Repeatedly in my research of what to do in Hong Kong, I kept coming across the same theme over and over again: Hong Kong as a stopover city. A place where you’d spend maybe five hours, three days max.
Of course, Hong Kong is a major gateway to Asia and thus logistically makes sense for stopovers, but to frame it as such I think is a disservice to this lively city that I came to love in just five days. Within the first day I arrived, I knew five was going to be too short, and after five I felt like I had barely scratched the surface. So rather than share a guide to HK (because I have so much more to see!) here are a few ways that Hong Kong surprised and delighted me — and made me excited for the next time I can go back.
It’s the perfect mix of urban and natural landscapes
Before arriving in Hong Kong, I was clueless that so many beautiful hikes and easily accessible green spaces existed around the city. On my first full day in HK, we took a quick taxi and landed in no time at one of the more popular hikes, Dragon’s Back, which has incredible views both of the water and the skyline in the distance.
However, you don’t even have to go as far as Dragon’s Back to get into nature as Victoria’s Peak is literally in the city and gives you that instant sensation of fresh air and photosynthesis happening around you. Having lived in New York City for several years where I felt a bit trapped by the concrete jungle, I can safely say that this Asian metropolis seems to have the perfect balance of ways to escape the city life.
The airport is a breeze
Not only were the security and customs the easiest processes of any airport I’ve encountered, but getting into the city center is simple and inexpensive via the HK Airport Express train, which is part of Hong Kong’s larger metro system. A ticket costs about $205 HK dollars round trip (approx $26 US dollars) and will drop you at several stations before its final destination at Hong Kong station.
Another genius perk? In-town check-in. Let me just fill you in on this literally life-changing service. Rather than having to store your luggage at your hotel after checkout and then go back to retrieve it before your flight, in-town check-in allows you to hand over your luggage at their centrally located drop-off up to 24 hours in advance of your departure, grab your boarding pass and enjoy your last hours in Hong Kong without running back and forth like a crazy person.
But wait, it gets better. Once you actually need to go the airport, you just go. How? Because your luggage is already completely checked and you literally won’t see it until you’ve arrived at your final destination. And there you have it, folks. A genius, well thought out system that actually works. Can we cheers to that?
It’s surprisingly colorful
I won’t lie. I fully expected Hong Kong to be a place painted in shades of gray, much like most big skyscraper-filled cities I’ve seen in the States. I shouldn’t have assumed. Apparently back in the day, red was the cheapest paint color, but rather than paint entire structures with the aggressively bold hue, developers in Hong Kong chose more muted versions of the color like pink, which became a jumping off point for the various pastel buildings you’ll see littering the city. When you start to really walk around and weave in and out of its network of streets, you’ll start to notice how colorful it truly is. I’ll take periwinkle over gray any day.
The food options are endless — and really, really good
Hong Kong has an endless amount of options for foodies — from Tim Ho Wan, a dim sum restaurant located in the Airport Express which is the cheapest Michelin-rated restaurant in the world (a must-try), to stellar spots in just about every other global cuisine genre. You can find it all in Hong Kong. Yardbird, a restaurant located in the Sheung Wan neighborhood which specializes in yakitori has to be one of my favorite meals from my travels thus far. If you go, make sure to go early as they don’t take reservations and order up the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower) as it is quite literally to die for.
Also, don’t miss the chance to discover some of Hong Kong’s tea and coffee shops. I loved Teakha, which is a bit hidden but attracts a solid crowd on weekends to sample their delicious teas and green tea cheesecake. Cupping Room was another spot that I loved for coffee, but happens to serve a mean avocado toast as well.
The city is set up for people watching
Something that makes Hong Kong unique to any city I’ve visited is its genius escalator system, which was built in the 1990s to provide a better commute for locals without adding traffic on the roads. What now exists is a giant outdoor escalator that runs from Central all the way up to Mid-Levels and has 85,000 pedestrians a day (insane!). This makes for great people watching, especially because so many bars and restaurants surround the path, so you can easily watch the commuters comfortably with a cocktail in hand.
My friend Meredith who has been an expat in Hong Kong for four years took me to some bars just in front of “the escalators” and would constantly be running into friends coming up or down on their commute home from work. I was surprised to find that the community felt smaller and more intimate than I had imagined, but it seems to be because many people aren’t confined to their cars to drive home and can actually have human interaction.
