A Guide to One of the Most Exciting Cities in the World
Hong Kong is hands-down one of my favorite cities in the world. No question. It is so unique and has so much diversity in the varying cultures, cuisines, sights, and things to do. I feel like I say this often, but Hong Kong really has a little bit of everything.
First of all, I think Hong Kong (a territory) has the best food scene of any city in the world. Skeptics might say New York, Paris or San Francisco, but I really think Hong Kong is the best. Dining is one of the main attractions, and understandably so. To start, it has 74 Michelin starred restaurants within about a two square mile area. You literally could stay in Hong Kong for a month and eat somewhere new for lunch and dinner every single day and still not get through all the Michelin star restaurants that it has to offer. What I found probably most impressive was that you can eat three star French food or American fusion gastronomy in Hong Kong that’s as good—if not better—than in their native locations. And if you’re a wine snob, most of these restaurants boast wine lists that literally have everything your heart desires. And scotch selections to boot too. Some of my favorites include VEA (Central), Amber (Central, located in The Landmark, Mandarin Oriental), Caprice (Central, located in the Four Season), 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana (Central, located in the Alexandra House) and Riu Gin (Kowloon, located in the International Commerce Center building). Another favorite is Tim Ho Wan (with locations in Central and Kowloon side), which is known for being the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. My business partner and I had and incredible lunch there for less than $20.
What’s even crazier is that there are thousands of incredible non-fine dining establishments that also offer amazing food for an unbeatable price. You can find literally any type of cuisine you want—whether it’s German, Indian, Nepalese, Thai, South American, or African that you desire—all probably within walking distance or a short subway ride away from wherever you are in the city.
There's also a ton of different things to do in Hong Kong. You can visit beautiful beaches, see ancient temples, and peruse incredible collections of art at one of their many museums. If you're a history buff, there are plenty of museums that show how British colonialism has impacted Hong Kong and shaped it into the city it is today. If you're into gambling, you can bet on the ponies at Happy Valley Racecourse or take a short ferry or flight over to Macau--the Vegas of Asia (they even have a Venetian that is identical to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. See photos here). There's even a Disneyland on Lantau Island, and they have lockers on-site so you can stop and spend a day there if you have a long layover. Hong Kong also has a bustling nightlife, ranging from British-style pubs to swanky dark cocktail lounges.
Where to Stay
For foodies, if one of the main reasons you are coming to Hong Kong is for the food, I would recommend staying in Central. Though Kowloon side also has incredible restaurants and several of the best Michelin Star restaurants, most notable restaurants are in Central, close to all the shopping and the hotels. Plus, almost every one of the higher end hotels boasts a Michelin star restaurant under their roof—the Landmark Mandarin Oriental has 10, the Peninsula has 7, the Four Seasons has 8, and the Ritz Carlton has 10. There are so many amazing restaurants everywhere you look.
If it's high-end shopping you're interested in, Central is also your best bet. There seems to be a mall on every block, and high-end shops right in the heart of Central near all the major hotels. However, if you're looking for a bargain or that unique one-of-a-kind find, Kowloon is the place to be. For more on shopping, see "Shopping" below. For business travelers, staying Kowloon side near the ICC (International Commerce Center) is a good bet.
The Peninsula Hotel is Hong Kong’s most iconic hotel, with the richest history. Whether it’s their signature hunter green Rolls Royces that remain parked out front by the fountains or their exquisitely luxurious Afternoon Tea, the Peninsula exudes nonstop charm, elegance and refinement. Not only do you have high end shops like Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Cartier, and Van Cleef and Arpels right there in your hotel, but the property boasts 7 incredible restaurants, a state of the art fitness center and indoor pool, and an award winning spa. And the rooms—oh, the rooms! They really pay extreme attention to every little detail. The rooms are spacious and bright, with high ceilings, marble bathrooms, and just about every amenity you could image.
