Tradition and modernity coexist in the international trade and shopping mecca that is Hong Kong, stacked (literally) and buzzing with life. High-rises rule the sky but down below, dim sum is king. To score your finest fake Gucci, you'll need to bring your haggling a-game.
** On November 14, 2019, the United States government issued a travel warning for Hong Kong due to ongoing civil unrest. For months, small and large political demonstrations have taken place across various parts of the city, including MTR stations, universities, and the Hong Kong International airport. Visitors traveling to Hong Kong are advised to exercise caution and to check local news media for updates. **
Welcome to Asia's World City, where a glistening harbor and futuristic skyline stand against lush mountains rumored to be the home of fire-breathing dragons. Hong Kong has come a long way since its 99 years under British rule. Today, this dominant trading center is home to almost as many expats as there are dim sum restaurants, and street markets that will leave you clamoring for space (plot twist: there isn't any). So leave your expectations at home and get ready to multi-task your way through this busy metropolis — in Hong Kong, there's nowhere to go but up.
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Subtropical conditions can make summers (June-September) in Hong Kong unbearable. Steamy temperatures (high 80s/~26-32C) coupled with frequent typhoons and monsoons make traveling here difficult. And yet visitors still come flocking — if you like things muggy, crowded, and expensive, Hong Kong summers check off all the boxes. More temperate conditions sweep in October through late December. This is a prime time to visit with humidity at its lowest, temperatures settled between the low-80s and high-60s (~27-21C), and the rain more or less abated. However, the first week of October sees hordes of mainland tourists in town for the National Day holidays, commemorating the founding of the People's Republic of China.
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Cooler winter temperatures (60s-70s/~15-21C) arrive between January and March. This is one of the most comfortable periods to visit, too. Expect foggy conditions across the harbor, especially during March, and higher hotel rates during Chinese New Year, which falls anywhere between late January and early February. Spring (April-May) is notorious for its unpredictable weather, and although the season starts off mild, higher humidity and heavy precipitation creep in by late March. April can be foggy as well, which, coupled with rain, may disrupt ferry services. Consider packing a jacket for cool nights and indoor activities (most places blast A/C year-round) and an umbrella for unexpected storms.
Hong Kong operates an efficient public transportation system consisting of buses and trains between Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. The Mass Transit Railway, or MTR, runs 11 commuter lines covering all major districts (including to the Mainland China boundary), and an Airport Express train (a short 24-minute ride into Central). The MTR also operates 12 light rails that service commuters between Yuen Long and Tuen Mun in the New Territories. Trains run every few minutes and generally operate every day at 6am and terminate between midnight and 1am.
The MTR calculates fares based on the distance traveled but are anywhere between HK$5 and HK$30 (more for destinations bordering the mainland). Two types of single-journey tickets are available for purchase: an adult and concessionary (the latter for children aged 3 to 11 and senior citizens aged 65 and above). This may be a good option for one-off traveling but if you're relying on the network to get around for a majority of your stay, opt for an Octopus card instead. The electronic, reloadable cards are available in various forms (e.g. tourist day passes), but a basic adult card costs HK$50 with an initial stored value of HK$100. The remaining balance on cards can even be used as a payment method at supermarkets, convenient stores, and fast food restaurants. When departing the city, simply return the card to an MTR customer service agent for your deposit back, minus an administration fee.
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Buses are also plentiful and many come with air-conditioning for those brutal summer days. Final destinations are displayed on the front of buses in both Cantonese and English. Octopus cards are accepted on all buses but if paying with cash, you must use exact change. Like trains, fares are also calculated by distance traveled but can cost as little as HK$2. Depending on the line, buses run between 6am and midnight, and those marked with "N" operate nighttime routes.
