A city guide to Hong Kong
The constant traveller: Hong Kong
Words— Celia Spenard-Ko
Photography— Celia Spenard-Ko
“If you can imagine it, Hong Kong has it. And if it’s not there today, it’ll be there tomorrow!” was something my mother would always say when talking to a young me about Hong Kong. At thirteen, I finally understood what she meant. I went to Hong Kong to visit my father and although that was almost twenty years ago now, I’ll never forget my first time. The thrilling density that hit me all at once: the people, the buildings, the colours, the air. A first impression that has stayed with me, but upon which I’ve been able to build every time I go back. As my mother’s saying implies, this city is vast and so are its offerings. Therefore the Hong Kong I’m sharing with you is intimately linked to my own personal experiences and memories with my family and can be used as a jumping-off point for your own.
But first, for a heightened experience, I suggest reading this guide with the following throwback tune playing on low in the background.
Where to eat
Where to start? If you were to just eat your way through Hong Kong, and not do or see anything else, you wouldn’t have misused your time in the slightest. Food is a massive part of this city and its culture. It’s also one of the most beautiful and intimate ways you can discover it. So let’s start with breakfast, shall we?
Nathan Congee and Noodle
I’m going to start you off with a few classic spots, the kind locals frequent. Nathan Congee and Noodle is one of those. This joint has been around so long, my father used to eat here when he was a child. It’s on the Kowloon side, where he grew up. We have breakfast here at least once every time I visit. It’s small, some might even say a bit cramped, but that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. There’s something incredibly serene about sitting at a modest table surrounded by a few small stools, over a piping hot bowl of congee with perhaps the best consistency your palate will ever welcome. And you’re going to want the occasional moment of quietude during your stay here. With your congee, you must, for your happiness’ sake, order a side or two of youtiao (Chinese doughnuts). Congee aside, they make really good wonton noodle soup too. I always order both.
Hoi On Café
If you’re looking for breakfast Hong Kong side, Hoi On Café is your spot. Especially if you’re in the mood for some Wong Kar-wai vibes. Considered to be one of the few remaining bing sutts—a traditional Hong Kong-style restaurant popularized in the 50s and 60s, offering light meals and drinks—this is where you’ll want to have your first lai cha (HK milk tea) experience. Made the OG way with a silk stocking. The food can be described as classic Hong Kong fare with some Western influences: notably, warm buns served with butter, instant noodles with slices of ham and French toast (after 2:30pm). Sit at a table across from a stranger and maybe you’ll learn a thing or two. This is actually how I discovered one of the places I’ve included on this list. More on that later.
Tak Yu Cha Chaan Teng
The cha chaan teng is often thought of as the offspring of the bing sutt and definitely more prevalent. A true mainstay of Hong Kong culture. Similarly to the bing sutt, the food is cheap, fast and referred to as Canto-Western cuisine or as they use to call it back in the day, “soy sauce Western”.
(I’ll forego the history lesson, but it’s important to note that back when HK was a British colony, a lot of Western joints were opening up, but these were pretty upscale and didn’t cater to the locals. Enter the cha chaan teng. Set up by locals for locals and inspired by Western cuisine that, until then, was a luxury. When I say inspired by Western cuisine, I’m not saying you’ll find hamburgers here, but for example, something as simple as milk tea stems from that inspiration.)
Back to Tak Yu. Situated in Wan Chai and surrounded by trendy shops such as the Monocle Shop and Kapok, dining here feels very much like being in a time capsule with windows. At lunch, you can sit out on the street and enjoy a generous plate of pineapple beef fried rice as the city hums on around you. Don’t forget the milk tea.
Four Seasons Clay Pot Rice
Back over on Kowloon side, it’s time to take the lid off a culinary staple: claypot rice. Four Seasons is open from 6pm to 1am, seven days a week and its queues mean business, so I recommend going around 9:30pm-10pm to avoid the worst of it, but to be honest, this place is worth the wait. Everything that goes into the claypot rice here is made from scratch and cooked over a charcoal fire. Although their speciality is cured duck—and chances are you’ll have seen many hanging in shop windows by now—my personal favourite is the chicken and lap cheong (Chinese sausage) claypot rice. The trick, once you get your pot, is to add a good amount of soy sauce right away, but then quickly put the lid back on for a few more minutes. The soy sauce will make its way to the bottom, mix in with the rice, and create a nice layer of crisp umami goodness. Although the name Four Seasons may conjure images of pristine white linens, fresh flowers and other five-star hotel indulgences, this establishment may be the antithesis of luxury when it comes to aesthetics, but in terms of flavour, it gets five stars all around.
