Hong Kong: a concrete jungle surrounded by national parks

Hong Kong was never actually on my list of cities which I wanted to visit. But searching the web for a nice break, I came across this city and decided to just go for it since it was something different and unexpected. No regrets at all! This vibrant city has surprised me in many positive ways and is a must-do on your travel destinations list!

We stayed for a week, meaning we had two travel days and five full days of exploring the city. Which is perfect for a city break in Hong Kong. From Dubai it’s a 7 hour straight flight to Hong Kong and the return flight is about 9 hours.

Hong Kong Facts
Hong Kong’s officially named as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, and is an autonomous territory on the southern coast of China. Hong Kong consists of 236 islands and is known for its skyline and natural harbour. With a population of around 7.2 million, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises.

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Source: ”Hong Kong Location” by Alanmak from en.wikipedia.org. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hong_Kong_Location.png#/media/File:Hong_Kong_Location.png

Economy
The airport of Hongkong is one of the largest airports in the world and lies on an artificial island in front of Lantau island. Hong Kong’s harbour plays a very important role in the international trade of the People’s Republic of China. Many goods from and to China are being transported through this harbour. Moreover, Hongkong is one of the most important financial centra of Asia. The local currency is the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD).

Culture
Hong Kong is often described as a place where ‘East meets West’. This is the result of a mix of Chinese roots from the mainland and influences from the British colonial period. Almost 90% of the Hong Kong people adhere to the traditional Chinese religion. Hong Kong combines the modern way of life with traditional Chinese practices. This mix manifests itself in the city’s cuisine, where dimsum, fastfoodrestaurants and haute cuisine go hand in hand.
The official languages are Chinese and English.

Where to stay
We stayed at the Le Meridien Cyberport, because we were lucky to get a very good rate. Only 15 minutes from Hong Kong central station, the hotel shuttle bus brings you every hour (free of charge) to this central point of town. The rooms are big and the hotel offers you during your stay (free of charge) a Handy Mobile Phone. The phone has internet (so you can create a WIFI hotspot with your own mobile) and a cityguide on it which shows you the places to eat, shop and things to do. Moreover, through this Handy we were able to book many tourist attractions and ferry, train and bustickets with a discount price!

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The hotel lies on Hong Kong Island and is beautifully located. Hong Kong is like a concrete jungle, so we were glad that we chose this hotel which is located next to a mountain and has views on the bay, ships and the many islands surrounding Hong Kong island. Right next to the hotel there is a shopping mall (not much shops though), with various places where you can eat. Moreover, there is a supermarket next door and of course the famous Macdonalds (which you will find on practically every street corner). Furthermore, there is a park along the shoreline where you will find families picknick and lots of dogs playing around.

Best time to visit
Hongkong has a subtropical climate, meaning dry and cool winters, but humid and hot summers. We went in December, which was a bit chilly (for someone coming from the desert of course), but didn’t encounter any rain. I think the best time to visit Hong Kong is during the period November until March. This way you avoid the hot and humid summer and the months where the most rain falls. You may expect temperatures between 14 and 21 degrees Celcius.

Getting around
We have explored many options of getting around in Hong Kong. We have walked a lot! Used the mid- level escalator which is the largest covered escalator in the world to get from A to B (it takes you above the streets and you can take off at different points), used the ferry, the bus and the train. For public transport you need to use the Octopus card (an electronic payment and acces card) which you can buy at the central station. Public transport is not expensive and a very good way of transporting yourself throughout this city. If you want to use a taxi, you can grab them at any point, as they drive throughout the streets to pick up people (just like New York). Please note that in Hong Kong people drive on the left side of the road.

The Star Ferry is the cheapest (and very fast) mode of transport between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. And a nice way of exploring Hong Kong while you are on the water.

Things to do
You won’t be bored in this city! There is lots of stuff to do and mainly concentrated on the three islands of Lantau (airport), Kowloon (street markets) and Hong Kong island (central station and financial centre).

