International Budget Guide 2013: Hong Kong

Hong Kong may be the most expensive city in the world to set up an office, buy a luxury home and open a retail location, but it also offers surprising values for the budget traveler. For every five-star hotel, Michelin-starred restaurant and luxury emporium, there is a budget guesthouse, hole-in-the-wall noodle joint and back-alley marketplace waiting in the wings. Don’t believe us? Check out our Budget Hong Kong series, which ran earlier this year and featured ways to enjoy the Chinese special administrative region on a shoestring.

One trick is to venture beyond the heavily congested districts of Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, which tend to cater to the expense accounts of the business and finance set. Take a pilgrimage to the Olympian City mall in West Kowloon for a taste of Chef Mak Kwai Pui’s famous Michelin-starred dim sum at the newly expanded Tim Ho Wan. Or, head to the less-touristed Southern District to trek the famous Dragon’s Back, named Asia’s best urban hike by Time Magazine.

Though it is traditionally known as finance hub, Hong Kong has also emerged as a world-class center for contemporary art. The city held six art fairs in 2012, including the renowned Art HK, and this year sees the launch of the inaugural Art Basel Hong Kong, which will bring together artists and collectors from around the world in May. While purchasing the artwork may cost a pretty penny, the cost to attend and appreciate is minimal.

Budget activities

Symphony of Lights: This free nightly sound and light show over Victoria Harbour is magnificent, if cheesy. The best place to take in the hour-long spectacle is on the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, which affords a perfect view of Hong Kong Island’s illuminated skyscrapers. Another option is to queue up for a journey on the famous Star Ferry (HK$2-3.40, US$0.25-0.44) to coincide with the show. http://www.tourism.gov.hk/symphony

Hong Kong Museum of History: Learn about Hong Kong’s colorful past in “The Hong Kong Story,” a superbly curated interactive exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Admission is just HK$10 (US$1.30) for adults and HK$5 (US$0.65) for students, seniors and the disabled; on Wednesdays, entrance is free. http://hk.history.museum Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui

Dragon’s Back: Hiking in Hong Kong? Not only is it possible, it is also a popular pastime for those who call the city-state home. Don’t miss Dragon’s Back, a moderately difficult 5.3-mile path connecting Wan Cham Shan and Shek O Peak over the D’Aguilar Peninsula in the Southern District of Hong Kong Island. The trailhead is located on Shek O Road; take the MTR to Shau Kei Wan Station and transfer to bus 9 in the direction of To Tei Wan, then look out for the signposts. Shek O Road near To Tei Wan Village, Southern

Hotels

Hotel ibis Hong Kong Central and Sheung Wan: This sparkling new budget hotel from the Accor group is located on the border of the Sheung Wan neighborhood, an easy walk to the high-rises and shopping centers of Hong Kong’s Central district. Standard rooms are small but feature high ceilings, bay windows and Sony LCD TVs. From US$137. http://www.ibis.com/gb/hotel-7606-ibis-hong-kong-central-and-sheung-wan 28 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan

Holiday Inn Express Kowloon East: Opened in October 2012, the Holiday Inn Express Kowloon East is adjacent to the new Crowne Plaza Kowloon East, making it the InterContinental group’s first “twin brands” hotel project in Hong Kong. The 300-room property also sits atop the Tseung Kwan O MTR station, which makes for quick and easy access to Hong Kong’s central neighborhoods. Rooms are clean and spacious, with Simmons mattresses, massaging showerheads and workstations with ergonomic chairs. Also included in the nightly price is the chain’s signature “Smart Start” breakfast, with eight menu options. From US$129. www.hiexpress.com/kowlooneast Tower 4, 3 Tong Tak Street, Tseung Kwan

The Ashoka Hostel at the Chungking Mansions: If you’re up for an adventure, staying at a Chungking Mansion guesthouse can be a cultural experience all of its own. The chaotic 17-story complex has a storied past as a center for illicit activities, but in the past few years it has (mostly) cleaned up its act thanks to heightened security and an extensive new CCTV system. What you sacrifice in space and ambience you gain in savings – the guesthouses contain some of the cheapest accommodations in town. The Ashoka Hostel is a popular option, with close to 100 rooms spread across three floors and easy online booking. Dorms from US$20, private rooms from US$30; haggling encouraged. www.ashoka.hostel.com, A Blk. Flr. 13, A4, Chung King Mansion, 36 – 44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Eat and Drink