Taken directly from the Peninsula's website: "The stunningly renovated new rooms showcase bespoke luxury, detailed craftsmanship and a timeless, classically modern aesthetic that blends the distinctive design touches and practicality present in today’s luxury yachts, motorcars and private jets." It's true. This is the place where those who fly in on their private jets would stay, as every luxury is provided and every detail was thought of. I stayed in the lowest tiered room--the Deluxe Room--and it was nicer than the suites at most really great hotels. My room had 20 foot ceilings and was just a shade under 500 square feet. There's an entryway with a spacious closet, a desk, large king-sized bed, sitting area and gigantic bathroom. The bathroom has head to toe marble and of course has the obligatory phone in the toilet and it's own touch-screen on the wall to control the lights and temperature. There's of course a fully stocked minibar, complimentary coffee and tea (complete with an ornate oriental tea set and Bernardaud cups and saucers--God, I love that china!) and a bowl of fresh fruit, restocked each morning.
The whole place is completely tricked out with all the gadgets too. Everything is controlled by touch-screen tablets, the food and spa menus are located on an iPad, and the entire room is wired so that you can hook up your own music from your phone or your computer. Everything has been provided so you don't really have to bring anything; functional objects such as multiple, dual-voltage electrical power sockets with universal adaptors and chargers have been flawlessly concealed with touch-of-a-button access. Your room also has a valet box, laundry bag, shoe shining service, and includes 24-hour room service.
With that said though, staying at the Peninsula does come at a price. Rooms range between about $500 and $2,000 a night (depending on the season and room type), so even though it’s worth the money, if you’re needing to stay a long time in Hong Kong and can’t necessarily afford the splurge, I suggest staying a couple nights at least at the Peninsula and then staying somewhere else after. Don’t go to the Peninsula first though—you will not want to leave!
If you want to stay Kowloon side, the Ritz is where it’s at. Though it’s not necessarily right there amid all the action (it’s located in the quieter business district—perfect for meetings), it’s still just a short cab ride away from the busier part of Kowloon or a very quick ride on the subway to Central. The rooms are spacious and pretty much exactly what you would expect from a Ritz Carlton property. Almost every room has a stunning view of Victoria Harbor and the Hong Kong skyline. The hotel has 10--that's right, TEN--restaurants and lounges on property, including Ozone (famously known for being the highest bar in the world, according to the Ritz), Tosca (an Italian restaurant with a Michelin Star) and Almas Caviar Bar, an exclusive caviar bar with seating for only 7 guests.
The JW Marriott is my favorite reasonably priced hotel in Hong Kong. I tend to try to choose hotels under the Marriott umbrella because I am a gold member and usually get a complimentary upgrade, but I also like Marriott hotels because you are guaranteed to find the typical luxuries of home even when in another country. There is a consistency with Marriott hotels that I love, and you can always count on the service and the amenities being up to the same standards. This hotel in particular is really wonderful. It’s centrally located, has all the amenities you could need (pool, gym, conference rooms, business center, and several restaurants) and the staff is top notch. The main restaurant serves an incredible array of food for their buffet breakfast and Flint Grill & Bar boasts amazing American style dining and award-winning craft cocktails. And the rooms are comfortable, spacious enough, and either face the harbor or the mountain; though I have seen the harbor facing rooms, I have always gotten a hillside view room and absolutely love it—it’s tranquil waking up to a sea of green outside your window. I love it.
Where to Eat
Our dinner at VEA was one of the most exquisite dining experiences of my life. It absolutely blows my mind that this restaurant only has one star. It's just as good--if not better--than all of the three star Michelin restaurants I have eaten at. Perhaps it's because they are new and still establishing some street cred, but either way, be sure to take advantage of the lower menu price and easily attainable reservation while you can, because it's sure to change once this place gets three stars--which I am sure it will.
