Described by its own tourism board – and rightly so – as “a kaleidoscope of life, a sophisticated fusion of East and West,” Hong Kong is a place like no other.
Its iconic skyline, superb cuisine and chaotic vibrancy are just a few (of many) reasons why it’s home to over 7 million people. (And yes, this makes Hong Kong one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.) It really is a sensory delight and you’ll be truly spoiled by its tantalising food scene, spectacular harbour vistas and never-ending network of neon-lit shopping malls.
Although there’s no shortage of luxury travellers and credit card spenders, don’t panic, Hong Kong’s extravagance can certainly be enjoyed on a budget. Cheap hostels are scattered across the city, tasty street food is abundant and the HK$2 Star Ferry ride across the harbour is the closest thing to a cruise that won’t break the bank.
I spent a while staying with friends in Hong Kong, but if you only have a few days to explore, here’s a quick guide to Hong Kong’s best bits.
Shopping in Mong Kok
Head to Mong Kok in Kowloon to explore the bustling street markets, crammed with everything from toy collectibles to branded sneakers to goldfish! Spend an afternoon wandering the neon-bathed stalls, browsing the novelty gadgets and peculiar souvenirs, as well as testing your haggling skills! If you like a bargain, Mong Kok is the place to shop.
Mong Kok proved the perfect place to play the HK$50 challenge with my friends – whoever can scout out and barter the best and most obscure thing for HK$50 wins!
Alternatively, Causeway Bay is Hong Kong’s always-busy retail heart, and is perfect if you’re looking for something a little more upscale. Full of malls, boutiques, markets and a wholehearted obsession with consumerism, it’d take over a day to fully explore.
The Peak and Symphony of Lights
When the light is fading, catch the tram to Victoria Peak which offers superlative, panoramic views over the city’s awe-inspiring skyline.
Try to go up when the sun is setting – this way you’re rewarded with the impressive transformation of Hong Kong’s cityscape from day to night. My friend and I were up for a challenge so tackled the humidity and hiked up the steep steps to the top of The Peak. Personally, this was my Hong Kong highlight – it was free, very sweaty and made the view all the more worthwhile!
Later, head down to the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and watch the nightly light show, “A Symphony of Lights”. Coloured laser lights, pyrotechnic fireworks and music are synchronised in an illuminating performance that aims to reflect Hong Kong’s lively vibes and atmosphere.
Lion Rock hike
Want a break from the city? Slip on your sneakers and hike to Lion Rock, one of the most recognizable natural landmarks in Hong Kong. It’s one of the best hiking trails in the area and offers stunning views of the city and harbour. Taking approximately three hours to complete, it’s a great activity to do in the morning when the temperature is cooler and skies are clear. Top tips: watch out for monkeys and take plenty of water.
Essential tip from Karen Zhao, Intrepid’s China Destination Manager:
One of my favourite walking routes is from Sheung Wan to Central on Hong Kong Island. It passes through back streets like Wing Lok St (dried seafood street), then to Hollywood Road (antiques street), and also by Man Mo temple and the posh Soho neighbourhood. You can then follow the locals on the mid level escalator to the historic Pottinger Street and continue to Lan Kwai Fong (for nightlife)!
In true Hong Kong style, there are a mind-boggling number of eateries to satisfy every craving, day and night. For the most authentic experience, follow the crowds and enjoy the exquisite local Cantonese cuisine (if you’re a novice with chopsticks, get practising now).
I found that many of the smaller restaurants do not have an English menu so I’d advise to take a glance at what other diners are eating and use the trusty point-and-order method. Luckily if you’re short on time, the majority of Hong Kong’s eateries are not places to linger – often you sit, order, eat, pay and leave as quickly as possible!
In Central, I’d recommend visiting Mak’s Noodle for the famous shrimp wanton noodles in a low-key atmosphere. If you’re looking for traditional beef brisket, try Kau Kee which serves probably one of the world’s best brisket, available for around HK$20. Expect to share your glass table with strangers and, um, slightly grumpy staff, but don’t take it personally – the food’s worth it.
Looking for dim sum? Head to Tim Ho Wan for Michelin-Star dim sum at a reasonable price.
Foodie tips from Karen Zhao, Intrepid’s China Destination Manager:
Literally anywhere you see lots of locals eating is great! My favourite local foods are crispy skin pork, pineapple bun with butter, stir fried beef and rice noodle, Hainan chicken with rice, silky milk tea and the list could go on.
Tsui Wah Restaurant, which is a local chain, is very good and cheap (whenever I have layovers in HK, I practically run to their chain at the airport to eat!). You can find good Indian food at Chung King Mansion.
If you’re done eating and looking for somewhere to drink, head to Lan Kwai Fong, or “LKF” as locals call it. Hong Kong is stacked and packed with bars and clubs but LKF is the main spot for nightlife, attracting expats, locals and tourists alike. The area has a cosmopolitan, European vibe, resembling some districts of London or Berlin and many bars and nightclubs stay buzzing into the early hours. If you’re up for a big night out, this is where you’ll find it. My favourite bit of LFK nightlife? Popping into 7/11 for a much celebrated road beer with the rest of Hong Kong’s party-goers.
Check out Stormies, located on one of the liveliest corners of LKF, where revellers spill out onto the street and 80s and 90s music pumps out of open windows. If you’re a beer drinker, head to The Keg, a tiny keg-shaped bar that offers a great selection of beers and challenges you to a ‘pressure hour’ – drink for half the price as long as you don’t go to the bathroom!
If you’re keen to get up a little higher, try Sevva bar – an uber-chic skybar with a 360-degree balcony overlooking the harbour and the iconic Kowloon skyline. It’s perfect to take friends out for sunset drinks.
Famous for its glitzy casinos, Macau boasts the reputation as the ‘Las Vegas of China’. But although this gambling haven is impressive, there’s so much more to the city. As a former Portuguese colony, Macau is a unique blend of cultures. Grab a pastel de-nata tart from one of the many Portuguese-inspired bakeries, enjoy a meal at distinguished, colonial Clube Militar De Macau and wander the tiled streets.
Marvel at the architectural melange of intricate Portuguese cathedrals adjacent to ancient Chinese temples and be sure to check out the ruins of the Church of St Paul. Only a one hour ferry from Hong Kong, Macau is a great day trip for any time-strapped traveller.
Hong Kong’s outlying islands are a welcome escape from the city’s hectic pace. Check out Lantau Island, the largest island, so you can see Tian Tan Buddha, a 34m-tall statue on a hilltop reached by a long stairway. Here, you can also enjoy cable car vistas and picturesque hikes aplenty. On the western side of the island sits Tai O, a traditional village built upon traditional stilt houses.
For a laid-back atmosphere and lovely beaches, check out Lamma Island. And for an island with more of a local Chinese atmosphere, Cheung Chau is another great day trip option. There’s a lively seafront, array of seafood spots, coastal walks, temples and much more.
Lastly, Stanley is another option (as if you don’t have enough!). A coastal town on Hong Kong Island, it boasts one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong, a fantastic food market and not one, but two famous beaches.
Ready to visit incredible Hong Kong? Spend two days there on this South China Getaway.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock/uschools, iStock/estherpoon, Rebecca Shapiro x3, Intrepid Travel, Rebecca Shapiro x4.)