Once a sleepy fisherman’s village, Hong Kong, officially the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, has come a long way. An electrifying, unrelenting city that thrusts your senses to the max, it is the epitome of east-meets-west, old versus new, and land embracing the sea.
Where else can you find Zaha Hadid and I. M. Pei architectural masterpieces minutes away from 19th century stone slabbed streets? Or beautiful waterfront promenades lining the harbour docked with ferries, Chinese junk boats, and mega yachts? Or contemporary dim sum served in old school bamboo steamers within the compounds of restored colonial heritage buildings?
A foodie’s paradise, a shopaholic’s dream, and recently an art collector’s wonderland and a sports enthusiast’s playground, it is not to be a cliché, but a city that never sleeps — no wonder your only problem might be how to avoid major FOMO. Well, read on for 10 tips to help get you started.
1. Get oriented
First things first, let’s get your bearings straight. Hong Kong consists of Hong Kong Island, the mainland: Kowloon, and the New Territories (connected to China), and more than 200 outlying islands. It is, to say the least, one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
Congested and highly compact, it is connected by the most efficient transportation networks in the world. Choosing where to stay is secondary when the whole city is accessible via the squeaky-clean Mass Transit Railway (MTR). And with the English taxi-hailing app, an abundance of vehicles is at one’s fingertips. Too many pre-existing apps on your phone? Just use Uber!
Three cross-harbour tunnels connect the mainland to Hong Kong Island, but if you’re looking for a more scenic route, the trusty old Star Ferry, in operation since 1888, will, within minutes, bring you across Victoria Harbour. Also docked at the piers, numerous ferries shuttle day-trippers and residents alike to the outlying islands.
On Hong Kong Island, if you’re looking for the most environmentally-friendly way to travel, the tram, known endearingly as the ‘ding-ding’ for the sound of its bells, will pace you steadily from west to east and vice versa.
Local’s tip #1: Get a prepaid Octopus card for public transportation, dining, and more.
Local’s tip #2: Avoid hailing taxis from 4:30-5:00 pm when daytime taxi drivers change shifts.
2. Best time to visit
Packed with multitudes of conventions, exhibitions, and events, Hong Kong is a year-round destination. Though weather-wise, the city enjoys a cooler respite from the notorious humidity after the Mid-Autumn Festival. Generally, locals can venture outdoors from late September to February without getting sizzled in the sweltering heat.
For those preferring to stay indoors within the comforts of air-conditioned malls, bi-annual shopping sales start from May to August and from December to February.
The world-renowned firework displays over Victoria Harbour can be enjoyed three times a year: Chinese New Year, National Day on 1 October, and New Year’s Eve.
Local’s tip: Purchase a portable mini fan, available ubiquitously during summer, to cool down.
3. What to wear
Hong Kong is a low-crime, modern, cosmopolitan city and is not linked to any specific religion. Therefore, it is safe to say that anything goes. However, the unofficial modus operandi is ‘if you have it flaunt it’.
Don’t be surprised to see tais-tais (ladies who lunch) decked out in the latest designer fashion accented by diamond watches and gem-stoned jewellery. Or teenagers donning limited edition sneakers and hip crossover sportswear.
Though the city is not conservative by any means, some fine dining restaurants may have a dress code, and it would be prudent to Google beforehand.
Local’s tip: Buildings in Hong Kong are air-conditioned at chilling temperatures to keep funky odours caused by high humidity at bay. Do pack a thin jacket, cardigan, or pashmina and keep it in your handbag when out and about.
4. Where to stay
Being a world-class city with at one point over 60 million visitors in a year, Hong Kong over-indulges in the number of hotels available. International brands such as the Four Seasons, Shangri-La, Peninsula, and others have long established their presence here. Serviced apartments, such as One-Eight-One Hotels and Serviced Residences, continuously deliver for those looking for a more extended stay. But what are the latest hotels to consider?
For one, the highly-acclaimed Rosewood, though welcoming visitors and pooches since 2019, has now fully opened all its restaurants and amenities. Embracing locality but geared towards the millennial traveller looking for a unique luxury experience, no small detail is overlooked.
The impressive 10 restaurants and bars, ranging from contemporary American steakhouse to authentic Indian fare, beckons the discerning foodie. The exclusive members-only Carlyle & Co., spanning the top three floors of the hotel, encompasses a restaurant, bar, terrace overlooking the million-dollar harbour view, music room, barber, tailor, and so much more is THE social club to be seen at now.
