Arriving in Hong Kong is a confrontation with sleek, imposing buildings, narrow sidewalks, and people, people, and more people. Not to mention the cacophony of noises, the smells of pollution mixed with frying foods and fragrant tea, and the feeling of claustrophobia that might start to sneak into your consciousness if you ride the MTR train during rush hour.
“They say a New York minute passes in a Hong Kong second—and the city really does seem to move at an impossibly fast pace,” says Kate Springer, a Hong Kong expert for membership-based travel club Essentialist, who has lived in the city for seven years. And the crowds that come with a city of nearly 7.5 million in one of the most densely populated areas in the world are nothing to sniff at.
It’s a revelation then, to discover that Hong Kong has numerous pockets of calm where locals and visitors alike can rest their weary bones for a minute or 30. “What surprises many people is how easy it is to escape,” says Springer. “In just 20 to 30 minutes, you can be on a hiking trail, on an outlying island, or on an incredible beach.”
Here are some of our favorite ways to escape the buzz of Hong Kong and find a moment of peace, without having to travel far from the city center—or at all.
The city has hidden respites and peaceful nooks all over it, if you know where to look. Central, the main downtown neighborhood of Hong Kong, is home to Tai Kwun, a new cultural center that happens to be inside an old police station compound. Hidden behind its walls is a large courtyard lined with cafés that have plenty of outdoor seating and restored and new buildings housing everything from a modern art gallery to performing arts spaces to places dedicated to the history of the police barracks and jail that were once there. An especially peaceful spot is the balcony at Old Bailey restaurant, where you can slurp noodles or sip tea as you watch the hubbub below.
Victoria Peak/Morning Trail
Taking the tram up to Victoria Peak is on almost every tourist’s Hong Kong list. And while it can be fun, it can also mean a long line and a crowded ride. But being at the top of Victoria Peak is worth it—panoramic city views, lots of greenery, and fresh air in abundance await. To avoid the crowds and maximize outdoor time, take the one-hour walk (be prepared: it’s paved but steep) up the Morning Trail to the Peak and enjoy the surrounding nature in peace.
The Upper House
A hotel might not be the most obvious place to find peace and quiet, but in Hong Kong’s sea of skyscrapers this one is worth seeking out. Located on the upper floors of a tall building in the heart of Central and designed by Andre Fu, the Upper House is a lesson in minimalism, with lots of straight lines, soothing wood, and tasteful art. If you can splurge on a room, you’ll immediately feel at home in the massive studios that have some of the largest bathrooms in the city—a perfect haven. We were told upon checking in, “If you haven’t taken a bath in your room, then you haven’t really stayed at the Upper House.” Seeing the massive, deep soaking tub with a stunning backdrop of the skyline, it all makes sense. If you’re not spending the night, it’s still worth heading up to the 49th floor for breakfast or afternoon tea at Café Gray Deluxe.
Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden
You’re already getting further from the nexus of Hong Kong and its throngs of people when you head to Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden, located in the middle of Kowloon Island. The Nunnery is a large Buddhist temple complex originally built in 1934 in traditional Chinese style, made from wood and without the use of any nails. The 360,000 square-foot complex has 16 halls, a library, a school, a pagoda, a bell tower, a drum tower, and multiple lotus ponds. To say you can hear a pin drop here is an understatement. Across the road (reached via a footpath) is Nan Lian Garden, a beautiful classical Chinese garden that covers 380,000 square feet and includes a traditional teahouse, vegetarian restaurant, café, and gift shop with some of the best souvenirs in the city.
The street food in Hong Kong is amazing. The dumpling shacks, noodle houses, and dim sum restaurants are all must-dos. But all of that fried goodness comes with a price (hello, lethargy) and the atmospheres are not exactly calm. Allow us to suggest a break from the grease and crowds in the form of a delightful vegetarian oasis on busy Hollywood Road. Grassroots Pantry, the brainchild of chef/owner Peggy Chan, serves satisfying and healthy food that uses 90 percent organic ingredients, with much of it locally sourced. You can still find noodles and dumplings (well, gyoza), but they’re filled with veggies and whole grains and sit alongside dishes like beetroot carpaccio and jackfruit rendang. The decor is calming as well, with clean lines, neutral tones, and plenty of plant life and sunlight.
Hong Kong Park
City parks are often ideal places to pause and Hong Kong Park, by busy Cotton Tree Drive in Central, is no different. But this park offers more than some trees. It’s home to an aviary with over 80 species of birds, a greenhouse, and numerous fountains, waterfalls, and well-kept lily ponds. Also inside the park are the quiet and lovely Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware, the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, a restaurant, and even a marriage registry (should you feel so inclined). The park also offers a serene vantage point to take in the surrounding skyscrapers.
The Peninsula’s Pool and Spa
A true Hong Kong grand dame, the Peninsula Hong Kong is the five-star hotel chain’s flagship and has luxury dripping from its gold-ensconced lobby pillars. But while the lobby is bustling, the hotel’s majestic indoor pool (marble columns and an uninterrupted view of the Hong Kong skyline) is an oasis of calm, and the spa is truly a sanctuary in the city. It features Chinese design elements with a modern touch, using marble, rustic woods, and textured granite. Bliss out in the hammam-style steam rooms, saunas, and crescent-shaped, aromatherapy showers before or after a treatment for ultimate relaxation.
The beach may not be front-of-mind when planning a Hong Kong trip, but it’s actually one of the city’s best features—and the perfect place to get away from it all for a few hours. “I love to visit Sai Kung, in the northeastern New Territories,” says Springer. “You can hike to find the territory’s best beaches—they’re all located around Tai Long Wan (Big Wave Bay)—and they get more pristine the farther north you go.”
Hong Kong is actually an archipelago but most people live on and visit two main islands: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, which are a quick ferry ride away from each other. But there are 261 other islands to explore, and many offer an escape from the center of the city. Most well known is Lantau (the largest and also home to Hong Kong Disneyland) but others, like Cheung Chau, Lamma, and Peng Chau, are more tranquil. One of Springer’s favorites is Peng Chau: “There’s an ancient temple, seafood restaurants, a small village, and an accessible hiking trail that provides great views of the sea,” she says.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Hong Kong
Devorah Lev-Tov Devorah Lev-Tov is a Brooklyn-based food and travel journalist who has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Vogue, Bon Appetit, and more.