acceptable.
Novotel Citygate Hong Kong – Lantau Island – $$$
Probably the best place to stay near Hong Kong airport (and Disneyland), it is close to transport links for easy access to the rest of Hong Kong, and offers comfortable accommodations including a 24-our gym and swimming pool.
Hyatt Centric Victoria Harbour – Hong Kong Island – $$$$
Highly affordable considering the luxury and the views! You have everything you need in the heart of the city including fitness facilities, restaurants and concierge service. While it is pricey compared to other Hong Kong options, it is much cheaper than you would expect to pay for something similar in the U.S.
Harbour Grand Hong Kong – Hong Kong Island – $$$$
Another luxury hotel that is cheap when compared with its U.S. equivalents, it mixes views with comfortable rooms and fitness facilities with quality restaurants and bars. It makes a great sanctuary in the city.