Hong Kong is one of the most visited cities in the world, with good reason. Read these 5 honest tips to help you make the most of a Hong Kong city break.
Whether planning a Hong Kong city break as part of a longer itinerary, or visiting as a standalone trip, Hong Kong is one of those places. And by that we mean that it is a city which is usually found on a ‘world’s best’ list; a city which you must visit at least once in your life.
Incredibly fortunately, one January we had three weeks annual leave booked and visited Hong Kong as part of a longer China and Japan trip. Unusually for us, we boarded our flight with some trepidation as we were flying to the other side of the world on an independently planned, complex trip which had the potential to go drastically wrong. The trip had been months in the planning. Designing the itinerary was difficult, trying to squeeze as much as we could into three weeks, but at the same time spending proper time in each place. We wanted to see so much but had to accept that we couldn’t do everything.
For ideas on how to use your annual leave to get even more time off for work for experiences like this read How To Maximise Your Annual Leave.
The trip itself is another story. This article is about Hong Kong, our first destination. Read on for five honest (if sometimes slightly grumpy) tips to help you plan a Hong Kong city break.
1. If weather conditions are important to you, think about the time of year of your visit
Our Hong Kong city break took place in January. The reason: we wanted to ski in Japan so, for obvious reasons, were visiting in the winter.
In the days leading up to our departure the temperature was in the 20s. As our flight landed the Captain informed us that Hong Kong was experiencing a highly unusual change in the weather and is was a lot colder than normal. When he said cold, he meant freezing! And to add to the fun of freezing temperatures, on one day it poured and poured and poured. We spent the day wandering around Kowloon with our ski jackets on and our hoods up. Buying thermal leggings to wear under jeans was necessary, it was that cold!
It was still cold the next day but the heavens cleared to reveal beautiful blue skies and sunshine. What a difference the sunshine made! We couldn’t believe we were in the same city on the same trip. Whilst we knew we were travelling out of season and were therefore chancing it with the weather, we felt very lucky to have a sunny day and the cold wasn’t nearly so bad with the sun shining. Luckily for us, the blue skies coincided with the day we had planned to go on the Peak Tram and the views from the Peak across the water in the sunshine were sublime.
Visiting during the winter months is no bad thing. In fact, the lack of crowds makes it a very good thing. However, make sure you dress appropriately because the cold is bitter. You may prefer to visit in the warmer months because exploring is undoubtedly more pleasant when you’re not freezing!
The graph below shows the monthly average maximum day time and night time temperatures, as well as the average rainfall.
2. Cross Victoria Harbour on the iconic Star Ferry
If you have already read about Hong Kong you will have read about the Star Ferry. The Ferry has an excellent reputation and it definitely lives up to it. If there is one thing you must do on a Hong Kong city break it is to ride this form of public transport. Up until 1978 when the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened it was the only way to cross Victoria Harbour. There are around 12 vessels in total and some of them date back to the 1950s.
The main routes are between Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon) and Central or Wanchai (both on Hong Kong Island). Ferries leave around every 10 minutes and the crossing takes just under 10 minutes. There are different prices for the upper and lower decks but the fares are ridiculously cheap. For example, during the week an upper deck fare costs HK$ 2.70 (approximately £0.27, $0.35, €0.31). When else can you experience something so iconic for so little cost?
As well as these ‘commuter crossings’ you can take a Star Ferry Harbour Cruise, which lasts around an hour. Every night a sound and light show takes place involving 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour; for something a little more special you can take the Star Ferry Symphony of Lights cruise and enjoy the show as part of this hour long-cruise. There are also twice daily crossings between the Tsim Sha Tsui Ferry Pier and the Hong Kong Disneyland Pier.
3. Have your wits about you when entering and exiting buildings
Yes, this is a bit of a strange tip. It is, however, something that confounded us several times during our Hong Kong city break. The architects of Hong Kong love an entrance to an entrance!
Whether it’s walking into a hotel, a shop, or a restaurant; no matter what you are trying to enter you must go through an antechamber to find the true entrance. The same applies when exiting buildings. And the grander the location, the more entrances you need to go through before finding the true entrance.
