Hong Kong is synonymous the world over with its forest of soaring skyscrapers; a monolithic metropolis craning towards the clouds. However, at ground level an exotic city bustles in crowded streets, lively markets and lush parks. Board a boat and venture out to outlying islands to discover exuberant vegetation, banana trees, tranquil golden beaches and traditional fishing villages. Further afield is Macau, a unique city where east meets west. This is why we at Veloso Tours love Hong Kong and all it has to offer.
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Let's take a look at seven of the best things to do in Hong Kong and the surrounding area.
1. Survey the skyscrapers from Victoria Peak (or across the harbour)
The best way to truly appreciate the scale of Hong Kong and its special natural setting in the Pearl River Delta is to look down on it from above. In a city with the highest concentration of skyscrapers, this is no mean feat. But fortunately the Peak Rail has been chugging its way up Victoria Peak since 1888. Once at the top, the views are breathtaking, with perhaps only the view from Corcovado or Sugar Loaf in Rio de Janeiro able to compete in the world's great metropolises.
Below your feet verdant forest tumbles down the hillside, giving way to the shiny mass of giants which rise sharply out of the foundations of Hong Kong Island. Behind them lies Victoria Harbour, where the iconic Star Ferry and a myriad of tourist boats plough a course across to Kowloon, where they are again met by another wall of towers. We think that the best time to reach The Peak is just before sunset, affording time to gaze out to the tiny islands of the South China Sea before a cloak of dusk falls and the city lights begin to twinkle.
Although the nightly Symphony of Lights show is a little overhyped in our opinion, the ground level view of Hong Kong Island across the harbour from the promenade on Kowloon makes attendance worthwhile. Another much lesser known place to survey Hong Kong from above, with a cool drink in hand, is the rooftop bar of Wooloomooloo, overlooking the Happy Valley Racecourse in the heart of the city.
2. Browse Kowloon's eclectic collection of local markets
Most of the best hotels in Hong Kong are situated on Kowloon, linked to Hong Kong Island by Victoria Harbour. There are a number of excellent shopping streets, restaurants, cafes and a peaceful park all within easy reach, as well as a number of MTR (metro) stations. However, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of laying one's hat in Kowloon is the close proximity it affords to the area's many local markets. These markets, which can be enjoyed on a leisurely morning walk, offer countless opportunities to observe locals, take some great photos and immerse yourself in the rhythm and sounds of the city.
At the Yuen Po Street Bird Market, tiny birds let loose a melody of song, serenading would-be buyers and the old men who bring their own companions out for some sunlight and perhaps the chance to reacquaint themselves with old friends. This then leads into the colourful Flower Market, filling the air with welcoming aromas to draw in visitors and locals alike. Next up is the Goldfish Market, where impossibly beautiful exotic fish of all hues catch the eye and demand closer inspection, many commanding a high price tag. Continuing south brings us to the Ladies Market, perhaps the least interesting of all, unless you are looking for cheap clothing and fashion accessories.
The fruit and veg market lends another splash of colour to the streets, whilst the fish market can be smelt before it is seen. Next to the atmospheric temple is a whole indoor market dedicated to jade. Once the preserve of emperors and the elite and exalted in classic art and literature, it is now accessible to all and is thought to bring good luck and protection from evil spirits. The single most famous market in Kowloon is the Temple Street Market - a great place to barter for inexpensive souvenirs and gifts until late and a quintessential Kowloon experience.
3. Explore Hong Kong's fishing heritage by boat
When looking out upon the mass of skyscrapers, it is hard to fathom that Hong Kong was once merely a collection of sleepy fishing villages. The British colonisation in the mid-19th century saw the first substantial settlements established here amid half a century of unrest during the Opium Wars. Since then, Hong Kong has grown and grown, but pockets of this fishing heritage remain.
At the south of Hong Kong Island is the very British-sounding Aberdeen Harbour, named after the Secretary of the State for Overseas Colonies in the 19th century. Vast numbers of 'junk' boats fill the waters here, once home to a community of around 20,000. Today. most fishermen retreat from their vessels to their tiny apartments in the sky, but the boats are still very much vital tools of a very traditional trade. From here you can tour the harbour on foot and on a sampan boat cruise, or board a larger boat to head south to Lamma Island, where another substantial community thrives off of the surrounding waters.
Another great place to explore Hong Kong's fishing past is the small village of Tai O on the nearby Lantau Island. The charming homes of the Tanka people are held above the waterline of the creek by wooden stilts, some converted into characterful restaurants and cafes, with great views from the balconies. Short boat trips set out in search of the pink dolphins which populate the open bay.