Two types of minibuses are available that accommodate up to 19 people at a time. Green minibuses run along specific routes at a fixed price and schedule, while red minibuses run on routes that aren't always fixed and passengers have the option to get on and off anywhere along the route. Note that green minibuses accept Octopus cards or exact change, while red minibuses only take cash for fares (drivers can typically make change with small bills). Once full, minibuses will not stop for new passengers until a seat becomes available. Most minibuses now come equipped with bells to signal the driver you want to get off, but if not, you'll have to shout "Next stop!" All passengers are required to wear a seat belt — and for good reason, as minibuses are notorious for high speeds.
The city operates 27 ferry routes connecting travelers to Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the outlying islands. Multiple companies shepherd riders across Victoria Harbour but the Star Ferry is the most popular and costs anywhere between HK$2 and $3, depending on the time of travel and departure and arrival piers. Consider riding the Star Ferry outside normal peak hours to avoid crowds. Probably the most iconic form of travel in Hong Kong though are the 100+ year old trams that course through the main island's biggest tourist areas. These retro double-decker streetcars are a great way to sightsee but are best for short distances. There is a flat rate fare of HK$2.60 for adults (children and senior citizens pay half) and exact change or Octopus cards are accepted. Board at the rear of the tram and pay and exit at the front.
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While getting lost in Hong Kong's meandering streets is a great way to see the city up close and personal, it is not always recommended as the terrain is extremely hilly. Taxis abound, are readily-available (except in restricted areas), and relatively cheap. They are broken down into three colors: red cars service urban regions and will go almost anywhere, green cars operate in the rural New Territories, and blue cars run in Lantau Island. Fares vary depending on the taxi but rates can skyrocket if you're stuck in traffic or crossing the water. Luckily, major ride hailing services like Uber are available here. As always, Uber provides a fixed price depending on distance and demand.
The Hong Kong dollar (HK$ or HKD) is the official currency of Hong Kong. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but it's not a bad idea to keep some bills on hand for small transactions and for picking up the tab at the cash-only establishment, of which there are many here. It's also a good idea to have small bills on hand for taxi trips in case your driver cannot make change with larger bills.
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The official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English. However, more Hong Kongers speak Cantonese, a southern dialect of Chinese, than Mandarin, the more dominant Chinese dialect in the world and the official dialect of China. In Hong Kong, traditional characters are used for written communication, whereas simplified characters are utilized in Beijing and other parts of China. This means speakers of either dialect may not understand the other. Despite Hong Kong being a former British colony, English is not a second mother tongue. Many restaurant workers and hotel employees may speak English but taxi drivers or small shopkeepers often do not.
Food is very central to the daily culture of Hong Kongers — so much so that a typical greeting here goes like this: Nei hou ma? Sek jor faan mei? (How are you? Have you eaten rice yet?). From Michelin-starred restaurants to cheap eats, Hong Kong's unique fusion of Eastern and Western flavors not only highlights the city's position as the world's largest trading port, but also solidifies this island nation as a culinary capital.
One facet of Hong Kongers' relationship to food is their proximity to it. A majority of the population live in high density apartments, many of which are built atop malls and restaurants. Because of long work hours and limited space at home, dining out is a way of life here. This dining scene is oftentimes associated with the food counter and street food culture. Unfortunately, Hong Kong hawking — an old practice of selling goods from street carts and stalls — is a dying tradition due to hygiene concerns, street congestion, and strict licensing laws. But eating like a local still equates to Cantonese staples like noodles and dim sum — the bit-sized foods served in steamer baskets or small plates. For a Michelin-starred dim sum menu and unpretentious digs, head to Tim Ho Wan or go old-school at Maxim's Palace, which offers diners a thrilling trolley service experience and views of the Victoria Harbour.
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Though they steals the show, visitors should not restrict themselves to dim sum only — to do so is to miss out on a world of wonderful options. An ever-evolving selection of dining covers everything from Italian (KYTALY, 8 1/2 Otto E Mezzo Bombana, Alvy's) and French (Belon, La Vache!, Rech by Alain Ducasse), to British (The Globe) and Middle Eastern (Francis). Chefs are also fostering a new generation of Chinese cooking, including at the celebrated Man Wah inside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Here, traditional Cantonese dishes are treated with a modern twist — even the Peking duck is a hit. For Nordic, you'll drop a pretty penny at Beet (and it'll be worth it) but if you're pining for quality, affordable Thai, head to Samsen.
