12 Things You Can Do in Hong Kong Without Breaking the Bank
Hong Kong has a reputation for being a break the bank experience, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When Expedia.com asked me to write a few tips about what has become one of my favorite cities in the world I was only too happy to share my experiences. When Sarah and I arrived in late October, Hong Kong was already beginning to put on its Christmas face. Christmas trees were going up in the malls, Christmas lights were going up in the neighborhoods and Christmas sale signs were being put in storefronts. It seems a bit strange, but Christmas, at least the more commercial aspects of it, has become very popular in Asian cultures.
Christmas Shopping: Hong Kong’s lack of import duties and sales tax make it rightfully famous as a shoppers Mecca; especially for affordable computers, camera equipment and other electronics. Although there are many choices, my favorite place to go to is the Wanchai’s Computer Centre, or as I like to call it, the nerd mall. Wanchai’s three floors of tightly packed shops can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming, and the sellers can sometimes be a little too aggressive, but it you go armed with a bit of knowledge and some patience you can walk out with some true deals. Sarah loved going to the outlets village on Lantau Island and the famous Ladies Market. Luckily, I was off to do my nerd mall stuff while she was doing her shopping.
Ride the Star Ferry: Even though you can easily cross quickly under Hong Kong’s famous Victoria Harbor on road and rail tunnels, there is something special about taking things slowly across the water, and watching the magnificent skylines of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon transform before your eyes. Established in 1888, the Star Ferry’s wooden boats have become an icon of the city that everyone should try at least once. At a cost of only about 32 U.S. cents, a ride on Star Ferry is one of the true bargains on Hong Kong and the best way to get a 360-degree view of one world’s most famous skylines.
Symphony of Lights Laser Light Show: Every night at 8PM the skyline around Victoria Harbor comes alive with a dance of laser beams, colored lights and searchlights all synchronized to music designed to celebrate the “energy, spirit and diversity” of Hong Kong. The light show show involves installations on over 40 buildings on both Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Guinness World Records says the the spectacle holds the record for “Most buildings in a permanent light and sound show.” It is impressive to watch, but for some reason I still can’t get the music they play out of my head.
Horse Racing: Another thing I didn’t think of when I think of Hong Kong is horse racing, but the city’s residents are obsessed. First built in 1845, Happy Valley Racecourse sits like an oasis of green among the towering skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. One of the most popular racecourses in the world where the tote from a single nights betting often exceeds a years take from horse racing track counterparts in the west. Racing usually takes place on Wednesdays from September to July and is clearly loved by the residents of Hong Kong. General admission is less than $2 USD, the food is quite reasonably priced by Hong Kong standards and there is an MTR stop nearby.
Hollywood / Antique Street: Construction of Hollywood Road was begun in 1844 near what was then Hong Kong Island’s coastline, but over the years numerous land reclamation projects now find Hollywood Road firmly place in the mid-levels. When it was more coastal, sailors, merchants and adventurers would stop to sell antiques and other artifacts they picked up on mainland China in the numerous shops that popped up in the area to assist them. The tradition continued and now the area is a trendy assortment of antiques shops, antique vendor stalls, coffee shops and fashionable restaurants.
Man Mo Temple: Built in 1847 Man Mo Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Hong Kong. Built by Taoists in the colonial period, the temple is an active temple often visited by worshipers and tourists alike. Dedicated to the gods of literature and war, the interior is quite striking with numerous bells, idols, and huge coils of burning incense hanging from the ceiling. Located on Hollywood Avenue in the heart of the mid-levels, the temple is easy to get to and a beautiful way to breakup the day walking on Antique Street and Hollywood Avenue.
The Peak: Offering what may be the best view of Hong Kong from the mountains above the city, The Peak has rightfully become one of the city’s most popular attractions. Just riding the rails on the rickety tramcars up the steep incline to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island, is a bit of a thrill. Once there you are confronted with a pretty standard shopping mall, several restaurants including a Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Co. and even a Madame Tussad’s Wax Museum, but you don’t come for that, you come for the view. On a clear day you have a vista looking over the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, the ships plying the waters of Victoria Harbor and in the distance, the hills of the New Territories. Although it is worth the price, it is a bit annoying to make your way to The Peak only to find that many of the views in the mall are obstructed and, for the best views, you have to pay and additional $6 USD per person to go to the observation deck on the top floor. For a different experience, visit The Peak at night when the crowds are down, but you can still enjoy the improbably beautiful skyline.
