HONG KONG—From the 118th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, one can often glimpse into the clouds.
But on this particular Friday, while sipping a glass of wine on the terrace of the Ozone Bar, I can see clear across Victoria Harbor and fix my eyes on the twinkling skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island. At more than 1,600 feet above sea level, the Ozone Bar, which is on the Kowloon side of the city, is one of the tallest—if not the tallest—bars in the world.
For 150 years, Hong Kong was identified as a colony of the United Kingdom, and for the last 20 years (the anniversary of the handover is in July) as a territory of China. But throughout years of uncertain sovereignty, Hong Kong has remained a destination in its own right. From this perch it’s easy to see why: This shining metropolis of more than seven million people oozes prosperity and beauty.
Euromonitor International, a research firm that tracks inbound and outbound travel, named Hong Kong the world’s top tourism destination based on 2015 data. Hong Kong had 26.7 million international tourists in one year. London was not even a close second with 18.6 million.
“Hong Kong has really started to make a name for itself internationally as a key city,” says Lindsay Jang, a prominent restaurateur in the city who co-owns popular eatery Yardbird.
From food to fashion to festivals to finance, Hong Kong has excelled as one of the most powerful autonomous territories of the world.
Here are a few things to love about Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the bridge between East and West. On any given day, you will hear Mandarin, Cantonese, and English being spoken.
That kind of diversity has made Hong Kong a draw for commerce and culture.
“It’s a very exciting, emerging scene,” says Joyce Lau, former culture editor of the South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong’s government is investing heavily into new museums and art districts set to open in the next few years.
In the meantime, the city plays host to Art Basel, the art festival that turned Miami into a city of culture rather than just a beach and party destination.
In the five years it’s been running, attendance has grown to 70,000 people.
“The cultural landscape in Hong Kong is not only made up of the ‘western’ modes of expression, i.e. modern and contemporary, but also ‘traditional’ art forms, such as ink paintings and seal carvings – reflecting Hong Kong’s history as a melting pot, where East meets West,” says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Hong Kong.
A few art districts and neighborhoods are also drawing patrons. On a warm autumn evening, Central Hong Kong’s PMQ, which stands for Police Married Quarters because the complex was once housing for married junior police officers, is bustling with a Japanese food festival. Inside are dozens of art galleries, jewelry stores, clothing shops, and restaurants from up-and-coming designers and chefs.
“Hong Kong people were more interested in the designs of other countries before, but now they are more supportive of Hong Kong designers,” says Lyan Tai, founder of Fabcessories, which promotes the idea of accessories that allow women to be “neat and sexy.”
“It’s a very nice environment now,” she says.
Expect to find any type of food at any price point in Hong Kong.
On an October afternoon, I take the Hong Kong Foodie Tour with Yammy Tan.
We start our tour in a hole in the wall restaurant having Cantonese Wonton noodles.
“If you find a wonton has more pork than shrimp, it’s not a good one,” Tan advises our group.
Our wontons have the right proportion. They are drowned in a seafood broth. This particular restaurant, she says, makes 600 bowls of wonton soup a day.
Next we try barbecue pork. After downing our dishes, Tan takes us unto the kitchen, where we tread carefully because the pork fat has made the floor slippery.
We walk all around the city to burn off calories. In between meals, we stop at wet markets, outdoor stalls where you can buy seafood, meat, vegetables, and more. Whole Foods this is not.
“This one is more than 180 years old,” Tan says of the Central Hong Kong market we are visiting, where a whole fish is still moving as the fishmonger is chopping it up.
We drink sugar cane juice and stop by herbal tea shops. Tan explains remedies such as turtle jelly for sore throats.
“Here is the place people come first before they see a doctor,” she says at one tea shop.
We end the tour with a traditional dim sum meal.
Steven Patruno, who owns café Ten One Ate in Melbourne, Australia, is intrigued by the tour, even as a professional foodie.
“We got to places we didn’t think we would have gone to,” he says.
High and low is the way to go in Hong Kong when it comes to food. For my high, I head to Langham Place, Hong Kong, for their traditional afternoon tea, a nod to the city’s past as a British colony.
For dinner, I try Bo Innovation, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving “X-treme Chinese Cuisine” by Chef Alvin Leung Jr.
Leung’s website says his cuisine is an “art form.” For $250 a person, not even including wine, we try his art, which he likens to Picasso’s work.
For about a third of the price, my friends and I head to Ho Lee Fook, where we have a delicious goose dish in a more casual atmosphere.
Ho Lee Fook serves just as innovative Chinese cuisine as Bo Innovation. It is part of the Black Sheep Restaurants group, which has 13 places around the city.
Christopher Mark, a Canadian who co-owns Black Sheep with Hong Kong-born Syed Asim Hussain, says the city has evolved as a foodie destination in the decade he has lived here. He says the city nurtures an entrepreneurial spirit.
“I don’t think the American Dream is restricted to America,” Mark says. “If you go for it, you can do everything here.”
Although it’s a crowded city, Hong Kong actually has a huge percentage of undeveloped land and protected parks just a short cab or bus ride away.
“Contrary to the image of a dense concrete jungle that many who don’t know the city might have of Hong Kong, the place is actually teeming with wild gems and untamed beauty,” says Mary Hui, a writer and avid runner who grew up in Hong Kong.
Because of a world-class transportation system, any destination within the city is accessible.
“I could be in the heart of downtown on a street with fifteen different restaurants to choose from, then hop on a minibus or taxi and within an hour be on a mountain peak, surrounded by lush greenery, looking back down at the city as I hike along the ridge,” Hui says.
I take a taxi up to one of those peaks: Victoria Peak, a mountain in the western half of Hong Kong Island. A tram also goes up there but on this particular day, the line is too long.
I head to The Sky Terrace 428, the highest viewing terrace in the city. It is 428 meters above sea level, or about 1,400 feet.
At sunset, the panoramic view is breathtaking, and a reminder that I am on an island, and that Hong Kong is actually a chain of islands—more than 260 of them.
“The buzz of Hong Kong’s urban life is omnipresent, but it’s what’s outside of the urban boundaries that’s quiet unique to city life here,” says Stephen Marshall, a writer who lived in the city. “In a matter of half an hour or so, there are great villages … to get away from it all, with wonderful beaches, and world class hiking trails are within a stone’s throw. You work and play hard but the great outdoors is just a junk trip away.”
Hong Kong is filled with bars, pubs and restaurants, many of them with amazing views of the glistening city such as Cafe Gray at the Upper House hotel.
But just before sunset, I board a red-sail Chinese junk boat, one of the few remaining, for the nightly Symphony of Lights show.
The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the world’s largest permanent light and sound show.
Hong Kong has more than 300 skyscrapers. Each night, about 50 of these on each side of Victoria Harbor participate in a light and fireworks show that captivates the city with its grandiosity.
I’m on the Aqua Luna, where wine and beer is served while we sail around and stare at the laser and search lights emanating from those high-rises. I don’t know where to look because each side of the harbor is teeming with lights.
A narration goes along with the light show. Appropriately, the language alternates each night, from English to Mandarin to Cantonese.
That’s the thing about Hong Kong. You never know which language you are going to hear or what the nationality of the person you are talking to is.
“Hong Kong is a dynamic city,” Mark, co-owner of Black Sheep says. “It’s extremely safe. People are tolerant of race, religion, sexual orientation. Hong Kong has become a city that people actually want to live in.”