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Kowloon: Hong Kong’s Secret Side

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Hong Kong is a popular destination for travelers, but deciding what to see can be a bit tricky. Contributing writer Lilit Marcus explains why Kowloon, which is north of Hong Kong Island, is a unique and affordable destination for travelers. 

Hong Kong gets a reputation for being the luxury traveler’s dream. That reputation isn’t undeserved considering how many designer brands have mega-shops there, but that doesn’t mean that the city is off-limits for visitors on a budget. To get a more relaxed, more local experience, hop the Star Ferry or subway and head to Kowloon, the Brooklyn to Hong Kong’s Manhattan. Although Kowloon isn’t full of artisanal pickles, you’ll immediately get the hipster vibe from this diverse, eclectic area.

hk museum

Kowloon, particularly the area just across the water from Hong Kong Island, is packed with luxe hotels like the Peninsula, features world-class art at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, and hosts the nightly Symphony of Lights show that illuminates some of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings. But it’s also home to some great—and usually less crowded—attractions, some of which are completely free. This includes Kowloon Walled City Park, Sik Sik Yuen Wan Temple, Nian Lan Gardens, and Chi Lin Nursery.

Kowloon Walled City Park is a living symbol of how Hong Kong has changed over the years. Originally a trading outpost, it was later the site of a fort occupied by the British. It fell into disrepair and was frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. Now, the park has been cleaned up and restored. It’s a great place to sit and people watch. There are gardens inspired by the Chinese Zodiac and the four seasons as well as several pavilions, a stone bridge, and walking paths lined with flowers.

sik sik

One of Hong Kong’s most popular temples, Sik Sik Yuen Wan, is a mix of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian traditions. It is dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, a Chinese deity who is believed to have healing powers, so you will often find sick or injured people here. Bring coins and small bills with you if you want to get a reading from one of the fortune-tellers—many of whom speak at least a little English—or if you want to purchase some incense or flowers to leave as an offering.

nian lan

Located in the residential Diamond Hill neighborhood, the Chi Lin nunnery is a beautiful and peaceful Buddhist temple with a garden, Nian Lan, behind it. Some temples, like Sik Sik Yuen Wan, can get packed around holidays or on the weekends, but Nan Lian’s distance makes it less popular with tourists. Stroll through the gardens and relax alongside the water, rocks, and plants.

chi lin

Although the Temple Street Night Market is probably the most famous night market in Kowloon, there’s no shortage of places to buy crazy souvenirs or to just check out the local wares. Go to the Bird Market, Goldfish Market, Cat Market, and Flower Market to really get a sense of what local shopping is like in Kowloon, and don’t forget your camera.

milk tea

Tsui Wah is one of Hong Kong’s most popular chain restaurants and is famous for its milk tea—every Hong Konger’s favorite drink—which is bitter black tea flavored with evaporated milk. It’s served in a famous cup with a cute drawing of a woman’s face on the side. The 24-hour restaurant will be jam-packed with party girls and their dates once the clubs and bars close, but if you go around dinner time you’ll have the place to yourself. If you don’t get a chance to hit Tsui Wah during your visit, there’s an outpost at the airport too but, while the food is the same, it lacks the local color.

For breakfast, it’s all about the Australian Milk Company, where lines start forming early in the morning every day of the week. Don’t be fooled by the name, though—this place features the China-meets-Britain cuisine that first put Hong Kong on the culinary map, so be on the lookout for scrambled egg sandwiches, milk pudding, and noodle dishes. It’s also famous for close quarters, so expect to make friends with the people wedged in at the table next to you.

For more local eats, consult the Hong Kong food blog Open Rice. Maintained by members of the expat community, you’ll find helpful English-language reviews, information about open hours, and recommendations based on food type and neighborhood.

kowloon

Although there are a few famous attractions—most notably Victoria Peak—that aren’t on Kowloon, it’s possible to have a fun, delicious, and relatively inexpensive trip without ever leaving this hipster-friendly part of town. If you’re the kind of person who goes to New York City without visiting the Empire State Building, then take the airport train straight to Kowloon station and don’t look back.

For more information and tips for traveling in Hong Kong, check out:

Text and Photos by Lilit Marcus for Peter Greenberg.com. Marcus is a New York City-based travel writer and tea addict. Her first book, Save the Assistants, was published by Hyperion. You can also look for her work in the Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, and The Forward. You can find her on Twitter @lilitmarcus.

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