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12 things that surprised me about Hong Kong

Even though I didn’t have many expectations when I visited Hong Kong for the first time this year, I have to admit that not only did the city blow me away completely, but it also surprised me in many ways.

I noticed these things during my first visit earlier this year, and when I returned to Hong Kong last month, I wanted to see if I still felt about them the same way, especially #8, which I found mind-boggling! And yes, I was still just as surprised about the following things as I had been back in January – so here they are, twelve things that surprised me about Hong Kong:hong kong tram

1 Hong Kong is busy

Arriving in Hong Kong from Stockholm, which had felt eerily empty during my visit, was absolutely overwhelming. There were crowds everywhere, and I hadn’t experienced large numbers of people in this way since leaving New York last November. Especially in the Kowloon neighborhood, where I was staying in the beginning, the streets were always packed with people. The subway was just as busy as the tube in London at rush hour, and most streets felt as busy as the streets around Times Square in Manhattan. It took me a few days to get used to how crowded Hong Kong felt.hong kong kowloon

2 Hong Kong is hilly

I have to admit that I had no idea that Hong Kong was that hilly! There aren’t a lot of hills in Kowloon, the part of the city that is connected to mainland China, but on Hong Kong Island, I found myself huffing and puffing up and down steep hills constantly. That’s why on Hong Kong Island, you find the world’s longest covered outdoor escalator, the Central–Mid-Levels escalator, which transports more than 55,000 people every day from the lower Central neighborhood to the mid-levels. The escalator has a vertical climb of 443ft (135 meters) and is 2,600 feet (800 meters) long. Since the financial district of Hong Kong is located in Central (at the bottom of the mountain), the escalators and walkways move downwards in the morning to transport workers from the higher located condominium buildings to their offices. After the morning rush hour, the escalators move upwards.Steep Hong Kong

3 Bamboo Scaffolding

Considering how modern and developed Hong Kong is, it struck me as surprising that all the scaffolding I saw around town was made from bamboo. I hope the skyscrapers were built with more sturdy scaffolding.. but bamboo seems to be much more robust than I thought – who knew!

Bamboo Scaffolding Hong Kong
Bamboo Scaffolding

4 Hong Kong is hip.

Who knew Hong Kong was so hip? Especially the Poho neighborhood (short for Po Hing Fong, in the Sheung Wan District), filled with trendy boutiques, independent coffee shops, hip restaurants and chic bars seemed to be the favored hangout for Hong Kong’s 20something trendy professionals. Street art was ubiquitous here, and young entrepreneurs keep moving into the neighborhood, opening artisan bread shops and organic bistros and other businesses.Hip Hong Kong

5 Hong Kong is international

I was surprised to see so many different nationalities in Hong Kong – not only Westerners, but also a lot of other Asian nationalities and Indians. When I was walking through the Financial District on a business day, I usually encountered more Westerners in suits than Asians!

hong kong coffee academics
Hong Kong being so international means most things are written in English

6 Hong Kong is smoggy

I know that Beijing and other Chinese mega cities are notorious for their air pollution, but I didn’t know that Hong Kong was just as polluted. The skyline pictures I had seen prior to my trip, taken from the famous ‘Peak’ viewpoint high over Hong Kong, usually made the city look like it had clear skies. During both my visits, however, the air was polluted and the city was constantly covered in a cloud of smog. I later read that air pollution has become a serious problem in the past 20 years and the number of asthma and bronchial illnesses has soared considerably.hong kong views from the peak1

7 Hong Kong is green

While the air might be polluted, Hong Kong is still home to an amazing amount of green spaces. Trees are everywhere, the city is infused with little parks and within minutes you can get to a green space to go on a wilderness hike. I was amazed to see how green the city was when I hiked up to the top of Victoria Peak through a number of parks, and when I ran along the Bowen Road Fitness Trail high above Wan Chai, the woods gave me an idea of the jungle this island used to be covered with, before it was changed for a massive concrete jungle.Hong Kong green spaces

8 There are no bicycles in Hong Kong

Considering that Beijing supposedly has 9 million bicycles, it was an astonishing surprise to not see any bikes in Hong Kong. I had even seen cyclists in the crazy traffic of Bangkok – only a few, but still – there surely must be cyclists in Hong Kong?! I paid more attention to it on my second visit, convinced that I must have overlooked the bikes the first time around, but still: no bicycles! I was ecstatic when I finally spotted a bike in Wan Chai, but I didn’t see any cyclists anywhere, neither in Kowloon nor in Hong Kong Island.

hong kong bicycle
One of two bicycles I spotted during my ten days in Hong Kong

(Note: I am sure there are bicycles somewhere in Hong Kong, but I just haven’t come across them, which is why I included it here. Please don’t take it too literally 😉 ).

