Once long ago a region of fishing and farming villages and later a British colony for over 150 years, Hong Kong is today a glorious mix of traditional Chinese elements interwoven with progressive 21st century modern living and ideals; in every way Hong Kong is an embodiment of a true east-meets-west destination. Although the territory has a diverse array of things to offer its visitors, for many the name Hong Kong is synonymous with skyscrapers. Nowhere else in the world has as many buildings which soar to heights of more than 150m and the sight is all the more spectacular here as most of these are clustered into a relatively small space giving the appearance of a space-age skyline straight from a science fiction movie.
The territory which encompasses both natural and densely populated urban environments is full of a diverse offering of things to see and do. These include a journey on the oldest funicular railway in the world, charming colonial leftovers, boat trips of every kind, a giant Buddha perched on a hilltop and ornate temple complexes infused with the heady aromas of eternally burning incense. For exploring it all Hong Kong has excellent and multiple forms of public transport. This includes its extensive MTR network of heavy and light rail services, a highly efficient bus system, trams and multiple taxis which make getting around its various neighborhoods and islands as easy as possible. As you wander the Hong Kong streets there is no knowing what delights you may unearth. You might find locals practicing tai chi, stroll past food vendors selling dishes unrecognizable to the western eye, find yourself in front of a colonial church or stumble across one of its traditional markets selling birds, goldfish or flowers.
The itinerary suggested here allows for a route which takes in many of the city’s major highlights while also allowing an element of chance discoveries between getting from one point of interest to the other. The morning packs a lot in around the busier Hong Kong districts while the afternoon options allow you to slow things down a little.
A Morning in Hong Kong
Many of the most fascinating elements of Hong Kong are best found from wandering and chancing across its delights during your exploration as already mentioned. However, Hong Kong is crowded – especially the area around Hong Kong Island’s north shore where most of what you will want to see is clustered. This means doing everything on foot, although possible, can be exhausting and even frustrating at times. The perfect solution to this is to ride the iconic double-decker trams known to the locals as ding-dings – a sound you will hear often as the bells are rung for passengers wanting to get off.
A Hong Kong Tram Ride
A ride on these wonderful trolley cars which have been serving Hong Kong since 1904 and which are a very obvious left-over from times of British rule is an attraction in itself. As the only double-decker tram service which still exists in the world they also have great historical significance. Their high frequency, slow pace and incredibly budget-friendly fares make them ideal to use as a kind of hop-on hop-off self-tour for covering the main Hong Kong Island must-sees. As you make your way along these time-worn routes you will be granted a unique glimpse into Hong Kong life and you can if you wish simply take the entire 1 hour journey from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei-Wan in the east which covers both city center and suburbia. Doing so allows you to enjoy the distinctly contrasting views of Hong Kong’s east-meets-west aspects and have one-after-the-other views of both its more traditional and modern sides. Along the way will be found soaring skyscrapers, colonial architecture and ancient temples while flashy and fashionable shopping centers rub shoulders with old-fashioned stores and traditional markets selling dried foods and medicines.
Using this wonderful relic of days gone by couldn’t be simpler. The Hong Kong tramway has more than 100 stops along its 13km stretch with trams departing from each every couple of minutes. Stops are normally a covered island located in the road with a green sign which denotes its number and name. The same is also painted on the shelter roofs to give top-deck travelling passengers the ability to see where they are from the tram itself; some tram-cars also have an internal LED ‘next stop’ display in English. If you get super lucky you might get to ride car 120 with its bamboo benches and wooden window frames – the only one of the three remaining 1950 trams plying the public route. Payment of the HK$2.60 (around 30 US cents) is made on exiting the tram and is a flat rate no matter whether you ride one stop or the entire route.
The following suggests some of the main sights along the route in detail but should something catch your eye and you feel merits a closer look you can simply hop off and explore the color and life on foot and then catch another tram when you have satisfied your curiosity.
Man Mo Temple Complex
Just a 400 meter walk from the major tram stop of Western Market and surrounded by the financial district’s famous skyscrapers can be found an exquisite Taoist temple complex. Constructed in the mid 1800s during China’s last imperial era, Man Mo is a riot of red and gold with the air constantly heavy with the aromas of incense. This latter is created by a sea of giant cones suspended from the ceiling, each of which burns for about 2 weeks.
Dedicated to the deities of Man and Mo (gods of literature and war), the temple was once a go-to spot for both scholars and students of Imperial China with dreams of success and career advancement. This relatively small space can often be full of present-day worshippers but always manages to exude an air of serenity which is in stark contrast to the hectic city bustle which is a short distance from its wooden entrance.
The complex is also home to Lit Shing Kung which serves as a space for worshipping all Chinese gods along with Kung Sor whose purpose was that of community assembly hall.
