Beneath the high-rises and casinos, these two very different Chinese regions hide a wealth of culture, tradition, food and history – and a new bridge is set to connect them both...
Like twins separated at birth and raised in wildly different ways, Hong Kong and Macao each has its own way of charming you – if you stop to look beneath the glitz. And with the 55km-long Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge set to link the pair towards the end of the year, exploring these two regions is soon to be even easier.
On first acquaintance with Hong Kong, its skyscrapers and bustle can overwhelm. But it also has a gentler side, too. Cultural roots and traditions still thrive here, from generations old dai pai dong (food stalls) to fishermen’s temples, and I couldn’t walk a block in the old neighbourhoods of Hong Kong City without being reminded its roots run far into history.
The rest of the region is no different. Busy Kowloon – sat across the water – was just a collection of small communities and fishing villages when European eyes first gazed on the roadstead that would one day become Victoria Harbour. And while today it has a reputation for being the most crowded place on Earth, it is also one of the most vibrant.
After a week in Kowloon’s high-rise forest, I found myself falling in love not only with its bustling alleys but the unexpected wilderness on its doorstep: the New Territories. The heart of this region is a wild expanse of old walled villages, highland trails, wetlands and mountains – a whole other world to explore.
Then there’s Macao – the balmy tradewind breeze after the human typhoon of Kowloon. Just 55km from Hong Kong, its delightfully faded colonial charm is like pastel-coloured blusher on the face of the old Grand Dame of South China.
From my first visit here, I found joy in just slowing down to the pace of old Macao, and quickly slipped into the simple pleasures of wandering between pretty European-style cobbles and Asian markets. The region’s twin Portuguese-Chinese heritage makes it unlike anywhere else in China, and while many know Macao for its casinos, it has more than enough historic sites, great food and scenic strolls to keep you occupied. Yet there’s no substitute for sitting at a sunny terrace café with an egg tart and pondering the unique background of these surprising regions.
Top tip: Hong Kong's trams – are the best way to explore, and the historic open-top TramOramic tour make the perfect introduction to the city.
Duration: 2–3 days
Best for: Urban chic, food stalls historic neighbourhoods and unexpected hill walks
Highlights: Victoria Peak, Hong Kong Park, mid-level escalators, history, Soho and Poho
Why go? Hong Kong Island revels in its slick, consumerist lifestyle, but a few days here can reveal fascinating culture and traditions.
Often touted as the ‘Manhattan of the East’, this historic port city might share the wild consumerism of its US counterpart, yet it retains many of its old ways. A few blocks from the business centre, you can find sweet old ladies who, for a few dollars, will ‘curse’ your enemy by battering a sheet of paper scrawled with their name. Yet it’s in the old neighbourhoods and eateries where you’ll find the city’s heartbeat.
Hong Kong City is famous for its dining, and along with constellations of Michelin stars, you’ll also find kerbside gems in its dai pai dong (‘big plate licenses’). These old food stalls are an endangered species now, since licenses are no longer issued and can only be handed down. But a few icons can still be found in Old Town Central, such as Sing Heung Yuen – famous for its hearty beef and tomato macaroni soup – on Mee Lun Street, which draws large crowds of hungry locals.
Take the historic Peak Tram to the lookout (395m over the waterfront) and you’ll see that only the fringes of this 80 sq-km island are inhabited. But even in the heart of the city it takes surprisingly little dedication to find peace. Just step onto the mid-level escalators to ride up to the trendy sidewalk bar scene around SoHo quarter or browse the galleries, studios and gourmet cafes around PoHo (abbreviated from Po Hing Fong Street).
Elsewhere, Hong Kong Park and its aviary offers a fix of greenery amid the concrete, and for a look at the old city, take the tram out to the once infamous Wan Chai neighbourhood. Its early-20th century shophouses (known as the Blue House Cluster) are UNESCO-listed and survived the bombs of the Second World War and the city’s relentless building boom to afford a glimpse into a bygone era as part of a living, breathing museum.
