Welcome to our Weekend Getaway series! While it’s our preference to discover a country slowly and thoroughly, realistically time often only allows for a long weekend of exploring. Each week we’ll focus on a different city and highlight how to get the most out of a 2-4 day stay. Sometimes we write about the city ourselves, while other times we’ll have awesome guest bloggers giving us the low-down.
If you’re interested in guest blogging on this series, shoot us an email!
Welcome! Tell us a little bit about yourself (don’t be shy), your blog and where you’re currently traveling.
Nǐ hǎo! We are Braden and Alison – newlyweds, Vancouverites and Canadian transplants to Hong Kong. Braden is in retail finance and his company transferred him here on a two year contract (amazing!); I’m working as an interior designer. We are embracing the adventure and immersing ourselves in Hong Kong life; there’s no better way to get to know a city than live there. On the weekends we’re getting out of our 440 sq ft apartment, taking advantage of Hong Kong’s proximity to many popular destinations in Asia, and exploring as much as possible. You can find us at A Life Shift where we document our experience relocating to Asia, life shift to living and working in Hong Kong, and adventures beyond.
What makes Hong Kong a good place for a weekend getaway?
Hong Kong is the gateway to Asia for many travelers arriving from North America (and elsewhere). While a weekend getaway may seem impossible, a layover in Hong Kong enroute to another Asia Pacific destination would be worth considering. Hong Kong is very easy to navigate (there are English signs everywhere, and many people speak English) and it is an incredibly diverse city.
What’s the best way to travel here?
If you’re coming to Asia there’s a good chance you’re flying in to Hong Kong International Airport for a layover or as your destination. The airport is on an island outside the city, and the easiest way to get to the city is to take the train. The train has only a couple stops: Kowloon, which is on the mainland, and Central, which is Hong Kong Island. You can always take a taxi, but traffic can get crazy. The train will guarantee your arrival to the city in 30min, and less to Kowloon.
Take a look at a map to understand the landforms a bit. Part of Hong Kong, known as “the Kowloon side” is part of Mainland China. Kowloon is, generally, a more “local” experience with markets and malls. Hong Kong Island, also part of Hong Kong and an actual island, is where the central business district is, as well as the hub for expats in Central. I find it confusing, but Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Region of China, meaning it is an autonomous territory, a very unique political situation.
Public transportation: Is it available in this city, and is it easy to navigate?
Over 90% of daily transportation journeys in Hong Kong are via rapid transit, the highest rate in the world. I think taking transit, especially the MTR (Mass Transit Railway), is part of the Hong Kong experience and a “must do” when you’re visiting. It’s part of Hong Kong life! The system is incredibly advanced but easy to navigate because of very clear signage and way-finding. Other transit options include buses, mini buses and street cars (another personal favourite). The street cars aren’t quick, but they’re a fun way to see the sites and have another local experience, as they are a throwback to the days of British influence. Lastly, what’s more public than walking? Put on a comfy pair of shoes and hit the sidewalk. There is SO MUCH to see and experience as you walk down the street. Just remember to look the “other” way when crossing the street. Cars won’t yield to pedestrians here! You can always escape to the air conditioned MTR if you get too hot.
Tip: if you’re planning to use transit, get an Octopus card. You can get them at a 7-Eleven, load them with money, and take them with you everywhere. You scan it to get in to the station, ride to your destination, then scan to get out; your fare is deducted automatically. Bonus: you can also use it to pay in many shops, which helps to reduce the random change that will end up filling your pockets.
What is the typical cost of a taxi to get from one side of town to the other?
Taxis are a very reasonable price. The minimum fare starts at 22HKD, or around $2.85USD. You could spend 100HKD and go from downtown to the beach on the other side of the island.
Tip: Hong Kong taxis laws state that no driver may refuse a passenger’s request for any destination. They also MUST use their meter – fixed fees are not allowed. Don’t get suckered in to paying anything not on the meter. That being said, suitcases / boxes in the trunk will be charged 5HKD per bag.
Do you have any recommendations on a luxury or boutique hotel in the area?
If money were no object, I would stay at the Ritz Carlton, which is in the upper floors of the tallest building in Hong Kong with fabulous views of Hong Kong Island.
How about those looking for a more budget friendly option?
Hong Kong is expensive; there’s no way around it. Space is absolutely at a premium, as demonstrated by the extreme verticality of architecture everywhere. Hong Kong is notoriously pricey, and accommodations are no exception. We are big fans of Priceline, so I would just choose the neighbourhood you want to stay in (neighbourhood names generally correspond to the MTR stations) and try to find a deal. If you are staying on the Kowloon side, I would choose Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) because it is close to the malls and interesting sightseeing areas. On Hong Kong Island, I would choose Central (close to the main mall, IFC and party area, Lan Kwai Fong (LKF). A bit more of a ‘local’ experience is Wan Chai (personal bias: that’s where we live!)
One of our favorite things to do while exploring a new city is to take part in the outdoors scene. What are some adventure and/or outdoors activities (such as hiking, biking, waterfall rappelling, skiing, skydiving, etc.) to enjoy here?
