I know you’re already thinking it. What? She wants me to go all the way there just for the weekend? Well, maybe not literally, but Hong Kong is far and away my favourite place as a stop-over. A weekend in Hong Kong is by far better than doing the long-haul in one go between Europe and Australia, with its shopping, food, sights and general buzz on the streets. Hong Kong can make you feel like you’re in the centre of the world.
So, what’s the deal?
Today, Hong Kong is technically a part of China. It didn’t used to be; from 1842 onwards Hong Kong Island was British. Why? Because the Chinese had stopped importing opium and the British were so cranky about it that they decided a little war would help their chances. Chinese defeat handed control of Hong Kong Island to the British. Hong Kong expanded over the years, with Lantau and the New Territories added in 1898. The thing was, these new places weren’t for keeps. They were leased to the British for ninety-nine years, so the Chinese asked for their keys back in 1997.
The fusion of Eastern and Western culture and traditions often means Hong Kong is dubbed as ‘east meets west’. The towering skyscrapers have hawker stands near their foundations, English is widely understood and the English Common Law is still followed.
Hong Kong’s heart lies in its harbour. The city-state has one of the most developed economies of the world and is one of its main trading centres. It’s also bursting with people – at over six thousand people per square kilometre, you’ll always feel part of the throng.
When do I go?
Being near the Equator, it’s almost always warm in Hong Kong. Temperatures hover in the mid-teens in January and low twenties in February, but the rest of the year should see you sweating buckets. It can be extremely humid in Hong Kong, so the best time of year to explore it all is in the spring (March to May), when temperatures are still around the thirty mark but at least you don’t have to wring out your shirts. This time should also see you escape the worst of the rain.
Where can I shack up?
The three times I’ve visited Hong Kong I’ve stayed in hotels. They’re quite cheap for the quality you get; you’d pay double or triple for similar places in Europe. The main reason for this is many four-star hotels are your monotonous businessman-type hotel which are always competing with each other online for discounts.
There are plenty of areas to stay in Hong Kong, however I think the best place to stay would be Tsim Sha Tsui. I stayed at the Minden Hotel last time which was perfect, right in the middle of all the action. (The other place I’ve stayed is the Royal Plaza Hotel in Mong Kok – also a good choice but a little further away from the centre.) Hotels on Hong Kong Island tend to be a bit more expensive.
If you’re keen to try a hostel there’s also plenty on offer. Although I haven’t stayed in any in Hong Kong, I can certainly vouch for hostels in China. They’re insanely cheap, and give you all the extras you usually have to pay for separately in their European counterparts. You may want to check out Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, which has become an institution in itself. A number of hostels are located here, and as it’s pretty dodgy-looking, it’s the cheapest place for a bed in town.
What photos do I need to take?
The number one tourist destination in Hong Kong is undoubtedly the Peak. Located on Hong Kong Island, this hilltop neighbourhood is the most expensive in the city, full of sprawling high-tech homes and colonial residences alike. But what people come here for is the view, which is stunning. You can technically get a bus up, but the traditional way is to take the Peak Tram, a funicular tramway. The queue can go for miles, so if you’re keen to get up there for sunset, be prepared to queue for up to an hour or more. (My own experience was a fifteen minute queue to get to the Peak for sunset.)
Hong Kong Island itself is very commercial, with highlights being the Happy Valley Racecourse and the Soho District. Horse races are held at Happy Valley every Wednesday night (except July and August) and are great fun. Entrance is just HK$10 (apparently you can get in free as a foreigner if you have your passport but that wasn’t the case for me) and putting on bets is relatively straightforward.
The Soho District runs straight through the heart of Hong Kong Island’s business district, through high-end designer shops and the like. Here you’ll find Hong Kong’s famous outdoor escalators, which whisk you up the steep inclines, and you can stop of at numerous cocktail bars along the way. Just the idea if you need to rest those weary feet from all that shopping.
Speaking of shopping, here’s where Tsim Sha Tsui comes in. This is my favourite district for shopping, with international labels mixed in with local offerings. The mammoth Harbour City contains countless shops and eateries, which backs onto the harbour. If you meander down a little further after dusk you’ll find the Temple Street Night Market, my pick of Hong Kong’s dozen or so markets. You’ll need to bargain here, but don’t expect prices anywhere near as cheap as mainland China or southeast Asia. Still, the atmosphere is lively and food stalls are abundant throughout.
You won’t find particularly cheap international labelled clothing in Hong Kong, unless you traverse out to Citygate Outlets, located near the airport. Discounts can vary, but I’ve managed to pick up Burberry items on two separate occasions for less than US$80.
If shopping’s got you knackered, you might want to take a stroll through the sprawling Kowloon Park. This is one of my favourite city parks in the world, filled with people mainly performing tai chi. Museum buffs might want to pay a visit to the Hong Kong Museum, which is worth the effort.
Other options present on the nearby Lantau Island, home to the Giant Buddha and Disneyland (whoever thought they’d both be in the same sentence). The Giant Buddha is actually the biggest outdoor seated Buddha in the world (there’s a lot of classifications going on with the world’s Buddhas) and is a nice change away from the hustle and bustle of Kowloon. You can catch a cable car here from Tung Chung metro station (which is where Citygate Outlets can be found). Hong Kong Disneyland isn’t far away, on a separate metro line (change at Sunny Bay).
Is there anything else around worth seeing?
Hong Kong is fortunate enough to have two other countries within day-tripping distance (no, there’s not many places that can lay claim to that).
