Hong Kong may be the second most expensive city to live in for expatriates*, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rich to enjoy it. In fact, there are loads of fun activities right on your doorstep and many of them are completely free – just ask adventurous blogger bluebalu. So why not leave your money woes at home and head to one of these freebie gems?
I always get asked about what you could or should do when you visit Hong Kong. And yes, there are the obvious ways to spend a weekend here and things to do on a rainy day, but what I’ve not done is provide a list of free activities that you can try out without ever reaching for your wallet. Enjoy!
Hong Kong Island side
1. Explore a Wet Market
Wet markets are not unique to Hong Kong, you will see them all around Asia, but what I found unique about most of them is that they are nestle between skyscrapers and are often spread out into three or four surrounding streets. And in case you are wondering, the term “wet market” comes from the extensive use of water in the markets. The water is used to wash the floors, keep the fruits and vegetables fresh, and keep fish and shellfish alive. So it could be a little slippery, therefore be mindful about your step!
A wet market is a great location to take pictures, but also to purchase produce – that’s where I get my fruit and veg from, at better quality and a lower price than from a supermarket! Why not check out Bowrington Road Market close to Time Square, or Reclamation Street in Jordan?
2. Visit the Hong Kong Park Aviary
Just minutes away from the bustling Central district, well hidden by tall buildings on Hennessy Road and Kennedy Road, Hong Kong Park is a wonderful oasis of nature and an ideal place for children to play and run around.
For me, the highlight is the aviary where you can walk over wooden paths perched high among the trees – there are lots of colorful birds to watch! Again, a fun area to explore – and a great photo location if you are into birds! The closest MTR stop is Admiralty, Exit C1. The Hong Kong park is open between 9am to 5pm every day.
3. Visit the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens
Speaking of animals – did you know that you can see monkeys for free? No, not those cheeky ones that roam around Lion Rock in Kowloon and harass hikers. I’m talking about orangutans, gibbons, tamarins, macaques and lemurs.
The zoo is also home to raccoons, flamingos, tortoise, and turtles, which are all free to watch – as long as you come between the opening hours of 6am to 7pm. The Green House/Education Centre closes at 4.30pm. Buses 3B, 12, and 13 run from various other stops in Central; the walk from the Central MTR stop is quite a distance and uphill, so be warned.
4. Walk Up The Peak
If you don’t mind some exercise and have time to spare, why don’t you walk up the Old Peak Road? From the Mid-Levels escalators it’s about 45 minutes uphill walking along a slope. It’s not the easiest walk, so don’t bring along kids that hate walking, but if you like to walk through a little bit of jungle (on a paved road) then this is a good exercise for you. I even do this at night time (it’s cooler in summer) and I come across so many people walking along the road – it’s a popular exercise trail!
Once you reach the top, ignore the shopping centre. Walk past it, and to the right (if you are facing the Central area of Hong Kong) is a free look-out point. Also, there is a 4km paved road around the Peak, which will provide you with great views (day and night) so as long as it’s not raining or too cloudy, and you’ve got time, you should walk along it. By the way, if you want to join free hikes in Hong Kong, check out the free Hong Kong Hiking MeetUp group. You don’t need to be a Hong Kong resident, anyone can join.
5. Take in the Free Views from the Bank of China Observatory
If it is between 8am to 8pm during the week, or 8am to 2pm on Saturday, and you don’t want to travel up the Peak, you could also go to the Bank of China Building, show an ID and go up to the Observatory deck on the 43rd floor, which is free to access. If you don’t want to go to the Observatory or it’s not open, you could still take in the sights of this very interesting building.
The building is designed by the star architect Ieoh Ming Pei (he’s famous for the glass and steel pyramid in front of the Louvre) and stands 315 metres tall (with the two masts it’s 367.4 metres). It was the tallest building in both Hong Kong and Asia from 1989 to 1992, and it was the first building outside the United States to break the 305 metres mark. It’s now the fourth tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong, after the International Commerce Centre, Two International Finance Centre, and Central Plaza – and its design should resemble a bamboo!
6. Hit the Museums on a Wednesday
Schedule your culture fix for a Wednesday, when many of Hong Kong’s galleries and museums open their doors for free. Chinese paintings and ceramics are among the highlights at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which is in TST. Its opening hours are Mondays to Fridays 10am to 6pm, Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays 10am to 7pm. and it’s closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). The best way to get there is to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon and walk along the waterfront.
The Hong Kong Museum of History is a few minutes away, but is worth a visit. Its permanent exhibition provides great insights into the history of Hong Kong, the customs and celebrations that have survived over the years, and how this city has become an economic hub. It’s very interesting for the old and young! Opening hours are Mondays to Fridays 10am to 6pm, Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays 10am to 7pm, and it’s closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays).
To get here from the TST MTR walk along Cameron Road, then left for a block along Chatham Road South. A signposted overpass takes you to the museum. Even if you don’t go on a Wednesday, the museums are very affordable. The entrance fee is only $10 for adults and $5 for kids.
7. Visit Chungking Mansions in TST
Hong Kong is a city of diversity; right from its very beginnings as a British colonial outpost, the city saw Indians, Pakistanis, and Australians arrive on its shores as policemen, army recruits and later, traders. The city is still a thriving mix of nationalities and this is no better seen than at the infamous Chungking Mansions.
The building is now a maze of cheap phone shops, hostels and, best of all, bargain Indian and Pakistani restaurants. It’s not for the faint of heart (and children won’t enjoy it) but if you fancy a good Indian or Pakistani meal, you should give it a go! Just take the MTR to TST and follow the signs.
