Accessible fun for everyone
A family vacation to Hong Kong is probably going to involve some big-ticket attractions like Ocean Park at HK$480 adult (US$60) / HK$240 child (US$30), HK Disneyland (HK$589 adult / HK$419 child), the observation deck at the new ICC tower (HK$188 adult), the Hong Kong Observation Wheel (HK$100), or the Ngong Ping 360 experience (HK$290 adult / HK$180 child) – but there are days and days’ worth of outings that cost little to nothing at all, once you’ve covered transportation to get there.
With the Octopus stored-value card and Hong Kong’s comprehensive MTR, ferry, and bus network, virtually any part of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (and even much of Lamma Island) is accessible within an hour of almost any hotel. And you’ll find English-language signage and materials across the territory, making it easy for you to get around and understand what you’re seeing.
This link-list of free or low-cost attractions is organized by neighborhood: especially in the core areas of Kowloon and the northern side of the Island, there are several metro stations within walking distance of many attractions:
Hong Kong Island – Central and Admiralty west to Kennedy Town
Victoria Peak and the Tram – is of course the number-one tourist attraction in all Hong Kong because you want to see for yourself the same shot that everyone who goes there shows off. And it’s truly fantastic! There’s a small shopping mall up there, and food courts, and even a kids’ playground with a great view of the backside of the Peak, looking off into the South China Sea and all the container ships, tankers, drilling rigs, and support craft steaming in and out of the mouth of the Pearl River. There’s a paved loop trail going around the Peak, too, into the tropical forest and past little temples and massive mansions. It would be easy to spend the better part of the day up there. The tram station is about a 15-minute walk (uphill) from Central Station, past the HSBC main building and St. John’s Cathedral. It’s also 15 minutes (uphill) from Admiralty Station, past the Bank of China Tower and up Garden Road. It runs from 7 am to midnight, leaving every 10-15 minutes. Round-trip tram tickets for adults are HK$52, but the pass that includes travel and access to the rooftop viewing gallery is HK$99 adult / HK$47 child, which is a pretty inexpensive deal.
Hong Kong Park occupies the space between the Peak Tram station and Admiralty Station / Pacific Park shopping complex. Free, and open 9am – 5pm, its winding outdoor paths give photo opportunities at every bend. Centered on an artificial waterfall and pond, the park incorporates some colonial-era buildings as well as a new conservatory and aviary. So no matter the weather, you’re always guaranteed to see colorful tropical birds and flowers.
Just uphill from the Peak Tram station are the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens. This is the oldest parkland in the territory (opened in 1864), and one of the oldest zoos in the world. It’s a 10-minute walk uphill from Central Station, or take bus routes #12 or #13. Admission is free, and hours are 6 am to 7 pm. It’s a small complex by modern zoo standards, but they don’t try to cover the world: animal exhibits specialize in monkeys, apes, and other primates; turtles and tortoises; and native birds; while the greenhouse and outdoor gardens highlight native flowers and trees.
The Hong Kong Tramways (also called the “ding ding” trolleys for their signature sound) are beloved by tourists and locals alike, and stretch nearly the entire length of the north side of the island. The fare is super-cheap (HK$2.30, about US 30 cents) and can be paid by Octopus Card. They run from 5 am to midnight, so they’re a great activity if you’re awake crazy early or up late because of jetlag. Be sure to get seats on the upper level – because there’s no better way to see everyday life, and because you’ve got a better chance of catching a breeze.
Located in the Central Pier, the Hong Kong Maritime Museum tells the stories of how Chinese and Western shipping and navies developed and defended the Pearl River Delta. There’s an exhibit on historical pirates, a simulator of a modern ship’s bridge, deep-sea diving equipment, cruise liners, dragonboats, hovercraft, and more. Admission is just HK$30 adult / HK$15 child, and they’re open 9:30 am – 5:30 pm weekdays; shorter hours on weekends.
Starting at the IFC complex and extending up 800 meters by 20 escalators and 3 moving ramps, the Mid-Levels Escalator takes about 25 minutes to ride its full length! It’s particularly handy for reaching a number of temples and shopping streets, and much like the Tramways, you’re immersed in everyday life as you walk and explore. It travels downhill from 6am – 10 am, and uphill from 10 am to midnight. So if you want to explore, remember you’ll need to either walk back to where you started, or catch a bus at one of the intersecting streets!
