Of all the thriving metropolises in the world, Hong Kong has one of the most unique and beautiful skylines that could not be seen in any other city in the world.
With the deep and wide Victoria harbor in the center, the city sprawls vibrantly on both sides of the harbor before it is hugged by rugged mountain ranges – the rapid growth of its population and scarcity of flatland had both offices and apartment buildings to go higher and higher, making Hong Kong a city with the most number of high-rise buildings in the world; with Manhattan came in third, after Shenzhen in China.
That makes Hong Kong’s skyline so one-of-a-kind. The mountains and the water that reflects the neon lights in a city never sleeps. It’s called the “one-million-dollar night view” and it’s such a magnificent sight. Just to make it even more dynamic, “A Symphony of Lights” is the world’s largest, permanent multimedia light and music show that runs every night at 8 pm, with 40 buildings on Hong Kong island turning on their lights and laser beams that should be best viewed on the other side of the harbor.
With 7 million people living in such a compact space, there’s no lack of places where you could get a feel of this concrete jungle while you are visiting. Well, I have a list of places where you could basically enjoy the view for free – and here I mean that the place does not require an entrance fee, nor do you have to pay extra for the view. Some of my suggestions are public transportation, you still need a ticket for the ride; it’s a great way to see the city while you are in motion.
Free Spots in the Kowloon Peninsula
Hong Kong is divided into three territories, Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories. Hong Kong Island is slightly larger than Manhattan (by 20 sq kilometers) but the urban area is much smaller due to its mountainous terrain. You will be surprised that Hong Kong is actually very green, with less than 25% of its land being developed and over 40% of country parks and natural reserves.
The urban cluster is mainly concentrated on both sides of Victoria Harbour. Another “interesting” feature of the cluster is not connected by any pedestrian roads. In other words, there is absolutely no way for you to cross the harbor on foot without triggering some alarms. The locals rely heavily on public transportation to commute, and my favorite (and the cheapest and the most iconic) way of crossing the harbor, is taking the Star Ferry.
How to plan your trip:
Start your day in Kowloon: explore Tsim Sha Tsui in the morning. Shop in any shopping center, have a stroll in Kowloon Park, and taste dim sum, Hong Kong-style milk tea, and other local delicacies (check out Hong Kong Authentic Dishes That You Do Not Want to Miss for more ideas). Take the Star Ferry during sunset to Central and then have dinner in SoHo and go clubbing in Lan Kwai Fong at night.
Starting your day in Hong Kong: explore Central in the morning. Visit a cafe, explore the art zones and boutique stores in SoHo; or, explore Wan Chai head up to the Central Plaza, or take the tram to Causeway Bay. Take the Star Ferry during sunset and then enjoy a lovely dinner in Yau Ma Tei or Mong Kok, and have a good walk in Temple Street or Ladies Market at night.
The Star Ferry Terminal is located in Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon side, offering routes to either Central or Wanchai on the Hong Kong side. The Star Ferry is not the only company as there are other ferry services connecting other parts of the city (like Hung Hom / Kowloon City to North Point, or Kwun Tong / Lei Yue Mun to Sai Wan Ho in Hong Kong East). But, the historic Star Ferry offers the best view. Now, the ferry may sound touristy, but the truth is, it is still used by the locals as a way to travel back and forth every day. It takes only about 10 minutes from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central and sunset is my favorite time of taking the ferry – passengers will see the city’s skyline on one side, and the stunning sunset between the two skyscrapers (the IFC and ICC) on the other side.
Star Ferry operation hours:
6:30 am – 11:30 pm daily (every 6-20 minutes)
Upper-deck fare for adults:
HK$2.7 (US$0.35) on weekdays
HK$3.7 (US$0.5) on weekends and public holidays
Lower-deck fare for adults:
HK$2.2 (US$0.28) on weekdays
HK$3.1 (US$0.4) on weekends and public holidays
Although the fare is quite low, you still need to purchase a ticket for the ride. If you are not planning on crossing the harbor, there are still a lot of places along the waterfront for you to enjoy the view.
Avenue of Stars
The promenade is a 1.6-kilometer boardwalk that connects to a number of arts and cultural landmarks at Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. Apart from the Space Museum, Art Museum, and Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the avenue features plaques of handprints of people who are important to the Hong Kong movie industry. Visitors will also find a 2.5-meter bronze statue of Bruce Lee, and the promenade is the best place to view the Symphony of Lights at night.
At the end of the promenade is the Star Ferry Terminal; it is the original site of the former Kowloon Station on the Kowloon-Canton Railway (now moved to Hung Hom), and only the Clock Tower remains today as a landmark.
