How to Spend 17 Hours in Hong Kong

I’m the type of traveler who will often choose layovers over direct flights. I’ve never loved long plane rides, so I’ll take any opportunity to get my feet back on the ground, walk around, and eat something other than airplane food for even just an hour or two. In choosing my flight path to Bali, I had no choice but to bite the bullet and settle in for a 15-hour flight to Asia (there aren’t exactly any halfway points across the Pacific Ocean,) but this did allow me to have a bit of fun with my itinerary and even pick up a “bonus city” to add to my travels.

I had the choice between 17 hours in Hong Kong or 12 hours in Shanghai. I’d toyed with the idea of visiting Hong Kong previously, and, fully intending to embark on an overnight excursion into the city solo, I figured Hong Kong would be easier to navigate on my own. I had planned to take the train into the bustling city, spend the night walking the waterfront and the markets, maybe camp out at a hotel for drinks or tea and then return to the airport for my flight. By sheer coincidence, however, a coworker of mine was traveling to Bali at the exact time, also through Hong Kong at the exact same time, and having a travel companion helped make Hong Kong and unforgettable whirlwind of new sights, sounds and experiences.

While colorful, bustling, eye-popping and energetic, Hong Kong is still an incredibly easy city to navigate. It just takes a shuttle to get to the Airport Express – which is impeccably clean and even offers free WiFi – to get into Hong Kong Station. All signage is also in English, and from here, you can take the MTR quickly and cheaply to just about anywhere in the city.

Our first stop was a stroll through the Ladies Market, an open-air, late-night market that spans blocks and is a one-stop shop for souvenirs. There’s also the Temple Street night market for affordable jade, pottery, and other small tastes of Hong Kong to take home.

For dinner, we followed our noses to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we were instructed to choose our own fish right from the tank of the sidewalk, after which it was grilled and served in a broth with vegetables and tofu. Whether street food or a Michelin-starred restaurant, there’s virtually no wrong answer when it comes to dining in Hong Kong. 

Be sure to take a stroll down to the Central Ferry Pier for a nighttime view of the skyline, the ferris wheel, and, at 8 o’clock each evening, the Symphony of Lights that sets Victoria Harbor aglow with neon.

Hands down, the highlight of my whirlwind visit to Hong Kong was waking up at dawn to the take the train up to Victoria Peak. This overlook offers a panoramic view of the whole city; rain, shine or fog. We took a cab to the bottom of the tram, which costs about $15 for a roundtrip ticket, and arrived at the top just before the overlook opened. The climb up is steep and jungle-lush – at certain points you are nearly parallel with Hong Kong’s towering sky scrapers – and it offers a stunning preview of the just what you’ll see from the top. 

The Sky Terrace is the highest point on Hong Kong Island – about 1,800 feet – and from here, you can see a 360-degree view of the city’s skyscrapers, dense forests, unique architecture, and, of course, Victoria Harbour to one side and a bevy of bays on the other. Victoria Peak is Hong Kong’s busiest tourist attraction, so for a more serene experience, try getting there before the sky terrace opens, when the city is still sleepy and foggy, or skipping the tram altogether and hiking your way up to the top (though I probably wouldn’t advise this route if you’ve only got a layover.)

From Victoria Peak, the tram will drop you back off just across the street from the HKU station, where you can easily take the Airport Express back to catch your flight – though I wouldn’t blame you if decide you want to catch another and spend a few more unforgettable days and nights in Hong Kong.