Beach life is just a 20 minute drive away
Need to escape the hustle of the city? You’re in luck. Hong Kong Island is home to twelve different beaches and an additional 29 are located across the New Territories. Just 20 minutes drive from Central is Shek O Village, a beachside community (pictured above) with a clean, beautiful beach perfect for swimming and surrounded by beautiful mountains. I had a great day here on Easter Sunday lounging around and enjoying Tsingtao beer in the sand.
The Skyline is Epic — and it’s Easy to Photograph!
I’m sure you’ve seen it before in photographs, but the skyline is one of the highlights of any visit to Hong Kong. Whether it’s viewing the towering skyscrapers that sit on opposite sides of the harbor from the top of The Peak or from the rooftop bar at the Ritz-Carlton (the highest hotel in the world), you’re bound to get something Instagram worthy.
The Shopping Scene Goes Beyond Luxury Malls and Souvenir Markets
Being the metropolis that it is, I was expecting the Diors, the Chanels, the major department stores and luxury shopping complexes. And like every major tourist destination, Hong Kong also has great souvenir shopping meccas like Stanley Market where you can pick up everything from Chinese antiques and artfully decorated chopsticks, to jewelry, tea sets and more.
What I wasn’t expecting, however, were the unique shopping experiences like PMQ, a creative hub for emerging designers and businesses that is housed in the old Police Married Quarters (hence the initials). Imagine a semi-indoor semi-outdoor hipster mall that sells everything from books and antiques to clothing and food products, and you’ve basically met PMQ. It’s filled door to door with design studios and small boutiques featuring a variety of goods that feel much more authentic than the stereotypical Hong Kong souvenirs you’ll find elsewhere.
There’s an up and coming craft beer scene
One of my biggest frustrations in traveling throughout Asia is that a great, flavorful beer is super hard to come by, but Hong Kong is one of the first Asian cities to really embrace the craft brew scene. What started with a community of expats missing the beers back home, is now a burgeoning new industry that has reached 120 bars city-wide that are now including locally brewed beers on their menus. I tried TAP: The Ale Project during my stay and loved the vibe, plus it’s the perfect pregame to catching the Mongkok Ladies Market at night.
Even if you skip all the tourist spots, there’s plenty to keep you busy
With just a short 5 days stay, I chose to enjoy the city slowly taking it in by foot rather than rushing myself to see all of the typical tourist spots (aka the Big Buddha, Lamma Island, Temple Street Night Market, etc). While I did visit Stanley Market, the Ozone bar at the top of the Ritz-Carlton and Victoria’s Peak, what I enjoyed most was wandering the super safe streets of the city popping into random shops and restaurants, strolling through small markets and taking in the local everyday culture. If you plan on visiting, I highly recommend taking a day to just wander and let your curiosity lead you – you never know where you might end up!
A Few Final Tips:
- Hong Kong isn’t hard to navigate but you’ll find that cab drivers barely speak English. It’s best to have your destination’s address written down on your phone to show them or download the app Hong Kong Taxi Cards to assist in translation.
- You’ll notice locals paying for items around the city with a card that’s scanned rather than swiped. That’s Hong Kong’s version of the metro card, called the Octopus Card, which can not only be used for transportation but also in some convenient stores, Starbucks, vending machines and more. Once you purchase the card itself, you can top it up with HK dollars at locations all around the city.
- The best skyline views in my opinion can be found at Victoria’s Peak which is super accessible from inside the city as well as the top of the Ritz-Carlton at Ozone Bar. If you choose Ozone, just make sure you go on a clear day and dress appropriately if you plan to stay later into the night as the dress code and environment get stricter as the evening continues.
- If you’re in the market for anything jade, Hong Kong is a great place to buy it as the city is the largest trading center in the world for the pretty gem.
- Hong Kong might be a more tropical city but it does get cold. I went in late March and had to borrow my friend’s sweaters and closed-toed shoes to feel comfortable at night, so make sure you check the weather and pack appropriately.
Have you been to Hong Kong? What surprised you about the city? Let me know in the comments below!