The Mid-levels Escalator
Although the 20 escalators and moving walkways which make up the Mid-levels Escalator system were not intended as a tourist attraction they have certainly become one. Covering just less than 1km, this system represents the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator and, serving as a means for Hong Kong locals to get to and from work, is perhaps one of the planet’s most unusual commuting methods. Every day 78,000 people use these escalators to make light work of Hong Kong’s hilly terrain – a great deal more than were envisaged when the system opened in the 1990s. To make it even more attractive to city visitors the whole is lined with shops and places to eat while clear signage points out where to get off for specific attractions.
The journey, if ridden from beginning to end of its Central to Mid-levels route, takes about 20 minutes and covers plenty of interest on route for tourists. These include Hong Kong’s oldest market district and those known for arts and antiques while also passing by museums, shops and historic buildings.
One quirk of the escalators is that they only run in one direction at a time – downhill from Mid-levels to Central from 6 to 10 am for the morning commute and then in reverse from 10 am to midnight. The nearest tram stop for the start of the escalator system on Queens Road Central is Pottinger Street/72W. You can combine your escalator ride with your visit to Man Mo Temple – getting off at the Hollywood Road exit for the temple – although as this is uphill you will have to do so after10 am.
The Peak Tram and Victoria Peak
Closest tram stop 33E Murray Road
This next part of your Hong Kong adventure gives you two special treats in one – a ride on one of the world’s steepest funicular railways and views from Hong Kong Island’s highest look-out point. Aside from being a thrilling ride which at times feels not far off a dizzying vertical, the journey is also an historic one as the Peak Tram has been ferrying passengers to and fro along its 1.7km track for more than 130 years.
Traditionally Victoria Peak was where the wealthiest of the British colonists lived and where, by law, the Chinese were actually denied residence until the middle of the 20th century. Today your steep climb will take you through what even in modern times remains the most exclusive residential districts for the rich and influential of Hong Kong.
There is a choice of ticket types to ride the Peak Tram some of which give you included access to the Sky Terrace observation deck or include entry to Hong Kong’s Madame Tussauds which is one of the Peak’s attractions. The ride is short but rising to a height of around 1,300ft/396m affords wonderful views of the harbor. However if it is views you are after the Peak itself – or more specifically the Peak Tower – is star of the show with its 360 degree views from the 1,404ft/428m open-air look-out deck – probably not one for vertigo sufferers. Your gaze will take in a sea of skyscrapers, ocean and islands with far reaching views beyond Hong Kong on a clear day.
Along with its breath-taking views the Peak Tower is also home to shops, restaurants and cafes and the Sky Gallery which exhibits historical photos. Also located on the Peak is the Peak Galleria which is a shopping and dining complex with its own open-air free-entry observation deck and a tram museum. While you are here you can explore the free-to-enter Trick Eye Museum if you are in need of some special effects diversion and great photo opportunities. This collection of art pieces uses clever optical illusion techniques to make its paintings appear 3D. By posing, climbing and otherwise interacting with the paintings you can appear to be traversing giant holes on a thin strip of wood or escaping the jaws of a monster fish.
If you’d prefer to stretch your legs and make the most of the high-point’s cooling breeze you can take the 2 mile cliff-side Peak Circle Walk to arrive at another stunning look-out point.
Once you have had your fill of spectacular views you can either ride the Peak Tram back down to where you started or stroll down through a peaceful tree garden.
It is worth noting that although the tram cars leave every 10 minutes or so the lines for this must-do attraction can get long later in the day – mornings are usually the least crowded. Alternatively you can get to the Peak by bus.
Morning Coffee Break in Hong Kong
Having been part of the Hong Kong crowds for a while you will no doubt need a pause for breath and a refueling before embarking on the rest of your morning adventures.
If you intend to take in Golden Bauhinia Square next as suggested in this itinerary a great choice for morning coffee in the vicinity is the Yiu Wa Street Coffee Academics. This is definitely one for the artisanal coffee fan and those who love gorgeous interiors in which to enjoy it.
Coffee Academics is something of a big name in this corner of the world with other locations in Hong Kong as well as China and Singapore. It has received wide acclaim appearing in such lists as The Telegraph’s ‘world’s best coffee shops’ and has scooped itself international awards with its in-house roasting and distinctive brands. The Causeway Bay branch however is its flagship venue and features an industrial Bohemian style interior complete with exposed brick, wood and marble and warmly muted tones with splashes of color.
A firm favorite with the Hong Kong locals, Coffee Academics also serves meals and snacks along with its menu of handcrafted coffees, teas and cold drinks.
Another convenient choice if you decide to forego the possible interesting asides detailed a little later and hop straight on the Star Ferry after the Peak Tram is Cafe Bauhinia. This calm, quiet space serves up a fair amount of quaint along with its coffee, teas, snacks and sweet treats as it is part cafe and part flower shop. Bright and airy, the flower-festooned walls and terrace not only fill the air with the scent of blossoms but create a secret garden atmosphere. This quirky concept cafe acts as the perfect coffee break antidote to the bustling Hong Kong streets just outside its doors.
