Hong Kong, thanks to its well-connected international airport, might be your first stop off when starting your Southeast Asian adventure. If it is, count yourself lucky as this former colony of the British Empire is a brilliant place to visit for a weekend or longer if you have the time and the funds. Our first trip to Hong Kong was a whirlwind weekend visit, flying in from Bangkok and back again a few days later. With so much to do in Hong Kong, however long you stay, you will probably be left wanting more. For this reason, don’t feel bad about making your first trip a short one, as no one trip will be long enough.
If you are not sure whether to put this city on your travel itinerary or want some tips on how to see as much of the Hong Kong as possible in a short amount of time, read on.
Where to Stay
Unlike most of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Finding affordable accommodation here that is not already booked up isn’t easy, and in the end we decided on the YMCA of Hong Kong. Our decision was made more on price than on other factors, but it turned out to be an inspired choice. The hotel is located on the Kowloon side of town, with views overlooking Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour. Upon it arrival it was so much more than we expected and setup the trip nicely, right from the start. Everything in the hotel was clean and modern and for the price, compared to the other choices in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, it was excellent value.
Getting Your Bearings
The best way to see as much of the city in a short amount of time is to jump on the hop on hop off bus service offered by the Big Bus Tours which operate in most capital cities around the world. This might seem like too much of a touristy thing to do for hardcore traveller types, but get over yourselves! It’s a great way to see the major landmarks of the city and it doubles up as excellent value public transport, as the tickets last for 24 or 48 hours depending on your choice. Some highlights of the tour and things you must see in Hong Kong include:
I’d hazard a guess and say that this is the most popular destination for visitors to this city. It’s the highest point on the island and is the perfect way to see the stunning skyline of Hong Kong if a helicopter ride is just out of your budget. From the drop off point, it’s a short ride on the Peak Tramway, up 1.4 km of track that was first travelled by sedan chair carrying locals back in 1888.
As Hong Kong is the fourth most densely populated area in the world, spending some time in this park can provide a little respite, far from the madding crowds. Although don’t expect too much peace and quiet hear as many other visitors and locals will have had the same idea as you. Nevertheless it is definitely worth a visit, if not to relax but to see how Hong Kongers spend their leisure time. On our visit this included dancing, Tai Chi and remote controlled powerboat racing in the ponds of the park. If you are travelling in Hong Kong with kids then the children’s area will be most appreciated!
Victoria Harbour by Night
One of the key features of Hong Kong is its densely packed skyline of skyscrapers and the background of mountainous ridges. For about 10 minutes each night, an event occurs which is known as A Symphony of Lights, where 44 of the buildings on the sides of the harbour take part in a synchronised light and laser show, set to music. It’s as bizarre as it sounds but is definitely worth checking out, although you will have to fight your way to get a good view, wrestling with 100s of tripod wielding Asian tourists. The best vantage point to witness this surreal show is from the promenade of Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side of the harbour. If after watching the show you were wondering why your city doesn’t put on this kind of display, it might be because of the 44 million HK dollar price tag!
The Star Ferry
Victoria Harbour is also an ideal place to experience the legendary and iconic Star Ferry service. While this is a fully functioning passenger service, travelling across the harbour, carrying 70,000 plus passengers a day, there is also the Star Ferry Harbour Tour for those who want to see more of the harbour than a simple crossing provides. This tour was one of the highlights of our trip to Hong Kong and is well worth the time, even on a short trip here. The tour gives you plenty of time to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the harbour that the regular crossings don’t.
However, if you are travelling on a budget, catching one of the passenger ferries is a very cost effective way of sampling the harbour by water as well as getting from one side to the other.
Hong Kong Park
If you want to see a bit of greenery in the centre of the city without heading out to Victoria Park then Hong Kong Park is your best bet. The park contains an aviary and is a great chance to see over 80 species of birds flying freely in an enclosure you can walk through. While this is an impressive place to snap some wildlife pictures, prepare to suffer from serious lens envy when you see what the other twitchers are packing.
Eating in Hong Kong
This was one of the only real disappointments of Hong Kong and even though we scoured the city looking for a decent place to eat there really wasn’t anything half-special that caught our eye. The nearer you get to mainland China the less palatable Chinese food becomes and Hong Kong was a culinary assault on the taste buds. The more adventurous of you out there might find the eateries of Hong Kong more accommodating but for us, this was the least favourite part of our trip. Even Western options were lacking and nothing we ate on the island was memorable for the right reasons. Perhaps we just missed all the best places to eat but compared to other eating opportunities in the region, Hong Kong falls far short of the high standard set elsewhere.
Should you Visit Hong Kong on your Travels?
If you are backpacking through Southeast Asia on a modest budget then Hong Kong might not instantly jump out at you as a destination you should add to your itinerary. This is mainly due to the generally high costs of day to day living such as accommodation, food, transport and getting in and out of the city island. Also due to the relatively cold climate of Hong Kong, which can go as low as 15 °C during the winter months, around Christmas, it could require the packing of warmer clothes that you wouldn’t need for the rest of the region, weighing you down considerably. Although if you are coming around July and August, you can expect temperatures and humidity levels on a par with Thailand and Cambodia.
With all that aside, I definitely recommend visiting Hong Kong. It is a unique and impressive place to see, and at the risk of sounding too clichéd, it is the perfect example of East meets West; with the hustle and bustle of a 21st century Chinese city mixed with the comfortingly familiar remnants of Western societal customs such as queuing and a slight restraint when it comes to public expunging of bodily fluids and solids.
If you can select Hong Kong as your stopover on your flights into or out of Southeast Asia then you have the perfect excuse to visit this dynamic city.