Hong Kong is a major travel hub in East Asia, but if you have never actually taken a stopover or city break then you have been missing out on an incredible city rich in history and culture. This Hong Kong travel guide of our time wandering Hong Kong Island will get you inspired to explore this wonderful city.
For our travels in 2019, we made Hong Kong the last stop. My first time beyond the airport, and I was looking forward to experiencing Hong Kong’s diverse and rich culture.
Our main purpose in Hong Kong was to locate and film in a traditional barbershop. During our research we had identified one possible traditional barbershop, Oi Kwan Barbers, in the Wan Chai District on Hong Kong Island.
Oi Kwan Barbers is a rare alleyway barbershop now operated by second generation barber Mark Lau. Mark has a passion for preserving the history and culture of this original Hong Kong style barbering.
We asked Mark what a tourist should see while in Hong Kong. With one more day in the city to explore, we didn’t want to miss anything. Mark shared a lot of good ideas from hidden markets and a local milk tea experience to a popular instagram worthy photo spot that radiated classic old Hong Kong.
The next day, we headed out into a lively Hong Kong for a fun packed day of local experiences!
Explore Local Neighborhoods
We always begin with taking a walk around the city to familiarize ourselves with the area. We love discovering all the different places around local neighborhoods. A laundromat with a coffee shop, a tiny electrician’s store squeezed on the corner, the hustle and bustle in the morning of the medicinal market, and the lady selling daily newspapers against the wall of a larger store.
Kowloon and Hong Kong Island are the two most popular areas for tourists. A direct Airport Express train connects to both Kowloon and Hong Kong Stations. Remember to pick up an Octopus Card at the airport before you head into town.
We decided to make Hong Kong Island our home base for the few days we were in town. It turned out to be a great choice because everything we saw and share in this article was within walking distance or local transport ride away on Hong Kong Island.
Hotel options in Hong Kong are plentiful from the midrange and up. We opted for the Ibis Hong Kong Central. This hotel was in a good area to experience the local community and a free hotel bus shuttle available from Hong Kong Station made it easy to get to. A tram stop was right outside, and a few of the attractions we visited were easily within walking distance.
Traditional Medicinal Street Market
Just outside our hotel was Bonham Strand, a rich street market scene with numerous shops selling Chinese medicinal herbs, dried seafood and other assortments. The scene was how I expected Hong Kong used to be.
In the early morning you can witness all the hustle and bustle as the traders take delivery of goods. Early morning is a good street photography opportunity, but keep in mind not everybody is okay with their photos being taken.
After walking up and down the street a couple times taking photos and filming, one shopkeeper demonstrated the use of their abacus and explained some of the dried seafood on display for sale.
Some of the streets off Bonham Strand may be worth a look too. If something catches your eye, just go explore! Queen’s Road around the corner is good for a few photos if you have time.
This market scene takes place throughout the week and Saturday. On Sundays most shops close for the day.
See Daily Life At A Traditional Market
A short walk from Bonham Street is the Sheung Wan Wet Market. I noticed it when passing once and went in to take a look. An unassuming concrete structure from the outside; look for the cartoonish pictures of chickens, fish, and vegetables outside.
Inside gives an insight into the traditional daily shopping activities of Hong Kong traders and shoppers. The ground floor is where fresh meat and fish action is. I spent a while walking around with camera in hand. With a smile and gesture with the camera first, I found many of the traders were fine with me taking some shots.
Upstairs are vegetables and a local-style food court. The food court is popular with locals and a wonderful offbeat eating experience for tourists.
Try Hong Kong Style Milk Tea And Browse Cat Street Flea Market
A popular tourist attraction a couple minutes walk from Bonham Strand is Cat Street. A pedestrian friendly neighborhood flea market brimming with curios, retro art, vintage items, and reproduction pieces. If you are in need of some jade, anything retro 60’s Hong Kong, or Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda, then this is where to find something!
