Hong Kong is one of those cities you have to visit at least once. It's the epitome of east meets west and in my opinion is a lot more gritty, vibrant and exotic than Singapore ( I LOVE Singapore but for different reasons). I found Hong Kong to be less Anglicised than I expected, full of eastern exoticism but minus the culture shock (I anticipate) of mainland China. Hong Kong has a unique culture in its own right and is definitely a place worth visiting. It's a common layover stop and while you could easily pass a few weeks ( or months) really delving into its soul, you can see and do a lot in a week or under and I highly recommend making your layover here several days rather than just hours.
I was lucky enough to swing a trip over for 5 days and chose to use one of those days visiting Macau. I was able to cram heaps of fun exploring of Hong Kong and Kowloon into 3 days and spent the last day on Lantau Island which I can't recommend enough. So without further ado, here are my tips on how to maximise a short trip to Hong Kong. Hong Kong's tourism board are pretty cutting edge and the city is incredibly easy to navigate and enjoy. When arriving at the airport look out for officials handing out info packs for the free wi-fi provided especially for tourists, although there is also free wi-fi in loads of public places.
How to get around
Taxis are pretty cheap and the subway is safe, clean and easy to use. Get yourself an Octopus card when you arrive at the airport. You can use it to take the train into Hong Kong and then to get around on the MTR while you're there. If you have money left on it you can get a refund at airport when you go to leave.
Hop on hop off bus tours...These are about as daggy as you can get but hear me out. They actually are a really good way to get your bearings in a new city, get a general idea of how you want to prioritise your time and they serve as the easiest way to get from A to B, and in any given big city all the cool things to see and do are usually far away from one another. I've gone the hop on hop off bus tour route in LA, San Fran, Singapore and now Hong Kong and I have to admit they serve a pretty good purpose so dust off your fanny pack and german utility khakis and embrace your inner daggy tourist, you are highly unlikely to bump into anyone you know after all.
I went with Big Bus Hong Kong mainly because they had reps planted in all the best spots and I was able to negotiate a cheaper than advertised price too ( around HK$245 I think). They run three different bus routes, all of which were included in the one price and I got a 48 hour ticket so I had time to do all three routes and stop whenever I wanted to. One route covers Kowloon, another does a loop of Hong Kong and the third leaves town and does the outskirts of the island including Aberdeen, Repulse Bay and Stanley- this was great because the MTR, while amazing, doesn't go to the south of the island. The ticket price also includes a return star Ferry trip from Hong Kong Central to Kowloon, the Cable car up Victoria Peak and the Sampan boat ride in Aberdeen.
Be sure to get out of the city and enjoy the bays
Hong Kong is a big grinding, heaving, dirty, sweaty city. Glamorous and gritty all at once. Busy, hectic, humid, modern but ageing. I mean all of this in a very good way and I will get to this side of the city shortly but I would be remiss if I did not highlight the fact that it can also be a very lush and green city with some spectacular natural scenery. I really recommend getting out of the hustle and going south and south east to see the bays on the South China Sea because they are really pretty! Check the weather forecast in the days leading up to your Hong Kong trip and schedule a nice sunny day visiting Repulse Bay, Stanley or Shek O beach. Aberdeen is quite cool to check out however I wouldn't put it at the top of my to do list and would include it only If I had several days to explore Hong Kong as there are cooler things to see. That said, it is definitely worth a visit but you only need about an hour to do a Sampan boat ride and have a look around and see the kitchy Jumbo Floating Restaurant. I feel like the brochures over sell this attraction a little bit and I don't think that many people actually still live on house boats here.
Ideally you should have at least a whole day to spend exploring Kowloon as there's lots to see and do, especially if you like shopping ( I don't so I didn't and still filled a whole day). Nathan Rd is of course the shopping capital of Hong Kong and has shopping options for every budget. I'm not a big shopper but I did enjoy taking the long walk up Nathan Rd up to Mong Kok where it starts to get pretty gritty and dirty and that's where you'll find the Bird Garden and Flower Market. Stay till after dark to check out the Temple Street night market. From my experience, Nathan Rd is the only place in Hong Kong where you will be accosted, but you won't feel unsafe. You will just be asked a thousand times if you want a tailor made suit. I didn't. I did allow myself to be sold a foot massage which was totally worthwhile however. There was a lady hawking on the street and when I said yes to a massage she ended up leading me (to my surprise and momentary concern) down a side street, into a building and up a dodgy lift. It was all legit though and no organs were harvested. The massage was great but beware, they waited until the foot massage was underway to start up-selling me further treatments and since my feet were already putty in his hands I couldn't say no. So I ended up with a foot and leg massage which was heavenly after the past two days of walking around from dawn til dusk. I think I ended paying about HK$130. And because of this extension of my massage I ended up missing the Symphony of Light show on Victoria Harbour. Ops. So I can't speak from experience but I hear it's pretty spectacular.
