Picture of two girls taking a photo near Victoria Bay, Hong Kong

Two girls take a photo on the Kowloon side of Victoria Bay in Hong Kong.

Photograph by Lou Linwei, Alamy

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life, by Keith Bellows

Nowhere else can a child experience a city so exuberantly complex in such a geographically tiny package as Hong Kong, which packs seven million citizens into just 426 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated regions on the planet. Fiercely cosmopolitan, addicted to change, this hyperactive city encompasses villages and bustling urbanity, looming mountain ranges and ribbons of coastline. Its harbor contains 263 islands and, stunningly, parks and preserves comprise 40 percent of Hong Kong’s cityscape.

Bristling with skyscrapers and crowd-frenzied streets, Hong Kong has long been a place of diversity. “It is a place you feel,” author Jan Morris once wrote. “Founded by Europeans, developed by Asians, governed by Chinese, designed and run by entrepreneurs, architects, economists, and adventurers from the four corners of the world, in the streets and waterways you may sense the turning of the Earth itself.” Now a Special Administrative Region of China (since the so-called handoff from the British in 1997), Hong Kong is plenty congested, but it has the distinction of hosting a global citizenry from vastly different backgrounds who together make the place work.

Hong Kong is a city of curiosities. There’s so much that will fascinate children that you can play the “Did You Know?” game endlessly. Did you know that Hong Kong may be the only city in the world named for a smell (Chinese fishermen called it Heung Gong, or “fragrant harbor”)? That it is the globe’s most vertical city, with more people living above the 14th floor than anywhere else? That commuters traveling from apartment buildings on the city’s steep slopes to offices below are riding the longest pedestrian escalator on the planet? That the world’s largest floating restaurant is moored in Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbour? That locals eat noodles on their birthday so they may be blessed with long life? That it is illegal to spit? That Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than any other city (7,651)? That residents have so few cars that 90 percent use public transportation—the most in the world? That the most expensive home ever sold—for $101,909,312—was on the city’s Victoria Peak?

And the secret to cracking Hong Kong’s brash, showy confusion? An English-speaking local will be a terrific help—not so much to guide you through the sites but to help you better understand the culture and everyday street theater. “It’s the small alleyways that offer the best of city life and the trails that lead over the mountain ranges that reveal the marvelous views of greenery and the South China Sea,” says Mary Ellen Bailey, an elementary school art teacher at Hong Kong International School, who has lived in Hong Kong for eight years.

Bailey loves the ten-minute walk from Shikh Temple to Wan Chai Market for people-watching: “Especially on weekends, when citizens use the small sidewalk as if they own it.” At the market, soak up the energy and pure exoticism of pell-mell stalls hawking vegetables, fruits, and other produce your children never will have seen. Cantonese cuisine demands seasonal ingredients and natural flavors, and Hong Kongers love their food fresh. So kids will see great buckets brimming with grouper and chickens shuffling in their cages. Warn kids: These are not pets; their destination is the dinner table.

Nearby is the Blue House, a 1920s tenement building that offers a rare glimpse of old Hong Kong. Residents strongly hold to a mix of traditions, from Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion. During the Lunar New Year, for example, every dish served at traditional dinners bears a name that sounds like the Chinese words for prosperity, happiness, or longevity. On a more day-to-day basis, it’s also common to visit temples or pray to certain deities for good fortune, whether it’s when taking major exams, applying to colleges or potential employers, or trying to conceive.

As you move about the city, look for signs of traditional Hong Kong. The fortune-tellers with their street stands. The banners of clothing drying on windowsills. Musicians playing the traditional erhu, a two-stringed violin. The dai pai dong (big license-plate stall), open, ramshackle sidewalk restaurants. The earnest chess players hunched over boards on tables and chairs. Vendors stir-frying woks of hot chestnuts or selling sweet potatoes and duck eggs. A shoe repairman hammering away at his open-air worktable. Visit a Chinese herbal shop to show kids the alternative to Western medicine. Shops typically are crammed with bottles and jars filled with herbs, plants, and other arcane ingredients. Customers line up to be diagnosed and then wait as herbalists painstakingly mix and chop, usually rendering the “medicine” as a bitter tea that is wincingly consumed on site. And be sure to sample dim sum and dine at one of the ubiquitous Hong Kong noodle shops (make sure you use chopsticks). And if you get up by 7 a.m. you can catch a little hush in Hong Kong, and see locals doing tai chi or walking dogs. Some parks also offer free tai chi and arts classes through organizations like the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

The Goldfish Market in Mong Kok is colorfully symbolic. A local favorite, the market is a warren of stalls stocked with albino tortoises, jellyfish, sea horses, tarantulas, reptiles—and one of the city’s most popular pets: goldfish. Because “fish” in Chinese sounds like the word for “surplus,” these specially bred carp are often kept as auspicious symbols of wealth.

