What to See in Hong Kong, Off the Beaten Path
By Latifah Al-Hazza
We’ve all heard of the popular tourist attractions in Hong Kong, like the view from Victoria Peak (pictured) or Hong Kong Disneyland, but you don’t always hear about the things you find away from the city streets that paint an authentic portrait of the region's culture. Don’t get us wrong, everyone should see iconic Hong Kong, but we have better surprises in store. If you know where to look, there are lots of places away from the crush of the skyscrapers where you can learn about the city’s unique position in the world.
Take a ride on a Star Ferry
Though there are now tunnels that connect the two sides of Victoria Harbour, many locals still use the Star Ferry vessels, a city mainstay since 1898, because of their reliability and efficiency. This is the most beautiful way to quickly commute across the world-renowned harbor and travel between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The best time to climb aboard is during the nightly Symphony of Lights laser show: At 8pm, skyscrapers on both sides of the water light up with laser beams, colored lights, and searchlights. Music is broadcast from both sides of the harbor and a refreshment is usually served.
Climb to the Big Buddha
Tian Tan Buddha, also known as the infamous ‘Big Buddha’, stands watch by one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums, the Po Lin Monastery. Those who brave the 268 steps to reach it are rewarded with both sea and mountain views. While they’re up there, visitors can walk through the monastery’s colorful formal flower garden and refuel with a vegetarian meal at the monastery’s restaurant. Opt to take the cable car and pay a little extra for the glass bottom…trust us, the thrill is worth it. Reach it on Lantau Island by taking the MTR to Tung Chung station (exit B), then taking a 25-minute ride to the island on the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car.
Explore Lamma Island
Hong Kong has 263 islands, and believe it or not, most are inhabited. Although they're a short trip from Central by ferry, their slow pace feels like a world away. Lamma Island’s uniqueness lies in its blend of rural and tropical. Start by taking a 30-minute ferry to the island’s Fisherfolk Village. Local fishermen come to the 150-year-old temple to the Goddess of the Sea to pray for a successful return. Most visitors take a laid-back hike around the island past pavilion, beaches, and changing sea vistas. Along the way, vendors sell inexpensive frozen fruits—try the frozen pineapple. End the hike with a decadent seafood meal (we’re talking a whole fresh-caught fish, plus rice and veggies) from one of the many seafood stalls at Yung Shue Wan village before hopping back on the ferry. It’s a fairly easy hike but will take about four hours if you do the whole circuit.
Relax at Shek O Beach
Some call Shek O the most beautiful beach on Hong Kong Island—in fact, it’s the setting for many popular Cantonese music videos. The MTR Island Line to Shau Kei Wan station (exit 3) and a 20-minute ride on bus 9 from the Shau Kei Wan bus terminus are required to get to this beach town, but it’s worth the trek. Spend the day lounging or come here to rest after hiking Hong Kong’s popular four-hour Dragon’s Back Trail that connects Shek O and Tai Long Wan. The trail leads hikers deep into the lush wilderness where skyscrapers can only be seen as a tiny ribbon along the horizon. Shek O attracts surfers, paddleboarders, paragliders, and families who barbecue on grills in the sand. Take time to explore the narrow streets of its colorful village and grab a bite to eat at an authentic restaurant. Before calling it a night, grab a drink and some snacks at Ben’s Back Beach Bar (41 Stubbs Rd.), located right on the water.
Meditate at Tsz Shan Monastery
Tsz Shan Monastery, located in the Tai Po District, gives off a peaceful and serene vibe despite the fact its central attraction is a mammoth 249-foot-tall Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) statue. Its monastery, which replicates the Tang Dynasty Era, was only completed in 2015 and cost US $193 million. The sanctuary includes a bell tower, a drum dower, three temples, and a meditation path, so there's lots to explore. Look in at the learning and lecture halls—sometimes they offer Chinese calligraphy courses to visitors. Tsz Shan only allows about 500 guests a day; so booking in advance through its website (www.tszshan.org) is a must. The monastery can be reached by taking minibus 20B, which operates every 10–20 minutes to Tong Tsz from MTR Tai Po Market station. Disembark at the intersection of Tong Tsz Road and Universal Gate Road and walk uphill along Universal Gate Road for 10 minutes.
