Hong Kong was once the definition of a modern metropolis. And while its skyline is still take-your-breath-away fantastic, the likes of Dubai and Singapore have overtaken it in the sheen stakes in the last couple of decades.
Today’s Hong Kong still oozes wealth from its designer stores and 5 star hotels, but it’s also got a grit and shabbiness that makes it a city of contrasts – that’s why we liked it so much.
Hong Kong island proper is still unlike anywhere else on earth, hundreds of narrow skyscrapers perched on a tiny strip of land around the looming peak behind.
Chris’s architecture background couldn’t resist a good old gawp of the iconic Norman Foster HSBC building, which has a banking hall on its mezzanine floor and is worth heading up there to take photos of the massive open atrium above.
So before we drone on any further, here’s our top 5 suggestions for a few days in Hong Kong….
1. Drinks with a view (Luxe version)
Hong Kong is full of amazingly plush sky bars dozens of stories high, with equally Amazing views of the skyline. The Upper House was particularly swanky; you can even gawp out of the window while spending a penny. Cocktails average £15.
Sevva, a bit lower down, was also super swish with amazing views of the HSBC building.
If you want a view from Kowloon across to the HK skyline, the Ritz-Carlton’s Ozone bar on the 118th floor of the International Commerce Centre is your best bet; it’s reputedly the highest sky bar on earth. We didn’t go, but just imagine those views with an espresso martini in hand…
2. Drinks with a view (budget)
Grab the 25p Star Ferry across the harbour to Kowloon (it’s an institution, tradition and tourist must all in one), buy a couple of beers from 7-Eleven and grab your spot on Kowloon Pier to watch the sun go down (choose a sunny day obviously!) If you’re lucky you’ll be rewarded with a sky as perfect as this one.
3. Horse racing surrounded by skyscrapers
Happy Valley Racecourse is a Hong Kong institution, slap bang in the middle of town, surrounded by tall buildings. Ascot or Goodwood this ain’t, and it’s all the better for its complete lack of pretension. I doubt there’s a Racecourse like it on earth.
Every Wednesday, you can grab a pitcher of beer, put a fiver on whichever horse name has the best double entendre (that’s how we all choose, right?) and cheer along with about 20,000 others as it limps home in last place. Chris did win £20 though!
The quality of the racing is probably average at best but the atmosphere here is electric, it’s a quid to get in and you may even be rewarded (or should that be punished) with uncanny Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un impersonators marauding through the crowd like we did.
4. Cheap eats
For every Michelin starred celebrity chef eatery there’s a side street selling amazing dumplings, dim sum or roast duck.
We bought some amazing roast pork with crackling from a market for three quid, and ate at renowned beef brisket restaurant Sun Sin in Kowloon for a fiver each.
For something somewhere in between the cheap and the upmarket, we tried Din Tai Fung for amazing dumplings.
Its popularity in Hong Kong spawned a Michelin star (one of the cheapest restaurants to get one) and outposts all over the world. We still ate like kings for less than £30 for two.
5. Kowloon Culture
Hong Kong proper is still mostly polished and preened, but Kowloon across the water has more of an edge.
The sprawling and in some ways down at heel opposite number to Hong Kong island is buzzing with life on every corner; street markets stretch for block after block; luminous street signs jostle for attention above your head; proper Cantonese food is being cooked up on every corner.
We wandered around all afternoon, just taking it all in. And while Temple Street Night Market is famous, just walking around for a couple of hours is a sensory overload in itself. We loved it.
And a couple of things to avoid…
1. The Peak Tram
The idea of an old school funicular railway whisking you up to The Peak to wonder at the marvel of the city below sounds romantic; in reality it’s an utter tourist trap.
Sponsored by a famous purveyor of celebrity waxworks, we were confronted by 3 hour waits and chaotic queues when we arrived, and ultimately abandoned our mission in favour of a taxi.
Maybe we were unlucky as it was Chinese New Year, but think twice before attempting the tram. The taxi ride up was an experience in itself, and it’s the view from the top you’re after, right?
And Yes, the view from the peak is amazing (go at night), but prepare again for a queue followed by some elbow jostling with a few hundred other people armed with selfie sticks.
2. Don’t by an Octopus card
Hong Kong’s attempt to go cashless spawned the Octopus card, a bit like the Oyster but you can pay for all sorts of other stuff as well as public transport.
But unless you’re using the underground constantly for more than a few days (and we’d recommend doing most of the island on foot), it’s much cheaper to buy individual single tickets as you go.
The MTR underground is the most efficient we’ve come across anywhere in the world, and it’s cheap; we didn’t pay more than £1.50 each for a single ride, and usually it was under a quid. So just pay as you go. Also – marvel at the sheer ease of the Airport Express train; you literally walk on from the terminal and appear in Hong Kong Central 25 minutes later!
4 days was definitely enough to spend within Hong Kong’s relentless thrall. We drank too much, ate too much, walked too much and were ready to sleep when we left. But that kind of felt exactly what everyone’s Hong Kong experience should be like.