We had a 10 course meal that was more like 20. The tasting menu started with three different small bite "snacks", then transitioned into a Shima Aji course, short neck clam course, and a plate of roasted sea cucumber. Then came their Taiyouran Egg--a sous vide egg yolk covered in truffle, parmesan and caviar (gasp!)--which was one of my clear favorites. Then we had a course of yellow chicken, varying langoustine plates, an Australian Wagyu beef course, and then three dessert courses, which again felt more like five or six than just three. One included a more savory dessert plate of sweet corn, black sugar and coconut, served up on a piece of wood in the shape of rustic corn on the cob.
What's also great about this place is in addition to your traditional wine pairing, they offer a cocktail pairing as well. I have to say, I definitely like this new cocktail pairing fad! (And I hope it's not just a fad and is here to stay...). The cocktail pairing included seven incredibly delicate, interesting cocktails that paired perfectly with each dish. The cocktails started with 'Shiso", a drink with yuzu and sake, which are refreshing and light. One particular cocktail was served up in a champagne flute and had flower petals delicately placed so that they were cascading down the side of the glass. The presentation was incredible.
One thing I was worried about with a cocktail course was that I would be shit-faced by the time I was halfway through dinner, but it ended up not being an issue. The cocktails are on the weaker side, which I think is nice for a pairing that is meant to help you enjoy the experience and not just to get drunk.
I also can't say enough about the service. Not only were the waiters incredibly knowledgeable, but also so very attentive. If you dropped your napkin, a new one would appear within seconds. If you weren't able to finish your plate, they asked if anything was wrong and would offer to make something else (though nothing was ever wrong--it was just so much food toward the end). If you wanted an additional glass of one of the wines that you liked, they would pour it free of charge. Apparently they noticed that my dining partner was tired, because one waitress even came by and gave him a pillow--that's the kind of attention I am talking about. Nothing goes unnoticed. It was pretty amusing actually. And the sommelier, of course, really knew his wines and could explain the tasting notes and backstory of each and every wine that was poured.
Caprice is your typical white linen, French fine-dining establishment. Good food, great service and an incredible wine selection. We opted to have lunch there, enjoying a couple bottles of champagne, some caviar, and their chef's selection of French cheeses. Everything was wonderful, and I would imagine that their tasting menu has got to be quite good. They do have a dress code though--even for lunch--so gentlemen must be prepared to wear a dinner jacket and no guests can wear sandals, shorts or athletic-like clothing.
Chesa is like stepping into a Swiss chalet atop the mountain in St. Moritz. Tucked away inside the Peninsula Hotel, most guests of the hotel have no idea that just a floor above the lobby is a small, intimate restaurant that is so authentic that you actually feel as though you have been transported to the Alps. Its signature dishes include the fondue moitie’-moitie’, a Gryuere and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese fondue served with bread, handmade sausages, sliced veal “Zurichoise” and a tremendous selection of air dried meats and cheeses.
Amber is another really incredible two-star Michelin restaurant. It's ranked the second best restaurant in Asia and No. 24 in the world by World's 50 Best Restaurants, beating well-known establishments like the French Laundry,
Saison, Atelier Crenn and Per Se. Though it only has two stars, Amber is one of my top five favorite restaurants. Though I can't think of any one dish or specific thing that sets them apart, the dining experience I had at Amber was truly one of the best. The precision, attention to detail, and impeccable flavor combinations of each dish lead to a perfect tasting menu where there literally wasn't a single dish that I didn't like. This place is a must-visit.
Tim Ho Wan is famously known for being the cheapest Michelin Star restaurant in the world. You can get a lunch for two with plenty of food for less than $20. It serves up all the traditional dim sum dishes like pork buns, chicken feat, shrimp shu mai, pork dumplings. Their pork buns and shrimp noodle rolls (Har Cheung) are incredible. Do plan to wait in line though—they don’t take reservations and there is almost always a permanent line outside of like 20-50 people. Thankfully, it’s worth the wait. Do note that there are several locations—the one in Central is in the subway station, and there are two on Kowloon side. If you want the original, you'll have to head over to Kowloon to Mong Kok. They went from having one Kong Kong hole in the wall to now having a total of 39 restaurants in 9 different countries.