Happy Hour: The options seem almost infinite, but having a drink in Hong Kong can be ruinously expensive. However, if you are flexible you can have some libations while enjoying Hong Kong’s legendary happy hour scene, without killing your budget. One of my favorites is Eye Bar on Kowloon, on the 30th floor of the iSquare building, overlooking Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong Island. The half-price beer and bar snacks are great and if you time it right you can catch the Symphony of Lights laser light show from you own table overlooking the skyline. Another favorite is the Pier Bar located on the Hong Kong Island waterfront at Pier 3. Don’t expect anything fancy, but it is yet another great place to people watch and see the comings and goings of the ferries.
Street Food on Kowloon: Hong Kong is a city almost as well known for its cuisine as for its skyline and, for me, there is no place better for local food than the stalls, known locally as “dai pai dong”, and informal sidewalk restaurants along Temple Street on Kowloon during the night market. The crowds and aroma of garlic scallops, chili crab, Clay hot-pot rice and various other street delicacies will guide you by nose to your proper restaurant. If street food is not to your liking, there is nearby a variety of noodle shops and places just to sit, have a cold drink and watch the crowds.
Lantau Island: Only an hour’s ferry ride away from Central Pier to the former fishing village of Mui Wo, but seemingly a world away, Lantau Island is another great option for those looking to see a different side of Hong Kong. With a relatively low population density compared to Hong Kong Island, Lantau offers some beautiful hikes, relatively quiet beaches and an almost small town feel. There are also a number of inexpensive, yet delicious, dining options at the various “mom and pop” restaurants on the island. You wouldn’t know it coming from the ferry side, but Lantau is also home to 85-foot high bronze Tian Tan “Giant” Buddha, Hong Kong International Airport and Hong Kong Disneyland.
Sai Kung Seafood Street: Away from Central Hong Kong, but easy to get to via the MTR and a short minivan ride, “Seafood Street”, in the slightly scruffy waterfront neighborhood of Sai Kung, is well worth traveling to. Walk along the main street and you will see restaurant after restaurant filled with huge glass tanks brimming with live lobster, fish, crabs and a variety of shellfish, some of which I had never seen before. Along the waterfront fishermen hawk their daily catch live from tiny boats tied to the quay and pass their sales via ropes to excited gourmands watching from above. It is a scene reminiscent of old Hong Kong and well worth taking the time to explore a bit and having one of the freshest seafood meals you can ever enjoy.
Get Out and Do Some Hiking: When you think of Hong Kong, hiking is not one of the first things to come to mind, but with almost three-quarters of the island made up of undeveloped spaces and park protecting 40% of the land, if you are an enthusiast, walking some of the hundreds of kilometers of trails is a great way to get some exercise and see a different side of the territory. Although you can choose from beach walks, forest walks and village walks, the undulating 8.5km hike along “Dragon’s Back”, what many call the world’s best urban walk, is among the best. That the trailhead is only a few minutes from Central makes seeing this side of Hong Kong doable even for those with limited time.
Get an Octopus Card: With an Octopus card — a reusable, contactless, stored value smart card –there is no need to wait in line to purchase fare on public transportation. Simply scan your card on the reader before entering the MTR, busses, trams or even the Star Ferry and be on your way. To get an Octopus Card card go to any MTR Customer Service Center, put down a small deposit, and “top it up” with however much value you think you might need. It only takes minutes and, once you get the hang of it, you will be moving on Hong Kong’s transportation system like a local. Don’t worry about putting too much money on the card; any value left on can be refunded at MTR Service Centers before you leave.
Pick the right location: Even though getting around the city is simple, where you stay in Hong Kong is important. All neighborhoods have their own distinct feel, but my favorite is the Central District right on Hong Kong Island. From our hotel, the high-rise Shama Central Serviced Apartments, we could walk three minutes one way and be in the very upscale SoHo District surrounded by swanky restaurants, shops and bars. Or we could walk the other way and be immersed in all the confusion and excitement of local shops and cheap and delicious food stalls. It was nice to have a place close to the action where we could decompress and look at the skyline. Another advantage was we could avoid the hills and take the worlds longest escalator almost to our door.
Get A SIM for Your Smart Phone: After arrival at Hong Kong International, but before leaving the airport, pick up a free iSim card and get free phone calls and 3G service for your smart phone. The people at the airport iSim counter with help you install your card into your phone and walk you through the simple process of using it. The only catch is that in order to keep your balance up, you have to view a few advertisements on your screen from time to time. It is an easy process and only takes a few minutes to have free text, data and phone service. After doing it a few times I could fill my balance up without even looking at the phone.