‘Beneath the glitz and glamour of its towering skyscrapers is a city with heritage neighbourhoods and cultural hotspots that make for an enriching experience, discovers Satarupa Paul’
Hong Kong may perhaps be best known for its gravity-defying skyline. Rising high above the South China Sea, it sure is one of the most mesmerising sights in the world. But, in the shadow of all the glass and glitz lie bustling old neighbourhoods with unique personalities shaped over time, where immersive cultural experiences come together with vibrant dining scenes and exciting shopping opportunities. Make your day here one of discovery of both the old and the new, which together make Hong Kong the great melting pot that it is today.
Old Town Central is one of the oldest and most dynamic districts of Hong Kong, where century- old temples stand alongside concept fashion stores, traditional tea-houses share space with modern art galleries and captivating street art bring to life the sloping lanes and winding alleyways. I begin my exploration from Possession Street, the birthplace of colonial Hong Kong, where British soldiers landed in 1841 to claim the city. Today, it features a Chinese-style garden with hip restaurants and stores lining the street.
Walking up the steep, cobbled pathways brings me to the Man Mo Temple, a 150-year-old Chinese shrine that stands surrounded by towering modern buildings. A fine example of vernacular Chinese architecture, it’s exquisitely decorated with ceramic figurines, granite and wood carvings, and colourful murals. Inside, the aura is one of tranquility — hundreds of burning incense spirals hang from the ceiling, worshippers pray silently and rows of lanterns illuminate their wishes scribbled on red swathes of paper.
The nearby Upper Lascar Row is a treasure trove for shoppers, with scores of shops selling traditional Chinese artworks, handcrafted souvenirs, charms and wind chimes, cast iron teapots, and a great haul of vintage antiques. My last pitstop here is Hollywood Road, one of the first roads built in Hong Kong that today is a hub of contemporary art galleries and design boutiques. A mural of old townhouses painted on a store wall here is one of the most Instagrammed locations in Hong Kong.
Having worked up an appetite after the long walk, I head towards the working class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, located a 20-minute cab ride away across the harbour in Kowloon. A hotspot for cheap electronics and funky gadgets, Sham Shui Po is, however, best known for the plethora of eateries that serve local delicacies at throwaway prices. Several of these are Michelin-recommended, such as the famous Tim Ho Wan—the ‘most affordable Michelin-star restaurant in the world’, featuring a simple menu of 20-odd dim sums. The shrimp dumplings, baked buns with barbecue pork and steamed beef balls attract long queues of locals and tourists alike. If you’ve room left for dessert, do stop by the Michelin-recommended Kung Wo Dou Bun Chong, which serves silky tofu puddings and fermented bean curd made in old traditional ways.
Best Time to Visit: Winter months from October to February have sunny skies and cool weather, plus there are a host of festivals on the cards, making it the best time to visit Hong Kong.
Tram Your Way Through: The Hong Kong Tramways operates the largest fleet of double-decker trams in the world, which connect 120 stops on six overlapping routes, and make for a convenient way to travel around the city.
Historic Ferry Ride: Instead of crossing the harbour by road tunnels, you may also opt to take a ride on the historic Star Ferry, which has been operational since 1888 and ferries over 70,000 passengers across the harbour daily.
I make it back across the harbour in time to join the TramOramic Tour from the Western Market Terminus. This hour-long tour aboard a 1920s-style open top, double-decker tram takes me through the bustling streets of Hong Kong, with its ultra-modern cityscape rising high all around me. An audio-guide gives me a lowdown of the city’s history, while pointing out iconic attractions along the way. Winding through the heritage, business and shopping districts, the tour ends at Causeway Bay, the buzzing retail heart of Hong Kong replete with luxury malls and street markets.
As dusk approaches, I head to the interesting heritage and arts centre of Tai Kwun. One of the most significant restoration projects undertaken by the city recently, Tai Kwun is located in the renovated Central Police Station Compound, comprising the former police barracks, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison. I immerse myself in the rich heritage of this unique historical complex through an interactive tour and ongoiing thematic exhibitions. Eight designated storytelling spaces narrate the 170 years of history of the place, while museum-standard galleries showcase contemporary art exhibitions all year long. The former prison yard and parade ground now serve as performance platforms for theatre, music, dance and film. Surrounding this are upscale retail spaces offering curated selections of books, apparels and gifts, as well as fine dining establishments with an extensive choice of culinary indulgences.
No visit to Hong Kong is complete without witnessing the Symphony of Lights show that dazzles up the skyline for 14 minutes every night. The world’s largest permanent light and sound show, it has 47 participating buildings on either side of the Victoria Harbour that light up in a synchronised musical orchestration of laser displays and pyrotechnic fireworks. The best vantage points for the show are at the Avenue of Stars on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, the promenade outside Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai and from the ferries on the Victoria Harbour.
Fascinated, I head back to my hotel room on the 21st floor and feast my eyes some more on the panoramic views of the Hong Kong skyline.
Besides the main Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, the territory of Hong Kong also includes over 200 surrounding islands dispersed in the South China Sea. Many of these are accessible by ferries and motorboats and make for picturesque day-trips. The tiny island of Cheung Chau has no motorised traffic and is ideal for strollers. The main road heads southwest from the pier and takes you past beautiful coastal scenery and an unending row of eateries serving seafood and fresh catch made in delectable local preparations.
For adventure seekers, Hong Kong offers a range of activities — whether it’s hiking up the second-highest mountain peak of Lantau, canyoning in the New Territories, surfing in Big Wave Bay, making your way through the Cheung Po Tsai Cave or exploring the traditional fishing village of Tai O by kayak.
If you’re a seeker of unique experiences, enroll yourself in a Wing Chun masterclass at the Yip Man Martial Art Association. Over the course of an hour, Master Sam Lau will demonstrate the basics of this traditional Southern Chinese-style Kung Fu, following which you get to practice the quick arm movements with one of the students here.
Nightlife in Hong Kong is lively, friendly and incredibly diverse. Lan Kwai Fong and Soho are the top party districts, where you can let your hair down at one of the scores of trendy bars and buzzing clubs.