A few Interesting Asides – Golden Bauhinia Square, the Noonday Gun and St John’s Cathedral
Depending on your energy levels and time schedule you might like to fit one of the following aside attractions into your itinerary. Each can be reached on foot from a tram stop to make life a little easier.
Golden Bauhinia Square
Closest tram stop 45E Fleming Road
For many visitors a quick stop-off at Golden Bauhinia Square is a must. While the views of Kowloon and its skyline or a stroll along the promenade appeal to many the principal attraction here is a 6m high sculpture of a giant golden flower. As sculptures and monuments go you have probably seen them in more spectacular forms elsewhere but it is what this blossom symbolizes that makes it of such great importance to the people of Hong Kong. This sculpture was gifted to the city by China to mark the return of Hong Kong to China by the British in 1997.
The Noonday Gun
Closest tram stop 51E Percival Street
The Hotchkiss naval artillery gun known as the Noonday Gun is set inside an enclosed waterfront area at Causeway Bay. Although the gun here today is not the original – this one was used during WWI in the 1916 Battle of Jutland – the Noonday Gun has a story attached. The first gun on this site was placed there in the 1840s by a mighty British trading house whose wealth was founded through involvement in the tea, cotton and opium industries. When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong during WWII the original gun was removed and the one you see now put in place by the British Royal Navy.
Every day at noon the gun is ceremonially fired – hence the name.
St John’s Cathedral
Closest tram stop 31E Bank Street
From an aesthetic point of view St John’s Cathedral is perhaps not an attention grabber; it has a rather plain exterior and its interior is bereft of original fittings as they were stripped by the Japanese during wartime occupation. However, for those interested in places with historical significance this is worth making a stop for. The skyscraper-surrounded church dating from 1849 is the oldest Western religious building in Hong Kong and nowhere in the Far East has an Anglican church which pre-dates this one. During the WWII occupation by the Japanese military it was used as a social club by the soldiers.
The Star Ferry
Closest tram stop 33E Murray Road
With Hong Kong made up of a series of islands there is no shortage of ferries plying the waterways to carry passengers to and fro. However, there is one – the Star Ferry – which is considered the major must-do for any visitor to the territory and along with the Peak Tram takes the title of most popular tourist attraction. The historic Star Ferry is not one but a fleet of boats – some of them vintage craft – displaying names such as Twinkling Star and Celestial Star which between them shuttle around 26 million passengers between either Central or Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island to Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon peninsula every year. And as they have been offering the same service for more than 120 years the Star Ferry is an important piece of Hong Kong’s heritage.
The iconic journey is incredibly cheap (around 30 US cents) and actually relatively short (about 11 minutes). However during your few minutes of crossing the harbor’s calm waters you will get to drink in views of what is often described by those who have seen it with words and phrases such as ‘spectacular’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘the best urban panorama on the planet’. This is particularly stunning on a bright day when the city’s sea of skyscrapers which paint such an impressive skyline of every shape and size are reflecting the sun’s rays from their glass and metal surfaces. An added bonus to enjoying this incredible scenic backdrop is the cooling breeze.
If you don’t feel you can get your fill during the brief shuttle between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island Star Ferry also offer hour long tours with a variety of ticket types possible.
Once alighting from your Star Ferry ride you will be setting foot on the part of Hong Kong which connects with mainland China – Kowloon. Besides its wonderful views of Hong Kong Island’s towering skyscrapers this densely populated area – in fact one of the most densely populated in the world – offers a wonderfully chaotic blend of street markets, private dwellings, museums, temples and shops both traditional and modern. Any exploration here will reward you with some real glimpses into local Hong Kong life.
The Clock Tower
Within a stone’s throw from the Star Ferry Tsim Sha Tsui terminal can be found a famous Hong Kong landmark; at 44m high and directly overlooking the harbor it is in fact impossible to miss this elegant colonial remnant when approaching by ferry. One of the city’s Declared Monuments, the Clock Tower dates from 1915 and was once part of the railway station built here although all but the tower is now long gone.
Lunch in Hong Kong
Whether your heart is set on some elegant lunchtime dining in international venues hosted by celebrity chefs, satisfying your appetite with authentic Cantonese cuisine or tucking into midday meals at something more street-side and casual you couldn’t have arrived in a better place than Tsim Sha Tsui. This is the area where you will have disembarked after your Star Ferry journey. The location has some of the city’s most acclaimed restaurants as well as being known as a Cantonese cuisine hot-spot so your choices will be endless.
