Hong Kong is the most surreal city I’ve ever visited. It’s a towering, modern metropolis of steel and glass in the middle of a jungle. Driving into the city from Hong Kong International Airport was like driving into a foreign planet; I couldn’t crane my neck hard enough to get it all in.
For the first-time traveller to Asia, it’s a perfect introduction. English is prevalent, and it’s easy to get around. (Those are crap reasons to visit a place, but hey, if you’re a nervous nellie like me it’s a good start!) I didn’t stick out like a gingery sore thumb, and I felt safer than I do on the streets of St. John’s.
Is three days in Hong Kong enough? I certainly could have used more time in the city, but I did manage to do a lot. These were my favourite experiences.
Day 1 – Exploring Sham Shui Po and Shek Kip Mei
There’s nothing like being thrown into the chaos immediately! Sham Shui Po is one of Hong Kong’s oldest districts, and it’s certainly one of the more rugged parts of the city. The same goes for Shek Kip Mei. It’s one of the up-and-coming areas for artists as well, but the main draw for us was the food stalls and street markets.
YHA Mei Ho House – This is now a youth hostel, but it used to be a resettlement block built in 1954. Over 58,000 people were displaced during the Shek Kip Mei Fire on 1953, with many of them ending up here – as many as 11 people crammed in one room. Now there’s an attached heritage museum that gives a good overview of the area.
Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre – This former factory has been turned into an arts centre, with 390 spaces for artists to practice their craft. You’re able to wander at will and watch the art and progress, or shop for souvenirs.
Fuk Wa Street Market & Apliu Street Flea Market – I’m not much of a market goer – the din tends to overwhelm me. But for whatever reason, the markets in Asia didn’t feel quite as claustrophobic (I realize this makes absolutely zero sense). Maybe because the experience was so foreign to me, it was a complete sensor overload. Just wander at will, sample some street food, and shop for cheap souvenirs and electronics.
Kung Woo Beancurd Factory – You can come here to sample tofu pudding, one of Hong Kong’s classic desserts. (It’s cheap, and it’s Michelin Guide recommended!) / 118 Pei Ho Street
LUNCH: It’s gotta be Tim Ho Wan, a cheap Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant. (Caveat: I’m obsessed with dim sum now. It all started here. For those that don’t know, dim sum is small plates of Chinese food meant to be shared amongst the table. It’s my favourite way to eat because I get to try ALL OF THE THINGS.) You know this place is good because there is a constant crowd of locals and travellers waiting outside. You have to show up early and take a number, but I assure you it’s worth it. / G/F, 9-11 Fuk Wing Street
AFTERNOON/EVENING: Watch the sunset and the light show at the Ocean Terminal Deck in Tsim Sha Tsui
Ocean Terminal is a cruise terminal that’s a part of the Harbour City complex, including a shopping mall and a giant car park. I’m not a shopper, but the deck is a sight to behold – it’s enormous, and it affords perfect views of Hong Kong. Even with the dozens upon dozens of people (including professional photographers) hanging around here, nobody ever fought for space. There was plenty of it.
The Symphony of Lights takes place at 8pm every night, and Hong Kong’s skyline lights up in a dazzling light show. I watched it from the Ocean Terminal, but anywhere on the harbour-front area near the Hong Kong Cultural Centre will give you a great view (and you’ll hear the accompanying music). You can also hear the music in Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai.
DINNER: Fu Rong at the Ocean Terminal Deck – Since you’re already here, dinner at Fu Rong is a must. This is a contemporary Sichuan restaurant recently opened in 2018. Other than Tim Ho Wan, this was my most memorable restaurant experience in Asia. The service was unreal, and the parade of food was endless. You will get treated like royalty.
Day 2 – Ngong Ping Cable Car to Ngong Ping Village
So. I’m deathly afraid of heights. Like, annoyingly so. I somehow always seem to find myself on media trips that involve heights-related activities – and even though I force myself to do them each time, it never gets easier. Never.
The Ngong Ping Cable Car system is Asia’s longest bi-cable ropeway, with 360-degree views over Lantau Island (Hong Kong’s largest island). You can opt for a regular cable car ride, or take the glass-bottomed ride to the top (slightly more expensive). Of course we took the glass-bottomed ride.