The city's tea houses and canteens are pivotal to Hong Kongers' daily lives. These bare-bones, no-frills spots are usually packed with people hungry for dim sum, Hong Kong breakfast, and an array of hot teas. If you can splurge, indulge at The Lobby inside the Peninsula Hotel for a British take on afternoon tea. Otherwise these low-key teahouses are a welcomed option for visitors traveling on a budget — though you might have to sit down with strangers — as eating out in the city can get astronomically expensive. If you have hours to kill before your next activity, sample the countless dishes at the iconic Hong Kong buffets, including Jumbo, a floating behemoth serving Cantonese cuisine since 1976. English menus are few and far between, but many will have pictures of the foods printed so you can order by pointing.
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A few more notes to keep in mind when eating out: there is no set time for eating meals in Hong Kong. Don't be surprised if you see locals eating dinner at 10pm and again at 1am (known as late-dinner), and if you're looking for breakfast at 2am, you're likely to find it. Rice, congee (a rice porridge), noodles, and rice noodles are four of the main staples served with most Chinese dishes. Also locals do not approve of wasting food; luckily, portions are relatively small (which also encourages ordering multiple plates to share), so do your best to finish that entire bowl of rice. Whatever you do, don't leave without sampling a roast goose or the sweet egg tarts.
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Hong Kong certainly lives up to its reputation as a shopping mecca: there's a mega mall on every corner, with display windows laden with luxury designs and neon signs vying for your attention. But to shop like a local means hitting the independently-owned stores. In the Causeway Bay/Wan Chai districts, head to Kapok, a boutique-coffee-shop hybrid featuring clothing, ceramics, accessories, and decor from California, Japan, and beyond. The minimalist space at Loveceramics will have you splurging on new homewares regardless of your needs. And if you're itching for all things Americana, America Vintage Shop is the way to go. Don't miss the Chinese cheongsams at Three Artisans (Central), decadent treats at bean-to-bar chocolatier Hakawa (Central), or an original print at art gallery-shop Odd One Out (Causeway Bay/Wan Chai). Bring your haggling a-game if you're shopping for those fake Gucci and Prada goods — you're going to need it. Prefer the 100 percent real deal? The department stores and luxury boutiques across Central are your best bet for scoring authentic designer goods. If you're prepared to handle the crowds and visual stimulation, Temple Street Night Market (Yau Ma Tei/Jordan) is a one-of-a-kind experience.
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Shopping and food may take up most of your itinerary but make room for at least one of Hong Kong's incredible museums. The waterfront Museum of Art (Tsim Sha Tsui) is comprised of 17,000 items ranging from Chinese antiquities to modern works by Hong Kong-based artists. It reopened in November 2019 after an extensive renovation that added 40 percent more exhibition space and 5 new galleries. The Space Museum, also in Tsim Sha Tsui, is another heavy-hitter, attracting thousands of star-gazing aficionados to its planetarium and exhibitions daily. Aside from the bigger museums (such as the Museum of History, Science Museum, and Museum of Coastal Defence), smaller institutions have plenty to offer too. Stop by the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware to learn about the history of tea drinking and handcrafted Chinese ceramics at the former home of a British commander. The Hong Kong Film Archive (Quarry Bay) delights cinephiles with screenings of heritage movies and deep-dives on the history of all things cinema. You can pose with native son Bruce Lee (or his statue, at least) at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Sha Tin. Despite the crowds of visitors and worshippers, a peek inside the 150-year-old Taoist Man Mo Temple (Central) is a good place to stop and reflect.