If you have a fancy to do lunch the Hong Kong way and indulge in some of those morsels known as dim sum you would be hard pressed to beat Hotel Icon’s award-winning Above and Beyond. Not only is the dim sum itself here often described as heavenly but so too is this Cantonese restaurant’s altitude which means a sky-high view of Victoria Harbour is also on the menu. If you are new to the world of the delicately crafted bites known as dim sum and a little bewildered by your choices you can simply opt for the dim sum platter which puts together some of the acclaimed chef’s top creations. Otherwise you can choose a set lunch or one of the a la carte menu choices which include light and tasty treats as well as more filling options for those with larger appetites. The dining space is an understated but elegant mix of soft tones and white table cloths with the spectacular view through the large windows likely to be the major focus of attention.
Other great choices in the area for dim sum fans include Michelin starred InterContinental’s Yan Toh Heen where food is served with beautiful jade tableware and which also happens to have a great Victoria Harbour view.
For something delightfully different why not try a picnic in the park at Urban Park in the Attitude Hotel on Granville Road. The ‘park’ is actually a large grass covered open-air roof restaurant which specializes in European cuisine. The air is unpretentious casual fine dining and the lines elegantly simple. Their lunchtime picnic basket choices come packed with hot and cold treats and sparkling wine with a picnic blanket supplied to add extra charm. Otherwise there are set lunch options and an a la carte menu.
An Afternoon in Hong Kong
Appetites sated with dim sum, picnic treats or some other city cuisine choice you are ready to begin the second half of your Hong Kong day. This itinerary has been purposely planned to allow you to slow things down a little now after your busy morning in lively Hong Kong streets. Take your pick from visiting one of the city’s most acclaimed museums combined with beautiful gardens or head out to Lantau Island to tick off a few of the city’s most iconic must-see sights.
Hong Kong Museum of History
Hong Kong has a wide choice of museums covering themes as diverse as space, tea-ware, coastal defense, chocolate and science. However, that which most consistently emerges as the cream of the crop is the Museum of History located just a 20 minute walk from the Star Ferry pier. Previous visitors rave about its excellent layout and its ability to totally absorb and engage with its innovative galleries.
Packed inside this large 75,000 square feet complex divided into eight galleries is a collection of over 90,000 items and 4,000 exhibits which cover an astonishing 400 million years of Hong Kong history. Starting from the area’s geological beginnings, the museum leads you on a journey of discovery through time covering such highlights as various Chinese dynasties, the opium wars, the colonial period and the Japanese occupation during WWII while the end of the story is marked by the 1997 hand-back of Hong Kong to China by the British.
Along the way with the help of graphic panels, dioramas and audio-visual effects you will also learn about Hong Kong’s various natural disasters – which include floods, earthquakes, wildfires, typhoons and landslides – as well as local folk culture, religious ceremonies and wildlife. The whole is a refreshing state-of-the-art deviation from the museum format which can seem to be just an endless series of displays in glass cases. The Hong Kong History Museum is truly about immersion, interaction and helping history come to life. These concepts are all perhaps best demonstrated with the museum’s full-size recreation of an entire street as it would have appeared during colonial times. This charming mock-up comes complete with shops, a double-decker tram and a soundtrack which recreates vendor street cries and the rattle of rumbling carts. Elsewhere on the two floors highlights include elaborate Chinese costume displays, village housing replicas and actual WWII film footage from the time.
As an added bonus the Hong Kong Museum of History is free although its temporary exhibitions normally attract a charge.
Other Museum Choices
While the Museum of History consistently ranks among visitors as one of the city’s best there is no shortage of other options including some more unusual offerings. One definitely in this category is Dialogue in the Dark where visitors are guided through complete darkness accompanied by a visually impaired guide. Other more conventional offerings include the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre. In the themed category are such things as the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences which guides visitors through the story of healthcare from traditional medicines to modern day methods, the Hong Kong Railway Museum and the International Hobby and Toy Museum with its collection of antique toys through to memorabilia and pop-culture collectibles.
Nan Lian Gardens
While Hong Kong is undeniably fascinating it is also without doubt crowded, So, if exploring one of the 10 most densely populated cities on the planet has left you feeling in need of a little peaceful downtime there is a perfect solution right here. After passing through the Nan Lian’s three-way entrance gates representing compassion, wisdom and skilful means you will instantly (and almost magically) transition from the decidedly bustling to that of blissful sanctuary.
Opened in 2006 as a free-to enter public park, the Tang Dynasty-style Nan Lien Gardens were designed with a view to promoting traditional Chinese culture. In centuries gone by classical gardens such as these were built on grand scales for emperors while individuals such as poets, scholars and warriors created more intimate spaces as places for reflection and retreat. But whether vast imperial leisure garden or a means of escape from the outside world the intention was always to create a harmonious link between man and nature.
Water is the main theme of this culturally-rich sanctuary inside the city and that comes in the form of lotus-sprinkled ponds, waterfalls and musical brooks which tumble their way over and around rocks. The rest of the 3.5 hectares park is a series of wooden bridges, islets, timber structures, trees and trailing flowers, exquisite pavilions and wriggling leafy pathways with the area’s impressive mountains serving as a beautiful backdrop to it all. To stay true to the Tang Dynasty design – a period in Chinese history which spanned the 7th to 10th centuries – none of the featured timber structures uses nails but instead incorporate skillfully interlocked sections which again represent harmony. While these gorgeous gardens offer a series of delights to be discovered as you wind your way one major highlight is the two stunning red Zi Wu bridges which lead to the octagonal gold-colored Pavilion of Absolute Perfection.