I was also an emotional mess, after being dumped at about 5am in the morning. I popped two Ativan to deal with my life and hopped aboard the car.
But even in my state of terror and exhaustion, this ride was EPIC. Like, unbelievable. You get a bird’s eye view of the mountainous terrain around the island as you’re lifted over the cargo ships moving in and out of the harbour. You’re lifted up, up, up! Until you can see Big Buddha in the distance – the world’s second largest outdoor bronze Buddha statue. The views were mind-blowing; I couldn’t not enjoy it, even if I had to put my head between my knees a few times. The ride takes about 30 minutes each way!
At the top, you can explore the Po Lin Monastery and walk around the village. There are shops, and plenty of steps ascending to Big Buddha. I made it about halfway before my Ativan-addled brain said, “NOPE!” I decided I wanted lunch instead.
AFTERNOON – Tai O Fishing Village
Tai O is called the “Venice of Hong Kong,” which is a turn of phrase I hate using but it seems pretty apt here. You’ll see fishermen fixing their nets, or sun-drying salted fish. With a guide, you can visit one of the traditional stilt houses and learn about how these homes function. You can wander the narrow streets and into the market, sampling sugar donuts and sweet tofu.
We hopped on a quick boat tour to General’s Rock to see Tai O from the water. Apparently sometimes guests even catch sight of dolphins (including the famous Pink Dolphin!).
This was a nice departure from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. While it’s definitely a touristy place, it was nice to appreciate a slower pace on the water.
EVENING – Temple Street Night Foodie Tour
You guys. I was SO TIRED when this happened that I fell asleep twice standing up. You know how much I love food. It was devastating. On the Temple Street Night Foodie Tour, we explored one of Hong Kong’s most notorious nightlife areas. We started out with curry fish balls and then continued on to eat all of the street food. Our guide was a complete gem – her enthusiasm for the food was entirely catching.
With a guide, you can grab street snacks, drink herbal drinks, try a famous Hong Kong style egg puff pastry, eat mango dessert, and chow down on fried wontons and sweet and sour sauce in an old 50s diner. I loved the egg puff pastry the most.
It was so much fun. And I was SO TIRED that one of the guides had to chauffeur me home in a taxi.
Don’t be like me, kids.
Hong Kong Foodie Tours has a bunch of different offerings, and I’m a firm believer that these types of tours are one of the best ways to get to know a place. They’re not cheap, though (as most things in Hong Kong aren’t) – the Temple Street tour is 75 HKD, which is about $120 CAD. It’s worth it, to me.
Day 3 – Take the tram to Victoria Peak
This was one of my favourite days! Victoria Peak itself is enchanting, but the tram ride to the top is another thrill. (Oddly, this doesn’t freak me out as much as dangling mid-air in a glass-bottomed cable car.) The Peak Tram was originally opened in 1888 for the use of the British Governor and the residents living on The Peak, but now it’s available to everyone. It’s the steepest funicular railway in the world – it’s surreal to leave behind the tall skyscrapers and city skyline as you ascend into the jungle towards the top of the mountain. The city looks like it’s about to tilt into the sea. Make sure you arrive early and get a seat on the right side of the tram!
For the best view, you have to visit the Sky Terrace at the Peak Tower. At the top, you’ll have picture perfect views over the whole city. It hardly looks real. We took the tram at 9:30am and managed to get there ahead of the rush; our views were uninterrupted, and for one brief moment we had the city all to ourselves.
There’s an excellent hiking trail around the tower called the Peak Circle Walk, starting at Lugard Road. It’s only 3.5 kilometres, but allow at least two hours to do it. You’ll have plenty of viewpoints along the way. As the name suggests, it’s a full circle bringing you straight back to the tower.
You can book tickets on the website; the tram costs about $17 CAD return, but you can also get a one-way ticket and then bus back down.
AFTERNOON – Visit Tai Kwun
The name “Tai Kwun” in Chinese means “big station” – the name used to refer to this Central Police Station building on 10 Hollywood Road. Nowadays it’s a heritage and arts centre, restored beautifully to an ultra-modern space. We wandered through some of the contemporary art exhibits with great amusement. One exhibit was devoted entirely to roaming robot vacuums, forever trawling across a minimalist landscape of wood planks. Tai Kwun really is a little slice of peace amongst all that steel and glass.
