Hong Kong is deeply integrated with western culture. Although its foundation began with China, it became more influenced by British colonialism and, as such, has developed an identity all its own.
You’ll notice this unique mixture immediately when you arrive. Street signs that line the city are printed in plain English with names like “Queen’s Road” or “Russel Street”. We quickly learned, however, that you can’t count on the English versions of the roads to get around.
None of the cabs we took spoke a lick of English, nor did they understand the English version of our destination’s cross-streets. Even more complex, as we learned from some locals, is the Chinese version of the streets don’t directly translations to the English ones. In essence, many streets have two distinct names.
Tip #1: Always take a picture of the local Chinese text of the destination you want to go (or write it down) so you can show it to the cab driver. Learning a nearby landmark’s local name won’t hurt either.
Other than that, getting around town was fairly easy with Google Maps and English (remembering, of course, that it is always a good idea to learn a few local phrases out of respect for your host country.)
There is a constant sense of old and new while walking through Hong Kong. A trendy bar filled with young business people dressed to the 9s is placed directly next to a tiny old-style market with burlap bags of dried foods displayed on its stoop. You’ll see bamboo scaffolding next to an ancient temple with rising incense smoke flowing into the neon lights of a brand new bar, only a block away from a two story aluminum-plated Apple store. The city is somehow both completely foreign yet comfortable and familiar.
Tip #2: You’ll notice symbols such as “11/F” on some signs. The pattern refers to the floor an establishment is on. In this case the “11th floor.”
On our first night, we stumbled through a neighborhood filled with expats. It took a moment for it to register, but rows of restaurants and bars were completely filled with non-Chinese locals. In a way, it was like Hong Kong’s American-town, nicely balancing out our China-town back home.
The concept of culture fusion continues into the world of food. There’s a continuum of tastes ranging from the very pure and authentic Chinese dishes, to its modern interpretations, all the way to an east-meets-west blend. The first restaurant we stopped into was brand new and, sadly, we were drawn to mostly on name alone. It was called “Ho Lee Fook” and it had a 1-hour waiting list. We used the time to visit some local bars and grab a drink before dinner.
Jackie has an amazing sense of finding “good spots” when we travel. She is an instinctual Yelp database. On our kill-time-before-we-eat bar-cruise her spidey-sense drove us into a small bar called the Three Monkeys. No exaggeration, we had the best drinks we’ve ever had in our lives. Perfectly blended and absolutely delicious. At this point we also began to realize that Hong Kong was not cheap by any means – each drink was around $15+ USD.
We finished up and headed back to Ho Lee Fook. The hostess led us down into the basement; Jay-Z and Jimi Hendrix’s music filled the rooms. Once we sat down and got comfortable we realized the restaurant was filled with Americans and Brits. We stumbled into another ex-pat bunker.
Tip #3: When you are visiting other countries and time is limited you can sometimes get a slight feeling that you’re getting cheated out of your adventure when you get surrounded by tons of your own people. But, in this instance, we recognized that these ex-pat areas were very much part of the local culture and we embraced it. It helped that the food was amazing. The final bill came in around $80-$100.
We hit the must-do list.
We took The Peak Tram up the famously steep climb to the top of The Peak Tower. There you get a 360-degree view of the city, 396 meters above sea level. Walking around the small town at the top of the hill finally gave us a sense of the beautifully lush, island-rich landscape that is Hong Kong.
Tip #4: Don’t waste your money on The Peak Tower’s 360-Degree View entrance fee. Wrap around to a nearby building’s rooftops and get pretty much the same view for free. Also, sometimes it’s foggy and you can’t see anything up top anyway. Try to go on a clear morning.
We also headed to see the “big buddha” by the way of gondola and got even more breathtaking views of the country.
But mostly we ate.
I’m not sure, but I imagine it’s quite rare to visit two of the least expensive Michelin star rated restaurants in the world back to back. We had dim sum at Din Tai Fung, which was good but not mind-blowing – and a bit pretentious. Even more memorable was the savory gravy biscuits we had at Tim Ho Wan on the bottom floor of a mall for about $1 each. They close early so make sure you check the hours before you go. We got there a bit late, but they were nice enough to make a few to go boxes for us take out. We shared one biscuit from the bag as we walked away and they were so good I ran back to the restaurant to get six more.
My biggest food fumble was made by my weakness to marketing propaganda. Everywhere we went we saw a McDonalds promoting “the prosperity burger.” I had to know what it was so I finally gave in and ordered it on our last day. All it was was a McRib with onions. Yuck.
Finally, I want to give a shout out to the awesome stay we had at Hotel LBP. They staff was friendly, the rooms were super nice and we got it at a great price (possible from a promotion.)