Between the Pearl River delta and the South China Sea, a vibrant city stands majestically, whose territory consists of more than 250 islands, many of which are uninhabited, where traditional Chinese culture is present wherever you look. In two words: Hong Kong!
This vibrant and exciting metropolis is an ideal travel destination, thanks to the immense variety of things you can find: the great culinary tradition of local dishes and the beautiful nature of the islands surrounding the main one, blended perfectly into the values of secular Chinese culture. Hong Kong is one of the busiest port cities in the world, it is the most important Asian trading centre but most importantly, it is the third largest international financial centre, after London and New York, as it has low taxation and free trade. Hong Kong is also a vertical city; over 7 million people live in a rather small area, which has in fact become one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The lack of space has therefore transformed the urban landscape of Hong Kong, which today has over 9,000 buildings of which 4,000 are skyscrapers, on average from 100 to 150 meters high.
It was my last stop before I came back to Europe after a year overseas, like all the Asian cities that I have visited I was impressed especially for how Hong Kong managed to blend well the ancient traditions with modernity with that touch still British that you see in the air.
A BIT OF HISTORY
On 1 July 1997, after a century and a half of British colonial rule, Hong Kong officially came under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, following the adoption in 1984 of the formula“a country, two systems”, a bilateral agreement under which mainland China undertakes until 2047, to maintain Hong Kong as a special region, whose administrative and economic system will not be controlled by the iron laws of the People’s Republic of China. In particular, it will have a very autonomous system in all matters, with the exception of foreign relations and military defence. Before the formula was drafted by President Deng Xiaoping in 1979, Hong Kong had been a colony of the British Empire since 1841, a year before the end of the First Opium War, a conflict that erupted after China led by the Qing Dynasty. He tried to suppress the illicit opium trade that the British were selling across the country. In 1842, with the Treaty of Nanjing, the Qing government ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity, allowing them to have a safe landing place to unload goods.
THE SECOND BEIJING CONVENTION
On June 9, 1898 with the Second Beijing Convention, the British were allowed to take control for 99 years of all three major regions of Hong Kong: the island of the same name, the Kowloon Peninsula and finally the northern island area of Hong Kong, known as the New Territories. Under the terms of the treaty, China would have regained control of its leased land only on 1st July 1997. For fifty years the British protectorate maintained a very different line from mainland China, which became a communist country in 1949. Over 100,000 Chinese found refuge in Hong Kong after Mao Tse-tung seized power and threatened all of his opponents; this wave allowed the city to expand and grow both economically and culturally. Beginning in the late 1970s, the UK and China began discussing the future of Hong Kong and in 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang signed the Joint “Sino-Chinese Declaration British”, agreeing that China would give Hong Kong some political and social autonomy through the formula “one country, two systems” for a period of 50 years, granting it its own “mini-constitution” and certain democratic rights such as freedom of speech and the right of assembly. However, Hong Kong residents cannot elect their own leaders, but only a single CEO elected by an election committee of 1,200 members.
In recent years however, the Beijing government has presented and approved a reform that, according to its representatives, should “simplify” the electoral system of the former British colony, but that in fact China wants to impose restrictions on the voting procedures of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, using a list of parliamentary members controlled by Beijing. Since 2014, this type of political manoeuvre has been repeatedly challenged, especially by the Umbrella movement, which already seven years ago loudly demanded more transparent elections for the city’s CEO. However despite this attempt, Protests against Chinese political infiltration are still ongoing.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Hong Kong is from October to early December, when the weather is sunny, cool and pleasant. From late May to mid-September there are occasional typhoons and violent thunderstorms.
THE TOURIST VISA
Italian citizens can enter as tourists in Hong Kong without having to apply for a visa and can stay for a maximum of 90 days. Upon arrival at the border for the inspection of documents, it is sufficient to present the passport and the arrival card carefully completed to obtain a temporary visa that allows the stay.
HOW TO MOVE AROUND HONG KONG
Thanks to the efficiency of public transport, getting aroundHong Kong is quite easy. If you plan to use them often, then I recommend youbuy the Octopus, a prepaid rechargeable card that you can use with almost any means of transport (except taxis) and in convenience stores such as 7-11. You can pick up your card at the airport at the MTR shop and once you own the Octopus, you won’t need to buy a ticket every time you travel. Just pass the card over the player from the entrance and you’re good to go. Travel rates are also slightly lower if you own the Octopus Card and even if the discount per ride is not much, you can save some money that will come in handy in other purchases.