Hotels built alongside theme parks are nothing new. At best, they’re usually… decent. But when it’s Fullerton branded, you know it will be different. Introducing The Fullerton Ocean Park Hotel — the brand’s first-ever resort. Located on the desirable south side of Hong Kong Island, each of the 425 sleekly decorated rooms offers a stunning panoramic ocean view.
The 60-metre outdoor infinity pool is easily the Insta-worthy shot you’ll need to get oodles of likes from your followers. And, of course, with Ocean Park right at its doorstep, guests are treated to an array of marine adventures.
Local’s tip: Some destinations may require you to debate over staying in the city centre or not. However, being such a small and efficient city, Hong Kong doesn’t require you to make that decision. To give you a sense, from the New Territories (where you can actually see Shenzhen, China) to the southern tip of Hong Kong Island, by car takes less than an hour.
5. Diet after the trip
The culinary mecca that it is Hong Kong’s restaurant dining scene is nothing short of cutthroat. With diverse cuisines catering to a wide range of budgets, locals are spoilt for choice and make it known that ‘if you snooze, you lose’. You’ve got your Michelin-starred and San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants, such as The Chairman, Neighborhood, and 8 ½ Otto E Mezzo Bombana.
There are dim sum classics and contemporaries such as Mott 32, Seventh Son, and Yum Cha. For those yearning for ‘roast goose’ dishes (which I’ve been told on numerous occasions on my recent travels that only Hong Kong does it best), Yak Lok, Yung Kee, and Ki’s Roasted Goose are still thriving.
The Magistracy is your one-stop shop for tourists who are always looking to kill two birds with one stone. Housed in the oldest surviving law court building in the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, it is to be a multi-stored venue. Currently accepting reservations, the stately old-school British-themed Magistracy Dining Room serves timeless London classics, prime rib, raw seafood, and more. If you’ve got time to spare before or after the meal, the outdoor green oasis of a terrace is perfect for a boujie glass of gin and tonic.
There’s no doubt that we Malaysians know our fish. And you can bet on it when a fellow countryman from Sabah opens a seafood restaurant in the posh SOHO area; he’s not going to disappoint. Percy’s is where you’ll find expats dining on specially seasoned deep-fried fish skin, clams in Calabrian chilli (spicy enough for us Malaysians), lobster in fluffy Chinese bao, and crispy grouper schnitzel. Feeling a little homesick? The pandan cake with kaya, coconut, and ginger should resolve that.
Local’s tip: Do make reservations way ahead of your trip. Some restaurants allow bookings up to a few months beforehand, and that’s how far ahead you’ll (usually) need to secure a place.
6. Shopping is a sport
From swanky malls selling designer goods to busting street markets poking out of tiny alleyways, Hong Kong’s got something to sell to everyone. The hardest decision is where you should spend your hard-earned cash. Property developers recognise that, and many have launched loyalty programmes with countless incentives. The best is letting shoppers earn points from money spent, which can be redeemed for cash vouchers. Pacific Place’s above, ifc’s CLUB ic, and Landmark’s BESPOKE offer spectacular privileges and rewards.
But a game changer is K11 MUSEA. Located at the Victoria Dockside, this high-end retail and dining destination has already made a name for its world-class art collection. Exhibited throughout the mall, each piece, be it an installation or a painting, is accessible to everyone. Oh, and yes, there’s a loyalty programme, KLUB 11 and a private member’s club, Gentry Club, for the VIP shoppers.
Local’s tip #1: The best time to earn and redeem points is during the Christmas season when shoppers can redeem holiday cash vouchers and additional freebies ranging from movie tickets to La Maison du Chocolat.
Local’s tip #2: Guidebooks have consistently directed tourists to the Jade Market on Kansu Street for cheap jade souvenirs. Instead, make your way down Canton Road around The Jade Plaza for jadeite, the higher quality, more valuable version of jade.
7. Stay calm
The high-octane lifestyle of the city requires times of serene calmness to let you reconnect to your mind, body, and soul. Unbeknownst to many, Hong Kong possesses world-class hiking trails covering natural parks to steep mountains, delivering breathtaking views that can easily help you decompress.
It was on snooker champion Ronald Antonio O’Sullivan’s recent trip to the city that he made this discovery and vowed to come back again for a longer visit. Popular hikes include The Peak, Dragon’s Back, Violet Hill, and Twin Peak. Tai Lam Chung Reservoir (Thousand Island Lake) and Lion Rock are excellent Insta-worthy choices for the truly adventurous.