Big Bus Tour (including Victoria’s Peak)
Normally I’m not a fan of those very touristic stuff, but actually I can recommend the Big Bus Tour. It was the first time that I have done such a tour in a city and it’s quite convenient. You can hop-on and hop-off at any stop to explore the city and its different attractions. We bought a two-day pass for the Deluxe Tour (which I would highly recommend considering the size of the city and the many things you can do). The two-day pass included various tours around Hong Kong island and Kowloon. It included admission to the Maritime Museum, multiple tickets for the Star Ferry so you could easily hop from one island to another, a one hour harbour tour on the Victoria Harbour, a Sampan Ride where you can enjoy the origins of Hong Kong as a floating village on a traditional sampan (boat), and the beautifully, green and scenic Repulse Bay and Stanley Beach and Market. Last but not least, it also included the Peak Tram Sky Pass (Victoria’s Peak is definitely a must-go since it’s the viewing point of the city. Only go when you have a clear day and it’s not cloudy.)

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Moreover, the tour takes you along the many eye-catching skyscraper buildings of the city and will explain to you what the buildings are about. For example: some buildings are built in feng shui style towards each other.

Horse Racing
Every Wednesday night from 20:00 onwards you can gamble on your favorite horse(s). Amidst of the concrete jungle, there lies a huge horse racing track where people gather to have a drink after work. The entrance costs HKD 10 per person.

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Cable car to Ngong Ping Village and Buddha
From Hong Kong station take the train to Tung Chung station. It takes you about 30 minutes to get there. From the station it’s only a two-minute walk to the entrance of the cable car terminal. I would recommend you to book the Crystal Cabin tickets. It saves you on your return trip at least an hour waiting. The cable ride offers you nice views of Hong Kong International Airport, Tung Chung Bay, Lantau Country Park and a magnificent view of the big Buddha. To maximize your view, there is even a glass bottom in the cable car. From the Ngong Ping terminal you walk immediately into the Chinese themed village with its themed attractions, plenty of souvenir shops and a wide range of restaurants.

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From the village you walk up to the Po Lin Monastery, which will give you an impression of the practiced religion. The countless details of the monastery makes it unique. From the monastery you can walk upwards to the Big Buddha and the Wisdom Path.

Ladder Street / Temples and Botanical Garden / Zoo
Throughout Hong Kong there are various temples which you can visit. About fifteen minutes from Hong Kong Central station you will find Ladder Street. Here you can walk up many steep stairs. It’s a nice way to experience the neighborhoods in Hong Kong and the way Hong Kong is built against a mountain. At some point at Ladder Street, you will find a street market in between houses. You will also encounter a temple.

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The Botanical Garden and Zoo are not must-sees, but it’s nice to walk through if you have the time.

Eating and nightlife
For international cuisines like Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Indian, Belgian, local street food et cetera and bars you should go to Elgin Street (close to Ladder Street). It’s a nice and cosy area where you will meet a lot of European people who live in Hong Kong, but also a lot of Asian people.

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PS: the above picture shows a suspicious dish. We ordered beef satay and this is what we got…We didn’t dare to eat it!

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Also visit the area Lan Kwai Fong (better known as LKF), about a 20 minutes walk from Hong Hong central station. Here you will find various restaurants and bars, for example the famous Hard Rock Cafe is also located here.

Restaurant Hutong (adres: 28/F, 1 Peking Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon side)
This restaurant is located on the 28th floor and offers stunning views on Hong Kong island. We arrived at around 18:30 without any reservation and were offered a window seat. If you want to have dinner at a later time, I would recommend you to make a reservation in advance as the tables became quickly occupied at around 19:00. The restaurant is a bit pricy, but definitely worth it considering the ambiance and the magnificent views. Another reason to come here and book a window seat, is that every night at 20:00 ‘the symphony of stars’ begins. This is a music and lightshow which projects various colored lights on the buildings of the skyline of Hong Kong island.

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Cocktailbar: Aquaspirit
Once you are done eating at Hutong, move up to the 31st floor in the same building to cocktail bar Aquaspirit to enjoy some more of the stunning views on Hong Kong island.

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Bars: Red Bar en Centro
If you like trendy bars, then definitely go to Red Bar or Centro at P4 in IFC Mall (International Financial Center). These bars are half inside / half outside and the terrace offers nice views on the harbour and the skyline of Kowloon.

Restaurant Crystal Sade
As a vegetarian (well I’m not 100% vegetarian, but I’m not fond of meat) I found it very difficult to order food in Hong Kong. Many dishes contained meat and fish. At Crystal Sade I was positively surprised that two pages of the menu contained vegetarian dishes and dim sum :) It was absolutely delicious! It hasn’t got a cosy ‘sit back and relax dinner sphere’ as it is more of ‘take your number and seat’ style of dining. You would be surprised the number of people waiting outside the restaurant to be seated! It’s located in IFC Mall (International Financial Center).

