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Hong Kong may not be a cheap city, but exploring this vibrant metropolis on a budget is definitely feasible. Here are some pointers to help cost-conscious travellers experience Hong Kong’s food, culture and natural beauty without breaking the bank.
Most of the city’s hotels are clustered around tourist hotspots like Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and Wan Chai. Staying near Central is guaranteed to be expensive; you’re more likely to stumble upon decent budget hotels or hostels in Causeway Bay or Tsim Sha Tsui.
For accommodation with a pleasing price tag, the Hong Kong Youth Hostel Association has hostels throughout the countryside – as well as one in Sham Shui Po (in a historic building, no less) – that are budget-friendly. For those who don’t mind commuting and staying in dorms, it’s also a great opportunity to explore a different side to Hong Kong.
For something a little more central, another recommended hostel chain is YesInn Hostel, which has various locations in areas such as Causeway Bay, Yau Ma Tei and Fortress Hill. While Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui may not have the greatest reputation, it is well known among budget travellers and backpackers as a place to find affordable guest houses and hotels. With its prime central location on Nathan Road, Chungking Mansions is both a well-situated base for exploring and one of the most multicultural places in Hong Kong. Maple Leaf Guest House and the New Peking Guest House are both great picks, though the former tends to get booked up months in advance.
On Hong Kong Island, staying in a neighbourhood over from the business district and city centre also reduces costs. North Point’s Homy Inn and the Island Pacific Hotel in Sai Ying Pun are worth checking out.
Airbnb can be a great alternative to a hostel. Look for properties in districts such as Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun, both of which have historic charm and plenty of restaurants and cafés, and are just a train stop or two away from Central.
Eating on the cheap in Hong Kong is easy if you know what to look for. To sample some delicious local street food, head to Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui, Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei districts, where you’ll find street hawkers selling delicacies like curry fish balls, egg waffles, meat skewers and the notorious stinky tofu.
You can’t come to Hong Kong without eating at a cha chaan teng, a type of cheap diner that offers an eclectic array of local comfort foods, including breakfast dishes, noodles, fried rice and desserts. The Australia Dairy Company, Kum Wah Cafe, Lan Fong Yuen and Cafe Matchbox are some of the most famous cha chaan teng restaurants in town. Local cha chaan teng chains such as Tai Hing and Tsui Wah are also good budget options, particularly for their afternoon tea time deals (usually around 2pm-5pm). And an added bonus – they always have an English menu.
Restaurants specialising in Cantonese-style roast meats, or siu mei, are another way to get a tasty, low-cost meal – try Kam’s Roast Goose or Joy Hing’s Roasted Meat. You can also find a cheap and delicious bowl of noodles at famous family-run joints like Wing Kee Noodle, Mak’s Noodle and the Shanghai Hong Kong Noodle Shop.
Food courts are also a great place to eat a filling and authentic meal on the cheap. Most major shopping malls have a food court on one of their upper floors – for example, Langham Place in Mong Kok, Hysan Place in Causeway Bay, and Festival Walk in Kowloon Tong. Akin to the hawker centres in Southeast Asia, they generally consist of a communal seating area surrounded by food stalls, mostly chain brands. Cuisines of all types can be found here, with the general cost of a meal around 60 Hong Kong dollars (£5.86).
Finally, how could we forget about dim sum? Hong Kong is home to the world’s cheapest Michelin-star restaurant – dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan, which has multiple locations across the city. For those interested in a dim sum joint with a more old-school vibe, find your own seat and fight other diners to grab your favourite dishes at Lin Heung Tea House in Sheung Wan.
Symphony of Lights: Stroll down the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade to enjoy a stunning panorama of Hong Kong’s iconic harbour and skyline. The promenade offers an excellent vantage point for the Symphony of Lights, which is put on by the Hong Kong Tourism Board every night at 8pm. Hailed by the Guinness World Records as the world’s largest permanent sound and light show, the Symphony of Lights is a stunning spectacle that takes place on the waterfront, accompanied by live narration and music.
Avenue of Stars: The newly reopened Avenue of Stars – modelled on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame – is a great place to go for a walk, admire Victoria Harbour and to learn about Hong Kong’s film industry. With plenty of photo opportunities and spots to sit and chill, this is an ideal place to enjoy a relaxed afternoon stroll.
