On this trip, we did a combination of sightseeing in the city, hiking in the countryside, and experiencing many of the things Hong Kong has to offer—especially the markets.
Place: Hong Kong
Travel Dates: May 26–31, 2017
Time on the Ground: 85 hours
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Pizza Rating: 4/8 – Although it was a strange menu, Wildfire had some decent pizza with a view that can’t be beat.
Airport Rating: 5/5
Walkability: 5/5 – One of the most walkable cities we have visited, very similar to London. You can get from the airport into town for around $15 USD a person on the train (MTR). Once into the city, it is easy to jump from one side of the harbor to the other for a few bucks a person. There are also buses that we used to get out to the coast.
Free Walking Tour: 4/5
Lay of the Land
Hong Kong is an autonomous territory of China that is located on the southeast coast of mainland China. A former British colony until 1997, Hong Kong is a densely populated country with a diverse blend of cultures and people. While there are clearly British roots from the colonial rule throughout the city (street names, monuments, etc.), there is also evidence that Hong Kong has created it’s own culture unique from both its former and current sovereign rulers. Keep in mind, Hong Kong can refer to both the city and the territory, which can be confusing at times.
The city of Hong Kong is nestled into the mountains and hills that surround Victoria Harbor. The city has two main portions—the island side, where you will find the financial district, expats, and many wealthy Hong Kongese, and the mainland side, where you will find more traditional neighborhoods and lower prices (which is why the majority of the night markets are on the mainland side).
For this trip, we stayed at one hotel the entire time in the mainland part of the city. We debated staying on both sides of the harbor but opted to avoid the hassle of of moving hotels, and we are glad we did! Not only did we save some money staying on the mainland side of the city, but the vast network of public transportation made it easy to get from one side of to the city to the other. We stayed at the Silka Seaview Hotel, and although the name was a stretch (if you craned your neck, you could see a glimpse of the harbor from our room), the hotel was a great mix of quality, location, and price—the Holy Grail of hotels in our minds. But be prepared for a small room (remember in Asia that is the norm, not the exception)! The Silka Seaview is located two blocks off Nathan Road, one of the major streets on mainland Hong Kong. It was a quick 5- to 7-minute walk to the Yau Mai Tei MTR station, where you can take the Red Line directly across the harbor into the island portion of the city.
Getting around the city is fairly easy for a Western tourist as pretty much all of the public signs (streets, train stations, etc.) are in English and the vast majority of commercial signs are also. The train (MTR) is probably the most cost effective and quickest way to get around—the Red MTR Line runs north/south through the neighborhoods of mainland Hong Kong and across the harbor into the Central MTR station on the island. From there, you can pick up the Blue Line, which runs west/east along the harbor. Additionally, buses can take you to the areas around and outside of the city where the trains don’t run, like Dragon’s Back or Big Wave Bay. There are also ferries that provide an interesting view of the city from the water while taking passengers from one side of the harbor to the another. Although it is a slower way to cross the harbor, we highly recommend doing it at least once to experience the 360-degree view of the city from the water.
LAX to HKG Flight
Our trip started out with a bang when we snagged the last two seats in first class on our flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Hong Kong International Airport. We must say, this is certainly the way to travel! A multicourse meal, a movie or two, and 10+ hours of sleep later, we landed rested and ready to hit the city!
Hong Kong is known for is their high-quality, custom-made clothing that is as affordable as off-the-rack clothes in Europe or the United States. Even better, it can be made during your two- to three-day visit in the city, depending on the tailor. Stephen wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to get some GQ-ready clothing at a great value. Since we wanted to allow plenty of time for measurements and fittings, especially since it was a holiday week, we headed straight for a tailor as our first priority after dropping our luggage at the hotel. During a little pre-trip online searching, Stephen selected Rashmi Custom Tailors for its high online ratings and convenient location.
The shop itself is a little difficult to find—you have to take the right elevator up to the 12th floor (the left elevator stops on odd numbered floors only) and then ring the bell at the door. Rashmi and his team will welcome you in and quickly start the overwhelming process! The shop is chock-full of items ready for pick-up, clothing samples, reams of fabric, and what seemed like dozens of book shelves containing fabric samples. After picking out fabrics, settling on a price, and taking a first round of measurements (three times, just to be extra sure), we were out of the shop in a little under an hour and a half. In the end, Stephen walked away with two custom suits and a half a dozen custom shirts for the price of a high-quality, name brand, off-the-rack suit in the States.
