Hong Kong has its reputation. In fact, depending on who you're talking to, it has many reputations. To some, it's a bland corporate hub for expats. To others, it's a dizzying blend of old and new, mixing Chinese and Western cultures. In the end, Hong Kong is all of these things -- and that's what makes it one of Asia's most exciting cities. With an iconic skyline, towering mountains, and a glittering harbor, the city is an absolute stunner, and once you scratch below the surface, there are a ton of secrets to uncover. With that in mind, we've put together 21 things you need to know before landing in this fascinating place.
1. Hong Kong is massive, busy, and crowded.
If you’re expecting sanitized Singapore streets when you touch down in Hong Kong, you’ll be sorely disappointed. To be clear, this is not Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, but Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities (the total population comes in at over 7.3 million). To exacerbate things, living quarters in Hong Kong are some of the smallest in the world — around 470 square feet on average, according to the South China Morning Post. That means the streets are packed with people escaping their cramped home lives day and night. That’s especially true in Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, Causeway Bay, and Sheung Wan — where tourists and locals are packed together most tightly. If you’d like to see the city at its least crowded, avoid trade fair seasons and mainland China holidays like Golden Week.
2. It also has some of the best street life in the world.
With all of those crowds comes vibrant street life. In Hong Kong, the sidewalks always thrum. This makes for great people-watching, eating, shopping, and sightseeing. Nearly every neighborhood has some sort of atmospheric wet market, where vendors sling produce, meat, and seafood alongside all manner of dried goods. Street food is a major must-try, especially in bustling neighborhoods like Mong Kok. If you have a translator, you can also visit one of the fortune-tellers that sit underneath the highway near Causeway Bay. They excel in getting cosmic revenge on those who have wronged you. However, no matter where you end up, have your camera ready because between the neon signs and people clamoring for space, there’s never a shortage of things to see.
3. You'll spend far more money than you expected.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Hong Kong is expensive. After all, it’s a city where you can find two Gucci stores on adjacent blocks, where luxury malls are attached to equally luxurious hotels, and where nearly every street seems to be navigated by several Teslas. You’re likely to be shocked by just how much damage you can do while shopping and dining. Along the Central–Mid-Levels escalators, in the heart of trendy Soho, even a meal at a casual mid-range restaurant can exceed $100 for two — without alcohol or dessert. When it comes to shopping, the city is flush with malls, but again, price tags at even athleisure outfitters and indie boutiques can top those in other notoriously expensive destinations like New York City and Paris.
4. But you can score great bargains, if you play it right.
While Hong Kong can feel like an urban playground for the rich, it’s also possible to land some bargains while in town. You’ll find a number of simple budget and mid-range hotels, often for rates that are similar to those in Europe and the United States. That’s particularly true of chains like iClub, as well as independent properties like the Xi Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui. Will you be flush with perks during your stay? No. But if clean rooms, a prime location, and powerful air-conditioning are all you need, you can spend well under $100 a night. You’ll also save a ton of money by eating in the city’s more local spots, particularly in Mong Kok, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, and Tsim Sha Tsui. The open-air markets make for great bargain shopping, and can be found in almost every neighborhood. Just be sure to bring cash (more on that below).
5. Shopping is everything (and everything is a mall).
While there is no formal count of the city’s shopping centers, the number of malls is well over 100 by even casual observers. However, when we refer to malls in Hong Kong, we aren’t talking about the typical suburban, cookie-cutter spots that you’ll find in North America. Here, the mall is a cultural touchstone: Floor after floor of wildly popular restaurants give way to layers of luxury stores, indie boutiques, only-in-Hong-Kong designer brands, streetwear, vintage goods, bespoke housewares, and much more. Check out K11 Art Mall if you’re looking for trendier offerings, or head to Times Square, Pacific Place, or Landmark for high-end items. There are malls on every block, and most are worth exploring — particularly PMQ, the former police barracks that now serve as a local design incubator. Back at street level, you can find posh indie boutiques in Soho, Star Street (as well as Moon and Sun Streets) in Wan Chai, Sneaker Street in Mong Kok, and Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan.