9 Hong Kong loves coffee

A pleasant surprise! Having heard from travelers that it is hard to find good coffee in China, known as a tea nation, I wasn’t expecting much on the coffee front in Hong Kong.. only to find more specialty coffee shops, coffee roasters and coffeehouses than I could possibly try during my stay. I was ecstatic about the amount of excellent coffee shops in Hong Kong and will share all my favorite places for a caffeine fix in my next post.hong kong coffee

10 Hong Kong is expensive

The first time I visited I came from Sweden, a pretty expensive country by European standards – and Hong Kong still felt more expensive. The second time I came from Thailand, where everything is cheap, and Hong Kong felt shockingly expensive in comparison then. Hong Kong didn’t just feel expensive to me though – it was pricey even compared to New York. I have yet to visit another place in the world where I pay more than $6 for a Flat White (coffee), and the price of a pizza at Pizza Express was £13.53 – the exact same pizza in a London Pizza Express is £12.50. Motorino’s charges $17.80 for a Margherita Pizza in Hong Kong, while it charges $15 for the very same pizza in Manhattan. Alcohol was pricey too, with a glass of wine or a beer usually starting at around $9. Hotels and hostels are also very expensive, as are clothes – the only thing that is surprisingly (and disproportionally) cheap is public transportation, with tram rides costing $0.30 and subway rides averaging between $0.64 and $1.55, depending how far you go.

hong kong coffee
52 Hong Kong Dollars for a coffee – this equals 6.70 US Dollars

11 The varied culinary scene

This probably goes along with #5, how international Hong Kong felt: the food scene was much more varied than I thought. In some parts of the city I came across more international restaurants than traditional Chinese eateries. French bakeries, American-style brunch places, British chain restaurants like Pizza Express but also an outlet of New York specialty pizza joint Motorino’s, Italian pasta places and bagel cafes – in Hong Kong, you can find it all. For someone like me who isn’t the greatest fan of Chinese food, Hong Kong’s varied food scene was heavenly.passion cakes hong kong

12 Hong Kong has super fast wi-fi

I understand now why Hong Kong sees such an influx of visitors from mainland China: the internet is super fast, and there aren’t any websites blocked, unlike in China, where you can’t access sites like Google, Facebook or Twitter. Hong Kong also offers free wi-fi in many public spaces and parks, and almost all restaurants and coffee shops offer free wi-fi. After having been dogged by bad luck with well-working wi-fi in Thailand, it felt amazing to be connected at all times again, and to be able to even stream movies!

massage with wifi in hong kong
Even massage places have free wi-fi!

Have you been to Hong Kong? What are the things that surprised you?

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Tags : first impressionshong kong

27 Comments

    1. I enjoyed it so much, Marbree! Will share all the fun things I did and my favorite places to eat and drink in an upcoming post 🙂

  1. i’m surprised about the prices you mention – I know accommodation is expensive in Hong Kong, and that there are a lot of overpriced western chains and high end luxury western stuff… Although these still tend to be much cheaper than in Japan, Korea or even Beijing. My gf is from HK and a decent meal for two in a central area usually comes in at 20-30 USD total. That could be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian but also Italian or Spanish food! Local places are dirt cheap to eat, too – noodle soups and simple dishes at local places are usually around 2-4 USD. In fact eating out is so cheap that virtually nobody I know in HK cooks! Electronics tend to be much cheaper than in the west, too. Clothing chains like H&M or uniqlo are the same as elsewhere…I guess the trick is to avoid the luxury traps…(althoug we really don’t hunt for rock bottom budget and her family lives in one of the expensive, trendy areas).

    1. Stephanie – I nearly fainted the first time I did the math and calculated what I had just spent on a cup of coffee and a small pastry. Please feel free to share some recommendations for places where I can get a decent meal for $10 🙂 My very first meal was Indian and it came to HK$150 (US$19.35 at the exchange rate then (Jan ’15).. and I swear I didn’t pig out!! 😉 It didn’t bother me that it was a bit pricey, I just found it surprising.