Ocean Terminal Deck
Going a bit further to the mall, Harbour City is one of the most popular shopping malls along Canton Road. The newly renovated annex, the LCX, is a Cruise Terminal with a number of shops and restaurants, head up to the car park area or the Ocean Terminal Deck at the end of the Terminal, where it offers an unobstructed, panoramic view of the west side of the harbor and Kowloon area.
West Kowloon Cultural District
West Kowloon (or Kowloon Station) is a reclaimed area as part of the Airport Core Program back in the 1990s. While there have been few delays in the development projects in the last 30 years.
Art and Cultural facilities are slowly finished with the opening of the high-speed rail station. Innovative art installations & edgy cultural events are planned in the future in an easy-going and waterfront setting. For now, a waterfront is a great place for the locals to enjoy a weekend afternoon sitting on the lawn, getting some sun, walking their dogs, or simply hanging out. The boardwalk offers a great view of Hong Kong Island’s Central and Western districts.
If you appreciate good food, there is a great number of choices, Rest Coffee Gin offers custom-made caffeine and alcoholic drinks; WabiSabi Kissa is an intimate cafe with tasty coffee; Hooman has delicious American-style hot dogs and fish & chips on the menu; Livehouse is a western restaurant with live band performance; Cafe Bohème is a pet-friendly Italian restaurant with a giant window and gelato.
In fact, the district has more new cafes and restaurants opening for business, and more art events are using this place as the platform, like Friendswithyou, an art collaborative based in Los Angeles, California, founded in Miami, Florida by Samuel Albert Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III in 2002. They were here in 2021 October, and their work seeks to redesign spirituality, rituals, and religious acts for modern-day usage and connectivity.
Kwun Tong Promenade
Most of the viewpoints that I have mentioned are in West Kowloon, which offers a view of the Central area of Hong Kong Island – of course, the IFC and the skyscrapers in Central are probably most featured and seen. How about seeing both IFC and ICC, the two tallest buildings in Hong Kong from a different perspective in the East Kowloon?
In this case, visit the Kwun Tong Promenade where you could catch a glimpse of both Hong Kong and West Kowloon from a different angle. The promenade is open to the public for free, and it has an open view of the Eastern District of Hong Kong, however, the view of Central and Tsim Sha Tsui is somehow blocked by the runway of the old Airport in Kai Tak.
To have a better look, consider taking a ferry, which connects from the Kwun Tong Ferry Pier to Sai Wan Ho; this is an alternative route to the Eastern District. While it is not as famous as the Star Ferry, the small ferry also has a historic vibe, and usually, it’s less crowded during non-peak hours. As you are traveling across the harbor, you will have an alternate view of Hong Kong’s city center.
Free Spots on Hong Kong Island
Victoria Peak & Peak Tram
Everyone knows Victoria Peak. It is the number one location in Hong Kong and it’s world-famous. If you are visiting Hong Kong for the first time, then you must save time for this iconic location. You may go to the peak in multiple ways, bus number 15 or 15C at the Central Star Ferry Terminal, mini-bus number 1 at the City Hall, or simply drive or take a taxi; but the best way to go there is of course, by the historic Peak Tram.
Victoria Peak is the highest peak on Hong Kong Island with an elevation of 552 meters. The Peak Tower and the Peak Galleria are the two leisure and shopping centers at the peak and kind of a focal point for all transportation stops and hiking trails.
The two shopping centers feature a number of shops and restaurants, but the most important is their observation decks. For an extra entrance fee, visitors may ascend to the rooftop of the Peak Tower for an unobstructed view of the harbor from a higher perspective. Another option is to eat in one of the restaurants at the Peak Tower; and to me, the view looks magnificent at night.
If you are up for a bit of exercise, a walk around the peak is refreshing. The Harlech Road and Lugard Road Circular Walk is a popular and easy route that takes about an hour to complete. It goes around the peak and not only you will get to see the concrete jungle by the harbor, but also the mountain ranges on the island and the south horizons.
The Peak Tram started operation in 1888 and it was originally built for daily commuters. Today, it has become a tourist attraction that carries passengers to the peak from Garden Road.
There are a few requested stops on the way, and the ride is quite steep once it climbs up, so the seating is lined up on the stairs. My recommendation is to sit on the right side of the tram as you climb up because you will have a sneak peek of the Hong Kong skyline a minute away from the peak station. That’s the moment when you hear passengers gasp in wonder.
