HONG KONG Travel Review: Exploring My Top Experiences Via The 5 Senses
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
Looking for an alternative guide to Hong Kong? The bustling city of Hong Kong is well known as an assault on all the senses, yet hidden amongst the popular tourist attractions are a host of hidden experiences. From hiking in the mountains, to chomping on tofu under the shadow of a giant Buddha, here are our top 10 immersive Hong Kong experiences.
Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Buddhist temple in Ngong Ping, Hong Kong
Things To Smell:
1. The Smells Of The Streets
In Hong Kong everyone dines out and whether from a Michelin star restaurant or smiling street vendor, there is always a pot cooking. Within the tightly packed streets, the resulting aromas twist and mix with the everyday scents of urban living to create a bold landscape of smells. Within just a few strides, the sulphur of a blocked drain can subside to the salty smell of hanging fish or the sweet fragrance of a boiling sweet and sour sauce.
Lee Tung Avenue, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
This constant battle for your nose’s attention is a great reminder of how Hong Kong is as a city.
A dense melting pot of urban elite and Hong Kong locals whose lives have been swallowed by the towering city. To take in the smells Hong Kong has to offer, simply take a trip up on the famous central mid-levels escalators with your senses open and you will be transported up through the layers of the city.
Things To Hear:
2. Birdsong In The New Territories
To many - including those who live there - the notion that you can bird watch in Hong Kong seems far fetched. Yet Hong Kong is not just dense urbanisation from border to border. Sandwiched between the city of Hong Kong and the looming highrises of Shenzen in mainland China there is a quiet strip of the New Territories which resembles something like traditional countryside. Even dotted around this area are brightly coloured abandoned bicycles which can be unlocked and hired from an app. We take two and head off down the concrete paths and dead ends of the Yung Long district.
Once the buzz of civilisation has left the ears, bird song reaches out from the hedges, trees and shrubs along the paths. Skylarks flap high above the fields whilst egrets and other waterfowl frequent the ditches and rivers - spied upon by the occasional bird spotter cradling a telephoto lens. Of the millions who live in Hong Kong, only a few find there way out here to birdspot, cycle and take a walk.
On our way back towards the brand new 40 floor apartment blocks recently erected in Yung Long, we reach a river the government has yet to bridge. Two ferrymen paddling rickety barges row us and our bikes across for HK$7 each. As we are rowed across the water, I am only too aware that all of this will soon become the victim of an expanding urban cityscape.
3. The Rattle Of The Tram
The ping of the bell and clack of the tracks are an endearing sound in a city where everything else bleeps electronically or whirs with efficient precision. Operating since 1904, Hong Kong’s historical tram is a living juxtaposition; rattling directly between the glass fronted skyscrapers on Hong Kong island.
Sat on the top deck I do everything I can to grip to the smoothly worn wooden seats as our tram jolts from left to right rarely making it over about 10 miles per hour. However, in a city where every underground station is hidden within the depths of a bright marble shopping centre, the trams remain an efficient form of transport and as iconic (and fun) as the Hong Kong star ferry which chugs commuters and tourists across the harbour.
Things To Feel:
4. Trail Running In The Mountains
The initial climb is brutal on my knees and thighs, and the brief respite at the peak is welcome relief. I have joined a local hiking and trail running club for a short trip across the ‘Eight Immortals’; so named as it consists of eight individual Hong Kong peaks. As my breath slowly returns to normal, I am too embarrassed to ask if this is peak number one, or whether there is still eight to go. The views on this trial are meant to be amazing, although all too often the vista is spoilt by a hanging haze of city pollution. Today it is healthy looking white cloud which obscures our lookout over the city and surrounding mountains.
Hong Kong’s reputation as a hiking destination has been growing over the years.
Unbelievably for a place famous for its urban skyline, there are hundreds of miles of accessible paths crisscrossing the peaks around the city and accompanying islands. Many of the starting points for the best walks are just a short ferry ride away or, as with the Eight Immortals’, just off public transport routes. Members of this club run trails all across the world, but they all talk seriously about Hong Kong’s place as one of the best hiking destinations.
It is only on the descent from the last immortal that I start to get an idea of what they mean. As we skip down an endlessly winding set of steps, the cloud starts to clear and the hidden forests, craggy peaks, and natural harbours of Hong Kong’s islands come into sight. It feels like a million miles from the city, but as we reach the bottom of the trail and enjoy a refreshing mouthful of chilled beer from a local shop, we will be back on the Hong Kong underground system in less than 10 minutes.
5. The Rolling Of The Star Ferry
You can do the trip from Kowloon to Hong Kong island by underground - but where is the fun in that?
