Eight years ago I had the pleasure of spending a 24 hour layover in Hong Kong, and I’ve been eager to return ever since. That trip was so short that I didn’t have the opportunity to see much of the city. This time I was joined by Jason, we had four full days, and we were ready to explore the best things to do in Hong Kong.
Our trip was filled not only with great Hong Kong sights, but also with delicious food, and I’ll share that as well. Afterall, this is one of the best dim sum cities in the world!
Table of Contents
Understanding the City of Hong Kong
Writing about what to do in Hong Kong isn’t difficult because this city is full of fascinating and historic sites. The real challenge is how to make the most of your time is this large and densely populated metropolis. As a result, it’s important for visitors to understand a bit about the geography in order to make the most of your time.
For the first two days we focused on two major sections of the city--Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (Kowloon is outlined in red on the map above). Each of these parts of the city has modern and traditional aspects. Both have very large malls with popular stores like Addidas, Gap, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, etc. But there are plenty of traditional markets, food streets, and temples to be found throughout Hong Kong--they just take a little more effort to find.
To maximize our time we explored only Kowloon on our first day and then ventured into Hong Kong Island on the second day. Our third day was focused exclusively on Lantau Island.
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Getting Around Hong Kong
Like most large Asian cities, Hong Kong has an excellent and affordable public transportation system which we used regularly. An Octopus card can be purchased and used for all forms of public transport during your stay. Mostly we used the Metro which is clean and efficient. My only caution is that individual stations are very large and have multiple entrances and exits. When asking for directions it helps to be clear which exit is needed to get to your destination.
Taxis are also plentiful and reasonably priced in Hong Kong. After a long day of sightseeing and walking, sometimes we just grabbed a cab back to our hotel.
To cross back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the Star Ferry is cheap and scenic. The ferries have been in service for 120 years! If its a clear day be ready with your camera to get some great shots of the skyline.
Here's some great ideas of what to do if you're Visiting Hong Kong With Kids.
Finally, we walked--a lot! On the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, the city is flat and easy to walk. On the Island side it gets hilly. During our attempt to walk from the Star Ferry to the Peak Tram, we became hopelessly lost, got tired of the steep slope, and grabbed a cab for the rest of the way.
If you’ve read any of our posts, you likely know that we love Uber, and it is available in Hong Kong. However, the combination of walking, Metro and taxis was working so well for us, we didn’t attempt Uber on this trip.
Day One–Wong Tai Sin Temple
I have explored dozens of temples throughout Asia, and a few in Hong Kong, but Wong Tai Sin is my favorite and by far the most interesting. In planning what to do in Hong Kong in four days, I knew this would be my first stop.
This is not a quiet place of reverence, but instead its crowded, filled with the sounds of murmured prayers and shaking fortune sticks, and infused with the scent of incense. It’s clearly an important part of local life and is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a Western place of worship.
The crowds are an interesting mix of local worshippers and large groups of Chinese visitors. This is a well known temple for Chinese people, both near and far. As buses unload and guides bark orders at their charges, hundreds of worshippers purchase incense, light it on the burners provided, find their favorite spot and begin their prayers.
Wong Tai Sin is not a temple dedicated to one faith tradition, but to three; Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The dominant colors are red and black--red of course because its an auspicious color in the Chinese culture, and black because of the statues and incense burners.
Around the temple are dozens of small stalls of fortune tellers. Part of the popularity of this temple comes from the purported accuracy of these fortune tellers.
Adjacent to the temple is the Good Wish Garden. Colorful bridges and pagodas surround a large pond. This lovely spot is enjoyed by worshippers as well as locals looking for a nice spot to take a break from the noise of the surrounding busy streets.
Day One Continued–Exploring the Markets
Any Hong Kong visit must include one or more traditional outdoor market. The first one on our list was the Flower Market, which in contrast to the temple, was peaceful and quiet. Dozens of small shops line the street, each filled with plants and flowers. There were a few tourists like us, but mostly this is a place for locals looking to decorate balconies, patios and apartments.
In the evening we headed to the Temple Street Night Market. Hundreds of small stalls cater mostly to tourists selling t-shirts and knick-knacks. But we went for the food. The Temple Street Night Market is famous for their street food and the surrounding restaurants.
We started out with a smoothie, then tried some dumplings on a stick and finally selected a restaurant for our main meal of the evening, spicy crab. The crab was delicious and Jason and I definitely enjoyed the experience. However, since it was our first full day in Hong Kong, and we were still jet lagged, we selected the restaurant without giving careful consideration to the price of the meal. We later realized that we had likely paid an inflated “tourist” price. In fact it appeared to us that many of the restaurants in this area were much more expensive than those in other parts of the city.
I had read mixed reviews about this market on sites like TripAdvisor, and I now understand the reasons. I don’t recommend Temple Street, as there are several other night markets available throughout Hong Kong. Instead ask a local, or your hotel concierge for a better recommendation.