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Visitors often expect Hong Kong to be an oppressive urban jungle, but look around and you'll discover that the lush mountainsides are not just a home for the dragons. The city is awash with green spaces to provide you a reprieve from the massive crowds and stifling humidity. Start at Victoria Peak (Mid-Levels), which offers incredible views of the skyline, harbor, and on a clear day, Kowloon's eight mountains at 1,805 feet above sea level. The Peak is accessible by tram, bus, or taxi, with free scenic spots available. Hong Kong Park is as oasis located in the middle of Central. An aviary, a Tai Chi garden, and squash center are just a few of the major attractions at this park that spans 80,000 square meters.
Avid hikers will thrill at the urban hikes available, including the famous Dragon's Back trail in Shek O. Take in the spectacular views of southern Hong Kong Island and its shoreline before descending for a dip at the Shek O Beach. Head to Lantau Island to scale the second-highest summit in HK, Lantau Peak. Locals love to catch the sunrise here after the 2-mile hike. Over in Kowloon, the island's Walled City Park has transformed from being a six-acre den of drug-dealing and thievery to a well-manicured park filled with statues, flower gardens, and ponds. Take a moment to recenter at the temple in Nan Lian Garden (Wong Tai Sin/Diamond Hill) with the sounds of babbling brooks and a groomed landscape as backdrops. For an easy walk in the park — waterfront views and art installations that come alive at night — the Kwun Tong Promenade (Kwun Tong) is a perfect and quick get-away from the bustle.
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Lan Kwai Fong in Central is one of the most popular areas for nightlife in Hong Kong. This hilly, cobblestone street is home to some 100 bars, clubs, and restaurants, but you're likely to run into swarms of people and overpriced drinks. Neighboring SoHo is a better option for those looking for sophisticated settings like Quinary, a cocktail bar helmed by one of Hong Kong's most celebrated mixologists. The scientific approach to cocktails coupled with plush, dark decor make this an ideal first-date spot. Zytophiles line up for the latest craft beers at 65 Peel — but come hungry, because this pub also offers a variety of seafood small plates. Pay homage to Hemingway at this green-velvet bar with drinks inspired by "The Old Man and the Sea" where goat milk bourbon is very much a thing. For professionals looking to blow off some steam, grab a seat at Blue Bar by the floor-to-ceiling windows and enjoy the spectacular views of the harbor. Test your ping pong skills with drink in hand at Ping Pong 129 Gintonería (Sai Ying Pun), or impress a friend (or date) at Mizunara: The Library (Wan Chai) with your insider-knowledge at this secret speakeasy serving cocktails and over 600 obscure whiskies.
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It's hard to believe quiet corners exist in Hong Kong amidst all the hubbub. For starters, a stay at The Pottinger in Central promises utmost luxury, with tastefully decorated rooms and views that get better the higher the floor you're staying on. W Hong Kong (West Kowloon) also impresses with its lush rooms, rooftop swimming pool, and a spa so you can get a little "me time" during your stay. A trip to nearby Lamma Island can also offer respite. These days, much of the island is overtaken by trendy millennials (many of who indulge in a vegetarian menu at LaLa mama's) — but you can still find some quiet at Tin Hau Temple, the crystal clear waters of Hung Shing Yeh Beach, or at Fisherfolk Village, a floating fishermen village in the So Kwu Wan bay area where you can fish with the locals.
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When it comes to family-friendly activities, Hong Kong delivers. Shuttle the kids to Ocean Park (Aberdeen), where rides, thrills, pandas, a grand waterfront aquarium, and lots more draw crowds. This something-for-everybody park even has a lazy river for the kids to cool off on oppressively hot days. The Hong Kong Railway Museum (Tai Po) will delight train fanatics with photos, old compartments, and a full-size model of an electric train compartment that the family can climb aboard. A plethora of lush themed gardens and numerous wildlife exhibits comprise the admission-free Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens Green House (Central), with animals ranging from flamingos to orangutans and turtles to lemurs. If all else fails, Hong Kong Disneyland never disappoints (yes, Space Mountain and Small World are here too!).
For decades, Hong Kong has quietly built a culinary dynasty in its alleyways, hole-in-the wall hideaways, and nondescript dining rooms in the shadows of glittering skyscrapers.
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