For most places you visit, you have an idea of what to expect. Hong Kong managed to be exactly what I expected, while being exactly the opposite at the same time. We arrived after a few days in China’s beautiful Guilin and Yangshuo region, and Hong Kong couldn’t have been more different – the city is undoubtedly one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to.
There are influences from all over the world that pop up in different parts of the city. As backpackers, I felt priced out of a lot in the Hong Kong side, but don’t let that put you off. I’ll remember the views and scale of the place much longer than a £5 beer. Go with no expectations, and you won’t be disappointed.
Getting to Hong Kong:
We arrived through neighbouring Chinese border city Shenzhen. There’s a mainline train station, and plenty of coaches arrive here, so it’s very accessible. We had slight trouble finding the Luohu Train Station – where the Hong Kong border crossing is – but once you’re in there, follow the signs and crowds through immigration to Hong Kong. From there, get the Hong Kong metro into the city.
We left from the airport, but arriving through there would be simple. The airport is on the metro system which will take you to most places in the city in a short time.
Where to Stay:
There are so many options for accommodation in Hong Kong, which actually makes it difficult to separate the good from the bad. My only advice would be to stay on the Kowloon side of the city – location and transport links are good, and it’s notably cheaper. We stayed in a guesthouse in an apartment block on Nathan Road, which seemed to be where most cheap places are. Don’t expect spacious accommodation in Hong Kong, especially on a budget. Our twin room was cramped and tiny, but there’s so much to see in the city that you’re barely in your rooms anyway.
Things to Do:
In Kowloon, there’s not many attractions. Saying that, I much preferred this side to the Hong Kong Island – it just seemed more authentic and Asian, and it looks and feels more like what I expected China to be. There are neon signs, lots of local businesses, small alleyways, busy roads, and night markets. I’d thoroughly recommend just walking around and seeing what you can find (especially at night when the streets become huge markets like in the Mong Kok and Temple Street areas.
Every night, the Hong Kong skyline lights up and the best view of this impressive sight is from the Kowloon side of the harbour. However, the famous light show is pretty anticlimactic – quiet music, and not many actual lights to live up to the hype. It’s definitely worth seeing the city light up as the sun goes down, but don’t expect a thrilling Disney-esque light show.
From Kowloon, the famous Star Ferry will get you across the harbour to Hong Kong island. It’s cheap and cheerful, but slightly out of the way to get on and off. Sometimes the metro is just easier.
When on the Hong Kong side, it feels like you’re in a different city from Kowloon. Everything – from shops, brands, and people – is suddenly Western. The Bank of China tower has a viewing platform, but plan ahead because they have specific opening times. The impressive architecture of the HSBC building is worth a look if you’re near.
Further in from the harbour is a couple of attractive parks that are worth a visit. The Hong Kong park is nice to walk around but nothing spectacular. The Botanical (or Zoological) Gardens are nicer and has a range of animals from a huge bird house to tortoises and monkeys. (Note – I got the feeling some animals weren’t happy there, especially the orangutans who were visibly miserable in cages that looked far too small. It put a dampener on the gardens, so don’t visit if that sort of thing puts you off.)
We also visited the Hong Kong Coastal Defence Museum in the old British naval barracks at the far end of the island. It’s an excuse to ride the old electric wooden tram but unless you have an interest in coastal defence, it’s tricky to get to on foot and probably not worth the effort.
The main memory of Hong Kong is the view from Victoria Peak. I would recommend going on your last night in the city as it really is a case of saving the best until last and the evening really completed our Hong Kong trip. Give yourself plenty of time to board the Peak Tram because plenty of others will have the same idea. The view from the top is incredible, and were as good as some of the views we experienced in Yangshuo – but in a completely different way. The contrast between Kowloon and Hong Kong is so clear from the top, and it’s definitely the best way to see the city after a few days sightseeing.
Our trip was complete with a day visiting the other islands that make up Hong Kong. We took the metro to Lantau Island, and boarded the cable car to the peak. The cable car takes you over harbours and forests, while giving you great views of the city and the airport. At the top, there is a monastery and giant Buddha statue that is such a difference to the busy city below.
I’d recommend taking a bus from here to a local village. It’s a chance to see the more ‘rural’ Hong Kong, and food is cheaper too. There isn’t endless activities and sights to see, but we found a couple of peaks with amazing views. We also stumbled across a Dragon Boat Race festival – it’s easy to forget Hong Kong isn’t just the city, but this was a really nice reminder.
Eating and Drinking:
Purely for cost, stick to Kowloon for food. The Hong Kong island is full of expensive Western brands, but Kowloon has more local Cantonese canteens and street food which is a fraction of the price and so much better.
We found out the hard way that places get an evening drink on Hong Kong island are busy and expensive. The area around the split level escalators is nice for some home comforts, but be aware of the high prices aimed at Western professionals rather than travellers. We found this was reflected in the service – a few places actively tried to get rid of us as two young backpackers because we were on a budget.
The metro system is efficient and easy to use. Hong Kong is very hot, especially in the summer, so this is the best way to go. For novelty, definitely ride the Star Ferry, Peak Tram, and Hong Kong electric wooden tram – but these aren’t the quickest or easiest methods of transport.
From Hong Kong, we flew to Hanoi to start our Vietnam leg of our travels. Check out my blog on Hanoi here! Also, take a look at my ‘Top 5’ Highlights blog, where I look at the best places we visited, stayed, ate and drank over the incredible seven weeks we spent exploring South East Asia.