Day Two–Victoria Peak and The Peak Tram
After breakfast on our second day, we headed to Hong Kong Island and Victoria Peak. This is one of the most famous Hong Kong attractions and a lovely place to get views of the city. Some of these views can be had for free, but most people pay the small fee to enter the observation deck of the Peak Experience. Yes, it’s very touristy. To get to the observation point visitors ride the escalator past floors of shops, restaurants, 3D rides, and even a wax museum. But ultimately, the paid view is worth it.
During my previous trip to Hong Kong I was able to visit Victoria Peak, but did so without riding the tram which is one option for ascending to the top. There are also stairs, or visitors can take a bus or taxi. But as the steepest funicular in the world, I was determined to add this to the total experience. So Jason and I waited in line, rode the funicular and enjoyed The Peak Experience in all of its touristy glory.
Hong Kong does not always enjoy clear skies due to weather and pollution, so the view from the peak will depend on a variety of factors. Fortunately, on the day we visited, the view was decent.
Most cities offer some sort of option for city views, but I must say that Hong Kong does this exceptionally well. The whole experience of getting to the tram, riding it up and then enjoying the observation deck will likely take 2-3 hours depending on your starting point, but I can’t imagine a trip to this city without it.
Day Two Continued–A Stroll, Afternoon Tea, and Symphony of Lights
After returning to Kowloon we decided to stroll the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade which is frequently listed among the top Hong Kong tourist attractions. This 1.7 kilometer walkway along the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor offers lovely views of the water and Hong Kong Island. An hour or more could easily be spent along the promenade, but we had to move on after 30 minutes.
One of the great traditions in Hong Kong, leftover from the British, is afternoon tea. Combine that with the rising popularity of this very English tradition and you have dozens of restaurants and hotels scrambling to offer unique tea times.
My research about afternoon tea led me to the Langham Hotel which provides a very traditional experience that includes suited waiters, elegant seating and live harp music. Here they offer Afternoon Tea with Wedgwood in the Palm Court.
A three foot plate stand was set next to our table with three levels of beautifully decorated, bite-sized treats. A lovely Wedgwood teapot was placed on the table with our selected tea. We began with the small sandwiches, then moved on to the scones and ended with the sweets. While I loved the presentation, I must admit that I’ve had better food at afternoon teas. The scones were delicious, but my reaction to the sandwiches and sweets was mixed.
We ended our day at the Ozone Bar atop the Ritz Carlton to watch the Symphony of Lights over the harbor. This music and light show, started in 2004, has become one of the best known Hong Kong tourist attractions. Its performed every evening at 8 p.m. and can be seen from many spots on either the Kowloon or Island side of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the viewing deck at Ozone is outdoors and the evening was windy and cold, so we only watched a few minutes of the show. The food and drinks at the Ozone however were excellent and we still enjoyed our evening.
Day Three–Lantau Island
While it is certainly possible to visit Lantau Island on your own, I definitely recommend a guided tour. The convenience of a bus to take visitors seamlessly from their hotel to each site, and have all admission tickets pre-purchased for us was worth it.
For our particular tour, the guide was disappointing. We were assigned a young man who was clearly not happy with life. His commentary about Hong Kong and the sites was tainted by his own negative world outlook. I was always glad when he was done speaking. But even with our disappointment in the guide, this was still an excellent day trip from Hong Kong and paying for the guided tour allowed us to move efficiently between sites.
Our time on Lantau Island began at the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Cars which are intended to take visitors up to the Po Lin Monastery and Giant Buddha. This ride is an impressive 5.7 kilometers long on cable cars designed to offer 360 degree views of the surrounding island and Pearl River. The ride takes 30 minutes. We chose to upgrade to the Crystal Cabins which also had a clear floor which allowed us to enjoy the view directly below us as well.
At the top of the cable car ride we passed through the village of Ngong Ping, which is essentially a series of shops and restaurants catering to the tourists. On the other side is the Po Lin Monastery, established in 1924. This is a complex of buildings for Buddhist monks to live and worship.
After enjoying a vegetarian lunch at the restaurant on the monastery grounds, we had 30 minutes to explore on our own. I always welcome the experience to see sacred spaces from other faith traditions, so I appreciated that we had so much time on our own at Po Lin. Jason and I began in the front of the complex. Here is a large burner for worshippers to light their incense sticks. Then we found our way through each of the buildings to observe the different shrines and temples. At the very back is an impressive worship space for monks called the Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas. This hall is the newest addition to Po Lin and was completed in 2014.
But the most famous destination in this monastery is the 112 foot tall Giant Buddha. Our tour continued with a bus ride to the base of the this statue so we could avoid the few 268 stairs. The Giant Buddha--or Tian Tan--was completed in 1993. We had some time to explore and enjoy the views and then continued on to the traditional Tai O Fishing Village.
