Hong Kong may be a small area, but it sure does pack a lot into the space it has! While most people think of the Harbour skyline and the densely packed skyscrapers – which is not an incorrect image! – Hong Kong has so much more to offer than that. Although officially part of China, it governs itself as an SAR, and is very different to the mainland, though you’ll still find similarities. It’s also a very international, Western influenced country, more so than many other places in Asia.It is a city of east meets west, old meets new, and urban meets rural. You could be sipping cocktails in a luxurious rooftop bar in Central one evening, and hiking across hills to remote beaches the next morning. As a former expat who lived in the city for almost 2 years, I’ve seen so many different corners of Hong Kong, so narrowing down the best sightseeing was no easy task. However, here is a guide for people visiting the city for the first time, with limited time available – these are the top 5 sightseeing opportunities to check out.
1) The Peak
The Peak is at number one on nearly every list of Hong Kong sightseeing, but for good reason. It offers some of the best views over Victoria Harbour, and is one of the few locations that allows you to see the skylines on both sides of the water. As the highest hill on the Island, The Peak (officially named Victoria Peak) has long been a popular destination, for locals and tourists alike – owning a property on its slopes will set you back a few million! The Peak can be reached by tram (which includes a ticket to The Peak Tower rooftop), bus, or by walking, for those keen for a moderate hike. There’s a shopping complex at the top, as well as Hong Kong’s Madame Tussaud’s, or you can explore the Circle Walk, a 45 minute pathway around the hilltop, giving you views to the south of the Island, and all the way along the west end of the Harbour – I highly recommend doing this at sunset, when the often smoggy air takes on a brilliant pink hue over the city.
2) Star Ferry and Victoria Harbour
Victoria Harbour is the heart of the city, and no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without sailing its waters. Yes, the MTR underneath it is often more convenient, but then you lose out on those incredible views! The Star Ferry is the cheapest method of crossing, and only takes about 5 minutes, and it’s been in operation for more than 100 years, making it a iconic part of Hong Kong’s culture. Sailing in either direction will provide great views, but taking it at night is the most spectacular time, with all the buildings lit up. Star Ferry also offers longer tours around the Harbour, with commentary on board. If boats really aren’t for you, at least head down to Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade for unrivalled views of the Central skyline – which comes to life in a free light and sound show every night at 8pm! You could easily while away some time just watching the boats passing through the harbour, even spotting a red sailed traditional junk boat if you’re lucky. The Promenade is a popular location to just hang out, listen to the many buskers there, and maybe have a drink on a warm evening.
3) Nan Lian Gardens
Hong Kong has no shortage of places of worship for every major religion – it’s far more diverse than mainland China in that respect – but if it’s Chinese or Buddhist temples you want to see, Nan Lian Gardens should be on your to-do list. The Gardens are a quiet escape in the middle of this big, bustling, crowded city, and it’s quite a surreal experience to roam amongst the trees and the calm, having just come from the streets. Attached to the Gardens, is Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist temple and nunnery, designed in perfect symmetry of course, with lotus ponds in the courtyard, and one of the most stunning golden Buddha statues you’ll find in the city. The Chinese temples are usually small, busy, noisy, and filled with incense, while a Buddhist temple like this, is still and quiet and calm. This is definitely one of Hong Kong’s striking contrasts on show!
4) The Big Buddha
This is probably the most advertised sightseeing location in Hong Kong after The Peak, and is pretty spectacular too. Located on Lantau Island (also the location of the airport and Disneyland), you’ll likely have to catch the MTR out there to Tung Chung first. Then most people opt to take the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, an attraction in its own right, as you ride high over the mountains, taking in stunning views of Lantau, before reaching Ngong Ping village at the top. For those a bit wary of heights, there’s also the option of a bus! Ngong Ping is a small village of shops and cafes mainly, leading you towards the main attraction, the Big Buddha. Perched on the hilltop, this is the largest outdoor, seated, bronze Buddha in the world. It’s hilltop location makes it even more impressive, and you’ll have to hike up around 200 stairs if you want a closer look. On a clear day, there are ocean views from up here too. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the Po Lin Monastery too, where your jaw will surely drop when you see the Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas – all of them golden, and all of them incredible! There’s a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant here too, which is highly recommended if you haven’t already eaten in the village.
5) Stanley and Repulse Bay
If you’re seeking a break from the fast-paced, crowded city life in Central, head to the south side of Hong Kong Island. Here you’ll still find some pretty luxurious living spaces, but they’re surrounded by hills and breathtaking ocean views. The south side is gorgeous, especially on a sunny day, so head for Stanley, an easy day trip on a bus. Stanley Market is one of the largest permanent markets in Hong Kong, and has some of the nicest wares, including beautiful paintings and quirky trinkets, as well as the usual cheap knock-offs you’ll find across the city. There’s plenty of pubs and restaurants along the waterfront, with views of the colonial Blake Pier and Murray House. Stanley is also the location of the Dragon Boat racing Competition, held every year in June, and is a local festival and public holiday. If you’re eager for some beach time, you’ll pass Repulse Bay on the road to Stanley, a wide stretch of white sand, backed by luxurious apartments and hotels (the building with the hole in the middle is to let the dragons fly through, according to feng shui!). It can get busy here at the weekends, but is one of the most easily accessible beaches from the city.
So whether you want to shop and party in Central, take in local markets and temples in Kowloon, or get out of the city and on to the beaches and hills of the south side or the New Territories, Hong Kong has something for everyone. These attractions are merely suggestions to get you started – a little research into the city, and you’ll find dozens of other options to suit your own interests and travelling style!