Hong Kong is perpetually revving up its sightseeing potential, opening new attractions and revamping older ones, expanding museums or developing new ones, and redesigning organized sightseeing tours to reflect the territory's changing demographics. On the other hand, if all you want to do is hike or lie on the beach, you can do that, too.
If you really want to do Hong Kong justice, plan on staying at least a week. However, because the city is so compact and its transportation is so efficient, you can see quite a bit of the city and its outlying islands in 3 to 5 days, especially if you're on the go from dawn until past dusk. In fact, some of Hong Kong's greatest sites are seen from public transportation. To get the most out of your time, it makes sense to divide the city into sections when planning your sightseeing.
For specific ideas on how to spend your days in Hong Kong, be sure to read my recommended itineraries. In addition, you might find it useful to read over the suggested walking tours, since they include stops at several of Hong Kong's top attractions.
Four activities I would recommend to every visitor to the SAR are: Ride the Star Ferry across the harbor, take the Peak Tram to the top of Victoria Peak, ride one of the rickety old trams on Hong Kong Island, and take a ferry to one of the outlying islands. Nothing can beat the thrill of these four experiences, or give you a better insight into the essence of Hong Kong and its people. What's more, they're all incredibly inexpensive.
Hong Kong Ferries
The stars of the Hong Kong stage, of course, are the Star Ferries, green-and-white vessels that have been carrying passengers back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island since 1898. At only HK$2 on weekdays for the regular, lower-deck fare, it's one of the cheapest -- and yet most dramatic -- harbor rides in the world. The entire ride from pier to pier takes about 5 minutes, with approximately 400 crossings a day.
Because a 5-minute ride isn't nearly enough time to soak up the ambience of Victoria Harbour, another great way to relax and view the skyline is on a ferry to an outlying island. While most of Hong Kong's 260 outlying islands are uninhabited. These ferries, which depart from the Central Ferry Piers, are by far the cheapest way to see Hong Kong's harbor, with most trips lasting less than an hour. Some even offer an outside deck, where you can watch Hong Kong float past. In fact, part of the fun in visiting an outlying island is the ferry ride there and back.
There are also organized boat cruises of Victoria Harbour.
At 392m (1,286 ft.), Victoria Peak is Hong Kong Island's tallest hill, which naturally makes it the best place for spectacular views of the city and surrounding areas. Be sure to bring your camera. If possible, go on a crystal-clear day, since fog -- and smog -- can greatly curtail vistas (in fact, I wouldn't even bother going up on a hazy day). Victoria Peak has always been one of Hong Kong's most exclusive places to live, since, in addition to the views, the Peak is typically cooler than the sweltering city below. More than 120 years ago, the rich reached the Peak after a 3-hour trip in sedan chairs, transported to the top by coolies. Then, in 1888, the Peak Tram began operations, cutting the journey from a grueling 3 hours to a mere 8 minutes. In 1989, the older, cast-iron green funicular cars with mahogany seats were replaced by new, modern cars imported from Switzerland, which increased the passenger load from 72 to 120 people. If you want to know more about the tram's history, stop by the Peak Tram Historical Gallery, ensconced in the Peak Tram Lower Terminus, which you can see for free with the purchase of a tram ticket. Filled with memorabilia and a replica of the first Peak Tram, it's open daily from 7am to midnight.
The easiest way to reach the Peak Tram Lower Terminus, located on Garden Road, is to take the no. 15C open-top shuttle bus that operates between the tram terminus and the Star Ferry in Central. Shuttle buses cost HK$4.25 and run every 15 to 20 minutes between 10am and 11:45pm. Otherwise, it's about a 10-minute walk from Central's MTR Station to the tram terminus. Alternatively, you can take bus no. 15 from the Star Ferry terminal directly to the top of Victoria Peak for HK$9.80, but then you'd miss the tram unless you opt to take it down. Finally, you can eschew transportation altogether and walk. I have to admit I've never walked up the Peak, but the steep walk down, on shaded Old Peak Road and then Albany Road, is pleasant and brings you to the Zoological & Botanical Gardens in about 40 minutes; from there it's another 15 minutes to the MTR Central station.
As for the trams, they depart every 10 to 15 minutes between 7am and midnight. The tram climbs almost vertically for 8 minutes before reaching the top of the Peak -- don't worry, there's never been an accident in its entire 100-odd years of operation. One-way tickets for the Peak Tram cost HK$25 for adults and HK$9 for seniors and children. Round-trip tickets cost HK$36 and HK$16, respectively, but there are also combination tickets for the tram and Peak attractions. Or, you can use an Octopus card.
