Most first-time visitors to Hong Kong stick to the major tourist sights on Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui, and with good reason. Everyone, after all, should cross Hong Kong’s fabled harbor on the iconic Star Ferry and take the tram to The Peak. But if you’ve already seen the sights in my Hong Kong in Two Days itinerary, or are here for more than a couple of days, consider exploring Hong Kong off the beaten track in the New Territories. Compared to the sights you’ve already seen, it will seem like an altogether different place.
After all, compared to the density of Hong Kong’s urban centers, it often comes as a surprise to learn that about 75% of Hong Kong is actually rural, with the vast majority of undeveloped land contained in the New Territories. Stretching from Kowloon northwards to the border of mainland China, the New Territories makes up more than 80% of Hong Kong’s landmass and has most of its 23 country parks and 22 nature reserves. Also surprising may be the fact that about half of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents live here, mostly in huge satellite towns that are cities in their own right. From pristine coastlines to traditional Chinese architecture from past centuries, the New Territories provide a vastly different experience to Hong Kong’s well-trodden tourist paths. In fact, it could be argued that if you haven’t seen the New Territories, you really haven’t seen Hong Kong.
The MTR is your best friend when it comes to exploring the far-flung sights in the New Territories. Attractions in the New Territories, however, are spread out, making it impossible to cover everything in one or even two days. Most, however, are reached via either the East Rail Line or the West Rail Line, followed, when necessary, by transferring to another MTR line, light rail or bus. I have therefore grouped my itinerary suggestions according to geographic proximity. You could, for example, devote one day to attractions of your choosing reached via the East Rail Line, with another day devoted to my three suggestions on the West Rail Line.
Sha Tin is the most populous of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, with an astounding 630,000 living within its boundaries. It’s a prime example of how much the New Territories have changed over the past century; just a short 40-some years ago, it was a rural community of only 30,000 people. Although Sha Tin has swallowed surrounding small towns and villages in its path, vestiges of earlier times and traditions remain. One of Sha Tin’s most popular destinations for is Che Kung Temple, a Taoist temple founded during the Ming Dynasty and popular for those seeking blessings or good fortune. Just a 15-minute walk away is Tsang Tai Uk, one of the best surviving examples of an inhabited walled village. It was built in the 1840s, with its thick high walls, narrow pedestrian lanes lined with homes and central ancestral hall still intact.
Across the river from Che Kung Temple Station is the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, tasked with preserving the history and culture of the fast-changing New Territories. It also stages well-curated temporary exhibits, so check the museum’s website before you go. But probably my favorite Sha Tin destination is the Monastery of 10,000 Buddhas, reached by climbing 400 steps lined with life-size gold-colored statues and with plenty of other amazing things to see once you get to the top.
Father north on the East Rail Line, at Tai Wo Station, is the diminutive Hong Kong Railway Museum housed in a former railway station built in 1913. But my favorite part of a visit here is the nearby Fu Shin Street with its meat and produce stalls, which has been serving locals since 1892.
Our next stop is Fanling, for centuries a small farming village before exploding into this satellite town of about 350,000 residents. I suggest taking a vegetarian lunch at the Taoist Fung Ying Seen Koon temple, followed by an hour’s walk along the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, which takes you past four walled villages (not open to the public), a Tin Hau temple and one of Hong Kong’s largest ancestral halls.
If time permits and architecture is your thing, you might also consider seeing Tai Fu Tai mansion, built in 1865 and Hong Kong’s only remaining Mandarin mansion (if you’re going to Macau, the Mandarin’s House there is bigger and better).
If, on the other hand, your main objective in exploring the New Territories is an escape to nature, you should head directly to Sai Kung. Located on the NT’s eastern coast, it’s the second largest yet least populated of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. The Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark, is especially pristine, with hiking trails providing scenic views and leading past rare geological features. The small village of Sai Kung is also famous for its fresh seafood, loaded off fishing boats right at the pier. Nearby is the trail head for Hong Kong’s longest marked trail, the MacLehose Trail. It stretches 62 miles/100km across the New Territories, from Sai Kung in the east to Tuen Mun in the west, but many people hike just a part of it.
A shorter walk, along what is called a Family Walk, brings you to Sheung Yiu Folk Museum, a former fortified Hakka enclave that now serves as a museum honoring a way of life in these parts more than 100 years ago.
The end terminus of the Tsuen Wan Line (which you’ll probably use many times because it links Tsim Sha Tsui with Central) brings you to Sam Tung Uk Museum. Unlike other walled villages that are still inhabited and therefore give only limited or no access, this one was abandoned only in 1980 and today provides the best insight into how Hakka clan members once lived. Homes have been restored as they might have looked in olden times, while displays describe everything from traditional agriculture to Hakka cultural traditions.
A 20-minute walk from Tsuen Wan Station via Tai Ho Road is Tsuen Wan West Station, where you take the West Rail Line to Tin Shui Wai Station for the Ping Shan Heritage Trail. This is probably my favorite cultural walk in Hong Kong, leading you past centuries of Chinese architecture that includes a 600-year-old pagoda, temples, ancestral halls and more, culminating in a museum that brings the people who once lived here to life. The trail packs a lot into its one-mile/1.6km length, meaning you can see a lot in just the hour or so it takes to walk. Note, however, that modern architecture has encroached upon what was once a rural village, but that’s how Hong Kong is.
In any case, if time permits you can then head onward to Hong Kong Wetland Park (reached from the Ping Shan Light Rail Station by taking light rail Rte. 761 to Tin Fu Station and transferring there to Rte. 705 for Wetland Park Station). This is Hong Kong’s ambitious attempt to rectify lost habitat due to the expansion of Tin Shui Wai satellite town, with boardwalks and pathways providing access to 150 acres/61 hectares teeming with birds and other creatures. Its visitor center also receives kudos for its interesting yet educational displays. This is a great destination for families.