Hike Lion Rock Peak
Lion Rock, which got its name for the crouching cat it sometimes resembles, may be one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Hong Kong, and it’s found an hour's walk from Won Tai Sin MTR station, Exit B3. Choose a day that’s not too hot and fuel up with some noodles at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the entrance to the well-marked walk. The circuit should take 4–5 hours round-trip with some steep segments. Local website Hike Hong Kong gives the hike a 7 out of 10 for difficulty and advises that beginners may find it too tiring; the site also posts a great step-by-step guide on how to get to Lion Rock, with pictures .
Kayak in Sai Kung or experience a different type of market
Sai Kung is a charming little town on Clearwater Bay located in the North. To reach this part of the eastern New Territories, take the MTR to Choi Hung station (exit C2) then minibus 1A to the last stop. The first community settled in Sai Kung during the Song Dynasty (960–1279AD), and today it’s a perfect getaway from the fast-paced center of Hong Kong. Kiosks compete with kayak rentals and tours, which take explorers out by speedboat to paddle further from shore. Float among rock caves, sea arches, and even coral (yes, Hong Kong has coral). Since you’ll need some energy afterward, head to Seafood Street and choose your aquatic friend of choice from the floating markets that are tied to the piers, then take it to any of the restaurants to be cooked for a nominal price. Those who don’t paddle can stay on shore to watch Sai Kung’s fishermen tout their wares.
Spot pink dolphins
Whale watching and dolphin watching have become mainstream around the world, but pink dolphin watching tours are something different. Catch these unusual beauties while you can, because Hong Kong’s pink dolphins are endangered. These animals are actually white when they're at rest, but when they exert energy chasing fish, they flush with blood, making them look like they’re blushing. Narrated excursions run by Hong Kong Dolphin Watch last 3–4 hours, and there’s usually a good chance of spotting a few of them frolicking through the waters.
Cycle along the waterfront
Believe it or not, despite its density, Hong Kong has some great cycling paths. For a leisure ride, rent bikes at Sha Tin (MTR to Sha Tin station) and take the 13.5 mile paved route to Tai Po. The track starts along the Shing Mun River and continues alongside the waters of Tolo Harbour. The Guan Yin statue (from the Tsz Shan Monastery) can be spotted along the route. The route can be continued for an additional 5 miles past Tai Po to Pat Sin Leng seaside village. To refuel, check out Tai Po market’s indoor cooked food center, a local hotspot. The stalls are family-run, cheap, and varied with options. Warning: This is not like a food court found in a mall. Don’t be alarmed by the friendly mice crawling around nearby. That's just life in one of the world's most intense cities.
Count 10,000 Buddhas
At Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, they got a little Buddha-happy and made an additional 3,000 of them—have fun counting all 13,000 Buddhas. It takes a 431-step climb to get to the payoff, but not to worry, along the way, 500 unique life-sized Arhan statues attend the path (pictured) as a distraction. Each one has a different pose, facial expression, and outfit—some even wear lipstick. In the monastery’s main temple, 13,000 mini (12-inch tall) gold ceramic Buddha statues line the wall. Take time to explore the five temples, four pavilions, and nine-story pagoda which in 2001 was selected as the symbol on Hong Kong’s $100 bill. To reach it, take the MTR to Sha Tin station.
Win money on Horse Racing
Horse racing is a popular pastime in Hong Kong and we highly recommend attending an event. Get to Happy Valley, centrally located on Hong Kong Island (or go to Sha Tin in the New Territories), grab a racing guide, place your bets, join the nervous (but rowdy) crowd, and hope for some luck. To meet locals, ask for betting advice—they love to share their opinions. The competition is intense and the arena is full of food and impromptu dance parties. Even if you can’t bear the possibility of losing money, the scene is boisterous and entertaining. Admission price is HK$10 and no one under 18 is permitted. To get to Happy Valley, take the MTR to Causeway Bay station (exit A). For Sha Tin, take the MTR to The Racecourse station (only open on race days).