Hong Kong is not exactly known for being cheap. The former British colony, perched on the shore of the South China Sea, frequently graces ‘most expensive cities in the world’ lists for its sky-high rents, acres of posh shopping malls, and dazzling displays of wealth (think Rolex shops on every other corner, women clutching Prada bags as they hail taxis, lapdogs in bejewelled collars).
But despite its glitz, the city still has plenty of bargains – provided you know how to find them. In general, Hong Kong Island itself is the most expensive part of town, while the Kowloon Peninsula across the harbour and the adjoining New Territories are gentler on the wallet.
Budget eats and bargain booze
The home to dim sum, brisket noodles, huge fluffy pork buns and other delights, Hong Kong abounds in budget eats. Wherever you go, the city has hole-in-the-wall restaurants with lines snaking out the door.
If you see one of these lines, you know you’re in for a classic meal, likely for under HK$100. For beef brisket noodles swimming in fragrant, oil-slicked broth, we love Kau Kee (21 Gough Street, Sheung Wan). For the city’s iconic dim sum, Tim Ho Wan (2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok) has earned fame as the ‘world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant’. Try the pork buns. Seriously. For egg tarts with buttery crusts and yolk-yellow fillings, Tai Cheong Bakery (35 Lyndhurst Terrace) is justly famous.
Unlike many Asian cities, Hong Kong does not have a huge street food presence these days. But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there – former street vendors now hawk their bowls of noodles, dumplings and braised chicken feet inside public ‘cooked food centres’. The unadorned concrete-and-tile design of these buildings can look a little forbidding, but they generally have produce, meat and fish markets on their bottom floors, and cooked food on the top. The center in Sheung Wan (at Queen’s Road and Bonham Strand) is a local favourite – if you want to splash out a bit, try ABC Kitchen (Stall 7, 9278 8227, reservations crucial), which serves impeccable Italian dishes in a distinctly un-gorgeous environment (fluorescent lights, plastic checked tablecloths) – all at half the price of the city’s other trattorias.
For drinks, a mix of expats, backpackers and well-heeled locals booze it up in the bar districts of Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo on Hong Kong Island. Here, happy hours running from mid-afternoon to early evening are the norm. Check out the websites (www.ilovesoho.hk and www.lankwaifong.com) for deals, or just take a wander and read the chalkboards posted on the sidewalk. Luxe-Zen-themed Zinc (www.zinchk.com) boasts the longest happy hour in the district, from 5pm to 10pm.
When it comes to free things, you can’t beat nature. Those who haven’t visited Hong Kong before are often shocked by how green the city is. Sure, downtown and Kowloon are snarled masses of concrete and glass high-rises. But some 60% of the city is preserved green space, and you don’t have to go far to find it. The city is famed for its hiking, with hundreds of kilometres of well-marked trails. The Dragon’s Back Trail, one of Hong Kong’s most glorious hikes, traverses Hong Kong Island, following the ridgeline south, offering panoramic sea views. It ends in the village of Shek-O, where tired ramblers can chow down on cheap noodles and watch the waves slap the rocks.
On Wednesdays, many of the city’s museums are free. The Hong Kong Museum of Art is one of the best, with a comprehensive collection of Chinese pottery, calligraphy scrolls and paintings. From the museum’s Kowloon location, take advantage of another one of Hong Kong’s best freebies – the ‘Avenue of the Stars’, a seaside promenade which offers cheesy tributes to local film heroes, but whose real star quality is its gleaming view of the Hong Kong Island skyline. Every night at 8pm, crowds gather here for the (free) ‘Symphony of Lights’, a music-and-light show illuminating the skyscrapers across the water. It’s silly and slightly bizarre, but good fun.
Come bedtime, budget backpackers worth their salt should brave the infamous Chungking Mansions. This 17-story behemoth on Kowloon Peninsula’s teeming Tsim Sha Tsui district attracts people of such varied ethnicities, languages and clothing styles it’s earned comparisons to Star Wars’ riotous Mos Eisley cantina. On the ground floor, African and South Asian vendors hawk samosas and grey-market cell phones, while the higher floors are a concrete warren of restaurants, apartments, beauty parlours and budget guesthouses. Chungking House (www.chungkinghouse.com) is a longstanding favourite, with double rooms going for about HK$275.
Reasonably-priced guesthouses abound in the Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kong districts of Kowloon. Try Booth Lodge (www.salvationarmy.org.hk) a simple-but-clean spot run by the Salvation Army. A double will run you HK$1200.
Souvenirs for a song
If you’re yearning for some souvenirs, Hong Kong’s kitschy-cool street markets are chockablock with lucky cat statues, fake jade jewelry, vintage reproduction cigarette ads, fake designer handbags and more.
The Temple Street Night Market and the Ladies Market in Kowloon are perennial favorites, as is Cat Street on Hong Kong Island. Bargaining is both acceptable and expected. If you’re not happy with the price, try saying this: tai gwai la (Cantonese for 'it’s too expensive!').