A little bubble of capitalism attached to the world’s largest communist country, Hong Kong’s sometimes bizarre blend of British colonialism, Chinese culture and ultra-modern opulence has set the template for the current generation of city-states.
Hong Kong’s short but eventful history has seen it rise from an undeveloped swamp to become a global finance and trade powerhouse – via two opium wars, occupation by the Japanese and the final withdrawal of the British. And while trillions of dollars of high finance flow between the skyscrapers, the city that supports this trade offers a wealth of attractions for visitors.
Home to the original colony, and the deep-water port that would help make its fortune, Hong Kong Island is still very much the star of the territory. The most immediately striking attraction is the skyline: its spread of super-tall skyscrapers has earned Hong Kong the title of the world’s best skyline in numerous polls, and according to an algorithm from a major architectural journal.
Hong Kong’s towers push the limits not just of height, but of design: architecture fans can find buildings by Sir Norman Foster (the HSBC building) and Chinese superstar architect IM Pei (Bank of China tower), along with dozens of other stunning creations; just look up.
Down nearer the ground, Hong Kong Island holds many reminders of British colonial rule – still a touchy subject for some residents. Victoria Peak is one area that felt the stamp of the British more than most. For decades its residences, boasting views across the city and – on a clear day – all the way to China itself, were barred to Chinese residents. These days the Peak and its Victorian-era tram is open to everyone, and offers visitors a stunning view and a lush and green respite from Hong Kong’s urban sprawl.
For the more spiritual visitor, the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas (actually featuring more than 13,000 Buddha statues) offers a secluded spot for contemplation. Meanwhile on Ma Wan (Park Island) visitors can see a scale replica of Noah’s Ark, constructed after its makers made an inspiring visit to Mount Ararat.
Beyond specific sites, spend some time exploring the city as a whole. Generally very safe, visitors can get around easily on the city’s efficient public transport system: take in Central to sample the almost-clichéd Asian city of neon signs and bustling crowds, then head to Soho and Lan Kwai Fong and their international restaurants.
Despite its high-tech metro system, Hong Kong still lives on the water. Some of the best views of the territory are to be found from the decks of commuter ferries; a classic trip for visitors is the Star Ferry from the Kowloon side of the bay to Central, taking in the whole of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Lantau Island, just to the west of Hong Kong Island, and linked to it by metro and ferry, boasts nature reserves, a 34-metre-high statue of Buddha, Hong Kong Disneyland – a much smaller version of the US original.
Many of the other islands are only accessible by boat, with some serviced by ferries, and others requiring a private launch (and both offering a chance to see Hong Kong’s famous pink dolphins). Hong Kong’s islands between them offer everything from unspoilt beaches and untouched woods to challenging hikes.
As befits its status of international finance hub, Hong Kong has plenty of top-class restaurants, where diners will pay top-class prices. But outside the high end is where Hong Kong gets more interesting. Soho has until recently been packed with good-quality eateries, but climbing rents have started to push out many restaurateurs. For good seafood, visitors can head to Sai Kung and Stanley, while excellent street food can be found in the market at Mong Kok – also a great place to hunt for bargains.
Aside from rent, the most expensive entry on many Hong Kong residents’ expenditure lists is going for a drink. Despite cuts in taxes on alcohol in recent years, going out in Hong Kong has continued to spiral in cost. High costs aside, there are plenty of good times to be had in Hong Kong: check local listings magazines for the most current hotspots.
Located just off the southern coast of China, Hong Kong is a short hop away from the Pearl River Delta region and Guangzhou, the city at the heart of China’s current industrial boom.
Also nearby is Macau: the “Las Vegas of the East”. This former Portuguese colony is now also part of China, with a similar status to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region. Macau’s main attraction is its legalised gambling, which draws visitors from across Asia.
Beyond the gaming tables, though, Macau’s long and varied history has given it a unique twist. Typical Chinese culture has blended with the Portuguese legacy of cobbled streets and baroque architecture to create an interesting hybrid – all now set against vast hotels.