The Star Ferry, on the other hand, is a much more interesting and uncomfortable way to cross the harbour. With the metal decks rolling from side-to-side, the worn wooden seats, and lingering smell of diesel - this is not a premium way to travel. However it is one of the most unforgettable experiences that Hong Kong has to offer.
6. The Force Of Feng Shui
There is an invisible energy which runs through the bricks, metal and glass of Hong Kong. As soon as you are aware of it, you start to spot its quirks and patterns in everyday spaces across the city.
Feng Shui is the Chinese practice of aligning buildings and objects with their surrounding nature to promote good fortune.
It is a deeply held philosophy which has profoundly affected the architecture and landscaping of some of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings. According to locals, the sharp angles of the Bank of China building is said to encourage misfortune. It’s a serious enough concern that the neighbouring HSBC building has had two giant ‘cannons’ mounted on top to deflect the negative influence.
To the casual observer, the most obvious deference to positive Feng Shui in Hong Kong is the presence of ‘dragon gates’; large holes in the centre of buildings nearer the water which allow dragons to pass unimpeded between the mountains and the harbour.
Things To See:
7. An Alternative View Of The City
Victoria Peak provides the ‘definitive’ view on Hong Kong and is considered the best tourist attraction in the city. Yet out of the millions of people who visit each year, very few stroll beyond the main viewing platform and surrounding complex.
Victoria Peak Tower, reached by the famous tram.
Most visitors never see the full landscape of Hong Kong
Follow Lugard Road from the wok- shaped visitor and shopping centre and you will start on a 3 mile loop of Victoria peak. As you walk, the famous skyscrapers of Hong Kong island transition into towering apartment blocks, harbours full of fishing boats and finally tree laden peaks and islands which stretch off into the distance.
8. A Symphony Of Lights
The other essential vista of Hong Kong is the view across the harbour from Tsim Sha Tsui. At 8pm every night the crowds build and the lamp-post speakers crackle into life. For 10 minutes, one of the world’s most impressive skylines of modern architecture transforms into a gloriously novel light and sound show. Across the harbour, lasers shoot out from the roofs of landmark buildings as coloured lights phase up and down their sides in time with the symphonic soundtrack.
But the experience isn’t just in the light show itself. From within the excited throng, you can view the spectacle through the screens of ipads and phones held
aloft, and watch as young asian couples in matching colours attempt to orientate themselves within the crowd to take the perfect selfie.
One excited young tourist, much to the embarrassment of his girlfriend, asks me to join a photo with them - as if the presence of a beaming white strangers’ face would somehow capture the mood of the event.
The second the cacophony is over, the crowd disperses quickly and you can walk to the front and appreciate in peace the captivating view across the water.
Things To Taste:
9. A Cocktail With A View
With as many high rises as Hong Kong, there are plenty of options for sipping a cocktail from a height.
For a great balance of atmosphere, view and price, the Wooloomooloo Bar on the roof of the Hennessy building is hard to beat.
Accessed via a pretty ordinary elevator, the elevator doors open out onto a broad open air terrace with stunning city views along all three sides.
With low lighting and just a waist high glass balustrade between you and a forty story fall, the space feels connected to the surrounding city. High enough above street level to be giddying when looking down, but low enough between the towering buildings to be feel awestruck looking up.
The extensive cocktail menu is listed by each individual spirit, and the warmth of the evening draws me straight to rum and citrus. When served, my Dark and Stormy is packed full of ice with plenty of alcohol and a sharp hit of lime amongst the ginger. As I order my second, I can’t help feeling that this has to be one of the best places to have a drink on any given evening, anywhere in the world.
10. Lunch With The Big Buddha
The giant 34m Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island was designed to symbolise the harmonious relationship between man and nature, and people and faith. Unfortunately it has come to undermine its own intentions through spawning a large tourist village which paves over a segment of the surrounding forest. I am no expert on religion, but it is probably difficult to find enlightenment anywhere which offers you your photo in a snowglobe the second you leave the cable car.
That said, in walking up the 286 steps to the towering Buddha and exploring the surrounding temple buildings, there appears to be very little tension between tourism and religion. At the monastery itself there is a vegetarian canteen with a small counter featuring a row of rice cakes and three dishes of tofu in vividly coloured sauces. In contrast to the menus of the Subway or Starbucks in the tourist village nearby, it is a pleasingly simple set-up.
The first tofu dish tastes boldly of sweet chilli, the second of sweet and sour, and the third of curry. The rice cakes are more about the sticky glutinous texture than any kind of distinctive or pleasing taste.
It is far from the best food I’ve eaten, but sat in the cafe’s rustic yard beneath the silhouette of the large seated Buddha it is a perfect choice for lunch and one of the best alternative dining experiences Hong Kong has to offer.