To the south-east, things get more rugged. An hour-long hike will take you across the jungle-clad hills of Shek O Country Park to a deserted beach at Big Wave Bay, or further on to Shek O. Another fine trek here is the aptly named Dragon’s Back across the rolling hills, with its trailhead found in the village of To Tei Wan. It has unbeatable coastal views en route, and you’ll find it hard to imagine that you’re still on Hong Kong Island.
Duration: 2–3 days
Best for: Backstreet character, temples, street food, urban history and long-distance trails
Highlights: Temple Street, Mong Kok, Walled City Park, markets, MacLehose Trail
Why go? Combine Kowloon – arguably the world’s most exciting urban jungle – with a trip into the New Territories for a taste of village life.
If Hong Kong Island is Manhattan, then Kowloon is Brooklyn: noisy, edgy and boisterously crowded. Because living conditions can be cramped, people tend to spend their time outside, and the area’s vibrant street life has become world-famous.
Like much of Hong Kong, glimpses of Kowloon’s past are everywhere. Temple Street Night Market is a souvenir-shopper’s dream, but few visitors take time to explore the 150- year-old Tin Hau fishermen’s temple (named after the goddess of seafarers) at its heart and which gave the quarter its name. Nearby, the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood is famous for its toy, fabric and electronics markets, and it remains an island of nostalgia amid the neon revolution. But old and new also collide here, with the ten-story-high Rainbow Thief mural by Okuda San Miguel making the old Man Fung residential block an Instagram icon.
Head to Mong Kok neighbourhood, which is said to be the most densely populated on Earth (130,000 people per sq km). A street food tour makes a fine introduction, while the 2km walk past the flower market brings you to the former site of Kowloon Walled City. This former fort became a notorious enclave after Britain acquired the New Territories in 1898, and it once housed 30,000 squatters in an area the size of six football pitches. Gangs ran this ‘city within a city’ until it was torn down in the 1990s, though a few relics still survive among the park and sports fields.
Outside Kowloon, the New Territories cover about 86% of Hong Kong yet it is rarely seen by visitors. Here, centuries-old fortified villages such as Kat Hing Wai live on, their walls originally built to keep out pirates and rival clans, while the surrounding lush hills make an exciting escape from the metropolis.
A six-hour trek along the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail (Tai Lam Country Park) takes you through a range of wild landscapes and past old working farms. For dedicated hikers, the 100km MacLehose Trail typically takes five to six days to walk in its entirety, but among its highlights include sections that cross the volcanic rock of Sai Kung (part of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark).
Top tip: Hong Kong’s Star Ferry has shuttled commuters between Kowloon and Hong Kong for 130 years; and at HKD2.7 (27p) for a ticket, it also represents one of the world’s best-value cruises.
Duration: 3–4 days
Best for: Completists, big Buddhas and outdoors-lovers
Highlights: Tian Tan Buddha, Tai O stilt village, the Lantau Trail, dolphins, Lamma village, Kamikaze Cave, Cheung Chau
Why go? An entire archipelago lies a short boat ride from Hong Kong City’s Central Ferry Piers.
The islands that make up the tangled Hong Kong archipelago stretch into the hundreds. The largest is Lantau – almost twice the size of Hong Kong Island – which even has its own metro system. Yet even here it’s still easy to escape into the wild along the 70km Lantau Trail, tracing the island’s mountainous green spine into the less developed southern reaches. There, the Tian Tan Buddha statue makes a nice daytrip and is accessible via the Ngong Ping 360 cable car – a 5.7km ride with fine views. Once at its foot, a 268-step climb takes you up to the 34m-high bronze statue, while on the hill opposite lies Po Lin Monastery and its impressive Grand Hall of the Ten Thousand Buddhas.
