HONG KONG – The city is united in its unabashed consumerist culture, and time is money. Better move quickly.
HONG KONG – The city is united in its unabashed consumerist culture, and time is money. Better move quickly.
Public transportation is awesome, efficient, and well-connected, even to and from Hong Kong International Airport. The first thing you should do once you arrive is buy an Octopus card, which acts like a debit card for all modes of transportation (you can even use it at 7-11). They totally unlock the city! Taxis are clean, plentiful, and relatively cheap. Most people speak English or will at least know English names for streets and buildings because all signage is bi-lingual.
If there is one colloquial Chinese phrase people should learn, it’s “ai-yaaah!” — which can mean all sorts of things (oh no! oh shit! oops! yikes!) depending on the context.
The best time of year is autumn through Christmas, when the weather is pleasant and the city rolls out the red carpet for citizens and tourists with wild holiday displays and light shows. Chinese New Year is fun but possibly a bit of a nightmare for Westerners, as locals get the entire week off from work to celebrate with family (making for a very crowded city). Avoid prime summer and typhoon season unless you are accustomed to 100 degree temperatures and 100 percent humidity (though air conditioning in Hong Kong is ubiquitous).
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There's a general celebratory atmosphere that pervades the city. Business folks keep bottles of Remy Martin with their names on them at favorite nightclub haunts, and cocktail culture has never been stronger. People are really starting to get into fine wine too, with many of the world’s most expensive bottles at auction going to the who’s who of Hong Kong society.
Expensive drinking with a view. Upper House, which is a newish spot on a high floor of the residences at the Marriott at Pacific Place. It’s very tasteful, has great views, and will set you back about $15 a drink. An outdoor bar in the middle of Central's gleaming office towers, The Terrace at Sevva almost makes you forget you are in one of the most congested and dense cities in the world. Unfortunately, the whole ambiance feels like a tragically hip '90s lounge. Best to avoid prime times (Friday and Saturday late-nights).
Lan Kwai Fong area. It’s known for debauchery and trouble for the ex-pats. I think it’s pretty lame in general, but if you want to go clubbing, you can do it here. Hyde is relatively new on Lyndhurst Terrace, just on the outskirts of LKF. It’s multi-level and "hot" at the moment. Other stand-bys are Prive, Drop, Volar, and Dragon-I. The bars in LKF are the types of places where you order Jell-O shots, but I liked this one called Lei Dou, which is less beer, more cocktails, with velvet-flocked Victorian couches. NY-based design group AvroKo outfitted Wyndham Street with Lily (a buzzy cocktail bar inspired by Old New York ) and Bloom (the matching supper club).
Soho area. It's much more charming and less douchey than Lan Kwai Fong. There's a bar/cafe called Lotus at the top of the world’s longest escalator. (That’s right, it runs from Central up to Mid-Levels.) There are seat cushions you can arrange on the outside steps for lounging and people watching.
Sense99 is a gritty bar in a former residential building with original floor tiles, windows, and a rickety wooden staircase. It feels like a secret spot for bohemians and chain-smoking model types. I hang out on the top floor, where anybody can start an impromptu jam session using the drum kit and instruments on hand. Very cool vibe, Hong Kong needs more of it. The whole city could use some patina and imperfection.
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Jesus. Where to start?
Street food. General rules (and strong stomachs) apply. There are delicious things to eat, like curry beef balls (bathed in a light curry sauce, served on sticks) and donut-like cakes filled with red bean paste.
Hotel food. Seriously, it is a category. Nobody does Sunday brunch buffets better than the big hotels in HK — Marriott, Grand Hyatt, Conrad, etc. Totally over-the-top with abundance and goodness.
Sai Kung Seafood. This area out on the back side of Kowloon is not as picturesque as, say, Portofino or Sag Harbor, but it's got a cool fishing village vibe to it. There is a section right by the marina where all the seafood restaurants have an outpost, and you can point to any of the tanks to get your lunch freshly prepared. There are also set menus if it's too overwhelming to contemplate stone crabs over horseshoe crabs. You can sit outside at a great Michelin-starred place called Chuen Kee.
Dim sum. You can't go wrong. City Hall Maxim's Palace, for the trolley cart experience. Then there's the chaotic, cheap, and Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan for die-hards who don't mind waiting two hours for a table.
Hutong. This place is expensive but the views (looking at HK from Tsim Sha Tsiu side) are amazing, and the decor is pretty cool. It evokes an old Chinese village, with Ming chairs, rustic wooden stools, in a dark and dramatic setting. It's "peasant" food but, for non-locals, it's really delicious stuff. The restaurant is in a new office building called One Peking Road, and the same company has additional restaurants on the top floors — one Japanese and the other Italian.
Tsui Wah. It's a 24-hour cultural institution.There are several locations, one conveniently in Lan Kwai Fong. This place is known for HK-style milk tea (they even have a "champagne" version which comes in a glass bottle over ice in its own bucket), fried rice (perfect for the 4 a.m. post-clubbing crush), HK-style western food (things like club sandwiches made with lunchmeat, pork chop rice, baked spaghetti bolognese), and the piece-de-resistance: a toasted sweet bun with condensed milk.
Places that cater to the high-low. Mak’s Noodle Shop is exactly the kind of place you’d see Birkins and backpacks collide.
High Tea at the Peninsula. No visit to HK is complete without this. It's not as expensive as you'd think, and you can order two tea sets with enough finger sandwiches/crumpets/pastries to feed four. The hotel itself is spectacular and so is its famous fleet of Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Philippe Starck designed a fussy restaurant upstairs called Felix that is cool for drinks.
