Say goodbye for now to tuk tuks and flip flops and dripping humidity, and a big hello to the glamour and glitz of a neon metropolis! One of the most exciting and fast-paced cities on the planet; world-class restaurants, skybars, fashion, the buzz of business… Not only this, Hong Kong is blessed with beautiful national parks. On the same day as you shop ‘til you drop, you can be on the beach… or even go hiking in the mountains!
With its proliferation of skyscrapers and high-end retail outfits (Rolex, Armani, Louis Vuitton), Hong Kong isn’t usually regarded as a backpacker destination, and we’re not going to deny that this is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Still, the vibrancy of this place is such that you really shouldn’t miss out if you can help it!
Thinking about China? Just two hours away from Guangzhou by train, Hong Kong makes the perfect gateway. Dreams of the Trans Siberian Express? As a lovely Dutch couple travelling overland from Australia to Holland told us in Pizza Express (don’t judge us!) – Hong Kong is the only place in the world (apart from your home country) where you can get a visa to Russia.
So if your budget can only manage a few days in the city, make sure you cram in as many of these highlights as you can…
Sights & Culture:
- Nathan Road: Get lost down the winding backstreets branching out in all directions from the famous Nathan Road. All are pulsing with trendy independent boutique shops (most open every day till midnight!), cute bars, cafes, and almost as many dim sum places as there are tailors and beauty parlours. MTR: Tsim Tsa Tsui
- Temple Street: Don’t miss Temple Street Night Market surrounding the Tin Hau Temple in Kowloon. Be entertained by opera singers, get your fortune told, haggle over trinkets, electronics and antiques, and slurp noodles at this hugely entertaining nightly bazaar. MTR: Yau Ma Tei
- The Waterfront: Indulge in a caramel latte at Starbucks on the famous Victoria Harbour Promenade, and sit outside overlooking the jaw-droppingly beautiful (and busy) harbour curtained by a backdrop of seriously impressive skyscrapers. New York/Chicago eat your heart out! This is where you’ll also find everything from the HK Museum of Art, Cultural Centre to the New World Centre and the Space Museum – and you can walk from one to the other along the Avenue of Stars, modelled after the one in Hollywood. MTR: Tsim Tsa Tsui
The spectacular waterfront of Hong Kong.
- The Light Show: The multimedia ‘Symphony of Lights’ is on at the Victoria Harbour every evening. It’s the ‘World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show’ (Guinness World Records), and involves more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour. MTR: Tsim Tsa Tsui
- The Peak: Take the tram that takes you up to ‘The Peak’ (the highest point on Hong Kong Island, and the city’s most exclusive neighbourhood since colonial times). We were expecting to actually trek up here (we even substituted our high heels for trainers especially for the occasion), but the ride itself was amusing, bringing back memories of trips as children with our parents and a lot of accompanying old ladies with blue-rinses on their group day out. It’s also pretty commercial at the top – but the views overlooking the island when you reach the top are well worth being a tourist for the day. MTR: Central
- Bird Garden: Dozens of stalls selling exotic birds in beautiful bamboo cages abound at the traditional Chinese-styled Yuen Po Street Bird Garden. Let’s face it, you probably won’t want to buy any birds, but it’s definitely worth a visit, if only to watch the plethora of locals who come to sit, feed and coo over their feathered friends. MTR: Prince Edward Station (Exit B1. Walk along Prince Edward Road west towards the Mongkok Stadium for about 15 minutes.)
- Historical Sheung Wan: One of the oldest settlements in HK, Sheung Wan is becoming a bit of a hotspot. Historical streets lined with traditional medicine shops, antiques and souvenirs blend easily with the quickly emerging hipster scene, as all the city’s creatives move in to work and play. Expect cool shops, art spaces and funky people. A visit to the Man Mo Temple also recommended! MTR: Sheung Wan
- Red Lights of Wan Chai: Another old area of Hong Kong, Wanchai is steeped in history, and is also one of the world’s most famous red light districts, as described in the 1957 novel (and later movie): The World of Suzie Wong. As well as taking a walk around Golden Bauhinia Square (where the fireworks and flag-waving that marked the Hong Kong handover took place), look out for the Woo Cheong Pawn Shop – a renovated piece colonial architecture – and The Blue House, a protected historical building (and one of the few remaining examples of pre-war tenement buildings). MTR: Wan Chai
Hong Kong’s Nightlife
- SOHO: Navigate your way up towards each of the quaint little streets crammed with antique shops, cafes, bars and restaurants from all over the world via an escalator. Soho and the surrounding areas (Staunton Street, Elgin Street and Hollywood Road) is buzzing at the weekend when all those yuppies hit the tiles. MTR: Central
- LANG KWAI FONG: Just a short hop skip and a jump from Soho, Lang Kwai Fong is where you’ll find everything from cheesy bars (a little too much like England!) ‘members only’ clubs, ‘resto-bars’, ‘all you can drink’ bars (that means exactly what it implies – some offer a completely free drinking hour (or two) on certain days every week!) – as well as underground clubs (e.g. Volar, regularly attracting international DJs including Berlin techno duo Smash TV). MTR: Central.
Lan Kwai Fong during the Rugby Seven’s weekend!
