If you’ve had a chat with anyone who has spent time in Hong Kong, you’ll be familiar with the standard reaction to its mention: overwhelmingly positive, gushing stories and endless recommendations.
Prior to my 2-month stay in Asia’s World City I was inundated with many such happy tales and travel guides.
And while these guides were helpful, it was even more interesting to just wander around the concrete jungle… Which often led into actual jungle.
But there were a few things that I wish someone had have told me before my adventure. Even though many of the locals speak English and there is a widespread expat population, some things about Hong Kong were simply lost in translation. So here, I pass on the things I learned the hard way in the hope that other’s journeys may be a little easier.
Markets – should you bother?
Hong Kong has markets. Many markets. From seemingly entire suburbs of orchid markets, to live goldfish, to the longest-lasting undies you’ll ever purchase, it can be a little daunting attempting to navigate them all. And the good news is you don’t have to – many of them simply aren’t worth a visit (not to say they all aren’t good in their own ways, just that I’m streamlining them down for you).
The “must-see” markets are the various lanes in Central – particularly the costume market on Pottinger Street for a laugh. Lower down on Li Yuen Streets (East and West) you will find all the typical market paraphernalia including underwear, traditional Chinese garments for kids, electronic accessories, and typical Asian trinkets. Although Mong Kok is better known for these kinds of markets, in Central the goods are often up to half the price of their Mong Kok counterparts.
If you do head over to the Mong Kok market area, avoid the Ladies market, as well as any of the animal markets. The Ladies market is full of a lot of disappointing knock-off designer bags, and other bits and pieces that are found cheaper in Central; while the Goldfish and Bird markets will only make you sad. When I saw the way the fish and birds were over-stuffed into their tanks and cages I was overcome with the urge to go into full-anarchist mode and set them all free. But it’s best to err on the side of not being arrested.
On a more positive note, the flower markets in Mong Kok are incredible. The labyrinth of orchids, cherry blossoms, and other seasonal blooms seem to stretch on forever. It’s a beautiful and exhilarating place to be, even if you don’t plan on purchasing anything.
My absolute favourite though, would have to be the Cat Street Antique Market – a realm of old-world Chinese charm and curiosities. This little street is filled with intricate jade carvings, antique chopsticks and furniture, beautiful brass telescopes, and ancient French, German, and English clocks. There are also a few stalls that are more like junkyards – which can be equally fun, particularly if you’re the type that wants to lay their hands on strangers’ old holiday slides.
Is that taxi for hire?
The taxis in Hong Kong are incredibly cheap and there are always so many of them driving around, roof lights blazing – but none of them ever seem to actually be available. This is because contrary to all logic and reason; an illuminated light on the roof does NOT mean the taxi is free.
Instead you need to look for a little circular red light on the dash of the taxi that reads “for hire.” However, if there is a little red card over that light that means the taxi is out of service, or headed to the other side of the water (Kowloon/Hong Kong Island) and won’t pick you up. On top of that, beware of “changeover time,” when many drivers finish their shifts.
One of the peak changeover times is between 3-5pm. I once waited just over an hour for a cab and was consequently very late to collect a toddler from day-care… It was not ideal.
That being said, Hong Kong has an excellent public transport system. If you can take a train/tram (buses are not so reliable), I suggest you do that instead.
Hong Kong is 70% green, which means you can basically step from the concrete jungle straight into real jungle. But the islands are also quite hilly, and not all walks are for everyone. The most popular is Victoria Peak. If you’re really only up for a relaxed walk, take the Peak Tram to the top of the mountain and then do the Peak Circle Loop.
I highly recommend doing this walk at sunset, and do it backwards. Begin on the side of the Peak that faces away from Central to watch the sun go down as you walk around the back of the mountain. Then loop back around to the Central side onto Lugard Road to see the city completely lit up. For more of a challenge, skip the Peak Tram: walk up Old Peak Road, which connects to the walking trail up the mountain.
