Traveler: Pat McFadden
It’s unfortunate that Hong Kong is expensive by Asian travel standards because most people skip this delightful city. With a delicate balance between its Western heritage and distinctly Eastern vibe, Hong Kong is the perfect place for first time travelers to Asia. You won’t find motorbikes plying through a suffocating volume of traffic, or touts hawking tickets to an imperial palace. Instead, you will discover a bustling modern city with a majestic skyline, incredible hiking trails, and a food scene ripe with Michelin starred restaurants at affordable prices.
Hong Kong is divided into three major sections: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and Lantau Island. Hong Kong island is home to the ritzy skyscrapers and white linen restaurants. Kowloon has more traditional neighborhoods with street vendors, and markets. Lantau Island is the location of the international airport, Disneyland, and the Tian Tan attraction.
I used frequent flier miles to fly from New York City (JFK) to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. With a great selection of recent Hollywood movies and popular Billboard hits, Cathay Pacific made the 16 hour flight enjoyable. If you’re American, you may enter Hong Kong, visa-free, for up to 90 days. You will not receive a stamp in your passport upon arrival, but will instead receive a small piece of paper confirming your arrival and exit date.
To reach the Kowloon Peninsula from the airport, I rode a 60 minute bus which cost $4.61 USD. Alternatively, there is a 20 minute express subway to Kowloon for $11.52 USD. A classic time-money trade off, pick whichever transportation method fits your budget and schedule.
The most affordable Hong Kong lodging is located in Kowloon. Thrill-seekers should beeline towards the legendary Chung King Mansions: an enormous housing complex known for low-cost lodging, delicious international food, and unsavory characters. While I love a good adventure, I chose the fire-evacuation friendly hostel of YesInn located near the Yau Ma Tei subway. At $22USD a night for a dorm bed, YesInn was one of the cheapest hostel options in Kowloon (besides the Chunk King Mansion), and is conveniently located near several popular neighborhoods. For the more upscale Hong Kong traveler, lodging on Hong Kong Island will not disappoint but comes with a hefty price tag.
During my last two days in Hong Kong, I moved to Lantau Island and stayed at the Ngong Ping SG Davis Youth Hostel. Located in the middle of a forest, this hostel is within walking distance of Lantau Peak hiking trail, and the Tian Tan monastery. As a member of the Youth Hostel Association (YHA), this hostel requires YHA membership which can be purchased on-site for $15 USD price.
Things to Do
Hiking: Hong Kong offers a spectacular breadth of hiking. Even better, most of the trails are accessible by public transportation making it a breeze to hit the trails when the mood strikes. My favorite hikes were the Dragon’s Back, the Lamma Family Trail, and Lantau Peak. The Dragon’s Back weaves in and out of coastal villages before terminating at a cozy beach. For a more secluded hike, catch a ferry to the free-spirited community on Lamma Island, and walk the Lamma Family Trail. For a more physically challenging hike, test your leg strength as you push through a 1,500 feet elevation gain towards Lantau Peak. That elevation gain might seem paltry, but with a near vertical incline, you’ll think twice about calling this an easy hike!
The Star Ferry: No trip to Hong Kong is complete without crossing the gorgeous Victoria Harbor on board the Star Ferry. At 40 US cents for a single weekday trip, the Star Ferry is the cheapest method for entering Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. You will never forget the first time you see the Hong Kong skyline at night, and the best way to experience it is onboard the Star Ferry.
Hong Kong Park (Hong Kong Island): A quiet retreat from the frenetic Hong Kong business district, Hong Kong Park is a relaxed urban park with a free aviary for bird watching.
Victoria Peak (Hong Kong Island): Arguably the most popular tourist attraction in Hong Kong, a trip to Victoria Peak — the highest elevation on Hong Kong island– involves an adventurous ride on a tram car. Once at top, you are rewarded with a series of gardens, hiking trails, and beautiful views of the city. Instead of riding the tram down, consider walking down through the leafy parks to the Soho neighborhood for a bite to eat.
Nin Li Monastery (Kowloon): An oasis of greenery and serenity in the heart of Kowloon, The Nin Li Monastery and Tea Garden is accessible by subway, and is much needed nourishment for the soul after absorbing Hong Kong’s roaring din.
Tian Tan and Po Lin Monastery (Lantau): At a towering 900 feet tall, Tian Tan is a massive steele seated Buddha. As you walk up the 150 stairs to the statue, be mindful of the pilgrims praying at each step on their way to the top. On the same grounds as Tian Tan resides the Po Lin Monastery, a free and peaceful grounds for reflection.
Tai-O (Lantau): A darling of Lantau Island, the shores of the Tai-O fishing village are home to the Chinese White Dolphin. Despite its name, these dolphins are actually bubblegum pink in color. Two travel agencies offer the same 45 minute boat tours with prices varying between $8-15 USD depending on your negotiation skills and the volume of other passengers in the boat. Dolphin sightings are not common, so manage your expectations appropriately. Independent of the pink dolphins, Tai-O village is a worthy trip for a more authentic Hong Kong village experience.
Temple Street Night Market (Kowloon): The Temple Street Market is unlike Asian markets in that it doesn’t offer quality knock-off luggage, coats, or clothes. Nor are the prices cheap. For example: A pair of shower sandals at the Temple Street Market cost $10 USD, but you can find the same product for $2-3 USD in the Bangkok, or Ha Noi. One particularly popular activity at the Temple Street Market is fortune-telling. Dozens of fortune-tellers line the outskirts of the market tempting you with insights of your future. Most fortune-tellers do not speak English, so the ones that do charge $15-20USD per reading.
Places to Eat and Drink
Eat: Hong Kong is a food lover’s paradise where Michelin starred restaurant meals can be tried for less than $10USD. The two I tried, and would recommend, are dumpling specialists Tim Ho Wan, and Chung Hing Kee.
Drink: Treat yourself to a cocktail while soaking in the jaw-dropping Hong Kong skyline while ships pass through Victoria Harbor. The best hotels for this experience are The Peninsula and Continental. The Peninsula’s bar is a bird’s-eye view of the skyline, while the Continental is a ground-floor view.
- Check the weather forecast before hiking; you don’t want to endure a hike only to have no summit views as a result of pollution.
- For detailed information on hiking in Hong Kong, visit the Hong Kong government’s official hiking website: http://hiking.gov.hk
- You’ll likely notice a ultra-high level of cleanliness in Hong Kong. I posit this is a consequence of the 2003 SARS epidemic, but I don’t know for certain. Elevator buttons, city park railings, and even escalators list the frequency of sterilization. Typically, it’s 3-4 hours.