THE MAIN MEANS OF TRANSPORT
MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is Hong Kong’s main transportation system. This network comprises 9 main railway lines and its total length is approximately 174.7 km. Since its inauguration in 1979, MTR has gradually expanded its network to include its own bus line, the MTR Feeder bus. All his races operate daily from six in the morning to one at night.
Among other major means of transport, I want to mention:
- The Airport Express Train: since 1998, MTR has inaugurated this modern train that connects from the airport to the centre of Hong Kong and vice versa. The journey takes 23 minutes and there is a train every 12 minutes. A one-way ticket is 100 HK$.
- Taxis: There are over 18,000 taxis in Hong Kong, so you will have no trouble finding one. The cost of a ride starts at 15 HK$.
- Ferries: The Star Ferry Company, with a fleet of 12 ferries, cater every year to over 26 million passengers, a connection that joins the districts Central and Wanchai to the cultural district of Kowloon and Tsi Sha Tsui. Ferries run every 6 minutes from 6:30 to 23:30. The crossing time is about 8 minutes and a one-way ticket costs 2.50 HK$. In addition to the central connections, the ferries also provide a serious transport service to the outlying islands.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Although Hong Kong is a busy city, the quality of its hostels is not the best. One of the cheapest and best options is the Yesinn Hostel in Causeway Bay. I stayed here and I recommend it as it is easily accessible by public transport (also from the airport), it is surrounded by shops and restaurants and the showers are incredible. However, this place is only recommended for stay in the dorms. The best area where I recommend to stay is Tsim Sha Tsui.
In this article I have listed what in my opinion, are the best 12 things to do and see in Hong Kong.
#1 ADMIRE THE SKYLINE FROM VICTORIA PEAK
With its 552 metres in height, Victoria Peak is the highest point on the island of Hong Kong, from where you can admire the breathtaking view of the tall and colourful skyscrapers close to the sea. Undoubtedly, reaching the summit in eight minutes with the Peak Tram (active from 7 am until midnight), is the first thing to do when it arrives in Hong Kong! Thanks to its elevation on the skyline, this is one of the most popular places in the city, where in addition to enjoying the view, you can also enjoy yourself in its large shopping centre full of shops, cafes and restaurants.
#2 TRAVEL ON THE OLD “DING-DING”
Take the colourful, narrow, old two-story tram, built this way since 1904, it’s a super fun and cheap way (the ticket costs only 2 HK $) to visit Hong Kong! In fact its line passes through the main attractions of the city, from Shau Kei Wan to Kennedy Town. The citizens of Hong Kong have nicknamed him “Ding-Ding” because instead of having a horn he uses bells and this uniqueness makes him the symbol of the daily life of this metropolis.
#3 EATING DIM SUM
Dim Sum is the traditional Cantonese gnocchi, usually stuffed with pork and other ingredients such as mushrooms or shrimp. This tasty dish, easy to make and steamed for about 10 minutes, is one of the delights that in Hong Kong you must absolutely try! I suggest you eat them at the restaurant “Maxim’s Palace” on the third floor of the City Hall. Here, the Dim Sum with different fillings are still prepared in the “old-fashioned way” and served on trolleys that run continuously between the tables. The service also includes delicious desserts and a delicate jasmine tea.
#4 ADMIRING THE SYMPHONY OF LIGHTS
The “symphony of lights” is a great free show that takes place every night at 20 near Victoria Harbour and you can admire it from the Avenue of Stars. During this show, 45 skyline skyscrapers project for 15 minutes a series of coloured light beams synchronized to the sounds of music that has a narrative function. The show is divided into five stages, each of which celebrates an aspect of the soul of Hong Kong: Awakening, Energy, Heritage, Collaboration and Celebration.
#5 TAKE THE STAR FERRY
An alternative and cheap way to see the skyline by day and to admire the symphony of lights in the evening, is to board one of the Star Ferries that, since 1888, connect the island of Hong Kong and Kowloon. The Star Ferry gives you the opportunity to take part in a tour that in half an hour, will take you along the entire port and the chapters of its history. In addition, if you’ve had enough of the city, you can also explore the outlying islands such as Sai Kung, Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau by ferry. Here you will find beautiful landscapes, hiking trails, beaches, fish restaurants, small villages, temples and monasteries.
