Hong Kong City Guide
In this Hong Kong travel guide, we’ll share tips from our visits to the city, including things to do, when to visit, transportation info, where to eat, hotel options, and more. Hong Kong is one of the most fascinating and fun cities in the world, a place where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
Of the cities we’ve visited, we think Hong Kong presents the best introduction to Asia. The city has been dubbed the place where ‘East Meets West’ and not only do we think that’s quite apt, but it also makes Hong Kong a comparatively easy place to visit. While calling Hong Kong a “melting pot” might be a bit of an exaggeration, it is a place where traditional Chinese culture intersects with modern development.
As a British colony until 1997 and now a global economic hub, many Western influences are visible in Hong Kong, and the city has a strong consumer culture. As a territory of Imperial China and present-day Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, the city has derived much of its culture from China.
This manifests itself in a harbor alive with towering skyscrapers, modern technology integrated into daily life, and some of the world’s best shopping. It’s also apparent in the temples, markets, and dining options throughout the city. The ‘East Meets West’ vibe in Hong Kong offers unexpected diversity, and makes it a truly unique travel destination.
It also makes Hong Kong at once approachable for English-speaking visitors while also being new and exciting. When adding to this Hong Kong’s natural beauty and distinct islands, you have a place that stands apart from other cities in Asia–and around the world. Against this backdrop, we’ll now delve into the basics for planning a trip to Hong Kong…
When to Visit
Due to its subtropical climate, we would only consider visiting Hong Kong between October and April. We often do late October for Halloween at Hong Kong Disneyland. If it were not for that, we’d ideally do a visit in mid-December or mid-January, avoiding the New Year holiday, and also avoiding Chinese New Year.
Visiting Hong Kong a couple of years ago during mid-June was one of the most unpleasant travel experiences we’ve ever had. While the temperature was “only” in the mid-90s, the humidity was oppressive, and I found myself sweating through a shirt within a few minutes of being outside.
Prior to that trip, I had daydreamed of living in Hong Kong (a dream we never had any intention of fulfilling, but I always like to imagine how living in places we enjoy traveling to would play out). After that trip, I questioned how Hong Kong was habitable year-round.
Considering that June isn’t even as bad as July and August, I can’t even envision how those months feel. We’re not exactly tolerant of humidity, but we’ve visited a lot of places during the summer months. The humidity in Hong Kong during the summer made Florida in August feel pleasant, and even Shanghai was not nearly this bad. I’d rather revisit Death Valley in the summer (something we’ve also done–it wasn’t nearly this bad!) than Hong Kong.
While we’ve never done another summer trip to Hong Kong (and never would), our experience was not an anomaly. When we’ve gone in late September, the humidity is still uncomfortable. Even if you don’t mind muggy weather, we’d still recommend avoiding the summer months through September due to the propensity for typhoons and rain.
In terms of crowds, any weeks around holidays should be avoided. During holiday periods, Hong Kong is a popular destination for Chinese tourists from the mainland. This is not necessarily a problem at the points of interest we recommend (except Hong Kong Disneyland), but it does cause a spike in hotel prices and greater congestion throughout the already crowded city streets and markets.
How Long to Visit
We might not be the best judges of this, as every single time we’ve been to Hong Kong, it’s as a stopover or final stop on a multi-city itinerary. From our (admittedly limited) perspective, this is the best approach to take for Hong Kong.
We usually only spend 2-4 days in Hong Kong, and would say that’s about a sufficient length of time for a foreign visitor. Hong Kong is a place that is great for wandering, but is light on must-do points of interest around which a visitor might build a robust itinerary. There are a few must-dos, to be sure, but the best thing to do in the city is simply exploring Hong Kong’s neighborhoods and markets.
From our perspective, this makes Hong Kong a great place to spend a few days (it would also make the city a great place to live…were it not for that humidity) as part of a longer Asia trip. You can go in with a limited itinerary and stumble around at a leisurely pace, having a great time simply eating and exploring.
If you’ve already booked a week-long trip, don’t be concerned there won’t be enough to do. Hong Kong is a great city with a never-ending supply of exceptional (and often cheap) places to eat, and there is a laundry list of places we’ve still yet to visit. If you want a jam-packed itinerary, you can always set aside a couple of days for Macau, which is like the Las Vegas of Asia.
Where to Stay
Owing to its place as an economic hub and place of international business, Hong Kong has a high number of luxury hotel chains. Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri-La, Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, the Peninsula, and Crowne Plaza (among others) all have a presence in Hong Kong, and many of the flagship properties in each brand’s portfolio can be found on Hong Kong Island.
