When I first told people that I was moving to Hong Kong, the first response most would say is: “you’ll love it; it’s just like New York”. While it’s true that I love Hong Kong, what’s not particularly true is that it’s just like New York.
As you can imagine, both cities are massive metropolises, financial capitals and global hubs. Both are dirty yet filled with character. Vibrant and dynamic. Hectic and crowded. Working on both 5th Avenue in New York and its sister street, Queens Road in Hong Kong, gave me heart palpitations when I stepped out for lunch, fearing that I’d be trampled by a stampede of people if I didn’t keep my pace.
What’s novel about Hong Kong is that it’s the epitome of juxtaposition. A mix of east and west, tradition and modernity, chaos and serenity. A Chinese culture with pronounced Western influences.
There are international designer malls filled with every luxury retailer imaginable next to local market stalls selling traditional Chinese hand-carved stamps. There’s an immaculate skyline with some of the most expensive and outlandish high-rises in the world, overlooking wet markets with raw meats hanging from hooks and fish blood on the pathway. There’s one of Hong Kong’s oldest and most preserved temples in the middle of a street filled with modern luxury buildings housing many expats. You’ll often see local women decked out in the latest Chanel collection, eating at their neighborhood noodle shop for 2.00USD a meal.
While of course many major cities have a mix of old and new, what’s striking about Hong Kong is that the juxtaposition is glaring. A focus on preserving tradition paired with the desire to be avant-garde.
However, the biggest difference from New York is that Hong Kong is also a nature-fanatic’s dream city. It’s surrounded by water and mountains, offering countless hiking trails, beaches and islands to explore just minutes away.
If you’re interested to visit a major city in Asia, Hong Kong is undoubtedly the best place to go. It offers everything one could want in a city: infinite cultural experiences from museums to temples to streets dedicated to Chinese antiques, vibrant nightlife, limitless shopping, world-renown restaurants and a variety of dining experiences, ranging from food stalls to local restaurants to fine dining. Pair this with Hong Kong’s dozens of accessible beaches and hiking trails, you’ve got a dream city.
There are countless activities to do and things to see if you come to Hong Kong, but for the sake of wordcount, I’ll highlight three of my favorites for now: hiking, dim sum and outlying islands.
Hiking: There are four long trails in Hong Kong (MacLehose, Lantau, Wilson and the Hong Kong trail) each between 50-100km. However, what’s best about these trails is that they are broken out by multiple sections, allowing hikers to choose based on difficulty, ease of transportation and scenery.
While there are many trails to highlight, if you’re only in Hong Kong for a short stay, I’d recommend Dragon’s Back and The Twins – both on the Island side, easy to access and have incredible views.
If you’re not a big hiker or if you don’t have much time, Dragon’s Back on the Southeast side of the island in Shek O Country Park is the perfect hike. It’s relatively easy and offers some of the best views of Hong Kong. It’s a quick 20 minutes by cab or 45 minutes by MTR and bus from Central, the main business district.
You’ll begin on a relatively flat path that’s shaded by woodland and thus offering a limited view. However, after about thirty minutes, you’ll emerge from the shade to see beautiful views of the South China Sea and Hong Kong’s outlying islands. There are some steps throughout the trail which can be challenging for beginners, but for the most part, it’s a relatively easy trek. Dragon’s Back is on the itinerary of every visitor we have in Hong Kong – no better way to show off the city’s spectacular coastal scenery!
If you want a more challenging hike while staying on the island side, my favorite hike is The Twins (Wilson Trail stage 1). It’s three mountains, beginning with the Twins followed by Violet Hill. What’s best is that the hike is a mix of steep and really steep climbs with some relatively flat land in between (by Hong Kong standards) and beautiful views all along the way. Besides the variation in the climb, the scenery also varies, beginning with great views of Stanley and the spectacular south side bays and then turning into views of Tai Tam Reservoir and the mountainous interior, ending with glimpses over the mountains into Central.
Dim Sum: Eating dim sum in Hong Kong is comparable to an all-you-can-drink boozy brunch in New York City…it’s an experience.
While dim-sum restaurants come in all shapes and sizes, they’re generally noisy, chaotic and manic with people rushing to get a place in line and eating like it’s their last meal before an apocalypse. Servers run around throwing plate after plate at your table, which will be one foot away from your neighboring table, if that.
There are countless dim-sum restaurants throughout Hong Kong, but if you’re only here for a short stay, the two below offer different experiences combined with the best dumplings and buns you’ll ever have.
City Hall Maxim’s Palace: If you’re looking for the quintessential dim sum experience, Maxim’s Palace offers just that. The space is vast, packed with tables and adorned with a red carpet, crisp white table cloths and massive chandeliers that overlook the dining room, which frequently transitions into a high class banquet hall in the evenings. According to locals, it’s what most traditional dim sum restaurants used to look like, compared to today where many are modern and contemporary designed.
What’s best (and most fun) is that Maxim’s serves dim sum on push carts that are wheeled around by uniformed waitresses, a tradition that has sadly become almost extinct in Hong Kong. The dim sum itself is also classic and traditional, with highlights being the barbeque and sweet pork buns, though everything is excellent. The atmosphere is loud and boisterous filled with groups of coworkers out to lunch, big family gatherings and tourists tasting their first traditional dim sum. For a first-timers trip to Hong Kong, it offers the true dim sum experience
One Dim Sum: If you’re googling dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong, Tim Ho Wan will be on every list. It’s an incredibly affordable and informal Michelin star restaurant known for its quick turnaround times and addictive barbeque pork buns. However, given its popularity and location in IFC mall on the island side, the feeling of eating there can err on the side of commercial.
On the flip side, One Dim Sum offers a very similar experience but with a much more local and traditional environment. Based near the Prince Edward station in Kowloon, it too is a Michelin star dim sum restaurant with equally affordable and scrumptious food. Ordering a serving of pork buns, shumai (pork dumplings), har gow (shrimp dumplings), turnip cake and glutinous rice for two people came out to around USD15. Can’t get much better than that!
Outlying Islands: One of the coolest things about Hong Kong that doesn’t get enough credit is its outlying islands. They’re local, serene fishing villages that offer the perfect escape from chaotic Hong Kong. Even better, you can get to most in just 30-40 minutes by ferry for just a few dollars, a trip worth taking to feel transported into another world.
You’ll see that most guidebooks point you to Lantau Island to see the ‘Big Buddha’, however, they also refrain from mentioning that the Buddha was completed in the 1990s, there’s an outdoor mall next to the Buddha and you’ll be surrounded by thousands of tourists once you get there.
The islands Cheung Chau and Peng Chau on the other hand provide a much more local and authentic atmosphere away from tourists, noise and cars. Cheung Chau in particular offers an ideal island experience: biking, beaches, great views of the coastline and some of the best and freshest seafood you’ll find in Hong Kong for a quarter of the price that you’ll find on Hong Kong island. If you only have time for one island, a visit to Cheung Chau is a no brainer.
Peng Chau on the other hand is arguably the most rural and remote of the outlying islands and it sure feels like that when you get there. But, that’s the exact reason to visit Peng Chau: it’s an escape from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and offers a very rustic and local environment to explore. Spend the day walking around, seeing the island homes and shops and take a small hike up finger hill to view the landscape.