To the west, Lantau’s Tai O village was once the lair of a pirate queen who battled Europe’s super-powers in the 1800s. These days, you can visit the stilted fishing village on kayak or boat tours that offer a chance to see rare Chinese white dolphins (note: they’re actually pink) that frolic in the waters here.
The fastest ferry to Lamma Island is via Aberdeen Harbour (40 mins), in the south of Hong Kong Island. Weekends here see large crowds arrive for the fine seafood, but during the week you can have this port to yourself. Take a stroll around the coast, past the Tin Hau fishermen’s temple, and you’ll come to the so-called Kamikaze Cave where, as legend has it, the Japanese Imperial Army hid torpedo boats during the Second World War.
Finish on Cheung Chau Island, which is best known for its quirky Bun Festival (May 2019), when competitors scramble a 14m-high bamboo tower to collect ‘lucky buns’. But the island is always worth visiting for the pretty beach town nestled in Treasure Bay and the Pak Tai Temple (built in 1783), which is at the centre of the mayhem during festival time.
Top tip: The Octopus Travel Card is the easiest way to pay on Hong Kong’s metro, buses, trams and the iconic Star Ferry. You can even use it in many stores.
Duration: One day
Best for: Colonial Portuguese architecture, Macanese culture, temples and churches, and tasty fusion food.
Highlights: A-Ma Temple, Senado Square, Penha Church, St Paul’s, old city walls, Street of Happiness, Three Lamps District
Why go? Parade the rich blend of Portuguese colonial architecture and Chinese culture, strolling from European cobbles to bustling Asian markets.
Begin your visit where modern Macao’s history began, at the ancient A-Ma Temple. When the Portuguese first arrived here, they allegedly asked a fisherman where they had landed. He replied: ‘A-Ma Gau’ – meaning ‘the bay of A Ma’ – referring to where the temple is located, and that’s how Macao got its name. Some 500 years later, the A-Ma Temple is still one of the most evocatively spiritual places in the region.
Next, make your way up the hill overlooking the old centre to the fortress-like structure of Our Lady of Penha Church (founded in 1622). It stands beside a statue of the Virgin Mary, whose protecting gaze is fixed on the nearby hills of mainland China. On the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, this is home to one of the most remarkable festivals on the island, when a huge procession marches from Senado Square up to the church.
Elsewhere, the Three Lamps District is Macao at its most cosmopolitan. You’ll hear just about every Chinese dialect spoken here, as well as Burmese, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese. This area became home to Chinese fleeing conflicts across South-East Asia in the 1960s; since then it has gained a reputation for its food (especially Burmese) and the lively market street that runs all the way up to the 1930s art deco-style Red Market.
Back in the centre, the ruined facade of St Paul’s Church is Macau’s most famous sight. Despite burning down in 1835, its ruins blend Catholic imagery with Asian motifs. But historic sites are everywhere here, and the true joy lies in just strolling the pastel-painted alleys and grand Senado Square.
Not far from there, you’ll find Rua da Felicidades, which has long been stripped of its decadent reputation as a red-light zone with gambling houses and opium dens. It still has some of that gritty backstreet vibe that led to its nickname as the ‘Street of Happiness’, and its shuttered terraces are hugely atmospheric to wander.
Expert tip: There’s no substitute for in-depth local knowledge of old Macao. Tours by Locals is dedicated to sustainable travel and works with UNESCO-accredited guide Aubrey Chan.
Duration: One day
Best for: Chinese street food, Macanese cuisine, Portuguese architecture, sleepy alleyways and shady plazas
Highlights: Taipa Houses Museum, Rua do Cunha, Avenida da Praia and many restaurants
Why do it? A unique opportunity to enjoy sleepy charm and traditional fare in a place where time seems to have stood still.
Coloane and Taipa were once separate islands until the waterways between them were reclaimed in 2005 to form the logically named Cotai (now the main casino district). But since few Cotai visitors ever stray even this far from the slot machines, the villages here have retained a virtually unspoiled local charm. At times you can even imagine you’re strolling in a particularly enticing quarter of Lisbon, then you turn a corner only to find yourself amid the clamour of a Chinese market.
