The Central District
Start: Statue Square, Chater Road, Central District.
Finish: Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Central.
Time: About 2 hours; add 1 to 2 hours if you include Victoria Peak.
Best Times: Weekdays, when shops and restaurants are in full swing.
Worst Times: Tuesday, when the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware is closed; Sunday and public holidays, when some stores in the Central District are closed and the Peak Tram is at its most crowded.
The birthplace of modern Hong Kong, the Central District used to be called "Victoria," after Queen Victoria. It boasted elegant colonial-style buildings with sweeping verandas and narrow streets filled with pigtailed men pulling rickshaws. That's hard to imagine nowadays. With Central's gleaming glass-and-steel skyscrapers, little is left of its colonial beginnings. Still, this is the logical starting place for a tour of Hong Kong. The handful of historic buildings scattered among towering monoliths symbolize both the past and the future of this ever-changing city. Yet, surprisingly, Central has several city parks, good for relaxation and sightseeing. If you have time and the weather is clear, you might also consider taking a trip to Victoria Peak during this walk, from the Peak Tram Lower Terminus in Central.
Take the MTR or Star Ferry to Central, where, between Connaught Road Central and Des Voeux Road Central, lies:
1. Statue Square
Divided by Chater Road, this historic square once held a statue of Queen Victoria, which has since been moved to the park in Causeway Bay that bears her name. On weekends, Statue Square and surrounding Central become the domain of Filipino housemaids, nannies, and waitresses, thousands of whom work in the SAR and send most of what they earn back home to their families. On their day off, they meet friends here, sitting on blankets spread on the concrete and sharing food, photographs, news from home, and laughter, infusing the staid business district with a certain vitality and festivity. The only statue remaining in Statue Square today is of a banker, Sir Thomas Jackson, former manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). He stands facing the:
2. Legislative Council Building
Formerly the Supreme Court and looking curiously out of place in modern Central, the Legislative Council Building was built in the early 1900s by architect Aston Webb, who later redesigned Buckingham Palace, and now houses Hong Kong's lawmaking body, popularly known as "LegCo." With its local pink-and-gray granite, Ionic columns, and Chinese roof, this neoclassical structure is typical of late-Victorian colonial architecture and boasts a carved-stone figure above the main portico of the goddess of justice holding scales. The building has two flags, one with the red star emblem of China and the other with the bauhinia flower of Hong Kong. By the end of 2011, LegCo will move to new government headquarters at Tamar in nearby Admiralty and the Court of Final Appeal will move here.
Take a Break --The most convenient place for a meal in this area is Dot Cod Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, in the Prince's Building with an entrance right on Statue Square (tel. 852/2810 6988). It's owned by the Hong Kong Cricket Club but is open to anyone.
On the other side of the LegCo building, to the east, is:
3. Chater Garden
This was the site of the Hong Kong Cricket Club from 1851 to 1975. Today, it's the only spot of green in the very heart of Central. With water fountains masking the din of passing traffic, it's popular with those who practice tai chi in the early morning and among office workers on lunch break.
Running alongside the south edge of the garden is:
4. Des Voeux Road Central
This road is easily recognizable by the tramlines snaking along it. What a contrast the quaint double-decker trams make when viewed against the high-rise banks on the other side of the street. Established in 1904 and now the city's oldest form of land transportation, trams are the most colorful way to travel from the Western and Central districts to Causeway Bay, especially at night when Hong Kong is afire in neon. Des Voeux Road itself was constructed as part of an early 1800s land reclamation project; before that the waterfront was situated farther inland, at Queen's Road. Land reclamation has proceeded continuously throughout Hong Kong's history, slowly encroaching on the harbor itself. A resident once joked with me that so much land was being reclaimed it wouldn't be long before you could walk across the harbor. With Central's most recent reclamation project -- which extended the ferry piers for outlying islands and a relocated Star Ferry far into the water -- the joke no longer seems quite so funny.
Across from Chater Garden, on the other side of Des Voeux Road Central, is the:
5. Bank of China Tower
This tower, the tallest building outside the United States when completed in 1990, rises like a glass finger pointing into the sky. Designed by I. M. Pei, this 70-story futuristic building, with its crisscross pattern reminiscent of bamboo, also observes the principles of feng shui, as do all modern structures in Hong Kong in an effort to maintain harmony with their natural environment. Otherwise, disaster would surely strike -- something no builder in Hong Kong wants to risk. The Murray House, built on this site in 1846 as officers' quarters, was dismantled in the 1980s and rebuilt on the Stanley waterfront.
The most conspicuous building on Des Voeux Road Central, however, is farther west (to the right if facing the banks). It's the SAR headquarters of:
This company, at 1 Queen's Rd. Central, formerly known as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, is Hong Kong's largest bank, and it maintains offices around the world. Hong Kong's first city hall once stood on this site, but the bank has been in this spot since 1865, and it's from here that it issued the colony's first bank notes in 1881. The present building, designed in the mid-1980s by renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster and reputedly one of the most expensive buildings in the world at the time (almost US$1 billion), attracts visiting architects the world over for its innovative external structure, rather than a central core. It was constructed from prefabricated components manufactured all over the world; the glass, aluminum cladding, and flooring came from the United States. Internal walls are removable, allowing for office reconfiguration. Walk underneath the bank's open ground plaza, where escalators (once the world's longest freely supported moving staircases) take customers to and from the first floor, for a look up into this unique structure. Much care was given to the angle of these escalators -- 62 in all, more than in any other office building in the world -- as well as to many other aspects of construction, in order not to disturb the spirits who reside here. Note, too, the two bronze lions you see at the entrance, which have been "guarding" the bank since 1935. You can rub their paws for good luck.