Juice Lady on Arthur St
There’s the kind of spot that you come across when you’re in a different city, that will just stay with you even when you’re back home. You’ll find yourself thinking about it and wishing you could just go back whenever you want. About a block away from Four Seasons Clay Pot Rice, the Juice Lady on Arthur St is that spot for me. Once, I was staying nearby and went to her every day. Her stall is unnamed, but I always find her because I know she’s across the street from the Bridal Tea House Hotel. There’s a man who runs a stall next to her with amazing street meat. I often hit both and post up at one of the little tables in front of the man’s stall. The Juice Lady is really just a name I use with my father when I talk about going to see her. I never anticipated writing about her one day, but I’m including her here because she - hands down - makes the best fruit drinks I’ve had anywhere and I want everyone to try them. Her stall has signs above it that feature images of fruits and vegetables with their health properties. She always has fresh young Thai coconut on hand and, during my last visit, I gave her coconut milk drink a try. My husband and I ended up crushing two back-to-back.
As much as I like to kick it old-school most of the time, Hong Kong is not short up modern places to eat. I brought my father to Lof10 for the first time in 2015, his immediate reaction was disbelief that we were somehow still in HK. Almost hidden, this cafe isn’t big, but that afternoon, we were the only ones there save for a couple other patrons and their immaculate pups, so there was a lot of room (first rarity). The vibe was very calm (second rarity). And once we got our food, we were able to take our time without the worry of taking up seats (third rarity). All aspects of HK dining my father wasn’t used to but thoroughly enjoyed. Their menu, though small, does cover a lot of bases with a variety of toast specials, an all-day breakfast—egg, sausage, bacon, etc—satay beef noodles, also with egg, and uplifting desserts. You may have already seen Lof10’s space on Instagram, it has those qualities as well.
It’s a bao time we got to those pillowy delights packed with all kinds of good-good. Little Bao is a cosy nook that feels oddly familiar. Which probably has a lot to do with its diner-like aesthetic and feel, and a little to do with the menu being tastefully printed on cute placemats in English. Lines can get long here too, but one bite of their ice cream bao and you’ll be willing to go through it all again several times over. I’m getting ahead of myself. They have really nice dishes to share, like the drunken clams and short-rib pan-fried dumpling, and then there are the baos. I dare you to find four choices on a menu more difficult than the four choices of bao on this one. Whatever you decide, just make sure you leave enough room for the ice cream.
It would be very remiss of me not to mention the immense success of Canadian chef Matt Abergel and co-owner Lindsay Jang’s Yardbird. Walking into Yardbird on a busy Friday night last December, was as though I was seeing the future. I could only best describe it like as if Blade Runner was a feel-good film. Locals and people from all over the world just hanging out in a very industrial, yet warm space, over some seriously delicious food with a presentation to match. What’s really odd is when I look at photos of the place, that’s not how I remember it. Though I think that’s a testament to how strong the vibe is there. The memory of how I felt there is strongest, my overall experience in the space and with the food. That doesn’t really happen to me much and I wish it did.
Peninsula Classic Afternoon Tea in The Lobby / Dim Sum at The Peninsula’s Spring Moon restaurant
As I have a predilection for the old-school, I'm always blissed out any time I visit The Peninsula Hong Kong. My affection for the institution otherwise known as the “Grand Dame of the Far East”, runs deep. She celebrated her 90th anniversary this year and has seen her share of excitement. Even if you don’t plan on staying or dining within her ornate walls, I suggest going to check her out anyway, take a stroll through the fashion arcade—one of HK’s oldest and home to Prada, Goyard, Louis Vuitton, etc. Shops aside, there’s a lot of history to be taken in.
Speaking of history, check out the Classic Afternoon Tea in The Lobby. I’m a bit of an afternoon tea buff. It's something about the slow pace combined with small bites, but plenty, both sweet and savoury. And the all-you-can-drink tea. There aren’t many practices left over from HK’s colonial days, but afternoon tea at The Peninsula is one that has remained. Tea is served daily from 2pm to 6pm and it works on a first-come, first-served basis—no reservations. I suggest arriving at least 15 to 20 minutes before 2pm. Welcome to the epitome of treating yourself.
