City guide: Hong Kong

The city brings the drama with striking contradictions.

Hong Kong brings the drama. From impossibly high skyscrapers to ancient traditions, the contradictions are striking. Luxury shopping malls sit beside market vendors selling homemade crafts. Rickety trams make their way through the central business district, while one of the most efficient metro systems in the world speeds along belowground. Michelin-starred restaurants and celebrity chefs compete with food stalls cooking up comfort foods on the cheap. There is something for everyone in Hong Kong, and one visit won’t allow you to experience it all.

The island of Hong Kong is an important financial gateway to mainland China. The mainland has long been Hong Kong’s largest trading partner, accounting for about half of total trade by value. In 2012, about half of the firms listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange were based on the mainland. Visitors from China to Hong Kong outnumber visitors from all other countries combined. Services make up more than 90% of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product.

Getting to and from the airport

Hong Kong International Airport is located on the island of Chek Lap Kok. The Airport Express takes passengers to Hong Kong’s central business district in 24 minutes. The train departs every 10 minutes and costs 100 Hong Kong dollars (US$12.90 using the exchange rate US$1 to HK$7.75). For fast and reliable transport, arriving passengers can catch a taxi at the stand just outside the arrivals hall. Taxis are color-coded according to their operating areas. If you’re staying within the limits of Hong Kong proper, you’ll need a red taxi, also referred to as an “urban taxi.” A one-way fare to the city center costs approximately HK$300 (US$38.70).

Getting around Hong Kong

The efficient and extensive public transport system makes it easy to navigate this metropolis. Each mode of transportation (bus, ferry, tram, subway) requires its own fare. If you’re going to be in the city for a few days, it makes sense to purchase the Octopus card. The electronic smartcard allows travelers to hop on and off all modes of transport without having to buy a ticket each time. You can purchase the cards from metro stations and some ferry piers. It costs a minimum of HK$150 (US$19.35) and can be reloaded in HK$50 (US$6.45) increments.

Taxi drivers place a “for hire” flag in their windshield when they’re available to pick up passengers. During the night, they’ll also illuminate a lighted sign on the taxi roof. The easiest places to hail a taxi are on side streets, taxi stands and at hotels. Unless there’s rain or it’s rush hour, taxis are plentiful. Fares start at HK$18 (US$2.32) and cost an additional HK$1.50 (US$0.19) per 200 meters.

It’s feasible to explore this compact city by foot. Signs point visitors to major tourist attractions. Covered, elevated walkways separate pedestrians from traffic and connect office buildings, hotels and shopping malls.

Where to stay

For luxury accommodation, try The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong (ICC, 1 Austin Road West; Ph: 852-2263-2263), Island Shangri-La Hong Kong (Pacific Place, Supreme Court Road; Ph: 852-2877-3838), Marriott Hong Kong Skycity Hotel (1 Sky City Road East, Hong Kong International; Ph: 852-3969-1888) or Crowne Plaza Causeway Bay (8 Leighton Road; Ph: 852-3980-3980).

For midscale options, try the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong Sha Tin (18 Chak Cheung St.; Ph: 852-3723-1234), Novotel Hong Kong Century (238 Jaffe Road; Ph: 852-2527-00248) or Ramada Hong Kong Hotel (308 Des Voeux Road West; Ph: 852-3410-3333).

Things to see and do

If there’s one image synonymous with Hong Kong, it’s the view from Victoria Peak. High above the city, you can look out over a magnificent harbor and a sea of skyscrapers that overwhelm and impress. Take the Peak Tram from Garden Road up to the vista. A return ticket is HK$40 (US$5.16). If possible, plan your visit to coincide with the sunset, when brilliant colors flood the metropolis.

Enjoy Hong Kong from the water, even on a budget. Take the iconic Star Ferry for a cross-harbor journey. The one-way trip in an upper-deck seat costs only HK$2.20 (US$0.28). You’ll see the island’s extraordinary coastline and float past shipping vessels of all kinds.

On Lantau Island, you’ll find the Tian Tan Buddha (also known as “Big Buddha”). The seated representation of the Buddha is 23 meters tall and sits high on a hill above a monastery. It’s worth climbing up all 260 steps to take a closer look at this striking bronze statue. The most scenic way to reach the Buddha is via the Ngong Ping 360 cable car. You’ll be treated to dazzling views of Lantau Island and the South China Sea. If you’re not fearful of heights, choose the glass-bottomed Crystal Cabin car for an entirely new perspective. A round trip costs HK$255 (US$32.89).

A walk through Nian Lan Garden is your best bet for escaping the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. The 8.6-acre park includes a golden pagoda, tea pavilion and koi pond. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission is free.

The Wednesday evening horse races at Happy Valley Racecourse offer excitement from September to June. People pack the stands to eat, drink and cheer, enjoying the only from of gambling legally allowed in Hong Kong aside from the local lottery. Races take place from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Admission is HK$10 (US$1.29).

Where to eat

For a quintessential Hong Kong experience, enjoy afternoon tea at The Peninsula, the elegant, iconic hotel represents the island’s colonial legacy like no other venue. Expect all the elements of a traditional English tea. Enjoy dainty sandwiches, sweet scones and an impressive selection of fine teas as a string quartet serenades. Find the hotel at Salisbury Road, Kowloon; Ph:+852-2696-6772.

Get a taste of the mainland at Ming Court, which serves modern Chinese cuisine in an opulent setting. The restaurant is decorated with replicas of Ming Dynasty pottery and ink landscape paintings by leading contemporary Chinese artists. Pair your meal with wine from the restaurant’s own cellar. Classic Cantonese dishes include honey-barbecued pork loin, Peking duck and braised Wagyu beef cheek. The presentation is as impressive as the flavors. Find it at Langham Place Hotel, 555 Shanghai St., Mongkok, Kowloon; Ph: + 852-3552-3028.

Food markets and stalls offer wallet-friendly fare that’s often tastier than high-end restaurants dishes. Try local favorites like dumplings, spare ribs, roasted chestnuts and noodle dishes of all kinds. Food markets and stalls often have no name and move locations frequently, but you’re likely to find a few on Graham and Temple streets and at Causeway Bay.

In the penthouse of the One Peking Road building, you’ll find Aqua, where the chef fuses Japanese and Italian cuisines to delicious result. But the real draw is the breathtaking skyline view. If you can’t make it for dinner, stop in for a drink—the bar stays open until 2 a.m. from Thursday to Saturday. Find it at One Peking, Tsim Sha Tsui, +852-3427-2288.

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