- TSIM TSA TSUI: Tucked away off Kimberley Road, the charming Knutsford Terrace is just a stone’s throw from Chunking Mansions on Nathan Road. Tucked away down an alleyway you’ll stumble upon a hidden string of seriously cool little restaurants, cocktail establishments, tapas enclaves and live music bars. MTR: Tsim Tsa Tsui
The perfect place to stock up on luxuries you’re missing, shops are everywhere in Hong Kong, even down in the MTR (it’s a far cry from the drab old London Underground!). No wonder the national cliché is ‘fong bin’, which means ‘convenient’. Head to Causeway Bay to windowshop amongst a vast array of unabashed luxury consumer emporiums in a surprisingly compact area, including Times Square and Fashion Walk, and the Island Beverley Centre. If you’re a true flashpacker, then come here to spend spend spend! Pacific Place is another absolutely fabulous mall – if only to browse longingly! (MTR: Admiralty)
Exploring Further: Islands & Trekking
Visit the outlying islands via either Ordinary or Fast Ferries from Central Pier. Within as little as half an hour, you’ll feel a million miles away from the hustle of the city.
- LAMMA ISLAND: The perfect place in Hong Kong to explore beaches, caves and rustic villages dotted about numerous trails. This is also where you’ll find the Tin Hau Temple, the Lamma Fisherfolk’s village, and an abundance of gorgeous little craft stores and small restaurants. An exciting blend of Western and Eastern culture awaits you here on this laid-back island, and it’s one of the many reasons that this is the most visited outlying island of all.
- CHEUNG CHAU: Eat delicious seafood and take a stroll around this charismatic island. Just 30 minutes away from Hong Kong Island, it’s closer in ambience to quaint Hoi An in Vietnam than it is to glitzy Hong Kong!
Cheung Chau – sleepy fishing boats – a world away from the city!
- TREK TO THE BUDDHA: If you only do one trek whilst you’re here, make it this one on Latau Island. A 25-minute cable car ride up the Ngang Ping Plateau will take you to the world’s largest seated Buddha statue. From this point, prepare to puff and pant an extra 500 metres up an incredibly steep trail via scary stone staircases – and be rewarded at the summit by a 360 degree view of rugged coastline, twisting bays and coves over the South China Sea. The largest outlying island, Lantau is also where you’ll find (yet another!) top-end shopping mall, a gorgeous stretch of beach, oh… and Hong Kong’s Disneyland!
- MACAU: Better leave the fisherman’s pants at home and prepare to spend some serious dollar, or should we say drop some MOP (Macau’s own currency) in your bid to be labeled a bonafide flashpacker! Macau was featured in the latest Bond film, Skyfall, and is notorious for being as brazen gambling mecca. Shaken or stirred? (Or should that be ‘stick or twist?’)
The Cheapest Accommodation in Hong Kong?
Chungking Mansions – the name sounds rather grand, doesn’t it? But don’t get excited. Or rather do, because this 17-story tenement apartment block in the heart of Hong Kong is the only affordable way for backpackers on a budget to experience this incredible city. And experience Hong Kong you certainly should! Packed with more characters than a soap opera, with Western Union money exchanges, cheap rip-off trainers, laundromats, mobile phone shops, curry stalls and visa services… the building harbors a mish-mash of Hong Kong’s recently arrived immigrants, entrepreneurial international traders and dollar-conscious backpackers. “Watches…” “Copy handbag…” “Tailored suit?”
As you cram into the tiny lift up the floors to your guesthouse, backpack squashed against the door, body pressed against the face of a small Indian lady – the claustrophobia creeps under your skin and threatens you to run outside into the street, scream and take a long deep breath. (Or is that just me?) A room the size of a shoebox, with no windows (forget about a fire exit) awaits… but hey you’re paying 300 HKD ($40 USD) in one of the most expensive cities in the world, what do you expect?
“Ghetto at the Center of the World” as described in the title of Gordon Mathews’ book, Chungking has gained iconic status since Kar Wai Wong’s 1994 movie “Chungking Express” (one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films) and has become a literary muse for creative types. I’m getting excited just talking about it.
Mathews himself spent four years living in a number of the 90+ guesthouses while he researched his book which is an interesting read about the culture of the import and export business which centers around the building. Goods from China sold in Africa, goods from India sold in Hong Kong… Mathews reckons that up to 20% of mobile phones used in Africa passed through the building at some point.
The place is a landmark. And even if you’re money belt is bulging with HKD, how can you resist one night’s ‘experience’ in legendary Chungking? As well as cheap digs for the backpacker, the building is a cultural icon and a symbol of ‘low-end globalization’ with individual traders flogging suitcases of goods from their home countries in stark contrast to the massive corporate globalization that dominates most of the city.
(Chungking Mansions, 36–44 Nathan Road. Tsim Sha Tsui).
ALSO STAY AT (all in Tsim Sha Tsui):
- Kimberley Inn: Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui – Comfortable private rooms with bathrooms and power showers, for a ‘let’s-not-break-the-bank-too-much’ 700 HKD / night.
- Hop Inn: 19 – 21 Hankow Road, Tsim Sha Tsui – A backpacker favourite! There’s Lemon Project and The Spirit of a Sportsman for single rooms, Cooler Cool, Boom, Landscape of Traveller’s Palm or Bird Lover for doubles, and Like a Balloon or White Tone for triples. There’s also a twin (bunk bed) called Altostratus. Prices from 410 HKD – single to 650 HKD – triple.
- The Salisbury, YMCA, 41 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui – Just a 2-min walk to the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island, splash out for a flash room that’s nothing like you’d expect from a YMCA! Rates from 900 $HK for a twin/double.
Written by Nikki Scott. Header photo by Roman Slavik.