My all-time favourite thing to do at The Peninsula is have dim sum at Spring Moon, her Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant. Spring Moon's dim sum is a multi-sensorial experience like nothing you've had before. When you’re sitting at a table dressed with pristine white cloth placemats, surrounded by dark wood, it’s almost like going to a theatre where the table is the stage and the dishes are the main acts. Try having a waiter slip you a few gold leaf-topped dumplings with hand-painted edges and tell me you didn’t get emotional. If you’re a big enough group to justify an order of Peking duck, don’t think twice, you’re in for a trip.
Hui Lau Shan
I was thirteen, it was my first time in Hong Kong and it was monsoon season. My father took me to Ocean Park (a local theme park and oceanarium) anyway regardless of the literal walls of rain. We had a really great time, although I probably remained damp for a week. One moment that really stuck with me though is on the way home, the rain was so bad, we ducked into a Hui Lau Shan for a bit to wait it out. That’s when I tried my first mango drink. I remember standing in the doorway, rain coming down like a waterfall inches from me, but forgetting how drenched I was because this drink was magic, it froze time. Still does. Whenever I have a mango drink, it takes me back to that doorway. There are a few Hui Lau Shans on both Hong Kong and Kowloon sides, make sure to duck in even if it’s not raining.
What to see
One of the many amazing aspects of Hong Kong is the spectrum of possibilities. You’re in the middle of an incredibly compact metropolis, and yet a stone’s throw from both nature and the sea. There is truly a beautiful hand-carved back scratcher for every imaginable itch.
Hong Kong’s highest point is Victoria Peak, known locally as just “The Peak”, and although it makes frequent appearances on most itineraries, I insist on including it on this list for many reasons. You may have heard stories of the interminable line to get on the Peak Tram, well the first trip is at 7am and I can guarantee if you go at that time, you won’t be waiting much. That said, any time before 10am is a safe bet. I also believe that people who say going up on a cloudy day is a waste of time are flat out wrong. I’ve taken some of my favourite photographs at The Peak on misty days. Sure the chances of you seeing pure white cloud in lieu of the city skyline is highly probable, but clouds are not static, and when they do move, you will catch a dramatic eyeful. What’s more is I find the foot trails that circle the mountain to be more mythical-looking shrouded in fog. There are also fewer people on days like these, all the more reason to go. Of course, if you go on a beautiful, sunny day, the full view of the city is breathtaking. Going at night is also an option. I’ve never done it myself, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a completely different and no less stunning experience. That’s just the thing with this place, it keeps on giving even though you’ve already conceded to its greatness.
Goldfish Market • Flower Market • Yuen Po Street Bird Market
Some markets you visit to purchase items you want or need, some markets you visit to simply wander through and feel the same level of stimuli you thought was only attainable in youth. Tung Choi Street North is home to several shops specializing in goldfish and other aquatic creatures, to which it owes the honour of being dubbed goldfish market. In Chinese culture, goldfish make very auspicious pets and are therefore sought after for their luck-brining capabilities. Hundreds of water-filled plastic bags line this street with wonderful little colourful beings peering out at you. The sight is as unique as it gets, and as someone who grew up with an aquarium in the house, the impulse to somehow smuggle a mini pufferfish back to Canada was almost too great to bear.
Just a few blocks away is Yuen Po Bird Garden, also known as bird market. To set foot in this garden is to go tens toes into a tradition that has endured since the Qing dynasty, that of taking your bird for a walk. This may seem strange, but I assure you the reasoning behind it isn’t in the slightest. The idea is to brighten the bird’s mood by taking it outside for some fresh air and allowing it to socialize with other birds in the hopes this will encourage it to sing more at home. Their songs aren’t to be confused with the incessant chirping you’d hear from a budgie, no one wants more of that. These are songbirds with truly beautiful melodies that’ll stop you in your tracks. Besides the little stalls selling everything from birds, to cages and grub, there are designated areas where people can suspend cages alongside others to give their birds some social time while they do the same.
Flower Market Rd is also in the area and worth hitting up if you’d like to feel as though you’re on psychedelics without actually doing psychedelics. There are more colours here than I’m sure Pantone is even aware of and plants you probably only thought you’d see in your acid dreams, such as neon-painted cacti. Walk through rows of towering orchids as the sugary scent of lilies makes you forget where you are.
Wong Tai Sin Temple
Nestled among soaring apartment blocks, this stunning Taoist temple is a popular place for locals and tourists alike. Some come to take in the ornate beauty and history of the temple itself, veiled in clouds of incense, and its peaceful Good Wish Garden, inhabited by koi fish and turtles. Others come to have their prayers answered. I’ve been for both reasons, personally, and have gained from both. You can take it or leave it. But if you do decide to check this temple out, I suggest keeping an open mind and you may leave with more than you thought you would be going in.
