Getting high on Hong Kong

Everything about visiting Hong Kong is vertical. From the towering skyscrapers of Victoria Harbor to the city’s jaw-dropping views and rooftop secrets, it’s a destination best experienced from up above. But it’s not just height that makes Hong Kong a great city for travelers. It’s the mind-boggling density that comes with it: the high rises clinging to the slopes of mountains, the daily blitzkrieg of billboards and light and the hidden retreats tucked on high that taken as a whole have the power to awe and delight.

During Gadling’s visit to Hong Kong last month, we had a chance to investigate some of the numerous high places that give this metropolis its unique air. From vertigo-inducing cocktail lounges to modern architectural masterpieces to heart-stopping city views, we looked low (and high) for Hong Kong’s best spots. Wondering what we found? Get ready to get high on Hong Kong. Keep reading below for more…Drinking in the sights
The street level signage for Hong Kong steakhouse Wooloomooloo is unassuming and forgettable. But visitors who take the elevator to the 31st floor of the restaurant’s Wan Chai location will discover some truly unforgettable city views. Hidden high above this busy downtown district is low-lit oasis of romance and luxury, with floor to ceiling windows and million-dollar views of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, Victoria Harbor, and the Happy Valley racetrack.

Wooloomooloo’s main attraction is the restaurant’s open air roof deck, where visitors can sip a few cocktails or a glass of wine, bathed in the glow of Hong Kong’s 24-hour light show below.

A vertical masterpiece

If you’ve ever seen a photo of Hong Kong, you probably already know the iconic Bank of China Tower, designed by architect I.M. Pei. The beveled edges of this sky-high building make it one of the city’s most famous tall landmarks – and also among its most controversial. This towering structure has been criticized for its poor feng shui, a Chinese philosophy that advocates proper “energy flow” in design. Love or hate it, did you know the Bank of China Tower has a viewing deck open to the public? Take the elevator to the 43rd Floor for a peek inside this architectural wonder and some imposing views of the city below.

The ultimate Hong Kong view
Hong Kong has some downright impressive heights, whether you’re drinking at a swanky rooftop restaurant or checking out the view from one of its most famous buildings. But the most amazing way to see Hong Kong from up high is the panorama from The Peak. Located on the highest mountain on Hong Kong Island, “The Peak” offers visitors a literal bird’s eye look at this remarkable city.

Half the fun of getting to The Peak is riding on the historic Peak Tram cable car, which drags passengers up the mountain’s perilously steep hillside. Once you arrive at the top, you’ll be treated one of the world’s most unique city views, looking down from on high at Hong Kong’s impressive skyline below. Though many will opt to pay for the Sky Terrace viewing deck, don’t feel obligated. Instead, walk out the doors of the Peak Tower to find several free spots with equally amazing views.

Hong Kong isn’t just a metropolis that “stands tall” on the world stage. It is tall – from the restaurants to the architecture to the stunning views. Stay long enough, and you might never want to come down.

Celebrate Chinese New Year, Hong Kong style

For anyone not of Chinese descent, Chinese New Year is a confusing concept. Travelers who visit Hong Kong during this important festival are likely to have questions. What’s the significance? How do you celebrate? But fortunately, Hong Kong is the perfect introduction to this most significant of Chinese celebrations. Hong Kong’s unique blend of familiar Western amenities and authentic Chinese culture make it the perfect place to begin your Chinese New Year experience.

Understanding and enjoying Chinese New Year in Hong Kong depends on three distinct activities: the main rituals, the typical foods and the public celebrations. Each of these activities is tied to longstanding Chinese traditions, dating back centuries, and are designed to ensure good health and prosperity in the year ahead. Experiencing the festival in the dense urban environment of Hong Kong adds an additional layer of fun, allowing you to enjoy the festivities on a huge scale.

Ever wanted to learn more about Chinese New Year? Don’t know the Year of the Tiger from the Year of the Ox? Let’s take a closer look at how to celebrate in Hong Kong and how to get started. Keep reading below for more.The Rituals
To truly understand Chinese New Year, you need to get familiar with the festival’s unique rituals. The best place to get started is at Hong Kong’s Chinese temples, where citizens head to pray for good luck, burn incense sticks and have their fortunes told. Hong Kong’s most famous temple is Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon, which sees nearly 300,000 visitors during the New Year festivities.

Upon arriving at Wong Tai Sin, take a moment to soak in the temple’s solemn atmosphere with worshipers bent on their knees, the air thick with sweet incense smoke. Grab a tube of fortune sticks from the table near the entrance to inquire on your prospects for the year ahead. Ask a question, give the cylinder a shake, and wait for a stick with a number to fall out. Then bring your number to one of Wong Tai Sin’s numerous fortune tellers to have it interpreted. Good or bad, the answers you receive are meant to help guide your decisions in the year ahead.

The Foods
Chinese New Year is a time heavy with symbolism. This is particularly true of the holiday’s typical foods, all of which are laden with spiritual significance. Everything that’s eaten during these important days is intended to bring prosperity, happiness, longevity and good fortune in the months ahead.