A little history on how Cat Street became known as Cat Street. During the times of the British Empire, people of Indian heritage were used to work on ships and known as “Lascars”. Lascar is derived from the Persian word “lashkar” which means “army”. Hong Kong being a major British port meant early on there were many lascars coming and going from Hong Kong.
While in Hong Kong, lascars were housed along several streets in the Sheung Wang district including Upper Lascar Row. Eventually, Upper Lascar Row became a more permanent community and by the early 1920s the neighborhood had an established market selling antiques, used items, and stolen goods.
Stolen goods in Cantonese are known as “rat goods” and “cats” are the people who buy stolen goods. That is how the market in Upper Lascar Row became known as Cat Street.
On the corner of Tung Street and Upper Lascar Row next door to an interesting Hong Kong vintage store called Select 18 is a very local café.
We decided to make this our stop for a truly authentic Hong Kong style milk tea. Hong Kong style milk tea is a strong hot black tea loaded up with sweet evaporated milk. Add some more sugar if needed and stir it in good, as this drink is heavy.
If you are more of a coffee or juice person, then worry not as Cat Street is home to a few café options.
Visit One Of Hong Kong’s Oldest Temples
A few steps away from the Cat Market you will find Man Mo Temple. This Taoist temple is part of a complex built in the mid eighteen hundreds. Man Mo Temple was for the worship of Man Cheong (God of Literature) and Mo Tai (God of Martial Arts).
Inside with the smoking incense is a beautiful temple where you can get up close to photograph. It can get a little crowded. However, the authentic atmosphere inside makes it worth the visit especially if you are in the area.
Ride Hong Kong’s Historic Tram
Head downhill towards Western Market, a historic 1906 Edwardian building with upscale retailers and cafes. On the corner is Western Market Terminus tram stop. Use your Octopus card to ride a tram towards Shau Kei Wan getting out at Mount Parker Road or stop 83E.
It will be a good 40-minute ride so enjoy! Hong Kong’s tram system originally opened in 1904 and to this day is the largest operational double-decker tramway. To truly appreciate all the craftsmanship that goes into preserving Hong Kong’s historical and cultural streetcars moving take a look at a short film by Brandon Li called “The Hong Kong Tram”.
Visit Hong Kong’s Instagramable Public Housing Estate
Getting off the tram at Mount Parker Road look for a Monster Building! It is called The Monster Building and it is a massive dated monster of an apartment complex. The structure is actually a complex of five connected blocks. On a map look for the Yick Cheong Building which is one of the five blocks.
This housing estate was built in the 1960s and can accommodate up to 10,000 people in the 2,243 apartments. It is the interior courtyard that has become a popular Instagramable photo location.
It can be a little difficult to locate, but from the main road out front look for a 7-Eleven. To the left of the 7-Eleven is what looks like an entrance to an interior grouping of shops. Enter and walk though into the courtyard. You will probably see other tourists at the far end taking their Instagram photos. Just be respectful of the local residents and shop owners as they have hung up signs forbidding photography.
Experience A Traditional 1960s Hong Kong Alleyway Barbershop
For a feel of old Hong Kong then nothing beats a truly local traditional barbershop experience. Back in the 1950s barbers used to set-up shop on street corners, parks and alleyways. Over the years these small unique working pieces of Hong Kong’s history have been disappearing.
Oi Kwan Barbers in the Wan Chai District is like a time capsule and feel of the original Hong Kong style barbering. Originally established in 1962 by Master Lau, who arrived in Hong Kong in the 1950s and brought his Guangdongstyle of barbering from China.
When Master Lau passed away in 2014, the shop was taken over by second-generation barber Mark Lau. Mark continues to honor his father’s tradition and culture, but he also brings some more modern styles and techniques.
This barbershop has barely changed since it was first opened, and yes, Oi Kwan Barbers really is squished into an alleyway with locals wandering through as you sit back, relax, and enjoy a unique Hong Kong experience!