While the whole purpose of the park is simply to be, surrounded by tranquility, there is also a great deal to take in. However, its layout ensures you won’t miss anything of especial interest. The gardens are formatted according to a classical one-way circuit which purposefully leads its visitors in such a way to make the most of all that is here. If you simply want a leisurely stroll the circular route will take about an hour to complete while those who want to explore its features in more detail or take time to sit, gaze and reflect along the way should allow more time.
For those in need of refreshment during their green space wandering there is both a tea pavilion and a vegetarian restaurant within the gardens.
The Chi Lin Nunnery
The large Chi Lin Nunnery temple complex is right next door to Nan Lian Gardens so visiting the two together couldn’t be more straightforward. Like the gardens it is all free to enter. Originally built in the 1930s for Buddhist nuns, the complex – made up of statue-filled halls, a library, a school, a pagoda and towers – was redesigned in the 1990s to incorporate the Tang Dynasty design which the gardens later followed. Like the gardens all of its structures are nail-free and for those interested in the mechanics of this there is a small museum at the entrance which illustrates the building process.
An Alternative Afternoon – Lantau Island
While Lantau is unlikely to be described by anyone as a desert island type experience it can certainly feel so after the crowds of central Hong Kong. Actually twice the size of Hong Kong Island and sitting to its west, Lantau Island’s wealth of special attractions can make for a distinctly different and much more tranquil Hong Kong experience. Tucked within its boundaries are open countryside, lovely beaches, waterfalls and scenic mountains with highlights such as a charming traditional fishing village, a cable car ride with spectacular views, a giant Buddha perched on a hilltop and the chance to get a glimpse of rare dolphins.
While ferries can take you from Hong Kong Island to Lantau Island it is also possible to make the journey with the MTR’s Tung Chung line via the bridge which is the quickest way to do things. Getting around the island once you are here is easy with the bus network or taxis and luckily the major highlights are somewhat clustered together which means you can fit a great diversity of sights into your afternoon with minimal effort.
Riding the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car to Ngong Ping Village
When there is beautiful mountain scenery to be had nothing quite beats getting above it all and here on Lantau Island it is easily achieved with the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. While the cable car offers what is essentially a means of transporting visitors from Tung Chung to the major higher altitude attractions of the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery it is a breathtaking experience in itself. Named by CNN in their list of the world’s 10 most amazing cable cars, this incredible 25 minute ride offers 360 views of land, sea and sky. Your first views will have you gazing from above on the beautiful blues and greens of tree-backed Tung Chung Bay. As you continue your 5.7km journey you will also be rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of planes landing and taking off from Hong Kong International Airport, see the 50km Zhuhai-Macau Bridge snaking off into the distance and glide over a mountain landscape cloaked in lush vegetation with the sparkling blue of the South China Sea as a constant backdrop. You will even be able to see the super-size Big Buddha which you will be visiting up close before your afternoon’s explorations are over.
For your ride you can choose from a standard car or one with a glass floor – there is even the option to have a private cabin if you want to celebrate a special occasion.
Ngong Ping Village
Once you have completed your spectacular ride you will alight at Ngong Ping Village – a purpose-built tourist complex. While most head this way for the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery there are all kinds of things to see and do here such as the Motion 360 immersive cinema experience which is half roller-coaster ride and can take you on a spaceship journey over the Big Buddha before diving beneath the sea to swim with the area’s pink dolphins. The other themed attractions here are VR 360, Stage 360 and the multimedia immersive Walking with Buddha along with plenty of restaurants, tea-rooms and shops full of souvenirs. Dotted around outside are all kinds of points of interest which make for great photo opportunities such as the large red and white Blessing Drums and the bodhi tree where you can add your own ‘wish’ to the many scarlet placards already hanging there. Perhaps one of the best viewing spots of all can be had in Stupa Square where the Big Buddha’s profile is dramatically silhouetted against the skyline, rising up from its surroundings of lush vegetation. The village is blatantly touristy which may not appeal to some but it does not detract from the other wonderful and very different attractions to be found in the vicinity – most significantly the Big Buddha, the Po Lin Monastery and the Wisdom Path.
The Big Buddha
A short walk from the village will bring you to the lovely Ngong Ping Piazza which is the access point for both the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery. Make your way beneath the new Pai Lau gateway – a modern constructed grand gateway built to match the older gate to Po Lin Monastery. From here you can stroll along the 1.2km Bodhi Path, over which the 12 Divine Generals statues stand sentinel with the whole interspersed with stone lanterns. The Tian Tan Buddha – normally just referred to as Big Buddha – sits atop its own peak which can be accessed via a long stone stairway or ramped path. As you climb to the statue’s pedestal, surrounded by dragonflies and butterflies, the steepness of the stairway aids the impression that the Buddha is constantly looming over you.
