Although I’m reluctant to make this comparison, I consider Hong Kong to be the NYC of the east with nicer beaches and a more interesting cityscape. You can get pretty much anything, day or night, in Hong Kong. Each of its neighborhoods offer something different and the city is best explored on foot or by subway. Like NYC, it can be intimidating at first, but you quickly fall into a rhythm. It is a diverse place and the people are generally friendly, but don’t expect them to go out of their way to strike up conversation. Everyone is going somewhere all the time, creating an amazing energy only comparable to NYC. Unless you don’t like big cities, you can’t go wrong with Hong Kong.
A lot has happened in Hong Kong’s history from Chinese Imperialism to British Colonization. We aren’t historians and don’t want to misrepresent Hong Kong’s colorful past. Take a look at Wikipedia for an introduction.
We arrived in Hong Kong a few months after large anti-government protests had begun. The government in Bejing decided it has the authority to choose which candidates can run for public office in the autonomous region of Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong found this to be unacceptable, recognizing that the controlling Chinese government would bar any candidates that they felt threatened their power and influence over the region. The protests have since calmed, but the issue has not been fully resolved. Although there were several active protests while we were there, they had little impact on our visit (other than congesting the entrances and exits to the Mong Kok station).
Entry into Hong Kong is simple as an American tourist; you can stay for up to 90 days without needing a visa. Beyond that, special visas are required. Visit the State Department’s website for more info.
You should have your routine immunizations before visiting Hong Kong. Typhoid and Hep A are also recommended. See the CDC website for additional details.
Cantonese (or Chinese) is the primary language with Mandarin a very close second. English is widely spoken amongst residents under 40. Compounded with a huge expat community, it’s easy to get around only speaking English.
Hong Kong Dollar
Cash or Credit
We found cash to be easiest. Many small local shops and stalls won’t accept credit cards. If shops do accept credit cards you could be expected to have a Chip & Pin enabled card. You can use your credit card at major stores, fancier restaurants, and convenience stores, but if you are stuck without a Chip & Pin you could be forced to pay cash.
From the Airport
Depending where you are headed, the MTR airport line is the way to go, assuming you don’t have to hike up any of the massive hills in central Hong Kong (use the Central-Mid-Levels escalator system which runs up Cochrane Street in Central).
If you are flying into Hong Kong from the west, you will probably be exhausted, dehydrated, and a bit disoriented. In that case, I’d recommend taking a taxi. They aren’t cheap, but they are convenient and if you arrive during the day with good weather, they are a great way to enjoy Hong Kong’s amazing cityscape (our taxi driver was blasting The Beatles as we rolled into town).
If your flight lands during daylight hours, look out the window for some fantastic views of the city and surrounding islands.
There are other ways to pay for public transit, but why bother? The Octopus Card gives you access to most public transit in Hong Kong and is easy to use. They are sold at all MTR stations and are easy to refill there as well. A small deposit is required for the card, but you can return it for a refund at the end of your stay.
The best way to get around Hong Kong, the subway is clean, safe, efficient, and cheap. It will get you you pretty much anywhere, including the airport.
The buses in Hong Kong are straightforward and utilize the Octopus Card. They are just as good as the subway for getting around, but you run the risk of being stuck in lots of traffic.
Taxis are everywhere in Hong Kong, but the MTR is the way to go for most of your transit needs. Taxis on Hong Kong Island will sit in traffic and cost quite a bit. They can be worth it if you just want to get from the airport to your accommodations. The tough part will be the language barrier as not all drivers are fluent in English and most will only speak in bits and pieces.
Uber is an easier alternative to hailing a taxi on the street. They are available throughout central Hong Kong, with limited availability further out in Kowloon. A great option for getting to the airport, but not from the airport.
Tourists have one simple option: the tourist SIM. These are available at 7-eleven and other convenience stores throughout the city and airport. They can be tricky to set-up so make sure you have instructions in English because you will need to install it yourself.
Food & Drink
A single paragraph can’t sum up the awesome scene in Hong Kong. If you love to eat you will love it here. You can get pretty much anything; from the best dim sum to excellent burgers to ramen that competes with the best in Japan. Eating is something of a sport in Hong Kong and residents take it seriously. They like variety, but they expect quality. It doesn’t matter if its a $300 dollar plate at a swank hotel restaurant or a $2 bowl of noodles; if it is good expect to wait in line.
The same goes for drinking. You can get craft beers or perfectly constructed cocktails, but it will cost you, unless you just want to knock back a bucket of Tsingtao.
Finding the restaurant or bar you are looking for can be tough in Hong Kong, but just remember to look up. Don’t be surprised to find a restaurant, club or shop 20 floors up in this tall dense city. And don’t judge a place by it’s lobby; it could be a completely different world when you get to your floor.
Look out for our food specific post coming soon.
You can definitely get great ingredients for cooking your own meals in Hong Kong, but why bother? Eating inexpensive, amazing food is easy and apartment kitchens are tiny (or non existent). If you are a Western cook, the Asian style markets with sidewalk butchers and unfamiliar produce, might be a shock. In my opinion, the best thing to do is eat out and leave the cooking to the experts.
The easiest thing to do is ask. Although many places have potable tap water, lots still don’t. We bought a lot of bottled water at our place in Kowloon. Most restaurants will serve potable water and ice, but it is always good to double check.
No tipping necessary at restaurants or in taxis. For additional tip information check out Who To Tip.
Apartment Rentals (AirBNB)
Our go-to for reasonably priced accommodations is AirBnB. Normally we wouldn’t include a special notation on this, but in Hong Kong there are very specific regulations for apartment rentals that you should be aware of. By law, landlords / hosts can not sublet their places for less than 30 days. Additionally, the renter / guest is required to sign a lease. Many AirBNB hosts ignore or find ways to get around these laws. Be aware that you could be asked to sign a lease saying that you are staying for 30 days even if you aren’t. This is simply to protect the hosts.
You might think figuring out which HK neighborhood to stay in will be hard, but since the MTR connects the entire city with speed and efficiency, it doesn’t really matter. Still, there are two core areas you’ll want to consider: Hong Kong Island’s Central District (from Shek Tong Tsui to Causeway Bay) and the lower end of Kowloon (between Cheung Sha Wan, Jordan and Tsim Sha Tsui ). Each neighborhood has something great to offer and the further you get from Central Hong Kong the cheaper the accommodations. We opted to stay in Cheung Sha Wan and had a fantastic stay in this very local, residential neighborhood (there were no tourists in sight and it was great).
There are too many neighborhoods to get into here and there are many resources. Here are a few that we found useful:
Expat Arrivals: Hong Kong Areas and Suburbs
Just Landed: Where to Live in Hong Kong
World of Wanderlust: Hong Kong Neighbourhood Guide