Kowloon Park -- Occupying the site of an old British military encampment established in the 1860s, Kowloon Park (tel. 852/2724 3344; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/kp) is Tsim Sha Tsui's largest recreational and sports facility (13.4 hectares/33 acres), boasting an indoor heated Olympic-size swimming pool, three outdoor leisure pools linked by a series of waterfalls, an open-air sculpture garden featuring works by local and overseas sculptors, a Chinese garden, a fitness trail, an aviary, a hedge maze, two children's playgrounds, and a bird lake with flamingos and other waterfowl. Located in old army barracks is the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, with free admission to its displays relating to the historic preservation of Hong Kong's oldest structures and with free Wi-Fi for those with laptops or wireless-enabled phones. On Sundays free kung fu demonstrations take place at the Sculpture Walk from 2:30 to 4:30pm and a small arts fair runs from 1 to 7pm at the Loggia.
Not far from the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station (take the A1 exit for Kowloon Park), it's easily accessible from Nathan, Haiphong, and Austin roads and is open daily from 5am to midnight, with free admission. The swimming pools (tel. 852/2724 4522) are open daily from 6:30am to noon, 1 to 5pm, and 6 to 10pm, and charge HK$19 for adults and HK$9 for children, seniors, and students.
Kowloon Walled City Park -- This park is one of Hong Kong's finest. Although it doesn't boast the varied attractions of the city's other parks, this park, on Tung Tau Tsuen Road (tel. 852/2716 9962; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/kwcp), was designed to re-create the style of a classical Southern Chinese garden and is the largest such garden outside China. Beautifully landscaped with man-made hills, ponds, streams, pines, boulders, bonsai, bamboo, and shrubs, it features winding paths through a Chinese zodiac sculpture garden, flower gardens, and pavilions.
Even more fascinating to me, however, is the site's history, described through photographs and a handful of interactive exhibition rooms in a former almshouse, known as the Yamen. More than 160 years ago, the site was on the seashore, making it perfect in 1847 for the construction of a Chinese fort to defend Kowloon after the British takeover of Hong Kong Island. Occupying 2.6 hectares (6 1/2 acres) and surrounded by strong, stone walls (which were carted off during the Japanese occupation for an extension of Kai Tak airport), the garrison had four gates and six watchtowers. After 1898, when the British took over the New Territories, the 500 soldiers and officials occupying the fort were expelled. But China did not consider the site part of the leased territories, and for most of the next century, the Kowloon Walled City remained in sovereign limbo, ignored by British authorities and home to a growing number of squatters and misfits. It developed a lifestyle of its own, with its own set of laws. An enclave of tenements and secret societies that flouted Hong Kong's building regulations and health standards, it served as a haven for refugees, criminals, gangs, prostitutes, drug addicts, and the poor. Densely packed and infested with rats, many parts of the warrenlike slum never saw the light of day, making rooftops the place where children played and grownups socialized. Hong Kong police ventured inside only in pairs. Following a special Sino-British agreement and years of lengthy negotiations over new housing for the Walled City's 30,000 residents, the enclave was demolished in 1994.
The Yamen pays tribute to the Walled City's history with photographs and touchscreens, where you can listen to former residents describe their lives there (you'll learn, for example, that because there was no public water supply, residents had to carry in their own drinking water). Behind the Yamen are a handful of small exhibition rooms, where life-size photographs and audio re-create the Walled City, including its narrow alleyways, roof tops, and cottage industries (there were many unlicensed dentists here). In addition to the almshouse, a few other historic structures remain, including the Old South Gate entrance, wall foundations, and flagstone paths.
To reach the park, take the MTR to Lok Fu station (exit B) and then walk 15 minutes on Junction Road to Tung Tau Tsuen Road or take green minibus 39M; or take bus no. 1 from the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui to the stop opposite the park. It's open daily from 6:30am to 11pm (the exhibition rooms behind the Yamen are open Thurs-Tues 10am-6pm), and admission is free.
Nan Lian Garden -- Across the street from Chi Lin Nunnery (discussed earlier) is Nan Lian Garden, 60 Fung Tak Rd., Diamond Hill (tel. 852/2329 8811; www.nanliangarden.org), which was built in the classical style of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) using the blueprint of China's Jiangshouju, the only Tang landscape garden remaining with its original layout. Using traditional Chinese landscaping techniques such as "borrowed scenery" (incorporating surrounding scenery, such as a hill or range of mountains, into the overall garden design) and employing artificial hillocks, ornamental rocks, water features, wooden buildings, and trees to create both natural and artificial beauty, the garden is designed to be toured in a one-way circular route, with each step bringing different vistas and scenery. Other highlights include the Chinese Timber Architecture Gallery, where you can see close-up examples of how the nunnery was made and models of pagodas and other structures made with ancient construction techniques; the souvenir shop in the Tang Gallery selling Chinese traditional handicrafts and vegetarian food, including the nunnery's own citrus peels (good for energy flow) and mature ginger (thought to cure colds and chronic coughs); and the Chi Lin Vegetarian restaurant (tel. 852/3658 9388), set beneath a waterfall and famous for its braised supreme assorted vegetable casserole and set lunches starting at HK$85; set dinners for two people go for HK$380.