The entrances are designed like mazes, making entering buildings more challenging. Trust us, finding the entrance to the Great Pyramid at Giza is nothing compared to trying to get into a building in Hong Kong! To get into the Ritz-Carlton hotel we went through no fewer than four pre-entrances before we had to go outside again and find an alternative entrance to an entrance before we got where we wanted to be. The architects also seem to love making you walk through shopping malls. It does not matter what building you thought you went into, when trying to exit you will walk through a shopping mall first!
4. Make your own mind up about some of the ‘must-do’ activities and don’t necessarily believe the hype
The Ozone Bar at the Ritz-Carlton
Hong Kong is full of glitz and glamour and it’s impossible to read anything about the city without reading about the quality of the restaurants, the hotels, and the bars. We had read that one of the most spectacular locations is the Ozone bar at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, one of the highest bars in the world. It is 118 floors up with views across Victoria Harbour to Hong Kong Island.
We made our way on foot across the city to blow our holiday money on a cocktail or two there. Thanks to the wind and rain we arrived looking somewhat bedraggled, definitely not glamorous versions of ourselves!
We emerged from the lift, having to swallow hard several times along the way to prevent our ears from popping, to find that we were 118 floors up in a bar with floor to ceiling windows…with obscured glass! To our amazement, inside the bar the only place you could see out through clear glass was in the toilets. We both agreed that neither of us had ever been in toilets with more spectacular views; the view really was incredible. It was just a shame that the view wasn’t the same inside the bar itself. It is possible to go out from the bar onto a sheltered deck and so we did this, very much enjoying the views! But the weather conditions prevented us from doing this for very long and we certainly didn’t fancy sitting outside with a drink.
Sadly, our photos were not great because of the weather conditions and so none appear here.
Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula Hotel
The second ‘must do’ sight that was a let-down was the Peninsula Hotel. On reading that the thing to do was to have afternoon tea there we dutifully turned up. However, we found that afternoon tea was basically served in the lobby. It was a very grand lobby but it was the lobby nevertheless with no view to speak of. Instead the place swarmed with tourists wandering in to gape at the splendour before leaving (yes, yes, we do realise we were guilty of doing exactly that!). It was also freezing in there. The people taking afternoon tea were doing so wrapped in furs whilst hunched over their cups for extra warmth. The cost of afternoon tea made our decision for us and so we left with our wallets intact (although not before using the toilets and, in trying to exit the hotel, finding ourselves in a shopping mall).
The Peak Tram
The last ‘must do’ sight which we found a let-down was the Peak Tram. The tram is a funicular which you can ride to the top of Vitoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island.
We had read of the queues in advance and had cannily booked tickets for Madame Tussauds, which is at the top of the funicular, to allow us to have priority boarding on the tram. The queues were indeed horrendous, similar to those for the Eiffel Tower, and although we saved ourselves several hours of queuing time we still had to queue for around 45 minutes. No matter, we thought, it will be worth it once we’re on the tram. Unfortunately, we were disappointed. The views from the tram were primarily of the sides of buildings. However, for a few brief seconds as it reached the summit it was possible to see Kowloon through a gap in the buildings.
To reach the Peak viewpoint itself one has to take a number of escalators, and, of course, go through a shopping mall first. The view was beautiful and we were really pleased that we had a clear day to do it justice. But being pushed out of the way by people taking selfies with a camera stick quickly gets tiresome and we were happy to leave after only around 10 minutes up there.
We made our way back to the tram to find an extraordinarily long queue. Not having the patience for that we instead found a bus (number 15) which would take us back to the Central area. The bus was cheap and we finally had the experience we had hoped the tram would give us! We wound slowly down the side of the mountain, enjoying stunning views for most of the way down. The views were much better than from the tram and, as only locals were using it, the queue was minimal.
It was worth going up to the Peak to go in Madame Tussauds! Endless fun was had posing with the likes of Johnny Depp, One Direction, and David Beckham. Yes, we know, we are so very cultured!
5. Before choosing your accommodation think about what you want from the area you stay in
As a starting point, think of Hong Kong as being made up of two districts: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. In reality, there are more areas than this but these are the two popular tourist areas. The Star Ferry crosses between them. When researching where to stay in Hong Kong you will likely come across these four areas:
Central District, Hong Kong Island
- The glossy, glamorous, and expensive business district. It is also where old meets new. St John’s Cathedral, Man Mo Temple and the Peak Tram rub against the nightlife of Lan Kwai Fong, gleaming skyscrapers, and stylish shopping malls. Hotels such as the Four Seasons and the Mandarin Oriental are found in the Central District, giving you an idea of the glossiness of this area.
