First Day In: Hong Kong

The 8 best things to do with your first 24 hours in Hong Kong

Any travel addict worth their salt knows that there are few highs higher than waking up on your first full day in a new place. It's a sensation that can send morning people into frothing mania at 6 a.m. and even coax the sleepiest slugabed out from between the sheets before 9. 

View from Victoria Peak.

View from Victoria Peak.

But when you've woken and washed and are ready to head out the door, you might want to have a plan. And yes, I hear you, obstinate non-planners, so hear me out: I contend that a well-curated first day will make your life richer, happier and less painful. It'll give you a day of exploration that can help you get your bearings on a place, show you some highlights and not grind you down to a fine powder in the process. 

And in a place like Hong Kong, where the number of things to do reaches into multi-krajillions, it can help you start gobbling up the city that much sooner. So, without (too much) more babbling, here is a quick list of things to do on your first day in Hong Kong:

(For what it's worth, we stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui, but everything here can be done whether you're staying on the island or in Kowloon—the list isn't meant to be chronological, aside from the dining recs.)

Cha Chaan Teng Breakfast | Sure these old-school, low-frills Hong Kong dining institutions have a reputation for brusque service, but they're also an easy way to jump into the city's unique culinary culture. Order pineapple buns (which have not even the faintest trace of pineapple in them), french toast (butter festival!) or a bowl of macaroni in broth, decorated with lunch meat and a fried egg (as weird, but not nearly as awful, as it sounds). It's guaranteed to be a quick experience, so it won't eat into your day too much.

Star Ferry at the dock on Hong Kong island.

Star Ferry at the dock on Hong Kong island.

The Star Ferry | The cheapest, best boat ride you're ever likely to take: the Star Ferry crosses the Harbour, shuttling passengers between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Boats depart frequently (every 8 minutes during typical rush hour times, and between 10-20 minutes otherwise, depending on the time of day and day of the week; get the full run-down here) and cost a measly HK$2.50 - $3.40 for a one-way adult fare. Given the current exchange rate (7.75 HKD to USD), that's about $0.32 - $0.44. 

Walking the Peak Trail.

Walking the Peak Trail.

Victoria Peak | Yep, everyone comes here. You should too. With that in mind, I strongly advise you to chomp down your brekkie and get here early. The difference between the lines when we arrived (9-ish, I'd guess) and when we left (three or so hours later) was jaw-dropping. We'd waltzed right up to the ticket window and waited for just two trams before we were able to get on and up the peak. The line to come back down was longish, but the ticket-buying line, which we saw as we left, was a nightmarish throng. Just an absolute horde that anyone would be pissed to be standing in. A bit of hustle in the morning could save you this frustration. Buy your ticket (the basic one, for HK$40, return, about US$5-ish) and hop on for your vertiginous climb. The Victoria Peak Tram started operating in 1888, and the cars don't look like they've changed much since British colonial days, all prim and decked in wood. Once you're at the top, you could, of course, go shopping (this is Hong Kong, after all). But I suggest you find the signposts for and then get on the Peak Trail, which circles the peak. On the 3.5 km walk (which is on paved paths that most any granny could handle) you'll get sweeping views of the cityscape and Victoria Harbour. It's also a great way to see how much green space there really is in one of the world's most densely populated places.

Lunch at a Random Restaurant That Looks Promising | I have all but given up on trying to find restaurants listed in guidebooks. The ones that catch my eye on the page are generally the cheapie-goodies that are located off an alley, near a post office, up 12 floors, out the window and in the foliage of the second palm tree on the right. What ends up happening is that we can never find the damn things and we wander, ever more hangry, until we are ready to threaten bodily harm or the dissolution of our promised lifelong union. So for your own mental wellbeing, just keep an eye out for a bustling restaurant. Hong Kong has an infinite number of restaurants; you'll find one. We happened on a noodle shop where I got wonton and noodle soup and Cory had porkchop and noodle soup, served to us by sweet, helpful people. Be aware that once you exit the restaurant you've chosen at random, you will instantly find about 64 other restaurants you want to try. 

