I never thought I’d be so happy to touch down in Hong Kong. After hearing great things about the city and its culture over the last several years, there were a couple things in particular I was excited about after my previous few weeks in China: English speakers everywhere! Prices actually posted! And most importantly, WESTERN. TOILETS.

It was a beautiful night when I arrived, the evening of the ‘Supermoon’ in fact. I’d had a great flight from Guilin seated next to the sweetest couple from London, whose daughters were fashion buyers at ASOS. Having recently left my job as a fashion buyer in San Francisco to embark on my RTW adventure, it was super interesting listening to their proud father describe their current roles at one of my previous employer’s biggest competitors, and not for the first time I found myself thinking how small this big world can be.

Hong Kong’s history is super complicated and absolutely fascinating. Like in Shanghai, British traders started importing opium into Hong Kong in the early 19th century in exchange for tea, silk and porcelain. When China attempted to squelch the growing trade, Britain responded with force and won the First Opium War in 1841, and the island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British ‘in perpetuity’ in the Treaty of Nanking. After the Brits won a Second Opium War in 1860, they also took possession of nearby Kowloon and a 99-year lease was granted for the New Territories.

While Hong Kong continued to draw British expats to its shores, Chinese refugees escaping communist rule arrived in droves through the 1950s, until the population reached an impressive 2.2 million people. Hong Kong’s importance continued to grow between the 1950s and 1980s as mainland China became more and more isolated due to UN trading sanctions and global mistrust of its communist government. In 1984 Britain agreed to return what would become the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong to China in 1997, on the condition that it would retain its free market economy and social and legal systems for 50 years. Thanks in part to its harbor (one of the deepest natural harbors in the world) and free market system, Hong Kong is currently one of the world’s largest ports and largest financial centers in the world.

(Early morning view of Hong Kong Island as seen across the water from Kowloon.)

Despite now technically under the control of mainland China, many factors differentiate the culture of Hong Kong from that found in an average Chinese city. First, after years of British rule, most Hong Kongers are extremely mistrustful of its to-be big brother communist government. Secondly, most Hong Kongers speak Cantonese as their primary Chinese language and not Mandarin (though it’s said that the Chinese government is already taking steps to end the use of Cantonese altogether).

Additionally there are the effects of the stipulations demanded by the British when the city was turned over: Hong Kong operates under its own government, uses its own currency (HK$) and maintains its own stock exchange, and doesn’t censor its people’s internet like mainland China does. Hong Kong also maintains its own distinct diplomatic ties, one of the reasons that American visitors aren’t required a visa to visit.

Upon exiting the airport I was thrilled to be immediately greeted with remnants of the city’s historic British charm; all public buses headed to the city center were double decker (squeal!) and were driven on the left side of the road. You bet I sat on the top level in the very front row!

I loved Hong Kong immediately. With awe-inspiring cityscapes, super diverse demographics and a chaotically organized fast pace, the city instantly reminded me of another of my favorite cities, Manhattan.

Hong Kong is a shopper’s Mecca. Thanks to its neverending markets boasting every brand under the sun, I easily spent an entire day perusing the malls, outdoor markets, and shop windows. (And amazingly only spent $30! It’s great the things a backpacker’s spatial constraints can do for their budget…)

I was stoked especially to stumble upon the famed Coffee Academics coffee shop in my attempt to escape the mugginess outside. After sidling up to the counter and ordering an iced coffee, I was surprised to be served a minute later in a wine glass. The place is a local institution, known the world over, and offers delicious coffee and a sweet atmosphere to enjoy it in. Highly recommended for fellow coffee lovers!

Without a doubt though the best way to spend your time in Hong Kong is just taking in the beautiful views.

One of my favorite nights there was spent camped out at Victoria Peak, watching the effects of the setting sun on the harbor and buildings of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Easily accessible by metro and a quick walk, visitors can access the peak by a super fun tram running right past residential high-rises and into the Victoria Peak park area located at the top of the small mountain. The incline to the top is so steep, you’re actually at a 45 degree angle at one point of the ride! There’s an entire shopping center at the top including dozens of restaurants and even a movie theater, though the view is of course the best attraction of all.

The standing area can get packed, so if you’re determined to get an unobstructed view of the cityscape below I suggest getting there early. Sunset was around 6:30 the night I went and arriving 45 minutes beforehand secured me a spot on the rail.

On my last day in Hong Kong I ventured out of the city for a daytrip to Lantau Island. Located only 40 minutes from downtown via metro, Lantau Country Park is home to the popular Tian Tan Buddha, or Big Buddha statue, and the nearby Po Lin Monastery. In order to arrive at the park, visitors much first take a nearly 6km cable car ride across Tung Chung Bay and over the park.

After disembarking at Ngong Ping Village, the Big Buddha statue is only a 5 minute walk through and past the village.

The large bronze and gold statue measures 112 feet tall and sits 87 feet up atop a lotus throne altar. The statue is modeled after Sakyamuni Buddha when he attained enlightenment under the famous bodhi tree. It was completed in 1993 and is a major attraction for Buddhist pilgrims and tourists alike.

Besides visiting the Tian Tan Buddha statue, my other favorite activity within the park was walking the area known as the Wisdom Path. Pictured below, the Wisdom Path consists of 38 wooden columns representing infinity and forming a 260-word Buddhist prayer known as the Heart Sutra.

Unfortunately I didn’t understand the inscriptions, but it was impossible not to be moved by the incredibly beautiful and peaceful scenery. The Path was also a lot less crowded than the area around the statue, so it was easier to stay longer to appreciate the site. So far up in the clouds, fog was drifting in and out of the pathway and the effect was nothing short of magical.

And that word about sums up my overall experience in Hong Kong! My few days there were nothing short of magical and I would love to go back one day. In addition to Stockholm, Hong Kong has the rare distinction of being one of the only cities I’ve visited on this trip that I would gladly consider moving to! (Until that whole free market stipulation runs out anyway…) Do yourself a favor and plan a visit soon! I promise you won’t regret it.

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie