“You can leave Hong Kong, but it will never leave you.”Nury Vittachi
It sounds like a cliche, but sometimes things happen for a reason.
I was lying on the floor of my parents place, less than 24 hours after being hospitalised for being as sick as I’d ever been. My brother threw up the idea of a sneaky bet on the footy, something I never do. My team played the reigning premiers with long odds to win. To cut to the chase, we picked up $410.
The money burned a hole in my pocket in an unusual way. I was about to head overseas on the three month trip of a lifetime but for some reason I was reluctant to spend the cash there. I wanted it to go to something uniquely special and a week later, thanks to a Jetstar sale, I had it. I was going to Hong Kong.
Technically I’d been twice before; a few hours spent in the humidity of the airport en route to Europe a couple of years back. But I’d always wanted to go – properly – and the win, combined with a bargain $450 airfare, made it possible.
It was the right trip at exactly the right time.
I wasn’t happy before I went. Tough times at work. A shit time personally. My footy team consistently losing. A broken foot. Nothing was going my way. Hong Kong was an escape into the unknown, a chance to step out of my life and experience new things, see new places. It also had the benefit of a couple of old mates living in the city and some other friends visiting at exactly the same time. It was just the escape I needed.
I look back at the photos I took on my first day there, wandering around Stanley and I look so desperately unhappy. I can see it in my face; I’m smiling but it doesn’t reach my eyes. I remember taking dozens of selfies and thinking how terrible I looked in all of them. But then something changed. Hong Kong got to me. The unique opportunity to be away from my problems in a foreign location but with people I knew and loved, worked its magic. We laughed and drank and talked and ate. I went home drunk all but two of the nights I stayed there, swaying unsteadily at the Kings Road McDonalds near my hotel as I bought late night cheeseburgers. During the day I explored, taking it easy to account for the aforementioned only recently healed foot.
In short, I loved Hong Kong. It lived up to every expectation I had and then some. It’s a western eastern city with the best of its past and location. There’s plenty to do and see, a heap of day trips you can take and the food, shopping and people are good. It’s easy to get around, too. There’s not more you can ask for than that.
By the end of my week there I felt comfortable, like I’d been there an age. Sure, I was going to get on a plane and go home to a lot of the same problems but already I was feeling better about everything. I was refreshed. I had some perspective. And I also had a week of brilliant memories I’ll treasure for a long, long time.
Where to stay.
Hong Kong the city is split into two parts: you have Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and I would describe them as same same but different. Hong Kong Island is like almost any standard European orAmerican city dropped into an Asian context; think skyscrapers and complete modernity. Kowloon can be a little rougher around the edges, it has a bit more character and fits with what you expect an Asian city to be. Both are great areas and it’s easy to travel between the two on the Star Ferry – I chose to stay on the island part and would probably recommend that for other first timers.
That said, the island – while small – has a lot of different areas. The northern side is the main area with the majority of activities, restaurants, bars and shopping, while the southern side is a bit more relaxed. I stayed at the Butterfly on Victoria in Causeway Bay, which is in the north east part of the island. Sadly this hotel has since closed down, but there are six hotels in the Butterfly chain across Hong Kong and I’d recommend checking them out for a good, mid-priced hotel. In a city where space is an absolute premium, the rooms certainly aren’t huge, but they are modern and comfortable. I also liked that they had a device in the room with wifi that you could take with you around the city to use as a map or reference guide.
If I was heading back to Hong Kong I reckon I’d try and stay in Wan Chai or Central – Causeway Bay was fine but there was less to do in the area I was in, so I was having to catch the metro every day. That said, don’t underestimate how small Hong Kong actually is so if your hotel choice is slightly off in terms of location, it shouldn’t make too much difference. You’re only travelling for a few minutes on the train and lots of places are infinitely walkable.
Where to eat.
If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of in Hong Kong, then it’s good food. There’s a dichotomy to the city; it’s hideously, horrendously expensive in a lot of ways, but then it also has the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. It’ll cost you AUD$15 for a beer in a bar, but you can drink 7-11 beers on the street in Lan Kwai Fong for about a tenth of that. Ah, Hong Kong. There’s a lot of options at a lot of prices however I’d suggest that mid-range is going to be a bit higher than a lot of other cities and a visit to HK isn’t a cheap Asian holiday by any stretch, which includes food.
