Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated high-income cities in the world, with 67,000 persons per square mile or 25,900 per square kilometre. Its very name conjures up images of skyscrapers, glittering city lights, sumptuous food, and a multitude of people. The strategic location of this autonomous region of China has made it a major commercial hub in Southeast Asia, invigorating the city’s constant flurry of activities and fast-paced way of life. This isn’t a place for a relaxing adventure, it’s one where you hit the ground running and live off adrenaline if you want to make the most of your stay.
We’ve all seen the recommended itinerary for first-time travellers to Hong Kong with all the touristy spots and that’s a fairly practical and straightforward way to experience the place. However, Hong Kong has so much more up its sleeve, so this insider’s guide will take you beyond the trendy spots and tourist traps to help you diversify your itinerary.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO GET AROUND
While the MTR is the easiest, most convenient way to get around the city, there are other offbeat options to try if you’re looking for something more exciting.
Hong Kong used to be a trading centre during the days it was under British colony. Back then, boats were the main means of transport. You can channel old-world Hong Kong, and your inner pirate, by going on Hong Kong boat rides. And if you have to brave hordes of people to visit an iconic sight, let it be at the harbour. Sure, the view from Victoria Peak is indeed glorious, but the best, and possibly the cheapest way, to witness the city skyline is by cruising from Kowloon Island to Hong Kong Island via the Star Ferry ($2.50).
From sea to summit, another alternative way of getting around Hong Kong is on a bicycle. Cycling enthusiasts may find Hong Kong’s undulating roads and mountainous terrain challenging, but if you’re up for a workout to get to the heart of this region, this can be a memorable way to get around.
For a more leisurely exploration of the city, the Sha Tin to Tai Po route is highly recommended. This three-hour route starts off along the Shing Mun river and takes you through the Hong Kong Science Park, the Pak Shek Kok Promenade, the picturesque Tolo cycling track, and ends at Tai Po Waterfront Park. You’ll pass by a lot of cafés along the way, so you can hang out and fuel up for the rest of your leisurely ride. From Tai Wai, you can find bike rental shops opposite Exit A of MTR Tai Wai Station. For more experienced mountain bikers, you can try the infamous Dragon’s Back at Shek O. This route treats you to mostly rugged and country scenery with breath taking views of Shek O bay from the ridge. The trail starts off at the Tai Tam Gap Correctional Institution. It is reserved for skilled mountain bikers, so if you’re not confident about manoeuvring this terrain with a bike, you can opt to go by foot as this is also a popular destination for hikers.
Pro-tip: Hong Kong’s public transport system is pretty convenient. Purchase Octopus cards to fund your transport needs. It’s can also be used at 7/11 stores and McDonald’s.
HONG KONG FOR FOODIES
Typically, if the place is packed with diners, it’s a sign of quality and affordability, just prepare for a bit of a language barrier. Then again, you can always rely on your trusty apps for translations or point at photos on the menu.
The working class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po is a great place for finding hidden gems and cheap hole-in-the-wall food spots. After scouring this huge old-school flea market for bargains, you can hunt down century-old Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong (G/F, 118 Pei Ho Street) for some quality tofu made from scratch. This unassuming joint comes highly recommended by local food bloggers for their silky and smooth, not to mention super affordable, tofu pudding ($0.90) and exceptional fried tofu ($1.05).
Another nostalgic and tasty snack in the area can be found at Kwan Kee (Shop 10, 115-117 Fuk Wah St.). Their deceptively simple-looking sesame pudding hides nine layers of meticulously steamed sesame paste. They only sell a limited quantity a day, so they can sell out pretty quickly. In which case, other varieties of the pudding as well as their white sugar pudding are equally worth sampling.
If you’re on the hunt for the next best foodie find, Mott 32 in the basement of Central’s Standard Chartered Bank Building has been touted as a rising star in the Michelin crowd. The elegant interiors and well-executed menu has earned this restaurant some rave reviews. Among their consistently praised offerings are the crispy Peking duck and BBQ pork char siu.
HONG KONG’S HABERDASHERY
Apart from the theme parks, the food, and the harbour, tourists flock in Hong Kong for one reason –– shopping. A sale in Hong Kong is a guaranteed bargain, so long as you have a discerning eye and an awareness of the going rates of merchandise. Anything from high-end shopping (Harbour City) to bargain finds (Citygate and Festival Walk) can satisfy your shopping needs.
As mentioned, Sham Shui Po is shopping heaven with an old-school market environment––chaotic, crowded, and colourful. This is where you’ll find dirt cheap trinkets and retail bargains to take home to your family and friends. Fashion designers flock this place to buy wholesale fabric, but you can also score cheap electronics, suitcases, and vintage finds.
Soho at Central has long been known for being a hip location frequented by young professional, expats and tourists alike, but this popular location has continuously experienced transformation with the arrival of new and exciting shops. Well-reviewed food spots Yardbird and Little Bao are situated in this area. So like Sham Shui Po, this is a perfect location for shopping and dining. Check out PMQ for cool purchases – a product of further gentrification in the city. This former “Police Married Quarters” building has become a hub for creatives, using the space for art exhibits, events and stores of various persuasions. The unique selling point of this shopping haven is its focus on local and small-scale vendors composed of designers and artisans.
During Chinese New Year, a specific area in the Kowloon peninsula experiences a boom in visitors. If you’re looking for some good fortune and attract good luck, Hong Kong’s biggest flower market in Mong Kok sells all manner of auspicious greeneries for shoppers to bring home as the new lunar cycle begins. In the midst of all the house plants, cheap flowers, and exotic blooms, you’ll also find Hong Kong’s secret oasis of fresh flowers that can last for three years! These ephemeral beauties perfectly encapsulates what a trip to Hong Kong feels like – lovely experiences and memories that you want to preserve for as long as possible.
Pro-tip: Hong Kong’s sale season happens during the months of July through August 31, right smack in the middle of summer season (May to October). Outside of this window, clothes and apparel shopping in Hong Kong can be quite pricey. This is the reason why people troop to this city to splurge on luxury items during sale season. However, if your main aim is to do the sights and sounds round, then better go during winter season (December to March) to avoid the hot and sticky summer. The downside, however, is that it can get pretty foggy during this season and you might miss out on witnessing the Victoria Harbour and the panoramic views of the city in its full glory.