Peak Tram operation hours:
7 am – 10 pm daily (every 15-20 min)37
Fare for adults:
HK$52 (US$6.71) Return
HK$37 (US$4.77) Single
Fare for Children:
HK$37 (US$4.77) Return
HK$14 (US$1.81) Single
How to plan your trip:
Start your day in Kowloon: explore the waterfront in Tsim Sha Tsui during the day. Go to the Art Museum and Space Museum, take photos of the Avenue of Stars, and have lunch in K11 MUSEA / Victoria Dockside, a new cultural and retail destination. Take the Star Ferry and take the peak tram to Victoria Peak and take in the incredible million-dollar night view at night.
Starting your day in Hong Kong: Take the peak tram and head to Victoria Peak for a fresh morning stroll on one of the hiking trails. You may even explore the Hong Kong Park on the way down, before taking a shower and going out fresh again for lunch. Take the Star Ferry to Tsim Sha Tsui and catch the “Symphony of Lights” show, continue to explore the area, or head to the Ladies Market for the rest of your evening.
If you are visiting Causeway Bay and Wanchai, there is a free observation deck that not a lot of people know. The Central Plaza is a 72-story, 374-meter skyscraper next to the Hong Kong Convention Center. It was the tallest tower before IFC and ICC, and it remains the third tallest tower in Hong Kong.
The observation deck is not exactly on the top floor (although it’s possible to visit there if you visit the Sky City Church – the highest church in the world.), its observation deck is actually the lift lobby on the 46th floor. It is, however, an open space where visitors could simply enjoy a panoramic view indoors.
In fact, if you are staying in a hotel, going out for dinner, or hanging out with friends in any of the local sky bars, you will get to see the city’s beautiful skylines and neon lights from a different perspective, leave a comment and share with us your recommendations!
Wan Chai Promenade
Also in Wan Chai, the Promenade is Hong Kong’s first “barrier-free” waterfront at the Victoria Harbour. While it’s claimed temporary, it is part of an ongoing project to extend and enhance public spaces on both sides of the harbor and build an interconnected promenade. The location offers a great view of the entire Tsim Sha Tsui.
The area has new facilities including a fun area for children, sheltered seating, grass footpaths, and viewing hillocks. The local artist has also created colorful illustrations to decorate the fences around the ongoing development of the Convention Center area.
Central-Wanchai Bypass East Vent Shaft
The Central-Wanchai Bypass is a new infrastructure of the island to relieve the traffic congestions and it’s also part of the city development plan to connect the promenades of the harbor.
The latest addition in 2021 is a park near the Bypass Vent Shaft. The shape of the vent shaft may look a little bit odd to some, but it is a perfect location to enjoy the view of Hong Kong’s skyline by the water, the public space has colorful decorations and a sitting chair with cup holders for the local to get a cup of coffee and chill.
One Island East
Another wonderful free observation deck is the sky lobby of One Island East. It’s absolutely free and it’s only one elevator ride away from the main entrance.
The building is located in Quarry Bay the Eastern District of Hong Kong Island and it’s close to the Tai Koo, an upscale residential area and complex with shopping malls, an exciting number of shops and restaurants, and a hotel – Island East.
At the sky lobby, there’s a showroom and a cafe Public, which serves hot food during lunch hours, and snacks and drinks afterward. However, the cafe opens only on the weekdays and closes on the weekends. The building offers an unobstructed view of the east side and the Harbour; so it’s a little bit different from the typical skyline that you would expect. Having said that, that means this place is a lesser-known location where you could enjoy the view with a smaller crowd. And, you get to see the greenery on the south side as well!
Red Incense Burner Summit
Finally, I have a perfect place off the beaten track where you can enjoy the amazing Hong Kong skyline for free. 🙂 The harbor is surrounded by mountains, but this is the best spot for seeing the city’s skyline apart from Victoria Peak. The Red Incense Burner Summit is a small hill on Hong Kong Island that is very close to the city area, yet it has an unobstructed view.
Go to Tin Hau MTR Station and take the 49M minibus to the top of Braemar Hill; there is a trail next to or on the opposite side of the St. Joan of Arc Secondary School, and it takes only about 15 to 20 minutes to head up to the Red incense Burner Summit.
Once you enter the trail you can already feel that you are in nature; the trail is pretty easy to walk. However, you will have to climb up a narrow path to the rocks of the peak for the view. yet the view definitely worth the climb.
To me, it’s even better than Victoria Peak and it’s one of the best-kept secrets to many locals for the sunset. On a clear day, the rocks could be crowded with photographers bringing their tripods to capture the sunset with the city’s skyline (just like below) and you are advised to get there a little bit earlier to secure your best spot!