Hong Kong is not a cheap place, but with a bit of planning and creativity, you can spend an enjoyable day in the city on very little money. Outdoor spaces, street concerts, galleries and markets abound in this packed metropolis, many open free-of-charge.
Local buses and rooftop car parks provide budget alternatives to expensive theme parks and swanky bars.
So if the wallet is feeling a little slim, check out some of our favourite free things to do in Hong Kong.
Museums, galleries and art spaces
Free art is everywhere in Hong Kong. Seven of of the city's museums are open for free every Wednesday: the Museum of Art, Museum of History, Heritage Museum, Science Museum, Space Museum, Museum of Coastal Defence and the Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum. The Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong Railway Museum, Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb Museum, and a handful of folk museums are free of charge on everyday, as are the exhibitions at the Hong Kong Film Archive and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. On the south side of the island, former factories in Wong Chuk Hang have transformed into beautiful gallery spaces, such as Spring Workshop (springworkshop.org), many of them free to visit.
The stunning Asia Society Hong Kong Centre has excellent exhibitions throughout the year. Also worth exploring are the PMQ design hub in Sheung Wan, or Cattle Depot Artist Village, Oil Street Art Space, and the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Kowloon, where the setting and architecture beguile alongside the art.
The charming streets of Sheung Wan are lined with galleries specialising in Chinese antiques. Take your time admiring the artefacts and learning about them from the owners.
Street concerts in Wan Chai
Concerts featuring some of the best local musicians from classical through jazz to indie, are thrown by eclectic music organizer Kung Chi-shing every third Saturday of the month (5.30-8pm) outside the Arts Centre, every second Thursday (7.30-9pm) outside the Blue House, and every last Sunday (3-4.30pm) at Comix Home Base. All three venues are in Wan Chai.
Enjoy panoramic island views from the 43rd floor viewing platform in the Bank of China Building; or bring your own booze to the public terrace at the International Finance Centre and gaze at Victoria Harbour. If in Kowloon, join lovers and photography enthusiasts on the rooftop carpark of Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui for some serious sunsets over the harbour or West Kowloon.
Saunter through the gilded (and air-conditioned) halls of one of Asia’s most legendary hotels – the Peninsula. Listen to the clink of silverware as fashionable patrons take afternoon tea in the opulent lobby, then climb the red-carpeted staircase to the colonnaded verandah on the second floor.
Going to the market
Trawling through Hong Kong’s markets will make you richer, as you will have pocketed the real gem: atmosphere. Brush shoulders with housewives and comb-over uncles and try your hand at haggling. The Temple Street Night Market features fortune-tellers, adult toys and Cantonese opera; the Ladies’ Market offers ‘I Love HK’ tees and football jerseys; fragrant florals sit beside gardening tools at the Flower Market. And don’t miss those colourful wet markets (produce and meat markets) strewn all over the city.
Turf and surf
Almost 70% of Hong Kong is officially countryside – rolling hills, country parks, surf-beaten coastlines, all free and within an hour from urban Hong Kong. You can enjoy the vistas by hiking, cycling and picnicking. For those with less time, there are urban parks and gardens where you can take walks along dappled paths between bouts of sightseeing.
Whether it’s a dip in the waves or engaging in sun worship, Hong Kong’s beaches offer a free and enjoyable escape from the city, and there are lifeguards. Just bring sunblock, a picnic and music for a cheap-but-cheerful party.
Hair-raising bus rides along scenic routes make for a budget alternative to the thrill rides at Ocean Park. Try the following if you dare: bus number 314 (Sunday only) from Siu Sai Wan via Tai Tam Reservoir to Stanley; bus number 14 (weekdays only) from Sai Wan Ho along the tram tracks to Stanley; bus number 6 around the southern bays, and the open-top buses H1 and H2 that pick you up in Central.
For thrill of a different kind, an exciting night at the races can be had for only HK$10 at Happy Valley Racecourse. Alternatively, head over to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and watch punters of a different kind try to strike gold at the city’s nerve centre.
Hong Kong's places of worship are plentiful and usually free to enter. There are hundreds of temples and nunneries, a fair number of churches, and a handful of mosques and synagogues in Hong Kong. Almost all are free of charge. You can enter to experience the history and architecture, or simply for a few moments of quiet contemplation. For deeper introspection, saunter among the headstones of the famous dead at Hong Kong Cemetery.
These heritage sites offer pocket-friendly, English-speaking tours that are fun and informative.
The UNESCO-award-winning former North Kowloon Magistracy Building (visitscadhk.hk), complete with courtrooms and prison cells, was one of the territory’s busiest magistracies until it closed in 2005. It’s now home to an art institution.
A former explosives magazine compound (asiasociety.org) built by the British Army in the 19th century has been transformed into a graceful cluster of galleries, theatre, café, and bookstore.
Mei Ho House
A public resettlement block (yha.org.hk) built in the 1950s gets a new lease on life as an airy youth hostel and museum.
Tai O Heritage Hotel
A former police station that defended the coast against pirates is now a boutique hotel (www.taioheritagehotel.com/eng/tour/hotel_tour.jsp). You can see the original cannons, searchlight and guard towers.
Former Legislative Council Building
This neo-classical monument (legco.gov.hk) served as the seat of the Legislative Council from 1985 to 2002. Tours for individuals are available.
Museum of Coastal Defence
The museum (lcsd.gov.hk) occupies the site of a fort built over a hundred years ago that was an important battlefield during the Battle for Hong Kong in 1941.
Living quarters for married policemen built in the 1950s have morphed into an arts hub (www.pmq.org.hk/heritage/guided-tour/) featuring designer studios, galleries, and restaurants.
Former Marine Police Headquarters
This gorgeous complex built in 1884 has been turned into a monument to consumerism (www.nextstophongkong.com/1881-heritage/). But you can still have a look at a handful of the original structures.
Amazing experiences don't have to cost the earth. Visit our Best Things in Life are Free hub for more budget-friendly travel tips.
This article was originally published in December 2009 and updated by Piera Chen in April 2015.