Hong Kong Travel Guide
Although very similar and undoubtedly almost as popular, Hong Kong still provides more value than Singapore. The fusion of eastern and western cultures, history, foods, shopping and the contrast of soaring residential and commercial skyscrapers and peaceful green spaces surrounded by blue seas, along with the pegged Hong Kong dollar, make this destination an all-round winner for all types of travellers from families to seniors.
Many were worried about what would happen to Hong Kong when the Chinese took it back in 1997, but even more than 20 years on, Hong Kong has maintained its own identity, currency, economy and immigration laws (even Chinese nationals need to clear immigration upon entry). Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China.
On the southern coast of China at the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong comprises Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, Lantau Island (where the international airport is), the New Territories, and over 200 outlying islands. It’s so compact that major shopping areas and attractions are all within easy reach of nearly all hotels which are mostly located around the harbour front of Causeway Bay, North Point, Wan Chai and Central on Hong Kong Island, and Tsim Sha Tsui and Hung Hom in Kowloon.
Relaxing resort-style hotels can now also be found in the New Territories and on the outlying islands.
One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Hong Kong’s 7.4 million inhabitants squeeze into 1,100 square kilometres. However, the streets and subways are not overly crowded, with everyone moving in an orderly and polite manner.
Hong Kong is a place unlike any other and defies easy categorisation. It’s where a thriving port and dazzling skyline meet ancient fishing communities, quaint villages, stunning summits, pristine beaches and outlying islands. It’s where spritely seniors perform Tai Chi along Victoria Park, where authentic heritage, street markets and global fashion retailers rub shoulders, where you can indulge in a Michelin-starred feast or step outside and enjoy simple street fare, then stroll the undulating mountain trails to a remote beach cove.
Surprisingly, over 70 per cent of Hong Kong is lush green space for recreational activities. Protected mountain parks offer pleasant hiking trails, including the Cape D’Aguilar Marine Reserve on the south-eastern tip of Hong Kong Island, Shek Pik Country Trail on Lantau Island, and Pik Shan Path and Dragon’s Back on Victoria Peak.
While 88 per cent of the population speaks Cantonese, English is widely spoken by taxi drivers, salespeople and tourism staff, with bilingual menus, official signage and public transport announcements.
First-time visitors to Hong Kong should avoid the period around and during the Chinese New Year (usually late January, or early February) if possible because accommodation prices are invariably higher and everywhere is more crowded.
Getting around Hong Kong is safe, reliable and affordable whether it is by taxi, ferry, train, tram or bus. For seniors using wheelchairs, information on wheelchair accessible public transport is available here.
Ferries operate to the outlying islands of Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau, with most departing from Central Pier on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, including the Star Ferry. Wan Chai, North Point, Aberdeen, Stanley, Hung Hom, Sai Kung also have piers.
Taxis are cheap, with red ones operating across the city, blue ones on Lantau Island and green ones in the New Territories. Catch double-decker buses at designated stops across all of Hong Kong, with street trams operating east to west on Hong Kong Island and the MTR subway system covering nearly every part of the city.
The frequent public transport systems are clean and efficient, and tickets can be bought with cash at ticket machines, but an Octopus Card or Tourist Day Pass is more convenient when purchased on arrival as it can also be used on the Airport Express.
The MTR Airport Express 24-minute train journey makes stops in Tsing Yi, Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) and Central (Hong Kong Island), with free shuttle buses operating from Kowloon and Hong Kong stations to major hotels. Both stations also provide a free, in-town check-in return service for major airlines. This is a real saver as travellers can take the train to the airport earlier, clear immigration and security, and relax or do more duty-free shopping at the airport even before regular check-in counters are open.
For those intending to visit major attractions, another time, money, hassle and queue saver is pre-purchasing an iVenture Card. It also offers many shopping and dining discounts.
Hong Kong Island
Although it is the economic and business centre of the SAR, Hong Kong Island is also home to many tourist attractions including the funicular to Victoria Peak and the cable car to Ocean Park. More than a theme park, Ocean Park comprises a massive aquarium and many animal enclosures from sea lions to pandas and foxes. It is best visited during school hours to avoid crowds.
For seniors using wheelchairs, the cable cars to Ocean Park are wheelchair accessible, but the Peak Tram on the funicular railway to Victoria Peak is not.
Five self-guided walks through Old Town Central are ideal for exploring the heart of one of Hong Kong’s oldest neighbourhoods. It’s steeped in history, arts, food and culture.
From its highest point, The Peak takes in stunning panoramic views of the city below and Kowloon. Needless to say it’s even more spectacular at night. Ride the 130-year-old Peak Tram on the funicular railway to the free viewing area. At the top, Madame Tussauds, Peak Tower and the Peak Galleria mall offer an assortment of activities, shopping and dining.
