Hong Kong is a place like no other, defined by its Chinese heritage but molded by its British colonial past. Founded as a place to make money and running fast and furiously ever since, it’s a land of astounding contradictions. Skyscrapers tower over old temples, high-end shopping malls sit next to street markets selling handbags and live seafood. Trams rumble clackity-clack through Central while underground one of the most efficient subway systems in the world dispenses passengers from around China.
One of Asia’s most sophisticated cities, renowned for its luxury hotels and designer boutiques, but it’s also one of the most densely populated places on earth, with much of the population crammed into tenements and tiny apartments. And while most people associate Hong Kong with its famous harbor, the iconic Star Ferry and neon-emblazoned streets, this former colony is much more than a city, with vast undeveloped regions even on Hong Kong Island and stretching through the New Territories, much of them preserved in parks and marked by hiking trails. In short, there’s something for everyone in Hong Kong, whether you’re an historian, a shopper, a kid, a foodie, an outdoor enthusiast, a museum nut or simply an explorer. I’m pretty much all of those, which means in Hong Kong I never get enough sleep.
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My love affair with Hong Kong began more than 30 years ago, when I decided that eating dim sum for breakfast, catching the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour, shopping for bargains at Stanley Market, and winding down the day with happy hour at a British pub was decidedly my cup of tea. As the author of Frommer’s Hong Kong for almost 30 years, I know which museum is best for short-time visitors (Hong Kong Museum of History), which theme park is best for kids or kids at heart (Ocean Park), and which mall is best for bargain seekers (Citygate). Everyone should try dim sum for breakfast, ride the Star Ferry and go to The Peak (but only on clear days), but equally fun is the Ping Shan Heritage Trail or the uphill slog to the Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas, both in the New Territories.
You can definitely eat your way through Hong Kong on some of the best Chinese food you’ll have anywhere, but there are also bargain-priced buffet spreads, open-air seafood restaurants and high-brow eateries with stunning panoramas of the harbor. And what would be a visit to Hong Kong without experiencing the madness of nightlife district Lan Kwai Fong or the hip bars and ethnic restaurants of SoHo? There’s also that great legacy left by the former colonizers, the British pub, especially the happy-hour drink specials that can stretch on for hours.
There’s so much to do, first-timers are likely to react like deer caught in the headlights. If you’re like me, you’ll be back. And if you don’t get enough sleep, at least you’ve been warned.
The tourism season in Hong Kong lasts year-round. That means advance hotel reservations are pretty much a must, especially if your budget is for a mid-range-priced hotel. Most long-haul visitors combine visits to Hong Kong with other destinations like Shanghai or places farther afield. If Hong Kong is a stopover, you can see quite a bit of the former colony in two full days, but staying a week would be ideal. On the other hand, many Chinese mainlanders come in droves just for the day, with often only one thing on their agenda–shopping.
The busiest times of the year for Hong Kong are during Chinese New Year or one of its major festivals, during the two peak vacation periods for mainland Chinese (the so-called “Golden Weeks” at the beginning of May and October) and during major conventions and trade fairs, which are big business in Hong Kong and are held mainly in March, April, October and November. You’ll want to make reservations far in advance if traveling during these times. Check the Hong Kong Tourism Board’s website for a calendar of events and festivals.
Hong Kong’s subtropical climate gives it mild winter temperatures, but also makes its summers very hot and humid and deluges it with 89 inches/2.3m of rain a year.
Its most inclement weather conditions are typhoons (called hurricanes in the West), which can hit any time from May to November but are most prevalent in September. Approaching storms are tracked and rated, with constant TV and radio broadcasts and posted signage alerting you to the latest conditions.
