A holiday to Hong Kong is a great city break. It has a lot to offer the curious traveller: great food, an endless variety of markets, bizarre fashions, reflexology, and plenty of interesting things to see and do. I’ve been to Hong Kong many times but my recent visit was the first time back in more than 7 years. Little had changed except this time I found Hong Kong to be extremely expensive, beating London out of the park in most areas. Even at the Sham Shui Po market you’re unlikely to negotiate a better deal on a power adapter than what you would in East London.
But whilst prices might be high for the average visitor, the quality of life for locals is very good. Generally speaking, salaries are higher and taxes are lower. Better yet, Hong Kong is one of the most clean and efficient cities in the world. Since the SARS and Bird Flu crises the country has really cleaned up. You rarely see anybody littering or even dropping a cigarette butt, and there are an awful lot of cleaners around constantly washing bathrooms, scrubbing floors and removing rubbish. People who are sick have the courtesy to wear a surgical mask in public to prevent spreading their germs. Even more impressive is their public transport system, the MTR which is cheap, clean, fast and works like clock work.
It is very easy for European tourists to navigate Hong Kong, which could be described as a place where East meets West. As it was formerly under British rule, public signage is in both Cantonese and English and most restaurant and retail workers speak both languages. Cars still drive on the left hand side of the road, but these days it seems people are completely confused what side of the pathway to walk on, which can be frustrating.
If you love Chinese food you will be in heaven, especially if you’re a fan of BBQ duck and seafood. People dine out a lot of in Hong Kong and there are countless restaurants on every street. Most of them are very good and eating out is cheap. Here are some of my favourite places to visit.
Woosung Street Food Stall Number 29-39
Located right near Temple market, this humble little establishment is setup inside a tent and serves excellent local dishes at great value. We enjoyed eating here so much we came twice for dinner during our trip. Most of the other diners are working-class locals who come here to kick back and relax after a hard days work with some decent grub, cigarettes and plenty of beer. Tsingtao and Blue Girl beer are served in big 640ml bottles and its incredible to see how many bottles people plough through. A group of 5 people sitting next to us had more than 20 empty bottles on their table!
Highlights of our dining experience included: crab served with shallots, chilli and garlic, roast goose (a darker and fattier meat than duck), beancurd with mushroom, chilli prawns. Don’t expect too much class here, when we asked for a napkin we received a roll of toilet paper.
Tim Ho Wan
Shop G72, OC2
This humble dumpling place was initially recommended to my mum by a Hotel Manager at the former Langham hotel in Mong Kok. Also known as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant, Tim Ho Wan serves up every well known and loved dim sum dish, and they hit perfection every time. Our favourites were the rice noodles with prawn, green vegetable dumplings and the pork buns. Be sure to eat these with a side of chilli sauce. Tim Ho Wan is very busy during lunchtimes and average queuing time is approximately 20 minutes for a table, but it is well worth it.
Maru Korean Restaurant
Fourth Floor, L and D House
Cameron Road, Tsim Sha Tsui
If you have a craving for meat the answer is Maru, which is a very hip and busy Korean restaurant in Kowloon famous for its BBQ menu. All foods served at Maru are imported from Korea and there is a minimum spend of HK$350 per table. On arrival guests are served a variety of small dishes called banchan, which vary day to day but can include kimchi (fermented cabbage), kongnamul (bean sprouts), sigeumchi namul (spinach) and Korean-style potato salad. There is a hotplate in the centre of each table and you can order various meats to cook at the table, which are served with complementary salty sauces, spring onions and lettuce. We ordered the signature bulgogi (marinated beef), pork cheek and pork belly. We cooked the meat ourselves and then dipped it in sauce and ate it wrapped in lettuce.
Everything at Maru was absolutely delicious and there was a very nice atmosphere as well, although most of the customers were youngish (20s and 30s). The only thing you need to remember is to wave down a waiter when the hotplate becomes black, so they can change it for a new one. Never cook the meat on a black stove!
Shop F, Po Wing Building
67 Lee Garden road, Causeway Bay
If you fancy some Hong Kong style noodles and the best roast duck imaginable, you must pay a visit to Xi Zhan for lunch. The establishment has a very modern interior and comfortable seating and the prices are very reasonable. We ordered their lunch special, which was noodle soup with wontons and a side of roast duck and pork belly. A perfect snack when you’re out shopping around Causeway Bay.
