Even the most cosmopolitan Greater New York resident may feel like a wide-eyed provincial in Hong Kong. The Chinese city sprawls from Hong Kong Island across Victoria Harbor to the Kowloon peninsula, both sides crammed with radically modern skyscrapers at a level of density that makes Manhattan seem airy. Above the traffic roar on perennially busy streets, the equally busy foot traffic goes by on pedestrian overpasses that stretch for blocks, passing through office buildings, shopping malls and subway stations so vast they have maps pointing the way to their dizzying plethora of exits.
Hong Kong's historic attractions interact vibrantly with its contemporary buzz. Here are five ways to experience the mix.
1. LEARN FROM THE PAST
The Hong Kong Museum of History (100 Chatham Road South, Kowloon; hk.history.museum) is a good place to start. Its permanent exhibit, "The Hong Kong Story," provides valuable context for everything else you'll see, beginning with an account of the prehistoric volcanic eruptions that shaped the island's mountainous terrain. A wonderful section on folk culture depicts traditions still practiced today, such as the annual festival featuring a 30-foot-tall tower of 6,000 steamed buns that culminates in a "bun scramble" for pastries believed to bring good luck. A re-created 19th century street showcases Hong Kong's Colonial past in reproductions of an herbal medicine store, a teahouse, a tailor's shop and a grocery. Newsreel footage documents the grim World War II years, and a final exhibit covers the "one country, two systems" agreement that returned British-governed Hong Kong to China as a Special Administrative Region in 1997.
2. TAKE IN THE VIEW
Experience Hong Kong Island's vertiginous geography firsthand during the steep ascent to Victoria Peak on the venerable Peak Tram, a cable funicular opened in 1888 to promote real estate development in the hill districts. (It worked: They're now dotted with high-rise buildings clinging improbably to the slopes.) Spectacular views of the harbor and the city below keep the peak crowded with tourists year-round; if you want to enjoy it at sunset, be prepared to queue for an hour or longer at the lower tram station (33 Garden Rd., Central). Escape the crowds up top by strolling along Lugard and Harlech roads, which circle the peak on level ground and will have you back at the tram in less than an hour -- if you don't pause too often to savor the jaw-dropping vistas and lush foliage.
3 RIDE A FERRY
The classic sea-level view of Hong Kong comes in two parts: Take the Star Ferry from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, then stroll from the ferry terminal to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade. The ferries, first launched in 1880, retain a pleasingly Victorian air with their interior wood trim and individual seats whose backs can be flipped to face in either direction. As you look toward Kowloon, a brick-and-granite clock tower framed by the swooping curve of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre offers a characteristic juxtaposition of old and new. The promenade after dark provides a front-row seat for the nightly sound-and-light show that puts Hong Kong's skyscrapers on a fabulous display. In addition, individual edifices have their own dramatic lighting; some facades slowly change color, and others spotlight architectural features, like the struts that zigzag up I.M. Pei's Bank of China building. (For directions to the ferry piers: discoverhongkong.com)
4 EAT WELL
Hong Kong is justly famous for its food, and the Wan Chai district is considered the city's culinary capital. Foodies seeking the latest innovations will relish the sous-vide noodles at Maureen (11 Hing Wan St.; maureen.com.hk). The elegant, Michelin-starred cuisine at Hang Zhou (178-188 Johnston Rd.) is especially notable for its delicious desserts. The Sang Kee Seafood Restaurant (107-115 Hennessy Rd.) offers down-home Cantonese cooking at group tables. (Squeamish diners be warned: chicken dishes are served, as is customary, with the decapitated head on the plate.) Wan Chai is also a great neighborhood to walk around. Boutiques jostle auto shops on its narrow sidewalks, where schoolchildren in white uniforms march past cafes frequented by bohemians. The House of Stories (74 Stone Nullah Lane) promises "stories exchanged for a drink," and numerous yellow post-its on a board outside suggest that quite a few people have made the exchange.
5 WALK A TRAIL
The Ping Shan Heritage Trail, slightly off the beaten track in the New Territories region, is a must for adventurous travelers who want to connect with China's ancient civilization. Exit E3 from the Tin Shui Wai railway station takes you to a narrow dirt road marked by a "Heritage Trail" sign; beyond it stands the oldest pagoda in Hong Kong, a three-story hexagonal structure of green brick built in the 15th century. From there, the trail leads to several temples and two magnificent ancestral halls, whose intricately painted doors, wall hangings, tiled roofs and carved wooden ceilings have been splendidly restored. The trail concludes at the Ping Shan Tang Clan Gallery; artifacts include a braid cut off after the 1911 revolution made such symbols of submission to the emperor unnecessary.
It's a fitting emblem of the dramatic changes that transformed Hong Kong in the 20th century, yet the candles burning in shrines all along the Heritage Trail testify to the continuity of traditional religious practices in this electrifying 21st century city.
If you go
November and December are the best months to visit, cooler and drier than the long summer season.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has a helpful website (discoverhongkong.com) that includes information on all the sites mentioned. It runs visitor centers at the airport, in the Kowloon Star Ferry concourse and on Victoria Peak.
The inexpensive Mass Transit Railway (MTR) goes virtually everywhere, and signage is in English as well as Cantonese.
If you're in town for more than a day or two, get an Octopus card, which can be used on the MTR, buses, the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram, as well as in many convenience stores and supermarkets. Initial charge is $150 HK (less than $20), and it can be recharged.