Best Tourist attractions (almost) for free
Cost of living in Hong Kong is staggering. Tourists will get to know that especially when looking for accommodation or when hanging out for a drink in the bars of Hong Kong. Luckily, public transportation is very affordable. And there’s more good news: The majority of the most interesting sights can be visited either for free or for rather small money, too! This article shall serve as your guide to the best low-budget activities in Hong Kong that make your stay perfect without financial worries. Fifteen sights (almost) for free to enjoy your holidays without regrets!
Victoria Peak. What more to say? THE evergreen among the sights of Hong Kong that has always been on top of basically EVERY bucket list. There are different options how to get up to enjoy the mesmerizing vistas from the Peak. The most active one (and totally free!) is to hike up by yourself which allows you to enjoy the view from the top even more as you’ve really earned it. Alternatively, you can as well take bus no. 15 from Exchange Square, Central, for less than 2 Euros all the way up to Victoria Peak. Basically, also the five Euros for the traditional Peak Tram shouldn’t tear a big hole in your pocket, however, the often incredibly long queues can be unnerving.
Having arrived at the Peak, you can enjoy free views from the Lion’s Club Pavillon or from the observation decks on top of the Peak Galleria Mall behind the Peak Tower. Additionally, you can walk a 45-minute loop along the Morning Trail that offers some more splendid (and not too crowded) viewpoints. All in all I really don’t see the necessity to purchase the expensive ticket for the 428 Sky Terrace Observation deck. Save that money without sacrificing anything during your Peak experience!
However, stay flexible with your Peak planning as the weather and the visibility will make or break the experience. If you’re only in Hong Kong for a few days, use the first fine-weather opportunity you get to go up! Otherwise you may regret it later, as you never know if the Peak won’t be covered in clouds or haze on the next days.
For more information on what to see and do on and around Victoria Peak, look here.
Star Ferry and Skyline
A ride on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour ranks among the best value-for-money cruises in the whole world – at a ticket price of 2.50 HKD (less than 50 Euro/American cents)! And the views are actually worth a million dollar!
On days with good visibility the arguably most beautiful urban skyline on Earth will reveal itself in front of you when crossing the harbour and later when marvelling at it from Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. A skyscraper forest in front of the mountain scenery around Victoria Peak, with traditional junk boats and Star Ferries crossing the harbour in front of it – Everyone who misses these views has not been to Hong Kong! And while it is already stunning during daytime, it becomes even more mesmerizing at nighttime with all the neon-lit signs and illuminated windows that are mirrored by the water of the harbour basin.
Every evening (except for days with typhoon or black rain warnings) at 8pm there will be the light, laser and music show “Symphony of Lights” in which many of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers participate. If you ask me: it is nice, but no must-see. In my opinion the skyline view is spectacular at every day- and nighttime, and a few laser beams do not make much of a difference. What’s more, usually the area around the HK Cultural Centre, the TST pier and promenade is most crowded around the time of the performance, so don’t worry if you arrive later – you can still enjoy nice views and will have much more space around you. But come earlier than 11pm, as shortly after that the majority of lights will be switched off for the sake of saving energy.
Enjoy Hong Kongs splendid nature
Two weeks after my arrival in Hong Kong I went out hiking for the first time – that was the day when I finally fell for this city. Ever since I hold the opinion that you haven’t really got to know Hong Kong and therefore cannot really start loving this city until you have seen its surprisingly vast and diverse green side!
There’s plenty of world-class hiking trails that start literally in front of your doorstep and lead you across mountains, through lush green forests and all the way to hidden caves with beautiful white-sanded beaches. I’m not kidding! You can find all these places in great numbers around Hong Kong, you just have to step outside – most of them are conveniently accessible!
Everyone who is not that much into hiking but nevertheless wants to enjoy Green Hong Kong can certainly directly go straight to one of the numerous beaches or hop on a ferry to an Outlying Island for a small fare. Out there, time seems to have come to a standstill some thirty years ago: You’ll still find traditional fishing villages with villagers following their old way of life. An interesting contrast to the hustle and bustle of Central Hong Kong or Kowloon and just a few kilometres away!
