For years, Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, was the West’s window onto China, a place where Americans and Europeans could capture a tantalizing glimpse of Chinese culture. But now this teeming city-state — the financial hub of Asia — has been transformed into China’s window on the West. Luxury stores like Louis Vuitton are so mobbed with mainland Chinese customers that velvet ropes are installed on the sidewalk for crowd control. Outposts of Tiffany, Starbucks and other Western companies have pushed egg tart vendors, florists and silk shops out of gracious stone buildings, which have been replaced with opulent shopping malls and high-rises connected by aerial walkways. Stanley Market, where snakes lurked in apothecary jars and pigs were slaughtered in the alleys during my boyhood in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, is now a warren of touristy stalls selling cheap paintings and T-shirts.
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While downtown Hong Kong feels like a more frenzied and costlier version of Midtown Manhattan, this metropolis of 7 million inhabitants — one of the most densely populated places in the world — still has much to offer visitors, especially those who know when and where to look. The secret is to visit as many places as possible in the morning, before the tides of Chinese visitors — 28.1 million of them last year, compared with 1.8 million visitors from the Americas and a similar number from Europe — flood tourist sites and stores. Then have an afternoon nap to cope with jet lag before heading out to dinner, with reservations made well in advance.
And, whatever you do, avoid visiting on or close to Chinese holidays, like National Day on Oct. 1, when even larger crowds of mainland visitors come.
Culture Situated close to where the Pearl River pours its muddy waters into the island-dotted expanses of the South China Sea, Hong Kong is justifiably famous for its harbor, but the city has a colorful background as well. For great views and an introduction to Hong Kong’s history — from the British conquest in the early 1840s to the Japanese attack hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — try theMuseum of Coastal Defense, which stands at the eastern entrance to Victoria Harbor, where craggy bluffs plunge into the sea. Largely undiscovered by tourists, the museum is actually a series of half-ruined British fortifications. With exhibits ranging from a wire-guided torpedo concealed in man-made caves to a gun battery at the crest of the hill, it is a great destination for children. The museum has a simple cafe with a balcony overlooking the South China Sea, and sells delicious grilled cheese sandwiches for 19 Hong Kong dollars (about $2.50).
To get there, take a taxi or catch the Island subway line to the Shau Kei Wan stop. Right outside the subway stop is one of the oldest sites for the worship of Tin Hau, a local sea goddess who protects sailors and fishermen. The current temple dates from the 1870s; inside, it is black with soot from decades of incense burning. On the three-block walk to the museum, you’ll pass Hong Kong’s oldest temple to Tam Kung, a fishing god believed to have power over the weather.
Can’t Miss Arriving early is especially important for what is justifiably one of Hong Kong’s top attractions, the Peak Tram, a funicular railway to Victoria Peak that offers stunning panoramas of Hong Kong Island and the surrounding area. Long lines form by 10 a.m. and last into the night. To avoid the crowds, get there soon after the tram starts running at 7 a.m. After reaching the terminus, take a hard right onto Lugard Road for a stroll around Victoria Peak. Lugard changes its name to Harlech three-fifths of the way around the mountain, and the two roads form a fairly flat two-mile circuit with magnificent views of downtown, the bustling harbor and the South China Sea. The path is seldom crowded except on Sundays, as most mainland tourists are met by tour buses after reaching the top of the Peak Tram.
Decompression After walking around the peak, have breakfast at Pacific Coffee, easy to find in the tower where the tram terminates at the top. It is a local version of Starbucks with impressive views of the entire city below. The longtime manager, Bino, greets morning regulars by name. After descending the hill on the tram, visit nearbyHong Kong Park, an oasis of koi ponds and quiet park benches.
Many residents decompress by shopping, a favorite local activity. The best buys are pearls and custom-made suits. World pearl prices have plummeted because of soaring production of high-quality freshwater pearls in China. American jewelers have been slow to pass on the savings. So try Irene at stall 278 in the old outdoor Jade Market in Kowloon, across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. She offers a fixed-price, no-haggling bargain. Don’t miss the beautiful Chinese temple with a front courtyard of graceful banyans, diagonally across the street from the market.
