Having grown up just fifty miles outside of Manhattan, I took a certain pride in knowing that when it comes to skylines, my city had everyone beat. Then, in 2003, on the return leg of a trip to Thailand and Singapore, I had a three day layover in Hong Kong, where I was forced to re-think my earlier assumptions. I also had to concede – begrudgingly – that Manhattan may have met its match.
For any major modern city, its skyline is a source of pride and a veritable status symbol on the world stage. Long an economic hub, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong would be a contender. What surprised me was that when it comes to height and sheer impressiveness, the skyline lining the southern shore of Victoria Harbor might just be the world champion.
But first things first. Getting to Hong Kong is no sweat (if you don’t count the 15-19 hour flight time from the US east coast). Serviced by most major airlines as well as its dominant carrier, Cathay Pacific, there are plenty of flights that will get you there from all points on the globe. Getting into town is also a breeze, with arguably the most efficient dedicated rail service from the airport (on Lantau Island) to the center of town (appropriately called Central) that I’ve ever seen.
Historically a British outpost before its return to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong is considered a Special Administration Region within the People’s Republic of China, which grants them certain levels of autonomy and freedoms under the One Country, Two Systems policy. What that means is that for fifty years after the handover, the citizens and businesses operating in Hong Kong would remain under a capitalist system instead of the socialist state of modern day China. For this reason many consider Hong Kong to be its own ‘country’ and for all intents and purposes it would seem that in many ways it has been business as usual.
With exorbitant real estate values, the trend in local architecture has been to build up instead of out. The result is a forest of narrow, gleaming towers standing like a grove of pines nestled along the northern slope of rugged Hong Kong Island. The hilly backdrop gives the skyline a sense of scale, and I can only imagine what Manhattan would look like if smushed against a mountain. Regardless, the effect is impressive, and it is here in Central that you’ll find the territory’s biggest players.
Rising above the dense vertical development is Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island and a choice location for unparalleled views of the skyline and bustling Kowloon just across the harbor. Getting there is half the fun if you take the Peak Tram – a funicular that runs from Central up to a mall and viewing platform perched at the top. Considering the views and novelty of a city with a working funicular, this should be a must-see on any visitor’s itinerary.
While the skyline gets most of the attention, visiting the lesser-known towns on the south side of the island – many still with soaring towers – is a worthy day trip. Here you’ll find a few beaches along with the Stanley Market, a fun place to sharpen your haggling skills and procure items of all sorts.
Just as one can easily ‘not see the forest for the trees’, to truly appreciate Hong Kong’s towering skyline, you’ll need to view it from an outside perspective. The best place to do this is in Kowloon, located at the tip of a peninsula that makes up the northern shore of Victoria Harbor, and would be akin to looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn or Queens. With some interesting museums, a historic clock tower and a lovely promenade, this is the place to take your pictures of the city rising from the waterline to cover the imposing mountain backdrop. It is also here where you can best witness the world famous light show called A Symphony of Lights, where the cast of skyscrapers pulsate swirling beams of light and lasers synchronized to music at 8PM daily.
Kowloon itself makes for an interesting destination, especially for those who enjoy shopping along busy Nathan Road. At dusk the city comes alive with vendors and stalls popping up to cater to the crowds at the Temple Street Night Market, where you’ll find snacks and souvenirs aplenty. This is a far less-corporate section of the territory and therefore much more authentic. But if you don’t mind a little corporate influence, Hong Kong is now one of only three sites outside of the US that can boast a Disneyland.
Besides the convenience of getting to and from the airport, getting around the city is easy as well. The MTR – a.k.a. subway system – is cheap and easy to navigate, linking various parts of the island as well as Kowloon. But if you’re going to be in town, you should take the Star Ferry – a ferry service that has been in use since 1888 – at least once. Not only is it an inexpensive and legitimate option for getting across the harbor, but it also offers a great vantage point to gawk at the skyline that could rightly be considered numero uno, or whatever that translates to in Cantonese.
It’s hard for me to admit my skyline envy, but maybe it’s a good thing. Skylines aside, comparing Hong Kong and New York is like comparing apples to oranges (or mandarins to big apples?). Each has its own strengths and reasons to visit. Besides, whether or not New York still boasts the most amazing skyline in the world, I know it boasts the most impressive one in my hemisphere, and that’s good enough for me.