On arrival at the top you will find yourself in glorious company with what is the world’s largest seated, bronze Buddha, completed in 1993. Its elevated perch, surrounded on all sides by densely crowded trees, makes the already impressive even more spectacular. When the skies are clear this giant statue can even be viewed from faraway Macau. The huge Buddha is depicted as sitting atop a lotus flower, eyes closed in contemplation and has the right hand raised in a classic Buddha pose which symbolizes protection and overcoming fear. Even when there are many other visitors sharing this circular wrap-around platform with you it is almost impossible not to find yourself affected by the Buddha’s calmness and serenity. Facing north (which is unusual for a Buddha statue) Hong Kong’s enormous bronze statue is attended by six smaller bronze sculptures kneeling at it base, known as the Six Devas, making offerings of flowers, fruits, incense, oils and a lamp.
Although the Buddha is without doubt star of the entire show the incredible views from its elevated peak offer vistas which are a delight in themselves.
It is completely free to visit the Buddha’s viewing platform which circles the statue but if you want to take a peek inside and visit the three floors of Buddhism-related exhibitions which include the holy relic you will have to pay an entrance fee.
The Po Lin Monastery
Literally across from the steps leading to the Big Buddha can be found the Po Lin Monastery. Founded in 1906, this plateau-located monastery had always been something of a remote place of worship, tucked away as it is in the mountains. However, in the 1990s the Big Buddha arrived and the crowds who came to see it also started visiting the nearby monastery. Today this beautiful Buddhist temple complex is very definitely on the tourist radar but it continues to be a highly significant pilgrimage place for the faithful and home to devout monks. On your way in you will see incense being sold at stalls so you can make your own offering if you wish along with the steady stream of Buddhist devotees who come to visit this sacred place.
The entire complex made up of 40 or so buildings is a conglomeration of newer additions, which includes the grandly impressive Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas, along with the original structures which are nestled together at the rear. Whether more recent buildings or older temples though, everywhere can be found rich and colorful iconography and exquisite detailing in columns, windows and roofs which offer a feast for the eyes at every turn; much of the carved detailing and embellishments can really only be appreciated once up close.
One major highlight is the Great Hall in the main temple which dates from the 1920s. Lovely from the outside, the interior is spectacularly lavish, colored principally in golds and reds and with soaring ceilings full of incredible details, vast paintings and hung with decorative lamps. At the center of the hall are positioned three golden images of Buddha representing his three states of being – previous life, present life and afterlife.
Besides the many buildings to be explored the monastery’s small gardens are also a delight, filled with the sounds of birdsong and infusing the air with the scent of a multitude of flower blossoms. There are also of course some great views to be had which include the Big Buddha in the near distance.
The Wisdom Path
Obviously marked from both monastery and Big Buddha, the Wisdom Path takes you on an incredibly peaceful walk which begins under a canopy of trees. As you make your way along the vista opens up to green-cloaked mountains and ultimately rewards you with a South China Sea panorama. Adding to the walk’s air of serenity is a series of wooden columns set along the pathway with verses carved into each. This is in fact the Heart Sutra – a prayer often chanted at morning ceremonies and representing a text sacred to those of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist faith.
If you want a more involved hike there are plenty of options and easy access to a multitude of walks – both long and short and easy to challenging – from Ngong Ping Village.
Tai O Fishing Village
Another of Lantau island’s major highlights – the Tai O fishing village – is just a short taxi ride from Ngong Ping or a bus ride from the station found behind the village. Where once the traditional stilted houses of fishing communities was a common sight in the territory today Tai O is one of the last.
The stilted houses of the village sit out over the water and come in varieties which range from robust and comfortable to those which appear to be held together with nothing more than luck. Wandering the picturesque bridges and walkways that connect the whole, watching the harbor bustle and having a privileged glimpse of the villagers going about their daily lives is both an historical and fascinating cultural experience; it couldn’t feel more removed from Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and 21st century elements. To make those photo shots even more memorable the whole is framed with a coastal and mountain backdrop.
The whole village is compact and easily explored on foot. Make sure to have a wander through the lively market where live seafood in tanks, dried seafood in piles and packages and vegetables both familiar and totally unknown are displayed along with souvenirs and trinkets in a riot of colors. While the market is a favorite tourist haunt this is also an authentic living market where locals come to shop and stock up on Tai O’s shrimp paste.