#6 PHOTOGRAPHING THE MONSTER BUILDING (YIK CHEONG BUILDING)
Also known as the Monster Building for its conglomeration of five incredibly dense and stacked residential complexes, The Yik Cheong Building and the Montane Mansion are probably the best-known locations in Quarry Bay and certainly one of the most unstable places in Hong Kong. This architectural complex is the perfect reflection of the city’s famous urban density.
#7 TAKE THE LONGEST ESCALATOR IN THE WORLD
How many times can you say you have walked between the neighbourhoods of a city using only an external escalator? Hong Kong has the world’s longest outdoor escalator system, connecting the Central area to the Mid-levels, at the foot of Victoria Peak. This is the easiest way to get to the area’s many bars and restaurants. Also, if you’re a fan of director Wong Kar-wai, you’ll feel like you’re in a scene from the movie Chungking Express.
#8 TAKING A PICTURE IN FRONT OF THE WALL OF G.O.D.
In Hollywood road there is the most recognizable and photographed mural made by the local artist Alex Croft, depicting the old townhouses of Hong Kong. This is undoubtedly the most popular and unstable example of street art in the city. Taking a memorable photo along this wall will put you in touch with the G.O.D. (Goods of Desire), a retail space, opened in 1996, whose products represent the quintessence of Hong Kong, where tradition and avant-garde modernity create extraordinary objects.
#9 MEETING THE BIG BUDDHA
Inside the island of Lantau you will find yourself in the presence of the Tian Tan Buddha, more commonly known as the Great Buddha, or the largest statue of the seated divinity ever realized. To reach it you have to climb the 268 steps of an elegant staircase built along the hill. Not far from the Great Buddha is the Po Lin Monastery, one of the most important Buddhist sanctuaries in the world, rich in religious iconographies and puffs of incense.
HOW TO GET THERE: From the island of Hong Kong the easiest way to get here is to take the orange line that in 35 minutes will take you from Soho to Tung Chung station. From here there are two ways to get to the statue: take the Ngong Ping cable car or walk from the bus station (exit B) and take line 23 to the Big Buddha. The cable car is much faster and offers a better view, but it is also a bit more expensive so if you do not have sufficient budget, the bus is the best choice. The trip from Monday to Friday costs 17$HK, while on weekends and holidays the cost is 27$HK.
#10 EATING AT TEMPLE STREET NIGHT MARKET
Unlike Bangkok or Taiwan, it is sadly rare to find a night market in Hong Kong. However, this condition has given prestige to Temple Street, the only most famous night market in the city. Here, after sunset, the stalls pop out and while tourists visit to buy the “I love HK” logo T-shirt and watches from the dubious origin, locals come here to consult the fortune tellers. The market offers a wide variety of reasonably priced foods.
#11 BREATHING THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE WONG TAI SIN
Wong Tai Sin Temple, located south of Kowloon’s Lion Rock Mountain, is a beautiful architectural complex made of altars, gardens and beautifully decorated buildings, where visitors can immerse themselves in the divine atmosphere created by incense and prayers. However, the reason why this is one of the most popular temples in Hong Kong is because this is a place that hosts three different cults: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
In addition, it is also a place of great celebrations such as the Buddha’s birthday and the supposedly accurate ‘fortune prediction ritual’, called ‘Kau Chim’, where you have to shake a bamboo cylinder containing various luck sticks. According to this practice, the stick that falls to the ground is what will determine your luck.
#12 EXPLORING MACAO
Macau is a city where glitz, glamour and gambling are the masters, for this reason it has been renamed as the ” Las Vegas of China”. As the city has been a Portuguese colony for three centuries, there are plenty of cultural and historical aspects that make it a unique and interesting centre to explore. You can see Chinese temples that have been decorated withazulejos, the typical Portuguese tiles, in the streets the food stands can serve two very different types of cuisine, such as Yuen and tapas. The languages of different ethnic groups mix and chase each other. It is very important to remember to bring your passport because you will enter a different region with a different currency. To get to Macau from Hong Kong Island you can take the Hong Kong Macau Ferry whose terminal is located near Shueng Wan MRT station and a one-way economy class ticket can cost from $132 to $172.