Victoria Peak: While Sky Terrace 428 is the best-known viewpoint on Victoria Peak, you don’t need to pay to see Hong Kong’s iconic skyline from up high. Head to the Lion Pavilion or the nearby Lugard Road Lookout, which gives you the same view – free of charge! Although the Peak Galleria also has a free observation deck, the building will be under construction until late 2019.
Street-art hunting in SoHo: Referring to the area south of Hollywood Road, SoHo is among Hong Kong’s premier destinations for dining and entertainment. The area gained a new lease of life with the opening of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator – the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. This buzzing area has also become a hub for Hong Kong’s burgeoning street art scene. Visitors can spend hours exploring its streets, scoping out the most beautiful murals. Among the most famous are the colourfully painted tong lau (traditional low-rise buildings) by Graham Street, but there are many more scattered throughout the neighbourhood.
Markets: Hong Kong’s lively outdoor street markets draw locals and tourists alike, with Mong Kok’s markets particularly famed. The Ladies Market and the Temple Street Night Market are the most well known – here you’ll find everything from cheap jewellery, trinkets and souvenirs to fake designer bags and watches, as well as a range of tantalising street food stalls. For some even more exotic sights, be sure to check out the Bird Market and the Goldfish Market.
Museums: If you are in Hong Kong on a Wednesday, many museums and art galleries offer free admission all day long. Note that “Free admission” applies to permanent exhibitions; some special exhibitions may still require you to purchase a ticket. Otherwise, there are also many consistently free museums, including the Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong Railway Museum, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, and Hong Kong Museum of History. The Hong Kong Science Museum offers free admission to those with a valid student ID.
Hiking: Hong Kong isn’t just an urban jungle. Travel beyond the bustling centre to discover the city’s many hiking trails, which take you through rural villages and bucolic scenery, and offer stunning coastal vistas. One of the best trails for beginners is the Dragon’s Back, an 8.5-kilometre (5.2-mile) route that takes you to the top of Shek O Peak, 284 metres (931 miles) above sea level, and ends in front of the gently lapping waters of Big Wave Bay Beach.
Tian Tan Buddha: This 34m (112ft) statue of a seated Buddha with his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing is an impressive sight to behold, and one of Hong Kong’s most popular attractions. A trip to the Big Buddha (as it’s often affectionately called) and the adjacent Po Lin Monastery is completely free. Be sure to take the bus from Tung Chung instead of the Ngong Ping 360 cable car, which costs 10 times as much.
Temples and churches: Temples such as Wong Tai Sin Temple, Man Mo Temple and Chi Lin Nunnery are well worth visiting for their beautiful traditional architecture, and also afford you the chance to observe local Buddhist and Taoist worship. All temples are admission-free, but if you want to offer incense, you can usually purchase some for around 10 HKD (£0.97). Because of its history as a British colony, Hong Kong is also home to many magnificent ecclesiastical buildings, such as St John’s Cathedral, an Anglican church built in the Gothic style in 1849.
Watch horse racing: Horse racing is one of the only legal forms of gambling in Hong Kong, the other being the lottery. It is a favourite pastime for many, especially the older generations. While it might not be as glamorous as race meets in the UK or Australia, it is one of the most popular things to do in Hong Kong and only costs 10 HKD (£0.97) to watch from the lively atmosphere of the public stands. The Happy Valley Racecourse is undoubtedly the most fun, while the Sha Tin Racecourse is favoured by a more local crowd.
Hong Kong’s public transportation system is clean, efficient and affordable. One of the first things you should do after arrival is to get an Octopus Card – a stored-value card that saves you from having to fiddle with spare change and ticket machines every time you use public transport. You can buy them at any MTR station and top up in convenience stores such as 7-11 and OK, in addition to the stations.
The MTR is Hong Kong’s metro system. It’s fast and reliable and can take you almost anywhere in the city, except remote and rural areas, which are reachable by public buses or minibuses. The MTR app can be handy to download on your phone to plan your transport and know the fare, although Google Maps usually suffices. For buses operating in Kowloon and the New Territories, you can check the bus schedule using the KMB app.
Alternatives to the MTR or bus include the tram and the ferry. The tramway covers most of northern Hong Kong Island; at 2.30 HKD (£0.22) per ride, it’s the city’s cheapest form of public transportation. However, it’s much slower than the MTR, so only use it for relatively short journeys. Meanwhile, the Star Ferry is a popular method of crossing Victoria Harbour and is a journey so scenic that it is considered an attraction in itself.
Nam Cheah contributed additional reporting to this article.