Most people see Hong Kong as a long layover. A stop off on the way to bigger and more vibrant Asian destinations. The first time I visited, I admit that I hated the place a little. Travelling from laid-back and cheap Cambodia, I was struck by sky-high accommodation prices, busy streets and torrential rain. I was also in a bad place in my mind, and Hong Kong received the grunt of that.
Somehow, I still found moments of calm and clarity. Hiking through the hills of the Dragon’s Back, discovering hidden back-street vegetarian restaurants and wandering aimlessly at night markets or sky-high karaoke bars. Indeed, this is a city which shines both by day and by night. Find yourself in paradise hills, white sand beaches and among tiny fishing villages. Then spend the night tramping night markets beneath neon signs and flaming grills. It’s a city of many different worlds, yet they all exist so eloquently in one tiny city state.
Returning to the city cemented my love for the place. It is undoubtedly, one of the world’s best cities and it deserves much more than a long layover.
Hong Kong Island
It’s sunrise and we catch an uber up to what’s known as ‘The Peak’. The area is desolate at this hour, with only the quiet crackling of leaves and a few lone runners jogging up and down the path which would eventually lead back to Central. Our destination was around a 15 minute walk away. What’s little known about The Peak is that it’s not necessary to go to the platform on top of the shopping mall to catch a view of the city below, nor do you need to pay for the viewing deck for an even better panorama. Walk down Lugard Road and you’ll find a series of view points from which the whole city opens up to you. At sunrise, it’s all that bit more spectacular.
Man Mo Temple
One of my favourite places in the Central Area of Hong Kong, the tiny Man Mo Temple is always filled with locals lighting candles and praying. While the outside of this area is quickly modernising, step since Man Mo and be transported into a timeless vision of incense swirls and adorned Buddhas. While you’re in the area, check out the markets on Cat Street and stop by Teakha for a coffee and slice of their green tea cheesecake.
Graham Street Markets
Central is one of Hong Kong’s most interesting areas. On one street you are surrounded by twinkling skyscrapers and designer shops, then turn a few corners and you’ll find markets which have existed for decades selling local produce and brimming with colourful life. The Graham Street Markets are one of the best areas of the city to explore and get truly lost in. As one of Hong Kong’s oldest continuous markets, the area has a timeless feeling, and the atmosphere is much more that of Kowloon than Central. There’s lots of great eateries nearby, particularly around the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators where you can eat cuisine from just about anywhere around the world.
Head over the water to Kowloon and you’ll get quite a different impression of Hong Kong. Kowloon has the feeling of being much more bustling and disorganised than Hong Kong Island. It’s home to tiny backstreets filled with neon lights, amazing street food on every corner and some of my very favourite areas of the city. To get there you can catch the metro or ride on the Star Ferry (something you should certainly do at least once).
Sham Shui Po
Not your usual tourist destination, but if you’re looking for some local life and to get to know where all the old folks hang out, Sham Shi Po is your place. It’s easy to get lost in this labyrinth of streets and markets here, but that’s the beauty of the area. There’s a ton of electronic, clothing and bric & brac market stalls here. You’ll find some bargains if you search and will also come across some of the city’s best street food. For a cheap Hong Kong dining experience, head to the top floor of Dragon Mart where you’ll find a bustling food court serving everything from Dim Sum to Bubble Tea to curries and Taiwanese pancakes. A few stalls have English menus and there are veggie options available if you seek them out.
Mongkok & Around
It’s tough to choose a favourite area of this contrasting city, but I must say that for me Mongkok is the one. Under a sea of neon lights, locals, expats and tourists alike eat, shop and stay up all night delighting in this wonderful city. You’ll find some of the city’s best food in this area, as well as the Ladies Market and streets selling weird and wonderful delights. It’s a mass merge of all things that make Hong Kong great. If you only have a few hours in Hong Kong, head to Mongkok and emerge yourself in the sights and smells.
You can’t miss the Ladies Market if you’re in the area, a top spot to pick up cheap tourist tat, fake Kanken backpacks and second-hand clothing. Search hard enough and there’s some real vintage gems to be found. Tea shops are on every corner, so try a classic Bubble Tea and grab some street-food from one of the flaming stalls (stinky tofu if you dare!). For some authentic veggie cuisine, head to M Garden Vegetarian restaurant and dive into one of their set menus. For the best Dim Sum in the city, make sure to eat at One Dim Sum (great for vegetarians too).
Located in the Mongkok area, these specialist markets are perfect for a day of exploring the weird and wonderful. Start at the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, where you’ll find birds, cages and bird feed for sale beneath beautiful old buildings and a walled garden.
The nearby Flower Market snakes round the block with bright blooming flowers and plants for sale. Head further into Mongkok to find the Goldfish Market on Tung Choi Street North.
