Welcome to one of the world’s tallest cities. Welcome to a place where ferries bob beneath a spectacular skyline. Welcome to a place where neon-fuelled lights bombard you from every angle. Welcome to a place where the appetising aroma of curried and deep-fried goodness wafts off every street corner. Welcome to Hong Kong.
For so long ruled by the British, Hong Kong has always been one of the world’s gleaming examples of a marriage between east and west – an unmistakable quality that is still manifested in the colonial gems dotted around the city. But today, as much as this legacy, Hong Kong’s future as part of China is just as palpable. It’s a tension that the city and its population of just over seven million has spent the past 16 years grappling with – and one that is increasingly coming to a head.
These tensions, however, hardly detract from Hong Kong as a city for visitors. In every respect, remains a destination for every type of tourist – from shopaholics and culture fiends to worldly foodies and nature lovers… and for lovers of city urbanscapes, which is where every visitor should start.
With well over 2,000 buildings above 100m tall (compare that to New York, which has around 800), and a dramatic skyline that glows ablaze every night above Victoria Harbour, it almost seems too obvious to recommend taking in the famous Hong Kong cityscape. Of course, it should be at the top of your agenda, but you may have some difficulty choosing your preferred method.
There are a plethora of options: those with a penchant for observation decks could check out Sky100 in the city’s tallest building, the ICC, while Bruce Lee fans can combine skyline observing with some stargazing along Tsim Sha Tsui’s Avenue of the Stars. But you can’t really go wrong with the classic view – The Peak. This soaring mount on Hong Kong island provides expansive views down upon the Hong Kong island skyline and across the Kowloon Peninsula and, if classic is what you’re after, you may also enjoy the traditional way up to the Peak – The Peak Tram, a 1.4km 19th century funicular which takes you to an elevation of around 500m.
For a taste of the old Hong Kong, take a ride on the city’s old-school transportation. The Star Ferry, an iconic service which began in 1888 and, at a mere Dhs1.5 for a splendid, breezy trip between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui, remains at near 1888 prices. For its land counterpart, take a lazy ride aboard one of the city’s trams. Running across the northern strip of Hong Kong island, these double decker wonders are a reminder of the old colonial past – even without the historic second-class trailers, which used to carry Chinese passengers.
Even for those intimidated by the intensity of such an urban jungle, Hong Kong has plenty to offer. Most visitors don’t realise that more than 70 percent within Hong Kong’s borders is countryside, much of which is easily accessible. The Ngong Ping 360 – a cable car which takes you to another must-see sight, the world’s largest seated bronze Buddha – is a good way to take it in. Or, perhaps, check out Tai O, a remarkable town on stilts, just one of the charming traditional villages dotted around the region.
Shopping is a Hong Kong national sport. And while the city is filled with flashy high-end malls sporting the most glamorous of global brands, the most authentic HK shopping experiences are to be had on the street.
Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market is perhaps the city’s most definitive street market. While no longer the knock-off heaven it was 15 years ago, its iconic red-blue-white tarpaulin-lined stalls still stock the whole gamut of goodies, from watches and T-shirts to kids’ toys. Go at night for the best atmosphere. Yes, it’s a bit of a tourist trap – and it remains one of the few places in the city where bargaining is a necessary evil.
Cat Street, in the emerging hip district of Sheung Wan, provides a much more tranquil shopping experience, teeming with antiques, pseudo-antiques and junk discards from yesteryear.
With a range that spans from delectable street snacks to ridiculously indulgent fine dining, Hong Kong is a paradise for all kinds of foodies. The first stop should be to feast on Hong Kong’s most famous culinary export: dim sum – a tradition often described as Cantonese tapas, featuring small plates of dumplings and other morsels. Over the past few years, all-day dim sum specialists have become all the rage, led by the revered Tim Ho Wan. Opened by Chef Mak Kwai Pui, a former chef at the Four Seasons Hong Kong, this tiny and rambunctious Michelin-starred spot has become the city’s most renowned dim sum experience. Be prepared though: you’ll need to contend with hour-long queues, regardless of the time of day.
For loud and raucous classic Cantonese cuisine, try Tung Po Kitchen. Renowned long before Anthony Bourdain featured it in No Reservations, this restaurant atop a wet market has all the ingredients for a memorable dinner: top quality food (try the lotus leaf duck rice and the black ink spaghetti) and a perennial party atmosphere.
No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without stopping by Chungking Mansion, an incredible meeting ground of global cultures – and global food. It’s renowned for some of the best sub-continental food in the city, and we particularly recommend Indian restaurant Khyber Pass. If you can’t find it, don’t worry – a tout will likely accost you as you enter the rabbit warren that is Chungking.
And finally, once you’ve roughed it at some of the less salubrious establishments in the city, treat yourself to the ultimate Hong Kong colonial experience: high tea at the Peninsula Hong Kong. Lap up the refined surrounds of the city’s most famous hotel, enjoy the string quartet and imagine you’re in the pre-handover days.
Hong Kong is a city that shines (literally) after dark – and that includes its partying options. If you happen to be around on a Wednesday evening, the races at Happy Valley Racecourse are a must-attend – it’s as much about the setting, the style and the party atmosphere as it is about the actual racing.
To combine skyline-gazing with a drink, Aqua has long been the go-to choice. With its expansive double-storey floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Victoria Harbour and top mixed drink list, it’s the best beverage and view combination going.
For mixed drinks alone, try Lily, above the bustling party zone of Wyndham Street, or for a more hidden vibe, the black-doored 001 might be more up your street. Both are leaders in the city’s emerging mixed drink scene, serving up some crafted, classic numbers with some nice Hong Kong touches.
Looking to kick on? Most of the city’s club scene is centred around the Central district, meaning you won’t need to go far. You could try your luck in the heaving mess that is infamous party zone Lan Kwai Fong – but we’d suggest heading to Fly – a Time Out Hong Kong favourite that has the mix of music and crowd at the perfect cool-but-not-too-cool level balance.
Need to know
Cathay Pacific flies direct to Hong Kong from Dhs1,950 return.
Dubai to Hong Kong
Flight time: Eight hours
Time difference: Four hours ahead
Dhs1 = HK$2.1