6. The arts scene is booming.
Since 2013, Hong Kong has been home to one of the world’s largest Art Basel fairs, though nearly every major gallery in the United States and Europe has an outpost here. That includes White Cube, Perrotin, Gagosian, and Pace. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, the city is flush with less formal art spaces as well. Check out the alley walls of Sheung Wan and Central, where street art is abundant. For equally subversive — but more formally curated — art, head to Oi! in Fortress Hill, or Para Site, which is near the Quarry Bay MTR station and mounts multi-floor group shows that touch on socially relevant issues and politics with striking results.
7. You'll have to carry lots of cash.
While Hong Kong often feels like a futuristic wonderland of efficient trains and towering skyscrapers, not every aspect of it is quite so 21st century. You’ll find that most major retailers, mall shops, upmarket restaurants, and hotels all accept credit and debit cards. However, cash is still king in many corners of the city. As of 2018, the MTR can only be accessed by cash payments on an Octopus Card (a pre-paid fare card that you tap to enter the city’s subway system). Additionally, Uber isn’t common here and the city’s street-hailed taxi network doesn’t accept credit cards either. If you’re eating in any of the traditional mom-and-pop restaurants, don’t expect to to use your credit card. Luckily, plenty of international banks have ATMs throughout the city.
8. Get an Octopus Card and use the MTR system.
The MTR, an ever-expanding network of clean and efficient train lines, runs underneath much of the city. You’ll want to rely on this for the majority of your navigating needs in Hong Kong. While taxis are plentiful, they can be pricey (especially for cross-harbor journeys and at night). The city’s traffic situation is also notoriously horrible. During peak daytime hours, trains run as often as every three minutes, and stations are safe, big, air-conditioned, and packed with stores. Simply pay a cash deposit, buy a pre-paid Octopus Card at any customer service kiosk in the MTR stations during operating hours, and swipe in and out for every ride. The fares are calculated on how far you travel within the system, though it’s easily the most reasonably priced and quickest way to travel around Hong Kong.
9. English will get you far, but not everywhere.
To call Hong Kong’s history — both distant and more recent — complex is a major understatement. It was part of China until 1842, when it became a British colony, and then reverted back to China in 1997 as a special administrative region (more on that later). That back and forth status, as well as the city’s position as a world financial hub, has led it to become a melting pot of sorts. And while the British legacy (and diverse population) has given English a prominent place here, don’t expect it to get you everywhere. There are plenty of corners of the city where Cantonese is the main language — that includes street food workers, signage, fortune-tellers, and restaurant menus. However, nearly all of the neighborhoods along Hong Kong Island’s north shore and major tourist hubs in Kowloon (like Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui) cater to English speakers. In these parts of towns, menus are bilingual or often only available in English.
10. Nature is always close at hand.
When you think of Hong Kong, images of untouched forests and long, quiet hikes might not immediately spring to mind. However, at almost every turn, the city’s preserved green spaces are visible. That’s especially true on Hong Kong Island, where Victoria Peak (called The Peak by locals) towers over the island and is home to one of the city’s most popular walks (along with stunning views of Victoria Harbour and the city below). The funicular to the top is the most popular way to get there, but we recommend taking a taxi up and the tram back down to avoid long lines. Need more escape options? Check out Dragon’s Back, Lantau Island, Yin Tsz Ngam, and Lamma Island. These are all accessible by bus, ferry, private boat, or the MTR.
11. There's plenty of traditional life to be found.
We’ve already mentioned the fortune-tellers in Hong Kong, but this city’s cultural roots run far deeper and farther into the past. You could easily spend a few days touring Hong Kong’s temples, which are tucked into hillsides, underneath towering skyscrapers, and amid tranquil parks. These include Confucian and Buddhist temples — the most notable of either category is Man Mo Temple. Considered the oldest temple in the city, Man Mo is one of Sheung Wan’s gems — massive spiral cones of incense flood the space, while the devout offer their prayers at altars with red lanterns all around. Tin Hau Temple and Po Lin Monastery are also magnets for the spiritual, while Wong Tai Sin Temple is home to some of the city’s most famous fortune-tellers. If you’d prefer to sample local fare, opt for the restaurants of Yau Ma Tei, where dim dum and steaming noodle plates clamor for space next to pots of local tea.