Upon reaching the Peak, you'll find yourself at the very modern Peak Tower (tel. 852/2849 0668; www.thepeak.com.hk), designed by British architect Terry Farrell, which looks like a Chinese cooking wok. Head straight for the rooftop Sky Terrace viewing deck, where you'll be privileged to view one of the world's most breathtaking 360-degree vistas, with sweeping panoramas of Hong Kong Island, the South China Sea, the skyscrapers of Central, boats plying Victoria Harbour, the ever-expanding construction on Kowloon peninsula, and the many hills of the New Territories undulating in the background. An open-air gallery displays historic photos of old Hong Kong. It's open Monday to Friday 10am to 11pm and Saturday, Sunday, and holidays 8am to 11pm. Admission is HK$25 for adults and HK$12 for seniors and children. Slightly more economical are combination tram and Sky Terrace tickets, with one-way journeys costing HK$45 for adults and HK$19 for seniors and children, and round-trip journeys costing HK$56 and HK$26, respectively (if you don't want to spend money for the Sky Terrace, you can have good views, too, at Peak Galleria and the circular hike).
Peak Tower is also home to a handful of Chinese, Western, and Japanese restaurants, as well as some fast-food outlets and a shopping arcade designed to evoke traditional Hong Kong street scenes. Also here is Madame Tussauds Hong Kong, Level 3, Peak Tower, 128 Peak Rd., Victoria Peak (tel. 852/2849 6966; www.madame-tussauds.com.hk), with more than 100 life-size wax figures of national heroes, politicians, historical figures, Olympic medalists, movie stars, and musicians. In addition to the usual figures -- Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp, the Beatles, Winston Churchill, President Obama -- there are also local and Chinese heroes like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Bruce Lee, Canto-pop star Andy Lau, and basketball star Yao Ming. In the scary section "Scream," live people portray psychopathic killers who are on the loose in an insane asylum (not recommended for young children). The museum is open daily from 10am to 10pm and costs HK$160 for adults and HK$90 for seniors and children; count on spending about 40 minutes here. Note that combination tickets for the Peak Tram, Sky Terrace, and Madame Tussauds are available.
Next to the Peak Tower is the Peak Galleria, a three-story complex with more shops, restaurants, an outdoor children's playground, and a viewing terrace. In the plaza in front of the Peak Tower is a kiosk for the Hong Kong Tourism Board Visitor Centre, located in a 50-year-old tram car and open daily from 9am to 9pm.
But the best thing to do atop Victoria Peak is to take a walk. One of my favorite walks in all of Hong Kong is the hour-long circular hike on Lugard and Harlech roads, both located just a stone's throw from the Peak Tower (turn right out of the tower; both streets converge at the Peak Lookout restaurant). It's well marked, but the HKTB Visitor Centre has a map of the walk (as well as maps of other hikes from the peak to other destinations, such as Aberdeen). Mainly a footpath overhung with banyan trees and lined with lush vegetation, it snakes about 3.5km (2 miles) along the side of the peak, offering great views of the Central District below, the harbor, Kowloon, and then Aberdeen and the outlying islands on the other side. Along the path are signboards identifying flora and fauna. You will also pass several of Victoria Peak's mansions as you share the path with joggers, tourists, and locals out for a leisurely stroll. At night, the lighted path offers one of the world's most romantic views (I don't recommend walking it alone, however). Don't miss it.
The Best Peek of the Peak -- For the best view when riding the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak, try to get a seat at the front, on the right side of the tram. From 1908 to 1949, the first two seats at the front were reserved -- for the governor of Hong Kong.
Riding a Tram
Just as the Star Ferry is the best way to see the harbor, the tram is the most colorful and cheapest way to see the northern end of Hong Kong Island, including the Central District, Western District, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay. In fact, the tram is so much a part of Hong Kong life that it was chosen for Hong Kong's exhibit at the Vancouver 1986 Expo. Dating from 1904, the tramline follows what used to be the waterfront (before the days of land reclamation). Old, narrow, double-decker affairs, the trams cut through the heart of the city, from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east. With only one detour -- off to Happy Valley -- it's impossible to get lost.
In any case, if you're in Central, you can board the tram on Des Voeux Road Central. Climb to the upper deck and try to get a seat in the front row. I especially like to ride the tram at night, when neon signs blaze overhead and the streets buzz with activity.