Something a lot of people don’t realize about Hong Kong is over 2/3 of the land is greenspace! There are a lot of options for spending time outside hiking and exploring. A favourite destination is Ngong Ping (Big Buddha) on Lantau Island. It’s best to go early in the morning before it gets super busy and packed with tourists. Depending on the weather and how you’re feeling, you can take the tram up or hike if you’re ambitious.
We also enjoy heading to Stanley Beach for water activities. You can rent paddleboards, kayaks, etc or just lie on the sand and enjoy the tropical-feeling beach that feels like you’re a million miles from a bustling metropolis of 7 million.
Are there any local entertainment events that we should know about when planning a trip to Hong Kong (such as South By South West in Austin, a Football match in England, or running with the bulls in Spain)?
Chinese New Year sounds like it would be a good time to visit, but in reality the city is very quiet as everyone is spending time with family or taking advantage of the time off to vacation. There isn’t a lot going on, many shops and restaurants are closed, and flights out of Hong Kong are expensive!
Horse racing is very popular in Hong Kong, and you can visit the Happy Valley Racetrack, which is in the middle of the city, for a fun night out. Check the schedule, as racing is suspended in summer time due to the heat. It cost 10HKD to get in, there’s food and drink to eat, bets to be placed, cheering to be done, and much fun to be had. It’s a bit unreal to be in the middle of the city, surrounded by sky scrapers, and watching horses race by. And winning a couple HKD with your bet on Sparkling Sword or Little Fantasy doesn’t hurt! (Disclaimer: we didn’t win any bets, but the horse’s names are real!)
Where should we go if we want to blend in with the locals?
Check out the markets. They are awesome for people watching and getting a feel for the culture, and you can purchase all sorts of interesting stuff (touristy and otherwise) at the market. Haggling over price is acceptable, so you can come away with some great deals! You can read about our experiences at local markets here.
Let’s talk about an important aspect of travel: Food. What are your absolute favorite restaurants in the area?
There are so many restaurant options here, it’s ridiculous. You can find anything you could possibly crave in Hong Kong – and it’s good! Prices vary wildly, so you will want to choose depending on your budget; I find it helpful that most places have a menu on display outside. Check out a cross-section of experiences from our forays eating out here and here on our blog.
What’s one local dish you’d recommend someone to try while they’re here?
Try Dim Sum! It’s not scary, I promise, and it’s a fun way to try a variety of tasty bites; dishes are small portions and intended for sharing. There are plenty of choices (we use TripAdvisor to find a good option close by) but one specific recommendation is Tim Ho Wan, a famous dim sum restaurant, and the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world. Even for the pickiest eaters, I think you will find something you like. It’s delicious!
We’re from the US where waiters and waitresses make a living solely from tips. What is the tipping etiquette in Hong Kong?
Local etiquette says: no tipping. However, I find this applies to very local restaurants only. More western restaurants, or restaurants in more gentrified areas of town, typically add a 10% service charge to the bill. There is no expectation to tip on top of that unless you feel you received exceptional service. If you pay cash and receive a few coins as change, it is common to leave those behind. Some restaurants do not add the 10% service charge and will state on the bill “no service charge”. This is an indication that a tip would be appreciated, as none was added by the establishment.
If we’re craving a night out on the town, what are some cool local spots we should check out?
Head to Lan Kwai Fung (LKF). These few blocks in the Central neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island are absolutely the party destination in Hong Kong. It’s noisy, FULL of people, and provides amazing people watching in addition to a good time. Any bar will serve up a cold drink and lots of fun, but with so many people spilling out on to the pedestrian-only streets, our preference is to grab a cold beer at Club 7-1-1 (aka 7-Eleven, haha!) and take a walk around. It’s legal to carry an open beverage on the streets in Hong Kong and the drinking age here is 18.
Anything we should know about the local culture and customs (so you don’t offend people, or get offended by something!)
It is considered polite to hand your money, be it cash or a credit card, to a cashier with two hands. I am still trying to remember to do this!
What is the currency here and how much would a typical pint of beer cost?
You’ll be spending Hong Kong dollars when you’re here. The approximate (current) conversion is 7.75HKD to $1USD. This is a tricky conversion, so I generally create a couple benchmarks so I know what prices roughly convert to. For example, 75HKD is approximately $10USD, 150HKD is around $20USD, etc. Having those baselines in the back of your mind makes it easier to quickly assess how much something costs.
Depending on where you go, a beer in a bar is around 90HKD. We are fans of the afternoon Happy Hour special, where you can often get two for one. 7-Eleven is always a solid option, where a tall can of beer will cost around 15HKD.
Where should we go for the city’s best photo op?
A great option is to head over Kowloon (take the Star Ferry for a scenic trip across the water) to the Avenue of the Stars for a view of Hong Kong Island. It is especially nice at dusk when the all of the building’s exterior lights are starting to come on. There is also a light show in this area, but we feel it’s overrated!
Another option is to hike or take the tram up the hill to the top of The Peak. At the top you will be treated to a fantastic view of the city. This is a quintessential Hong Kong experience and worth seeing, especially if it’s a clear day.
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Jimmie & Shelly