Shopping and street markets
On Hong Kong island there are various places where you can shop. In International Financial Center Mall you will find the fancy designer shops, but also ZARA and many jewelry stores. Causeway Bay is a very crowded area and a big shopping neighborhood (it has a MTR station) with the Times Square shopping mall. You can find here designer shops like Gucci, Kate Spade and Prada and many photo- and electronics shops.

On the other island, Kowloon, right behind the ferry terminal, you will find 1881 Heritage. It contains a lot of jewelry and watch stores. Around 1881 Heritage, you will find a lot of cheap as well as expensive designer shops. From the 1881 Heritage you walk to its neighbor The Peninsula (luxury hotel). On the right side of The Peninsula you will find Nathan Road, you can’t miss it. It’s one of the most famous streets in Hong Kong where you will find many shops and lots of traffic, since it’s the main street. Going north on Nathan Road you will find the well-known Temple Street Night Market (there is a MTR station, named Jordan). A typical Asian market where you can bargain on the stuff you want to buy. When you walk even more to the north, you will find Ladies Market.

Things to do around Hong Kong: Day trip to Macau
We took the ferry to Macau, which takes you about an hour. I recommend you to book the tickets a day before. We were planning to go with the ferry on a certain hour, but unfortunately that one was sold out and we had to wait for 1,5 hours for the next available one. While booking the tickets, you are being asked if you want to book a return ticket on a fixed time in advance (please do so to avoid you can’t return). You also need to decide whether you want to take the ferry to the Airport island or to the City island. On the airport island the two famous and impressive casino’s are located: the Galaxy and the Venetian. At the ferry terminal all the casino’s have their buses ready taking you (free of charge) to their casino’s. We decided to take the ferry to City island, since its city centre is on UNESCO’s world heritage list. Moreover, there are buses available which can take you over the bridge to the Airport island and vice versa.

Funny facts
Macau, officially known as the Macao Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China is an autonomous territory on the southern coast of China. With an estimated population of around 635.000 living in an area of only 30 km2, it is the most densely populated region in the world.

While walking through this city, you will be surprised to see Portuguese (street)names everywhere! Apparently, Macau was administered by the Portuguese Empire from the mid-16th century until late 1999.

According to the World Bank, Macau is one of the world’s richest cities, and as of 2013 its GDP per capita by purchasing power parity is higher than that of any country in the world. Even higher than Qatar and Luxembourg (source: World Development Indicators Database. GDP per capita, PPP (current international $)).

Macau became the world’s largest gambling centre in 2006 (source: Barboza, David (23-01-2007). The New York Times. Macao surpasses Las Vegas as Gambling Center). The economy is heavily dependent on gambling and tourism, as well as manufacturing. In Macau, the currency is the Pataca, which is pegged to the Hong Kong dollar. Funny enough, in Macau’s casino’s you have to pay with Hong Kong dollars instead of with the local Pataca!

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Remarkably, the people from Macau and Hong Kong have among the highest life expectancy at birth. Macau ranks worldwide as number four with a life expectancy of 84,5 years and Hong Kong ranks as number seven with 82.8 years. Still haven’t figured out what their secret is ;)

So besides the many big casino’s, what else can you do in Macau?

From the ferry terminal, walk along the water to the Fisherman’s Wharf. Here you will see all that’s been copied from Europe and Asia. They had even imitated the canal houses of Amsterdam!

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From the fisherman’s wharf walk up to the Starworld Casino. Once you have reached Starworld, you will see many other casino’s around you. From here walk up to the golden tower (Grand Lisboa). You can chose to walk more to the left towards the water and Macau Tower. This icon can be seen from several places in Macau. This tower has a commercial interest with restaurants, shops, theatre and a walking promenade around it. If you are into ‘bungy jumping’, you might want to try this one.

Fifteen minutes from the golden tower (not the direction of the Macau Tower) you will find the old city centre, with:

  • Largo do Senado square (here you will find the typically Portuguese sphere and tiles)
  • Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral
  • Rua de Palha en Rua de San Paulo. These are two well known streets for shopping and where you can easily walk on the streets, since cars are not allowed. You will encounter a lot of typically dried meat stores. Most of it is dried pork meat, but you will also find dried beef meat with various spices.

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Enjoy your trip! Overall Hong Kong and Macau are clean and safe cities :)