B 1/F, Times Square
1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay
The deli counters and adjoining food court at this Causeway Bay supermarket will blow your mind. There is nothing quite like this in Europe! Endless displays of perfectly cut sashimi, ornately made sushi, fresh oysters, king crab legs, seaweed and seafood salads, Asian noodle soups, organic juices, beautifully cut fruits… there is too much to chose from and it all looks really delicious. Whilst it is predominately intended for locals to shop for food for the home, you can just as easily decide to dine here for a meal out. We had a selection of sushi for breakfast and it tasted very fresh and the price was reasonable.
Foo Lum Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant
794-802 Nathan Road
Upon entering the building, you can see large seafood tanks full of fish and crustacean, which gives the promise of a great seafood dinner. Upstairs the dining room is full of Chinese diners, mostly groups. Despite all this, dinner at Foo Lum’s proved to be disappointing. We waited 30 minutes to order, as the manager personally wanted to serve us as he spoke English. When we asked for the big lobster they had sold out, so they offered us a smaller lobster. We didn’t specify how we wanted it cooked, assuming it would be steamed or fried with ginger and shallots in the usual Chinese fashion. However we were stunned when it arrived cooked in a cheese sauce with Italian pasta! I was particularly angry, thinking they had done this because we were Westerners however the old Chinese gentleman at the table next to ours, who was an English teacher, assured us that it is very popular in Hong Kong for lobster to be prepared in this manner. Nonetheless, between the bad service (the waiters were opening the beer bottles on the edge of the table) and cheesy meal, it was a night I’d rather forget.
289A Rua do Almirante Sergio
Although this place is not located in Hong Kong but the neighbouring island of Macau, it is worth a mention because the food is so delicious. A Lorcha serves Portuguese dishes with a subtle Asian influence. It is a welcome break when you are starting to tire from roast duck and noodles. The ingredients all taste very fresh, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and the service is top notch (a rarity in these parts). We ordered a mixture of different meals from the menu, but the definite stand outs were the clams served in garlic and white wine, chilli prawns cooked in the shell, and the African chicken with rice.
When most people think of Hong Kong, the last thing that comes to mind is coffee. However this city has made progress in leaps and bounds the past few years and quite honestly, you can get a better cuppa here than most places in Europe. Trending at the moment is Rose Latte, which is a creamy, velvety latte with a delicate hint of rose flavour and with dried rose petals sprinkled on top.
We found two great places for breakfast in Tsim Sha Tsui, which both served amazing coffee that are worth visiting if you’re staying in the neighbourhood.
TeaWood, Taiwanese Cafe
2/F Carnarvon Plaza, 20 Carnarvon Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
This cute establishment is clean, modern and well decorated. Most of the seating is stylish, comfortable booths against a window that looks out onto the main drag. We loved having coffee and Taiwanese dumplings here to start the day.
The One, Shop L608
100 Nathan Road
Tsim Sha Tsui
For a luxurious coffee and cake with stunning city skyline views, treat yourself at Habitu. This place and all its edibles is absolutely stunning albeit a little pricey.
Tsim Sha Tsui
We ended up at one of the many bars here most nights during our trip for a nightcap. Knutsford Terrace is hidden away behind Kimberly Road with Western-like bars and restaurants that sell more European food and snacks (think pizza, pasta, chips, etc.). There are also a couple of oyster houses. The bottled beer is pricy but every place has an extensive cocktail and wine menu. The place has a good vibe with outside seating packed with a mixture of locals and tourists every night of the week. I wouldn’t go out of my way to go here if I wasn’t staying in Kowloon, as the cocktails are fairly average for the HKD90+ you pay, although most places have a happy hour before 10pm. However it is not too bad and if you’re staying nearby certainly worth a visit. It’s ideal for smokers since the seating is mostly outdoors.
8 Fine Irishman Pub
Observatory Court, Tsim Sha Tsui
Just across the way from Knutsford Terrace is this lonely Irish pub that looks and feels very shabby. The wine is a little nasty however you can smoke inside after 10pm and the prices are cheap. Mostly locals frequent here and it is not very busy but pleasant enough for a late night beer.