Sightseeing is swift in Old Taipa. Start at the five mint-green houses on Avenida da Praia (‘Beach Avenue’). These have been renovated to form Taipa Houses Museum, offering an insight into what homelife might have been like circa 1920s for Macao’s Macanese (Portuguese-Chinese) community.
Next, seek out the food street of Rua do Cunha for some great regional fare: sample almond cookies and Macanese beef jerky at Ko Kei, and then head to the century-old pastry shop Fong Kei, where its pork-and-lard-filled biscuits conjure huge crowds. Nearby, the pork-chop buns at Tai Lei Loi Kei are also rightly famous in Macao, and are said to have originated at this very branch.
For another reminder of Taipa’s multicultural past, drop by the neoclassical Lady of Carmel Church, built over 130 years ago on the old waterfront at Avenida de Carlos da Maia, and the older Pak Tai Temple at Largo Camões, dedicated to the god of the sea. Hire a bike and you can pedal both, then build an appetite on the gentle cycling trail that runs the waterfront to Cotai.
Speaking of food, it’s worth travelling to Taipa if only for a chance to sample some of its fine Portuguese and Macanese cuisine. The latter takes its influence from across Portugal’s former colonies, and is just one reason why Macao was recently named a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO.
Don’t miss the feijoada (a stew originally from the plantations of Brazil) at O Santos on Rua do Cunha or Macanese classic African chicken (meat smothered in a spicy peanut sauce) of Taipa’s Cafe Litoral. Finish at Gelatina Mok Yi Kei (Rua do Cunha) for its green tea-flavoured serradura (meaning ‘sawdust’) – biscuit crumbs sprinkled on a creamy pudding. A true taste of Macao.
Duration: One day
Best for: Hill walking, black sand beaches, breezy coastal views… and more great food!
Highlights: The Coloane Trail (and others), Hac-Sa Beach, Chapel of St Francis Xavier,
Why do it? The southernmost tip of Macao’s main islands offers a hilltop retreat and a glimpse of village life amid its twisting old alleyways.
While Taipa is a good spot to stretch your waistline, Coloane, which was the last of the islands to be taken by the Portuguese, is more active. The Trilho de Coloane (Coloane Trail) stretches 8km and is a fine way to explore the hills outside the village. It can also be combined with a climb up the area’s highest peak (170m), where stands a statue of the goddess A-Ma at 19.99m high – marking the date Macao was handed over to China. It’s also worth cooling your heels en route in the tranquil waters that ripple onto the black sands of Hác Sá beach. Here, the rustic Restaurante Fernando has been a hit with locals for 40 years, and a feast of barbecued seafood could give you the energy you need to take an extra stroll around the Trilho do Morro de Hac-Sa, a pretty 2km-long coastal stroll around the headland.
Back in Coloane village, be sure to stop by the pastel-yellow baroque Chapel of St Francis Xavier. As if more illustration was needed of Macao’s endless tangle of cultures, this is a Portuguese chapel built in South China, dedicated to a Spanish saint and commemorating Japanese martyrs – their bones were first brought to St Paul’s, but when that burned down, they were carried here.
Nearby lies the 19th-century Tam Long Temple, on the square where Coloane’s salt-making industry used to flourish. The noise of the adjacent boat yards reminds you that the sea is still at the heart of life here.
Lastly, don’t leave without visiting Lord Stow’s Bakery. This is the original shop where English chemist Andrew Stow perfected the now ubiquitous Macanese take on Portugal’s pastel de nada (egg tart) – all puff pastry and sweet, creamy filling.
Top tip: Free casino shuttle-buses connect the ferry terminal to Cotai (in the hope that you will spend money), but can be useful for getting to Coloane and Taipa.
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