After a very long night on a sleeper bus from Yangshuo and crossing the border into Hong Kong at Shenzhen, we’d finally arrived in Hong Kong. Talk about saving the best until last! My consistent advice when talking to anyone about our China trip is: if you get a chance to visit Hong Kong, GO. Whether it’s a short stop over for a day or the luxury of a week, it should definitely be on your list. It’s the perfect mix of China and those things that are familiar following 156 years of British rule until 1997: I call it ‘China Lite’.
We stayed in the the Sheung Wan area in the north west of Hong Kong island, which is the most Chinese and historic area in Hong Kong. As we walked from the subway to our hotel, we passed exotic displays of goods that we could not determine, although later read that the area is full of dried herbs, seafood, and herbal medicines, mostly used for soups and tonics.
For lunch we went to Tim Ho Wan restaurant at the IFC mall, which is famous for it’s excellent value and Michelin star. We had to queue (which is common as it’s so famous) but it didn’t take too long as the menu is quite limited and the style is ‘fast food’ so people are in and out quickly. We had quite a few things off the menu, including the famous sticky barbecued pork buns for Simon and another one of the ‘Four Heavenly Kings’, the egg cake, for me. The food was so good! The egg cake was light and spongy and caramelised so I was happy as I have a massive sweet tooth.
We then walked off our pork buns and egg cake around Central, which is the business district in Hong Kong. We saw the HSBC HQ building, which was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster in 1985 and at the time was the world’s most expensive building (approx. $1bn). It’s an interesting design but I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite in the Hong Kong skyline. I preferred the design of the Bank of China building, which I’d read on a blog that you could go to the observatory deck of for great views over the city. TOP TIP: always be mindful of the dates on blogs! The observatory deck closed in 2016.
Instead we decided to go to Hong Kong Park, which the Lonely Planet guide had described as ‘designed to look anything but natural’ so I was expecting lots of concrete with a few trees. It was actually very pleasant and has an interesting dynamic as it’s surrounded by skyscrapers. It also has an aviary that is home to around 80 species of exotic birds and even though I normally hate birds I decided to walk through it with Simon and was glad I did as some of them were extremely beautiful with vivid and unusual colourings. We walked passed the marriage registry and while there was no wedding party coming out, we did see a couple having their wedding photos taken around the lily ponds that we sat at.
We’d heard lots about the markets in Hong Kong so the first one we (thought) we went to was Wan Chai Market. However, I think we just stumbled upon a small street market instead! We normally just browse but Simon decided to buy a fidget spinner (before they suddenly became super popular back at home). Next we got a taxi to the start of the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, which is 800m long and reportedly the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. Our expectation had been that it would be one, continuous escalator when actually it was a series of walkways. It moves in a downhill direction from 6am to 10am and goes uphill from 10am to midnight. It was something we wanted to do in Hong Kong as it’s quite an unusual claim to fame for a city. It took us around 20 minutes to go from Mid-Levels to Central and we reached the end point with a number of other disappointed tourists to find it literally just ended! We were at least expecting a sign or something but alas we turned back around and walked down the stairs to around the halfway point where there were a number of lovely bars directly beside the area that we had seen going up and were filled with people laughing and drinking. Was a great spot for a couple of drinks before we went for a noodle dinner nearby.
The next day we got up relatively early to get the tube and bus to the start of the Dragon’s Back, which is a famous hiking trail in the east of Hong Kong island. One of the biggest surprises I’d had when researching Hong Kong was that more than 70% of it is mountains and forests. In my mind when I envisaged Hong Kong all I saw was the urban areas of northern Hong Kong island and southern Kowloon. As soon as I read that there was hiking it had to go on the itinerary! Plus it was super easy to get to from our hotel: just a couple of stops on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) to Shau Kei Wan and then catching the number 9 bus headed for Shek O right outside the station to To Tei Wan stop which is exactly where the hike starts (we asked the driver who knows to shout for tourists to get off).
We had access to wifi in Hong Kong as our hotel had given us a dongle so we’d found a good website to guide us through the 4.5km to reassure us that we were going in the right direction. You start by going through a ‘tree tunnel’, which becomes less and less covered in the 20 minutes it takes to arrive at the first ‘hike highlight’, the vantage point overlooking Shek O Peninsula, where you spy Shek O beach down below and sparkling blue sea to every corner of the horizon. It was absolutely stunning. The next ‘hike highlight’ was Shek O Peak where there is a platform you can stand on to get 360 views. From there we took the Dragon’s Back (the rolling path that the hike gets its name from) from Shek O Peak to Wan Cham Shan and then onto our end point at Tai Long Wan aka Big Wave Bay.
In total it took us around 3.5 hours and we loved every second of it. The first half was definitely more scenic than the second half but it felt like we went through many different types of terrain and surroundings. We had a snack lunch in a shack restaurant in Tai Long Wan and then made our way down to Big Wave Bay i.e. the beach! Even though it was a Friday and quite cloudy, there were lots of surfers, paragliders, and a large group of children who were having the time of their lives at their school beach day. My own kid was happy and made a sand dragon to commemorate our successful completion of the Dragon’s Back.
I would 100% recommend this hike (if you like hiking, of course!) as it’s relatively easy and gives a completely different perspective on Hong Kong. We saw quite a few people on the trail but it didn’t feel overcrowded. Definitely take water and sunscreen and trainers are a must.