4. Head out of the city and into the embrace of nature
Given that Hong Kong is home to over seven million souls squeezed into high-rise apartments, it is astonishing to think that over 40% of its territory is actually green rural land, a world away from the hustle and bustle of the street. As well as harbouring the aforementioned fishing villages, the outlying islands of Lantau and Lamma Islands hold the promise of gentle hikes through lush vegetation and exotic flora to quiet golden beaches. They are two of well over 200 of their kind and can be easily reached by boat from Hong Kong, with Lantau also connected to the MTR metro system. Lantau is actually best known for its 26 metre high Tian Tan Buddha, reached by the panoramic cable cars which afford magnificent views over the verdant island en-route.
5. Discover Hong Kong's spiritual side in peaceful temples
Another great way catch some respite from the city and observe locals, one which is invariably linked to its relationship with the sea, is to duck into one of Hong Kong's peaceful temples, monasteries or the nunnery.
Close to the markets of Kowloon, the Tin Hau Temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea. The deity is revered by the fishermen of Hong Kong as a spiritual force protecting them from the perils of life at sea. Outside, locals frequently gather to socialise and sometimes to play chess. Walk through the door and you'll enter an incense-filled oasis of calm, focused around a robed image of Tin Hau, to which locals pray. You might find it a little odd that a temple dedicated to seafaring is crammed in amid the markets and busy shopping streets of Kowloon. However, it is a sign of Hong Kong's expansion in the past century and a half that Tin Hau Temple used to actually look out over the waterfront.
On Hong Kong Island, Man Mo is the most impressive and atmospheric temple, dedicated to both the God of Civil Servants (Man) and the God of War & Martial Arts (Mo). Across the water on Lantau Island is the Po Lin Monastery, reached by cable car. The monastery is best known for the towering Tian Tan Buddha, its stunning views, serene interior and its well-regarded vegetarian restaurant.
Perhaps the place of worship with the most impressive grounds is the Buddhist Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon. The tranquil Nian Lin gardens encompass lotus ponds, ornamental rocks, a grand pagoda, graceful bridges and wonderfully-shaped bonsai plants. It is easily the best iteration of a classic Chinese garden in Hong Kong, whilst a delightful vegetarian restaurant hides behind a spectacular waterfall facade.
6. Experience the thrill of the races at Happy Valley
One of the most curious legacies left by the long period of British colonial rule in Hong Kong is a love of horse racing. Today it stands as the most popular spectator sport in the city.
Spectacularly enclosed by glistening high-rise towers, the Happy Valley Racecourse is a far cry from the swampland it was in the 19th century. The land has been transformed over the decades into a true cathedral of flat racing and one of the world's most famous racecourses. Wednesday nights here are electric, as beginners and seasoned gamblers alike fill the stands and enclosures below the glow of the the night to experience the true drama of a night at the races.
The season runs from September to July and standard entrance is around £1. There is also another race meeting held on Sundays at Sha Tin Racecourse, next to the river and the magnificent Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in the New Territories.
7. Cross the Pearl River Estuary to find a little slice of Portugal
Despite the pull of the local markets, atmospheric temples, lush parks and glorious vistas, it is hard to resist leaving the city behind for a day to head out across the water. And it isn't just the exotic outlying islands that compete for your attention. Head across the Pearl River Estuary and the colonial facades and gleaming casinos of Macau await on a memorable excursion.
Just as Hong Kong was a British colony for over a century, Macau represented Portugal's overseas interest in the east until it was handed back in 1997. Whilst relatively few signs of British rule remain in Hong Kong, Macau bears a remarkable resemblance to Lisbon, albeit overlaid with a thick layer of China. In Senado Square and the adjoining streets colourful colonial facades, wavey pavement markings, Portuguese language bookshops and small bakeries selling pasteis de nata will transport you half-way across the earth to the edge of the Iberian Peninsula. Elsewhere, highlights include the 400 year old A-Ma Temple, the evocative Ruins of St Paul's Church and the city's most famous attractions - its casinos. These gambling meccas are the most productive in the world, making Las Vegas look more like the Blackpool arcades.
Both Macau and Hong Kong are fascinating cities, where east meets west and 21st century China jars with traditional ways of life, both intrinsically linked to the waters of the South China Sea. Be it ferrying goods on mind-boggling scales, bringing weekend gamblers with money to burn, or simply providing a habitat for the region's fish, the sea is what has always powered industry in the Pearl River Delta. No wonder they built such fine temples to its protective deities.
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