Things I focused on during my trip: Food, nightlife, sightseeing, unique experiences
Hong Kong is a great blend of Chinese culture with a splash of British flavor. It's a huge cosmopolitan city that is densely populated with the attractions that any big city will give you, including amazing food, culture, nightlife, fashion, hidden gems and a fair balance of nature as well. Most people speak a little English, but road signs and methods of mass transit are entirely in English. I am more or less fluent in Cantonese (the native dialect there), but my wife knows absolutely no Chinese and she felt that HK may be the only city in China where you can stay for months and function just fine knowing only English.
I had visited prior to the protests and civil unrest, so things may have changed.
We arrived after a red-eye flight from northeast USA. I personally enjoy red-eye flights, especially for huge time zone changes. I try to sleep during the flight and wake up as the plane lands, hopefully with my internal clock somewhat adjusted to the local timezone.
DAY 1 : EARLY ARRIVAL
Our flight landed around 7AM in the morning. Customs did not take long and we quickly grabbed our luggage. The airport has ATMs which is where I recommend you withdraw HKD. It's definitely easier than going to a currency exchange spot. Bold letters printed on large signs pointed to where we could hail a taxi and it was very easy as there was airport personel who's entire job is to make sure you get into a cab. The airport is actually pretty far from the main parts of HK and took us approximately 1-2 hours to get to our hotel in Yau Ma Tei. We decided to stay in Yau Ma Tei as it was more central to the spots we wanted to see.
FIRST THING TO DO WHEN YOU ARRIVE IS GET A SIM CARD! Any 7-11 convenience store will sell them, and it's relatively cheap. While wifi is everywhere in HK, having your own data will definitely make communication and navigating easier. Luckily, there was a 7-11 right across from our hotel.
Now is also a good time to get a subway card. In HK, they call it an "Octopus Card" which is a contactless smart card. They sell it at all MTR (subway) stations. There is a deposit fee which is refundable, but I kept mine as a souvenir. As a side note, the subway system in HK is absolutely stunning, with WIFI on the platform and on the trains themselves. The trains are clean, on-time, and air-conditioned!
Most retail stores and restaurants will not be open until 10/11 AM. However, some dim sum restaurants are open and that was our first stop!
After breakfast, we walked around the general area along Nathan Road, a main street that runs north-to-south with an abundance of shops. Off of Nathan Road is Ladie's Market, a pedestrian street of stalls selling things from clothes to fruits to random knickknacks and souvenirs. Back in the early 2000s, there were a lot of knock offs of videogames, clothes and handbags, but the government has cracked down on that. You can most definitely haggle! Almost every vendor will assume you're from America and they'll flat out just convert most prices to USD during the haggling process.
Jet lag eventually got the better of us. We spent the afternoon checking into the hotel, unpacking, and recharging with some nap time.
One of the most amazing things about Hong Kong is that there are tons of Michelin star-rated restaurants that don't fit the image of a high rise restaurant with white table cloth and silverware. Our first stop among these restaurants was Mak Man Kee Noodle shop. This is a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall type of place known for its shrimp wontons over noodles. The noodles are nice and chewy and the shrimp wontons are succulent. Not to mention, the price of a bowl of noodles is the same as a Starbucks latte!
With noodles in our belly, we got ready for a night out. Like most big cities in Asia, Hong Kong is a city that "barely" sleeps as there are many things to do at night. We decided to have a chill night exploring Tsim Sha Tsui, an area south of Yau Ma Tei. Our first stop was Bar Butler which is an upscale Japanese cocktail bar. Usually, a reservation is needed, but we lucked out and they seated us for an hour long time slot. The inside is dimly lit, but with a warm ambiance exuding behind the lacquered wooden counter with bartenders making their cocktails in front of you. After Butler, we headed our way to Knutsford Terrace, a terrace street famous for bars and pubs that's a little less frequented by ex-pats and more by locals. There are a variety of gastropubs and bars here, ranging from Italian restaurants to Spanish tapas.
We got back at around midnight. HK feels very safe, and most streets will have foot traffic at night. As with any big city, have your wits about you, don’t get into a drunken stupor and avoid quiet isolated areas.
DAY 2: Night Markets
First thing’s first, breakfast was needed after a night out on the town. Another stop on our food list was Australia Dairy Company in Kowloon. It’s a quintessential “cha chaan teng” which translates to “tea restaurant.” This place, like many cha chaan tengs, specializes in tea/coffee and sandwiches, most notably a ham and scrambled egg sandwich. There is almost always a line for it in the morning, but service is extremely fast, albeit a little rude/short at times. But what’s important is that I got my iced milk tea and sandwich and they were delicious.
We spent the day walking around Tsim Sha Tsui where there are ample stores ranging from small boutiques to high end fashion stores. If you want to shop until you drop, this neighborhood is the right place! Here, we actually made a stop at ChungKing Manors where there were tons of electronics and currency exchange stalls. If you didn't want to use an ATM to withdraw cash, you can come here to exchange your currency. Along this neighborhood is the Avenue of Stars which affords you views of Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island.