While in Hong Kong, we made a trip out to the coast to hike Dragon’s Back—an 8 km hike through the hills on the eastern coast of the country of Hong Kong. Named for the iconic up and down ridge that the path follows, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. (To get there from the Red MTR Line, take the Red MTR south to the Admiralty station, where you will transfer to the Blue MTR Line toward the Shau Kai Wen station. At the Shau Kai Wen station, find the number 9 bus towards Shek O. You will want to get off at the Lan Nai Wan stop, which is a little over half of the way to the town of Shek O.) Overall, the trip from our hotel took approximately an hour and half and came complete with an excellent tour of the countryside. The best parts of the hike are in the first half and the hike does not loop back to the beginning.=, so many people turn around once they’ve reached the second or third summit. If we were do the hike again, we would probably have done the same. Following Dragon’s Back to the end, we were dropped at Big Wave Bay (a beach nice beach area), which is about a 30-minute walk from Shek O, where you can find restaurants, beaches, and busses back to the city of Hong Kong.
Exploring the City
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Hong Kong was how easy it was to get anywhere in the city. Not only is it easy to get to major sights around the city, but it is equally enjoyable to wander the city with no more than a general destination in mind and see what you stumble upon. We did this early in the trip and took a walk from our hotel down to the edge of the harbor, taking random turns on side streets as we went.
Kowloon Park: We ended up taking several walks through Kowloon Park, and each time we ran into new something new. The park is the largest in the city and runs almost a dozen blocks. Located on the mainland side of the city, it is home to dozens of gardens, a swimming center, and numerous flocks of birds. It was also the place to be in the evening! We walked through several courtyards where young adults were hanging out, drinking wine, and listening to music. In the northeast corner of the park, you can find the Hong Kong Avenue of Comic stars, where famous anime and comic characters are depicted with life-sized sculptures.
Victoria’s Peak: Another must-see if it is your first time in the city! Victoria’s Peak offers an iconic view of the city of Hong Kong. You have several options for scaling the mountain, including hiking up yourself, taking a historic tram, or riding the bus. We opted for the historic tram since we had been on our feet all day at this point and it was the peak of afternoon heat. Overall, we are glad we did it, but we were not prepared for the line! We got to the center where you can buy tickets around 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon on the weekend, and after waiting in line and taking the tram, we arrived at the summit about an hour and a half later. If you decide to brave the line during a busy time of the week, be sure you get in the correct line. The line to purchase a ticket (and then stand in line for the tram) starts across the road from the tram building under the bridge.
There was a strong emphasis on getting tour groups through the line more quickly, so that may be another option to consider. We really enjoyed the views from the tram on the ascent. You take an old cog tram that was originally built back in the 1880s. In the hall where you wait for the tram, the walls are lined with historical photos and descriptions about how and why the tram was created. Although the waiting area can feel claustrophobic, glancing at the exhibits can help pass the time. Once onboard, you'll take the 10-minute ride up the mountain with spectacular views as you transition from below the skyline to one of the highest points around the city. At the top of the peak, there is a viewing platform, shops, and restaurants. You'll also get a firsthand look at one of Hong Kong's favorite traditions—malls! There are not just one but two malls at the top for all your shopping desires. After snapping some beautiful pictures (with the beaches on one side and the vast metropolis on the other) and grabbing a bite to eat (we grabbed pizza at Wildfire), you can hop back in line to take the tram back down the mountain if you bought a two-way ticket. Luckily, the line back down was materially shorter than the way up, and we were quickly on our way back to the hotel to get some much needed rest!
Exploring Mainland vs. Island: There are so many things to do and see in the city of Hong Kong that it may be tempting to stay wherever you book a hotel. We highly recommend making a point to explore both sides of the city because they each have a very unique look and feel. For those on the mainland side of the city, start a few stops north of the harbor on the Red MTR Line and wander south. Use Nathan Road as your path, but be sure to wandering onto some of the side streets to explore the shops, sights, smells, and tastes of the city. Once at the harbor, you get wide views of the island side of the city, several museums, and a beautiful view of the harbor. On the island side, start at the Admiralty MTR station and wander south toward the hills. Soon you’ll find yourself in the middle of skyscrapers, high-end retail stores, and some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. There are criss-crossing pedestrian bridges above the roads that not only provide a safer way to explore the city away from traffic, but also provide another interesting perspective of the city.
We also took a free walking tour one afternoon that departed from the harbor on the mainland side of the city. Hong Kong is a great city to take a walking tour in because there are so many aspects about the city’s and country’s history that you do not pick up if you wander the streets yourself. While on the tour, we visited historical monuments, learned about the history of the country, saw markets that the locals frequent, and heard interesting facts about the city. Another great thing about walking tours, include this time around, is getting advice on the best places to eat from a local! Again, with so many choices when it comes to things to do and places to eat, it can be overwhelming for a first-time visitor. During the walking tour, Ashley sampled curry fish balls and egg waffles from a street vendor suggested by our tour guide (although the curry balls were a tad bit spicy, they were paired well with the sweet doughy waffles). After the tour, we followed our guide's recommendation and had dim sum at a local restaurant, which was delicious!
