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Hong Kong Travel Guide

Hong Kong Summary

Pros

Cons

  • Summers are incredibly hot and humid
  • Crowds aren't to be underestimated -- particularly during mainland China holidays
  • Nightlife can be tame and the scene is small
  • Hong Kong's future after 2047, when it officially becomes China, is less than certain
  • Food isn't cheap -- even for dim sum and fast-casual takeaway options

What It's Like

When you think about the city in its truest form -- dense, frenetic, diverse, loud, and glowing bright -- plenty of places come to mind. New York City is brash and incredibly diverse. Paris is pretty. Mumbai is chaotic. Tokyo is endlessly urban. But it's Hong Kong that in many way pulls all of these attributes into one dizzying place. This is one of the world's most densely populated cities, where endless forests of skyscrapers are packed into tiny pockets of land beneath massive mountain parks and next to bays and harbors. You will rarely be alone in Hong Kong -- and that fact alone is part of the joy of experiencing this place. However, Hong Kong is also full of surprises. Quiet corners, long-standing traditions, and historic temples all sit amid the cutting-edge boutiques, architectural marvels, mountain forests, picture-perfect beaches, and people from literally every corner of the world. 

You will need money here, though. To call Hong Kong rich is an understatement. This is the kind of city where you'll spot multiple Teslas within a two-block walk, where one Gucci store sits almost adjacent to another Gucci store, and where you could go broke in no time. Even so, it's not all about blowing the bank here. Some of the city's best joys are its simplest: the only-in-Hong-Kong sweets at the bakeries found on nearly every block; the milk tea at Lan Fong Yuen; strolling around The Peak; smelling the incense at Man Mo Temple; and perusing the genuine and knock-off antiques of Hollywood Road -- all of these are yours for just a few dollars at most.

Of course, as an antidote to all of those humble pleasures, Hong Kong arguably does biggest best. Here, towering mountains sit beside some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, all packed along two main waterfronts: one in Tsim Sha Tsui on Kowloon Island, and the other spanning the length of Hong Kong Island's northern shore. The city's skyline -- from Kowloon's ICC Tower (which is home to the Ritz-Carlton, one of the world's highest hotels) to Hong Kong Island's Bank of China Tower -- is iconic. Within all of that, there's shopping galore and nearly every neighborhood has a mall or dozens of malls. The latter is particularly true around Causeway Bay and Central -- where luxury stores, eateries, and boutiques are all packed into multi-floor megamalls like Times Square, Pacific Place, and The Landmark. 

The city's more bespoke side is also booming, and its fashion-and-arts game is surprisingly on point for a place often considered traditional, corporate, and restrained. Head to the Granville Circuit in Tsim Sha Tsui for boutiques that change their wares almost daily, or to the back streets of Wan Chai for similarly high-end, but one-of-a-kind, clothing finds. It's also worth checking out PMQ, in hyper-trendy Soho, where a former police quarters has been taken over by indie designers and serves as a fashionable magnet in the area. 

Generally speaking, the action in Hong Kong happens in southern Kowloon Island and northern Hong Kong Island. Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui are the busiest parts of Kowloon, while Sheung Wan, Central, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay are the main draws on Hong Kong. While Kowloon is the more traditional of the two, and draws the lion's share of mainland Chinese tourists and shoppers, you'll find plenty of contemporary atmosphere and old-school Cantonese style on both islands. Tsim Sha Tsui is a mix of hyper-touristy bars and restaurants and holes-in-the-wall that only locals will know. It also has the best views across the harbor from the Avenue of the Stars for the evening light show. For something just slightly grittier, the neon-lit market streets of Mong Kok are packed with wholesalers, herbalists, street food, sneakerheads, and fashionable upscale malls. Mong Kok should also be your go-to for street food

Travel to the other side of Victoria Harbor, and the vibe is a bit different. Here, the financial heart of the city beats loudest, with most major corporate offices clustered along the Hong Kong Island's north shore. These neighborhoods are also home to the largest portion of the city's immense ex-pat population. Central and Soho are where to head for the biggest array of Western-friendly dining and drinking spots -- as well as menus that are guaranteed to be in English. Here, foodie joints and trendy boutiques are packed in between Irish pubs and bespoke wine bars. It's also where the best nightlife in the city is found. The hub of that scene is Lan Kawi Fong -- where the bars and nightclubs all spill out into an open-air bonanza that's certainly anything but quiet. Keep in mind, though, that compared to Bangkok or Tokyo, things in Hong Kong are quite a bit milder.  

Hong Kong Island is also home to Causeway Bay, a shopping mecca where massive malls like Times Square serve as destinations in their own right. The streets around the malls hold local gems like Yee Shun Dairy Company or the horse races at Happy Valley. Farther west, Sheung Wan is home to atmospheric Man Mo Temple and the antiques markets of Hollywood Road, as well as some of the city's edgiest galleries, painfully artisanal restaurants, and Western-style coffee shops. If all of this urban insanity is simply too much to take, hop in a cab or on the bus to fresh air destinations like the beach at Repulse Bay, the quiet of Lamma Island, or the trails that wind around The Peak (Victoria Peak) -- where views of the city and surrounding islands are stunning. Or head to Lantau Island and ride the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, which winds its way up to the Po Lin Monastery and the famous Big Buddha.

The city's MTR system makes getting around incredibly easy by using a prepaid, refillable Octopus card. Just keep in mind that -- as of 2018 -- the card can only be paid for and refilled with cash. In fact, plan to carry more cash than you're used to in Hong Kong, as many of the traditional restaurants and tea shops, all taxis, and many smaller stores don't accept cards. You'll fare better at larger stores, malls, and upscale restaurants if you want to use a credit card. While English is widely spoken -- particularly in the MTR, all hotels, and areas where Westerners are most common -- it may help to know a little Cantonese before you land (particularly if you want to try some street food). 

Where To Stay

In Hong Kong, you can find just about any hotel you want, and surprising bargains can be found. That being said, the city's luxury hotel game is hard to beat. In fact, it's home to the utterly opulent and always-buzzing original Mandarin-Oriental as well as nearly every other luxury brand on earth. That includes newcomers like The Upper House and The Kerry Hotel. Extended-stay properties and serviced apartments are also an option, and the National Hotels group, with four properties in Sheung Wan, has a lovely collection of posh, view-heavy properties (like The Jervois). Though tourists visit Hong Kong year-round, deals can often be found during the winter and summer. Try to avoid major holidays such as Chinese New Year (taking place during January or February depending on the year) as well as Golden Week (a major time for mainland Chinese to visit Hong Kong). Crowds will be huge and hotel prices skyrocket. Fall may be the best time of year to visit, when the weather is warm and comfortable. Summers are hot and humid -- to say the least.

If you're looking to have access to the city's trendy ex-pat-friendly shops and restaurants, bed down anywhere from Sheung Wan to Central. Here, you'll be close to many of the city's art galleries, corporate headquarters, shopping, and the trails of Victoria Peak up above. You'll also be near the MTR no matter where you sleep in this part of town. If you want to be immersed in the city's most traditionally Cantonese side, Tsim Sha Tsui, Yau Ma Tei, and Mong Kok are where to stay. Keep in mind that the MTR is ever expanding, and you'll be rewarded with lower rates by opting for properties near Whampoa and Hong Hum stations. Just remember that the MTR doesn't run 24/7 and you'll have to rely on taxis in the overnight hours. Also note that the bulk of the city's nightlife is around Central and Causeway Bay. If that's your thing, you should definitely sleep on Hong Kong Island to avoid expensive harbor crossings. 

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