  2. To answer the question, though: I am shocked by the average Hong Kongers idea of the west, especially since they often consider themselves particularly western. A shallow, consumerist lifestyle and luxury seems to be the norm, and people are shocked when they find out that the majority of people in the west don’t share that at all. A common complaint I hear is ‘you won’t believe how expensive HK is nowadays, nobody can buy an apartment and sports car right after uni anymore!’… Or ‘we are moving to the UK, now we have to compete with the mainlanders in the job market… You are so lucky to live in Europe where you can basically pick a great job off the street! We will open a restaurant in London, it’s a piece of cake etc’

    Much of the population lives in this insane bubble that HKs finance world provides and is out of touch with the rest of the world, while moaning how it’s the mainland Chinese who are weird and wrong in anything… Rant over 😉

    1. I noticed the thing about the consumerist lifestyle, too. And that going to the mall is such a popular thing to do.. I met a girl in Cambodia who was from HK and she told me that despite being in her late 20s and having a full-time job she was still living with her parents because she couldn’t afford her own place. That’s crazy. But then again it’s not much different in London or New York. I still think it’s an amazing city 🙂

      1. Where in HK did you stay? Prices should at least be half of what your list to be reasonable. Veg thali should be around $100 HKD, a nice Italian fusion place or Japanese in a Kowloon mall around the same, just like lunch at loving hut wan chai or other veg places. Again, half that at local places. I really can’t recommend any specific place as I’ve not seen prices like that outside the business/banking district. Coffee at a local chain is about $2 USD for a flat white. About the living alone thing, dont let people fool you: just like in southern Europe, its very uncommon in east Asia to move out of your parents house until people get married. While entry level salaries are slightly lower than in London or New York, rents are maybe 10% higher. The catch is that nobody in HK would consider renting or even Sharing a flat with flatmates. Its not about money, simply cultural norms and preferences. Similar situation in Korea or Japan and def mainland China, too.

  3. Such a fab list! I loved Hong Kong but could only squeeze in 5 days there. It surpassed all my expectations and is now firmly on my list of my favorite cities. Glad that you enjoyed it too!

    1. Thanks, Lauren! 5 days is a good amount to get a feel for HK! Added it to my list of favorite cities as well 🙂

  4. i have been in Hong Kong 4 or 5 times now and I am in love since I first set foot there 25 years ago.

    I recognize all the points you describe.

    1. Anja, I wonder how today’s HK compares to HK 25 years ago? I can’t believe that it has taken me so long to get to Hong Kong – I’m sure I’ll go back many more times.. I still have things I wanted to do and didn’t get around to.. the perfect excuse to go back 😉

  5. I LOVE Hong Kong! It’s such a great city. One thing that really surprised me is the energy! It’s an extremely energetic city that rivals my city of New York. I was also surprised at how hip and chic it was. I loved it!

    1. It’s an amazing city! I had no idea it’d be so hip… loved it! From now on, I want to stop in HK every time I’m in Asia 🙂

  6. I’m interested to see how Hong Kong compares to Singapore. Asian food at Hawker centres in Singapore is cheap but Western food and alcohol is expensive. We found the public transport in Singapore was very cheap compared to pretty much everything else and it was very modern and efficient

    1. I actually thought that many things were similar to Singapore when I was in Hong Kong. Especially the food prices and alcohol – don’t know how much street food in HK is because all I could find was meat at the street food stalls. You’ll have to report back about that 🙂

      1. Street food carts have been banned by HK authorities in most areas… There are still plenty of cheap places through, the trick is that most will only have a Chinese menu… But staff is always eager to help. Lots of places do noodle soups of all varieties, rice of all varieties and giant plates of stir fried veg for around $5 USD each… Just pop in, somebody will know enough English. Every district has a wet market, too, which will have a hawker market with cooked foods… As most Filipino and Indonesian maids shop there, they always speak some English.

  7. I absolutely love this post.

    I have been to Hong Kong and it was delightful. I was surprised that even though I was surrounded by Hong Kong Chinese people, it still felt so British! Admittedly, this was in 1999, two years after the hand-over back to China, but still…!

    I found it be extremely safe and tranport was just so easy to use. The people were really warm and I even gate-crashed a couple of parties that I found in the Hong Kong Times. They didn’t even blink an eye!

    1. I somehow never new that were so many islands in/around Hong Kong! So much to explore.. I’ll have to return soon 🙂

  8. I looks like that the big city not always offers something more than the smaller one! I’m a bike lover and the news that there are no bicycles seriously takes me into consideration in visiting it. Thanks for sharing your experience there, it is helpful!

    1. Harriet – it’s still worth a visit, trust me 🙂 On Hong Kong Island you wouldn’t want to cycle anyway because the hills are sooooo steep 😉

  9. I love Hong Kong. My wife and I went there 3 years ago and it’s a very busy place and they adored fashion very much.

    Thanks for sharing images of the place.

  10. I stayed in Hong Kong for 3 days and I loved it. Commuting is very easy and there’s so many good places to stop by.

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