Hong Kong, “Asia’s World City,” is where East greets West, where culture melds into commerce and carries both globally. Hong Kong is also called the Pearl of the Orient, a natural jewel extending an invitation to explore a world of treasures and wonder.
Hong Kong is just a little smaller than New York City – both in square miles and population. But there’s little doubt that both dominate their region, largely because both emerged as trading posts in their infancy. Another standout feature? Both islands, with maritime roots, have led the way for international development, and attract millions of tourists – both roughly 40-50 million annually.
For the Western tourist, Hong Kong has many assets. Primarily because it was a British colony from 1842 to 1997 – when it was returned to China – Hong Kong is an English-speaking country. However, now as a Special Administrative Region of China, it has its own currency, postal system, judiciary and rule of law, free trade, free speech and a border between it and the rest of China. Today, English is the primary language in government, business and tourism. Much appreciated is that official signs, public transportation announcements and most menus are bilingual.
More highly appreciated is that there is so much to see and do in this most metropolitan city.
To get your bearings, head straight to Victoria Peak, where the Peak Tower offers a favored bird’s-eye view of this thriving skyscraper city built along Victoria Harbour, one of the world’s busiest, receiving more than 200,000 vessels per year. Getting to the top via the Peak Tram – the world’s steepest – is half the fun.
The Peak is 1,299 feet above sea level, and The Peak Tower, the city’s No. 1 tourist destination, is a complex of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues like Madame Tussauds wax museum. The Peak claims Hong Kong’s highest 360-degree viewing platform, The Sky Terrace 428, which sits at 1,404 feet.
From this height, you can truly appreciate that Hong Kong sports the most skyscrapers in the world. The view is quite mind-blowing.
Once back at sea level, don’t miss an auxiliary use of the skyline at night: the Symphony of Lights on Victoria Harbour, a multi-media show named by Guinness World Records as the “World’s Largest Permanent Light and Sound Show.” Lasers, colored lights and searchlights bounce off more than 40 structures on both sides of the harbor, all set to music that quickens the heart and evokes wonder. Harbor cruise excursions offer another viewing option.
If shopping is what quickens your heart, Hong Kong will fuel your passion at a very reasonable price, with no sales tax. Always dreamed of that tailor-made suit or dress? This is the place. Get measured and choose your fabric one day; your new outfit can be ready the next. (Tip: Get some recommendations. Most hotel concierge desks can direct you, or do your research before leaving home.)
Hong Kong’s shopping mega-malls like IFC are world famous, and there are world-class department stores like the British Marks & Spencer.
Don’t miss the shopper’s haven, Cat Street, also known as Upper and Lower Lascar Row. Look for great deals at stalls and shops selling antiques, watches, old coins, stone carvings and lots of secondhand items.
One shop displays dozens of differently colored figurines of Chairman Mao Zedong. In fact, you’ll find Mao memorabilia everywhere, from posters and postcards to the famous Little Red Book in various languages.
One guide shares a saying: “If you lose your antiques at home, you’ll most likely find them again on Cat Street.” Here and at other street stalls, you’ll find everything from cute silk kimono-shaped wine bottle covers to inexpensive Chinese zodiac figurines.
The boutique Shanghai Tang offers a modern twist on classic designs, and the many factory outlets inside the Pedder Building include Italian and French designer names. Inside, you could find a rack of women’s Armani suits priced at $200.
Like most large cities, Hong Kong has its own special markets. Glorious colors and fragrances await at the Flower Market; dainty peeps to clamorous cries can be heard at Yuen Po Street Bird Garden where elderly men “walk” their songbird pets in ornamental cages; exotic fish and reptiles are displayed at the Goldfish Market. A half-mile of stalls with bargain clothing, accessories and souvenirs are found at the Ladies’ Market, and when the sun sets, the Temple Street Night Market (named after nearby Tin Hau Temple) comes to life – complete with food vendors, merchants, opera singers and fortune tellers.
A favorite buy is jade – the Chinese believe it wards off evil spirits – and there’s plenty of it at the 400-stall Jade Market.
Window shopping or just stopping is always acceptable in this city of so much to do. At the end of Hollywood Road, step inside Man Mo Temple with its the proliferation of incense coils hanging from the ceiling. Named for “Man,” the god of literature, and “Mo,” the god of war, it was built in 1847.
A guide demonstrates how to draw sticks for fortune telling: She holds a cup of them close of her chest and shakes it while thinking of what’s worrying her. Eventually one falls to the floor. Match up the stick with the fortune telling prediction book on display nearby to get the answer.
The Clock Tower, erected in 1915 as part of the Kowloon-Canton Railway terminus, and boardwalk is located next to the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry Pier on Kowloon. It commemorates the millions of Chinese immigrants who passed through the city’s harbor. Nearby are the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Hong Kong Space Museum, the Hong Kong Museum of Art and Avenue of Stars, similar to Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
To contrast old and new, you can ride on the last remaining authentic “junk,” the Duk Ling. Similar, traditional fishing boats date back hundreds of years. Today, you’ll glide by glistening new cruise ships as well.
To hang out with the locals, check out the Happy Valley horse races.
For true contrast, there’s Lantau Island’s Po Lin Monastery with its Tian Tan Buddha statue erected in 1993 (nicknamed the Big Buddha) as well as Hong Kong Disneyland, where Mickey reigns.
Hong Kong is a compact city, and you can maneuver your way around easily using the efficient mass transit railway, or MTR tram system. Day passes are available, but plan on spending several – you’ll need them to see it all.
Remember, Hong Kong’s currency differs from China’s. The Hong Kong dollar is about 7.80 to one U.S. dollar. And although you don’t need a visa to visit from the U.S., if you are traveling onward in China, you do need a visa and a passport valid at least six months beyond your stay.