Chi Lin Nunnery
Earlier I mentioned sitting across from a stranger at Hoi On Café who tipped me off on a place I should check out. It was the Chi Lin Nunnery. This man told me it was one of his favourite spots in HK and that not many tourists go for some reason. He wasn’t wrong. And even my father had never been. This. Place. Is. Gorgeous. Built in true Tang dynasty fashion, the Buddist nunnery is the largest hand-crafted wooden building in the world, made from cypress and using a traditional Chinese architectural method of interlocking parts, which rendered the use of nails unnecessary in the construction process. We arrived around 4pm, half an hour before close, leaving us not much time, but the sun was getting low and the way it hit the buildings and garden was so extra, I wasn’t mad at being ushered out after a quick lap around the courtyard.
Asia Society Hong Kong Center
One of my favourite spots in HK is the Asia Society Hong Kong Center. Part gallery, part theatre, part venue, and part heritage site, this cultural hub was built by carefully repurposing the mid-19th century Victoria Barracks’ Former Explosives Magazine complex (buildings designed to handle explosives). The brilliance of visionary architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien is undeniable as soon as you enter. If for no other reason than to witness the harmonious coexistence of modern architecture, nature, art and historic buildings, this is a must-see. Though I do strongly encourage you to check out any exhibition that may be on view.
Hong Kong Museum of Art
Although to the frustration of many over the last three years, the Hong Kong Museum of Art has been temporarily closed in order to undergo a hefty expansion project, I still find taking the trip to the dusty pink behemoth worthwhile. The museum is part of a complex that includes the matching Cultural Centre, often referred to as an eyesore with its imposing windowless pink-tiled walls. An odd choice indeed for a building right on the harbour. So much negative criticism and yet I’m still so fond of this whole area. Walking through it and admiring its angularity is something I’ve always been a sucker for. And, as I’ve mentioned, it’s right on the waterfront, making it one of the best spots to watch the sun go down and the city lights switch on. The good news is, renovations are scheduled to be completed next year, so that will no doubt be the right time for most people to scope it out.
Choi Hung Estate Car Park
I’m going to go a little off-conventional-city-guide for the next two spots. There are so many different public housing estates in HK and you see them everywhere you look. Those tall, colourful buildings, grouped together like a bamboo forest of concrete. Sometimes they have an old-school restaurant on the ground floor. I had my first-ever milk tea in one of those restaurants, I’ll never forget that moment. I guess what I’m trying to say is these estates are such a big part of HK life, OG HK life, I think it’s worth seeing at least one or two.
The “Rainbow Estate” is one of HK’s oldest public housing estates and I know by now you’re already pulling up its image in your head because you’ve seen it two-dozen times on IG. Well seeing it in person, unfiltered is different, I promise you. I remember sprinting up the stairs of the carpark, not even knowing if I was in the right spot, but just looking for someplace elevated. Once I got to the last floor and walked through the door onto a multicoloured basketball court, surrounded by multicoloured buildings, I just stood there for a minute, grinning. That’s how I learned that carparks in this city often hold the secret to some of the most incredible views. Keep that in mind.
Nam Shan Estate (Nam Lok House)
Painted in a multitude of green shades, Nam Shan Estate really feels like its own micro-community. Being in close proximity to the City University of Hong Kong, a lot of students frequent its many food vendors. This estate is essentially snack heaven as well as being incredibly photogenic.
Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island
Hong Kong as a whole is a sizeable territory consisting of many islands, linked by pleasant ferries and sleek choppers. Time permitting, it’s nice to venture out of the city. One landmark worth the trek is the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island, near the Po Lin Monastery. Sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by trees and made completely of bronze, this statue is an incredibly impressive sight to behold. There are 268 steps to climb in order to reach it, and my grandparents climbed them with me when they were both in their mid-seventies. Till this day, it is a great source of pride for my grandfather and something he still brings up in conversation at 93.
Where to shop
With so many shops and markets open late, it’s easy to spend a good chunk of time making it rain. Luckily you can find really cheap duffles at most markets if you run out of room in your luggage.