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island
- The pulsing, chaotic, neon-lit, heart of Hong Kong Island. This is the place to come for shopping! The shops stay open late and you can buy pretty much anything you can think of here. Respite from the madness can be found at Victoria Park. As well as jogging trails and green spaces, facilities include tennis and basketball courts, football pitches, and a swimming pool complex. A more literary alternative is the Hong Kong Central Library.
Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island
- Close to the Central District, Wan Chai was one of the first areas settled by the British. It is the main commercial area and the famous Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre can be found here. Get to know the history by following the Wan Chai Heritage Trail, a two-hour walking tour through the district. Admiralty is next to Wan Chai and is said to be slightly more upmarket. You can find the lovely Hong Kong Park in Admiralty. Both areas feel more spacious than Central. Hotels such as the Grand Hyatt, Island Shangri-La, and the Conrad are all located here.
Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon
- Known as TST, this is the most popular tourist area in Hong Kong. Bustling, exhilarating, overwhelming, and energising, this is the area most people imagine when they think of Hong Kong. Luxury travellers stay in hotels such as the Peninsula and the InterContinental. Backpackers stay in one of the many hostels and the two meet in the throng of Nathan Road, the museums, the shops, the restaurants, and the spectacular waterfront.
Hotel Panorama by Rhombus
We stayed at the Hotel Panorama in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. All credit must go to the reception staff on check-in for seeing past our bedraggled, travel-weary appearance and upgrading us to one of the best rooms! We were upgraded from the Gold room we’d booked (just above Silver), beyond the Club Harbour View and up to the Executive Club Harbour View room. Fantastic upgrade! As the name suggests, our room looked out over the harbour across to Hong Kong Island and the view was spectacular. The room itself wasn’t particularly large but as we were on the Executive floor (floor 37) we had the use of our own ‘bullet’ lift, which suited us nicely.
We have decided that when we return to Hong Kong we will save our money to spend on staying at the InterContinental Hotel. Why?
We returned from an excursion to Hong Kong Island just as the sun was starting to set and decided that we wanted to enjoy watching it set behind the skyscrapers with a cup of tea overlooking the water. Having noticed earlier on that the InterContinental was on the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui we made our way there. Due to the weather we were wearing ski jackets and woolly hats and fully expected our bedraggled appearance to lead to being told there wasn’t a table for us. Instead, the hotel could not have been more welcoming and we stayed for around 4 hours. We had a wonderful time!
The bar area was huge and very plush with floor to ceiling windows offering a panoramic view across the water. The service was impeccable and even though we were dressed somewhat scruffily and said that we only wanted drinks, we were shown to one of the best tables and treated like royalty. The afternoon tea looked incredible (the cakes in particular were elaborate works of art) but we weren’t overly hungry and didn’t want to end up wasting it. We therefore both ordered jasmine tea instead. It came in teapots which the waiter kept refilling without question. We must have had about six teapots each in the end, and that is no exaggeration!
We watched the sunset and then we set about people-watching. This kept us entertained for hours. Much to our surprise, we were by no means the most scruffily dressed but from the amount of wine and cocktails that were being ordered around us, it was clear that these were people with serious money.
We looked through the menu and decided to order a cake to share, the Ispahan Cake. It had rose cream, lychee mousse, and coconut biscuit and we both gasped when it was put in front of us, such was its beauty! We can honestly say that we have never tasted cake like it. Worth the declaration of being the best cake we’ve ever had. The waiter told us that the pastry chef is French and a lot of the Hong Kong people find his cakes a little too sweet. Clearly our taste buds are primed in a way the people of Hong Kong’s are not.
We were so relaxed and having such a good time that we decided to stay for dinner, splitting a pizza. Boy was it a good pizza! By this point we had been there for about four hours and had been drinking jasmine tea non-stop. We watched the light show from the bar and then got a taxi to the Temple Street Night Market. After walking through the market we jumped on a bus back to our hotel and took our bullet lift straight up to the rooftop bar for last night cocktails.
We foolishly believed we’d conquered jet lag without trying and set our alarms for 6am ready for our early morning flight to Tokyo. Unfortunately, we both lay wide awake for most of the night and travelled to Japan feeling absolutely exhausted, but incredibly fortunate that we had the opportunity to spend three nights in Hong Kong.