Wednesday night horse races in Happy Valley
Without any doubt THE after work event of each week takes place on Wednesday nights at the Racecourse in Happy Valley (with the exception of July and August when the races will be suspended due to the torturing summer heat - For the official race schedule, look here). The traditional event dating from 1846, when European merchants first rode horses which they imported from Mongolia on these premises today rather resembles an Open-Air festival with live music and is, in fact, the biggest after work party in Hong Kong for which you will get access for just 10 HKD (as long as you’re 18 or older – only adults are allowed).
While the entrance fee is quite cheap, I cannot guarantee that it will remain a cheap evening afterwards. That, of course, depends on your gambling, eating and drinking behaviour. For all of these three categories there are plenty of opportunities to satisfy your needs along the racecourse and preferences are quite clear: whereas Western expats and tourists put emphasis on the entertainment aspect and beer jugs, you can also find gambling-crazed locals meticulously studying today’s program in order to detect the most promising bets of the evening all around. You shouldn’t miss this! Good luck!
PS: There’s no need for women to wear a hat, actually there’s no dress code at all 😉
Riding the tram
You get a feeling of nostalgia when riding one of the “ding-dings”, as the locals call them according to the sound they make. Since 1904 they have been a part of Hong Kong history on the northern shore of Hong Kong Island. To be honest, these slow-paced double-deck vehicles are not the most efficient means of transport and some car drivers consider them a nuisance (especially in those areas with only a single lane for each direction, e. g. in Johnston Road), but they are definitely the most adorable ones and loved by the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population.
I must agree: I like the tram, too. The leisurely pace is pleasant and helps you to slow down, while 2.30 HKD for each ride is ridiculously cheap. If your feet are hurting after a sightseeing marathon, take a time-out and hop on a tram. For instance, board at the very start in Shau Kei Wan, secure the front row seat on the top deck for yourself and view how the roadside scenery changes along its course: from small family-owned restaurants and shops in North Point via the cathedrals of consumerism in Causeway Bay to the citadels of cash in Central and further along passing the dried seafood shops (and their unique smell) in Sheung Wan until you finally reach the terminus in trendy Kennedy Town. This may take at least two hours of your time (again, for 2.30 HKD!), but you can certainly get off anywhere in between, just as you like.
Wednesdays in Museums
There are a lot of interesting and recommendable museums in and around Hong Kong which pose an attractive option to visit particularly on rainy days. They are usually quite cheap, but on Wednesdays most of them are even completely free to the public!
My favourite museum is Hong Kong Museum of History where you can feel the passion for detail in every exhibition and that shows especially the history of Hong Kong from the Opium Wars onwards in a very absorbing manner. Moreover, Hong Kong Maritime Museum at the Central Ferry Piers is interesting, too, and offers great harbour views through its panoramic windows towards Kowloon. In addition to that, HK Science Museum, Museum of Coastal Defence, Sun-Yat-sen Museum, Museum of Tea Ware, Railway Museum, and many more leave nothing to be desired and cater to any information demand possible.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong Museum of Art is currently under major renovation and will only open again in 2018 earliest.
It’s no secret that there are abundant shopping opportunities in Hong Kong. However, the numerous shiny malls with all their luxury shops don’t offer much more to the “ordinary mortal” than air-conditioned chills, shopping is rather out of the question. Leave that to the people who think they need to define their character through materialistic goods from luxury brands. For an affordable shopping tour or simply an interesting stroll head to Hong Kongs countless markets instead. Especially in Mong Kok you will find plenty interesting ones, for instance the Flower Market, Goldfish Market, Jade Market and Sneaker Street, not to forget the famous Ladies Market or – a bit more to the Southwest in Yau Ma Tei – Temple Street Night Market. Here you’ll find all kinds of necessities and oddities, from clothing and acessories to sex toys, drones or pincers. And to the left and right of the market alley there are some nice dai pai dongs to satisfy your hunger which will naturally result from all the shopping.
