We’ve all been there, squeezing through crowds to see something every guidebook says we’re supposed to see.
We arrive to find an expensive and underwhelming downer.
It’s a tourist trap.
There are plenty of Hong Kong tourist traps. They’re bland, inauthentic stand-ins for the city you’re supposed to be experiencing.
Yet not all guidebook standbys are symbols for the decay of humanity. Some are actually worth visiting.
What’s good and what’s bad in Hong Kong tourist traps? The trip starts here.
Tourist traps we hate
Avenue of Stars
Why to avoid it: The Avenue of Stars is modeled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stars and handprints represent Hong Kong and China’s top movie stars.
Built in 2004, it’s part of a new wave of attractions designed with mainland Chinese tourists in mind. You’ll find them here in droves, led by flag-toting tour guides as they stumble toward the promenade’s highlight, a statue of Bruce Lee in kung fu pose.
We’re not opposed to promoting the local film industry, but the Avenue of the Stars provides little context, leaving anyone unfamiliar with Hong Kong film in the dark.
Another problem is the promenade’s lack of comfortable resting areas and focus on souvenir photo booths. Tinny speakers pipe in mall music. The whole thing cheapens what could otherwise be an entertaining and informative experience.
Where to go instead: Brush up on Hong Kong’s world-renowned cinematic oeuvre at the Hong Kong Film Archive. Here you’ll find exhibitions on Hong Kong film, screenings and seminars.
For a great harbor view, check out the less-touristy alternative of the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade.
Why to avoid it: Stanley has old buildings, a pretty waterfront, a beach. And, look, there’s a crowded street market. Must be some good deals there, right?
No. There are no good deals in the Stanley Market.
Though a tourist favorite, the Stanley street market is the biggest rip-off in town, with tourist tchotchkes and cheap shoes going for three, four, even ten times the price of what you’d pay in other markets.
Worse, it’s no fun dealing with hawkers and shopowners who spend their entire day selling overpriced goods to tourists.
Where to go instead: For the same souvenirs found at Stanley Market, at a fraction of the price, head to the Ladies’ Market in Mong Kok.
For accessories, try Argyle Centre, where necklaces that go for HK$100 in Stanley sell for just HK$3.
For the trendiest clothing, go to Fa Yuen Street between Mong Kok Road and Prince Edward. Here you can buy factory-direct and surplus clothes and shoes at amazingly low prices.
Why to avoid it: The Giant Buddha on Lantau Island is a lesson in how to ruin a great thing.
Take a century-old Buddhist monastery on an isolated mountaintop, build a massive bronze Buddha, then pimp the hell out of it and turn the whole place into a tourist circus.
While the Po Lin Monastery has been attracting tourists ever since the 112-foot Tian Tan Buddha was built in 1993, the game changed in 2006, when the MTR built Ngong Ping 360, a cable car that runs between Tung Chung and a new faux-historic village stocked with souvenir shops and Starbucks.
Now, instead of a serene retreat in Hong Kong’s most consistently cool place, visitors jostle with tour groups to attend Monkey’s Tale Theatre, in which CGI monkeys reenact Buddhist Jataka stories.
Where to go instead: Near the Sha Tin MTR station, Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery was hand-built by Yuet Kai, a devout Buddhist layman who dedicated the last years of his life to constructing an elaborate temple containing nearly 13,000 statues of Buddha.
Wong Tai Sin Temple is another religious landmark worth visiting. Though it’s a major tourist attraction, it’s also a lively and relevant example of Hong Kong’s eclectic spiritual tradition.
Why to avoid it: Built in 1906, the Western Market is the oldest surviving market building in Hong Kong.
It’s a gorgeous structure, but it hasn’t been a true market since 1991, when it was converted into a kind of shopping mall filled with fabric merchants, a couple of cafés and a banquet hall used for weddings.
The tragedy of the Western Market is that it’s billed by tourism promoters as a piece of “living heritage.” The truth is, all of the life has been sucked out of it.
This is old Hong Kong at its most antiseptic. It’s worth a quick look, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything more than an old building dressed up for out of towners.
Where to go instead: To experience a true Hong Kong market, you need walk only one block from Western Market to Sheung Wan Market.
Opened in 1981, Sheung Wan Market features a cross-section of local culinary traditions, from vegetable stalls to fishmongers.
Even more atmospheric is the Graham Street Market, in Central, which still bustles daily despite being threatened by redevelopment.
Tourist traps we love
Riding the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour is one of the first things any tourist does in Hong Kong. And for good reason.
From the decks of these vintage white-and-green boats visitors get a sense of Hong Kong’s history and energy.
The Star Ferry remains an important link in the city’s transportation network — its low fares attract a cross-section of the population.
Riders experience genuine Hong Kong culture while crossing off one of the top items on any guidebook’s must-do list.
Temple Street Night Market
Though your fellow diners are as likely to be from Tasmania as Tsuen Wan, there are few more memorable experiences in Hong Kong than eating outdoors on Temple Street. Follow dinner with a walk through the market and you’ve put together a classic Hong Kong evening.
Despite the crowds, Temple Street retains the odd, seedy atmosphere it has always had. Browsing through the stalls, you’re as likely to find a dildo or Bollywood DVD as a souvenir keychain.
Venture beyond the Cantonese opera singers and fortune tellers in front of Tin Hau temple and you’ll reach the end of the market, where the sound of aging divas singing 1970s pop songs escapes from a row of karaoke nightclubs.
Happy Valley Racecourse
On Wednesday evenings at Happy Valley Racecourse, beer flows freely and the foreign smell of fresh-cut grass wafts through the air.
You can rub shoulders with just about every variety of expat you can imagine (preps, louts, bewildered flip flop wearers) and plenty of local horse-racing devotees. They’re the ones with earpieces for listening to radio commentary, newspapers filled with racing stats and stern expressions.
When the horses thunder by, first-timers are stunned by the rush of adrenaline.
We’re no fans of Communist kitsch or fake jade bracelets. But on the antique market on Upper Lascar Row, better known as Cat Street, there’s always the possibility of finding an unexpected treasure.
In addition to tourist trinkets, you’ll find vintage postcards, old photos and letters and other windows into past lives. Vintage movie posters are sold at Uncle Szeto’s stall.
Tourist trap we can’t make up our mind about
On one hand, Hong Kong’s penultimate tourist trap is testament to a consumer culture that has turned the top of the city’s most important natural monument into a shopping mall.
On the other, the view really is amazing, even if it’s marred by a wax museum and Häagen Dazs.
Here’s how we like to visit the Peak. First, skip the tram and catch the number 1 minibus at IFC for a hair-raising ride to the top.
Then pay a visit to G.O.D.’s flagship store in the Peak Galleria for some smart Hong Kong souvenirs.
After that, we grab a bottle of wine from the supermarket and head up to the Galleria’s rooftop terrace, where we sit and gaze out at the city in relative serenity.