Tim Ho Wan: For years, three-hour waits were the norm at hole-in-the-wall dim sum eatery Tim Ho Wan, otherwise known as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. But in February, high rents forced Chef Mak Kwai Pui out of his 29-seat Mong Kok establishment into a cheaper but larger 100-seat space in Olympian City, a shopping mall in West Kowloon. The restaurant is also expanding, with new locations in Central, North Point and Sham Sui Po. Now you can taste Pui’s specialties, like barbequed pork buns and steamed prawn dumplings, without the comically absurd lines. Expect to pay about HK$50 (US$6.50) per person for a filling meal. Shop 72, G/F, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, Tai Kok Tsui

Tsim Chai Kee Noodle: Mak’s Noodle is the traditional favorite for Hong Kong-style wonton noodles. However, rumor has it that relative newcomer Tsim Chai Kee, located across the street in Hong Kong’s Central district, is surpassing Mak’s in both taste and popularity. With only 30 seats, the ambiance is cozy and warm, with dark wooden floors, matching tables and squat stools surrounding each of them. But the centerpiece at this diner is the food. The King Prawn Wonton Noodle (HK$22, US$2.80) stands out brightest with its succulent shrimp-filled dumplings, thick yellow noodles and perfectly seasoned broth. 98 Wellington Street, Central

Yee Shun Milk Company: Think you know what steamed milk is? Yee Shun Milk Company will prove you wrong. The unpretentious Macau-based diner chain specializes in light milk puddings that are almost ethereal in their texture and consistency. The hot steamed milk with ginger juice (HK$26, US$3.35) is a perennial favorite, with a taste that will stay with you long after you leave. There are four Hong Kong outlets, but the one in Causeway Bay is the most popular for visitors. There are also soups and salads for those seeking a full meal. 506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

Logistics

Seasonality: The best time to visit Hong Kong is from September to November when the air is less humid and the temperatures hover in the 60 to 80 degree Fahrenheit range. January and February are comparatively chilly, with temperatures around 50 degrees, while July and August are downright oppressive, with 85 degree heat amplified by humidity and pollution.

Safety: Hong Kong is a safe place to visit, but like in most major cities, there is some petty crime, like robberies and pickpocketing. Be aware of your belongings, particularly in crowded areas like Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and Causeway Bay.

Get Around: Hong Kong’s public transportation system is remarkably efficient and easy to navigate. Your best bet for getting from the airport to the central districts is the high-speed Airport Express train, which runs every 10 minutes and costs HK$100 (US$12.90) each way. If you will be in the city for a while, it’s worth picking up a pre-paid tap-and-go Octopus card at the airport or any mass rapid transit station; they can be used on buses, trams, mass rapid transit, ferries and even in select shops like 7-11. There’s also a HK$55 (US$7) tourist day pass, which can be used for crossing the bay and exploring the more off-the-beaten-path parts of Hong Kong, like the Southern District and the New Territories.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Mike Behnken]

Budget Hong Kong: The Best Cheap Eats For Under US$5 A Bite

Tourists come to Hong Kong for a number of reasons: business, shopping, sightseeing.

Me? I came to eat.

I have long heard about Hong Kong’s famed cuisine, with its unique blend of Chinese, Western, Japanese, Southeast Asian and international influences. The city is home to dozens of celebrity chefs and boasts 62 Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s regularly called the culinary capital of Asia, if not the world.

I wasn’t interested in Hong Kong’s chichi gourmet restaurant scene, nor did I have the budget for it. Rather, I was intent on sampling the city’s dizzying array of cheap eats. Dim sum. Wonton. Noodles. Tea with medicinal properties. Bakery tarts that melt in your mouth. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

Here are some of the highlights of my Hong Kong eating extravaganza, each costing less than US$5 a serving.

%Gallery-173830%Pork Siu Mai with Quail Egg at DimDimSum Dim Sum Specialty Store
Four steaming pork dumplings, each topped with a small, perfectly boiled quail egg. It’s no wonder The Daily Beast named this small dim sum chain one of the 101 Best Places to Eat – in the world.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32 at US$0.13 to HK$1)
7 Tin Lok Lane, Causeway Bay

King Prawn Wonton Noodle at Tsim Chai Kee Noodle
The wontons at this Central District noodle shop contain succulent pieces of juicy king prawn. Select the yellow noodle option and spice to your heart’s content.
Cost: HK$22 (US$2.84)
98 Wellington Street, Central