In between the two main sections of Temple Street Night Market it gets a little bizarre where astrologists offer clairvoyant services and karaoke performances are being held which rather remind me of yowling dogs than of singing. In my opinion, the Temple Street Night Market is way too touristic. As far as I’m concerned, I prefer the rather remote Stanley Market near Stanley Promenade on the South side of Hong Kong Island due to the more appealing flair and the expected quality of the products. Even aside from the market, I would definitely recommend going to tranquil seaside Stanley once (e. g. by taking bus no. 6 from Central) with its nice promenade, pier and some beaches.
Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery
On Lantau Island, majestically overlooking the mountain plateau of Ngong Ping at a height of over 500 meters above sea level, you will find the largest seated Buddha statue of the world. The 268-step ascent up to the figure inaugurated in 1993 is absolutely free and worth the effort. Especially on days with good visibility you can enjoy nice views from up there. Don’t let yourself be fooled: It’s really free to go up to the Buddha, only if you want to visit the (not so worthwhile) exhibition inside or want to have lunch at the nearby (not so good) vegetarian restaurant, you can purchase the combi ticket for that at the box office.
Not necessarily for the vegetarian restaurant, but in any case for the Po Lin Monastery you should visit the cloister area nearby. In and around the grounds opened in 1924 you can often observe free-roaming cattle at their attempt to steal offerings out of temple entrances.
While the visit to these two sights is completely free, the more expensive is the ropeway bringing you to the plateau from Ngong Ping. However, the views over Lantau during the journey are miraculous and justify the price. Nevertheless, if you want to go for the budget option you might as well take a bus from Tung Chung or hike up to the Buddha (e. g. via the extremely challenging ascent to Lantau Peak and a dangerous descent down to the Buddha afterwards.
Temples and Gardens
In between all the concrete jungle and skyscraper forests, every now and then you can find real oases in the form of beautiful gardens, splendid parks or befogging temples.
One of my favourite places in Hong Kong is Nan Lian Garden, a cautiously cultivated garden with an iconic orange pagoda in the middle of an artificial lake and in front of a wall of skyscrapers surreally rising up in the background. Nan Lian Garden leads to Chi Lin Nunnery with which it forms a perfect symbiosis of peace and tranquility in the otherwise hectic city. Besides this place, there are more of these oases which invite you to have a break in the green, like Kowloon Park, Hong Kong Park or Victoria Park, to name but a few of the biggest ones.
Shelter and refuge is also offered by the plenty smaller or bigger temples, of which certainly Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road, Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon or the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas in Sha Tin are among the most popular and most interesting. Even if they are often full of smoke created by loads of incense being burnt there, they are definitely worth visiting as they provide a great insight into Chinese culture and traditions.
Riding the Escalators through SoHo
The „Escalators“, with approximately 800m the longest connected escalator system on earth, leads from Central up to Mid-Levels and simplifies the way to work and back for ten thousands of Hong Kongers each day. On your way up you eventually cross Hollywood Road in Southerly direction – that’s when you enter the popular restaurant and bar district “SoHo” (South of Hollywood Road) where there’s lots of things going on especially in the evenings. Leave the escalators here (further up there’s nothing more to see except boring residential buildings) and enjoy the vibe of this neighbourhood.
In SoHo you will find plenty of decent bars, however the prices they charge for drinks are a real pain. A budget alternative would be to grab yourself a beer at 7-Eleven (e. g. at SoHo Corner) and enjoy it outside while people-watching and listening to the music coming out of the bars nearby. There’s nothing to worry about, it is perfectly legal to drink alcohol on the streets, especially in this area where people are used to it. Just try to keep the voices down and the noise low, as this is also a residential area.
View out of the panorama elevator in Hopewell Center
Even if the owner and operator of the “Grand Buffet” restaurant may condemn me – I can’t help but sharing this secret with you: This very restaurant is located on the top floor of Hopewell Center, the circular building with two yellow stripes on top which is often called “Big Cigar” by locals.