Cocotte has been a favorite of mine since first coming to Hong Kong a few years ago. We stumbled upon it sort of accidentally--I had heard of it by seeing photos on Instagram, so I recognized the name when we walked by it, but had no plans of going there on a particular day and just happened to walk by it after strolling through Central and doing some boutique shopping. It's a cute, quaint little French restaurant with a small, but enticing menu. We started with some salads and then asked the chef to select a number of cheeses to do a large cheese plate. We paired it with a crisp rosé and it made for a perfect (yet a little gluttonous) lunch. We have gone back each time we have visited Hong Kong and plan to keep going in the future.
What to Do
Hike Victoria Peak
Heading up to the top of Victoria Peak for the obligatory skyline photo is something every visitor should do. But rather than wait in the incredibly long lines for the tram, you can get up there in a more enjoyable way and hike it. It’s a modest hike for people who are in shape and offers a great reward once you make it to the top. Don’t want to take the tram but are too lazy or time constrained to hike it? Have a taxi or Uber driver just drive you up to the top and drop you off at the shops. From there, you can take the escalators up to the viewing deck. There are shops and restaurants at the top, so you can even stop for a beer or a bite once you’re up there. Get there early if you want an unobstructed view without too many people.
Get Chauffeured Around the City in a Rolls
This sounds so cliché but I have to admit, it was so cool. The Peninsula Hong Kong is famous for its record-breaking fleet of luxury vehicles, including an immaculately restored classic 1934 Rolls-Royce Phantom II, a popular choice for weddings and special occasions. For day-to-day transport, the hotel offers 14 Rolls-Royce Phantom Extended Wheelbase vehicles and two MINI Cooper S Clubmans, all of which have been painted the signature Peninsula Brewster Green and customised with refrigerators, iPod connections and more for guests’ comfort. You can hire a driver to chauffeur you around town in a Rolls for around $200/hour (2 hour minimum). Since we only needed to go from Kowloon side to Central (we were switching hotels), we had the driver drive us up to the top of Victoria Peak (skip the tram if you can!) and then drop us off at our new hotel. Not only was it pretty neat to be driven around town in a Rolls, seeing little kids point in excitement, but it was a damn civilized way to transport ourselves and our luggage to the other side of town.
Take the Star Ferry
The Star Ferry is such a Hong Kong staple. Though it’s certainly not the quickest way to get from Central to Kowloon side (the metro is much faster), it offers great views of Victoria Harbor and is a more exciting way to get to and from Kowloon and Central. It’s cheap too (less than $3), so it’s an easy way to get on the water without chartering a boat
Climb up to Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery
Be sure to wear your running shoes and workout gear for this one—it is not for the faint of heart. My business partner and I did it wearing our Lululemon gear and running shoes and both are in pretty decent shape and this walk up to the top was absolutely brutal! I kept seeing little old ladies and tourists in jeans and sandals and really didn’t understand how they did it. When got back, my iPhone said we climbed 87 floors and took 20,000 steps.
For me the activity portion involved in seeing this place was actually a positive. Any time I can get a bit of a workout while traveling and couple it with doing something fun, it’s a win.
Getting out there is a little bit of a hassle and it’s not all that easy to find, but once you figure out how to get there it is totally worth it. We chose to take the long option by hopping on the subway and then walking from there—which was worth it because we got to see a lot along the way—but if you are on a time crunch I would recommend just taking a cab. It’s a pretty long walk from the last metro station stop to even the bottom of the monastery, so if you’re either trying to save energy or time, a cab might be a good option.
We took the red Tseun Wan Line to the green Kwun Tong Line to the blue East Rail line, stopping at Sha Tin Station (near a large shopping mall) and then walked from there up toward the mountain, using Pai Tau Street.