If you’re looking for a nice hotel in a posh area, Hong Kong Island is definitely going to be your pick. You’ll also be conveniently located to a lot of top tourist spots, the world’s swankiest malls, have excellent fine-dining (sometimes Michelin-starred) in your hotel, and have a concierge that can assist you with seeing the city.
For those traveling on a budget or looking for a more authentic local experience (although we’d argue there’s nothing ‘inauthentic’ about the luxury hotels–Hong Kong is a well-heeled place of luxury), you might instead choose Kowloon. Being across the harbor offers the advantages of being around the best and cheapest street food, bustling markets, Tsim Sha Tsui, and a variety of museums.
We’ve stayed on both several times, and it’s tough to say one is objectively better than the other. As a tourist, you’re likely going to be splitting time between the two sides of the harbor, so there’s no real transportation or location advantage. If you’d prefer to stay in a high-rent area, choose Hong Kong Island. If you’re looking for something grittier and “real,” go for Kowloon. The only way we stay on Hong Kong Island is with hotel rewards, as hotels can be cost-prohibitive.
Lantau Island at the hotels around Hong Kong Disneyland and the airport is another option, and one we’ve done many times. As with the main island, Lantau also has a number of chain-brand business hotels, primarily near the airport. These are high-quality and typically offer better value for money than similar hotels on Hong Kong Island, but their location makes them inconvenient unless you’re focusing on Disneyland, Tian Tan Buddha, and other places on Lantau.
Unfortunately, we don’t have experience with Airbnb in Hong Kong because we’ve always done shorter stays or used hotel rewards, so we couldn’t justify using the service. A quick survey of listings for Hong Kong shows a surplus of apartments and houses in Hong Kong, with many under $100/night and some viable options even below $50/night. (Use my sign-up link for a free credit your first time using Airbnb.)
For getting to Hong Kong, we recommend using ITASoftware’s flexible search to find the best deals on airfare, as well as using fare alerts on Airfarewatchdog.com. You can set some parameters for the alerts here (although not as many as I’d like) and receive email updates when they deem prices to be low.
One thing to note when it comes to flying to Hong Kong is that we’ve actually been to Hong Kong a lot because it has often been cheaper for us to book flights to Hong Kong with stopovers elsewhere. We’ve booked trips to Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo and tacked on Hong Kong at the end because that was a more cost-effective option. In other cases, we’ve done stopovers in Hong Kong because it was more convenient and cheaper. Your routing options will obviously vary depending upon your travel dates and origin city.
Once you arrive in Hong Kong, transportation is incredibly easy. Probably the easiest of any city in Asia, and maybe of any city in the world. The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is very reliable, efficient, clean, and all things considered the best public transportation we’ve encountered anywhere in the world. You can find a route planner and map for the MTR here, but using Google Maps is quicker and easier.
Ferries and double-decker buses supplement the MTR routes, and these are not only inexpensive but also enjoyable experiences. You’ll see the Star Ferry listed highly among the top things to do in Hong Kong, and we’d absolutely agree with that assessment. In fact, we recommend the Star Ferry during Symphony of Lights, as it makes that otherwise dull display a bit more interesting.
Finally, you can take a taxi when all else fails. We often hesitate to take or recommend taxis elsewhere when traveling, as that cost adds up quickly and there should be no reason to avoid public transit. In Hong Kong, taxis are very affordable, and there are a limited number of situations when they provide a hassle-free alternative to public transit. Chief among these are getting to/from Victoria Peak during busy times and getting to the airport when you’re in a spot where there is no convenient MTR route, such as at Hong Kong Disneyland.
Things to Do
We’ve really dropped the ball when it comes to covering things to do in Hong Kong thus far on this blog. If you look at our posts about Hong Kong, you’ll notice that several of them are actually things we do not recommend, and many of the best spots below we’ve yet to even cover.
As such, rather than doing a quick bullet-point list, we’ll over a bit of explanatory text about each location below. We have a backlog of over 200 places (no joke) to write about right now, but we’ll get to all of these eventually…
Street Markets – Temple Street Night Market and the Ladies Market are Hong Kong’s most famous markets, and both offer variations of the same thing: trinkets, knock-offs, and electronics. Temple Street also has a lot of food stands at night, but is incredibly crowded, whereas the Ladies Market is less crowded but gets hot without much shade.