Old China Hand
Shop 14-15 Wing On Plaza, 62 Mody Road
Tsim Sha Tsui East
An Old China Hand is a term for an expat China expert whose role is to connect the East and West by explaining China to his compatriots. This bar originally opened in Wan Chai and is one of the most famous expat bars in Hong Kong. We went to the Tsim Sha Tsui East venue was is managed by a German expat who has lived in Hong Kong more than 15 years but still hasn’t lost his native accent. There is a pretty cool view of the Hong Kong skyline from outside and it is conveniently located outside the Wing On Plaza if you need a post-shopping drinkie.
Lan Kwai Fong
Central Hong Kong
A short walk from Central station as you walk up towards the mid levels is the infamous Lan Kwai Fong, a small square of streets packed with bars aimed at young party goers and city workers who want to relax after work. For those who want to party hard with the expats, it is worthwhile visiting. However be warned that the bars here are not that classy. Each bar has a doorman who tries to entice passers by with happy hour offers, the drinks are mediocre and very overpriced, and the place gets packed out rather quickly so you are lucky to get a seat. An interesting experience but probably more appealing to younger people.
I think shopping is a little overrated in Hong Kong. At most of the markets you need to bargain, which can be quite stressful, the quality of goods is fairly poor and the prices are not as cheap as you would expect. For most things like toiletries, cosmetics, clothing and shoes, you will find better value shopping in the UK.
However it is an experience shopping in Hong Kong just to observe the locals bargaining for the best price. The Wan Chai Markets near Central tend to have fewer tourists and sell mostly food ingredients (fresh vegetables, meat, fish) and cheap socks and undies. There are also some notable furniture and technology shops dotted around here too. We bought some mens Tommy Hillfiger socks for what we thought to be a bargain, until we tried them on at home and realised they had no stretch and were too small to fit on our feet. We also saw a large group of local policemen arrest a young boy attempting to steal something from one of the stalls, which showed that thieving is taken extremely seriously nowadays. The Wan Chai markets were originally defined as a wet market, selling live produce and fresh meat as opposed to dry goods.
If you want to watch the local market sellers rip off the tourists, then you should head to the Ladies Markets in Mong Kok. This is the place where you can buy all your fake brands, from LV bags to copy Rolex watches, as well as a myriad of other touristy items. Do not be afraid to be a tough negotiator here, as the Chinese salespeople are merciless and will try to charge you as much as possible. Most of the visitors to this market are Australian tourists, but there are also a few Europeans and Russians. The best things we bought from the Ladies Market were a chess board and pack of cards, both themed after old Chinese dynastic rulers.
For fashion, Prince Edward Market is the place to shop. It is a great place to buy cheap singlets, socks, underwear, t-shirts and carry bags. There are also a lot of interesting fashions by local designers, if you are in search of something a little different from the mainstream. However the quality tends to be quite poor and if you are a size 12 or larger, you are unlikely to find anything that will fit you well. There is a big fun factor here, as most of the local designers haven’t quite mastered English language and attempt to copy Western designs they have seen. Many t-shirts and bags sport badly written American-inspired slogans that can be hillarious to read a.k.a. Chingrish, ROR!
My favourite market would have to be the Temple Street night markets near Jordan MTR. These streets come alive with hustle and bustle when the sun goes down, and sell all sorts of interesting knick knacks and trinkets. A great place to buy interesting items for the home or souvenirs. There are also a lot of stalls for eating, which makes it altogether a good night out in these parts.
If you are not willing to compromise on quality and the idea of striking a bargain at one of the markets doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities, then high street shopping along Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui is a good alternative. There are countless shopping malls, famous brands, and shops here selling fashion, jewellery and electronics, although with a very pretty price tag. There are just as many local as well as foreign brands to browse.
For more brands at discounted prices, there is also the Citygate Outlet shopping mall at Tung Chung, which has a pretty decent food court as well.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO:
Although Hong Kong is a busy financial centre, there are some interesting things to see and do. The Wong Tai Sin temple in Kowloon, although a modern construction, is worth a visit to observe the locals in prayer and to light incense sticks. The temple is home to some peaceful places to sit in contemplation, as well as fantastic monuments dedicated to the 12 Chinese Zodiac signs at its entrance. The temple is free of charge and promises to make every wish come true upon request, which makes it a very popular attraction. You can also have your fortune read here, either through palm or face reading however be wary of the quality. My husband had his fortune read and the lady told him he would one day marry a nice girl, whilst his wife (me!!) was sitting right beside him. For HK$500 she also made him a red envelope for good luck, with the promise he would be rich in a few years time. At that price, let’s hope so!
