I admit Hong Kong has always been a bit over-romanticized in my head thanks to watching all those Wong Kar-Wai movies in my 20s. I’ve seen Chungking Express at least 3 times. I was going through an art phase.
When I arrived the first day at my Airbnb inside a building named The Chungking Mansions, I really thought I had landed on a Wong Kar-Wai movie set. In dimly lit corridors, cramped stalls hawked cheap Indian food and bottled water. It was crowded with Indian people, Africans, and American/Australian/Europeans-–like the really hardcore backpacker types. I didn’t expect to feel so outnumbered as an Asian while in Hong Kong, not that it bothered me. The place was an endless labyrinth of stalls and dirty alleys. The elevators were impossibly hidden.
When I finally arrived hot and sweaty to my room, I almost turned on my heels and left again. I expected small, but not that small. The bathroom had no mirror, the shower head was directly over the toilet, and there was exactly 1 inch of space between the toilet seat and the wall in front of it.
The last straw was when I went out for dinner with Ellie, a man was walking in a corridor parallel to us and every time I glanced over at him he was looking at us. Creepy. Needless to say, my pragmatic side won over my romantic side pretty quickly and I checked out of the Chungking Mansions that night and promptly checked into the Kowloon Hotel across the street where Ellie and I slept so well every night. All this goes to say, don’t get lazy and just pay attention to the location and price when looking at Airbnbs. As my husband Richie had warned me, you have to patiently read all the comments so you won’t be caught off guard. Since the Airbnb profile my listing was under owned several other properties, it was a bit confusing to figure out which review was for the place I had rented. Lesson learned.
Tsim Sha Tsui
As far as location goes, Tsim Sha Tsui is as convenient as it gets. My hotel was a 1 minute walk to the Tsim Sha Tsui metro station, a 5 minute walk from Avenue of the Stars and Victoria Harbor, and a 10 minute walk to the Star Ferry that takes you across the harbor to the Island. Tsim Sha Tsui is filled with rich mainland tourists and there is a constant stream of them going in and out of my hotel carrying bags from designer brands. Literally every street corner has a Chow Tai Fook jewelry store, in case you wanted to run out and grab a jade studded gold necklace as you would a cup of coffee. Even the hotels have shopping malls inside. Everything in Tsim Sha Tsui wanted me to consume, consume, consume, quickly and conveniently. Luckily for my wallet, with a short-attention span baby strapped to me the whole time, shopping is definitely off my list.
1. N1 Coffee – A tiny little cafe that I passed by 2 or 3 times before I finally found its door. It served up a tasty British style fry up breakfast and some top notch espresso drinks. Definitely a great start to a long day of exploring with a 1 year old.
2. K11 Mall – So I did manage to do a quick run through this mall after dinner one night, and discovered a little corner called K11 picks which had some small shops for a bunch of local designers and brands. I picked up my new favorite backpack/diaper bag there.
3. Kowloon Park – I always appreciate a bit of greenery in a concrete jungle. A short walk from our hotel, Ellie and I enjoyed a peaceful morning stroll through this park on our way to Yau Ma Tei.
4. Avenue of the Stars – This few minutes walk from our hotel and has sweeping harbor views of the Central skyline. My favorite time to go is at night. I had already seen a number of beautiful skylines in Singapore and Shanghai, but Hong Kong has its own unique style and colors, plus who can really get tired of seeing a nice glimmering skyline. The best part about having a nice skyline view in a city is the gathering of appreciative viewers. People are sitting around, relaxed and talking, and enjoying the night. Ellie had a really good time making her rounds and making new friends with her little wave, which she gives indiscriminately.
Yau Ma Tei
Within walking distance from Tsim Sha Tsui, this old neighborhood has all the charms of an older and less glamorous Hong Kong. If you’re looking for all the crazy Hong Kong signage then Shanghai Street is the place to go. Feast your eyes on dozens of gaudy plastic and neon signs advertising foot massages and karaoke nightclubs. This neighborhood has a ton of small, non-fancy eateries where you can really try out the local flavors.
1. Bakeries – Stop by any of the numerous bakeries in the mornings to pick up some fresh out of the oven pastries. My favorites are the egg tarts (still hot from the oven) and the flaky sweet wife cakes.
2. Congee shops – Choose from a dizzying menu of savory congees and side dishes. I like the ones with the preserved eggs and a big helping of you tiao (Chinese fried dough). Such a satisfying way to start your day.
3. Mido Cafe – Love the lack of upkeep at this cafe–it’s basically a 1950s time capsule. The second floor booth tables are the perfect perch for people watching on the streets below. We got some Hong Kong style milk tea and a hot pineapple bun with a stick of butter inside. So bad, but so good.
Another shopping mecca but for really cheap goods. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do any shopping here, but I did visit the flower market and the gold fish market which was one metro stop away.
1. Flower Market – We went there with Leslie to shoot some photos and Ellie charmed her way into the hearts of many shop owners.
2. Gold Fish Market – A bunch of pet stores on another street nearby. Not my favorite place as I’m not comfortable with seeing a bunch of puppy mill pups or cats in the store windows. Gold fish in tiny little bags seemed sad, too. But it was a bit too early to explain to Ellie why, so I just let her curious little eyes take it all in.
Central + Soho
My hotel in TST was just a short walk from the Star Ferry, which is probably the easiest and most scenic way to get across the harbor to the Central side. Ellie also prefers riding in a wildly rocking boat in the open air to riding in a crowded subway train.
Central is an extremely walkable place that is connected by the world’s largest system of mid-level escalators and walkways. It’s kind of fascinating to be walking across the city through these elevated walkways high above the streets without having to worry about cars or traffic lights. I ended up walking from Central to Soho.
1. Open-air markets – I really enjoy walking through the open-air food markets in every country. They all have such unique characteristics and varieties of food depending on the local diets. You can get a good idea of what people love to eat just by going to these markets. In Hong Kong, it’s got to be a lot of meat.
2. Antique shops, boutiques, souvenir hawkers – Soho is filled with interesting-looking shops that I only window-shopped but didn’t have time to browse.
3. PMQ building – Not your typical mall, but a former police dormitory that’s been converted into small shop. They’ve kept most of the original structures, so it really feels like you’re visiting an apartment building, except each door leads to a shop. It’s a fun collection of local brands and thoughtfully curated shops. A lot of unique and truly beautiful items here, and most are quite pricey but I did manage to pick up a few affordable souvenirs here.
4. Emack & Bolio’s – Had to try this place after seeing Claire’s Hong Kong guide (clairecollected.com). It was sugary perfection and so good after a hot morning of walking around with a sleeping baby pressed against your chest.
5. Botanical and Zoological Gardens – When traveling with a really active 1 year old, I keep a mental map of all the neighborhood playgrounds that I pass and am always on the look out for good open spaces. The Botanical and Zoological gardens is a wonderful park for Ellie to run around in and let loose. There are quite a few animal enclosures, so in addition to the lush greenery it also sounds like a jungle with all the monkeys and birds. There were a group of children on a field trip there that day, and Ellie couldn’t wait to tot along with them.
6. The Social Place – This is a newish restaurant in Central where I had dinner with my friend Johnny on our last night. The food is a new twist on traditional Chinese dishes, and I am pretty blown away by how good everything tasted. Ellie loved everything here, especially the squid-ink noodles. Definitely recommend this place if you’re into creative, but tasty food.
Hong Kong is such an organic blend of east and west, of new and traditional, especially after seeing the more dramatic clashing of cultures in Beijing and Shanghai. Ellie and I had such an amazing time here, but we’ve definitely left with a list of reasons to revisit.