Vermicelli Roll Stuffed with BBQ Pork at Tim Ho Wan
The wait at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant is worth it: simple, home-style dim sum classics like the BBQ pork-filled vermicelli roll, prepared to perfection and drizzled in soy sauce. Though I didn’t try them, the pork buns are also said to be excellent.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32)
2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Aloo Paratha at Waka Sweets in the Chungking Mansions
Hankering for curry? Look no further than the ground floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is filled with South Asian specialties like curries and sweets. The aloo paratha at Waka Sweets is greasy, but it hit the spot.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
Ground floor, past the first staircase on the right, Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Coconut Sago at Ying Heong Yuen
This coconut milk drink with tiny tapioca beads is the perfect way to beat the Hong Kong heat. It’s available for a pittance at most street stalls, but the version at Ying Heong Yuen in Causeway Bay is particularly good.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
3-7 Cannon Street, Causeway Bay

Chrysanthemum Tea at Good Spring Company Limited
The herbal teas doled out at century-old Good Spring Company Limited are said to provide energy, eliminate bodily toxins and promote general health. The chrysanthemum tea is mildly sweet and refreshing.
Cost: HK$7 (US$0.90)
8 Cochrane Street, Central

Milk Tea at Tsui Wah Restaurant
A legacy of British colonialism, milk tea is a must-drink in Hong Kong. Tsui Wah’s is smoother than most versions and pairs well with the home-style diner’s sweet toasted bun.
Cost: HK$16 (US$2.06)
15-19 Wellington Street, Central

Egg Tart at Tai Cheong Bakery
Bakeries around the city vie for the title of best egg tart. By many accounts, including that of former British governor Chris Patten, Tai Cheong takes the cake. The secret is in the buttery cookie crust, honed over more than six decades of operation.
Cost: HK$6 (US$0.80)
35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central

Steamed Milk with Ginger Juice at Yee Shun Milk Company
This dessert, ordered hot with ginger juice, has a consistency somewhere between warm milk and pudding. The ginger adds a spicy kick to the sweetness. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, with a taste that stays with you long after you leave. Though there were tons of cheap eats to try, I ended up returning for seconds.
Cost: HK$26 (US$3.35)
506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Budget Hong Kong: The City Of Blinding Logos

budget hong kong

The streets of Hong Kong have a way of accosting you with neon lights and ostentatious logos. Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani lay claim to the Central District, while Tiffany & Co. and Burberry dominate Tsim Sha Tsui. Causeway Bay is a cacophony of luxury labels from around the globe, and let’s not forget the lesser brands that sit on every street corner: McDonald’s, Starbucks, 7-11. It’s enough to make your head spin.

And indeed, it made mine, at about 4 p.m. on my first day in the city. From the moment I had arrived in Hong Kong, my senses had kicked into overdrive. I walked faster, talked faster, flitted my eyes from one new sight to the next. Everything was new, big, bright and exciting.

But after several hours on the town, I began to feel the effects of sensory overload. The crowds became claustrophobic. The pollution started to choke me. The tik-tik-tik of the crosswalk signs drummed an endless circle in my head. And everywhere, lit-up advertisements and shop signs taunted me, tempting me to buy, use and consume. It was enough to drive any sane person to the brink of madness.

Thankfully (and ironically) I managed to find sanctuary at a nearby Starbucks.

%Gallery-173824%Hong Kong is a magical city. But it’s also an intense one – even for a downtown Manhattanite like myself. The special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China is one of the world’s most densely populated parts of the world, with seven million people crammed into an area of just 426 square miles. It is one of the world’s most expensive cities, by many indices. The Atlantic reports that it is the priciest place to buy a home, while the Savills World Cities Review concludes that it is the most expensive city to locate ex-pat workers.

Hong Kong is also a city largely driven by consumption. Just this year, it surpassed New York as the world’s costliest retail location, according to Bloomberg. For the luxury traveler, it is somewhere this side of paradise, with 62 Michelin-starred restaurants and extravagant boutiques representing nearly every high-end brand on the globe.

But I am not a luxury traveler. Far from it, in fact. My mission in Hong Kong was to experience the best of the city, on a shoestring. And once I recovered from the assault on my senses and stepped off the main tourist drags, I discovered how. My two-day trip was filled with fascinating cultural activities, unique discoveries and awe-inspiring sights.

And then, of course, there was the food. I’ll save that for the next post.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Hong Kong on High Time-Lapse