8. Explore the Bird and Flower Markets in Prince Edward
Always one of my favourite things to do – as long as you get up early in the morning to be there between 9 and 10am. After that the birds are sleepy, the elderly men leave with their pet birds in their cages and lots of tourists appear. So get there early, enjoy it, and then head off to another area of Kowloon. Just take the MTR to Prince Edward and take Exit B1.
9. Visit the City of Darkness Park
Did this name confuse you? Correct, the City of Darkness does not exist anymore. All that is left is the Kowloon Walled City Park, an area that has had many past lives. Originally the site of a walled fort, it became a sanctuary for Chinese refugees after World War II and later, an unlawful slum.
Today, it boasts a beautiful Chinese park and garden built in classical Jiangnan style with striking pavilions. If you want to find out more about the Kowloon Walled City, check out the ‘Revisited‘ project. Bus 113 stops nearby, or take the MTR to Kowloon Tong and take a cab.
10. Watch the Symphony of Lights
Theoretically you could do this from both sides of the harbour, but I find this nicer from the Kowloon side as you can see most of the Hong Kong landmarks, such as the Bank of China, the HSBC building, IFC 1 and 2, The Center, and so on, in one go. The show is on every night and 40 of Hong Kong’s buildings, on both sides, participate in what the Guinness World Records considers to be the “World’s largest permanent light and sound show”.
To fully appreciate the music and enjoy the English narration, you should find yourself along the TST waterfront around 7:45pm. The show starts at 8pm and lasts 15 minutes. The best way to get there is to take the Star Ferry to Kowloon and walk along the waterfront.
11. Visit the Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple
This temple is a little further North – you have to travel all the way to Sha Tin – but it is really worthwhile. The Ten Thousand Buddhas Temple sits high on a hillside above Sha Tin. Here, rows of smiling statues lead up towards the main monastery complex, which is crowned by a nine-storey pavilion. From the top you’ve got nice views over Sha Tin and the New Territories.
Take Exit B out of Sha Tin MTR station, walk down the pedestrian ramp, and take the first left onto Pai Tau Street. Keep to the right-hand side of the road and follow it around to the gate where the signposted path starts. Don’t be confused by the big white buildings on the left of Pai Tau Road. They are ancestral halls, not the temple.
12. Explore Hong Kong’s Heritage
Sha Tin is also home to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which is Hong Kong’s largest museum, yet it still seems a well-kept secret – chances are you’ll have most of its 10 massive galleries to yourself. The New Territories Heritage Hall is packed with local history – 6,000 years of it. In the T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art, exquisite antique Chinese glass, ceramics, and bronzes are displayed. The Cantonese Opera Heritage Hall is all singing and all dancing with costumes that put Las Vegas to shame.
The museum is open from 10am to 6pm every day, except Tuesdays. On Sundays and holidays it stays open until 7pm. The museum is a five-minute signposted walk from Che Kung Temple station. If the weather’s good, walk back along the leafy riverside path that links the museum with Sha Tin station, in New Town Plaza mall, 15 minutes away. On Wednesday the museum is free to enter!
13. Lie Back at a Beach or Go Hiking
Famous for its skyscrapers and shopping, Hong Kong’s great big, green backyard is often overlooked, as are its superb beaches. Hong Kong is made up of over 300 islands, meaning there are endless stretches of golden sands to unspoiled coves and bays. While you may want to give the water a miss, the clean sands, free-to-use BBQ pits, and the ease of access make the city’s beaches a great way to spend a day away from the noise of the city.
One of the best areas to visit is around Sai Kung, for instance, check out the MacLehose Trail Stages 2 and 3 and see how beautiful the area is! Take the MTR to Choi Hung and jump on Bus 92 or 96R, or Minibus 1A or 1S to Sai Kung Town. From there it’s easier to grab a taxi to go to the starting points of the different MacLehose stages.
14. Make a Wish at the Wishing Tree
There is a famous banyan tree in Lam Tsuen Village where people make wishes and offerings. Some burn incense sticks while others throw an orange – tied to a wish written on a piece of paper – up into a tree (if it catches on a branch then the wish will come true). Unfortunately, the weight of the oranges has caused several branches to fall off and the practice has ended.
Now, when people visit the trees during exam time, or when their health or that of a loved one is in jeopardy, they can tie the paper onto nearby wooden racks. Take the East Rail line to Tai Po Market train station, then take Bus 64K or 64P, or Minibus 25K.
15. Visit the Temple of Heaven in Tsuen Wan
Yuen Yuen Institute is famous for its three-tier red pagoda, which is a copy of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing! It’s a huge temple complex built in the 1950s that brings together the three streams of Chinese thought: Buddhism (which emphasises nirvana and physical purity), Taoism (nature and inner peace), and Confucianism (following the practical and philosophical beliefs of Confucius).
The main pagoda houses 60 statues representing the full cycle of the Chinese calendar. You can look for the one that corresponds with your birth year and make an incense offering. To reach the institute, take the MTR to Tsuen Wan, exit the station, and walk five minutes to Shiu Wo Street, then catch green Minibus 81 to To Lo Wai.
* Mercer’s 21st annual Cost of Living Survey (June 2015)
Explore further! Find out the 4 Reasons To Go Wet Yourself (don’t worry, we’re talking markets), chill out at one of Hong Kong’s Top 5 Beaches, or have an adventure on one of the 4 Best Night Hikes on Hong Kong Island. Bon voyage!