Have a Bespoke Suite Made
Hong Kong is famous for being one of the best places in the world to get an inexpensive, yet quality custom suit. Keep in mind that this takes time though, as you will need to first pick out fabrics, tell them what you want and then get measured, and then go back for several fittings. A good place will typically require 2-3 fittings. You pick out your fabric for the exterior of the suit and also the lining, so if you want to go crazy and unique, you can choose from some pretty wild fabrics that you can use to line the jacket of your suit. Most places will embroider your name on the inside of your suit, and you can also customize everything from the fit to the buttons, pockets and zippers. For dress shirts, you can choose your cuff style and even add a monogram to the sleeves.
The great thing about getting suits or dress shirts made is that once you get fitted once, you can just order from home if you want more. After getting fitted the first time, I wanted more dress shirts after a few months and after getting swatches in the mail, I just emailed the company and told them which fabrics I wanted and how many shirts I wanted, and they made them and mailed them back to me in just a few weeks.
We always go to Sam’s Tailor, which is one of the best. They have created custom suits for famous people from all over the world—everyone from dignitaries, presidents and army generals to soccer stars, movie stars and models. Their walls are adorned with photos of all of the people who have come into their store to get fitted. You can check them out online at www.samstailor.com or follow them on Instagram at @samstailor.
Charter a Junk Boat
This was one of my favorite things we did during my first trip to Hong Kong. You can get a private junk boat for around $700 for the day. That’s pretty cheap if you compare it to charters in just about any other part of the world. We ended up chartering one for a full day and were pleasantly surprised to find that our “junk” boat wasn’t much like a junk boat at all—it was more like a small yacht, with all the amenities we would want. We asked ahead of time for them to stock it with beer, and told them we wanted to stop somewhere tour lunch. Though you can customize your charter to go just about anywhere, on our captain’s recommendation we opted to have our trip go to Luk Chau (a nearly deserted island with only a few homes and small shack cafes) first for a short time, then to Lamma Island for lunch (which is a small fishing village that is famous for their incredible seafood) and then cruised around Aberdeen and then back through Victoria Harbor. The boat offered us the ability to easily see a number of different islands, all while enjoying the beautiful sights and feeling the sea breeze.
Take a Boat to Lamma Island
Even if you can't splurge for a chartered boat trip, there are many ways to get out to the neighboring islands. Ferries can easily take you between either Central or Kowloon and Lantau Island, Lamma Island, Ma Wan and Cheung Chau. My favorite was Lamma Island, which is a very small fishing village with several restaurants showcasing fresh seafood dishes. You literally walk up to a case of either live or recently caught fish, point to the one you want, and they cook it up for you. We ate at the Rainbow Seafood restaurant and it was excellent. We had the geoduck, the lobster and a whole fried white fish. For more information on Hong Kong ferries, click here.
Afternoon Tea at the Peninsula
Doing afternoon tea at the Peninsula is quite an experience. You not only get to dine in the stunning lobby of the Peninsula Hotel, but their canapés, deserts and teas are exquisite. They also boast a pretty phenomenal wine list. Want to go big? Order a bottle of their Laurent-Perrier Rose champagne and then do their tasting menu. We were lucky enough to dine at a time when they were doing a Van Cleef and Arpels special menu, which included their special tasting menu, a glass of champagne and a complimentary gift of a notebook by Van Cleef and Arpels. The tasting menu had two tiny sandwiches (smoked salmon and cucumber), a tiny cup of Niçoise salad, a lemon-basil tart, a mango and passionfruit choux, apricot macaron, and a classic selection of teas and coffee.
Note that there is a dress code. I am not sure if a coat is required for men but I would recommend it. They do not allow jeans of flip flops. Women should probably wear a dress or at least business casual attire. And your best bet to get a reservation is to stay at the Peninsula at least one night because that is the only way you can make a reservation. Otherwise, you have to arrive at 2 and stand in a long line to get a table. I have never been there and not seen a line.
Shop. And then shop some more.