Tim Ho Wan has become something of a Hong Kong institution thanks to those Michelin-starred pork buns. I’m not a massive foodie but every man and his dog were recommending them so I put a visit on my list of things to do in the city. There’s four outposts across HK and I’d been warned they were prone to some long lines – think a couple of hours long – so go early. I went to the ifc one near Central just before midday and only waited about 10 minutes to get in. Keep in mind it isn’t the place for a leisurely lunch – it’s loud and brash and you get in and get out. While you’re lined up you fill in paper menus with what you want, then they take them and bring your food back in minutes.
It’s all pretty pork heavy but it’s also incredibly cheap. I went for the baked BBQ pork buns, deep fried pork dumplings and steamed pork rice rolls. All up it cost about AUD $15 but was far too much food for one person. The buns are great, they’re quite saucy and a bit like an Asian version of a hot pocket. The dumplings were good too but I took one bite of the rolls and coughed it into a tissue. It was like eating glue.
All up it’s a decent experience but I didn’t see hearts and rainbows and stars. It’s just simply nice food and there’s plenty of that around in the city. Basically put, if you miss out on Tim Ho Wan then don’t stress.
Another great spot around Central is Little Bao on Staunton Street. The food is fantastic – Westernised Chinese but incredibly delicious and the beers went down pretty easy.
People who know me well know I’m the fussiest eater (perhaps ever) but I braved a lack of English signs to eat the beef brisket noodles with soup at a place called Sister Wah because it’s supposedly amazing and meant to be one of the best in the city for the dish. It was absolutely worth it.
The soup was delicious, the noodles perfectly chewy and the beef was so tender it fell apart but wasn’t fatty at all. Washed down with a Coke, it was perfection. I even came back the next night for the chilli pork dumplings, which were splendid. Both nights set me back about AUD $10 which is practically free by Hong Kong standards. Sister Wah is located on Electric Road, take the A2 exit out of Tin Hau station and you’re practically at their front door.
In Hong Kong, they do brunch. Serious brunch. It’s called a free flow and basically you just get drunk for a few hours and eat a lot of good food. We booked into a place in Kowloon called Hutong. High on the 28th floor we had amazing views over the city and a buffet filled with Chinese food from (another) Michelin-starred restaurant. The drinks were either unlimited Veuve or lychee cocktails.
We stuffed ourselves with dumplings and pork buns while ‘free flow’ seemed an understatement when it came to the champagne. I don’t think our glasses were ever empty. For a while we switched to lychee cocktails but it was impossible to resist the lure of all that bubbly. It wasn’t a cheap experience by any stretch of the imagination – it set us back about AUD $150 a head – but it was the perfect Hong Kong Sunday. The price also includes a dancing show and a noodle display, which might sound odd but was pretty incredible to watch.
If you’re looking for a great roof top bar in Hong Kong then look no further – Wooloomooloo Steak House in Wan Chai is perfection. Go just as the city lights up and the views are phenomenal. Drink prices to match but hey, treat yo self and get amazing photos while you’re there.
Or, if you ever want to feel like you’re having a drink amongst the actual clouds, then Ozone Bar is your place. Situated at the top of the International Commerce Centre, which includes the Ritz Carlton, it’s the highest bar in the world. You’re 118 floors up and you feel it. One minute it was all cloud, the next we got a clear look over the city. And it’s bloody windy up there. At AUD $90 for four beers, it’s not a cheap experience but definitely one to tick off in Hong Kong.
Finally, Lan Kwai Fong is the nightlife district of Hong Kong and is packed with bars and restaurants. There’s also a bit of a street party vibe there, with people buying cheap drinks from the 7-11 and drinking them while walking around. I loved it because there’s all these crazy Asian beers you just can’t get elsewhere. It’s a genuine good time and well worth heading there even if it’s only for one night.
What to see and do.
