One of the world’s most exciting cities, Hong Kong is a seductive mix of glittering skyscrapers, mountainous hiking trails, hectic night markets, incense-filled temples, isolated beaches and an incredible dining scene, all linked together by a brilliant integrated public transport system made up of MTR trains, buses, ferries, minibuses and ‘ding dings’, or double-decker trams. No wonder the former colony is one of the top tourist destinations on the planet. We take a look at what every first time visitor should see and do while in town.
Get your bearings straight away and take a stomach-flipping ride on the Peak Tram to Hong Kong Island’s highest point. Launched in 1888, the cable-pulled funicular climbs almost vertically up the mountainside to the top of Victoria Peak, from where the views of the skyline are out of this world. Head straight to the rooftop Sky Terrace (extra charge) for a 360-degree panorama encompassing Central’s forest of skyscrapers, the Star Ferries criss-crossing Victoria Harbour and the hills of Kowloon beyond – or visit the Peak Galleria’s observation deck and see more or less the same vista for nothing. Either way, this classic view of one of the world’s greatest urban landscapes is an unmissable Hong Kong experience.
Symphony of Lights
Every night at 8pm the Symphony of Lights show flickers into action, illuminating the Hong Kong skyline to the strains of a synchronised soundtrack. The multimedia extravaganza has been running since 2004, but a newly upgraded version features state of the art installations and LED beam lights, along with fresh new music from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. If you don’t mind crowds, the best place to view is the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Alternatively, book a harbour cruise or grab a table at the Intercontinental Hotel’s Lobby Lounge for the best ringside seat in town.
Even on the briefest of city breaks, a trip to one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands is a must. Easily accessible, but far removed from the crowds of Lan Kwai Fong and the frenzy of Kowloon’s markets, you’ll see an entirely different side of the territory.
Lantau is by far the biggest island in Hong Kong – twice the size of Hong Kong Island itself. The north is home to the airport, Hong Kong Disneyland and the high-rise apartments of Tung Chung. But most of the rest is mountainous and green. Here you’ll find low-key fishing villages, isolated beaches and country parks, along with the island’s two most famous attractions – the gigantic Tian Tan Buddha and the Buddhist Po Lin Monastery.
A popular excursion combines all the above, and makes for a great day trip. Take the MTR to Tung Chung, then the 25-minute Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride to the Ngong Ping plateau. Opt for a glass-floored Crystal Cabin for views of ant-like hikers on the mountain trails below. From the terminus it’s a ten-minute walk (and 268 steps) to the world’s largest outdoor seated Buddha, which can be seen from as far away as Macau on clear days. The adjacent monastery was established more than a century ago by hermit-like monks and is known for its vegetarian lunches, served in a dining hall at the base.
From Ngong Ping, a 20-minute bus ride leads to Tai O fishing village on the western tip of the island. A former salt-making hub mostly inhabited by the Tanka boat people, some of whom still live in stilt houses, it’s a great place to spend a couple of hours. When you’re ready to head back to the city, a 45-minute bus journey snakes through the mountains to Mui Wo for the ferry back to Central. Alternatively, stay overnight at the Tai O Heritage Hotel, a sensitive restoration of the old Tai O police station.
Afternoon tea at The Peninsula Hong Kong
Opened in 1928, The Peninsula Hong Kong remains the city’s finest historic hotel, complete with rooftop helipad, a fleet of signature green Rolls-Royce Phantoms and a Roman-inspired indoor pool overlooking the famous Hong Kong Island skyline. But you don’t have to be a billionaire to experience a few hours of this colonial-style luxury. Amid soaring pillars and tall potted palms, the Peninsula Classic Afternoon Tea is served daily in the gleaming gold-and-ivory lobby, where white-jacketed waiters shimmy between tables and live classical music drifts across the room from a second floor balcony ensemble.
Though it’s open to everyone, the hotel does not take reservations for tea unless you’re a paying guest, so you will have to wait in line for your chance to devour the savoury tartlets, smoked salmon sandwiches, fluffy warm raisin scones and exquisite patisserie-style cakes and pastries. But it’s worth the long wait. Afternoon tea at ‘the Pen’ is a genuine Hong Kong institution, and you can avoid the worst of the queue by arriving early (around 1pm) or coming later in the afternoon when demand has slowed down. The tea costs HKD 388 or 688 for two (about £35/£63) and is served from 2pm – 6pm every day.
Kowloon’s night markets
Though they’re open during the day, Kowloon’s markets are most atmospheric in the evenings. The night air fills with the heady scent of incense, spicy aromas waft from the many dai pai dong (street food stalls), and neon signs fizz into life above the tightly packed lantern-strung stalls.
In Mong Kok, the Ladies’ Market is one of Kowloon’s biggest, selling everything from sunglasses, watches and (mostly fake) designer handbags, to glittery phone cases, painted tea sets and lucky Maneki-neko waving cat figurines. Further south at the Temple Street Night Market, a slightly more varied range of items – antiques, jade, electronics, old newspapers, embroidered Chinese dresses, carved wooden dragons – can be found on the stretch between Man Ming Lane and Nanking Street, along with fortune tellers, tarot card readers and enthusiastic Chinese opera singers who perform outside the Tin Hau Temple.
One of Hong Kong’s best known cultural icons, the green-and-white Star Ferry fleet has been plying the waters of Victoria Harbour since 1898. The two ferry routes – between Tsim Sha Tsui and Central and Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai – are easily one of the world’s best value tourist attractions, with a one-way ticket costing just 3.70 Hong Kong dollars at weekends (about 31 pence) and even less during the week. If it’s your first Star Ferry ride, time your nine-minute trip for early evening and head from the Kowloon side over to Hong Kong Island for dramatic views of the harbour and the skyline twinkling into life.
Sheung Wan and Man Mo Temple
Don’t miss the opportunity to explore one of Hong Kong’s coolest neighbourhoods. Sheung Wan lies in the Western District, and was where the British first settled in 1841, on what is now known as Possession Street. This walkable district is endlessly fascinating. Along winding roads and narrow back alleys, Chinese herbalists and dried fish stores rub shoulders with pop-up galleries and artisan coffeehouses, while on the steep stone streets that link the main drags, traders sell everything from military memorabilia and propaganda posters to baskets of lychees and rambutans.
Hollywood Road, one of the most historic streets in Sheung Wan, is lined with exclusive antique shops and showrooms selling contemporary Chinese art. Wander along for the window shopping and local street art, then pop in to lovely Man Mo Temple – the oldest temple in Hong Kong – to admire the giant hanging incense coils and enjoy a few minutes’ peace.
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