A good place to begin your culinary exploration is at Hong Kong’s daily markets. In neighborhoods like Wan Chai, you’ll find a flurry of activity in the days leading up to the festivities, as market goers pick up supplies for the traditional reunion dinner. Butchers wield cleavers like madmen, chopping, hacking and yelling. Giant carp thrash about in bubbling fish tanks. Typical Chinese New Year foods are everywhere. At the dried goods stalls you’ll find a variety of New Year specialties like chocolate coins, dried oysters and Chinese Sausage. At the produce stalls, take your pick from New Year favorites like juicy mandarin oranges or crunchy melon seeds.

Each New Year food has been specially chosen to bring good luck in the New Year. For instance, the Cantonese word for dried oysters (ho see) sounds similar to the words for “wealth and good business.” It’s eating that’s as much about symbolism as it is about the taste.

The Events

The celebration of Chinese New Year in Hong Kong happens on a scale and size like nowhere else. The city’s seven million residents come out in force to enjoy a variety of festive activities surrounding this annual event.

On the first day of the New Year is the annual Hong Kong Chinese New Year Parade, packed with colorful floats, wild drumming, manic dragon dancers and throngs of spectators. The parade is a microcosm of Hong Kong’s frenzied street life, awash in a flurry of sensory delights. Make sure to secure yourself a spot a few hours early and watch out for pickpockets, as the crowds can be intense.

On the second day of the New Year, the city celebrates with a massive fireworks display over Victoria Harbor. Few places in the world can boast of such an impressive light show set against the city’s towering skyline. Whether you choose to watch from the harbor or from on high at The Peak, you’re sure to have some of the best seats in the house.

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Hong Kong is much like the city itself – an overwhelming array of sensory pleasures and confusing rituals. But with a little background info from Gadling and a spirit of fun, you’re guaranteed to enjoy all it has to offer. Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Hong Kong goes retro

Hong Kong is truly the city of the future. The city’s ubiquitous skyline of shiny beveled-angle skyscrapers towers above you like a giant wall of steel and glass. Meanwhile, residents tap their Octopus cards at cash registers, magically paying for purchases without bills or coins. Yet lying beneath Hong Kong’s fancy neon wizardry is a puzzling trend. It seems these days, Hong Kong is not looking to the future. Instead, the city’s residents have decided to look to the past.

Perhaps it’s inevitable in a city as amazingly dense as this bursting Asian megalopolis. The city sits on a series of tiny islands leaning precariously onto the South China Sea, meaning there’s simply never enough space. The city’s modern skyscrapers and futuristic bridges exist side-by-side with ancient colonial tenement homes and incense-shrouded Buddhist temples. But whether you’re in search of a souvenir, checking out a museum or simply looking for food and drink, you’re likely to encounter a slice of Hong Kong’s growing love for all things vintage.

But “old and musty” vintage this is not. Hong Kong retro is all about reinventing and reusing the pieces of its textured past, providing visitors with a unique slice of checkered history in a decidedly modern way. If you’re in search of a unique taste of days gone-by or a one-of-a-kind souvenir, Hong Kong’s retro style is ready to be discovered. Keep reading to see where to find it…Retro Dining
For many food is the ultimate source of nostalgia, a reminder of our youth and days gone by. It’s a fact that’s been well-absorbed in retro Hong Kong, where a cuisine of fresh ingredients and age-old family recipes prevails. Nowhere is this better evident than at Kowloon’s Tai Ping Koon restaurant, an eatery defiantly still around after more than 150 years of business. But this is no tourist trap. Each evening Tai Ping Koon’s elegant Mid-Century modern dining room is packed with locals enjoying the restaurant’s signature chicken wings in Swiss Sauce and its light, puffy souffles. It’s the original example of East vs. West eating – a distinctly Hong Kong take on Western food.

Retro Shopping
Those looking to experience Hong Kong’s retro past need not only find it on a plate. These days, Hong Kong’s high-energy shopping experience is going retro too. It all starts at Goods of Desire (G.O.D.), a popular home goods store dedicated to “increasing interest in Asian lifestyle and culture.” The products for sale at G.O.D. aren’t your average spatula or cooking utensil. Instead, many items like the store’s retro textiles, kitschy selection of Mao Zedong postcards and old-school furniture pay homage to an earlier era of Hong Kong, a time when it was “the world’s factory,” producing cheap goods for sale in Europe and the U.S. It’s a great place to learn more about the city’s history and pick up a unique souvenir.

Just down the street from G.O.D. is Shanghai Tang, a clothing store that references Hong Kong’s famous reputation for custom-made clothing. The chain takes much of its inspiration from traditional Han Chinese apparel, updated with modern touches. Inside the stores’ Art Deco interior you’ll find both men’s and women’s clothing as well as an array of leather goods, stationery and household goods referencing traditional Chinese symbols and design.

