The cultural contrasts and unabashed urban decadence that encapsulate Hong Kong’s raw appeal still resonate as strongly as ever. Chinese junk glide in Victoria Harbour under the glow of neon lights and the all-too-ubiquitous golden arches, over a backdrop of glossy building exteriors punctuating the sky. Chic socialites towing the latest LV bag and Armani-clad moguls sporting requisite Rolexes wander the same sleepless streets as everyday Hong Kongers who aspire to be one or the other. Vibrant markets sell everything from seahorse aphrodisiacs to pirated goods of all colors and grades, while the sounds of Chinese opera and Canto-pop duke it out in the streets with the Beatles and the latest American pop ballad. A city in search of free-trade nirvana, Hong Kong works hard and plays harder, leaving many invigorated visitors stunned and slightly out of breath.
A small dot on the southeastern coast of China, Hong Kong squeezes several million residents into a mere 1100 square kilometers, spread out over a surprising varied terrain of islands, mountains, beaches, and urban spaces. The compact and overcrowded Kowloon peninsula, where Hong Kong’s tourist hub Tsim Sha Tsui is located, juts out into Victoria Harbour. Situated across the harbor from Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and its many skyscrapers are accessible by three tunnels, the MTR, and the Star Ferry. The more rural and residential New Territories sprawl all the way to the border with mainland China. The other outlying islands that make up the Hong Kong archipelago are distributed throughout the South China Sea. Of the over 260 island, Lantau Island, the site of the Hong Kong International Airport, Lamma Island, Cheung Chau, and Peng Chau are easily accessible by ferry and make pleasant retreats.
One look at this city with its vibrant lights and low hanging signs and you may feel like you have been there before. Looking just like it does in the movies, Hong Kong is an explosion of senses, offering a mix between main land China and New York City. It’s cosmopolitan and filled with residents from all over the globe. This is reflected in the vibrant outdoor markets that light up at night and colorful food behind food stalls and dim sum restaurants. Between the island and water, skyscrapers and temples, Hong Kong hosts the best mix of old and new.
You could spend a month in Hong Kong and still have plenty left to see. Here are our favorites. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Hong Kong is a self-acclaimed culinary heaven, with restaurants and food stalls lining every road. Hankering for a taste of Russian caviar, Japanese sashimi, or Argentinian steak? Hong Kong Island caters to all tastes, though not all pockets. In Soho, candle-lit bistros sit next to modern home-furnishings shops, each one more expensive and stylish than the last. Coffee shops and cafes catering to lunching yuppies and shoppers abound in Central and Admiralty. The only thing you might have trouble finding is a decent, affordable Chinese meal.
Dim sum is translated as “a little bit of heart” or, more romantically, as “to touch the heart.” Either way, when it comes to touching your little heart with delicious food, Hong Kong pulls ahead of the pack. Dim Sum emerged as a Cantonese custom when tea hoses started serving small snacks to accompany that ever-important cup of tea. The dim sum seems to take center stage these days, but its origins are clear: in Cantonese, you don’t go to eat dim sum, you go to yum cha (“drink tea”).
Although dim sum has become an internationally popular cuisine, the average Hong Kong dim sum experience can still be rather intimidating to an outsider. The crowds get quite intense, racing for tables and vying for the attention of the waiters, and there are many conventions involved. A common pre-food routine is to wash the chopsticks in a cup of tea. If you notice people tapping their fingers against the table when tea is being poured by a companion, this actually represents a silent thank you. When a pot of tea is finished, remove the lid and balance it on top of the pot, and a waiter will refill it.
To order dim sum, catch the attention of the cart-pusher, who loudly recites the contents of the cart as she snakes around the tables. Pointing at the desired delicacies will suffice, and your order card will be stamped to keep tally of the dishes. In recent years, many restaurants have eliminated the carts altogether and transitioned to a menu-ordering system, making for a less chaotic, but also less fun and authentic experience.
Dim sum is supposed to be consumed in a certain order. Lighter, steamed dishes like dumplings, including the perennial favorite ha gau (shrimp dumplings) are first. More “exotic” items, such as chicken feet (fung jau; “phoenix claws”), come next. Third are the heavier, often deep-fried dishes, such as sesame-seed balls filled with red bean paste. Last comes dessert, like mango pudding. In practice, you tend to eat whatever arrives first.
On weekends, restaurants fill with families, with men reading newspapers and the children playing hand-held video games. When it gets busy, restaurants will put patrons into any available seat, but they usually ask beforehand if you mind sharing a table. Ideal for breakfast or brunch, dim sum begins as early as 6:30am, and is rarely served past 4 or 5pm. It is the quintessential, time-consuming beginning to a lazy morning in Hong Kong. for those unaccustomed to the loud atmosphere and elbowing crowds, dim sum may not be the most relaxing way to start the day, but your stomach will definitely leave happy. When you’ve eaten to your heart’s content, catch a waiter’s eye and say “mai daan.”
The L-shaped Lan Kwai Fong area overflows with trendy restaurants and bars, filled to saturation with expats, businessmen, socialites, and the odd backpacker or prep school kid. From Thursday to Sunday, the neighborhood is a veritable sea of people milling about in the streets, paying the exclusive cover charges and bar tabs at posh establishments. It’s certainly a buzzing scene, but even locals complain that the infamous Lan Kwai Fong is losing its edge. Most bars and clubs blare the same bland music and pour the same expensive drinks to drunk, bored expats. For a less stifling atmosphere, some of the best nightlife options can actually be found just outside of Lan Kwai Fong.
Causeway Bay isn’t as happening as its nearby neighborhoods, but if small, relaxed bars are your scene, look to Yiu Wa Street and the streets running parallel off Matheson St., south of Times Square, for local hangouts. Be prepared to do more than one double-take: bars on these streets are almost identical, but can be comfortable enough for a quiet night out. Hotel bars and lounges provides little more variety.