To reach the garden, take exit C2 from the Diamond Hill MTR Station, from which it's a 15-minute walk. Admission is free. The garden is open daily from 7am to 9pm; the Chi Lin Vegetarian restaurant is open Monday to Friday 11:30am to 9pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 9pm.
Yuen Po Street Bird Garden -- While in Hong Kong, you may notice wooden bird cages hanging outside shops or from apartment balconies, or perhaps even see someone walking down the street with a cage. Birds are favorite pets in Chinese households, and the price of a bird is determined not by its plumage but by its singing talents. To see more of these prized songbirds, visit the fascinating Yuen Po Street Bird Garden, Prince Edward Road West (tel. 852/2302 1762; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/ypsbg), which consists of a series of Chinese-style moon gates and courtyards lined with stalls selling songbirds, beautifully crafted wood and bamboo cages, live crickets and mealy worms, and tiny porcelain food bowls. Nothing, it seems, is too expensive for these tiny creatures. In addition to people buying and selling birds, you will also notice people just taking their birds for an outing. This garden is very Chinese and a lot of fun to see. (Note: Because of concerns about avian flu, signs warning against touching bird droppings are posted at the garden, along with hand sanitizers.) Incidentally, next door is Flower Market Road, lined with flower shops, while on nearby Tung Choi Street is the Goldfish Market with exotic fish.
To reach the Bird Garden, open daily from 7am to 8pm, take the MTR to Prince Edward Road station (exit B1) and walk 10 minutes east on Prince Edward Road West, turning left at the overhead railway onto Yuen Po Street. Or take bus no. 1 from the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui. Admission is free.
On Hong Kong Island
Hong Kong Park -- Opened in 1991 and stretching 8 hectares (20 acres) along Supreme Court Road and Cotton Tree Drive in Central, Hong Kong Park (tel. 852/2521 5041; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/hkp) features a dancing fountain at its entrance; one of Southeast Asia's largest greenhouses, with more than 2,000 rare plant species, including desert and tropical jungle varieties; an aviary housing 600 exotic birds in a tropical rainforest setting with an elevated walkway; various gardens with ponds, streams, and waterfalls; a large children's playground; and a viewing platform reached by climbing 105 stairs. The most famous building on park grounds is the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware housed in a historic building. An open-air restaurant, the L16 Cafe & Bar (tel. 852/2522 6333), serves modern Thai and Italian cuisine daily 11am to 11pm. Because the marriage registry is located on an edge of the park, the gardens are a favorite venue for wedding photographs, especially on weekends and auspicious days of the Chinese calendar.
The park is open daily from 6am to 11pm, the greenhouse and aviary are open daily 9am to 5pm, and the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware is open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 5pm. Admission to all is free. To reach the park, take the MTR to Admiralty Station (exit C1), and then follow the signs through Pacific Place and up the set of escalators.
Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens -- Established in 1864, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Upper Albert Road, Central (tel. 852/2530 0154; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/hkzbg), are spread over 5.6 hectares (almost 14 acres) on the slope of Victoria Peak, making it a popular respite for Hong Kong residents. Come here early, around 7am, and you'll see Chinese residents going through the slow motions of tai chi. In the gardens themselves, which retain some of their Victorian charm, flowers are almost always in bloom, from azaleas in the spring to wisteria and bauhinia in the summer and fall. More than 1,000 species of plants, most of them indigenous to tropical and subtropical regions and planted throughout the grounds, include Burmese rosewood trees, varieties of bamboo, Indian rubber trees, camphor trees, a variety of camellia, herbs, and, in a greenhouse, orchids (Hong Kong is home to about 120 native orchids). The small zoo houses 400 birds, 70 mammals, and 50 reptiles, including orangutans, tamarins, flamingos, a Burmese python, Palawan peacocks, birds of paradise from Papua New Guinea, cranes, and Mandarin ducks. The zoo is well known for its success in breeding birds on the verge of extinction and for supplying zoos around the world with new stock.
If you're tired of Central and its traffic, this is a pleasant place to regain your perspective. Also on-site is a good children's playground. Admission is free. The eastern part of the park, called Fountain Terrace and containing most of the botanical gardens and the aviaries, is open daily from 6am to 10pm, while the western half, with its reptiles and mammals, is open daily from 6am to 7pm. To reach it, take the MTR to Central and then walk 15 minutes up Garden Road to the corner of Upper Albert Road. Or take bus no. 3B from Connaught Road Central or 12 from Queen's Road Central, both in Central.
Victoria Park -- The 19-hectare (46-acre) Victoria Park (tel. 852/2890 5824; www.lcsd.gov.hk/parks/vp) is Hong Kong Island's largest, located on Causeway and Gloucester roads in Causeway Bay and serving as the green lungs of the city. Constructed on reclaimed land formerly used for a typhoon shelter, it has tennis courts, a 50m outdoor swimming pool and a wading pool, soccer fields, basketball courts, playgrounds, a jogging and fitness trail, and -- my favorite -- a pebble path for massaging the bottom of your feet. It is also popular in early morning for those practicing tai chi, a disciplined physical routine of more than 200 individual movements, designed to exercise every muscle of the body and bring a sense of peace and balance to its practitioners. The Mid-Autumn Festival is held here, as is a flower market a few days around Chinese New Year. The park is open 24 hours and admission is free. To reach it, take the MTR or tram to Causeway Bay.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.