We enjoy and recommend visiting both markets, but find Golden Shopping Arcade, the Goldfish Market, Cat Street, Flower Market, Shanghai Street, and Sneaker Street all to be worthwhile. In fact, we like several of those markets more than the famed Temple Street and Ladies Markets.
If you intend upon purchasing anything at these street markets, be prepared to haggle. Western tourists are often viewed as ‘marks’ for the vendors, who will quote you a price exponentially higher than what they will actually accept. Don’t be worried about offending anyone with a lowball offer, as aggressive haggling is not only expected, but oddly celebrated. You don’t want to be the dunce who pays Louis Vuitton prices for a Lewis Mutton bag.
Central to Mid-Levels Escalator & Walkway – You might think we’re really scratching the bottom of the barrel if we’re listing an escalator as a thing to do, but this is pretty neat. Not only that, but it’s highly useful if you visit on a (common) rainy day. We’ve walked this many times, taking random exits and using it as a means to explore Hong Kong on foot.
Chi Lin Nunnery – A series of traditional monasteries joined by an adjacent park, Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden make for a combined public space in Hong Kong that’s perfectly serene and picturesque. Both offer a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city; with exquisite details and a lot to see, you could easily spend a couple of hours here. Click here to read more about Chi Lin Nunnery.
Man Mo Temple – The oldest temple in Hong Kong, Man Mo is fascinating (dedicated to the gods of literature and martial arts–quite the combo!), unique, and convenient to Victoria Peak. The giant hanging incense coils are also one of the most photogenic spots in Hong Kong, offering a moody and almost noir scene.
Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple – This vibrant temple filled is incredibly photogenic, with bright lanterns, ornate pillars, and cool statues. That’s just part of the appeal, though, in visiting this spot that is first and foremost a functional temple for residents from all walks of life in Hong Kong. For somewhere that is such an obvious tourist draw, it does not feel very touristy.
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery – Occupying that odd place between reverence and kitsch, Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is one of the best reasons to head out to the New Territories. While the temple offers little in the way of spirituality, the pathway that leads to the main plaza is lined with hundreds of buddha statues ranging from solemn to downright comical, and the main buildings are impressive. All told, there are some 13,000 Buddha statues at the monastery, and it makes for one of our top 5 sights in Hong Kong.
Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade – One of our favorite things to do in Kowloon is taking a late night stroll along this waterfront promenade (after crowds have dispersed following the skippable Symphony of Lights) and gazing at the futuristic skyline of Hong Kong Island. You can begin the walk around the colonial-era Clock Tower and continue past the Avenue of Stars and Cultural Centre, all the way to Hung Hom. It’s a great, leisurely way to end a long day in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Disneyland – We’re huge Disney fans, and Hong Kong Disneyland (HKDL) is one big reason we’ve visited Hong Kong so many times. The exceptional Mystic Manor is reason-enough for us to visit, but we also love Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, and a number of the park’s cloned attractions from Disneyland in California.
Thanks to its frequently low weekday crowd levels, HKDL is a place we recommend to those with only a casual interest in Disney who have more time to explore Hong Kong. This is especially true around Halloween, when HKDL has excellent seasonal entertainment. However, unlike Tokyo Disney Resort, which we recommend to everyone for its suberb thematic design and guest service, HKDL is skippable if you’re short on time or are indifferent (or worse) towards Disney. Click here to read our Hong Kong Disneyland Planning Guide.
Tian Tan Buddha – Coupled with the Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride and Po Lin Monastery, Tian Tan Buddha is a great option for a day on Lantau Island. This 34-meter bronze statue is perched atop a mountain in a stunning area, which is a major centre of Buddhism in Hong Kong, drawing tourists and religious pilgrims alike. Click here to read more about Tian Tan Buddha.
Victoria Peak – Our favorite thing to do in Hong Kong is head up to the top of the 1,811 feet tall Victoria Peak. Always offering beautiful views of the skyline and harbor below, on a clear day, you can see as far as the outlying islands around Hong Kong.
While we absolutely love Victoria Peak (it’s our favorite observation spot in the world) and consider it a must-visit when we’re in Hong Kong, there are several pitfalls that can make the experience frustrating. Be sure to read our Victoria Peak Info & Tips post before going so you know what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.
Macau – Although we don’t gamble and are not ‘cool’ enough to partake in the club scene, we found Macau to be a vibrant and fascinating place that is equal parts Las Vegas and traditional culture. It feels like even more of a melting pot than Hong Kong, and it’s absolutely worth spending a couple of nights here.
