Hong Kong Island
Central District -- This is where the story of Hong Kong begins. A small port and community were established here, on the north end of the island, by the British in the 1840s. Named "Victoria" in honor of the British queen, the community quickly grew into one of Asia's most important financial and business districts, with godowns (waterfront warehouses) lining the harbor. Today the area known as the Central District -- but usually referred to simply as "Central" -- remains Hong Kong's nerve center for banking, business, and administration. If there is a heart of Hong Kong, it surely lies here, but a few traces of its colonial past remain.
The Central District's glass and steel high-rises represent some of Hong Kong's most innovative architecture, including some of the SAR's most posh hotels, priciest shopping centers, and office buildings. Restaurants and bars here cater to Hong Kong's white-collar workers, primarily in the nightlife districts known as Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo. Although hotel choices in Central are limited to the upper range, staying here makes you feel like a resident yourself, as you rub elbows with the well-dressed professional crowds. Yet Central is also packed with traditional Chinese restaurants, an outdoor market, and the neon signs of family-run businesses. Trams -- certainly one of Hong Kong's most endearing sights -- chug their way straight through Central. The neighborhood even has oases of greenery at Chater Garden; the Zoological and Botanical Gardens; and Hong Kong Park, with its museum of tea ware housed in Hong Kong's oldest colonial-age building. By the way, that construction mess you see along the harbor is being transformed into a new Central waterfront that will contain public spaces and office buildings.
Lan Kwai Fong -- Named after an L-shaped street in Central, this is Hong Kong's premier nightlife and entertainment district, occupying not only Lan Kwai Fong but also neighboring streets like D'Aguilar, Wyndham, and other hillside streets. Filled with restaurants and bars in all price categories, it's a melting pot for people mostly in their 20s and 30s, from expat bankers and chuppies (Chinese yuppies) to Chinese nouveau riche and backpackers. The action -- whether it's in a bar with live music and standing room only or in the streets packed with revelers -- continues till dawn.
Victoria Peak -- Hong Kong's most famous mountaintop, Victoria Peak has long been Hong Kong's most exclusive address, ringed by gated villas. Cooler than the steamy streets of Central below, Victoria Peak, often called simply the Peak, was the exclusive domain of the British and other Europeans -- even nannies had to have the governor's permission to go there, and the only way up was by sedan carried by coolies or by hiking. Today, the Peak is much more easily accessible thanks to the Peak Tram, and it affords Hong Kong's best views of Central, Victoria Harbour, and Kowloon. Also on the Peak are shops, restaurants, and multimillion-dollar mansions, glimpses of which can be had on a circular 1-hour walk around the Peak. Check the weather, however, before making the trek -- hazy skies can render views disappointing, if nonexistent.
Mid-levels -- Located above Central on the slope of Victoria Peak, the Mid-Levels has long been a popular residential area for Hong Kong's yuppies and expatriate community. Its swank apartment buildings, grand sweeping views, lush vegetation, and slightly cooler temperatures make it a much-sought-after address. To serve the army of white-collar workers who commute down to Central every day, the world's longest escalator links the Mid-Levels with Central, an ambitious project with 20-some escalators and moving sidewalks (all free) stretching a half-mile (board and exit as you wish).
SoHo -- This dining and nightlife district, flanking the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator, is popular with area residents and those seeking a quieter, saner alternative to the crowds of Lan Kwai Fong. Dubbed SoHo for the region "south of Hollywood Road," it's an ever-growing neighborhood of cafe-bars and intimate restaurants specializing in ethnic and innovative cuisine, making it one of the most exciting destinations on Hong Kong's culinary and nightlife map. Most establishments center on Elgin, Shelley, and Staunton streets. North of Hollywood Road, referred to as NoHo, also boasts a growing number of bars and restaurants.
Western District -- Located west of Central, the Western District was the traditional commercial center for Chinese businesses. Spreading over a large area that includes Sai Ying Pun, Sheung Wan, and Kennedy Town, it's a fascinating neighborhood of Chinese shops and enterprises and is one of the oldest, most traditional areas on Hong Kong Island. I've spent days wandering its narrow streets and inspecting shops selling traditional herbs, ginseng, medicines, dried fish, antiques, and other Chinese products. Unfortunately, modernization has taken its toll, and more of the old Western District seems to vanish every year, replaced by new high-rises and other developments.
