15 Things to Do in Hong Kong

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I’ve been to Hong Kong three times now and it continues to be my favorite city in the world. The first time I visited I was shown around by two amazing Hong Kong locals (Mandy and Min, you’re the best!). The second time I explored on my own. The third time I was shown around by my brother who has lived and worked there for years. This is my list of things to do – fifteen specific recommendations with general suggestions in no particular order.

1 – Eat
No, not the KFC or McDonalds on every other corner. Check out the hole in the wall chinese joint with dead animals hanging in the window, the dirty cheap dim sum where nobody speaks English, the glitzy expensive dim sum where the whole family dresses up to eat on the weekends, the fancy Indian, the dirty Thai restaurant, the greasy disgusting looking cuttlefish balls on a stick that have boiled in oil all day… eat everything. Your old ethnic favorites will have a new twist and the new foods will always surprise and (usually) delight. I’ve not once gotten sick in Hong Kong and I’ve eaten some pretty sketchy unidentifiable stuff. If you’re not sure where to start and you aren’t feeling too adventurous I’d recommend Ajisen Ramen. Locals may scoff at me as it is an international chain but you can find them everywhere – including HKG airport. You’ll find familiar ramen dishes and not so familiar fried vegetables and drinks. Once you’ve conquered your fear of eating something you’ve never seen before you’ll be ready to try again in a more local joint. It’s easy to scan a menu and see a familiar dish so don’t be afraid to ask what’s good and blindly accepting what the waitress tells you – I’ve had some of my best meals that way.

A general rule of thumb that has never steered me wrong – if you see a line out the door at a restaurant or an extremely crowded street food vendor, get in line. You’ll thank me. The locals know what’s up.

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2 – Learn to love the MTR
The MTR is the subway system in Hong Kong and is arguably the best I’ve ever experienced. Fast, quiet, clean trains that come so often there isn’t even a schedule that I’ve seen. Extremely convenient transfers and maps make getting to anywhere in town simple. Get an Octopus card (prepaid fast pass) and put hold your wallet up to the turn-styles, don’t bother fumbling for cash. Hop on and hop off when you feel like it. It’s so cheap it’s practically free – most of my rides seemed to have cost 30-40 cents each and many one or two stop rides didn’t charge me at all. Best of all – it’s air-conditioned. If you’re not feeling like walking that last mile down Nathan Road just hop on the MTR. If you can’t find one of the many MTR signs just ask “MTR?” and people will point you in the right direction.

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3 – Visit Victoria Peak
Victoria Peak is very touristy but has one of the best cityscape views I’ve ever seen. From the peak you can get a spectacular view of Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Victoria Harbour. Take the tram up but do your best to skip the mall on the top – it’s a trap!

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4 – Check out Tian Tan Buddha (天壇大佛) at Po Lin Monastery (寶蓮禪寺)
Another popular tourist stop is the “Big Buddha”. The Po Lin Monastery, founded in 1906, literally means “Precious Lotus Zen Temple”. As you can see it was impossibly foggy when I went.

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5 – Avenue of the Stars
You can’t go to Hong Kong and NOT visit Avenue of the Stars, even accidentally. Located along the water in the Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) district of the Kowloon, this strip gives you the best views of Hong Kong along the river. Go for a jog in the quiet and cooler mornings or visit around sunset or after dark to see the spectacular and romantic city lights. Keep an eye out for laser light and sound shows in the evenings.

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And don’t forget to check out the famous Bruce Lee statue on Avenue of the Stars…

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6 – Wander around Mong Kok & Nathan Road
I recommend coming here in the middle of the day and then coming back at night. The Nathan Road span between the TST MTR up through the MTR Prince Edward MTR station is a vibrant, loud, and crazy strip with convenient access to (in my opinion) the most exhilarating part of Hong Kong: Mong Kok. Home to the massive, clean, and modern Langham Place Shopping Mall, endless food stalls in the streets, blocks and blocks of people hawking clothes, toys, leather goods, and squid to entire city blocks devoted to selling birds, aquarium supplies, and more – Nathan Road cannot be missed.

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Walk to or take the MTR to the Mong Kok station and wander. You’ll find endless silk, tofu, fruit, meat, fish, toy, clothing, bag, and other vendors.

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If you’re lucky you’ll meet a Silkie (also known as a black chicken since it has black skin).

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Though you are more likely to run into some of these monstrosities…

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7 – Langham Place Shopping Mall
After your day of wandering around Mong Kok (you could spend hours taking in the sights, smells, sounds without even realizing it) step inside the gargantuan Langham Place shopping mall located next to the Mong Kok MTR stop. Featuring “Xpresscalators” that span 5 or 6 floors each and a spiral of shops at the top – this 15 story mall with two basement levels is truly is one of a kind.

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8 – Visit (or just marvel at) IFC – International Financial Center
It may look like an oversized nose hair trimmer but it’s a beautiful piece of architecture that you can see from just about anywhere in Hong Kong. It’s also attached to a substantial (and air conditioned) mall that is worth wandering through if you’re in the area.

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9 – Get lost
I always try to get lost at least once in every new city but in Hong Kong I try to get lost almost every day. You’ll be amazed at what you find when you get off the beaten path. Sometimes I just to just follow where the crowds go to see what the locals are up to and sometimes I like to get away from everyone.

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10 – Look behind the curtain
It’s easy to get sucked into all the flashy neon signs and the glitzy blinking lights but you should take time to peek down the dingy alleys to see children playing and eating. Look up to see how small people’s apartments are and what conditions most people live in. Go off the beaten path a bit to see how normal people live. It will be humbling, even in a city as big as Hong Kong.