Today the villagers supplement the income from their traditional way of life by taking tourists on short 20 minute or so boat trips. Hopping on board a boat will give you a totally different perspective of the stilted houses and narrow waterways up close after which you will be whisked out to open seas in search of dolphins. These waters are inhabited by an endangered species known as the Chinese white dolphin which, despite the name, can sometimes be – as they are here – pink. While these short trips give you a small chance of seeing dolphins for anyone especially interested it is also possible to take a specific dolphin-watch boat trip which lasts around three hours and has a 96% success rate in finding dolphins.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Hong Kong
An exciting day of hopping on and off trams, weaving your way through the city crowds and climbing steps for views and giant Buddhas will have earned you some sun-downer drinks. When it comes to places to indulge in pre-dinner drinks Hong Kong has a bit of everything. Tucked-away drinking dens, speakeasies, bars with fake facades where entry is gained by pressing a hidden panel, gin joints, colonial retreats and luxurious lounges where Hong Kong’s elite congregate – it is all here.
Whether you finished your afternoon’s exploration on Lantau Island or at the Nan Lian Gardens you are ideally placed to enjoy the best of Kowloon’s cocktail choices without having to work too hard to get there.
As spectacular harbor and skyscraper skyline scenes are something of the city’s signature theme it will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that bars with a view are plentiful. Hong Kong’s rooftop options are an obvious choice for combining relaxing drinks with a vista which you will never grow tired of looking at. And of course located in Kowloon you will have the best of the best views with Hong Kong Island’s impressively soaring sea of buildings sitting across the water. Any mention of the city’s rooftop bars has to include Ozone. Part of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and located on the 118th floor of Hong Kong’s highest skyscraper – the ICC Tower – Ozone enjoys the title of the highest bar anywhere on Earth. The interior created by an acclaimed Japanese designer is bold, moody and modern and topped by a 3D ceiling with expansive wrap-around windows for taking in that almost dizzying view of Victoria Harbour. The crowd here is glamorous (there is a casually formal dress code) and the cocktail range has some intricate inclusions such as the vodka-based ‘Bed of Roses while the range of wines, beers and spirits is extensive.
While nowhere else in Hong Kong can rival Ozone’s height there are other contenders for the best of the city’s sky-high drinking venues. One of these is the 30th floor Eyebar located on Nathan Road. This lovely spot features an outdoor terrace which of course comes with a spectacular view thrown in for free as you sip your cold beer or a cocktail chosen from the list of extensive and exotic choices. The atmospherically lit inside area has huge floor-to-ceiling windows for enjoying an obstructed view across the water of Hong Kong’s incredible skyline with its sea of lights. There is even a telescope if you want a closer view.
For views which may be less elevated but are certainly no less lovely head to Red Sugar located at the Kerry Hotel, part of the Shangri-la group. The exceptionally lovely planted outdoor terrace here gives you a feeling of sitting out over the water and with 270 degree views to take in the majesty of the Hong Kong skyline. The expansive and comfortable chairs make relaxation easy while creative candle-lighting and spotlights enhance the romantic urban oasis atmosphere. The drinks list is no less impressive with cocktails both classic and contemporary, a plethora of wine choices and spirits which include a malt and whiskey range worthy of the connoisseur.
With such wonderful pre-dinner drink spots on offer you might find it hard to tear yourself away. However, the dining venue possibilities in Hong Kong are no less extensive and lovely with cuisine types of every kind. These include many Chinese regional options through to other Asian choices and many exquisite award-winning restaurants serving up a range of European and international specialties. Eating out is not just reserved for the city’s visitors either. Going out to dine is common practice for Hong Kong residents and for many even a daily part of life so you can expect to be sharing your dining experience with the locals.
While great dining choices can be found pretty much anywhere in Hong Kong there are some areas especially known for certain genre choices or where there are a plethora of options clustered conveniently together. For example, some of the most popular seafood restaurants are found in the areas of Sai Kung and Lei Yu Min while Central’s Lan Kwai Fong has a wide choice of smart casual restaurants along with its multitude of bars and clubs. The more luxurious fine dining choices are often part of the higher end hotels such as the Sheraton or New World Renaissance Hotel but Central and Tsim Sha Tsui areas have plenty of possibilities in this category too.
If you have decided the rest of your Hong Kong day should involve little effort you can of course simply move from drinks to dining in each of the options suggested previously. Ozone offers its own dining as does the Kerry Hotel’s Red Sugar while the Eyebar has the Nanhai Number 1 Restaurant next door. Otherwise the Tsim Sha Sui area of Kowloon has a cluster of about 30 bars and restaurants around the strip of Knutsford Terrace and Observatory Court. The incredible variety here includes Tex-Mex, Japanese, Italian and Scandinavian.
A great choice among the Knutsford Terrace options and especially ideal for all those who have trouble deciding quite what food choice to settle on is the Mira Hotel’s Yamma restaurant with its luxury dinner buffets. Consistently scooping a range of dining industry awards, this top quality option features live cooking stations and mouthwatering culinary creations so exquisite they are both feast for the eye and the discerning palate. The choice is vast and so extensive it is divided into themed counters which take inspiration from around the globe. Dining experiences here are elegant and exciting and give a whole new meaning to the phrase innovative cuisine.
