At first glance Hong Kong is a Western territory, all shiny skyscrapers and multi-lingual business people, but scratch the surface just a little, and it reveals deep Chinese roots, where superstitions and traditions are solidly embedded. Since 1997, Hong Kong has been a full-fledged Chinese city, part of the People’s Republic of China rather than a British colony but it retains its distinctive, freewheeling spirit.

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Lay of the Land

“The place is haunted by a sense of the hugeness and fertility and brute strength of Asia.”
~Jan Morris

Flying into Hong Kong, you can’t help but wonder who ever thought the mountainous, compact islands would make a good spot for settling a city, let alone how it’s become an international business center. The natural, deep Victoria Harbor between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon that drew the British to establish a colony and trading center here. It remains one of the world’s busiest port facilities with lots of boat traffic, including the historic Star Ferry, still the best way of crossing over to Kowloon.

Hong Kong is made up of three main regions:

  • Hong Kong Island: Densely populated, with skyscrapers packed in tight around its edges, making for the famously colorful, soaring skyline
  • Kowloon Peninsula: The district across Victoria Harbor and another of the world’s busiest and most crowded areas.
  • New Territories: Roughly described as the enormous area that lies between Kowloon and mainland China. Most first-time visitors do not venture into the New Territories, though with a car, driver and tour guide, it’s a fascinating—and authentic Chinese —area to explore.

Hong Kong Island Neighborhoods:

Central/Admiralty: Central is the city’s economic hub, encompassing its most famous skyscrapers, including the IFC (Two International Finance Centre), the Bank of America, Bank of China as well as beautifully preserved historic buildings. This is the area where the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental and the Landmark are located. The eastern part of Central is known as Admiralty, home to Pacific Place, an enormous mall complex that holds high-end shops, restaurants and one of the city’s best hotels: the Upper House. Both Central and Admiralty make a great, centrally located base for a first-time visitor.

Wan Chai/Causeway Bay: Traveling east from Admiralty along the coastline, you arrive in Wan Chai and then Causeway Bay. Captured in many a novel, Wan Chai is often referred to as the heart of the city, as it offers a true representation of life in Hong Kong—manic, crowded, overwhelming. The massively built-up Causeway Bay is an overwhelming shopping hub, like Times Square on speed, with all of Fifth Avenue rolled in alongside it. If you come here, bring lots of patience, Zen breathing and your camera. The street life here makes for some of the city’s best photo opportunities.

Sheung Wan: West and north of Central, lovely Sheung Wan has until quite recently resisted the gentrification/mall-ification of Central. Some of its smaller streets and alleys still feel right out of a Wong Kar Wai movie. Recently, it’s become a more hip place to live, especially for young expats, and some of the city’s coolest restaurants and cafés have opened here. The main thoroughfare is Hollywood Road, chock-full of antiques shops and art galleries, but there are tons of cute surrounding streets, and the area is best explored on foot. It even has its own version of SoHo (South of Hollywood Road), a trendy area with restaurants and bars.

Mid-Levels & the Peak: Behind the skyscrapers and gleaming office buildings rise the natural giants of Hong Kong, the mountainous range that mounts into Victoria Peak at the center. What lies between, the Mid-Levels, is among Hong Kong’s most prestigious and expensive residential areas, topped only (on this side) by the homes of the Peak area itself. Mid-Levels is linked to Central via the longest outdoor escalator in the world, and taking the escalator ride is a fun experience for a first-time visitor.

Southern Districts: If you drive over and across the Peak, flanked by beautiful reservoirs and scenery that’s much greener than the other skyscraper-clad side, you end up facing the South China Sea. The districts here are organized around these gorgeous vistas: Sandy Bay, Deep Water Bay, Repulse Bay and Stanley. The vibe is laid-back and beauty (you’ll feel like driven from New York City to Los Angeles). Best known is the waterfront town of Stanley, which has lovely beaches and a seaside promenade with a market, restaurants and shops.

Beyond Hong Kong Island:

Kowloon and the Tsim Sha Tsui: Directly across the harbor from Central lie these districts, with their vivid neon signs and endless shopping opportunities. This side is home to famous hotels such as the Peninsula, the InterContinental and the Ritz-Carlton (the latter being one of the world’s highest hotels). There are also lots of top restaurants, like Hutong and Aqua, on this side, that make the most of the incredible views of Hong Kong Island.

Islands: There are about 200 islands surrounding Hong Kong, the largest being Lantau (home of the Big Budddha), and one of the closest, most scenic being Lamma. All international flights arrive on an island just north of Lantau at a fabulous airport that is regularly voted the world’s best. Reaching the city is easy thanks to an excellent public transport system that whisks travelers from the airport into Central (trains let out in the IFC).

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