To keep people informed of a storm’s severity, a number system was developed that begins with Typhoon Signal No. 1 (meaning a typhoon has moved within 497 miles/800km of Hong Kong; this elicits little local concern, as it’s far away and may never come), jumps to Typhoon Signal No. 3 (winds have escalated, perhaps bringing heavy rain; organized tours are suspended and some shops close so employees can head home); and then jumps again to Typhoon Signal 8 (the gale has reached Hong Kong, everything closes, and you should stay in your hotel and celebrate with a typhoon party like everyone else).
There are 17 annual public holidays in Hong Kong. With the exception of Chinese New Year, Hong Kong’s most important holiday, restaurants, shops and museums remain open during bank holidays. If a holiday falls on a Sunday, Monday becomes the holiday. Note that most Chinese festivals are determined by the lunar calendar, which changes each year.
Public holidays are: New Year’s Day (Jan 1); Lunar New Year (Feb 16-19 in 2018); Easter (Good Friday through day following Easter Monday); Ching Ming Festival (April 5, 2018); Labour Day (May 1); Buddha’s Birthday (May 22 in 2018); Tuen Ng Festival (June 18 in 2018); Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day (Hong Kong’s return to China, July 1); Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival (Sept 15 in 2018); National Day (Oct 1); Chung Yeung Festival (Oct 17 in 2018); Christmas (Dec 25-26).
Otherwise, there are always loads of other events and festivals in addition to those above, from the Hong Kong Sevens Rugby Tournament in March (tickets are notoriously hard to come by, but there are lots of celebrants in pubs and bars), the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March or April, the Cheung Chau Bun Festival in late April or early May and the Wine & Dine Festival held in October. For information specific to the time of your visit, see the Hong Kong Tourism Board website.
Hong Kong is 8 hours ahead of London, 13 hours ahead of New York, 16 hours ahead of Los Angeles and 2 hours ahead of Sydney. Hong Kong does not go on daylight savings time, so subtract one hour from the US times above in summer.
You really don’t have to worry about what to pack for a stay in Hong Kong, because no matter what you might need you can probably find it here (exceptions, of course, include prescription medicines, which can only be filled in Hong Kong when ordered by a local doctor). That being said, you might want to pack clothing appropriate to the weather, like a light jacket in winter or even in summer to fend off air conditioning. Other useful items include sunscreen, an umbrella and an adapter that will fit Hong Kong’s electric plugs (though these are easily found in Hong Kong and may be available in your hotel).
Hong Kong isn’t as cheap as it used to be, simply because the cost of land is prohibitive and much of its resources is imported, including it water from China. That being said, there are many bargains here, including public transportation, its many museums, its duty-free goods and meals taken at local Chinese restaurants.
The Hong Kong dollar (HK$) is officially pegged to the US dollar at a rate of 7.8 (that is, US$1 equals HK$7.80; HK$10 is about US$1.29). In reality, however, that rate fluctuates according to where you change money (banks are better than hotels and currency exchange offices) and whether you’re changing cash or travelers checks (travelers checks, though something of a dinosaur nowadays) generally fetch a slightly better rate).
Interestingly, three banks (HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank and Bank of China) each issue their own colorful notes, in denominations of HK$10, HK$20, HK$50, $HK100, HK$500 and HK$1,000 bills.
HK$1 equals 100 cents. Coins are issued by the government in 10, 20, and 50 cents and HK$1, HK$2, HK$5 and HK$10.
You’ll need local currency for buses and trams (or you can use an Octopus card). Note, too, that the cheapest restaurants may not accept credit cards and when shopping you can sometimes get a better bargain if you’re paying with cash. Otherwise, there are ATMs everywhere (they require a 4-digit pin and cards are inserted rather than swiped).