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11 – Get a foot massage
In the US people get full body massages. In Hong Kong people get foot massages. After a long day of walking, climbing endless stairs, and standing around gawking at the signs in the sticky heat there is nothing better. Lay back in a comfortable reclining chair as they wash and rub your feet and legs for as long as you’d like. If this sounds like your cup of tea I highly recommend the conveniently located Royal Foot Spa at 16 Carnarvon Road in TST, Kowloon. (royalfootspa.com.hk). Splurge and get the 100 minute session. For an extra relaxing time ask to go upstairs – there are no televisions and when you fall asleep during the massage (and you will), they’ll let you sleep for hours on the most comfortable reclining leather chairs you’ve ever laid in.

Don’t let sketchy exteriors fool you. If you were in Manhattan and saw a sign saying “Royal Massage, 3/F” pointing down a strange poorly lit hall that looked like the entrance to an apartment building in Manhattan would you go in and climb the cramped stair well? Of course not (unless you were looking for something illegal). You’d look for the well lit nail salon / massage place or a reputable hotel spa. The aforementioned Royal Foot Spa looks like nothing on the outside but it is so professional and beautiful on the inside it would put most western spas to shame.

I have no photos of the foot massage place so enjoy some photos of feet!

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12 – Take a Ferry
Head over to the Star Ferry terminal at the end of the Avenue of the Stars and take a ferry to the other side. It’s a quick cheap ride and you can pay with your Octopus card.

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13 – Visit the Islands
Getting a little overwhelmed by the city? Take a day trip over to one of the many nearby islands. I visited Peng Chau and spent all day there. You’ll be amazed that such a wonderful sleepy fishing town is only 20 minutes from the always-hectic Hong Kong. If you do visit Peng Chau, be ready to stay for at least a few hours so you can soak up the town, wander the hiking paths, and take in the views. There are several other great places to visit depending on what you’re looking for. If you are coming from the Kowloon side you can catch a ferry to Central from the Star Ferry terminal then find the Terminal that goes to the island you want. Boats leave about once an hour and run until midnight.
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14 – Wander Inside
In western countries most shops have nice big glass windows, professional looking signs, and dedicated store fronts to showcase a large inviting store inside. Aside from the touristy strips showcasing overpriced western fashions, this is rarely the case in Hong Kong. Lining nearly every street tucked between impossibly small shops are entrances to what seem to be apartment buildings except for the signs. Once inside you’ll find yourself in a huge 8 story mall (for lack of a better word) filled with hundreds of sellers. They each have their own 10×10 space, are staffed by a single person behind a cash register, and they’re all decorated quite nicely. These malls each have a theme – most of them around clothing. A girl could spend all day in a single small building checking out tiny shop after tiny shop and the prices are unbeatable.

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15 – Adopt a Bad Accent
This one may be a bit shocking and I may be completely wrong, but I’ve found that applying an accent when speaking Cantonese helps a lot. Cantonese is an extremely sing-songy language with many intonations and westerners speak very flatly in comparison. I can’t count the number of times I’d told a cab driver where to go only to get blank stares back but when I try a (sometimes borderline insulting and racist to my ears) accent they seem to understand and I get where I need to go. Bonus points if you’ve heard it spoken before and try very hard to match intonations – I’ve been taken to the wrong places when I got the intonations wrong – apparently the difference between Harbour View Horizon and Harbour Front Horizon in Cantonese is so subtle my western ears still can’t tell the difference – both sound exactly like “Hoy wan heen” to me.

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Don’t forget: Ask for permission when photographing
The first time I came to HK years ago I tried to politely and quietly snap some photos of people selling fish, interesting food, and strange shops. The shop keepers would almost always be angry and sometimes would yell at me or shoo me out of their shops. I very quickly learned to ask permission and found that everyone was suddenly very nice and friendly. All you need to do is hold up your camera and smile and nod, sometimes an “OK?” helps too. “OK” is a word that just about every Cantonese speaker seems to know. I’ve only had one person say no and she was a crotchety old lady that looked mean anyways. Sometimes this means the shop keepers look at the camera and ruin the natural look you’re going for but they sometimes bring out interesting things to photograph for me like the Silkie shown earlier. Take a few photos and be on your way, don’t overstay your welcome. This is also a great way to get to know some locals as many will happily ask you questions about where you are from and what you do and are happy to give directions or answer your questions in return.

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Miscellaneous Tips

  • For a night of clubbing you shouldn’t miss Lan Kwai Fong.
  • For some upscale western friendly food and shelter from the loud crazy Kowloon take a cab to the hip Elgin Street in Central.
  • Wear pants. Seriously, almost nobody in Hong Kong wears shorts despite the heat. The few that do wear long shorts.
  • Use your coins. You’ll get coins as change with every transaction but they are very valuable. What looks like $5 may be more like $40. They also stack up very quickly and get heavy!
  • Pay attention the fashion. No two people are wearing the same thing. Women wear extremely varied clothing, thanks in part to the endless tiny shops with custom styles. Men wear tons of pink.
  • Drink lots of water. It’s very hot and the food is often salty. Drink much more water than you’re used to drinking and you’ll enjoy your time in Hong Kong that much more.

I <3 HK
I’ve been to many large cities in the world and Hong Kong continues to be my favorite. Hopefully you’ll love Hong Kong as much I do.

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