A vertical playground on the South China Sea
There is truly no modern city more beautiful and exciting than Hong Kong: its skyline is a vertical playground of steel and glass skyscrapers – including landmark buildings by I.M. Pei, Sir Norman Foster and Cesar Pelli – iced in a rainbow of neon lights and silhouetted against towering green mountain peaks. Cutting through the centre is Victoria Harbour, criss-crossed with tiny wooden sampans, busy commuter ferries and container-laden super-ships, a daily reminder of Hong Kong's rich seafaring heritage. West of the scene lies the shimmering South China Sea, sweeping out into the far distance past inky outlying islands – remnants of the city’s previous incarnation as a backwater fishing village less than a century ago.
Visitors will find everything they could possibly want from a city break at their fingertips – dazzling architecture, fantastic food, excellent shopping and banging nightlife. Be sure to sleep on the flight over: you’ll need all the energy you can muster to check off all the sights.
Hot right now . . .
Lee Cobaj, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and the best places to eat and drink this season.
The Peak Tram, which travels from Cotton Tree Drive to the 1,300 foot pinnacle of Victoria Peak, at a disorientating gradient of 27 degrees in parts, began service in 1888 and remains to this day Hong Kong's most impressive attraction. The only drawbacks lately have been the queues; now remedied by a new crowd-friendly lower terminal; and the lack of anywhere exciting to eat or drink at the summit, also recently resolved by the arrival of Rajasthan Rifles (118 Peak Road; 00 852 2388 8874), a delightful play on an Anglo-Indian mess hall, serving moreish mulligatawny soup, slow-cooked mutton with milk buns and paneer tandoor.
The brain boxes behind the 2019 winner of Asia's 50 Best Bars, The Old Man, have opened a second dinky drinkery on one of Sheung Wan's quieter side streets. Like the original, The Sea (2 Po Yan Street; 00 852 2307 0030) takes its inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, with interiors resembling a dark sexy sail boat, Cuban photography, an H-shaped bar and a smoking Motown soundtrack. The concise menu offers 10 cocktails, and although unconventional – seaweed gin and fermented pineapple soda; Dashi vodka and rectified mango sticky rice; whisky, sherry, peanut milk rum and kombucha – each slips down like amber nectar.
Michelin star chef Julien Royer made a name for himself by wowing the insanely competitive Singapore food scene with Odette in 2015. Now he's come to Hong Kong, opening Louise (PMQ, 35 Aberdeen Street; 00 852 2866 0300) inside PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters, one of Hong Kong's few listed buildings. French, but far from pretentious, the menu doesn't bend to gimmicks or trends, instead focussing on doing rural French cuisine exceptionally well. Kick off with a drink downstairs at the jade-green bar (charcuterie and pasties are also available here in the afternoon), before sauntering upstairs for hearty portions of pâté en croûte, roast yellow chicken with rice en cocotte and vanilla mille-fueille with salted caramel ice cream.
48 hours in . . . Hong Kong
Victoria Peak, the viewpoint where you get those astonishing mountain, harbour and skyscraper forest views, is Hong Kong's number one attraction and – blue skies permitting – where you should start your day. The most popular way to reach the top is on the 130-year-old Peak Tram (00 852 2522 0922), which costs £3.50 one-way. However, the only way to beat the crowds is to get there for its opening at 7am – otherwise, you're looking at a one- to two-hour wait. If the queue for the Peak Tram is unbearably long, take City Bus 15 from Central Harbour Pier 5 instead. It's not quite as impressive as the tram, but it does have sensational views of the city and the harbour.
Loop the summit, snap those selfies and then walk one hour back downhill via the leafy and generally empty Central Green Trail. Refuel with a dim sum lunch at the atmospheric Luk Yu Tea House (24-26 Stanley Street; 00 852 2523 5464). Order the steamed fried prawn toast, beef balls with tangerine skin, roast duck and chestnut pie, and a pot of jasmine tea.
Post-feasting, walk five-minutes to Tai Kwun (10 Hollywood Road, Central; 00 852 3559 2600), Hong Kong's beautiful arts and heritage centre in a former police station and prison. Spend a couple of hours exploring its galleries, interactive displays, rotating exhibitions and 'contemplation' cells. It's advisable to book a pass and time slot online beforehand.
Stop for a refresher on the verandah at the fabulous Madame Fu (00 852 2114 2118), which occupies the top floors of the Barrack's Block and has gorgeous views of the complex's rooftops framed between skyscrapers.