In search of a spiritual outing? The Tsz Shan Monastery may just be the sanctuary needed. Built by Hong Kong’s richest man, Mr Li Ka-shing, to promote Buddhism, the 500,000 sq ft compound features Guan Yin’s biggest bronze statue (Goddess of Mercy). At 76 metres tall, it is impressively twice the size of Lantau’s Big Buddha. Accompanied by Tang dynasty-styled architecture, expansive spaces, and ample greenery, it is one of the most Zen places on Earth.
Waterfront promenades are a familiar sight. However, it was recently that the area lacing the beautiful Victoria Harbour re-developed into something less commercial and more leisure-oriented. The Wan Chai promenade, from Tamar in Admiralty to the cross-harbour tunnel, has morphed into green playgrounds, pavilions with shaded chairs and tables, local art installations, and a harbour front where the young and old can ride on pedal boats. Welcoming joggers and strollers, it also breaks tradition by allowing pets on leashes.
Local’s tip: Don’t go hiking alone as accidents do happen, such as heat stroke or, worse, falling off a cliff. The chances of survival are always higher when you have someone with you.
8. Kids are welcome too
Disneyland is a destination itself. Although the smallest in the world, with seven themed lands and three hotels, Hong Kong’s does pack a punch. After the last few years of refurbishment and expansion, expect a new and improved Sleeping Beauty Castle that comes alive with a highly coordinated nighttime show of stunning large-scale projections, synchronised lighting, lasers, water fountains, pyrotechnics, and flames.
Coming in the second half of 2023, the first highly immersive World of Frozen welcomes you to the Kingdom of Arendelle, where kids will be letting it all go. It’s truly the happiest place on Earth for the little ones and adults alike, so definitely don’t miss out on this pitstop.
Ocean Park, the oldest theme park in Hong Kong, reinvents itself again and again. This marine mammal Hong Kong institution, has reopened its highly anticipated Water World. Spanning almost 700,000 sq ft, it comprises five water zones with 27 attractions providing hours of thrilling spins, twists, and drops. For old times’ sake, race down the Rainbow Rush with six other friends, where you’ll plunge down a 17-metre slide upon emerging from a dark tunnel.
Land is in limited supply in Hong Kong, so it’s not surprising that locals make the most out of its ocean surroundings. Come summer, and it’s water sports galore! Wakeboarding, kayaking, and paddle boarding are popular, but did you know that the island is known for breeding windsurfing champions? Children can start as young as eight at the Aqua Bound Center, where if you’re lucky, your coach may just be an Olympian.
Local’s tips: With a wet suit, water sports can still be enjoyed in the cooler months.
9. Art is booming
Art Basel, record-breaking art auctions, and international galleries are nothing in this city where the appreciation of finer things and alternative forms of investment is always on people’s minds. It was not until recently that the government decided to play a bigger role in promoting art. One of its most ambitious projects, the West Kowloon Cultural District, is set to be a vibrant cultural landmark and is now anchored by two world-class museums: the M+ and the Palace Museum.
The M+ is touted as a global museum of contemporary visual culture displaying 20th and 21st-century visual art, design, architecture, and moving images. In celebration of the museum’s first anniversary, more than 200 pieces narrating Yayoi Kusama’s art and life will be exhibited until 14 May 2023.
In contrast, the Palace Museum transports visitors back to antiquity. Hundreds of priceless artefacts and treasures on loan from the Beijing Palace Museum are exhibited on rotation to promote Chinese art history and culture.
Local’s tip: Take a break from all the multi-sensory artwork and picnic at the Art Park, where the promenade along the waterfront is perfect for sunsets over the harbour.
10. Capture the skyline
You haven’t been to Hong Kong until you’ve taken a picture of the iconic skyline. No other place on earth bursts with psychedelic colour-changing skyscrapers, partitioned by a gleaming ocean bobbing with maritime crafts within a backdrop of mountainous foliage.
It is astonishing how this spectacle never grows old and has captivated the hearts of locals and tourists alike. Do take that postcard shot of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon on the Victoria Dockside or the West Kowloon Cultural District. Or take the revamped sixth-generation Peak Tram up to the Peak Tower to get a truly panoramic view of the city.
Local’s tip: To try something different, take a vertical shot from the depths of the cement jungle. Top spots include glitzy Central, jam-packed Mong Kok, and the famous Insta-worthy Yik Cheong Building of the ‘Monster Building’ complex in gritty Quarry Bay.