One of the greatest things about Hong Kong is the ease of getting away from the city. From Hong Kong Island, you can take a ferry across the water, away from the high rise skyscrapers and modern shopping malls and in around 30 minutes be on a quiet island perfect for hiking, chilling on the beach and watching fishermen bring in the day’s catch. The ease of escapism is something I look for in every big and brash city and it’s one of the things Hong Kong does so well. There are a huge array of islands to choose from, as well as hiking in the hills on Hong Kong Island and in the New Territories. Unfortunately, you cannot do everything on a short visit to the city, so I’ve chosen three islands with easy access from Central which each show you a different side of Hong Kong Island living.
Often referred to as Hong Kong’s hippie island, Lamma is full of wide open green spaces, white sand beaches, organic stores and vegetarian cafes. It’s completely car free, with friendly locals riding bikes and tons of fresh produce available in town. Most ferries head to Yung Shue Wan village, the largest settlement on the island. Here, cafes such as Bookworm Cafe offer completely vegetarian menus, a rarity in meat-loving Hong Kong. Make sure you try one of their freshly blended smoothies! There are also stores selling vinyl records, second hand books and craft beer.
After you’ve strolled around town, head to Hung Shing Yeh Beach, just a 10 minute walk away. In summer, I’ve heard this beach is full of sunbathers and swimmers, but in winter it was quiet and laid back. It’s a beautiful bay and seems remarkably clean to say it looks out onto a giant power station (the unfortunate ‘quirk’ of Lamma).
There’s a number of hiking trails across the island, many taking you through sweeping hills to ocean vistas and white sand beaches. An easy but beautiful walk is the 4km hike from Yung Shue Wan Village to Sok Kwu Wan Village, where there is another ferry pier connecting you back to Hong Kong Island. You’ll pass sights such as the Tin Hau temple, and the beautiful Lo So Shing Beach which I imagine would be quite a dream in summer.
The easiest island to access from anywhere in Hong Kong is Lantau Island, as you can take the metro straight there. It’s also the most touristed of islands thanks to the famous Big Buddha which sits grandly on top of one of the island’s sweeping hills.
From the Tung Chung metro stop, you can either take a bus or ride the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to the Big Buddha. It’s worth noting that the cable car is currently closed for maintenance and is not scheduled to open again until June. When you arrive at the Big Buddha, the area is free to explore. The views are the highlight, as is visiting the Po Lin Monastery next door. While you’re there, grab some sweet snacks at the vegetarian canteen.
Like elsewhere on Hong Kong’s islands, Lantau has some great hiking trails and beautiful beaches to explore. The other highlight is the Tai O Village, a heritage village where houses are still built on stilts over the water and fishing and fresh produce is sold in the markets. The village is traditionally home to the Tanka people, and this special place has been kept alive by tourists who flock to the village fascinated by a slice of traditional Hong Kong.
Indeed, the main trade in the village has turned from fishing to tourism, but much of the traditional life is still celebrated and kept alive through a local museum and festivals which happen throughout the year. It’s a peaceful place to stroll around, with a bustling market and trails to the cliffs high above. There are lots of cafes, unique shops and street food to try. A bus will take you directly back to the Tung Chung station.
Cheung Chau Island
Another short ferry ride from central is Cheung Chau Island. The island is much smaller than Lantau or Lamma, but is full of culture and flavour. You’ll arrive at the picturesque fishing harbour, and the town is set on a series of hills leading down to beautiful beaches on the other side. The highlights here are the traditional markets and food, as well as walking trails, temples hidden in the hillside, look-out points and fresh seafood which attracts many people.
Once a year, the sleepy island hosts the Cheung Chau Island Bun Festival, a huge celebration of light fluffy buns accompanied by parades and Chinese dragon dancing. If you happen to be in town during the festival, it’s really something you can’t miss! This year the festival is held from the 30th April to the 9th May 2017.
Getting There: You can fly to Hong Kong from almost anywhere in the world. You do not need a Chinese visa to enter, in fact, most nationalities can visit visa free.
Getting Around: Getting around Hong Kong is extremely easy and efficient. The subway system is clean, cheap and covers most of the city. Buses link the outer regions and ferries connect the islands. You can also take trams throughout the Central area of Hong Kong Island. Get yourself an Octopus card when you arrive to avoid having to buy tickets for every journey.
Stay: Accommodation in Hong Kong is notoriously small and expensive. Space is an issue here, and unless you can afford a 5* hotel, you’re not going to have a lot of it. For those on a budget, hostels are located around the city and although clean, are often cramped and full of students and young people who can’t afford to pay rent. On my first visit I stayed at YesInn in Causeway Bay which I can recommend for the location and kitchen facilities.
Getting Out: If you have the time, a trip to Macau is a great side trip and interesting to see the Portuguese heritage of the city. Hong Kong is also a great base for exploring the rest of Asia and over-landing to China.
Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.