I have a slight obsession with Colonial Architecture so I spent a considerable amount of time lurking around the 1881 Heritage building on the corner of Canton and Salisbury roads. Like most British colonial heritage buildings in Hong Kong, this has been restored and is now home to high end fashion houses, upmarket restaurants and a small boutique hotel. You can go inside from the ground floor where there is a tiny museum-like display giving some history of the former Marine Police head quarters. It's worth checking out and is also a great spot to seek refuge from the heat and use a nice clean bathroom. Take a seat in the air-conditioned media room and watch a short clip on the building's history and transformation.
Up the street a bit on Salisbury Rd is the renowned Peninsula Hotel, another colonial architectural jewel of Hong Kong ( also full of high end stores) and of course famous for it's High Tea. It's a stunning building and you can just pop in for a quick nosey of the lobby and first floor even if you aren't a guest of the hotel. Opposite this you will find the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Gallery of Art, if you are so inclined. From there you'll find yourself at the beginning of the Avenue of Stars board walk which is a must do stroll. I'll admit I'm not into Kung Fu so I have no idea who most of the actors, whose names feature are ( other than Bruce Lee), but the view of the harbour is exceptional and not to be missed.
A whole day is not enough to see and do everything in Hong Kong proper so you have to prioritise wisely. I stayed in Wan Chai and loved checking out the area. I had great street food here and loved checking out the Wan Chai Market. It's not too touristy apart from maybe Lockhart Rd. It's a business hub and is also a residential area. It has a bit of a seedy past and is still a bit of a red light area but it's not too bad and you won't feel unsafe. It's actually quite funny walking along the stretch inhabited by strip clubs in the evening because instead of burley security men, they are fronted by little old Chinese ladies drinking pots of tea in between pimping out the exotic dancers within. This district has a lively night life and tonnes of great restaurants - not just strip clubs. While you're in the area of Wan Chai you could also go and check out the nearby Time Square which isn't too far away.
I used the hop on hop off bus tour to do a loop of Hong Kong and get my bearings but when I spent a day exploring I just took the MTR which is super easy, cheap and efficient. I recommend taking the subway at least as far as Sheung Wang and navigating your way up (If you like exploring). Take the time to check out Queens Rd, Man Mo Temple, Hollywood Rd and Soho. From Soho I took the central - mid - levels escalator up, stopping to see the Jamia Mosque, and then got back on to the top and followed the sign posts marking the way towards to Botanic gardens. I only advise this if, like me, you are a keen walker ( I took the MTR all the way out to Kennedy Town and explored my way back but I don't recommend this unless you're prepared to spend HOURS walking).
If you want to take the tram up to Victoria Peak then GO EARLY! Having spent a large part of the day meandering around I decided I should probably go and do THE must do attraction of Hong Kong but by the time I walked there it was about 3.30-4pm and the lines to get a ticket for the tram, and another to actually get on the tram were ridiculously long. Soooooo long. So after walking for about 7 hours in 30 degrees I got there and was like "hahahahahahahaha Nope". Queues are not my thing. Luckily almost every one who goes to Hong Kong does make it up to Victoria Peak so I have seen a lot of photos, plus I had already been up the Observation Deck at ICC on Kowloon the day before (I suspect that Victoria Peak is much better however).
Like any city great you can enjoy it on a budget or spend up large - there are plenty of ways to splash your cash here. If you are on a tight budget then make sure you eat where the locals eat. Street food, dim sum and other cheap and cheerful eateries are in abundance and are so delicious and cheap. Avoid western food to avoid large bills. A service fee of around 20% will be added to your bill at any nice sit down place but this will usually be stated on the menu. If you can, book a hotel with a pool so you can cool off in the afternoon. I loved exploring Hong Kong but it does get hot, sticky and grimy and an afternoon dip would go down a treat and refresh you before heading back out into the night.
Hong Kong has so much to offer that you can go hard exploring from dawn til dusk for several days as I did and still only really scratch the surface so there are tonnes of attractions that I have missed out. I hope to go back again soon and pick up where I left off.