The God of Literature? The God of War? They both come together to be venerated by ambitious students, hoping to score well on civil exams, at the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road. It’s a 15-minute walk from the Sheung Wan station, free, and open 8 am – 6 pm. It’s a quiet and holy place, but its giant spiral incense coils hanging from the ceiling, drifting scented smoke over you, and its sculptures, metalwork, and lanterns will keep you talking for hours afterward.
Also just outside the Sheung Wan MTR station and right on the Tramway is Western Market, a beautifully-restored Edwardian warehouse now holding a number of bistros and gift shops. It’s a good stopover on your way back to Central Station.
Hong Kong Island – Wan Chai to Causeway Bay
Golden Bauhinia Square is next to the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (with its wave-shaped roof), and commands a broad view of the northern side of Victoria Harbour. The Star Ferry has one of its terminals here, and it is a 15-minute walk north of the Wan Chai Station. There is a flag-raising ceremony at 7:45 am (which is mostly of interest only to mainland Chinese tourists), and there is also a set of sculptures which young kids can climb and play on called “Ani-Com Park”, based on local cartoon characters.
Wan Chai – The Yamataka Seafood Market is situated directly above the Wan Chai ferry pier and is part seafood wholesaler, part food amusement park. The building is split into themed areas (donburi, matcha, Japanese beef, sushi bar, etc.) which are a mix of live entertainment and small-bites snacking. They bring out a giant tuna each night at 6:30 for a theatrical carving show!
Hong Kong Island – Tin Hau east to Quarry Bay and Chai Wan
Quarry Bay Park runs along the south shore of Kowloon Bay for a half-mile, and helps to shroud a freeway interchange from the residential towers just uphill. There are walking paths and playground and exercise equipment, a lookout tower, and the Fireboat Alexander Grantham on display. The views of the eastern part of Kowloon are excellent, and you can watch the big cruise liners dock at the old Kai Tak Airport across the water! Get off at the Quarry Bay MTR station and walk 10-15 minutes east to the park (the Tai Koo station looks closer but the walking route is about 50% longer!)
Shek O is the southeastern-most part of Hong Kong Island and is one of the city’s most favorite beach getaways, because it doesn’t get the big surf like some of the outer islands do. Pack a picnic, sun gear, and swimsuits and take the Island Line (blue) to the Shau Kei Wan station, then connect to the #9 bus. There are restaurants and cafes in the small town, but nothing in the way of shopping. You can walk across “Lovers’ Bridge” out to the rocky headland and its small temple for panoramic views of the Pacific. This could easily be a relaxing full-day trip!
Hong Kong Island – Southern Side
The MTR has finally punched through the mountain ridge and connects Aberdeen station on the north with Ocean Park and Ap Lei Chau island on the south. Ocean Park is a hub for bus routes extending across the southern shore, and there are also express bus routes leaving from Central (about a 45-minute trip). Each of these would be a good half-day trip:
Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau face each other across a narrow harbour; this area is relatively protected from typhoon winds and surges, so the big fishing fleets and family houseboats used to dock here. While much of the 1950s-1960s way of life has faded, this is still a quieter spot of the city and you can see “the old Hong Kong” as well as its famous floating village. Along the water are parks including the Aberdeen Promenade and Ap Lei Chau Wind Tower Park offering good views and exercise. There are also two old, historic temples worth a look: Kwun Yum Temple and the Hung Shing Temple, on either ends of “downtown” Ap Lei Chau.
Repulse Bay – hosts an excellent beach with a few places to eat, and a charming temple on its eastern side.
Stanley– is a postcard-sized town at the literal end of the bus line; its street market is a great place to shop for gift bargains and clothing, there’s a nice assortment of places to eat, several old colonial buildings and museums to explore, and a delightful waterfront promenade. Even during the lunch rush, it’s never overcrowded, and it’s a fun place to search for beach glass and pottery shards.
Tsim Sha Tsui
Kowloon’s southern shore holds some of the city’s biggest shopping centers and iconic hotels, as well as one of the most famous views in the world! It’s easily reached from two different Tsim Sha Tsui (TST) MTR stations, as well as the Austin, Hung Hom, and Kowloon stations.