Next, walk along Hollywood Road to Man Mo Temple (124-126 Hollywood Road, Central; 00 852 2540 0350), one of the oldest and most photogenic temples in Hong Kong – think fearsome gods, fruit-laden altars and giant swirls of incense. Admission is free, but if you want to know whether you're going to bag that new job, pay rise or love interest, you can ask for an appointment with English-speaking fortune teller Harmung, on the right-hand side of the complex.
Afterwards, head downhill along Cat Street (known for its knock-off antiques, Chinese curios and trinkets) and into the higgledy-piggledy streets of Sheung Wan, where you can jump on one of Hong Kong's double-decker tramsand sway back through the concrete and glass city centre.
Splash out on an early dinner at Café Gray Deluxe (49/F, The Upper House, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty; 00 852 3968 1106). It's one of the hottest tables in town, with a smart contemporary European menu – featuring dishes such as steak tartare with Kunz ketjap, seared halibut with saffron emulsion and lemon posset – complemented by a hip crowd and sparkling city views.
At 8pm, crowds heave along the waterfront to ogle the nightly Symphony of Lights, a pulsing, shimmering, flashing sound and light show illuminating 44 buildings on both sides of the harbour – but you're going to très stylish rooftop bar Sevva (10 Chater Road, Central; 00 852 2537 1388) for up-close views of some of Hong Kong's most recognisable architecture with a drink in hand.
You're now perfectly placed for a night on the tiles; hit Please Don't Tell (Landmark Mandarin Oriental; 00 852 2132 0110), a secret snug hidden behind a vintage telephone box, andThe Quinary(56-58 Hollywood Road, Central; 00 852 2851 2272), which takes a scientific approach to alcohol, ending the night atThe Old Man (Lower G/F, 37-39 Aberdeen Street, Central; 00 852 2703 1899), a chic shoebox where the city's bartenders go for perfectly executed cocktails at the end of their shift.
Eat breakfast on the hop with with Hong Kong Foodie Tours (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat, 9.15am; £75) on a morning whirl around Sham Shui Po, an old-school neighbourhood packed with colourful 1960s architecture; vibrant street markets hawking material, buttons and zips; and generations-old restaurants.
Wear comfortable shoes and an elasticated waistband; the tour spans three and a half hours with pits stops at six traditional breakfast stores, including a cha chaan teng (Hong Kong-style café), where you can chow down on the best local breakfast dish – French toast with peanut butter and condensed milk.
Time to shop, shop, shop. Take the MTR metro to Mong Kok, one of the most densely populated corners of the world and home to mile-long Ladies Market (Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok), where you'll find everything from ‘I heart Hong Kong’ T-shirts to silk pyjamas and painted fans, to handbags (leather, silk, faux and fake), Hello Kitty cuddly toys and unicorn hair extensions. Bargaining is expected here and canny hagglers should be able to knock 25 to 50 per cent off the initial asking price.
From here, you can either hop back on the MTR to Tsim Sha Tsui or walk down neon-drenched Nathan Road, hitting all the tax-free shopping malls until you reach the old Clock Tower, which graces the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. Facing forward is the harbour and futuristic Hong Kong cityscape; behind, The Peninsula Hotel(Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; 00 852 2920 2888), Hong Kong's 90-year old grande dame. Take afternoon tea in the gilded, palm-flecked lobby, accompanied by a live string quartet.
Start your evening in style at Ozone, one of the highest bars in the world, in the Ritz-Carlton hotel (International Commerce Centre, 1 Austin Road, West Kowloon; 00 852 2263 2263). Although it's more popular as a nightspot, the best time to visit is at sunset, when it's less noisy; you can sit in comfort watching the sun sinking into the South China Sea, turning the harbour to molten bronze and burnishing the city gold.
The Star Ferry is one of the world's finest forms of public transport, shuttling commuters across Victoria Harbour for the last century. Grab a seat on the upper deck and ride back over to Hong Kong Island (there are ferries going to Central or Wan Chai). Take a short taxi ride to Din Tai Fung (68 Yee Wo Street, Causeway Bay; 00 852 3160 8998) for a fabulous farewell dinner of xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), garlic freshwater shrimp, and Sichuan noodles with pork in sesame and peanut sauce.
Where to stay . . .
The Mandarin Oriental has been at the heart of Hong Kong, both socially and geographically, since 1963. With its faultless service, fantastic location, effervescent atmosphere, superb spa and some of the most gorgeous dining rooms in Asia, it channels the city's glamorous past and present like no other.