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local Hong Kong dollars.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets HK$30 and less per person
$$ => Tickets HK$31-HK$100 per person
$$$ => Tickets more than HK$100 per person
$ => Rooms less than HK$1,600 for a double
$$ => Rooms HK$1,600-HK$4,000 for a double
$$$ => Rooms HK$4,000 for a double
$ => Less than HK$250 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => HK$250-HK$500 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => HK$500 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => Less than HK$75 for an alcoholic drink
$$ => HK$75-HK$150 for an alcoholic drink
$$ => More than HK$150 for an alcoholic drink
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than HK$200 per person
$$ => Tickets HK$200-HK$400 per person
$$$ => Tickets HK$400 per person
People expect tips in Hong Kong, but at least there aren’t bathroom attendants expecting tips as there were just a few decades ago. Otherwise, you’re expected to tip taxi drivers (round up to the nearest HK$1 for short drives or to the nearest HK$5 for longer hauls), bellhops (about HK$10 to HK$20, depending on the number of bags), barbers and beauticians (up to 10%).
Restaurants and bars automatically add a 10% service charge, but it’s still customary to leave small change for the waiter, especially since some establishments never give that 10% service charge directly to its staff. For that reason, if you’re paying by credit card, leave a cash tip for your waiter. For inexpensive meals, leave 5% or up to HK$5. For finer restaurants, you should tip 10%. In hotels, chambermaids and attendants should be given 2% of the room charge.
Note that in many Chinese restaurants, a pot of tea is brought automatically to your table, for which you’ll be charged. Make sure, therefore, that the waiter understands before you sit down if you don’t want tea.
If you’re shopping, be aware that all retail businesses in Hong Kong are required to charge at least HK$0.50 for a plastic shopping bag, so do your part to save the environment by bringing your own bags.
As for taxes, Hong Kong is a duty-free port and does not charge taxes on purchased goods. It currently also does not charge a tax for hotels and restaurants.
It’s easy to get around Hong Kong, whether it’s aboard the Star Ferry sailing across Victoria Harbour, a rickety tram making its way from Central to Causeway Bay, the MTR mass transit system that shuttles passengers to satellite towns in the New Territories or buses that go to places the MTR doesn’t serve. What’s more, English signage is everywhere, including in subways and subway stations, on buses and on more than 1,000 directional signs that point to major places of interest.
Unfortunately, each form of transportation has its own fare system, which means you have to buy a new ticket each time you transfer from, say, tram to subway or bus. Furthermore, buses and trams require exact change, while during rush hour, you’ll wish you had exact change for subways or ferries when fighting crowds to buy tickets from vending machines or at counters. For that reason, it’s much easier to purchase an Octopus Card, which can be used on all forms of transportation, and much more.
I’m not sure how they came up with its name, but the Octopus is spreading its tentacles into ever-more facets of everyday Hong Kong life, making it a must for anyone staying in Hong Kong more than a couple of days. The most overwhelming incentive for buying the card is that it can be used for virtually all modes of transportation, including the MTR subway and train system, trams, the Peak Tram, buses, ferries and the Airport Express Line. Not only does the Octopus save you from fumbling for coins, but it also means you don’t have to worry about coming up with the exact required fare on buses and trams. Cost of the standard Octopus is HK$150 for adults and HK$70 for children and seniors and includes a HK$50 refundable deposit and HK$100 worth of stored value travel time. For tourists, there’s also the Sold Tourist Octopus, which costs HK$39 and has no value until you add money for fares, but unless you plan to keep it for a souvenir I’m not sure why tourists buy this, as the card itself is nonrefundable (you can, however, get a return on any unused funds you’ve loaded on it).
In any case, you can also use the Octopus for purchases in convenience stores (like 7-Eleven and Circle K), numerous fast-food outlets (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Oliver’s Super Sandwiches, and more), some vending machines, public swimming pools, and even for admission to the horse races and Ocean Park. All you have to do is wave it over the Octopus card reader; you don’t even have to take it out of your wallet or purse. Reloading it is easy at MTR self-service kiosks and even at the food and convenience stores listed above. If you use all the stored value in your card, you can add money to it at any MTR station or at retailers like 7-Eleven, Circle K, McDonald’s and more.