Sheung Wan -- This neighborhood in the Western District, bordered by Victoria Harbour to the north, Central to the east, Sai Ying Pun to the west, and the Mid-Levels to the south, is home to an MTR station (Sheung Wan station) and the Macau Ferry Terminal. This is where the British landed, in 1842, on what is now called Possession Street. Sheung Wan is most famous, however, for Hollywood Road and its many antiques and curio shops, Ladder Street with its grueling staircase, and Man Mo Temple, one of Hong Kong's oldest temples.
Admiralty -- Actually part of the Central District, Admiralty is located just below Hong Kong Park, centered around an MTR subway station of the same name. It consists primarily of tall office buildings and Pacific Place, a classy shopping complex flanked by four deluxe hotels. On the waterfront is Tamar, former home of the British naval station, now being redeveloped as new government headquarters.
Wan Chai -- Located east of Central, few places on Hong Kong Island have changed as dramatically or noticeably as Wan Chai in recent decades. Notorious after World War II for its sleazy bars, tattoo parlors, and sailors on shore leave looking for a good time, it also served as a popular destination for American servicemen on R & R during the Vietnam War. Richard Mason's 1957 novel The World of Suzie Wong takes place in this bygone era of Wan Chai. Although a somewhat raunchy nightlife remains along Lockhart, Jaffe, and Luard roads, most of Wan Chai has slowly become respectable (and almost unrecognizable) over the past few decades, with the addition of mostly business-style hotels, more high-rises, the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Academy for Performing Arts, and the huge Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, a familiar sight on the waterfront with its curved roof and glass facade. Near the convention center is Star Ferry service to Tsim Sha Tsui.
Causeway Bay -- Just east of Wan Chai, this is a popular shopping destination for locals. The whole area was once a bay, until land reclamation turned the water into soil decades ago. Now it's a busy area of department stores; clothing and accessory boutiques; street markets; the Times Square shopping complex; and restaurants. On its eastern perimeter is the large Victoria Park.
Happy Valley -- Once a swampland, Happy Valley's main claim to fame is its racetrack, built in 1846 -- the oldest racetrack in Asia outside of China.
Aberdeen -- On the south side of Hong Kong Island, Aberdeen was once a fishing village but is now studded with high-rises and housing projects. However, it is still known for its hundreds of sampans, junks, boat people, and huge floating restaurant. Just to the east, in Deep Water Bay, is Ocean Park, with its impressive aquarium and amusement rides.
Stanley -- Once a fishing village, Stanley is now a lively center for its market selling everything from silk suits to name-brand shoes, casual wear, and souvenirs. It's located on the quiet south side of Hong Kong Island with a popular public beach, a Chinese and expat neighborhood, a maritime museum, and trendy restaurants strung along a waterfront promenade.
Tsim Sha Tsui -- At the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula is Tsim Sha Tsui (also spelled "Tsimshatsui"), which, after Central, rates as Hong Kong's most important area for tourists. This is where most visitors stay and spend their money, since it has the greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants, and shops. In fact, some Hongkongers avoid Tsim Sha Tsui like the plague, calling it the "tourist ghetto." On the other hand, it does boast a cultural center, a great art museum, Kowloon Park, one of the world's largest shopping malls, a nice selection of international restaurants, a jumping nightlife, and Nathan Road, appropriately nicknamed the "golden mile of shopping."
Tsim Sha Tsui East -- Not surprisingly, this neighborhood is east of Tsim Sha Tsui. Built entirely on reclaimed land, the area has become increasingly important, home to a rash of expensive hotels, shopping and restaurant complexes, and science and history museums. Its East Tsim Sha Tsui Station, connected to Tsim Sha Tsui MTR Station via underground passageway, provides direct train service to Hung Hom Station and onward to mainland China.
Jordan & Yau Ma Tei -- If you get on the subway in Tsim Sha Tsui and ride two stations to the north (or walk for about 25 min. straight up Nathan Rd.), you'll reach the Yau Ma Tei district (also spelled "Yaumatei"). In between Tsim Sha Tsui and Yau Ma Tei is Jordan. Like the Western District, Jordan and Yau Ma Tei are very Chinese, with an interesting produce market, jade market, and the fascinating Temple Street Night Market. Several modestly priced hotels are located here, making this a good alternative to tourist-oriented Tsim Sha Tsui.
Mong Kok -- On Kowloon Peninsula north of Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok is a residential and industrial area, home of the Bird Market, the Ladies' Market on Tung Choi Street, and countless shops catering to Chinese. Its northern border, Boundary Street, marks the beginning of the New Territories.