For skilled hikers, or people seeking a serious Challenge (yes, with a capital C), head to Parkview to begin the Wilson Trail Stage 1*. This hike can take 90mins-3hrs to walk depending on your fitness level and the amount of times you want to stop for selfies (believe me, you’ll want to). The track runs up and down approximately 4 mountains, including The Twins and Violet Hill**. Most travel guides say to begin in Stanley, but if you begin at Parkview and walk north toward Stanley the trail is easier, and you also get to sit down to the beautiful view and a beverage in Stanley at the end!
*There are 10 stages of the Wilson trail snaking all over Hong Kong!
**This hike is not for the faint-hearted. If you’re like me and fairly out-of-shape, be warned. Once you start there’s not really any turning back – it will test your powers of resilience and determination. You may want to die at several points. But I assure you, the view coming over that last hill and heading down to Stanley (one of Hong Kong’s greatest areas) is totally worth it.
Hong Kong is expensive. In fact, it is ranked as the number one most expensive city to live in the world. Despite this, there are actually a lot of free things to do!
First and foremost: The Zoo. Entry is free all day, everyday. And the gibbons will charm the heart right out of you*. The zoo is also attached to the Botanical Gardens, which are a nice and peaceful refuge if all of the monkey screaming and urinating do your head in. Similar to the zoo, Hong Kong Park has an aviary and a substantial population of turtles alongside beautiful fountains and flora.
The museums are free on Wednesdays – and being a weekday they are also less crowded. Definitely check out the Science Museum if only for the energy machine, which runs every hour on the hour.
One of the city’s biggest attractions (literally) is the Big Buddha and surrounding areas on Lantau Island, which have no entry fee. The cable car ride to Ngong Ping Village – an adorable little area at the base of the buddha – can be expensive, but it’s only worth riding on a very clear day and even then the top of the mountain can often still be foggy (like the day I went!).
The bus ride from the ferry terminal is very affordable though, and you can play Cow Bingo! Lantau has quite the population of wild cows, which you can see up close and personal once at Big Buddha. Don’t worry, they’re tame.
Various festivals throughout the year bring many free shows and exhibitions to the city, so always be sure to do some research. But because Hong Kong is so in love with lights, every night at 8pm there is a laser show. Yes, every night. Best viewed from the Star Ferry terminal on the Kowloon side, the show introduces each major building in the city skyline using light displays best described as “great in the 80s”… It is excellent! Grab a beer from the 7-Eleven at the ferry terminal (which you can legally drink on the street**) and bask in the glory.
And finally my biggest secret – cheap Disneyland and Ocean Park tickets! Head to the top floor of the shopping center above Fanda Pharmacy on Dex Voeux Road, Central. There are several travel agents there that sell tickets for up to HK$70 off! You’re welcome.
**If you’re over 18 of course.
The Best Egg Tarts
I’ll admit that egg tarts aren’t for everyone. I know quite a few westerners who find the gelatinous, sweet-egg concoction to be all just too much for their taste. I, however, could eat them daily – and during my travels I almost did. There was every possibility I would become an egg tart myself. The brilliant side of my obsession though is that now I know which are the best…
Tai Cheong Bakery Central is located on Lyndhurst Terrace and constantly has a line flowing out the door – for good reason. These tarts have a short-crust pastry (different to the flaky pastry I’m used to here in Australia) and custard filling that is almost radioactively yellow. But don’t let the colour fool you. They are easily the richest and tastiest of all the egg tarts I’ve tried. Coming in at HK$8 though, they’re also the most expensive.
Insiders tip: in Quarry Bay, near McDonalds and Subway there are a couple of little bakeries that sell excellent egg tarts for $3.50 if you feel like a more affordable option.
On a final indulgent note, those who are fond of egg-custard pastries also need to visit Urban Bakery Works on the top floor of Landmark to taste their egg-yolk custard filled croissants. They are absolutely to die for (but are probably best shared with others – super rich)!