Pack your visit to this welcoming city-state with high-intensity experiences, says Simon Calder.
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Why go now?
This enriching and energising city-state distils the best of the Far East and offers a vision into the future while celebrating the past. Even if you can’t tell your feng shui from your tai chi, Hong Kong will welcome you and offer day after day of high-intensity experiences. What’s more, summer here is shaping up impressively, thanks to new cultural openings.
Hong Kong is tucked just inside the tropics, under 12 hours’ flying time from London. Its superb airport is served non-stop from Heathrow five times a day by Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk). Flights from Manchester with Cathay start in December. The airport is 15 miles west of the city. The Airport Express departs every 10 minutes to Kowloon station (1) and Hong Kong station (2), taking less than 25 minutes. The one-way fare is 90 Hong Kong dollars ($90/£7) to the former, $100 (£8) to the latter; $20 off for return tickets.
Get your bearings
As a tourist you’re likely to spend most time on Hong Kong Island, an invigorating mix of skyscrapers and traditional life crammed into 30 mountainous square miles, with much of the action concentrated in the district known as Central. But many visitors stay, and spend, at the foot of the Kowloon Tsim Sha Tsui.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board (00 852 2508 1234; Discoverhongkong.com) has branches at the airport which are very obvious as you leave Arrivals and are open 8am-9pm daily. There is also an office at the Star Ferry Concourse (3) in Tsim Sha Tsui (8am-6pm).
Demand for hotels is intense, because Hong Kong is both a popular stopover and a compelling destination in its own right. Happily, though, there’s plenty of competition – which means high standards and good rates.
The best address in Kowloon is the Peninsula Hotel (4), poised impressively just inshore from the waterfront on Salisbury Road (00 852 2920 2888; peninsula.com). It opened in 1928 as “the finest hotel east of Suez”. Rack rates start at around $5,000 (£400), including service charge and breakfast. Guests can pay extra to be brought from the airport in one of the hotel’s fleet of green Rolls-Royces.
Close by, but far cheaper, the Xi Hotel (5) at 7 Minden Avenue (00 852 2739 7777; xihotel.com.hk) offers an excellent location. I paid $1,150 (£90) a night, including a modest breakfast and good Wi-Fi.
At 2 Arbuthnot Road, in the Mid Levels district On Hong Kong Island, Ovolo (6) (00 852 2165 1000; ovolo hotels.com) there’s chic rooms and lots of extras, including a lobby “happy hour”, breakfast and free minibar. For a regular room you’ll pay around $2,500 (£200) a night. For a little more you get extra space and facilities in a “super shiny room”.
Take a hike
Start a shoreline hike at the Avenue of Stars (7) although, unlike Hollywood Boulevard, you may not be familiar with every screen idol. Of the cultural attractions on the “north bank”, the Museum of Art (8) is the most impressive – home to Ming and Tang dynasty ceramics (00 852 2721 0116; Click Here; 10am-7pm at weekends, to 6pm other days, closed Thursdays; HK$10/80p).
Ignore the ugly Cultural Centre (9) in favour of taking in the views across to Hong Kong Island, with Victoria Harbour offering a soothing dimension to the fast moving city.
At the tip of Tsim Sha Tsui, the 1921Clock Tower (10) is all that remains of the former grand terminus of the Kowloon & Canton Railway, from which you could travel to Beijing and on to Moscow and Europe. Instead, wander into the Star Ferry Concourse (3) and head south ....
Take a ride
The Star Ferry is one of the world’s finest pieces of public transport, offering Hong Kong’s cheapest thrill – especially at night; it runs until midnight. The cheaper, lower deck actually offers better views; $2.80 (£0.22) at weekends, $2 (£0.16) weekdays. The MTR (underground) is the fastest way to get around; from $4.50 (£0.40).
Another excellent piece of public transport on Hong Kong Island is free: the Mid-Levels Escalator, which claims to be the world’s longest moving walkway. It runs downhill until 9.30am, then takes half-an-hour to turn around to run uphill for the rest of the day.
Lunch on the run
Close to the escalator, you can choose from one of the many open air food stalls, known as dai pai dongs. Sing Heung Yuen (11) at 2 Mei Lun Street (00 852 2544 8368; 8am-5.30pm daily except Sunday) offers a giant bowl of noodles with beef, egg and tomato for $35(£2.80).
Many people come to Hong Kong specifically to shop, and the 21st-century malls offer all the designer choice you could want – and an absence of sales tax, except for alcohol and tobacco.
For something bespoke, at Raja Fashions (12) at 34-C Cameron Road (00 852 2366 7624; raja-fashions.com; open 9am-9pm daily except Sunday 11am-6pm), a made-to-measure shirt can be rustled up in a few hours for around $350 (£29).
At 5pm, retail action shifts to the Temple Street night market (13) – touristy, but fun.
Begin your evening in style at Sevva (14) at 10 Chater Road (00 852 2537 1388; sevva.hk; closed Sunday). One of Hong Kong Island’s earliest earliest skyscrapers, the Prince’s Building, has been rejuvenated with a superb open-air bar on the 25th floor. Sip a cocktail or down a pint as you take in the view; drinks are around $135 (£11).
Dining with the locals
Stay at altitude, but on the other side of the harbour: 1 Peking Road (15). Hutong, a glass-enclosed grandstand on the 28 floor serves spicy northern Chinese cuisine (00 852 3428 8342; aqua.com.hk). The “Red Lantern” soft-shell crab arrives in a basket full of whole Sichuan chillies; $298 (£25).
Sunday morning: go to church
The spiritual dimension is an essential part of Hong Kong life. For many residents, each day begins by tuning mind and body with the delicate and balletic art of tai chi – a performance for the soul, and the watching visitor.
Hong Kong is full of places of more formal worship – with the St John’s Cathedral (16) on the island one of the most beautiful.
Man Mo Temple
(17) at 126 Hollywood Road (00 852 2540 0350) is a 19th-century Taoist temple dedicated to the gods of literature and war.
Out to brunch
Dim sum loosely translates as “touching the heart” – but what it really means is nutritious fast food. The best place to try it: Tim Ho Wan (18) at 9-11 Fuk Wing Street, in an unfashionable area of Kowloon (00 852 2332 2896; open 8am–10pm) – almost certainly the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Expect to queue.
A walk in the park
Hong Kong Park (19) is a proper garden in the city, infiltrating between the high-rises – and offering two hours of free Wi-Fi. Get a bird’s-eye view at the top of the 100ft tower.
Take a view
On the edge of the park is the Peak Tram terminus (20) of the first funicular railway in Asia (00 852 2522 0922; thepeak.com.hk; $80/£7 return, including SkyPass to the viewing terrace). On the other side of the water you can find formidable views from Sky100 (sky100 .com.hk; $168/£11; 10am-9pm daily), on the 100th floor of the International Commerce Centre (21).
The island’s leading summer opening is PMQ (22) at 35 Aberdeen Street (00 852 2811 9098; pmq.org.hk; 7am-11pm daily). The former Police Married Quarters, dating from 1951, is now full of studios for Hong Kong’s brightest young designers.
In Kowloon, the highlight of the Hong Kong Museum of History (23) (00 852 2724 9042; hk.history.museum; 10am-7pm weekends, to 6pm other days, closed Tuesdays) is The Hong Kong Story, a compelling account of a unique territory.
Icing on the cake
At 8pm everyone crowds on to the Kowloon waterfront to watch the “Symphony of Lights”, a 15-minute laser show decorating the island’s skyscrapers.