Reflexology is a popular way to relax in Hong Kong. It is a type of massage that involves applying pressure to various points on the feet, hands and head in the belief they are linked to parts of the body and can relieve tension and treat sickness. The most popular reflexology is for the feet, and people who are not used to it usually find it painful the first time because the points are pressed very firmly. We went to a great place in central called Gao’s Foot Massagelocated on Wellington Road. The prices are fairly reasonable, with basic reflexology costing HK$250 for 65 minutes, and you receive a complementary head and shoulder rub and hot green tea at the beginning of every treatment. If you are on a budget you can find cheaper places around Mong Kok and Ladies market, which are run out of dodgy apartments. We had a bad experience here when the lady, who didn’t speak much English, diagnosed that I should have cupping and proceeded to put very hot cups along my back, the pressure of which caused painful bruising and burst blood vessels.
A visit to Hong Kong is not complete without a visit to the big Buddha at Lantau. Lantau Island is the largest of Hong Kong’s islands, lying at the mouth of the Pearl River and adjacent to the International Airport. There are various ways to get there, but the most popular is via the Ngong Ping 360 cable car from Tung Chung, which takes approximately 25 minutes each way. This mode is not recommended for those who are afraid of heights as the dingy cable car wavers over the sea and mountains and trees in a terrifying fashion. The large bronze statue of Buddha is fairly modern, constructed only in 1993, and it is an enjoyable walk from the cabe car station up several flights of stairs to get there. The views from the top are beautiful, as you take in the greeness of the island. Buddha is seated upon a wreath of Lotus Leaves and has the traditional Buddhist symbol (looks like a reverse swastika) engraved on his forehead. He is flanked by six beautiful Bodhisattvas, each who hold up a different gift to him. Under the Buddha is housed a museum where you can also see preserved ancient Chinese calligraphy.
The village at the base of Buddha is called Ngong Ping, which like the statue is a very modern and commercial construction. The buildings have been constructed to give the appearance of ancient China however they house modern shops such as Star Bucks and Subway, as well as various places to buy souvenirs. One shop that did strike our fancy was selling beautifully crafted chopsticks so we purchased some kitten inspired ones for our collection.
Aside from the Buddha there are other things to see in Lantau. We enjoyed walking through the path of the 12 Divine Generals on the way to the Po Lin Monastery, each which represent an animal from the Chinese Zodiac. At the Po Lin Monastery, which translates in English to Precious Lotus, you can light giant incense sticks and cast wishes. The structures appear to be very brightly decorated but also very modern. Also at Lantau there is the Wisdom path and various hikes and walks for the active traveller.
One of the highlights from our holiday was a trip to the Sai Kung fishing village. To get there we needed to take a coach from Choi Hung MTR station. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and when we arrived we took our time wandering along the seaside. Many fishermen boats were pulled up by the boardwalk and you can watch them sorting their catch and selling to restaurants. There are also stalls selling all sorts of interesting things like dried fish, mushrooms, shells and spices. There is the old town to see here, which has an interesting temple where we saw the old men smoking inside. However the highlight of this village is to eat at the restaurants. They all have massive tanks full of the freshly caught seafood. You would be forgiven for thinking that food here was cheap, given you actually watch the fish go from the boat to the restaurant. However the average meal for two people is probably closer to £100. A slightly cheaper option is to go to the fish mongers (located behind the main drag) and purchase your raw seafood there, then ask the restaurant chef to prepare it for you.
A day trip to Macau is very popular but overrated. I have been there twice and whilst it is interesting to see the old town centre and church facade and buy the egg tarts, Macau is a very dirty and depressing place. Most of the residential buildings look derelict and away from the casinos there are lots of smelly and rubbish strewn side streets that you wouldn’t want to hang around. Macau is a former Portuguese colony and the main sense of European influence are the street names written in Portuguese and the once colourful tiles you see here and there on buildings. However with that said, there are a number of interesting Portuguese and fusion restaurants that are worth trying such as A Lorcha.
Macau has a great number of casinos, which lure many Asian business people to its shores. Some are the more traditional Chinese casinos where you can see old men playing Mahjong. There are also plenty of the big American and Australian style casinos as well. However wherever you go, the environment is not that lively. Our experience at the casino was sitting next to some boring people playing old-fashioned slot machines and being offered free green tea by an elderly trolly lady.