A single day in Hong Kong is definitely not long enough to do this great city justice. But, if you’re on a layover on your way to Bali or you just want to go big on your first day in Hong Kong, we’ll show you how to hit up all the major tourist hot spots in one afternoon and spend your downtime eating like a local, as we take you on a 24-hour whirlwind guide through the Fragrant Harbour.
Set yourself up for the day with breakfast at a cha chaan teng
Jostle elbows with the breakfast crowd to secure a seat at a local cha chaan teng for a hearty early morning tea-set meal. These ubiquitous Hong Kong diners – translated literally as “tea restaurants” – are a staple of local dining culture and can be found on every block of every district in this bustling city. Items on the menu such as French toast, macaroni and ham, and scrambled eggs hardly sound like a Chinese specialty, but these Western dishes have a distinctly Asian flair to them that has been satisfying local palates since cha chaan teng culture exploded onto the scene in the 1950s. Don’t leave without trying lai cha, or Hong Kong-style milk tea, which mixes super-strength black tea with evaporated milk and sugar in a smooth, creamy combination. These cheap and somewhat cheerful eateries – the mood often depends on your waiter’s – typically have an English menu available. If not, take a scan around the room and you’ll quickly find out which sets are the most popular.
Spend the morning strolling through Sheung Wan
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Art galleries, curios, traditional medicine shops and temples – this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood fuses the old with the new, never failing to provide an unexpected surprise around the corner. Start along the section of Des Voeux road known as Dried Seafood Street for a peek into traditional stores and stalls selling edible and medicinal ingredients such as “wind-dried sausage,” salted fish, blackened century eggs, flattened dried duck and fat choy – a stringy black moss that looks suspiciously like hair and is popular choice during the Chinese New Year. Head on up towards Upper Lascar Row, known as Cat Street, with its antique shops and stalls selling bric-a-brac and second hand items. A few steps away you’ll find the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road. Dating back to 1847, this historic monument transports you to another place and time altogether with its smoky incense coils and elaborate altars.
Up and away on the world’s longest escalator, the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator
From there, make your way over to the Central-Mid-Levels escalator, famously known for being the longest outdoor escalator in the world. Linking the city’s financial hub, Central, with the posh residential neighborhood along the mountainside, this extensive covered walkway will take you up and over narrow streets on a tour of restaurants, bars and shops in the area. Continue all the way to the top until you reach Jamia Mosque, the city’s oldest mosque dating back to 1890. Directly opposite you’ll spy the inconspicuous sign for Rednaxela Terrace, a misprint of Alexander Terrace, due to some kind of transcription error by a sleepy colonial era clerk.
Have a dim sum lunch, like a local
[Also see our travel article “The Four Best Chinese Restaurants in Hong Kong“]
No trip to the city would be complete without sampling traditional yum cha or dim sum, so make a beeline for Tim Ho Wan at IFC Mall in Central – one of the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. Fast, delicious and busy, try to go outside of standard lunch and dinner hours to avoid the long queue.
Take in the sensational skyline from the Peak
At this point, you should now be too full to walk. Good! You did it in true Hong Kong style. Next, hop onto the Peak Tram and take in the stunning harbor views as this funny little funicular winds its way up the impossibly steep mountainside. The breathtaking skyline view from the Peak never fails to impress, but a stroll around the Lugard Road and Harlech Road circuit offers just as many stunning vantage points and only half the tourists. For a bit of an adventure through the lush tropical vegetation, opt for the hike back down the hillside along the paved Old Peak Road.
Experience the Fragrant Harbour from the Star Ferry
[Also see our travel article “The Top 10 Reasons to Visit Hong Kong“]
For more than 120 years the Star Ferry has been shuttling commuters back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, and still remains the most affordable way to cross the harbor. The best seats on these pretty green and white, open-air ferries can be found along the sides of the top deck, affording spectacular panoramic views of towering skyscrapers. The crossing only takes about 10 minutes, but, with tickets costing only HK$2.5, visitors can ride it back and forth a few times if they really can’t get enough of the harbor.
Keep it low key and local with a dai pai dong dinner
[Also see our travel article “The Ten Best Street Markets in Hong Kong“]
Although only two dozen officially licensed dai pai dong still exist in the city, the word is now used more generically to mean open-air food stalls characterized by their folding tables, questionable cleanliness and roadside ambiance. Some have even moved indoors into cooked food centers found in every district, offering the luxuries of air-con and potentially improved hygiene. Tuck into seafood and Tsing Tao beers at one of the lively restaurants along the Temple Street Night Market in Jordan.
Have a drink on top of the world
Wrap up your day and a dizzying 24 hours in Hong Kong with a fancy cocktail at Ozone, the highest bar in the world. Miles away from the cheap food stalls along the street, the glitz and glamour of your surroundings truly put into perspective the enormous divide between rich and poor in Hong Kong. Stay and admire the view as long as you like, the neon skyline remains forever alluring in a city that never sleeps.