The Star Ferry runs from the TST waterfront to Central as well as Wan Chai every 6-20 minutes depending on time of day, and costs a ridiculously cheap HK$2.70 (US 34 cents) for an adult one-way fare on weekdays (there are also tourist passes for unlimited rides). The view from the middle of Victoria Harbour is stupendous! This is a must-do activity every time you visit the city.
Avenue of the Stars– Hong Kong’s version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, this boardwalk extends along the eastern shore of TST with tributes to the city’s historic movie industry, including a large sculpture of the legendary Bruce Lee. It’s under reconstruction but due to re-open in late 2018.
Hong Kong Museum of History– is your stop for learning more about Hong Kong’s natural environment and the people who have called this place home over the millennia. There are big walk-through exhibits of village life, natural ecosystems, and the city during the post-war era. Admission is just HK$10.
Hong Kong Science Museum– is right next to the History Museum, and houses over 500 exhibits and hands-on activities for STEM education: over 70% of the materials are interactive, so your kids can play directly with robots, vehicles, and virtual reality. They’ve recently added the DC-3 airliner that was used to start Cathay Pacific, so this is a must-see for any transportation enthusiasts! Tickets are only HK$20.
Hong Kong Space Museum– is under reconstruction but is due to reopen in Spring 2018. Admission is just HK$10 for the exhibition halls, and HK$24 – 32 for shows in the planetarium. When the exhibits re-open, they’ll be hands-on demonstrations of rocket launches and re-entry, the physics of motion, energy, and particles in space, and the history of space exploration.
“A Symphony of Lights”– is the synchronized music, light, and laser show that takes place every night at 8 pm along the waterfront. Over 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour have been outfitted for the 10-minute event. TST is the best place to view the show, but the Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai also has a great vantage point. Crowds form every night, so you’ll want to plan out your evening’s dinner and shopping opportunities to avoid lines at the train stations.
The Ladies’ Market is probably the best-known example of all Hong Kong’s evening street-stall shopping. With over 100 vendors, and open every night, it’s a fine place to look for clothing and inexpensive souvenirs. It’s 2 blocks east of the Mong Kok Station.
Mong Kok’s Flower Market is about a 20-minute walk northeast of the station. It’s a wholesale market that supplies flower shops all over the territory, but there are also stalls inside where you can buy cut and live flowers. You won’t be buying anything to take home, of course, but the beauty is the attraction (and there are a number of places to pick up breakfast along the way.)
Nor will you be buying anything at the Goldfish Market, about halfway between the station and the Flower Market. But you’ve surely never seen thousands of tropical fish, floating in bags, waiting to be picked up by a collector and taken home. Nor have you likely ever seen people taking their fish out for a walk!
Langham Place Shopping Mall is attached to Mong Kok Station on the west side, and is 15 stories tall. It includes a large food court, movie theaters, many clothing stores catering to kids and grown-ups, toy and collectible stores, bookshops and record stores. There are two pair of “Xpresscalators,” which connect floors 4 to 8 and 8 to 12, with no other stops. They are terrifying, but people take them all the time.
Hong Kong’s Jade Market is about a 15-minute walk southwest of the Yau Ma Tei station on Nathan Road. This is a surprisingly low-key “farmers’ market”-style operation for all the gold, jade, and semi-precious gems inside... but then again, most of what's on sale is relatively inexpensive; you can watch artists at work and bargain for pieces you want to buy.
Nan Lian Garden and the Chi Lin Nunnery are a 5-minute walk east of the Diamond Hill Station on the Kwun Tong (green) line. While built separately, both are sprawling, traditionally-landscaped gardens (in the Tang Dynasty style) with several small ponds, bridges, and temples.
Kwun Tong – Fly the Flyover Park – is a rather clever re-imagining of the space under freeway overpasses to create performance space, retail and restaurant pop-ups, and a large kids’ play area. It’s located 2 blocks west of the Ngau Tau Kok Station on the Kwun Tong (green) line, and it creates and reinforces a half-mile-long promenade along the harbour.
