Hong Kong is not a holiday destination for the faint of heart, but is ideal for anyone who wants to burst out of their comfort zone just a little. This frenzied harbour city can be said to suffer from a split-personality syndrome, yet we imagine forcing a 99 year-long British rule on an inherently Chinese city will tend to have that effect.
Some say that the first thing which wallops visitors is the insane traffic, mind-boggling crowds or the seemingly endless neon-sign overkill, yet we’re of the opinion that if there is just one thing which hits one like a slap in the face upon first arrival, it would have to be the smell. Hong Kong has a particular fragrance, which has yet to be replicated anywhere else. Some locals simply call it ‘stinky-poo’, but we like to think of it as ‘eau de Honkers’. Between the exhaust fumes, hanging duck carcasses, stray dogs, burning incense, street disinfection, sweaty locals and their outdoor-peeing habits, not to mention garlic, ginger and soy sauce with a hint of sesame…there’s not a city on earth that can stimulate the olfactory glands quite like Hong Kong. And that’s quite a claim.
If you’d like all of your senses stimulated, then we suggest you spend a week or more in this crazy ‘ol town, and tour it from top to bottom. Aside the craziness, there is also the utter calmness of mountain retreats and Buddhist temples and the deliciousness of the local cuisine. Anyone in search of a sensory overload destination will find no better place on earth than Hong Kong.
Hong Kong guide – The ins and outs of Hong Kong
Hong Kong Island
The epicentre of most tourist activity would have to be Hong Kong Island itself. This side of the bursting metropolis offers a rather sanitized side of Hong Kong, perfect for the first time visitor and uninitiated tourist. Places with names like Victoria Harbour and Aberdeen Street are testament to the fact that this is the one place which still retains some good old English influence, so may be ideal if you can’t quite face Hong Kong in its rawest form just yet.
Central, the hub of the government grinding machine and former seat of British governors is a maze of high story buildings and overly-developed waterfronts. Tourists tend to shop around the Central area, probably because it is, well, rather central; just don’t forget to check out our shopping guide for hints and tips of some alternative shopping destinations around Honkers. This is one of the world’s foremost shopping destinations so shops, stores, markets and huge malls abound in just about every corner of the city.
Hong Kong is at its hyperactive, most neon-obsessed self in the northern areas of The Causeway and Wan Chai. The Central street of Lan Kwai Fong is the heart and soul of Hong Kong’s ex-pat nightlife, and a popular spot for visiting foreigners. Here, you will find foreign-owned bars and restaurants of every shape, size and budget. Just keep in mind that this place is almost mind-numbing boring during the week, so if you only get the chance to head here once, make sure it’s on a Saturday night.
Affluent locals and ex-pats have their mansions and high-rise apartments around the Mid-Level area, and the richest of rich reside in the aptly named Peak area, just west of Central. Aside the amazing views these elevated suburbs enjoy, the areas are revered because they are the greenest corners of the territories. In a city which suffers from sometime chronic levels of air-pollution (on a bad day, this city can bring one to tears) being high up and surrounded by parks is quite priceless. If you want a sneak-peek at what life is like on the other side, ditch the tourist masses at the Peak Tram Station and take a leisurely walk through the tree-lined streets. Only here can you admire gold-plated gates, jaw-dropping mansions and opulent private gardens. You may also notice that, somehow, these people pay to have the infamous stinky-poo not reach their front doors. Magic.
Across from Victoria harbour is Kowloon, one of the most densely populated corners of the world; and you certainly get the impression here that personal space must be one of the highest prized possessions. Walking aimlessly through the streets of Kowloon makes one feel somewhat stuck in a life-size ant farm; to anyone not used to this kind of urban development, it may come across as pure insanity. Often considered the more authentic side of Hong Kong, Kowloon still boasts a rather popular tourist side, namely Tsim Sha Tsui. You’ll find hotels, hostels, shops and restaurants here.
Lantau, the island on the western side of the bay, is mostly known for being the arrival hub and is home to HK International Airport. Lantau is also home to Disneyland and the Ngong Ping viewpoint reachable by cable car, something worth doing only on the clearest of days. Lantau is actually a great choice for anyone who thinks the excessive smog of Hong Kong may cause problems. The area around Discovery Bay is home to some great hotels, an infinite number of parks, great restaurants and cheap eateries. Lantau also boasts the nicest beaches in Hong Kong. Getting a ferry to either Hong Kong Island or Kowloon is very easy, cheap and convenient, so do consider this as an optimal base for your stay. Lantau is just one of many outer islands in the archipelago, some making for fantastic side trips out of the city.
All major airlines will get you in and out in a jiffy from Hong Kong’s International Airport: Chek Lap Kok. Do not even contemplate worrying about navigating this airport, it has been rated as one of the world’s best, all signage is in English and the staff are very helpful. To reach your hotel, or any corner of Hong Kong, you can use the Express Train, Shuttle Bus or taxi, or get all the info you need here. All the islands are connected by bridges, so you need not stress out about catching any of the ferries upon first arrival.
Getting out and about
When you eventually settle in though, we do recommend you leave the taxis for late-night escapades and stick to the MTR tram system and the ferries to hop between isles. The city’s MTR train system is extensive and speedy, but extremely unromantic. In such a visually stimulating city, getting around underground seems a little pointless. And besides, it’s really only worth it for long rides as short ones are rather expensive compared to the ferries.
The Star Ferry connects HK to Kowloon, and Discovery Bay in Lantau can be easily reached via a 20-minute ride. Take advantage of this invaluable website to help you plan your stay.
Hong Kong is the home of the famous Octopus Card, which is not unlike London’s Oyster Card, yet here the ‘contactless’ card goes one genial step further. Many businesses around HK also accept the Octopus Card, so once you’ve loaded it up at a local 7-11 or a gazillion other outlets, you can not only hop on all the buses, trams and ferries, but you can also make purchases and pay for meals without the need to carry any cash on you. Of all the city-card systems of the world, we have found this to be one of the most convenient.
Known locally as ding-ding, they are a great way to get around Central, and should actually be counted as a cultural experience not to be missed. The double-decker icons are hot, smelly, dusty and dirty, but they’re an absolute hoot! They scour the northern side of HK Island and are possibly the cheapest hop-on/off tour option around.
Hong Kong is also home to millions of mini-vans which act as public-moving vehicles, yet these are usually (and quite rightly) never considered by tourists. Even if your Cantonese is spotless, no van driver will pick you up for fear of being the one who ‘lost the tourist’ so steer clear of those and stick to the mainstream when negotiating this already confusing-enough city.
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