LUNCH – Old Bailey at Tai Kwun – We had another fantastic meal from this restaurant specializing in authentic Jiangnan food, brought to life in a gorgeous space designed by a handful of local artists, like Mina Park and Nana Chan. Almost all of their vegetable product is organic, their meats are carefully selected, and their condiments are either house-made or handmade. It’s incredibly vegetarian/vegan friendly. / Shop 20, 2/F Tai Kwun
Hanging out around Old Town Central
This is one of Hong Kong’s most popular areas for first-time visitors, and it’s not hard to see why. Everything is here. Food, history, arts, culture–it’s like a city within a city. Pottinger Street is particularly interesting, seeing as how it’s purposely covered in uneven stone slabs. Because the street is so steep, this makes it easier for pedestrians to get around.
I loved Hollywood Road the best. Everything here is an eclectic collection of art shops and expensive jewelry boutiques, but if you wander ever so slightly off into an alleyway, you’ll suddenly find yourself transported to a new world of street art and tiny market vendors. It’s here I haggled with friendly sellers for an adorable tea set as well as a few souvenirs for my little brother.
And by “haggled” I mean “offered full price.”
Check out the Man Mo Temple while you’re at it. It was built in 1847 as a tribute to the God of Literature and the God of War. It’s a perfect example of traditional Chinese vernacular architecture, and it’s elaborately decorated with ceramic figurines, granite and wood carvings, plaster mouldings, and fantastical murals.
Some places to eat: try Tai Cheong Bakery for their famous traditional egg tarts (35 Lyndhurst Terrace), or Kung Lee Herbal Tea (60 Hollywood Road) for some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice.
EVENING – Dinner at Tung Po, North Point
There was no indicator of what to expect when I visited Tung Po. The group and I entered a nondescript elevator at the Java Road Municipal Services Building, rode to the second floor, and found ourselves amid pure chaos.
This is probably my favourite memory from Hong Kong – it was so unexpected. The elevator doors opened and me and the others were tossed into the chaotic world of Tung Po, a hugely popular, casual restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. The place was absolutely PACKED – the noise was a dull roar. Waiters scurried between tables wearing white rubber boots. Servers came to our table to pour endless beer into bowls. We were the only table of foreigners in the entire restaurant. It was everything I was hoping for, and more.
We eventually did meet Robby Cheung, the highly energetic order who roams the place in his own fancy pair of rubber boots. He stopped and posed for photos with us, and then dropped to the floor to do the splits.
It was also my first time ever using a squat toilet. Do with that what you will.
Where I stayed
Hotel VIC – This is a brand new hotel on Victoria Harbour in North Point, a “newly fashionable” district. It’s next to all public transit, and nothing compares to waking up with panoramic views of all the activity in the harbour. I absolutely loved this hotel, and my room was sheer magic.
Hotel Vic was my favourite hotel in Asia. All of its little details were amazing, right down to the marble bathroom vanity stocked with the largest array of amenities I’ve ever seen in a hotel. Plus there was always snacks.
Attitude on Granville – As part of my assignment for Canadian Traveller magazine, I was asked to visit a few hotels, including Attitude. If I were coming back to Hong Kong I’d probably stay here. It was super young and chic. It’s located in the hub of Tsim Sha Tsui, next to a ton of attractions. It’s popular with solo travellers!
Hotel Soravit on Granville – This is Attitude’s sister hotel, and it’s a slightly more upscale boutique (as well as Thai-themed). The rooms were more luxurious than Attitude, and the art throughout was impressive. I feel like this one is more suited to business travellers/couples.
Mojo Nomad Central (Sheung Wan) – This is a motel turned micro-hotel, with shared accommodations and co-working all in one. I LOVED this place and would definitely stay here if I came back. It definitely skews more towards the younger crowd, with lots of common areas and a really great restaurant attached. We paused for cocktails and snacks before moving on to more cocktails and snacks.
My time in Hong Kong was largely dictated by my media trip schedule, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. That being said, three days in HK is less than ideal – it’d give it at the very least 5 days to fully appreciate the city. And even then you’re pushing it. If I had more time, I’d add on a few things like hiking and sailing in a junk boat. Hell, even the airport is entertaining. But I guess that just means I’m going back!