So, Hong Kong is divided in two – there’s Hong Kong island and there’s Kowloon, which sits on a peninsula off mainland China. The two have incredibly different feels; Hong Kong island ostensibly gives off the vibe of a modern European or American city plonked down in the middle of Asia, which is in no doubt in large part to the enormous community of ex-pats who have resided there for decades, not to mention the influence of English rule. Kowloon is a little grittier, a little realer, a little more typical Asian metropolis, with alleyways full of markets and other local secrets. It’s the best kind of comparison and of course, there’s plenty to do and see in both.
The best part of travelling between the island and Kowloon is the iconic Star Ferry, where for one HK dollar you get a trip over the water with some of the city’s best (and most Instagrammable) views. It’s an event in itself and you’ll probably end up doing it more than a few times.
The thing I did last is probably the thing most people will want to do first – Victoria Peak. The peak is the highest hill on HK island and offers spectaular views across the city… provided the weather is right. Before I went I’d heard horror stories of people getting all the way to the top only to have the view obstructed by fog or clouds, and unfortunately this an be a fairly common occurrence. I waited until the very last day of my trip to go and somehow, it was magically clear. To get up to the top you can either pay to take the small tram or do a fairly strenuous hike. I was keen for the latter but at the time was recovering from a broken foot, so had to rule it out. The peak really is a must do though and while there’s not a heap at the top, the view really is marvellous enough to make up for it.
Even if you’re not a big fan of horse racing, try and head to the Wednesday night races at Happy Valley Racecourse. The atmosphere is super casual – no dressed up Flemington vibe here – and people are either there to have a lot of fun or do some serious betting. The venue itself is gorgeous, this open green space surrounded by skyscrapers, and it feels a bit otherworldly. Apart from the serious Chinese punters, there’s a lot of ex-pats there to drink the jugs of cheap (by HK standards anyway) beers and just generally have a good time. Even if you’re not up for a few cheeky bets, you’ll still have a great night.
I’ve been on a bit of a mission over the years to visit all the Disney theme parks – so far I’ve ticked off Disneyland (Anaheim), Disney World (Orlando), Disney Sea (Tokyo) and now Hong Kong Disney. HK is the smallest of the four and there’s not a lot of life threatening rides, everything is pretty tame (though a very high swinging car gave me heart palpitations). A lot of the Fantasyland rides are the same in every park, like the teacups, but apart from that Space Mountain was the only one here that I’d been on before.
I went on a Monday and the crowds were pretty small, I think the longest I waited in line for a ride was only about 15 minutes. Given how long you can spend waiting at the US parks, this is pretty amazing. It was also easy to get around without hordes of people everywhere. All up I spent about four hours there and did all the major rides. You won’t need a significant chunk of time to cover it unless you’re keen on staying for the night parade. Getting there is simple too – just catch the MTR to the Disney station. All up it’s a great excursion out of the city, because you’re never too old for Disneyland.
For anyone like me that hates heights but is obsessed with going up high things to take photos, the Hong Kong Observation Wheel will totally be your jam. It’s not excruciatingly high so for those that get a bit phobic, you should be right to manage it. Located in Central, it’s an easy ay to get the same views as the Star Ferry but from a much higher position.
On my first full day in Hong Kong I did the total tourist thing of buying a ticket on one of those hop on, hop off buses and used it to get my bearings in the city. I decided to take the trip south to Stanley and Repulse Bay, which included a sampan boat ride. There are some lovely quaint beaches there and it’s a nice change from the crowds in the main part of the city. Stanley also has markets and shops that you can wander through without getting harassed.
The weather wasn’t great and it spat rain for most of the day, so this was a chance to do something that didn’t rely on clear blue skies (like the peak). I really recommend it because while not cheap – it set me back about $85 for the 48 hour pass – it also gives you the boat ride, Star Ferry tickets and a tour, Peak Tram tickets and a pass to the Maritime Museum. There’s three different loops across the island and Kowloon, so it’s an easy way to see a lot of the city. Stanley probably isn’t too high on people’s list of areas to visit in Hong Kong but if you’ve got more than a few days, it’s a nice little break from all the high rise along the harbour.
Finally, it would be remiss not to suggest you take advantage of your time in Hong Kong to do a day trip to Macau. If you’re not a gambler then you won’t need more than a day there to explore; I’m not sure the island is a destination vacation in itself. The Portugese part of the old town is lovely, but you can knock it over in an hour or two. Mostly, Macau feels a bit like the land time forgot weirdly interspersed with some of the most tremendous buildings in existence. It’s all a bit of a puzzle.
