Still to this day, years after my first visit to Hong Kong, I have such vivid memories of it. The sounds, smells, and sights all flood back. While I do remember my visits to Hong Kong’s “main sites” like the giant buddha, I more vividly remember the taste of the street food and the crazy little markets I stumbled upon while just wandering the city. Wandering, even getting a bit lost, is the best way to explore a new city, to understand it, and no where is this more true than in Hong Kong.
Whenever I have traveled with a packed schedule of “things to see” I have come home with little more than some pictures and a vague recollection of the place. When I take the time to really just wander through a city though, I get a sense for the place, for its unique local lifestyle, and I have a better understanding of what makes the city special. The memories from a trip like that are sure to stick with you for years to come.
Before you start wandering off into the heart of Hong Kong though, it is helpful to at least have a general idea of the city’s different areas. Hong Kong is not your average city, spread out into the horizon but rather a densely packed place, spread over three main areas – Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories. The New Territories make up the largest section of Hong Kong but for most visitors to the city, the main areas worth exploring are Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. They are each very unique and if you have the time, it is worth spending at least a day exploring each of them.
Hong Kong Island is the financial and business heart of the city. Wandering the island will give you a chance to see all the power and wealth of this once British colony. Above you rise huge skyscrapers, filled with high end hotels, luxury apartments, and the offices of some of the world most important companies. At ground level you will find yourself surrounded by luxury brand stores and fancy malls. The streets are packed with people, night and day, most dressed in their best business suits and hurrying to or from work. The whole area has a vibrancy – this is a place that makes the world run, where secret business meetings can determine whole new directions for some of the world’s largest industries. It will make you feel small.
On the other side of the harbor, Kowloon can seem like a whole different world. It feels more Chinese than British and doesn’t have the same level of wealth you see on Hong Kong Island. Instead, it feels really lived in, a place where people spend their whole lives, a local neighborhood. You’ll find great markets with more affordable prices on everything from hotels to food. While both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are packed with people, here things are a bit more hectic, frantic even, with literally millions of people both living and working in such a small space. Kowloon has a chaotic kind of energy that can be a bit addictive and makes for very fun days of exploring.
Like I said before, it’s not about seeing anything in particular, rather just wandering and seeing what you find. After two days of wandering Kowloon, I was certain this neighborhood could not possibly surprise me anymore. Some of the most fun I had was just looking for English translations, which are easy to spot in the otherwise unrecognizable landscape of Chinese characters. People here love to translate the weirdest things and you will spot some really interesting, those usually incorrect, translations.
Wandering the streets of Hong Kong you can find literally everything, including the kitchen sink which on my afternoon in Kowloon was marked 60% off and sitting on the sidewalk outside of a home design store. Everything is for sale – crispy duck hanging in the windows, high end luxury brands – both the real things and knockoffs, every bootleg movie and video game you could want, traditional chinese medicine to cure anything, and so much more. I swear I even came across an outdoor, sidewalk sex shop. If you have the money and the time to find it, I promise you Hong Kong has it.
In all my hours of wandering I was never without my favorite asian treat – bubble tea. You can find it all over the city and it goes great with all the random snacks and food you’ll find in Hong Kong’s various neighborhood markets. Here you will smell your food before you see it, being draw in a particular direction by the delicious smells of grilled meat or away from some smelly, unidentifiable black muck. While Hong Kong Island has some of the best restaurants, Kowloon is where you find simple, local food.
If you’re not a huge fan of crowds, you might want to avoid wandering around during the rush hours before and after work. For me though, these were the most fun times. Hong Kong is a very densely packed city and when the streets are literally packed with people, it can feel a bit like floating in your own little bubble. Crossing the streets, flowing with literally thousands of other people, all rushing off to work or home or to meet friends, I felt peacefully disconnected with it all. Most people don’t even remember their commute, zoning out and going by autopilot through their familiar route. As an outsider though, it can almost seem like watching one of those old movies, speed up. That is the energy of Hong Kong and you will only really experience it by putting away your “to see list” and just going with the flow.
After a day of wandering, there is one more place to stop before heading home. Victoria Harbour, sitting between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, comes to life at night with some of the best views of the city. From either side, you can look out over the water to the incredible, brightly lit skyline of the city but the best views are from Kowloon looking towards Hong Kong Island. Plan on having dinner near the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade on the Kowloon side to make sure you have the best view in time for the nightly “Symphony of Lights” show. This ten minute long show lights up the tallest buildings of Hong Kong in a synchronized dance of lights and is one of Hong Kong’s most popular sites. So there you go, a day of wandering and at night a chance to cross off one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attractions.