Just visiting all of these places would make for a full 3-day itinerary, and spacing them out with random exploring and plenty of eating could fill a week or longer.
We don’t have any recommended itineraries for Hong Kong (yet), but the compact nature of the city should make it fairly simple to put something together yourself. Just enter all of these locations into Google Maps (walking, multi-stop) and do them in a logical order with the MTR (or ferry, as applicable) used for the more far-flung places.
In our estimation, food is one of the best reasons to travel anywhere, and that’s especially true when it comes to Hong Kong. The city is renowned for its dim sum, but you’ll also find myriad other options as well. Highlights among these include congee, egg tarts & waffles, roast goose, chicken wings, and seafood. This just scratches the surface, as many of the city’s best restaurants are international fare, with French cuisine being particularly prominent.
Of everything, dim sum deserves special attention. Dim sum consists of snack-sized portions of pan-fried, deep-fried, and baked foods served in bamboo containers, intended to be eaten communally with tea. From chaotic and cramped spots crowded with locals to fine dining Cantonese restaurants located atop luxury hotels, Hong Kong offers a diverse array of options to try the city’s expansive range of dim sum dishes. Our favorite is Tim Ho Wan, which is the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world.
Then there’s street food. From stinky tofu to curry fish balls (we picked the two that sound the most appetizing as examples), there are no shortage of on-the-go foods to try in Hong Kong. Particularly in Kowloon, you’ll find no shortage of stalls, tents in markets, and quick service windows that serve inexpensive yet delicious food options.
Street food is great late at night, or during a packed day of touring when you don’t allocate time for a sit-down meal in a restaurant. Sarah is sometimes apprehensive about trying street foods as sometimes the cleanliness of the preparation area is suspect, but I’ve never gotten sick from street food in Hong Kong. (Knock on wood.)
On the other end of the spectrum from street food is Hong Kong’s haute cuisine. We have zero experience in this regard, but if you’re looking for drop a pretty penny on fine dining in Hong Kong, there are no shortage of options. We’d recommend consulting the Michelin Guide to Hong Kong and Macau, which features 227 restaurants in Hong Kong and 65 restaurants in Macau.
We don’t have sufficient experience eating in Hong Kong to offer specific recommendations, but we’ve had good success choosing from Eater’s 38 Essential Hong Kong Restaurants, consulting Google Reviews, or just choosing random hole-in-the-wall spots near wherever we are that look good. It’s tough to go wrong with the dining scene in Hong Kong–just avoid the touristy spots and places that are obviously Western chains.
What to Pack
Specific to Hong Kong, we note that since it is a jungle (or jungle-like, at the very least) environment, plan for hot weather. Things like Frogg Togg Chilly Pads will come in handy, as will moisture wicking clothing. We also highly recommend packing cubes or compression bags (I prefer the cubes) for organization.
You’ll also want to pack a Type G Power Adapter, as Hong Kong does not use the same power outlets and plugs as the United States. Many nicer hotel chains in Hong Kong will loan these to you free of charge, but unless you check with the hotel in advance, it’s best not to bank on this and instead pack your own.
In general, we would caution against overpacking. This is especially true if Hong Kong is one of many stops on your trip to Asia. Remember, Hong Kong is a world city, and you can purchase just about anything in Hong Kong that you’d be able to purchase at a convenience store in the United States. You can read more of our “carry-on philosophy” and which types of bags we use here.
Money – We strongly recommend having a credit card with no foreign transaction fees for any international travel and also carrying cash for emergencies (plus small merchants and taxis that may not accept credit cards), but we didn’t find ourselves using cash much in Hong Kong.
In the place of cash, we use the Octopus card. The entire island of Hong Kong has had the tap-to-pay system down since 1997. The Octopus card is accepted at convenience stores, supermarkets, museums, on all public transit–even at vending machines and McDonald’s, meaning you can even purchase pizza chips, melon soda, and Ebi Burger. (In other words, on all of the necessities.)
Internet – There are lots of options available for phones and internet in Hong Kong, with most the most common options being phone and SIM card rental. MiFi rental is also available, but doesn’t seem quite as common as elsewhere in Asia. We have T-Mobile now, which provides us with free international data (and works great in Hong Kong), but prior to that we relied heavily on WiFi hotspots.