A word about Western restaurants in general. You can't beat locavore dining in Brooklyn, but the trend has found its way to HK (with slightly less impressive results). After a while you may tire of Chinese food so you end up eating at places like Posto Pubblico — which do the trick but won't wow.
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Nightime on the Tsim Sha Tsiu side. Walk along the waterfront for a view of HK harbor. Head inland to check out the sights and smells of Temple Street, and sneak a peek at the unsavory characters (this is the stomping grounds for the Triad — the underbelly of HK). To get to Tsim Sha Tsiu, which is on the Kowloon side (the mainland), take the Star Ferry from HK Island. It's a great way to see the city and super duper cheap.
The Peak at night. Take the tram — it's the oldest funicular in the world — and have a drink and snack at The Peak Lookout, a landmark cafe my grandparents used to frequent.
Daytime in historic Wan Chai. The area is still a little seedy, but that’s part of the charm. There is recent interest to adaptively reuse colonial-era buildings in Hong Kong rather than demolish them, and there is a great example of that at this place called The Pawn, which used to be a big pawn shop but is now a gastropub and music venue.
Sai Kung on the Kowloon side. Make time to venture out into nature. Hong Kong has lots of hiking trails, and, weirdly, all of them are paved (often with grooves in the concrete so it's quite easy without gear). I was passed many times on the famous McHelose Trail by hunched over "amahs" who looked like they were dressed for little more than a stretch on their patio. That's not to say these trails aren't challenging. At times they are super steep; we hiked the last three hours of it and ended up at one of the most amazing beaches I've ever been to. Secluded and totally private, accessible only by illegal speedboat or hiking trail.
End the day with a foot massage. Foot is open nearly 24 hours, is super zen, clean, and the best $40 bucks you can spend in 75 minutes.
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You really can shop ‘til you drop in HK — everything from amazing back-alley, street-hawker costume jewelry finds, to supremely tasteful luxury department stores.
Street markets. Li Yuen Streets (East and West) in Central, Granville/Cameron Roads in Tsim Sha Tsui, and the Ladies Market (Temple Street) in Mong Kok are all great for costume jewelry, fast fashion, and trendy items. Be prepared to negotiate aggressively — offer 50 percent of the quoted price and pretend to walk away. Made to order goods (inspired by, say, Hermes) can be had at Ladies Market.
Local big name stores. The Muji and Uniqlo here are way better, bigger, and cheaper in Asia. HK’s grand dame of high-end clothing is Lane Crawford helmed by style icon Sarah Rutson, a beautiful department store chain that caters to socialities and "tai tai's" (ladies that lunch). Joyce is similarly high-end.
Causeway Bay. The crazy shopping mecca is home to places like G.O.D. (Goods Of Desire), a lifestyle shop that merges old and new China. It has a bookstore that stocks rare titles on colonial Hong Kong, street photography, and Chinese cookbooks in English that you can't get anywhere else. You can get tons of souvenirs like mahjong tiles, Shanghai soap, and paper goods. Have a pasta and panini lunch at Caffe Habitu, the super cozy bistro attached to the store. There are also loads of consignment designer handbag stores, where tai tai's drop off their gently used Birkins because they have sixteen and are tired of staring at one of them. And, of course, there's Sogo, the last of the amazing Japanese department stores in the area. Pastries and confections boxed, decorated, ready to gift, and so pretty, I have a hard time eating them. Sogo also carries a lot of cool Japanese labels you won't see outside of Asia.
Malls. Okay, so going to a mall is not that cool, but malls in Hong Kong are ridiculously awesome. It gets a little overwhelming but the newest ones are worth checking out. The enormous IFC has a W Hotel attached to it, as well as a really neat Agnes B. cafe concept loved by monied ladies and ex-pat couples who brunch on the weekends while reading the International Herald Tribune.
Stanley Market. This might be a forever tourist-popular destination, but as kid I remember going here often to visit my great aunt (a Carmelite nun) at her convent. The convent is open to the public, and sells really good honey candies and fresh fruit syrups from the bees they keep on the roof. It's on the backside of HK island, which you approach by driving the winding roads, with steep cliffs on one side, beaches on the other. Stanley Market has narrow lanes with lots of shops and kiosks selling trinkets, handmade silk items, pashminas, and embroidered linen things. People bargain here for sport, so it can be exhausting. Stroll the main road and you'll find several cute places for lunch.
Men's Suiting Shops. It's practically the island's uniform, whether it's off-the-rack, tailored, or totally bespoke. The Armoury, a relatively new boutique in the Pedder Building, offers gorgeous natty duds with supreme craftsmanship. The same can be said for the dandy-ish Moustache shop on Aberdeen Street, in which custom suits are built by the lovely British tailor/owner with extra flair.
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Hong Kong is a fascinating city of highs and lows — literally. Hotels, restaurants, offices, and shops are stacked inside skyscrapers, and whole worlds of commerce exist in connecting underground shopping malls. Yet most of the land is still a superb countryside of hiking trails, islands, and protected parks. There's a lot to take in, but it's possible to get a lay of the land in a few days. This list of essentials will help you make sense of it all.
Hong Kong is the land of plenty. Plenty of people, plenty of pollution, plenty of Porsches. It’s home to real estate magnates, old guard industrialists unafraid to show their wealth, and new arrivals from China looking to make quick money in factories, shops, and hotels. The city is united in its unabashed consumerist culture, and time is money. Even the escalators are twice as fast, so be careful.
The city is divided into three main areas. Hong Kong Island is a compact jungle of high-rises that give way to lush Victoria Peak and laid-back coastal towns. Mainland Kowloon is a jumble of markets, temples, and low-rise housing on the opposite side of Victoria Harbor. The New Territories are parks, woodlands, traditional fishing villages, and outlying islands.
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