12. It's oppressively hot and humid for much of the year.
When Hong Kong locals say summer, what they mean is the season that stretches from late April until late October. The climate is officially known as humid subtropical here, meaning that there are also distinct rainy and dry seasons. With this in mind, trade fair season and Golden Week come with temperatures in the high 80s plus equally steamy humidity levels. You can expect lots of cloud cover as well as afternoon and evening showers on many days as well. Exacerbating matters is the more formal vibe of Hong Kong, where shorts and tank tops are rarely on display. If you’re an expat living here, your days will likely be spent in full business attire, making things even more uncomfortable. However, with the high volume of mega-malls, there’s always an air-conditioned way of getting from point A to point B.
13. Hong Kong is one of the most diverse cities in Asia.
When you break it down on paper, Hong Kong is undoubtedly a city where the majority of citizens are Chinese. However, according to the city government, there are sizable communities of expats from around the world that call Hong Kong home (even if it’s only for a few years). Europeans, Australians, Americans, Indians, Nepalese, Indonesians, Filipinos, and Pakistanis all live here in not-insubstantial numbers. That means that in most parts of town, you won’t be the only outsider, which goes a long way in helping many travelers feel comfortable. Expect international food and beverage options in most of the popular neighborhoods, particularly in Central and Soho.
14. There are plenty of great urban beaches.
The most famous beach in Hong Kong is Repulse Bay, which becomes flooded with tourists and locals on hot summer days. It’s also easy to reach from the neighborhoods of Hong Kong Island. However, there are a number of other less-trafficked strips of sand that feel a bit more tranquil. If you’re willing to hike, grab a boat, and camp out, opt for Tai Long Wan. It feels lifted right out of the Caribbean. It’s also worth checking out the beaches of Lamma Island and spots like Hap Mun Wan. Tip: Much like in Rio de Janeiro, you shouldn’t sleep on the beaches here either.
15. There are stunning views from almost anywhere.
In a city where few buildings are under 30 stories tall, where there’s blue sea around every corner, and where mountains tower over the whole scene, you can expect the views to be nothing short of spectacular. And the truth is that those views are often astounding from all angles. For instance, look left or right as you ascend the Central–Mid-Levels escalators at night and you’ll see long avenues packed with traffic, framed by skyscrapers, and filled with neon signage. Skyline views across Victoria Harbour in either direction — from Kowloon or Hong Kong Island — are picture-perfect. Even lower-floor hotel rooms are often likely to have glimpses between the forest of high-rises all around. If you want to get a bird’s-eye view of it all, head up to The Peak and walk the circuit around the top.
16. SAR status means WhatsApp, Facebook, and Google all work normally.
It’s one of the major concerns when travelers first decide that they want to visit Hong Kong: Can I use social media like I normally do? The answer is yes — for now. While Hong Kong is administered by China, it enjoys SAR status and some of the more oppressive measures found on the mainland don’t apply here. Everything from Google and Facebook to WhatsApp and other globally available messaging services can be used normally. The city also has a separate currency from China — it’s the Hong Kong dollar, not the renminbi — and there are no visas required for most travelers from Western Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. What will happen after 2047, when Hong Kong officially becomes Chinese, is a bit less clear. But for now, it’s business as usual.
17. The city has a big sweet tooth.
Bakeries can be found everywhere in Hong Kong, from MTR stations to malls, and they sling all kinds of confections, such as sponge cakes and sweetheart (or wife) cakes. But if you’re after iconic Hong Kong sweets, and don’t feel like exploring, stick to two easy-to-find treats. The egg tart, with its custard filling and flaky, buttery crust, is a staple of almost any bakery in the city. Tai Cheong Bakery is the city’s most famous joint for this sweet snack. The egg waffle (or egg puff) balances a subtle sweetness with both crispy and chewy textures. These, too, are found in nearly every neighborhood, though trendier new joints will slather them in toppings like kaya, coconut milk, and Nutella. You can find egg waffles at Master Low-Key Food Shop, which has a branch in Fortress Hill.