Tsuen Wan – this former fabric-making industrial districtwas converted over to housing in the 1970s-1980s, and is best-known for its Discovery Park mixed-use mega complex. Now branded as “D-PARK,” and connected directly to the Tsuen Wan MTR station, it has focused on serving families, bringing in children’s specialty stores, building multiple play areas, theme-park activities and rides, and even programming workshops and courses for kids and parents to take! Candy Park Cinemais at the far northern end of D-PARK, and concentrates on kids’ movies and light anime (often discounted).
Lantau and Tsing Yi Islands
There are plenty of high-interest/high-ticket-price attractions to the west, but two lower-cost activities are:
The Tsing Ma Bridge - one of the longest in the world, has separate decks for vehicle and train traffic. It's hard to get a sense of its scale when you're going across it, so on the northwest side of Tsing Yi Island, a visitor centre has been built. Take the 308M minibus from the Tsing Yi Station to get there.
Hong Kong International Airport - houses its own aviation-themed museum, the biggest IMAX in the entire city, a video game complex, and loads of restaurants and shopping in its pre-security areas. Plus, there are several areas to spot aircraft from inside the terminal and parking lots. Because the Airport Express train is spendy and only departs from Central and Kowloon, use the cheaper Tung Chung (Orange) Line out to its end, then catch the S56 shuttle bus to the terminal.
The East Rail line (light blue) runs from Hung Hom and Mong Kok East stations northbound all the way to the PRC border at Shenzhen. This used to be Hong Kong’s backcountry of farming villages, but investments in transportation, universities, and public housing have made much of the area suburban commuter cities. Yet they are surrounded by vast public parkland, with hiking trails, dramatic mountain vistas, and wild animals.
Some of the original towns have features worth a half-day or even full-day trip:
Sha Tin - the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery is quite literally uphill from the Sha Tin Station, via a 431-stair case, lined on both sides with golden Buddha statues. It takes 15-20 minutes to get to the top, so make sure your kids (and you!) are physically active and ready for the workout. Once on top, there’s a 9-story tall pagoda, numerous shrines and pavilions, waterfalls, and temples. The trek to get here keeps the crowd sizes down!
Attached to the south side of Sha Tin Station is the nine-story tall New Town Plaza shopping complex. It includes an IKEA, several department stores, and movie theaters. Of particular interest is the “Snoopy’s World” outdoor play space on the 3rd-floor atrium.
The Hong Kong Heritage Museum is the single largest museum building in the territory, covering ancient and current Chinese art, Cantonese Opera, and a large Children’s Discovery Gallery with eight different hands-on play zones. Admission is free. It’s a 15-minute walk from either the Sha Tin or Tai Wai stations, or a 5-minute walk from the Che Kung Temple station (though you’d need to change trains at Tai Wai to get there, so the time savings is negligible.)
Tai Po – Hong Kong Railway Museum is a converted 1913-era station, situated halfway between and a 10-minute walk from either MTR station serving the town. Admission is free. The museum holds six antique railway coaches, two locomotives, several other pieces of rolling stock, a giant model-railway diorama, and interactive exhibits on the MTR.
A few blocks downriver from the museum is the Tai Po Mega Mall, which is very much a suburban shopping center complete with food court. Unlike the big luxury-brand centers in the heart of Hong Kong, the shops here are more oriented toward middle-income working-class families. Compare and contrast what you see here with the mall in your hometown!
And just a few blocks downriver from the mall is Waterfront Park, the largest recreational park in all Hong Kong, and its spiral Lookout Tower. It also includes an Insect House where kids can view and interact with local bugs!
The West Rail line (purple) also starts in south Kowloon but runs northwest past the Tai Lam mountains to the suburban developments facing Shenzhen Bay.
In the Yuen Long district, Hong Kong Wetland Park was created in the early 2000s to protect and repair the ecology of Hong Kong’s northwest coast after massive residential and industrial development. It holds a visitor center with exhibits on ecology and wetland habitats, and extensive outdoor observation areas and walking paths to get up close to local and migratory wildlife, including fish and reptiles. The winter migration season especially sees many rare species! Adult admission is just HK$30 / kids are HK$15. Take the MTR to the Tin Shui Wai station and connect onto Light Rail #705 or #706 to the Wetland Park Station.