Hong Kong Central has more high end shops in one square mile than any place I have ever seen. You will find a Louis Vuitton on one corner, another directly across the street, and then another just a block away. It’s crazy. It boggles my mind how they could have so many of the same stores right next to each other, but apparently they get so many visitors from mainland China and other tourists to keep the shopping alive. You can literally find just about any high end designer store that you want. You can find more than a dozen of each of these: Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Céline, Canali, Berluti, Montblanc, Dolce e Gabbana, Fendi, Prada, Valentino and more. There are also several high end malls that have each of these stores and also your usual suspects like American-loved stores Banana Republic, Lululemon, J. Crew, Apple, Tory Burch and Zara. There are shopping malls everywhere you look, like the gigantic IFC Mall at the International Finance Center, which is also connected to the Four Seasons.
Shopping on a limited budget? Not to worry, there’s plenty of that too. Visit the Ladies Market in Kowloon during the day to browse cheap jewelry, t-shirts, souvenirs, and knock off shoes, belts, handbags and watches. Most places that have the knockoff bags out will have nicer, more authentic looking (and also more expensive) merchandise hidden, as it is illegal in Hong Kong to sell these items.
Spend a Day at Disneyland
Okay, so this one is a little out of character for me. I would typically never say to waste time at an amusement park while traveling unless you have a ton of time there or need to appease the kids. This one is an exception though. Hong Kong Disney is actually pretty neat. I think what I enjoyed most about it was looking at the comparisons between HK Disney and the “real” Disney—the Disneyland that I grew up going to in Los Angeles. Things seem the same, but there are minute differences all over the place that can be seen if you look closely. Downtown Disney, for example, seems to be a picture-perfect replica of the one in LA, but it is a little bit smaller and the shops are slightly different. The carts that serve food don’t have corn dogs and chicken fingers, they have dried fish on a stick (ew) and things like Korean Squid. They do still have those disgusting looking giant turkey legs though…
One of my favorite differences was their version of the Haunted Mansion. Apparently because the Chinese have very different views on death (and please excuse me for he cultural insensitivity/ignorance—I just don’t know a lot about Chinese culture), and since a large majority of their visitors are from mainland China, the concept of ghosts and a haunted mansion apparently just wouldn’t fly. So even though the exterior looked similar to the Haunted Mansion, the HK Disney version was called the Mystic Manor, and a was actually completely different. The story line is apparently about an explorer who brings back a mischievous little monkey as a side-kick, and the monkey gets into some trouble trying to touch a magical piece of artwork and then all of the artifacts come to life. It’s similar to the Haunted Mansion in that it uses holograms and projected lights to make the impression of supernatural “magic” happening all around. It’s pretty cool—I was giggling like a little kid the entire time.
It is a smaller park, so they are missing a lot of the rides that you will find at the larger parks. While they have the Runaway Train, Space Mountain, the Teacups, Sleeping Beauty's Castle, Tarzan's Treehouse, It's a Small World and the Jungle Cruise--though they all have slightly different names--they are missing main attractions like the Matterhorn, Splash Mountain, Autopia, Finding Nemo Submarine, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Mark Twain Riverboat Cruise..
See Big Buddha
Going out to Big Buddha on Lamma Island [check this] is a must-do for a first time traveler to Hong Kong. It takes some time to get there, but it’s worth it once you’re there. You’ll probably have to take the train or the metro out to Lamma Island, and then from there you get on the Ngong Ping 360 Tram, which takes approximately 25 minutes and drops you at the entrance to the monastery. From that point, it’s probably another 20 minute walk to get up to the top of Big Buddha. The views from both the gondola and the top of Big Buddha are incredible and offer great photo opportunities.
For the more active traveler, you can actually hike from where the metro drops you off at Lamma Island and hike all the way to Big Buddha on the trails (which you can see below you from the gondola). It’s about 7 kilometers and takes 3 hours each way. [check this] We were planning to do this on our last trip but unfortunately I injured my knee in the first part of the trip and then we weren’t able to do it. But I’ve heard it’s a great hike.
If you have time, check out Tai O fishing village. It's a very rural, quaint fishing village on the other side of Lantau island, that not many tourists go to. You really get a feel for how some of the locals live.
There's so much to do in Hong Kong... but so little time on my end to post it all. Check back periodically for updates.
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