Many cities in South-East Asia are perfect for a city trip. Some are street food heavens, others boast great museums and cultural highlights while others are a shopper’s dreams. Some are by the sea, others are near mountains. And there is Hong Kong, which is all the above and much more, making it one of the ultimate city trips in the world.
Hong Kong is many things but unimaginative. The former colony of the British Empire returned to China in 1997 but it remained firmly independent-minded. The city moved forward by retaining elements from its western past while developing its unique cultural components all the same and Cantonese traditions and British legacy go hand in hand to define the city’s identity.
It is no wonder then that Hong Kong is a city of contrasts, where fancy haute cuisine restaurants stand next to cheap food markets and the shadow of skyscrapers always looms in the background of a Taoist temple or a Christian church. Yet, Hong Kong isn’t just another big city with a craze for skyscrapers as nature is always close by, from lush mountains to wild beaches.
Spending a couple days in Hong Kong will allow you to go on a hike in the morning and on a shopping spree in the afternoon before bar-hopping in the evening and stuffing your belly with dim-sum at night. Here’s our top list of places to give you a taste of Hong Kong but, don’t worry, there is much more to see and do in the city.
Victoria Peak :
Hong Kong’s skyline is iconic and that is no surprise for the city with the highest number of skyscrapers in the world. Taking pictures of the skyline from up close is one thing but getting pictures from above is a different story. That’s where the Victoria Peak comes into play.
Located on the western part of Hong Kong Island, it is the highest hill on the island and one of the major tourist spots in the city. The complete experience requires to ride the old-fashioned Peak Tram from the CBD to the top of the hill, leading to a viewing platform with a 180° view on the city’s skyline as well as the islands nearby. You can then acess the Peak Tower, an architectural oddity located at 396 metres above sea level and get the ultimate view on the city. The free platform is perfectly fine too for a view and you can also get away from the crowds through the Peak Circke Walk, a flat hiking trail starting near the Peak Tram Terminus.
Another way to reach the Peak is by hiking along the Old Peak Road. While the path can be demanding on the way up, it is the best option on the way down to indulge in a lush landscape while getting some of the best views of the city down below. Follow the path down and it will take you to unexpected places in the CBD such as the gorgeous St John’s Cathedral or the Zoological and Botanical Gardens.
Wong Tai Sin :
Also known as the Sik Sik Yuen Temple, Wong Tai Sin is the biggest temple in Hong Kong. It is dedicated to a Taoist hermit named Huang Chuping, who later became a deity going by the name Wong Tai Sin, and yet the temple blends Taoist, Confucianist and Buddhist traditions without honoring a single religion. That fact alone makes it extremely popular among locals and the temple seems to always be busy with crowds of worshippers burning sticks of incense or piling up oranges on altars as a pious offering.
Wong Tai Sin is also famous for its fortune-telling, drawing in even more people eager to have their palm lines read. Many statues in and around the main buildings are said to bring good fortune too so don’t forget to pet them all. Located in the densely populated Kowloon district, the temple also blends different architectural styles. The red and golden colours of the main compounds are reminiscent of the traditional Chinese architecture while the temple itself is surrounded by a sea of skyscrapers.
The temple can be overwhelming and if you’re looking for some more tranquillity, start exploring the immediate surroundings of the temple to discover some slices of local Hong Kong life and great urban photography spots, from worn-out stores to street art. If you want to get away from the crowds, check out the Fat Jong temple on top of the Shatin Pass and you might even be lucky enough to spot a monkey.
Chi Lin Nunnery :
Further away in Kowloon stands the Chi Lin Nunnery, an impressive monastery complex built in the 1930s. Located opposite the Diamond Hill subway station, this part of the city isn’t always on visitors’ radar and yet the Chi Lin Nunnery is one of the most beautiful heritage sites in Hong Kong.
The complex was built in a style reminiscent of the Tang dynasty and was reconstructed in the late 1980s in a manner not to use any nails throughout the reconstruction, so as to illustrate the harmony between people and their environment. Three wooden gates lead to the compound, representing compassion, wisdom and the skills of the people. Chi Lin is a haven of peace within the city, with its soothing lotus ponds and carefully taken care of bonsai trees in the courtyard.
Right next to the Nunnery, you won’t want to miss the Nan Lian Garden which was also built in Tang dynasty style, focusing on natural scenery. Each stone, tree and plants follow a specific pattern aiming at recreating the Tang principles of harmony, tranquillity and peace of mind. This 35,000 square meters park is surrounded by skyscrapers looming in the background but it feels completely secluded from the hectic urban life style of the city.
The highlight of the garden is the golden pavilion of Absolute Perfection connected with by two vermilion bridges but the overall sense of serenity that exudes from the park is its real strength.
Tsim Sha Tsui :
Follow Nathan Road and you’ll walk through a number of neighbourhoods that never sleep. Mong Kok is the place to be for shopping addicts while Jordan is the perfect spot to indulge in the local street food scene at the nearby Temple Street Night Market. Further down at the tip of Nathan Road, you’ll reach Tsim Sha Tsui.
With its huge concentration of high-end hotels and luxury restaurants, the area has become one of the tourists hubs of the city. It comprises various shopping malls and many prominent museums to cater for all tastes, such as the Hong Kong Cultural Center and the Hong Kong Museum of History.
At the junction of Kowloon and the Hong Kong island, Tsim Sha Tsui is the perfect place for tourists and locals to concregate next to its historic Clocktower as well as a gateway to reaching the historic center of the city on the opposide side of the harbour. Many ferry boats cross Victoria Harbour from the Tsim Sha Tsui Pier, although many tourists favour a trip on the iconic red-sail Chinese junk boat known as the Aqua Luna, the last-remaining junk-boat reconstructed with traditional methods. Tsim Sha Tsui shines even brighter at night.
The Avenue of Stars, a promenade on the waterfront displaying statues of infamous celebrities such as Bruce Lee, becomes the city’s hotspot to watch the light and sound show enhancing the beauty of the city’s skyline.
Lantau Island :
Hong Kong is primarily a collection of islands of all sizes. Some remained wild while others have turned into dense urban areas. In the case of the Lantau island, it is a little bit of both. Lantau is easily accessible from Tsim Sha Tsui through the subway and it makes for a great day trip for nature and culture lovers alike.
Part of the island is heavily constructed, which seems to be the counterpart of hosting the local Disneyland, but the main attractions lie further west on the Ngong Ping Plateau. A shaky cable car brings you to the top of the Plateau where lies a pretty forgettable folk village , and an even more forgettable museum of the Buddha, leading to a Big Buddha statue. The stairs leading to the Big Buddha are usually crowded but it is worth climbing to the top to enjoy the view.
Down below, don’t miss a visit to the Po Lin Monastery, a Buddhist holy place where you might be able to attend shaolin kung fu performances and indulge in a vegetarian buddhist meal. The Wisdom Path is only a few miles away and is a nice walk among 38 wooden steles containing verses from the venerable Heart-Sutra, winding through a lush scenery.