How to make the most of a 23-hour Hong Kong stopover

The primary reason I booked my flights to Australia in December with Cathay Pacific was that I had unfinished business in Hong Kong, the airline’s hub.

I flew to Hong Kong when I travelled to Shenzhen and Shanghai last year for work, but the moment I landed I was scooped up by a people carrier and escorted across the border into mainland China. With my nose pressed against the window I watched as the towers and bridges and unfamiliar geography passed me by.

I’ve always been fascinated by Hong Kong because at one point my parents were going to move there — it would have been the place I grew up. It didn’t happen, but ever the fantasist, I’m always keen to try and flesh out the details of alternative hypothetical lives for myself.

When I booked my flights I was pleased to find out I could build in a stopover in Hong Kong free of charge and that Cathay would check my bulky suitcase all the way through to Perth.

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I landed in Hong Kong at 4.15pm on a Wednesday afternoon with just my rucksack and an ambitious plan. The following day at 2.55pm I had to be back at the airport and on board my second flight to Perth, which gave me less than 23 hours to make the most of one of the world’s most thrilling metropolises. I knew I could make it work.

Fortunately, Hong Kong is well set up to help achieve such a mission. You can board the Airport Express train pretty much directly from the arrivals hall, which leaves at ten-minute intervals, whisking you to the city centre in a swift 24 minutes. 

5.20pm – DimDimSum Speciality Store

Just over an hour after touching down in the city, I was strolling through Kowloon, the urban area just across the harbour from Hong Kong island, heading towards my first dim sum spot: DimDimSum Speciality Store.

I indulged in the classic dim sum experience. Steamed buns filled with unctuous, sticky pork and ochre-coloured, equally sticky custard. Look how cute the little piggies are!

6.30pm – Temple Street Night Market

The heavens opened as I made my way to the Temple Street Night Market to take in the bartering show. With the rain so heavy the markets were kind of wash out. I also quickly dodged out of the official touristy market to check out the far more interesting local food markets in the neighbouring streets.

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7.30pm – Chunking Mansions

I spent about five minutes “exploring” the notorious Chunking Mansions, which houses curry restaurants, sari shops, foreign exchanges, Hong Kong’s cheapest accommodation and a tonne of other establishments. I quickly backtracked, however. I didn’t feel totally comfortable wandering around alone with no goal in mind.

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8.00pm – Symphony of Lights

I headed down to Victoria Harbour waterfront to take up position in front of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre ready for the Symphony of Lights show, which happens at 8pm every day. I got lucky and was there on a day when the narration was in English, so as the lights danced across the skyline, I got to take in some of Hong Kong’s history too.

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8.30pm – Star Ferry

I’d bought an Octopus Card (equivalent of London’s Oyster Card) at the airport, which allowed me to hop on the Star Ferry, one of Hong Kong’s cheapest tourist attractions. I was whisked across the harbour and jumped off in Wan Chai.

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9.00pm – Central-Mid-levels escalators

Hong Kong’s terrain is super hilly, so escalators have been installed to help people get around. They go downhill and uphill in the evening. I jumped on board and was delivered to the first point on my evening bar crawl. Well, almost…

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9.15pm – 001

Like all good speakeasies, 001 is tricksy to find. I was feeling detectivey and determined, so I managed to track it down, but it required some perseverance. Fight every instinct that tells you that you shouldn’t be walking down a deserted alleyway in an unfamiliar city at night. 001 is on Google Maps, so navigate your way to what looks like the right point and then look for darkened doorway, partially hidden behind a market stall and inset into a wall. Everything will be hidden in the shadows, except for a doorbell (pictured below), which is lit by a single, very narrow spotlight.

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Moodily bewitching ,001 is known for its snooty door policy, something I didn’t encounter, in spite of wearing a hoodie and looking like a drowned rat. I perched at the bar, letting myself be absorbed by the dark and the warmth and the gentle hum of voices. I sipped an Earl Grey martini made with tea-infused gin. It was refreshing and sweet, but not so sweet as to mask that potent wake-up kick you want from your first cocktail of the evening.

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10.00pm – The Woods

Much easier to find, The Woods hints at a nature theme, but the combination of glass, copper and wood means that its more refined than rustic. Sticking with infused gin, I asked the barman to knock me up a Chamomile Bee’s Knees from the classics section of the cocktail menu. On paper it looked like my ideal cocktail, mixing chamomile and vanilla-infused Sipsmith gin with local honey and fresh lemon. The paper was right — I discovered my perfect drink… in Hong Kong. Good to know; not exactly convenient.

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10.30pm – Craft Brew and Co

I’m not all about the fancy-pants cocktails; in fact a lot of the time I’m about the beer. I ventured further uphill to take a gander at Hong Kong’s craft beer scene. By the time I’d sunk a lovely artisanal brew, my 5pm dim sum seemed like a lifetime ago.

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11.15pm – Little Bao

I wobbled onwards to Little Bao, which was trying to get rid of its existing diners so wouldn’t let me sit inside (even though I took all of four minutes to devour the soft, pork belly-filled bun and divine salted caramel ice cream sandwich bao sitting on the bench outside).

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11.30pm – Yardbird

It was always going to be of a punt trying to get into Yardbird, one of Hong Kong’s most fashionable restaurants. It’s famous for its queues — as are many popular places in the city — but given my limited time, I had decided queuing was one thing I would not be doing. I’d hoped that by showing up late and alone, they might be able to squeeze me in, and it worked (not my first time getting into an in-demand restaurant, my friend). I was seated immediately at the bar.

I wanted to try a few different things, and so the incredibly helpful and friendly bar staff made sure to get me smaller one-person portions of the sharing dishes than usual. The three dishes I ordered probably don’t look like anything special, but are in fact among the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.