Ferries leave every half an hour or so from the Hong Kong terminals and it will cost you about AUD $40 each way. No need to book in advance, I found it pretty easy to just rock up and grab one. The trip takes an hour and the boat is a decent size, do most people wouldn’t have too many issues with seasickness.
When you arrive in Macau there’s a heaping of free shuttle buses lined up to take you to the casino of your choice. My advice would be to decide where in the city you want to go and then take a bus run by the nearest casino. I ended up going to the Venetian first, which is on the mainland, because I wanted to go to the shops there. I won’t lie, it’s a pretty fancy experience. But after seeing it for myself and getting pushed about by all the tourists trying to take photos of the replica canal and St Marks Square, I got the fuck out of there. They call Macau the Vegas of the east and I reckon that’s a good description – it’s absolutely just as soul less as the US city.
I took a bus to the Venetian’s sister casino on the island and from there got a cab to Senado Square. It cost me about AUD $6 and drivers (and other vendors in Macau) will all take Hong Kong dollars so there’s no real need to change currency. Also the Macanese dollar is the same as the HKD so you’re all good.
Senado Square is lovely. It’s a little piece of Portugal dropped in the middle of Asia, all beautiful romantic architecture and flowing cobblestone streets. I had a wander through the square, desperate to find what I really came for – custard tarts. And they’re everywhere, make no mistake. Warm and fresh and cheap, they may even be better than those I had in Portugal. In Lisbon a few years back I smashed six I one day and I did four in Macau, though I maintain that because I was only in the latter for a few hours my ratio was better. (To be fair, I did feel a bit sick afterwards.)
From Senado Square I wandered up to the ruins of St Paul’s, which is basically just a facade at this point. Dating back to the 16th century, the church was built by Portugese settlers and the ruins are now a world heritage site. It’s a great spot for photos and it really is just the smattering of culture you get in Macau. There’s little shops and stalls everywhere where you can buy food and pharmaceutical products but I was pretty tired and stuffed with custard tarts at that point so I decided to roll myself out of there. To get back to the ferry terminal you just need to walk to a casino and get one of the free buses back. Too easy.
Where to shop.
I’m sure there’s a multitude of cute stores in Hong Kong (I know there’s a hell of a lot of high end places) but I actually didn’t do a lot of shopping there. I think I hit up Cos and Gap in Central, then maybe a few other chains like H&M off Nathan Road in Kowloon. Mostly I spent my money there on doing stuff rather than buying stuff. However I always enjoy a jaunt to an Asian drugstore.
Hong Kong: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: I had just under eight full days there and it worked out perfectly for me. I had a couple of friends in the city so it gave me plenty of time to catch up with them a few times, visit a lot of different areas of the city, and do some day trips out of Hong Kong. For a first timer, I reckon five days would be a good minimum start.
Getting around: The public transport is exceptional; there’s a train on the MTR every couple of minutes and it’s easy and safe to use them to get around. Otherwise there are the famous double decker trams (the ‘ding dings’) which are slower but afford you the opportunity to look around the city. Walking is also a good option, depending on where you are going (I felt really safe at night), taxis are plentiful and cheap if you’re out suuuuuper late, and of course you’ll need to take the famous Star Ferry between the island and Kowloon.
When to go: I went in late April and it was still really sticky and humid. Clearly winter is a better time for those who don’t like the heat and still fairly mild in temperature, otherwise you’ll need to do battle with the humidity.
Key places for first timers: Victoria Peak, Star Ferry, wandering around Central, Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Disney. I’d also try and do a Macau day trip.
Underrated gem: Stanley/Repulse Bay is a lovely area away from the major crowds – and HK can really do a crowd. Give yourself a moment to relax before diving back in to the bustle of the city.
If I could only eat at one place: Rather than a place, I’d definitely recommend a free flow brunch, it’s totally worth the splurge. Have a look online at different places as most high end hotels and restaurants have them.
Best photo opportunities: Victoria Peak, Star Ferry, passing trams, the rooftop bars at either (or both!) Wooloomooloo Steak House or Ozone Bar.