The highlight of day 2 in Hong Kong was definitely another street market. Are you seeing a theme here? That night, we went to Temple Street Market, a flea market with similar wares as Jade Market but with many restaurants as well. The restaurants here are more “al fresco” style with plastic tables and stools on the sidewalks and they’re known as “dai pai dong” or small food stalls. At these restaurants, they’ll often have a collection of live seafood such as mantis shrimps, crabs, and fish that they’ll stir fry on demand because nothing tastes better than fresh seafood. I recommend fried crabs with chili and garlic with a heaping plate of soy sauce stir fried noodles and an ice cold Tsingtao beer to wash it all down. Whenever I think back on Hong Kong, the food from these stalls come into the forefront of my memory.
DAY 3: The "Pray" part of Eat, Pray, Love
Our morning consisted of another trip to a Michelin rated restaurant. This time, it was at an affordable dimsum restaurant, One Dim Sum. It’s a popular place and is often mentioned in travel guides, so expect a wait. The roast pork buns and shrimp dumplings are a must eat.
After filling ourselves with buns and tea, we took the subway to Tung Chung station, located on Lantau Island, west of the main island of Hong Kong. Our destination here was the Tian Tan Buddha! There are buses that reach this site, but I recommend splurging and taking a crystal gondola from Ngong Ping 360 which has a clear glass bottom; it gives you amazing views as you ascend up the mountain. The gondola is pricier, but it's faster and hassle-free.
The Tian Tan Buddha stands at 34 meters and it’s one of the five large Buddhas in China. It’s made entirely of bronze and sits on top of a lotus throne. It takes 268 steps to reach the top, but the view is amazing and definitely worth it. There is nothing around the Buddha except lush green mountains and the Po Lin Monastery. It’s truly a magnificent sight to behold.
After the Buddha, I’d recommend going to the Po Lin Monastery. Whether you are a casual Buddhist, an ascetic monk or not a Buddhist at all, this is still a must-see. First, we went to the Main Shrine Hall of Buddha which is where the monks will often hold ceremonies. If it’s not in use for prayers or ceremonies, I’d recommend going in and paying your respects. After that was the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas which is the centerpiece of this monastery. Before even entering, I’d spend some time admiring the Song dynasty architecture with its bright colors of red, green and blue. Inside the structure, you will find an enormous room gilded with gold and bronze and literally 10,000 buddhas (although I definitely did not count)! Before leaving for the day, we went to pay our respects by offering some incense which I’d recommend doing.
We were pretty exhausted and hungry after our time in the mountains. I usually try to eat as local as possible when I travel and avoid fast food joints, but they’re still fun to experience! Fast food restaurants in other countries often have different menus than the US, and most will have a “cultural” twist to their menu. We ended up eating from Pizza Hut as it was a totally different experience; in the US, it’s a take out joint, but in Hong Kong, it’s an actual sit-down restaurant!
We called it a day after that.
DAY 4: Boats and Hose
Our last stop for Michelin rated food joints brought us to Kam’s Roast Goose in Wan Chai, across the bridge. The queue was long, but definitely worth the wait. Here, you’ll find juicy roasted goose underneath a crispy layer of skin. Eat it over rice to balance out some of the richness of the meat.
We were initially deciding between Ocean World or Disney for our last day in Hong Kong, but we did neither! We went to Aberdeen instead to see the floating village. We arrived at the Aberdeen Promenade via taxi and spent some time enjoying the views. We found a few junkboats known as “sampans” at the harbor and we were able to haggle for a tour around the harbor. These sampans used to be more involved in fishing, but nowadays, it’s usually used for tourists to take boat rides. The boat ride took us through the harbor, through the floating village, and past the Jumbo Kingdom restaurant, a floating restaurant used in famous films such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery.
After that, we made our way back up north and stopped by briefly in Central where we navigated narrow “ladder streets” and checked off another famous eatery off our list. Lan Fong Yuen is a cha chaang teng known for it’s “pantyhose milk tea.” I promise you they don't actually use a pantyhose! Its name is due to the use of a long panty-hose like strainer to strain the tea leaves. The idea of milk tea was brought by the British, but instead of milk, Hong Kongers used condensed milk and hence Hong Kong -style milk tea was born.
That night, we did our last hurrah and went out to the famous Lan Kwai Fong, a small area of streets in Central littered with bars and clubs. We explored the area there and drank until we were merry. Notable mentions are Lily & Bloom which offered speakeasy-vibes and Rummin’ Tings for a Chinese/Caribbean fusion! We decided it was a good idea to take the tram to Victoria Peak at 10PM at night, but it was great! We took the last tram up which meant no lines and less people. The view from the top at night was breathtaking as you can really see Hong Kong’s skyline lit up in all of its glory.
Of note, we had some trouble going back with taxis as some taxis did not want to cross the bridge that late at night. Luckily we were able to catch one of the last trains back to Yau Ma Tei. Most trains stop running at midnight or 1:00AM.
We were hungry after all the night-time sight-seeing and we returned to our most favorite place for one last meal. The chili crab and cold beer was beckoning us to go back to the Temple Street night market.
There were many other tourist attractions we didn't go to, mostly because they just didn't interest us. There is just so much to see, eat and do that I could have spent much longer in Hong Kong. Despite how heavy the itinerary seems, we did get about 7-8 hours of sleep and also spent 1-2 hours everyday at the hotel gym and/or sunbathing by their pool. We tried to do as much without burning ourselves out and I hope this itinerary will be able to help you!