Take HSBC's escalator up to the cavernous first floor, then turn around, and head to the opposite end of the huge hall, where you'll see the entrance to the Standard Chartered Bank. Turn left after the entrance and follow the sign for Battery Path, where you should turn left again. If HSBC is closed, you'll have to cross Queen's Road Central at the crosswalk and then take the stone steps leading up to the tree-shaded Battery Path, where you should turn left. On Battery Path, straight ahead, is a handsome brick building, the:
7. Court of Final Appeal
This neoclassical-style dates from 1917 and was formerly the French Mission Building. From 1843 to 1846 it served as the residence of the Governor of Hong Kong, and since 1977 has been home of the Court of Final Appeal. It will be vacated at the end of 2011, when the court moves into the Old Supreme Court Building presently occupied by LegCo; no word yet what will become of the historic building.
Just beyond this building is the cream-and-white-colored, Gothic-style:
8. St. John's Cathedral
Inaugurated in 1849 and the oldest ecclesiastical building in Hong Kong, this church was used for Japanese social functions during the Japanese occupation. You can enter the diminutive church and take a look inside. It underwent extensive renovations following World War II but still retains quaint tropical characteristics like the ceiling fans. It's open daily from 7am to 6pm.
Behind the church is busy Garden Road, where you should turn right and walk uphill. After passing the U.S. Consulate, you'll come to Upper Albert Road, where you should turn right. You'll soon see, on your right, the:
9. Government House
Completed in 1855, this building served as the official residence of 25 British governors until 1997. During the World War II Japanese occupation, it also served as the headquarters of Lieutenant General Isogai, who ordered some extensive building renovations, a curious mix of Asian and Western architecture, including ceramic tile roofs and a tower reminiscent of Shinto shrines. Since the 1997 handover, the grand, whitewashed edifice has served as the residence of Hong Kong's Chief Executive (the head of the Hong Kong government) and is also used for official functions.
Across the street, on the corner of Upper Albert Road and Garden Road, is a staircase leading up to the main entrance of the:
10. Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens
This wonderful oasis of plants and animals was established in 1864. It still imparts a Victorian atmosphere with its wrought-iron bandstand and greenhouse. Entrance is free, and the grounds are not too extensive, so it's worth taking the time to wander through to see its tropical botanical gardens, trees and plants, aviaries and birds, reptiles, and mammals such as apes. It opens daily at 6am, with the eastern half closing at 7pm and the western part at 10pm.
Exiting the same way you came in, cross to the other side of Garden Road and walk downhill, taking a right after passing the modern St. John's Building. Here, to your right, is the:
11. Peak Tram Lower Terminus
When this station opened in 1888, the travel time to the top of Victoria Peak was reduced from 3 hours (by sedan chair) to 8 minutes. Today the tram is the steepest funicular railway in the world (for you funicular buffs, it rises from 28m/92 ft. to 396m/1,299 ft. on a 1.4km [1-mile] track, with a gradient of between 4 to 27 degrees; a museum of the tram's history can be seen free with purchase of a tram ticket), and the view from the Peak is the best in Hong Kong. I suggest you visit the Peak twice during your stay: during the day for the great panoramic view of the city, and again at night for its romantic atmosphere. At the top is a great, 1-hour walk that circles the Peak, as well as attractions and restaurants. In all, you'll probably want to spend at least an hour or two on the Peak, so if time is limited or the weather is foggy or hazy, save it for another day.
On the other side of the tram station, on Cotton Tree Drive, is:
12. Hong Kong Park
Before opening as a park in 1991, this was once the grounds of Victoria Barracks, a housing area for soldiers. In the park is the pink Rawlinson House, built in the early 20th century as the private residence of the Deputy Commander of the British forces and now serving as a marriage registry. If it's a weekend or an auspicious day in the Chinese calendar, you'll find many newlyweds posing for pictures in the park. There's also a greenhouse, a great aviary with 600 birds, a playground, and an open-air restaurant serving modern Thai and Italian food.
Follow the signs to the park's most important attraction, and Hong Kong's oldest surviving Western building, the:
13. Flagstaff House
Built in 1846, the historic building now houses the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware (tel. 852/2869 0690), with a small collection of tea utensils and descriptions of tea making through the various Chinese dynasties. It's open Wednesday through Monday from 10am to 5pm. Like everything else in the park, it's free.
From the Flagstaff House, walk past the fountain (a favorite backdrop for picture taking) to the escalators downhill to:
14. Pacific Place
This large complex is filled with department stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants, and hotels. The nearest subway station from here is Admiralty Station, which you can reach without having to venture outside; just follow the signs via the air-conditioned walkway.
Winding Down -- Pacific Place has many eating and drinking establishments. Dan Ryan's Chicago Grill (tel. 852/2845 4600). is a casual bar and grill that remains open throughout the day for drinks, burgers, and other American favorites. Zen (tel. 852/2845 4555). is the ultimate in Chinese hip dining, with a modern decor and specialties that border on Cantonese nouvelle. Grappa's (tel. 852/2868 0086). is a moderately priced trattoria with an open kitchen and good food. For all-you-can eat dining, cafe TOO (tel. 852/2820 8571), in the Island Shangri-La hotel, is an upscale buffet restaurant offering views of Hong Kong Park's greenery and beautifully presented international lunches and dinners. For a cocktail with a killer view, head to Cafe Gray Bar (tel. 852/2918 1838) on the 49th floor of the Upper House deluxe hotel.
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.