Flying over the lush, green hills and tropical bays of Hong Kong for the first time in August, I could be forgiven for thinking it looked more like Rio de Janeiro than the urban jungle I’d imagined.
Over the next month, with the help of my friend and trusty tour-guide Martina, I got to know a whole different Hong Kong beyond the bright lights and stunning skyscrapers. Here are a few of my highlights:
1. Walk up the Peak
First thing’s first: walk off the jet-lag.
If you’re fit enough to hike, you won’t regret making the two-hour round-trip from Sheung Wan (at sea level) up the Morning Trail to Victoria Peak and back. The unmissable views are much more worthwhile if you’ve worked up a sweat, and there’s even a Haagen Dazs cafe for essential refueling at the top.
If you’re completely lazy/immobile/not that way inclined, you can get the tram, but be prepared for painfully long queues, claustrophobia-inducingly packed carriages and views impaired by hoards of Chinese tourists. You’ll also need the kind of aggressive elbowing skills that can only be honed by years of training on the Northern Line at rush hour.
2. Eat, eat, eat
The obvious place to start is with a plateful of dim sum, and for that you can head pretty much anywhere – the tiny restaurants on the side-streets are often the best.
But Hong Kong is also home to just about every style of international food you can think of – from Argentine to Vietnamese – and many of the restaurants are top-notch.
If you only have one night and a decent-sized wallet, you’d be wise to book a table at Hutong, a high-end Chinese restaurant on the 28th floor at One Peking Road with the most spectacular skyline views.
The sticky shredded beef was the most moreish thing I’ve eaten this year and the price tag wasn’t too bad either.
3. Hang out in Sheung Wan
Recently named by Stylist Magazine as one of the world’s coolest districts, Sheung Wan is certainly the place to be on Hong Kong Island.
With cool coffee shops and trendy gift boutiques on every corner, the area is teeming with ex-pats yet manages to retain a friendly, neighbourhood feel. Head to Hollywood Road and spend a day meandering around the area, but don’t forget to veer off down a few side streets to discover some hidden gems.
Despite the incredible array of restaurants and cafes, I found myself going back daily to Classified, a brilliant little European-style place on Hollywood Road with gourmet cheeses, amazing eggs florentine and the perfect Americano. Bag a street-view seat and watch the world go by.
4. Take the Star Ferry
Almost as awe-inspiring as the Peak panorama, the view from the Star Ferry is another must-do on any Hong Kong itinerary.
Jump on the boat at Central Pier after dark and get off at Kowloon for some unmissable 360° views of Hong Kong Island by night.
5. Watch the light show
Once in Kowloon, step off the Star Ferry and find a good spot up high to watch the stunning light show, which runs every night at 8pm for about 15 minutes.
Be prepared to dodge a series of heckling tailors and suit-makers on Nathan Road on the way there, but a great place to watch the colourful array of lasers is with a well-earned cocktail from the top-floor balcony at WoolooMooloo restaurant in TST.
Somewhat spectacular, even if the energy for those nightly lights is enough to power a small African country…
6. Experience beach-life
Sure, it’s not the Caribbean and it’s not the Seychelles, but Hong Kong does a damn good job of providing decent beaches just a stone’s throw away from the concrete jungle.
From South Bay to Stanley, the city’s beaches are surprisingly beautiful, well-equipped and easy to reach, and the atmosphere on the weekend makes them a great place to unwind with friends until sunset.
Where else in the world can you pop to the beach after a hard day’s work in a major financial hub and still be home in time for dinner?
7. Party like an ex-pat in LKF
Ok, the last time I took a jelly shot off my own forearm was as a drunken 17-year-old in Kavos in the year 2000, but if there’s anywhere I’ve wanted to regress, it’s in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong district.
Affectionately known to the ex-pat locals as “Freshers’ week with money,” the area’s bars and nightclubs are literally bursting at the seams with drunken, loved-up 30-somethings in pursuit of a good time after a long day in the office. (And unlike the bars around London’s City, you’ll find HK’s nightlife buzzing even on a school night).
For the warm-up (and believe me, you really do need a warm-up if you’re going to be doing jelly syringes later in the evening), head to Socialito for Mexican tacos and cocktails. The swanky restaurant in the back does deliciously tangy ceviche and has a great selection of Latin American wines.
8. Visit the Big Buddha
Hong Kong’s answer to Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer is this big guy, the giant Buddha.
It’s a bit of a trek to Lantau Island, but once there, the Ngong Ping cable car ride to Po Lin Monastery is more than worth it, and you even get lunch or an ice cream included in your ticket price.
To avoid spending half a day getting there, time your trip to the Buddha with an airport journey. Check in your baggage at Hong Kong Central Station before taking the Airport Express train, then get the bus to Tung Chung cable car terminal from the airport. Just be sure to leave enough time to get back for your flight.
9. Pop into a speakeasy bar
Ask around and you shall find.
Hong Kong’s secret night spots are thriving, with speakeasy bars and events by companies like Hushup becoming more popular by the day.
For the ultimate girls’ night out, hunt down Feather Boa, a cosy cocktail bar hidden behind a velvet curtain in the middle of Soho. The super-size Strawberry Daiquiris come in a frosted glass coated with chocolate – just try and stop yourself licking it all off. Be prepared to be told to “shush” if you make too much noise.
10. Take a hike on Dragon’s Back
Hong Kong’s residents may work hard and party like it’s 1999 during the week, but they somehow also manage to fit in an exercise routine that would make even Jessica Ennis-Hill wince.
If you’re not up for a 10-mile swim followed by a full running marathon and a 100-mile cycle during your holiday, take the lighter option with an ‘easy’ hike on Dragon’s Back.
When can I come back?
Asked on the first day by my ex-pat pals whether I could live in Hong Kong, my immediate answer was a “hell, no!” (Largely on account of the 40° heat).
Returning a month later after my travels around Asia, the city felt like home and I couldn’t wait to go back to my favourite cafe for some familiar European fare. I’m not quite ready to leave London just yet, but Hong Kong will definitely be up there on my list if I change my mind some day.
With special thanks to my mate Martina for her bloody brilliant itinerary and for forcing me to pack so many magical moments into a one-week trip in lieu of getting any sleep.