Hong Kong: Not just for the luxury tourist
Hong Kong, one of the densest and richest cities in the world, is often left off lists of Southeast Asia's most popular "backpacker-friendly" cities. Ultra-affordable, yet exotic locations like Bangkok, Mo Chi Minh City, or Jakarta cater to budget-conscious twenty-somethings on vacation or a "gap year" with famously dirt-cheap accommodations, food, and nightlife. Hong Kong, despite its relative proximity to Southeast Asia's budget traveler haunts, can be easily overlooked because of the perception that it's incredibly expensive to travel there and have a good time.
As someone who has done extended travel in Hong Kong on an extreme budget and fell in love with the megacity, I'm here to dispel some of those notions. There are a ton of things you can do in the city and places that you can stay for as cheap as $5-$10 USD per night (if you're up for a little adventure). You can eat for as little as $8 per day and frequently get a full meal for $3 or less. Here are some of my favorite spots in Hong Kong. The best part? They're all free.
1. View the nightly light show over Victoria Harbor
Every night, promptly at 8 p.m, the iconic skyscrapers on either side of Victoria Harbor play a little back and forth game with lights on the exterior of the building dancing back and forth like a gigantic-scale disco. If you can find a good spot to view the lights and drink a beer (yes alcohol is allowed in public in Hong Kong), it can be the perfect way to end an evening.
Pro Tip: Check out the roof of the IFC 2 building in Central, it’s a public space with a bar called “Red” on top. It’s a totally public space with a great view over the Harbor. Skip the expensive drinks at the bar and BYOB. Beer and alcohol is available at a nearby 7-11 or the grocery store on the bottom floor.
2. Explore Mong Kok markets
Goldfish Market. Ladies Market. Flower Market. Temple Street Night Market. Get the point? The Mong Kok district on the mainland side of Hong Kong – Kowloon – is a urban explorer’s paradise. Known for the best street food in Hong Kong, it’s also home to a veritable smorgasbord of brightly-colored and interesting street markets, where window-shopping is the thing to do. For the budget-conscious explorer, the goldfish market is a must-see. Every possible type of fish or fish-like creature can be seen there, either on display or in elaborately vegetated aquariums of gigantic proportions.
Pro tip: Make sure to stop in to a restaurant in Mong Kok that has no signs in English and get lunch. While Hong Kong Island can often be viewed as “Asia-lite” as a very easy place for English-only tourists to get by, Mong Kok and Kowloon in general can provide an escape from the comfort zone.
3. Take the ferry to Lamma Island
Lamma, the smaller of the two island communities off the coast of Hong Kong Island, hides one of the best surprises in the city, a small beach town that seems more like an intimate Mediterranean beach village than a part of Asia’s World City. With delicious seafood, perfect beaches, and lots of walking and biking (cars are not allowed on Lamma Island), this is the perfect “getaway” within the city. A short ferry ride from Central Hong Kong (yes it costs a small amount), I found myself returning again and again to this relaxing little island, sipping a beer and marveling that I was somehow still within the city.
Pro Tip: Skip the street markets of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, where cheap knock-off trinkets are a dime a dozen (sometimes literally). Bring a little bit of cash to Lamma island and you won’t be disappointed. Perfect souvenirs and gifts include everything from hand-made bags to jars of local spices and flavors to take a little bit of Hong Kong back with you.
4. Relax at Shek O's "Back Beach"
Shek O is a very popular beach near the southeast corner of Hong Kong Island, facing the South China Sea. Beaches are another thing people really don’t associate with Hong Kong, but with its tropical climate and abundance of expats and tourists, the beaches become quite crowded every summer. Head to Shek O Beach on a weekday or early on the weekend you’ll escape the crowds for a little while, but head to Shek O’s “Back Beach” and if you’re lucky you may have the place to yourself. With a lone bar perched on top of the sand to provide your needed refreshments, Back Beach is located behind a small neighborhood and may be difficult to locate. If you have your Google Maps out, aim for the beach furthest to the east. You’ll know you’ve reached it because you just walked through a neighborhood!
Pro Tip: Bring some cash for a beer, bring goggles for excellent underwater visibility, and bring a first-aid kit! There are no emergency services nearby and it could be useful to bring band-aids and disinfectant in case you step on some coral (thing may have happened to me, and the bar may not have had any first-aid equipment or have been willing to help me at all, but that’s my point).
5. Do Victoria Peak the explorer's way
Victoria Peak is popular enough in Hong Kong that people just call it “The Peak”, and admittedly it will be featured heavily in every guidebook you find. However, there are some ways to “do the Peak” and avoid the crowds, avoid spending money, and feel like you’re exploring off the beaten path a little bit. By far the most popular way to get up to the peak is to take the tram, which after a long wait transports tourists up a steeply-inclined track, eventually arriving at a large iconic building. At this point, you can pay some more money to go to the roof of the building to look over the city of Hong Kong. It is an incredible view.
However, you don’t have to spend the cash, and if you’re willing to get a little exercise you can have some adventure as well. Lace up your sneakers or hiking shoes and head to Hong Kong University’s campus on the west side of the island near the neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun. HKU is situated right on the side of the hill, and is the most unique university campus that I have ever seen. Follow a multitude of stairs uphill (just always head uphill, really) and find your own path to the peak. After navigating your way through the campus, you’ll find yourself on a series of paved switchbacks, and if you aren’t already a little winded at this point then congratulations! These switchbacks will eventually lead to a loop around the peak, where some of the best views can be found.
Pro Tip: Have fun exploring!