Doubles from HK$4,000 (£378); 5 Connaught Road, Central; 00 852 2522 0111
The city needs more accommodations like Hotel ICON – a well-designed, well-run and well-located hotel at a decent price. It’s owned by Hong Kong Polytechnic University; and benefits the local hotel industry by providing training for a school of hotel and tourism management. Around 80 percent of the bright, unfussy rooms have great views of the harbour.
Doubles from HK$2,000 (£193); 17 Science Museum Road, Kowloon; 00 852 3400 1000
Lovers of minimalism will appreciate TUVE, a highly stylised hotel that feels like a destination for frequent travellers in the know, with a slightly futuristic, slightly industrial feel. It’s a short hop away from the heart of Causeway Bay, a shopping haven for locals and tourists.
Rooms from HK $1,300 (£127); 16 Tsing Fung Street, Causeway Bay; 00 852 3995 8899
What to bring home . . .
Hong Kong's tailors might not be as cheap as they used to be, but the quality is still world-class. For well-made, pleasingly-priced, made-to-measure shirts and suits, try Dapper Tailor (G/F, 54-A Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; 00 852 6897 3702). You can buy a bespoke shirt from £43.
When to go . . .
Traditionally, the best time to visit Hong Kong has always been the cooler, dry season from October to January, when the winds change direction and come from the north. Nowadays, unfortunately, they’re also bringing down pollution from mainland China: there are days when you literally can’t see across the harbour. That’s when the Hong Kong government issues its pollution warnings and advises the elderly and children to stay inside.
In the summer, the winds are south westerlies and, unless there’s a typhoon off the coast, the air is much clearer. That’s when your pin-sharp, postcard photos are taken. Hong Kong’s summers are also when lots of expats leave and the city feels unexpectedly spacious, but they are exceedingly humid and getting hotter. If you can bear the heat of July and August and don’t mind torrential downpours, however, it’s an excellent time to find hotel bargains and see those stunning sunsets.
Be aware of China's major holidays or 'golden weeks': Lunar New Year, the first week of May and the first week of October. Tourist attractions will be extra crowded at these times.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate-General: 1, Supreme Court Road, Admiralty, Hong Kong; 00 852 2901 3000; gov.uk
Foreign Office travel advice: gov.uk
Emergency (police/fire/ambulance): 999
Hong Kong Tourism Board: 00 852 2508 1234; discoverhongkong.com
Currency: Hong Kong dollar which, since 1983, has been pegged to the US dollar at a rate of US$1 = HK$7.8
Dialing code: 00 852
Time difference: Hong Kong is eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and seven hours ahead of British Summer Time
Flight time: about 12 hours from London (about 13 hours going back)
Hong Kong’s weather can be volatile. Keep an eye on the Observatory’s excellent website hko.gov.hk, which tracks typhoons and rainstorms. Bring warm layers for all seasons. Hong Kong may be subtropical but it gets chilly in January and February, and the air-conditioning in malls and restaurants is freezing in summer.
After 1997, Hong Kong officially became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. British passport holders can stay in the SAR for 90 days without a visa but are not allowed to work. If, however, you’re planning to cross the border into the rest of China (apart from Macau, the other SAR), you must have a visa. China has a visa office in Hong Kong. Check details on fmcoprc.gov.hk/eng.
Local laws, etiquette and tips
• Smoking is banned in all public places, which includes beaches and parks.
• Tipping isn’t a huge deal in Hong Kong – in taxis, for example, you can just round up the fare – except in restaurants, where it’s customary to add a further five per cent to the bill. 'Service charges', scandalously, tend not to go to servers.
• When planning trips on ferries or to popular sights, it's worth checking the Hong Kong Government Gazette to try and avoid travelling on public holidays.
• If you have a cold, it’s considered polite, but not obligatory, to wear a facemask so don’t be alarmed by their ubiquity in winter. Cough etiquette hints are posted on some of the buses and hand sanitisers are available in the shopping malls.
• Even if you’re not on business, there’s probably going to be an occasion when someone will produce a name card. Receive it with both hands, read it and treat it respectfully. In the same way, when you’re handing over a credit card, it’s polite to use both hands.
• English is not as widely spoken as you might expect in a former British colony. Always carry the Chinese address of where you’re staying and where you’re going.
• Be aware of the concept of 'face'. Don’t persist, for example, in asking directions from someone who is clearly not at ease with English. And try not to ask questions (e.g. "Is this the way to the Star Ferry?") which can be answered by 'Yes' or 'No'. People wishing to save your face will say 'Yes', whether or not that’s right.
Glasgow-born Lee was raised in Hong Kong and takes her role as local expert very seriously, avidly researching the latest restaurants, coolest new cocktail bars and most relaxing foot massages in town for your entertainment pleasure.
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