Retro Drinking
The Pawn in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighborhood offers another example of the city’s reverence for its historic roots. Pawnshops are a particularly iconic fixture of Hong Kong life. Long before the city’s mammoth banks like HSBC were established, pawn shops played an important role as money lenders for a growing city of merchants and traders. The spartan interiors, high counters and darkened lighting have became a common sight for the city’s residents.

These days, many of Hong Kong’s pawn shops have been replaced, or as is the case with The Pawn, remade into fun hangout spots. The Pawn’s comfy interior pays tribute to Hong Kong’s days of old, offering visitors a wood-paneled interior, leather armchairs and old-school rickety foosball table inside what used to be a working pawn shop. A selection of international beers and cocktails rounds out the menu.

Hong Kong might be the city of the future, but it’s a place that hasn’t forgotten its unique past. From retro eating to shopping to drinking, visitors will find opportunities to enjoy a one-of-a-kind trip through time in this world-famous city.

A snapshot of Hong Kong’s bipolar food culture

More than any other city in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong is a city of contrasts. Traditional Cantonese culture pushes hard against the raging, modern scene, strong scents of the recent British rule are encroached upon by the dominant, Chinese presence, people eat dim sum, seafood, sushi, Mexican, Burger King.

In no place is this contrast more obvious than in the gastronomic scene. Cracking open the Superfuture guide to the city is like opening a Pandora’s box of food delight, with rooftop bars, five star restaurants and haute cuisine leaping forth from every page of the document. Restaurants like The Pawn Shop dish up a dizzying array of delicious western and local food in a setting that’s worth the visit alone, while bars like Wooloomooloo offer a solid steak to accompany a heart-stopping view over Hong Kong Island.

Flip to the other side of the coin and one can find the same spectrum of food in a gritty, salacious setting. Steps from the night markets near Nathan Road, a tented, corner hovel houses two dozen tables circled by a smattering of dirty, uneven chairs. The bathroom, a hole behind a curtain in the back room, is separated from the kitchen by a grease covered piece of corrugated sheet metal and as you pull at the legs on your fresh pepper crab the cockroaches scurry under the corroded circuit breakers next to your table.In the open streets, late night food is a part of the everyday culture, folding tables set up on the streets where efficient, curt waitresses drop off a bucket of dumplings and Stella girls take your order for 22’s of light beer.

Without a doubt, the food and drink is good in either setting. Produce is clean, seafood is beyond fresh and the Chinese have perfected the art of professional eating. In Hong Kong we simply find that the spectrum of options is wider than that in other cities in the far east; in one setting, the true, high end gastronomic can eat foie gras and caviar until the sun comes up, while in another the budget traveler can eat street food and dollar dim sum until his belly fill with happiness.

One should expect nothing less in the spectacular kaleidoscope that we call Hong Kong. Pick up the Lonely Planet World Food Guide (and maybe a roll of Tums) to get your adventure started.

A slice of culture via the Hong Kong Tram

It’s no secret that Hong Kong has some of the best public transportation in the planet. Land, sea, or air, you can bet that it’s going to be clean, new, inexpensive and well maintained, from the recent airport on Lantau island to the fast and furious MTR slithering like tentacles through the islands. Better, most of it is tied together by the solid Octopus RFID system, letting travelers on ferries, buses, trams alike use the same versatile card to pay for any fare, or even a snack at the local 7-11.

Routes and times are listed in both Chinese and English, passage is frequent and one leaves the train station with a sense of efficiency and accomplishment rather than shaken with the din of a recent assault on the senses.

Another facet of the Hong Kong public transportation system, the tram, offers a unique immersion into Hong Kong culture. Run on a similar rail-and-wire system to San Francisco’s, Hong Kong’s trams are a skinnier, taller version of their western counterparts with dark, varnished wood interiors, large glass windows and awe inspiring views around the perimeter.

Running through a broad swath of Hong Kong island, the tram only run on a few routes, but riding the double decker cars is a sensory experience. Along Hennessey Road, the cars crawl from stop to stop, pausing at lights and stations to let millions of passengers circulate around and through the stationary beast like termites through a log. At one stop, shoppers mob a crosswalk and disappear around a corner into the local megamall or Goods of Desire, a sea or black hair, dark suits and silent movement as the signals blare on. At another stop, an outdoor market teems with passing tourists and locals, while across the street a brightly lit vendor sells sheets of dried fish, eel and duck skin.

Smells waft through the open glass windows, and if one is quick, an arm, head or camera can hang out the window and peer up the perspective of the car, a jungle of Chinese culture from the second floor perch of a Causeway Bay-bound tram.

Make no mistake, these aren’t tourist devices engineered to make a buck off of a saucer eyed visitor. These trams play a critical, real role in Hong Kong Island culture, ferrying commuters, athletes, workers, parents, children, locals and tourists alike. Were one so inclined, its even possible to rent a special party tram to cruise the streets at night with whatever food and beverage you provide.

Tram stops are scattered across the backbone of commercial northern Hong Kong Island, and with or without an Octopus Card, fare is only 2HKD ($0.26) to ride. The voyage is worth a thousand times the price.