I wasn’t sure what to expect before my first visit to Hong Kong, and I expect that holds true for many first time visitors. Add to that the fact that for many people their first exposure to the beautiful island city is en route to somewhere else, or a short business trip and the opportunities to explore this remarkable city are often lost. Don’t miss the chance though to explore a vibrant and exciting destination and to help you get started, here are some tips for anyone visiting Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is manageable on nearly every budget, but if you’re going to splurge a little then this one of the best places in the world to pamper yourself. First, be sure to arrive in style via Cathay-Pacific Airways. One of the best airlines in the world, I’ve found all of their classes of service to be comfortable and relaxing, but for a special splurge be sure to check out their Business Class. Featuring fine dining, fully lie-flat beds and their legendary in-flight service, it’s a great way to arrive in Hong Kong well rested. If that isn’t quite in the budget, their Premium Economy section is also a fantastic splurge that is much kinder on the pocketbook. Flying back home in Premium Economy, I was really impressed by the level of comfort I enjoyed, rare to be honest and I even managed several hours of sleep. Once you arrive in Hong Kong you are spoiled for choice when it comes to nice hotels, but my experience at the InterContinental Hong Kong in Kowloon was one of the best hotel experiences of my life. Perched on Victoria Harbour in Kowloon, the views from the hotel are amongst the best in the city and when coupled with outstanding quality and service, the InterContinental really is one of the best hotel choices when visiting Hong Kong.
For a small place, there’s enough to keep any visitor busy but there were a few special experiences that I especially enjoyed on my short, two-day jaunt around town.
It’s hard to believe that all it takes to escape the modern bustle of Hong Kong’s downtown is a short subway ride to one of the city’s out-islands. The MTR is the city’s convenient, fast and comprehensive subway system that connects practically all areas of the city, including the popular Lantau Island. There is plenty to do to fill a day on Lantau, and while it may initially seem too touristy it’s easy to get away from ‘official tourist villages’ and shops and discover the true beauty of the island. At the heart of the experience is the massive Tian Tan Buddha or Big Buddha. It’s a fairly recent addition to the island, completed in 1993, but was the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world when it was built. To get to the giant Buddha, visitors must first climb the 268 steps to get there, no easy feat on a sweltering Hong Kong day. But the rewards are well worth the effort; the giant Buddha surrounded by adoring Deva statues with the fog-encased mountains in the background are a spectacular sight. The island isn’t all about Buddhism though, it was originally an island of fishermen and it’s still possible to see this way of life today. Either take the bus or one of the rare 50 taxis on the island to Tai O, a centuries old fishing village where little seems to have changed over the decades.
I guess I was misinformed before my trip, but I was really surprised by the incredible urbanity of the city. Don’t get me wrong, I expected a big city, but I didn’t expect to see one that is as incredibly modern as Hong Kong is. More than any other city, it reminded me of Singapore for its dedication to the latest technological advances and the ease of getting around the metropolis. One of the best places to get an idea for the size of this city is from The Peak. Standing at 552 meters above sea level, the Peak is the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island and was a natural signaling post for incoming cargo ships in the nineteenth century. It quickly became one of the hottest places in town to live thanks to the cooler temps which naturally attracted the British colonizers who called the city home. It’s still a popular place to live, more for the views than the climate though. Taking the Victoria Peak tram to the top of the mountain is an iconic tourist activity, but one that I think is worth the time and effort. The views from the top are amazing and quite honestly the best you’ll find.
Once a housing complex for families, the old Police Married Quarters is today an example of creative gentrification. After the complex was abandoned, it fell into disuse and became a blight. Rather than tear it down, a unique private/public partnership was formed and now it’s a leading example of creative urban planning. Today the PMQ houses artists, designers and other creative types who use the space not just to create their works, but to sell them as well. A maze of boutiques, shops and restaurants, PMQ is the new hipster headquarters for the city and a great place to see a more creative and innovative side to Hong Kong.
Man Mo Temple
Located on Fu Shin Street, Man Mo is a temple for the worship of the civil or literature god Man Tai and the martial god Mo Tai, and features a type of incense burner I’d never seen before. The spiral incense baskets fill the rafters inside Man Mo, creating layers and levels of smoke and smells that is frankly overwhelming. Windows allow in shafts of light that, when they hit the baskets just right, create ethereal moments unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. It was beautiful, solemn and undeniably special; one of those fantastic travel moments that can’t be planned, they just have to happen.
The beautiful waterway that seems to tie everything together, Victoria Harbour is an important part of any travel experience in the city. Your first view will probably come from your hotel room, but you can also walk down to the waterfront to take a classic Hong Kong ferry across the water. Every photo I’ve ever seen of the city includes these beautiful boats, either a traditional junk or the more modern ferries, and it’s just one of those experiences everyone has to try. Before you cross the water though, spend some time in Kowloon and walk along the waterfront, not just to enjoy the day but to visit the slightly unusual Walk of Stars.
Hong Kong has long been known as a culinary capital, and with good reason. The unique mingling of cultures over the decades has led to innumerable influences on the food scene. Classic dim sum though is still perhaps what Hong Kong is best known for, and locals all swear by the quality found at Tim Ho Wan. Known as the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, the hour long lines are normal for the king of dim sum. It’s worth it too; the choice and quality of the food was exceptional and all served at normal dim sum prices. It’s not often you can say you got Michelin rated food for $10 or less, but Hong Kong is full of culinary surprises like this one.
I’m a sucker for Peking Duck, I even devoted a post to my adoration of the golden fowl. While I have a soft spot for this delicacy, I was surprised to find it at the Michelin-starred Yan Toh Heen restaurant in the InterContinental Hong Kong Hotel. It surprised me because Peking Duck is so classic and I have come to fear some Michelin starred restaurants for their proclivity towards the bizarre. But not at Yan Toh Heen, no, instead they produce stunning Cantonese cuisine using the freshest ingredients in a way that isn’t only delicious, but with a clear eye towards aesthetics as well. The InterContinental is spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants though, SPOON by Alain Ducasse and NOBU also grace the hotel’s property. Visiting the InterContinental, and certainly staying there, is a food lover’s dream, but nothing made me quite so happy as finding my beloved Peking Duck served with care and precision at Yan Toh Heen.
Hong Kong is a city that lives on the edge of new technologies; trying anything new and embracing even the strange. In a perfect blend of this love of food and tech arose Lab Made Ice Cream, one of the strangest ice cream stands you’ll ever see. The creation of scientists turned foodies, Ronnie Cheng and Jenny Chiu started Hong Kong’s only liquid nitrogen ice cream parlor with one thing in mind – fresh and delicious ice cream. The concoctions are created in front of waiting guests, frozen in less than two minutes with clouds of liquid nitrogen steaming around the kitchen. Don’t expect normal flavors here though, they range from the interesting to the downright weird and many have a Hong Kong influence. I sampled the buttered toast ice cream on my visit, a tasty ice cream that was exactly like eating a slice of toast. Lab Made is the perfect antidote to those hot Hong Kong nights, and the always changing flavors ensure a new experience every time.
It’s hard to sum up a city as large and dynamic as Hong Kong in just a few paragraphs, but adding these experiences to your own explorations of the city will create memories of the island city that will last a lifetime – or at least until your next visit.
Have you been to Hong Kong? What else do you recommend?