Another smart purchase is a custom-made suit, which may cost the same as an off-the-rack suit in an American department store, but fits much better. Try Empire International or Sam’s Tailor in Kowloon, where you can expect to pay anywhere from $250 to $2,500.
Night Out No trip to Hong Kong is complete without crossing Victoria Harbor to Kowloon, a wonderful place to spend an evening. You could take the Star Ferry, with its wooden seats and noisy diesel engines, but for a more luxurious, leisurely trip, go for a 45-minute cruise on the Aqua Luna, built according to the century-old designs of wooden Chinese sailing vessels.
Kowloon is the best place from which to see Hong Kong’s 13-minute nightly light show at 8, with multicolored lights running along the sides of some of Asia’s tallest skyscrapers, and green lasers crisscrossing the sky above. One viewing spot is from the Avenue of the Stars, the Kowloon boardwalk facing Hong Kong Island. Or watch the show while dining at the Hutong or Aqua restaurants, atop a skyscraper three blocks from where the Star Ferry and Aqua Luna drop you off. At the Hutong, order in advance the beggar’s chicken (508 dollars), a whole chicken stuffed with mushrooms, cabbage and minced pork, wrapped in clay and baked. Breaking the hardened clay open with the restaurant’s small hammer is fun for all ages. A pricey alternative is the new Italian restaurant Tosca on the 102nd floor of the International Commerce Center, a short taxi ride from the ferry docks in Kowloon, although Tosca is so high that the view below is often lost in the clouds.
Outing For a jaunt from Hong Kong, take a one-hour ferry in the morning to Macau, a former Portuguese colony that is now the world’s top gambling center. Walk through the historic quarter from the Largo do Senado — a pedestrian area with wavy black and white lines underfoot, and some good Portuguese restaurants at the fringes — and several blocks uphill past shops crowded with furniture and bric-a-brac to the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Try to return to Hong Kong before hordes of tourists pour onto the sidewalks by midafternoon.
If You Go
Lodging On Hong Kong Island, the luxurious Island Shangri-La hotel (shangri-la.com; 3,900 Hong Kong dollars, about $515 at 7.60 Hong Kong dollars to the U.S. dollar) is a 10-minute stroll east across Hong Kong Park from the base of the peak tram. A slightly longer walk in the opposite direction will take you to the hipper Hotel LKF by Rhombus (hotel-lkf.com.hk; 2,188 dollars), with a rooftop bar and restaurant, Azure, that is not to be missed. For a night in the clouds with a swimming pool on the 118th floor, try the Ritz-Carlton, atop the International Commerce Center in Kowloon (ritzcarlton.com; 4,500 dollars). Prices quoted in late April are for a basic room without a harbor view on the night of June 19.
Dining For northern Chinese cuisine and traditional Chinese décor, go to Hutong (aqua.com.hk). Located on the 28th floor of One Peking Road, it offers excellent harbor views. Aqua (aqua.com.hk), with contemporary food, is one floor up with a nearly identical, breathtaking view. Tosca (ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/HongKong/Dining/tosca), with southern Italian cuisine, is on the 102nd floor of the Ritz-Carlton.
Sites Museum of Coastal Defense (hk.coastaldefence.museum/index.php; 10 dollars). Open daily except Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; until 6 p.m. in July and August. Irene Lam (852-9639-3084) for pearls at stall 278 of Jade Market, Kowloon. For tailors, try Empire International (empiretailors.com) and Sam’s Tailor (samstailor.com).
Getting Around Adult fares for the Peak Tram (thepeak.com.hk/en) are 28 dollars one way, or 40 dollars round trip; 7 a.m. to midnight daily. On June 24, fares on the Star Ferry (www.starferry.com.hk) will rise from 3 dollars to 3.40 one-way on weekends and public holidays. Weekday fare will remain at 2.50. Fares on the Aqua Luna (aqua.com.hk) are from 150 to 240 dollars.
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