Tai O was like nothing I’d ever seen before. This is home to the Tanka people who build their homes on the tidal flats of Lantau Island. Their livelihood has historically been fishing, but today is heavily supplemented by tourism.
Once in the village we quickly boarded a boat that took us through the village filled with houses on stilts. Then the boat proceeded to the sea to search for pink dolphins, a variety found only in the China Sea. In a day filled with highlights, seeing the pink dolphins was the crowning moment for me.
When choosing a Hong Kong tour, we had so many options, but I was delighted we selected a day on Lantau Island and highly recommend it to anyone else.
Day Four–Hong Kong to Macau Day Trip
I have always been fascinated by the idea of going to Macau, so Jason and I ended our trip with a full day in Macau which is a just an hour ferry ride from Hong Kong.
Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Special Administrative Region of China. It was leased for 400 years to the Portuguese, giving it a unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture that can be seen in its architecture and tasted in its food.
I’ll admit up front that we both found Macau a bit disappointing. It was warmer and more humid than our time in Hong Kong, and much more crowded than anticipated. But there were several sites that we enjoyed, so I’ll share those.
First, we started in Old Macau with the purpose of visiting the ruins of St. Paul’s. I’d seen these in many travel photos and was excited to see it in person. This church experienced three fires during its history, but the last one was so significant that the church was not rebuilt. Instead the front wall has been reinforced and a small museum exists underground in what used to be the crypt.
Old Macau has several other historic buildings and sites including St. Dominic’s Church, Mount Fortress, and Na Tcha Temple. All of the historic sites are free to view and informational signage is available to give some background.
Check out the Most Instagram-worthy places in Macau!
Next we proceeded to A-Ma Temple, the oldest temple on the island, constructed in 1488. This Taoist place of worship is built into a hillside, so many portions are reached by stone staircases. The scent of incense is everywhere throughout A-Ma, and worshippers can be observed at many different shrines bowing and saying prayers.
Macau has recently been named a UNESCO City of Creative Gastronomy, so there are many great dining options around. During the day we sampled several traditional Macanese dishes including a fried pork chop bun and egg tarts. For dinner we selected a traditional Portuguese restaurant, A Lorcha, and had an excellent entree called ameijoas a bulhao de patob, or clams in white wine sauce with garlic and cilantro. This dish was so memorable that I’ve since made it at home after searching for the recipe online.
Hong Kong Food
I’m not going to provide a comprehensive guide to Hong Kong food, but instead focus on our favorite food experience in this city, dim sum. It’s believed that dim sum was created 2,500 years ago to provide a small meal in tea houses to travelers along the silk road. Personally I think dim sum should be on any “top things to do in Hong Kong” list.
Dim sum wasn’t invented in this city, but some might argue that its been perfected here. We feasted on this small plate delicacy at many restaurants during our stay, but two places were most memorable.
First is the Michelin-starred, Tim Ho Wan, founded in Hong Kong in 2009, and now located in several countries, including the U.S. We went to the original in Mong Kok which often has a long line of hungry people waiting outside. Fortunately, we arrived early and waited less than five minutes. Guests receive a menu and an order form, available in Chinese or English. The completed order form is given to the waitress and within minutes hot, steaming plates and baskets appear on your table. The highlight for us was the baked pork buns, although the shrimp and pork dumplings were a close second. For anyone looking for a great deal, this meal of four plates of dim sum and tea cost us just $20. And this might be a bit controversial, but I vote for Tim Ho Wan as the best dim sum in Hong Kong.
Next was Yum Cha Hong Kong, famous for the artistic and humorous presentation of their dim sum. Pork buns are styled to look like pigs, custard buns are yellow with large eyes, and the red bean cakes are seasonally decorated like pumpkins. Jason did not share my excitement for this place since he’d prefer his food not to look like animals, but judging by the line of people gathering 45 minutes before opening, there are many people like me who do enjoy it. And yes, its was darn tasty as well.
Best Place to Stay in Hong Kong
For this particular trip we were looking to be immersed in a neighborhood, outside of the areas most popular with tourists, so we selected the Royal Plaza Hotel in the Mong Kok area. The rooms are attractive and comfortable, the rates reasonable, and the service good. This hotel is also next to a shopping mall, a major Metro station, and close to the Flower Market.
For a first time visitor I’d recommend staying in the Tsim Sha Tsui area. Many of these hotels offer views of the harbor, and are much closer to the top Hong Kong points of interest including the ferry terminal and the promenade.
Looking for family friendly accommodations?
Here are the Top 5 Child Friendy Hotels in Hong Kong
Hong Kong Travel Guide
This itinerary has covered many of the best places to visit in Hong Kong, especially for a first time visitor. I’ve completed this guide with a few other tips that should help make your trip smoother and more enjoyable.
Hong Kong can be a comfortable way for Americans to experience China. The primary language is English, there are no Visa requirements, it’s affordable and offers an enormous number of things to do. Combine that with great food, shopping, and excellent public transportation and it definitely has the makings for a successful trip.