It will make you wish you had an Octopus to take care of all your daily needs (indeed, the Octopus concept has been imported to the Netherlands and other countries). In any case, don’t forget to turn in the standard Octopus for the refundable deposit, though note that if you’re in Hong Kong fewer than 3 months, you’ll be charged a HK$10 handling fee. As noted above, the Sold Tourist Octopus does not give a refund on the cost of card. All Octopus cards, however, will give you a refund for any stored value on unused travel you have remaining on your card.
Which form of transportation you take depends mostly on where you want to go and how fast you want to get there. The subway, for example, is the fastest way to get from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central, but the Star Ferry is much more romantic. Keep in mind, however, that Hong Kong is a very walkable town, with signboards in English pointing to major attractions.
Most visitors’ first experience with Hong Kong’s great transportation system starts at Hong Kong International Airport, where the Airport Express Line whisks passengers every 10 minutes to Kowloon Station in 20 minutes and to Central’s Hong Kong Station in 24 minutes, from which free Airport Express Shuttle buses continue onwards to most major hotels. Fares are HK$105 to Kowloon and HK$115 to Hong Kong Station, with discounts provided for roundtrip tickets. Good to know is that both Kowloon and Hong Kong stations also provide in-town check-in services for passengers returning to the airport, which means you don’t have to travel back to the airport encumbered by luggage.
Alternatively, Vigor Airport Shuttle Services provides transportation directly from the airport to about 100 major hotels for about HK$130 to HK$140, convenient if you have lots of luggage to transport. Hong Kong Shuttle provides a similar service. Taxis will set you back about HK$270 to Tsim Sha Tsui and HK$370 to Central.
The fastest way to get around Hong Kong is with its modern, efficient and clean Mass Transit Railway (MTR), which shuttles 4 million passengers a day on routes running from huge satellite towns in the New Territories through Tsim Sha Tsui and under the harbor to Hong Kong Island.
Its 11 train and subway lines are color-coded and easy to use, with the next station displayed above each compartment door and announced in English. MTR also operates a Light Rail network in the New Territories used mainly by commuters but useful also for visiting the Hong Kong Wetland Park, as well as the Airport Express.
You can purchase an individual ticket for each journey from vending machines; be sure to hang on to it, because you must insert it into the turnstile upon entering and exiting. Or, purchase an Octopus card which will give you multiple rides without having to buy individual tickets each time you board. While there is a Tourist Day Pass available only to tourists who have been in Hong Kong for fewer than 14 days (HK$65 for adults and HK$30 for children), it’s not cost efficient unless you plan on traveling long distances in one day.
You might find it useful to download the free MTR Mobile, which gives recommended routing, estimated journey time, and much more. Note that there are no public toilets at MTR stations and that eating and drinking are prohibited on trains.
I hardly ever use buses in Hong Kong’s congested areas or to reach destinations served by the faster MTR, unless it’s to catch one barreling down Nathan Road from Mong Kok to the Star Ferry. Otherwise, buses are the only way to reach many destinations around Hong Kong Island (like Stanley), Lantau, or the New Territories. With its hair-raising curves and hilly terrain, Hong Kong often delivers exhilarating rides on its double deckers. Fares are very reasonably priced.
The most important things to remember are that you have to pay with the exact fare (or, better yet, buy an Octopus prepaid card) and if you’re traveling in the New Territories you should ask the concierge at your hotel to write your destination in Chinese, as most bus drivers don’t speak English. In more rural areas, you also have to flag approaching buses to make them stop (or else they’ll think you’re waiting for a different bus). Before setting out, be sure to stop by the Hong Kong Tourism Board for their leaflets showing bus routes to major tourist destinations, including where to board and get off and how much to pay.