Symphony of Lights
Hong Kong is known for its numerous options for nightlife and night sights. From shopping to bars to light shows, there is something for everyone. In fact, one of the most famous, and in our opinion most underwhelming, sights to see is the nightly light show on the harbor. Standing on the mainland side of the city, you can see the “Symphony of Lights” nightly at 20:00 local time. It lasts approximately 15 minutes and involves various lights and lasers shining on and from the skyscrapers across the harbor. There is a narration that goes along with the show as well, although the language rotates, so be sure to look this up before you plan your viewing. Overall, it was definitely a different way to see the city; however, the crowds were immense and we were unlucky enough to go on a night where the narration was Mandarin (oops).
By day, Hong Kong is a bustling financial district but by night, the markets come alive. While some of the most famous markets include the Ladies Market, Temple Market, and the Jade Market, one of the coolest experiences in Hong Kong is simply wandering the many neighborhoods at night and stumbling upon smaller markets hidden on backstreets and alleys. The term market refers to when vendors set up temporary booths in the street to sell their goods. Typically, most of these markets come “alive” around 6:00 p.m. and go into the night and include street food and sometimes even music. Some markets are more permanent than others—the Ladies Market, for example, is set up on streets that are permanently closed to cars; whereas, others, such as the Temple Market, operate on a street that must be shut down nightly. Each market also has a unique genre of goods, although you certainly see some items at almost every market. Remember, haggling is expected so don’t be afraid to haggle hard for a better price than advertised—we were typically able to get items for 50 to 60 percent below the starting price by negotiating and combining items. Also, when negotiating, be prepared to walk away and you will find out the seller’s best price!
Ladies Market – best known for women’s clothing, you can also find a wide range of women’s accessories, men's clothing, and souvenirs. Although most of the fashion goods are knockoffs, the prices are low enough to make up for the lack of quality. While you won’t find a signature piece to wear for years, you will certainly find numerous options to add to your wardrobe at a price that makes you comfortable with only getting a handful of uses out of it. This market is near the Monkok MTR station and is typically open the second half of the day, from around noon to late into the night.
Temple Street Market – this is by far the largest market we visited while in Hong Kong and certainly the most “touristy.” Prices are inflated, so keep that in mind when haggling! The market has a wide selection of goods mostly focused on souvenirs, accessories, and electronics. The market is located on Temple Street (hence the name) and is closest to the Jordan MTR stop. The Temple Street Market is a spectacle in its own right, even if you don’t intending to do much shopping it is a must-see. The number of stalls and people milling about combined with the energy and bars and restaurants that line the streets all combine, make this a necessary stop on anyone’s list when visiting Hong Kong for the first time. The market typically starts around 5 or 6 in the evening and lasts until late into the night.
Finally, for those of who want a night on the town, we suggest making your way over to the island side of the city and checking out the Central-Mid Level escalator and the area of the city that surrounds it. The escalator is the largest escalator in the world and is a series of moving walkways built into a pathway that carries you up the side of the mountain above the streets of the city. Not only is it a great sight to see, but checking it out at night takes you through some of the best restaurants and bars that the city has to offer. Take your time winding up the through city, hopping on and off the escalator to check out the various bars and restaurants. Just be careful, the farther you take it up, the longer you’ll be walking back down!
Hong Kong is an amazing place to visit filled with a unique blend of Chinese and Western culture. You can find elements of both in the food, language, and city structure itself, unlike any other place we’ve visited. The people are friendly and welcoming and the city provides endless things to explore and do. It is truly a city that never sleeps with lots of colors, lights, and shopping on every corner (and mountain top). Hong Kong takes the advantage of captive audience to another level—it seems like every attraction (and train station) has a mall or two to go with it. Shopping seemed to be a national pastime.
There are certainly a few cultural items we had to bear in mind. The biggest one is how people stand in line. Lines are really important in Hong Kong culture, but not just any line. Our first trip on the train from downtown was a perfect example. We lined up slightly off-center from where the train door would pull up, but as soon as the door opened, people rushed ahead of us from either side. At first, we thought this was extremely rude (and that we would be writing a slightly less positive blog post about the Hong Kongese), but we soon realized that there were markings painted on the ground for where to line up. If you stood in that line, 99 percent of people would respect the line and follow in behind you. Once we noticed this, we started seeing the phenomenon everywhere: train stations, bus stops, crosswalks. This was a big difference from western culture, but once we picked up on it, we hardly had any issues.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Hong Kong and cannot wait to go back. (Stephen even says that it was his favorite city thus far.) The mix of people and their unique culture combined with the ultimate walkability and great diversity in attractions makes Hong Kong a great place for a quick—or not so quick—trip!