Hong Kong has an impressive, free-for-visitors WiFi network. Rather than paying for anything, we have just used the free public WiFi when visiting Hong Kong. If this does not work for you, nearly every Starbucks Coffee, Pacific Coffee, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, and Circle K has its own WiFi network.
Language Barrier – By and large, you’ll encounter less of a language barrier in Hong Kong than other large Asian cities. Again, Hong Kong is a world business hub and an incredibly cosmopolitan city. If you’re staying at an international hotel chain on Hong Kong Island, there’s a 99% chance the staff will speak English.
Even on Kowloon, English is fairly common. While many Hongkongers are not conversational in English, most know enough for basic interactions. About the only situation that comes to mind when language has been an issue for us has been in taxis. Usually, the hotels at which we’ve stayed have provided cards with the address and name in Cantonese that we can hand to taxis to get us back to the hotel. In other situations, we were going to fairly prominent destinations (such as Victoria Peak) so our driver knew where we were headed.
I know this just begins to scratch the surface of planning for a trip to Hong Kong. Our goal is to provide information for planning a trip, and have that serve as a jumping off point with more thorough posts elaborating on certain topics to prevent it from being so long that it’s intimidating. I’ll update this guide to Hong Kong on a regular basis with links to new posts and new information, so rest assured that the information here is, and will be, current.
If you enjoyed our Hong Kong planning guide or found it useful, we’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave a comment below and/or share this post on social media via the sharing buttons below. We’ve put a lot of work into this, so we’d love for as many people to be able to use it as possible. Thanks for your support!
Have you been to Hong Kong? What did you think–do you agree that it’s a great “East Meets West” city? Planning a trip and have questions? If you’ve visited or are living in Hong Kong and have recommendations for restaurants, hotels, things to do–or any other tips of your own to add–please add them in the comments. (I might just borrow them for the guide itself.) Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts!
Thanks for your sharing, Tom! You must have a fun trip on Hong Kong Disneyland! It is so pity that Hong Kong Disneyland closed due to the Covid-19 virus but your tips in this guide is useful and I am fairly willing to visit it one day!
Quick question… to buy the octopus card, are credit card accepted or only cash? Is it the only “card” accpeted at MTR?
I’m really glad you were able to post a Hong Kong things to do guide! We spent a week in Hong Kong in late January and definitely took advantage of your previous posts regarding what things to avoid.
I absolutely agree with you that Hong Kong is light on ‘must-see’ tourist spots but was great for wandering and eating (Tim Ho Wan, Din Tai Fung, and Oddies were three of our favorites!).
Two of our unexpected highlights from the trip were the Happy Valley Racecourse and exploring Hong Kong University while we found much of the Kowloon side (minus the excellent history museum) to be too crowded and touristy.
Of course, the cherry on top of the trip was our two days at HKDL with the Lunar New Year decorations/characters out and especially our time at the Explorer Lodge – which is probably one of my favorite hotels anywhere in the world!
I think crowds in Hong Kong can be really hit or miss. I’m guessing that being there around Lunar New Year contributed to crowds in Kowloon. If you venture around Hong Kong Island around rush hour on a weekday, you might have a similar takeaway. By contrast, Kowloon is less crowded in the off-season, and HK Island is less crowded on weekends…so it’s largely a matter of timing. I’d say there are parts of each that are touristy, but Kowloon definitely has “worse” pockets of that.
That’s a good point – the time of year you visit can have such a huge impact in your perception of a place!
By the way, I saw your city rankings on your “Worldwide Disney Resort Complex Rankings” – if you have the time I think it would be really cool to see your top cities and/or top countries to visit rankings!
From experience I can confirm this is a great starting guide. We combined visits to Shanghai and Hong Kong last year, and found Shanghai to be even more impressive than Hong Kong nowadays. Still, both cities offer tons to do in terms of sights, food, shops, etc.
Love it. Never been to Hong Kong but am totally gonna use this guide whenever I plan my visit. One thing I know now is to avoid the summer months, which wasn’t a serious concern beforehand – thank you!
I mean, we don’t handle humidity well at all, so your mileage may vary on that one, but it’s the most miserable place I’ve ever visited in the summer. Like I said, I’d sooner do Death Valley (or Vegas, Palm Springs, etc.) in the summer.
Thank you. This is very helpful. I plan to do a Shanghai/Hong Kong trip sometime in the future.
Hong Kong is definitely a great option before or after Shanghai, particularly if you only plan on taking advantage of China’s 144-hour visa-exemption transit policy.