Temple Street Night Market
The Temple Street Night Market is probably the most famous of the HK markets—a massive row of stalls, sometimes lit up with colourful LED lights, other times buzzing with the sound of electric toys. I wish I could tell you what you’ll find there, but honestly, the randomness surprises me every time. There are things you’re sure to find though, such as souvenir t-shirts, bangles, sex toys, fake designer handbags and the like. If you’re attentive though, you may stumble on a solid find. Remember how I mentioned car parks being the secret keepers of this city’s best views? Well, there happens to be a carpark at the end of Temple Street, which also happens to be the vantage point from where many photographers have captured that classic image of the night market from above.
If there’s a gemstone that reigns supreme in Asian culture, it’s jade, so it only makes sense to have an entire market dedicated to it. If you like jade as much as I do and enjoy bartering for sport (something my father is better at than I am), Jade Street is going to be your cup of jasmine.
Upper Lascar Row Day Market aka Cat Street
Cat Street might just be my favourite market street. Much smaller than the others, it predominantly features traditional Chinese objects such as good luck charms, bracelets, old coins and brass sculptures. Though often referred to as an antique market, a lot of the items are mass-produced reproductions, but a brass sculpture remains a brass sculpture and a charming addition to any home. Cat Street is also a lot more peaceful and slow-paced, so you can really take your time with it.
What started as a little lifestyle shop on a quiet Hong Kong backstreet, is now eight shops strong with two locations in Singapore. Kapok sources garms, housewares and accessories internationally, making them one of the go-to spots in the city for innovation and inspiration.
My favourite shop in HK is Delstore, no question. The space is beautiful, the selection is very well curated, and Joey is the best. It’s one of those shops that’s tucked away, so once you come across it, feels significant. And you should definitely trust your feelings on this one.
Bonus: Day trip to Macau
Macau is just levels of extra and unlike anywhere you’ll ever go, so you kind of have to make a point to hop onto the hour-long ferry ride over and spend at least a day there. Or, if you have the cash, take a chopper. Formerly a Portuguese colony, there are still so many remnants of that era, making this such a culturally and visually fascinating place. For somewhere that isn’t particularity big, Macau is known for a whole lot of things. Pork chop buns are one of them.
Make a stop at Sei Kee Cafe and order one up, but make sure you also absolutely order a serving (or two) of the Toast Rubik with Butter, Sweetened Milk and Peanuts *slaps the desk*. Both the flavour and texture of that dessert haunt me in a lost-love type of way. They also have their own house blend of clay pot brewed milk tea—do it. Rooftop Macau is a really sweet boutique/coffee shop with a quaint rooftop patio, as their name suggests. They stock beautiful homewares, custom print t-shirts, stationary, and accessories. Essentially the ideal place to pick up a souvenir for the very design-conscious loved one. Now, what is quintessentially Portuguese, but just as equally Macanese? The humble, yet treasured egg tart. They can be found at almost every turn, but try to hold out until you reach Lord Stow’s Bakery, which was established in 1989. Andrew Stow is allegedly the man responsible for introducing the Portuguese egg tart in Asia as it is known today, so you know his tarts are going to be legit. Another bakery worthy of note is Koi Kei Bakery, although it’s more food souvenir shop and less bakery. A true pushcart-to-multi-chain-shop success story. The first thing that will most likely catch your eye is the “sheets” of meat jerky often found at the very front of the shop. A very popular choice, but one you won’t be allowed to take back on the flight home, unfortunately. Instead, you can opt for the customs-safe almond biscuits (my favourite), egg rolls, traditional Chinese cakes, or even their famous peanut brittle.
There are many, many historical sites to explore in Macau, so I’m just going to give you my top three, which are easy to hit all in one day: Ruins of St. Paul’s, Senado Square, and Mandarin’s House. After you’ve seen all the sights, bought up all the shops, and eaten everything you could possibly fit into your being, it’s time to try to win your money back. Can’t talk about Macau without mentioning it’s casinos, it’s basically Vegas on 'roids. Just looking at all the casinos from the outside is enough to send you into psychogenic shock. The Chinese love to gamble, and as with anything they love, they take much pride in it, therefore it all needs to be the best. I’ve only ever been to The Venitian, but my father did win $200 USD on the slots after five minutes so our day trip ended up being pretty, pretty cheap.
If there’s one notion you should keep running through your head while you’re in Hong Kong is to just expose yourself to as many experiences as you can. Taste first, ask questions later. Leave your comfort zone at home. Forget how you may look doing something new, no one’s going to remember it anyway except you and that’s exactly what you don’t want to miss out on—memories—rack those up like you’re getting the bargain of your life. This city is very generous, especially when it comes to those.