We made our way back to Sheung Wan area and did the Lonely Planet walking tour of the area (yes, even after our hike!) but it was a bit rubbish to be honest. Part of the area is known to be hipster, but there wasn’t much to see at all. The only site that was worth a quick stop was Man Mo Temple, which is one of Hong Kong’s oldest temples. I’ve never seen so much incense in my life! There were large spirals hanging from the roof, which were quite cool and made the rooms inside the temple very smoky. We were only there for about 5 minutes as it’s not a particularly impressive, and actually seemed quite run down, but this gave it an authentic feel.
After a rest in our hotel, we got the Star Ferry over to Kowloon. The ten minute Star Ferry ride is iconic for its cheap ticket price and amazing views of both the Kowloon and Hong Kong island skylines. Our first stop on Kowloon was the Garden of Stars where there are statues of famous actors including Bruce Lee who grew up in Hong Kong, star handprint plaques, and quotes from famous films. We weren’t there very long as we didn’t know many (any!) of the actors apart from Bruce Lee.
One of the nice things about arriving in Hong Kong was the diversity of food options available. In China, the food is relatively similar but in Hong Kong you can get any international cuisine you desire. So we went for Indian food! The main reason for going over to Kowloon was to witness the free Symphony of Lights show at the Tsim Sha Tsui East Promenade, overlooking the magnificent Hong Kong island skyline. The show is a nightly occurrence at 8pm for around 20 minutes and involves 44 buildings from Hong Kong island taking part in a light show, filled with colour lights and laser beams in sync to music. It was much better than we expected it to be, you just need to take it for what it is. I’d read quite a few blogs from disappointed viewers, and to be fair it won’t blow your mind, but it’s lovely to stand on the packed promenade surrounded by people all enjoying a simple show together. The Guinness World Records has named it the World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show. We were lucky that by chance we were at the English show (English on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; Mandarin on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; and Cantonese on Sundays).
Next we tackled a couple of the famous markets: Temple Street Night Market and Ladies Market. Both were quite similar and were filled with stalls selling similar items, and bustling with people along with the smells of the street food stalls. We didn’t buy anything but they were good to have a wander around. To be honest we were both really tired from walking all day so we didn’t last long but I’m glad we made it to them.
Sadly our final day had arrived and again we were up early to venture to the most famous site in the whole of Hong Kong: The Peak on Hong Kong island. We arrived at the tram stop at around 8:30am and I would definitely recommend getting there early as we walked straight onto the tram whereas when we came back down at around 10:30am there were people queuing all the way around the corner from the entrance. You can walk up to The Peak for free but we decided to get the tram there and back as it’s part of the experience and also we’d done a lot of walking on the holiday!
It’s essentially a sheer vertical climb up to The Peak and made me a bit nervous when it looked like the tram was being pulled by one simple cord! But it was lovely as it was quite old school and was amazing to get a peek at all the buildings down below as we made our ascent. We only got tickets to the first platform but you can pay to go higher up (but we didn’t think you’d be able to see anymore than we could see). It was spectacular. The sheer scale and density of the buildings is incredible. I always find that when I go up to viewpoints overlooking cities, it puts everything in perspective and makes me feel really small. It was a little bit cloudy but we could still see pretty far, including over to Kowloon. We spent ages just looking at the skyline and taking it all in. We also walked over the the other side of The Peak, where there was an entrance to Pok Fu Lam country park and overlooked the luscious green, mountainous landscape. We then had breakfast at The Peak Lookout restaurant, with amazing views out to the beaches.
After we’d got the tram back down, we made our way to the ferry port at Central to take us to Lantau Island so we could check out the Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha. Lantau is the largest island in Hong Kong and is mostly rural. We’d wanted to get the famous cable car but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance – luckily we’d been chatting to some other tourists from Russia in the bar next to the escalators who informed us, otherwise we would have gone all the way there without checking! It took longer than we’d anticipated: about one hour on the boat and then after a quick lunch in the food market at Mui Wo (where the ferry docks) overlooking the crystal clear waters, we got bus 2 to Ngong Ping, which was about 40 minutes. It was a great trip though as the ferry gave us more fantastic views of the skyline, particularly on Hong Kong island, and the bus weaved up and down the mountainous landscape on Lantau, passing through deserted and untouched beaches, which honestly looked like paradise.
Po Lin Monastery and the Big Buddha attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and once we got there it’s easy to see why. I’ve seen the large reclining buddha in Bangkok, Thailand and thought that once you’ve seen one large buddha, you’ve seen them all right? But this was truly impressive. It’s genuinely huge, and very imposing seated atop the mountain. We climbed the 268 steps to get to the top and got the 360 views of Lantau Island as a reward. We then went to the Po Lin Monastery, passing through the cows – or ‘feral cattle and buffalo’ as the sign pointed out – who have free reign over the large complex. What I liked about it was that a number of areas were off limits to tourists as there were Buddhist ceremonies taking place – it might sound strange that I liked this but hearing genuine chants and monks walking around made it feel much more real than some of the other temples we’d visited on our trip.
This was the final stop on our trip and was a fantastic way to end on a high. Hong Kong is an absolute gem. It’s clean, orderly, filled with diversity (people and food – even more apparent after spending ten days in China), and easy to get around.It is so densely populated in the main parts and I can’t believe how many high rises they’ve crammed into such a tiny space! However, with the endless swathes of beautiful beaches, mountains, luscious forests etc about ten minutes away, it’s the best of both worlds. I will definitely be visiting Hong Kong again as I’d love to go back for Macau, another hike, the Avenue of the Stars (which was again closed for maintenance while we were there) and the cable car. If you leave with one message after reading this post I hope it’s this: go to Hong Kong. You won’t regret it.