Alternatively, there are two companies offering hop-on/hop-off tourist buses on dedicated routes serving major attractions. Rickshaw Sightseeing Bus operates on north Hong Kong Island and through the Cross Harbour Tunnel to Tsim Sha Tsui for HK$200 (half price for children and seniors) for one day of unlimited rides, while Big Bus Tours has circular routes on both sides of the harbor (including trips to Stanley and Aberdeen) and includes rides on the Star Ferry, Peak Tram, and an Aberdeen sampan ride in its prices (US$49.50 for a 24-hour adult ticket bought online). If you want my opinion (and that’s why you’re reading this, right?), while these tourist buses might be useful for people with limited mobility, you can do just as well (and more cheaply) using Hong Kong’s public transportation and your own two feet.
Hong Kong Island’s northern districts of Central, Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and other areas have changed beyond recognition the past 100 years (and even in the 30-some years I’ve been coming here), but one thing remains constant: Hong Kong’s double-decker trams. In fact, Hong Kong has the largest fleet of double-decker tramcars in the world.
These endearing reminders of the past have been clanking their way through Central and beyond since 1904, on tracks that were once along the waterfront but are now blocks inland because of land reclamation. Traveling 18 miles/30 km from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east (with one branch detouring to Happy Valley), the trams can’t be beat for atmosphere and offer unique views of Hong Kong’s street life (try to snag a seat upstairs in the front row).
You pay when you get off, either in exact fare (HK$2.30 for adults, HK$1.20 for children and HK$1.10 for seniors) by dropping it into the coin box or with the Octopus card. Although Hong Kong’s other transportation icon, the Star Ferry, gets all the glory, the trams are Hong Kong’s unsung heroes, transporting 230,000 passengers a day. And of course, there’s that other famous tram, the Peak Tram, carrying passengers to the Peak.
In addition to the famous Star Ferry plying the water between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, there are many other ferries that serve coastal communities in the New Territories and on outlying islands like Lantau, laid-back Lamma and tiny Cheung Chau with its beach and village life. Ferries are a pleasant way to travel, with the bonus of harbor and waterfront views along the way.
Some destinations have two types of ferries: Ordinary ferries that are cheaper and slower, with two classes of service (deluxe class often has better views and some to Cheung Chau even have open-air decks); and more expensive Fast Ferries used mainly by commuters. Fares are often more expensive on Sundays and public holidays. And since those days can also be more crowded, try to travel on a weekday.
A smaller ferry service, Tsui Wah Ferry Service, runs ferries in the New Territories, including islands in the Tolo Channel like Tap Mun. as well as ferries from Stanley and Aberdeen to Po Toi and between Yung Shue Wan (on Lamma) and Aberdeen. There is also Kaito service, which are essentially water taxis licensed to serve remote coastal settlements. Finally, there are also hydrofoils that travel between Hong Kong and Macau.
Taxis are plentiful and relatively cheap in Hong Kong and drivers are fairly honest. You can hail them from the street in most areas (though there are some restricted areas, especially in Central), but probably the easiest places to pick up a taxi are on side streets, at taxi stands and at hotels. You’re required by law to wear a seatbelt.
Taxis on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are red. Fares start at HK$24 for the first 1.25 miles/2km and then increase HK$1.70 for each additional 656 ft/200m. Waiting time, incorporated in the meter, is HK$1.70 per minute. Taxis in the New Territories are green and slightly cheaper; they are not allowed to take you back to Kowloon.
Note that you’ll pay extra for luggage, trips that require one of the cross-harbor tunnels between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, and for any bird or animal you might contemplate taking with you(!).
You can telephone for a taxi (HK$5 extra) but I have never done so as they are so plentiful; if you do wish to order a taxi, consider having your hotel or restaurant call one for you.
All taxi drivers display their name, photograph and car number on the dashboard (the taxi number is also displayed on the left door in the back seat). Ask for a receipt, which will help in case you have a complaint or have to track items you left behind. If you do have a complaint, call the complaint hotline at 852 2889 9999.
And like cities all over the world, Uber is also an option in Hong Kong.