Have every fiber of your being perfumed with sandalwood incense at Man Mo Temple.

Have every fiber of your being perfumed with sandalwood incense at Man Mo Temple.

Man Mo Temple | You can easily walk here from Victoria Peak Tram, and the best way to know if you're getting close is to sniff the air for traces of sandalwood incense. You'll start smelling it well before the temple comes into view. The ornate temple complex looks almost incongruous in its place at the feet of towering, straight-lined highrises. Its buildings are often thronged with people praying and burning fistfuls of incense under bright red lanterns and giant incense coils hung from the ceiling. It's smoky enough to make your eyes sting and you'll be perfumed for pretty much the rest of the day. 

Ride the MTR | Budget travelers, rejoice. The MTR is a wonderful, efficient and low-cost way to get around Hong Kong. The fact that it really is easy to use might not be immediately apparent if you descend into a station during a rush time. Walls of people will be coming at you, there will be numerous escalators to numerous platforms and potentially a dozen exit choices; if you're the type to get flustered in fast-paced, unfamiliar situations, understand that you'll be stressed. Roll with it and embrace that stress on your first day, because I promise you, once you rip this particular [name brand adhesive bandage] off, you'll be able to jump right into your next day and cruise around on the MTR all graceful and competent. You can buy single journey tickets if you like, but there are other options to get a little more bang for your buck. The Airport Express Pass will give you transit to and from the airport, plus three days of unlimited MTR, light rail and MTR buses (HK$300 or HK$220 if you only want one airport trip). There's also a one-day unlimited pass (HK$55) or the reloadable Octopus card (which has a HK$50 refundable deposit fee) which you can use for everything from transit (including the Star Ferry!) to convenience stores to phone booths (phone booths?). 

Dinner at Din Tai Fung | A chain? A chain! I am recommending a chain to you. A Michelin-starred chain, if that helps you stop clutching your hipster pearls. When you are just wiped the eff out from your awesome, immersive first day of getting lost, tackling the MTR and squabbling with your travel partner, don't you want to cut yourself some slack at the end of the day? You should. Din Tai Fung will welcome you into its noodley embrace, calm you down and send you off to bed with a tummy full of dumplings. There are three locations in Hong Kong—one in Kowloon, on Canton Road in the Silvercord mall (3rd floor); one on the island, in Causeway Bay; and one way out in Sha Tin (handy if you're staying in the New Territories). There will probably be a bit of a wait, but there are menus to peruse and these people move with well-oiled efficiency, so it likely won't be long before you get a table. Get some cucumbers, get some xiaolongbao, get whatever else you want—mark it on the card your waiter gives you and it'll be there in a flash. 

Photo taken prior to the stupid light show. 

Photo taken prior to the stupid light show. 

East Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade at Night | Let's get one thing cleared up and out of the way: the ballyhooed Symphony of Lights, viewed from the East Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, is 100 percent not worth your time. Just do not bother with it, unless you really love a confusing, annoying letdown. Simply coming down to the promenade and looking out across the harbour toward the neon forest of Central is wonder enough, without the derpy synth music and laser beams timed at weird intervals. It's also the thing most likely to make you take a moment and think, "Damn, I'm in Hong Kong. And it's amazing." The Symphony of Lights nonsense happens at 8 p.m. every fricking night, so don't go down to the promenade until the crowds have had sufficient time to clear out. 

That might not sound like too much, but it will probably feel like it, particularly if you walk between some of the above-mentioned stops (e.g. from Victoria Peak to your random lunch spot to Man Mo, or maybe from Din Tai Fung on Canton Road down to the promenade).  Hit the pillow with a leaden thump and wake up the next day ready to dive even further into this endlessly fascinating city.