18. Contrary to popular belief, nightlife does exist here.
Hong Kong doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to nightlife, but this is not a sleepy, soulless place. While the city doesn’t blaze like Tokyo or push hedonistic excesses like Bangkok, there’s a decent spread of entertainment to keep you going well into the evenings. The bars and pubs of Tsim Sha Tsui are filled with tourists and locals quite late, while the trendy expat spots in Soho and Central often spill out onto the sidewalk. Lan Kwai Fong is the city’s nightlife heart and comes alive as happy hour descends upon the city. On weekend nights, the area turns into one big open-air bar, with doors open and patrons filling the streets. Looking for something a bit classier? Sky bars are big business here, though expect to pay eye-watering prices for cocktails. The city also has an open, if small, LGBTQ nightlife scene that provides much-needed spaces for the community to mingle.
19. Don't expect an early-morning coffee — or early morning anything.
Unlike New York City — which is in many ways similar to Hong Kong — you won’t see harried office workers stopping at local cafes for a coffee fix at 7 a.m. In fact, it’s hard to find much of anything open in Hong Kong at that hour. The city starts late, and breakfast is often not offered until 8 a.m. (or later). Most of the city’s bespoke coffee shops don’t get going until 8 or — more frequently — 9 a.m. That means you’ll have to rely on your hotel’s kettle or Nespresso machine (or hope that one of the Starbucks near your hotel has early hours, but that’s not always a given either).
20. Hit up the classic tea shops and canteens.
While dim sum steals most of the thunder in Hong Kong — particularly because of its regional Cantonese origins — there are plenty of other local delights you should indulge in while visiting. Chief among those are the city’s teahouses and canteens. These bare-bones, no-frills, often packed-to-the-gills spots can be found in all corners of town, from touristy Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay to Ma Tau Wai, Sheung Wan, and Fortress Hill. Few eating experiences in Hong Kong are quite as enjoyable as sharing tables with lively families, selfie-taking teens, elderly locals, and solo diners at places like Australia Dairy Company, Lan Fong Yuen, and Yee Shun Dairy Company. Grab a milk tea and don’t forget to add an order of French toast, which is often slathered in butter and drenched in kaya jam or coconut milk.
21. It's incredibly user-friendly once you learn the basics.
For starters, you should know that the city is essentially divided into Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The former is often billed as the more traditionally Chinese (Cantonese, of course), while the latter is home to the bulk of corporate headquarters and expat enclaves. Cars travel on the left in Hong Kong and you should follow walk and don’t walk signs diligently. On Hong Kong Island, you should be prepared for hills and steps, and note that MTR stations throughout the city are more like events: They’re massive labyrinths packed with shops and fast-food outlets. Additionally, get used to entering mixed-use high-rises. Art galleries are often on the same floor as corporate offices, while restaurants may sit three floors up, next to private apartments. Space is at a premium here, after all.
Overall, the city is one of the most approachable urban centers in all of Asia. You’ll find that English is more widely spoken here than in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, or Bangkok. Plus, everything from the easy-to-navigate subway system to the clean and calm malls are familiar enough to make travelers feel more comfortable and less out of their element.
The Upper House is one of the most buzzed about luxury hotels in Hong Kong. This design-forward property has an exclusive perch with excellent city and harbor views, plus striking interiors and an impeccable contemporary art collection. The 117 rooms are some of the most spacious in town, with soothing minimalist decor plus free Maxi Bars and posh spa bathrooms (many with amazing views). Cafe Gray Deluxe and Bar holds sought-after tables overlooking the city skyline, while additions like free yoga and a complete gym all make this a true urban oasis. We especially love The Library, which holds exclusive gatherings and talks during events like Art Basel.
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