There are more than 600 temples, shrines, and monasteries in the city. But temples can be dry for kids, so Daisann McLane, managing director of bespoke tour company Little Adventures in Hong Kong, recommends a trip to the 10,000 Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. The 400-plus steps to the monastery are flanked by countless golden statues of Buddhas: some chubby, some skinny, some with various animals, some with funny faces. Keep kids entertained and set up photo opportunities by counting and imitating the poses of the statues. Though the steps can be steep and the climb takes about a half hour, there are benches along the way.

To see the cityscape in all its glittering glory, ride the famous Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui at night, when Victoria Harbour sparkles with lit skyscrapers on the island side. “Hong Kong is one of the greatest maritime cities there has ever been,” says former governor Christopher Patten. “Noisy, boisterous, cluttered, and vibrant.” You’ll get a richly engrossing front-row seat on the ferry as it chugs past tugboats and container ships, sleek liners and battered sampans. McLane suggests spending the trip back on the lower deck to let the kids see the boat engine up close. At night, though, they’ll want to be where they can see the sky—the ferry provides arresting views of the light show that starts at 8 p.m.

For a great top-down view of the city, take the tram up the intensely steep incline to iconic 1,800-foot Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island (see how many of the smaller islands the kids can spot). On the way down, escape the city hustle by taking the Central Green Trail, an hour-long but shady walk into Hong Kong Park. Parents and older kids can also venture onto Bowen Road, a lush 2.5-mile trail that snakes between Central and Wan Chai, or “dragon’s back,” a ridge of bamboo and banana thickets in Shek O.

The hidden appeal of Hong Kong is its lively island life. On Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong’s archipelago of islands, kids will get a delightful case of the heebie-jeebies as they ride the glass-bottomed Ngong Ping 360 Crystal Cabin car to a giant bronze statue of Buddha. And you can swim on long Cheung Sha beach, which is overseen by yellow-clad lifeguards and elderly cleaners in wide-brimmed hats. Cheung Chau Island, a 20-minute ferry from the mainland, offers an almost Mediterranean experience. Rent bikes and lunch on squid or shrimp on a quaint quay surrounded by bobbing fishing boats (and treat your kids to the frozen fruit kebab, a delicious alternative to ice cream). Nearby is a small beach thronged by families and reassuringly protected by a shark net.

At dark, hit the city’s night markets—the classic Hong Kong shopping and people-watching experience. Temple Street and Ladies’ Market are places to bargain for cheap clothing, gadgets, and trinkets. Kids who love bugs and boogers can try delicacies like intestine kebabs, oyster omelets, and stinky tofu.

Hong Kong is a city of celebration. It loves its fireworks—and they are among the most spectacular in the world. The best time to see them at their grandest: Christmas Eve, Chinese New Year, the July 1 anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, and the founding of modern China on October 1. Their brash, kaleidoscopic, high-flying energy is a perfect symbol of the city—the place English poet James Kirkup once said “blazes like a great flower of light with neon stamens and petals of floodlit stone.”

Know Before You Go

Fast Facts:

  • In Hong Kong, taxis are not yellow. Instead, they’re color-coded by service regions: red for the urban area, green for the New Territories closer to mainland China, and blue for Lantau Island.

  • It might seem unusual that cars drive on the left side of the road in Hong Kong, but this is actually practiced in around a fourth of the world’s countries and territories.

  • The Chinese white dolphin, first discovered in Hong Kong, are born gray, then grow lighter until they’re white and flush bright pink. Scientists speculate this blush is a regulation of temperature.

Insider Tip: Most Chinese holidays are based on the lunar calendar, so dates can vary by over a month from year to year. Plan ahead if you’re coming for a specific festival. On public holidays government offices close, but many shops stay open, as Hong Kongers make the most of their day off to go on shopping sprees. The exception is Chinese New Year, when almost everything is closed for up to a week.

Buy Worthy: At Stanley Market, take home an example of an ancient imperial practice by getting your name carved on a Chinese seal. Seals were first passed down in imperial families and court officials in ancient China as a proof of office. Today, many people still stamp these seals on official documents for identification.

Where to Eat:

Lei Garden: Enjoy small plates and steamer baskets of Hong Kong’s famous dim sum at this spot in Causeway Bay. Get the local favorite roast pork belly. Other yum cha (afternoon tea) staples include dumplings, buns, rice noodle rolls, congee, and glutinous rice in lotus leaf.

Mak’s Noodle: Slurp up springy wonton noodles at this place. Though the portions are smaller, the restaurant generously uses almost an entire prawn for one wonton, swimming in broth made from dried shrimp roe, powdered dried flounder, and pork bones.

Hui Lau Shan: On a hot summer day, cool down with a cold soup at one of this chain’s dessert stores. It’s a mango lover’s haven with mango in every kind of dessert possible, from pudding to drinks to mochi (cakes). Other popular ingredients include coconut, tapioca, and red bean.

Dragon-I: If you’re particularly hungry, this spot offers all-you-can‑eat dim sum with kids’ rates. Its outdoor area gives the kids a place to play while waiting.

Tai Cheong Bakery: Bite into a soft, buttery egg tart at this bakery made famous as the favorite of Hong Kong’s last British colonial leader. Best served warm, the tarts have an egg custard center cradled in a biscuit-like pastry.

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