Don’t confuse the Peak Tram with Hong Kong Island’s double-decker tram that transports commuters from one end of the island to the other. Built in 1903, it’s a unique tourist experience but is often jam-packed. TramOramic Tours offer a one-hour open top tram adventure.
Hong Kong is renowned for its shopping and assortment of markets, and within the financial district, the twin Li Yuen Streets and Central Lanes small markets are worth visiting. Also, at Central, is the Cat Street antique market, while Stanley Market at the waterfront town is where many locals shop.
Operating since 1888, the best way to travel between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon is on the Star Ferry. Hour-long harbour trips go the entire length of the harbour for those wishing to see more of the harbour scenery.
One of the best ways to take in Hong Kong’s harbour and the skyline is on a cruise, but instead of the standard tourist boat, book a ride aboard an ancient Chinese fishing vessel, the Duk Ling. With wooden decks and red sails, they make regular sailings throughout the day, or even better a sunset trip or special Symphony of Lights cruise.
Most visitors will want to see the award-winning nightly ‘Symphony of Lights’ sound and light show at least once. This nightly spectacle, best viewed from a cruise or from the Avenue of Stars and promenade, showcases the vibrancy and vista of Victoria Harbour, illuminating over 47 buildings on both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon with musical effects.
All the skyscrapers are not on Hong Kong Island either. Currently the tallest building, the 118-floor International Commerce Centre towers over the Kowloon skyline and the Sky100 observation deck on the 100th floor offers 360-degree vistas of the entire cityscape. Interactive exhibitions also explain Hong Kong’s history.
Harbour City (over 450 shops), Langham Place (over 200 shops), Nathan Road and Cameron Street are where visitors will find the bigger department stores, an assortment of home decor shops, tailors and electronic shops. Hong Kong is environmentally friendly and introduced a charge of $HK0.50 for plastic shopping bags back in 2015, encouraging shoppers to take their own bags to avoid the levy.
Kowloon’s Ladies’ Market, is the city’s most diverse outdoor market, selling everything from small trinkets to entire apartment wares, and unlike its name suggests, caters for more than just ladies. Quality ranges from high to incredibly low, so check each item individually and bargain hard.
Take a journey through Hong Kong’s past at the Temple Street night markets. Here the focus is on vintage trinkets, age-old statues, paintings and dedicated jade stalls, and there are even a few fortune-tellers and palm readers. After shopping, relax with a beer and snack at one of the many outdoor food stalls.
On Lantau Island there are a number of tourist attractions including Ngong Ping 360, the Tian Tan Buddha (commonly known a s the Big Buddha), Po Lin Monastery and Hong Kong Disneyland – all not far from the international airport. Ride across the island in a glass-bottomed crystal cabin cable car with sweeping views of dense foliage and the surrounding waters.
Seniors are more likely to be interested in visiting Ngong Ping Village - where there’s plenty of shopping and dining options – rather than Disneyland. From the village it’s just a five-minute walk to the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery.
The New Territories
North of Kowloon, the New Territories is dotted with wetland parks and temples and several quiet resorts. The remnants of the 500-year-old Kat Hing Wai Walled Village is also here. Walled villages once defined Hong Kong, and while most have been demolished, Kat Hing Wai is still inhabited by the descendants of its founders. See a historic guardhouse, moat, narrow alleys and ancient abodes.
The New Territories offer many opportunities for visitors to break out from the city-based tourist routine, and explore the outdoor pleasures that make Hong Kong such a fascinating fusion of experiences. A calming nature walk over mountain trails offers spellbinding views, and there are options to explore nearby islands or relax on a pristine beach.
For over 150 years, horse racing has been part of Hong Kong’s culture. Join the locals who dress in their Ascot best for weekend races at the Sha Tin racecourse in that part of the New Territories closest to Kowloon (or go casual at the Wednesday evening races in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island).
Be warned that smoking is prohibited in Hong Kong in many outdoor areas, all restaurants, bars, malls, public transport, beaches, swimming pools and escalators.
Best months to visit Hong Kong
Hong Kong is sub-tropical with distinct seasons. The weather is mildest from October to April, while December to February are the coldest months when temperatures can drop to 10°C. May to November is hot, wet and humid with maximums reaching the 30s. It is also typhoon season, and if affected, warnings are broadcast widely.
Currency and exchange rates
The Hong Kong dollar is pegged at HK$7.80 to US$1.00 so currency conversions are very straightforward.
Currency exchanges and money changers are available at the airport, as well as at many locations around the city. Most ATMs accept international cards, and international credit cards are widely accepted.
Header image: Frida Aguilar Estrada