I started with the sweetcorn tempura, which was mega crispy without being too batter heavy and deliciously juicy inside. Despite not being a cauliflower fan, I went for the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower), because I’d heard great things. And oh my sweet and spicy, sticky sesame goodness, were those things spot on! I’d have sworn off chicken in favour of cauliflower for good then and there if it were not for what came next.

Yardbird is essentially a yakitori restaurant so I had to order at least one yakitori dish. I chose the “meatball”, which was not only tender and delicious but came with the holy grail of dipping sauces — silky smooth tare and egg yolk.

12.15am – Hotel LBP

I left Yardbird feeling jolly and full and picked my way to Hotel LBP, which I had strategically chosen for its location on my planned route through the city. I’d originally contemplated some slicker hotels with killer views, but then realised that I would only be there for a matter of hours. I needed a quiet, clean, safe crashpad; nothing more.

Hotel LBP was actually a cut above this and cost me only £75 for bed and breakfast. In addition to the bedroom, I had a sweet bathroom and a cool little lounge area, which would have been particularly useful if I’d been staying more than a day.

6.45am – Rise and shine

Was it the alcohol or the super-firm bed? Either way, I slept soundly through the night and woke up bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to make the most of my remaining time in Hong Kong. I looked out of my window to see no rain and patches of clear sky, but clouds descending over Victoria Peak — a major part of my plans for the morning. I decided to play it by ear.

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7.30am – Breakfast

Based on the location and decor, I wasn’t expecting much from the Hotel LBP breakfast, taken in Gee’s restaurant on the first floor of the same building. I chose dim sum over the western breakfast option and was pleasantly surprised — it was pretty yummy. I Googled the restaurant and found that it does fairly well on both TripAdvisor and OpenRice. Huh.

8.00am – Hollywood Road Park

The moment I stepped outside I knew I was in for a completely different Hong Kong experience than I’d enjoyed the night before. Almost next door to my hotel was peaceful, pretty Hollywood Road Park, where people were performing their morning tai chi exercises.

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8.15am – Barista Jam

I may have woken up feeling perky, but that didn’t stop my caffeine cravings from nagging at me. I swung past Barista Jam, one of Hong Kong’s more fashionable coffee spots, to dose up for my walk through Sheung Wan and Soho.

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8.30am – Man Mo Temple

Man Mo Temple was possibly highest on my list of priorities for my stopover. Dedicated to the Gods of War and Literature, I felt like visiting the temple was the closest I was going to come to connecting with Hong Kong’s more distant history on my trip. I could have stuck around all morning watching people come ago, letting myself be lulled into a semi-meditative state by the scent emitted by the burning incense cones.

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8.50am – Tai Cheong Bakery

Yes, breakfast was not far behind me, but how could I say no to a glossy custard tart from Tai Cheong? I couldn’t. I didn’t want to.

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9.25am – Victoria Peak Tram

If I was going to go up the Peak, I decided I’d have to get there before 9.30am (again to dodge the queues). Even though it was shrouded in mist, I threw caution to the wind and did it anyway (again using my Octopus Card to pay). I wasn’t blessed with perfect views from the top, but being in the cloud made it super eerie and atmospheric, so it was totally worth it.

I took a peaceful, solitary stroll down Lugard Road, which is sort of residential, but also like a spooky jungle. Aside from the occasional dog walker and jogger, I had it almost to myself. I pottered along, stopping to read the boards detailing the surrounding flora and fauna. I was just perusing a sign about the local butterfly population when my nose decided it couldn’t deal with the humidity and sudden change in altitude and exploded onto the concrete by my feet. I was having such a nice time though that even a dramatic nosebleed couldn’t put a dent in my mood.

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Feeling just a little bit smug as I sailed past the queues for the tram at the bottom of Peak, I made my way down to St John’s Cathedral. Anywhere else the juxtaposition of English Gothic-style architecture and palm trees might have seemed weird, but for some reason it doesn’t Hong Kong.

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11.45am – Tim Ho Wan (Central)

Time was running out, but I had one final stop to try and make. I say “try” because the queues for Tim Ho Wan, which has the distinction of being the world’s cheapest Michelin star restaurant, are even more legendary than those at Yardbird. But I played another blinder by arriving just before the lunchtime rush. Again, I was seated straight away.

The communal tables are extremely cramped, making it a little awkward for a lone person. I was squished between groups of friends and partly out of panic ordered wayyy too much food. The highlight was the famous pork buns. Instead of being steamed, they are baked, providing a sweet, puffy shell for you to break through to get at the sticky meat inside. I was also a big fan of the squidgy turnip cakes and glutinous rice wrapped in a lotus leaf (which comes with yummy chicken inside). I wasn’t so fussed with the vermicelli, but enjoyed the light and wobbly steamed egg cake.

12.30pm – Train to the airport

The timing was ideal — I had eaten Hong Kong and had to leave before I did myself any permanent damage. Sprawled out on the Airport Express I contemplated my upcoming seven-hour flight to Perth with horror — would I be able to fasten my seatbelt?

Of course I could, and it was fine. I slept like a baby.

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My stopover in Hong Kong was one of the many benefits of flying to Australia with Cathay Pacific, and one reason I would choose to fly with the airline again in the future. Believe it or not, I have so many places left on my list of things I want to do in Hong Kong. I feel pretty chuffed I managed to get through so much in one visit, though. I felt so safe and comfortable exploring the city solo, and I ate SO WELL. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

If you’re considering flying with Cathay and are changing planes in Hong Kong, then I fully recommend taking advantage of your proximity to this amazing city.

What did I miss that I should do next time I’m in Hong Kong? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

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