Macau is a great option for a day trip and only an hour away by ferry. The city-state is in a similar situation to Hong Kong, but has a distinct Portuguese feel rather than a British one. Ferries depart from the main ferry terminal in Kowloon about every 15-20 minutes – buy your tickets at the desk, which start at about HK$280 return. You’ll have to go through customs (exit Hong Kong, enter Macau) and back again, but this process is quick and free for most.
The ferry terminal isn’t exactly in the centre of town, and public transport is woeful. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) the three dozen or so casinos run free shuttle buses, virtually linking up the whole country. Shuttles to the Hotel Lisboa, for example, will get you pretty close to the historic part of town.
If you’re in Macau for sightseeing, head for the old town area. It can feel like a little Lisbon in parts, with its cobblestoned lanes and stately colonial buildings. The ruins of St Paul’s is definitely Macau’s historical icon, and make sure you grab a custard tart on the way.
But what most come here for are the casinos. Even if you’re not there to gamble, they’re pretty impressive just to look around. Favourites include the MGM Grand, the faded grandeur of the Casino Lisboa and the sprawling Venetian, two and a half times bigger than its Vegas counterpart, complete with canals, gondolas and a pretty good replica of Piazza San Marco.
Shenzhen meanwhile is the closest Chinese city to Hong Kong. If you don’t have a Chinese visa don’t worry, most nationalities (Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, UK, most EU but not American) can grab a five-day Shenzhen-only visa at the Luohu border crossing (which intersects with the Hong Kong metro). I did much reading about this before doing it myself and was pretty nervous, but it was as easy as pie. The visa costs 168 yuan for everyone except Poms. Sorry guys, for some reason they slug you 469 yuan. Money changers are available at the border if you have no yuan on you.
What you’ll find on the other side of the border crossing, and what will be your first introduction to China proper, is a mammoth shopping mall. This mall is more like an indoor market, and you can haggle to your heart’s content for cheap knock-offs, electronics and (small) clothes. You’ll find much, much cheaper prices for things here than in Hong Kong – many Hong Kong residents will spend their entire trip to Shenzhen in this mall.
Shenzhen is a massive city (at sixteen million its the biggest and most dense in China) with unfortunately not a hell of a lot of charm. Just outside of the city is a miniature world theme park which is popular with domestic tourists, but I recommend a visit to the famous Queen Spa. If you ring ahead they can pick you up from the border, or else a taxi costs about 30 yuan and every driver knows what you’re talking about. You can easily spend all day in here on their lazyboy recliners with personal TVs, ordering from a menu of different services; we’re talking manicures, foot massages, ear candling, facials, you name it. Most services cost around the 60-70 yuan mark (facials are a bit more) for 45 minutes so a whole day ended up costing me in the vicinity of US$50. They’ll also drop you back at the border for free.
What can I get Mum?
I say a lot of places are a shopping paradise, but Hong Kong just about beats them all hands down. Kitschy souvenirs abound, particularly at the street markets, but a chain store I would recommend would be Sasa. This cosmetics store chain can be found throughout Southeast Asia but it’s in Hong Kong where it’s cheapest. Perfumes can be found for a fraction of their prices at home (we’re talking genuine Gucci, Burberry and Nina Ricci for less than US$50). Another option is Bonjour!, where, for example, I picked up Dermalogica cosmetics for more than 75 per cent off.
How do I stop my tummy rumbling?
If you go hungry in Hong Kong, you’re doing something wrong. Hong Kong cuisine is the most similar to what you’d find in Chinese restaurants around the world, though here there’s nothing with fluorescent yellow or red sauces.
Dim sum, or yum cha, is a Hong Kong institution. Seen as a breakfast or a brunch, you’ll find these restaurants always packed, particularly on Sunday mornings. Here you can try dim sum staples such as delicious dumplings (the ones filled with prawns are my favourite), piping hot cha siu baau (steamed buns filled with barbecued pork), and delectable wide rice noodle rolls. There’s a few of these places that exist solely to serve tourists mediocre food, so the best places to try are those off the main streets in Kowloon, and even more towards Mong Kok. The top floors of non-touristy shopping malls are usually a good bet.
You can also try delicious seafood such as crab, local delicacies such as pigeon (tried but not loved) and a porridge-like concoction known as congee. Better yet, head on down to the night market and feast on some of the most delicious seafood you can find for pocket change, just as long as you’re comfortable being seated on a plastic chair and sharing a table with another dozen strangers!
To really get to experience colonial Hong Kong, head to the famous Peninsula Hotel for high tea. They don’t take any bookings so you’ll just have to queue up (about 4pm should see a shorter line) but it’s worth it. All sorts of European delights such as little sandwiches, scones, macaroons and champagne will make you feel like a lady (or gentleman) as you kick back. Wear your best tourist gear but don’t worry too much – and prices are about half of what you’d pay for high tea at home.
Where’s the pub?
Lan Kwai Fong is the biggest nightspot in Hong Kong, but don’t expect a lively party atmosphere. Alcohol is expensive by Asian standards, but in no way discouraged. Cocktail bars can be found all over, particularly on Hong Kong Island in the Soho district. There’s also nothing stopping you from grabbing a few beers at the Temple Street Night Market.
Right. So how do I get there?
If you’re coming to Hong Kong via anywhere not Chinese, you’re almost definitely flying. Hong Kong benefits from one of the best airports in the world, and is a major transit hub for international passengers – hence, it’s a great place to jump out of for a couple of days. Australia is served by direct flights from Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic and Qantas – cheaper flights can be found if you don’t mind going through Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia.
The airport is connected to the excellent Hong Kong Metro. The metro will whisk you around to most sights in Hong Kong, with 10-15 minutes of walking from the stations being average. Trams also connect up Hong Kong Island. Cabs are cheap, plentiful, safe and drivers often speak a little English, or at the very least understand the Roman alphabet.