Ask any local — native or expat — they’ll tell you Hong Kong is a part of China, but it’s definitely not China. As multicultural as New York, Los Angeles, or Vancouver might look, they pale in comparison after you’ve spent a week or so exploring Hong Kong. This once-British colony has developed its own unique feel that can only be described as “international”. As one of our friends put it, “People choose to live abroad in Hong Kong because they actually want to feel like they’re living abroad.”
As the primary jumping off point for all places in Southeast Asia, there’s no shortage of sightseeing opportunities: shopping, fantastic dining, day-trips, exotic experiences… if you can dream it, you can probably do it in Hong Kong.
To limit the field to a manageable amount, here are five must-do activities that will give you a good (but by no means complete) taste of Hong Kong
Take a Sampan Ride Around Aberdeen Harbor
On the southern side of Hong Kong island lies Aberdeen Harbor. Moored in this protected bay are private boats of all shapes and sizes. Luxury yachts? Check. Catamarans? Sure. Live-aboard vessels? More than you can count.
But unlike a typical marina with floating walkways that connect the boats to the land, the only way to access these boats is… by boat. A small flotilla of water-taxis, called sampan, are busy ferrying boat owners to and fro at any time of day or night. Just stand next to one of the staircases leading down the the water and in minutes you’ll hear the tell-tale putt-putt-putt-putt sound of a sampan en route to pick up its next passenger.
Hop on board, tell the driver “Tour”, and you’ll be off, winding in and out of the waterways between the boats. The sampan itself is wide and spacious, with a good amount protected from the elements. It’s a low-speed journey, and a perfect way to relax and take in the city while you enjoy this amazing waterfront view.
Explore the Hidden Back Streets With a Local Guide
Jumping on a big bus tour of the usual tourist attractions is fine, but the sheer size and complexity of this overflowing city make for a wealth of hidden treasures just off the beaten path. Many local tour companies are starting to offer “back street” short walking tours that provide a unique perspective on the daily lives lived in Hong Kong, away from the more contrived attractions set up specifically for tourists.
I know, I know… “walking tour” sounds like a lot of walking. Well… not really. Our local guide and lived in Hong Kong the last 30 years and made good use of the city’s many public transportation options, with the big distances covered by tram and subway. In just three hours we got an insider’s look at a working Buddhist temple, were taught to play mahjong by a retiree in her own home, learned about local produce in a bustling street market, sampled the most amazing pastries at a specialty bakery, and capped it all off with a local mystic performing a good luck ceremony under a highway overpass.
Be a high-roller for a day at the horse races
The Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley is a world-class horse racing facility. General admission is only $10 Hong Kong Dollars (about $1.30 USD as of this writing), so it gets pretty busy on racing days. Fortunately for Hong Kong’s upper class, a large portion of the grounds are members-only areas, including fine dining establishments and well-apportioned, inside seating from which to view the races.
But you don’t have to buy a racehorse to get those privileges. All you need to do is bring your non-Hong Kong passport and you’ll get upgraded to the members-only area for only $100 HKD ($13) for the whole evening! Who knows? You might get lucky enough to pay for your entire trip… or at least one more round of dim sum.
Make the climb a little easier
Hong Kong is quite hilly. So getting from one location to another may only be six short-looking streets away on a map, but that distance expands dramatically when you’re facing an elevation change of a few hundred feet.
To avoid burnout, try out the Mid-Level Escalators. Billed as the longest “travelator” in the world, it’s a mixture of escalators and moving walkways, punctuated by a few sections of easy stairs and flat-ish walking areas.
Step on the moving walkway, relax, and let the machines do the hard part while you keep your eyes peeled for interesting attractions on the many side streets you’ll pass by. When you see something you like, hop off at the next junction and take a leisurely down-the-stairs walk back. You can always hop back on again to finish the journey.
But remember: the moving platforms only move one-way at a time. If you’re heading uphill, you’ll probably want to catch a cab to your next location. Or you can wait a few hours until the “travelator” reverses direction. The good news: cabs are cheap in Hong Kong.
Take in new release at a first-class cinema.
People in Hong Kong go as crazy about movies as we are. Because of the time-zone difference, you can usually take in a first-run movie hours before your friends can see it on opening day in the U.S. (Just remember: No one likes a spoiler!)
Don’t worry about the language barrier. With the exception of local Chinese films, all movies are presented in their original format, with Cantonese subtitles. However, the commercials and promos at the beginning of the movie are typically Cantonese, which makes them a lot of fun to watch. You’ll also find the same set of snacks available. Popcorn, candy, sodas… it’s all a very Western experience.
For a real treat, pay a little extra and see a movie in 4DX, which combines 3D movies with seats that tilt and shake, and some interesting environmental effects that really make you feel like you’re part of the scene!
There’s always something new to do in Hong Kong. The next time you go, try these suggestions out and avoid the tourist traps. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll impress your friends with a whole new set of stories they’ve probably not heard from Hong Kong!
About Evo Terra: He’s a traveler, podcaster, and sometimes funny man. At least in his own mind.
Originally re-published at www.theopportunistictravelers.com on April 17, 2017.