In the 1970s Hopewell Center had once been the highest building in Hong Kong. Today it ranks somewhere in the 20s, but consists of one special feature (and I don’t mean the fact that its top is revolving around itself completing one full circle every hour): there is one panorama elevator going from 17th floor to the top, offering you sweeping views over Hong Kong Island and Victoria Harbour as you are taken higher and higher. And best of all: completely for free!
Curious people might have a look at the menu of the “Grand Buffet”, but most of them will probably decide against dining here after noticing that there’s no comma fault in it (most of the time it is fully booked, anyway) and take the elevator down again. And then up again. And down again. In the end, it’s free! And now the „Grand Buffet“ people will really condemn me…
Avenue of Stars
The Hong Kong version of Hollywood’s „Walk of Fame“ opened in 2004. Along the „Avenue of stars“ you’ll find (larger than) life-sized statues and many plaques honouring the most famous entertainment celebrities connected to or born in Hong Kong. Besides famous singer Anita Mui and the four-and-a-half meter high sculpture of the Hong Kong Movie Award, the hottest spot for picture-takers is without any doubt the statue of Bruce Lee, whose Kung Fu pose is constantl being imitated by visitors.
Usually you’d find the Avenue of Stars directly along the TST Promenade. However, due to renovation works of that area the Avenue of Stars had been moved to the exile of the sculpture park in Starry Garden. As soon as the construction works around the Intercontinental Hotel and the HK Museum of Art will be completed (targeted for 2018), the Avenue of Stars is expected to return to its original home.
A City trip just for tips
There’s no more efficient way to get to know Hong Kong fast AND through the eyes of a local than by participating in a walking tour through the city. Two of the operators that I have tried are HKFreeWalk (www.hkfreewalk.com) and Hong Kong Free Tours (www.hongkongfreetours.com), which offer tours through Kowloon as well as on Hong Kong Island. Additionally, Hong Kong Free Tours offers amongst others a biking, a hiking and a “delicacies” tour for the brave. Do you dare to try all the “special” Hong Kong street food? To become able to judge whether these really are “delicacies” or not you should go. I went once and can definitely recommend it!
These tours operate on a “tip-only”-basis, but of course that shouldn’t mean that they’re for free. However, in contrast to other tours that charge you horrendous sums upfront without performing well afterwards, this concept is much fairer. You should only be as fair when evaluating what the tour was worth to you and reward the guides accordingly in case you’re satisfied. Only then these gratifying business models will be able to survive.
Enjoy Dim Sum in a Dai Pai Dong
There are countless extraordinary restaurants in Hong Kong, many of which have become internationally acclaimed for a reason, are featured in travel guidebooks and charge prices accordingly. Other eateries may not be equipped with a similar marketing budget, the most attractive location or the business sense of the successful owners, but lots of them are very well capable of providing delicious food, anyway, even if it may not look like it from the outside.
With a bit of luck and eagerness to experiment you might coincidentally come across a Din-Tai-Fung-like Dim Sum heaven in a side alley without having to break the bank for it. Have the courage to take a seat on one of the plastic chairs of Hong Kong’s distinctive Dai Pai Dongs – it doesn’t take much and will be rewarding!
Street Art in Central
Thanks to a growing creative scene and initiatives like the annual urban festival “HKwalls” (www.hkwalls.org) there is by now a noticeable collection of artworks scattered all over town. In the streets and alleys of SoHo, urban and densely populated Sham Shui Po, industrial Wong Chuk Hang or many other hotspots in Hong Kong you can marvel at the free-to-view works of internationally known street artists. In a creative and innovative way they bring colour onto the otherwise often scruffy facades of Hong Kong.
How did you get along with your travel budget in pricey Hong Kong? Do you have additional suggestions how travelers on a budget can enjoy Hong Kong without having to relinquish its highlights or to deal with a constant guilty conscience, respectively? What’s missing on my list?
Please share with me and other fellow readers, so that we can extend it and help future visitors to Hong Kong! Thank you so much!