Something which many Hong Kong visitors are keen to experience while in the city is a dinner at one of the floating restaurants found around Aberdeen Harbour. Although getting here will require a little more effort Hong Kong’s wonderful transport systems make it as easy as possible and many believe it is worth it. King of all the floating restaurant choices is the colossal barge known as Jumbo Kingdom which ranks as one of the largest floating restaurants in the world. Known principally for its seafood, this enormous four-floored wonderland is a collection of eateries offering wine gardens to fine dining establishments and can cater for more than 2,000 diners in one sitting. While its interior is an impressive labyrinth of sweeping and ornately decorated stairways and galleries its exterior appearance has granted it something of an iconic status in Hong Kong. Predominately painted in gold and red tones with a wealth of extravagant embellishments, this giant boat was designed along the lines of an emperor’s palace. At night its elaborate lighting turns it into an incredible spectacle worth stopping by to see even if you don’t intend to eat here.
An Evening in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is an incredibly vibrant city at night with a vast range of ways to spend your evening hours no matter what your tastes. The following are a few suggestions for some memorable ways to finish off your Hong Kong day.
The Symphony of Lights
If you have chosen to dine in one of Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Sui neighborhood restaurants you are going to be perfectly placed to enjoy the dazzling nightly performance of what is known as the Symphony of Lights. In essence this is a sound and light spectacle with the iconic Hong Kong skyline as star of the show but even if you are a veteran of such things you have probably never seen anything on this scale. According to the Guinness Book of World Records it is the largest permanent light show in the world.
The Symphony of Lights has been enchanting its audiences since 2004 with buildings lining either side of the harbor playing their part. The stakes were upped in 2017 when a new soundtrack and show were unveiled. The musical score, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, entwines elements of both the traditional and the contemporary, intended to represent the very essence of the city itself and its east-meets-west elements. A dazzling forest of lasers and searchlights throw their beams into the night sky from more than 40 buildings, in patterns choreographed to harmonize with the music while other lighting elements and LED screens add to the whole extravaganza.
You will have a front row seat for this breathtaking 8pm multi-media show from anywhere along the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade with the area around the Cultural Centre considered the best spot as this is where the music is broadcast from. Many of the area’s rooftop bars and restaurants also make for prime spots but the vantage point winner has to be that from a boat. The Star Ferry is one option but there are several companies who run evening boat trips with a light show view to die for as a trip highlight.
Even if you have been out on the water during the day a boat trip at night offers a very different experience. Hong Kong’s magnificent skyline night-lit is nothing short of a visual extravaganza and most of the options allow you to have the best seat in the house for the breath-taking Symphony of Light laser show.
Quite how you enjoy your evening on the water is up to you. Possibilities include cocktail cruises, dinner cruises with either dining on board or a stop-off at places such as Jumbo Kingdom and straightforward harbor cruises.
The Temple Street Night Market
There is probably no quicker way to get an instant glimpse into the culture and authentic sights and sounds of a place than by visiting its markets and nowhere in the world is this truer than in Asia. Some of Hong Kong’s markets are just as thriving at night as they are during the day but there is only one true night market – the Temple Street Night Market – which is a firm after-dark favorite hot-spot for tourists and locals alike. If you intend to take in the Symphony of Lights from the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade you won’t have far to walk either.
Even if you have no intention of buying anything the atmosphere and buzz of this lively market make it a wonderful place to wander and simply soak up the exotic location. Brightly lit stalls are a riot of color selling everything from jade, tea-ware and antiques to clothing, watches and electronics. Dotted about among the hawkers and stall-holders you will also find fortune tellers and herbalists while Chinese opera performances are not uncommon.
The Fringe Club
While many choose to create their own entertainment in Hong Kong’s after dark hours by picking a prime spot to enjoy views and drinks there are also options for those who want something more laid on. One such is the Fringe Club which hosts exhibitions, live music gigs, stand-up shows, open jazz nights and other art performances. Established for more than 30 years, the Fringe Club has received a Hong Kong Heritage Award by tastefully transforming a colonial building into a freedom of creative expression art space. As you may guess from its title it is an established platform for off-beat and innovative performers so quite what you might see is a wonderful lottery but it is sure to appeal to the contemporary art passionate.
The Peak Tower
While you may feel your Symphony of Lights performance or sky-high drinking and dining have satisfied your craving for night spectacles you have another great choice if you still want to squeeze in one more. As one of the city’s most iconic attractions the Peak Tram and Victoria Peak have already featured in your daytime itinerary. However, if you want some killer night views the Peak Tram operates up until midnight every day and of course there are plenty of places to take a leisurely drink once you reach the top. Many come complete with wonderful views of Hong Kong’s magical blinking and twinkling night-scape to serve as your entertainment.