Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live in. In fact, the city is currently ranked as the place with the highest cost of living for expats. But to simply visit, this sprawling metropolis packed with cheap eats, outdoor activities and gorgeous natural and man-made landscapes can be a bargain.
“Despite our high rent and living costs, as well as a tourism industry which is increasingly geared towards the high-end market, there are still plenty of cheap or free choice for budget travelers,” says Paul Chan, founder and CEO of Walk in Hong Kong, a tour service that aims to show visitors the quirkier and grittier side of Hong Kong and its culture.
Similar to many world-class cities, Hong Kong has the typical amenities to help cut costs, like public transit and apartment shares, but the 1,063-square-mile area boasting a population of over 7 million — to compare, the State of Alaska is 663,300 square miles and home to just over 700.000 people — just does it better. Chan points to the efficient, highly affordable transit in a densely packed city as being one of Hong Kong’s greatest assets for budget travelers (and everyone, really).
Public transportation is affordable and reliable
The MTR, Hong Kong’s underground train system, is cleaner, quieter and faster than its rivals in New York and London. Routes take travelers and commuters to all edges of the city, including to the airport. A bus, streetcar system and ferry network complete the public transit options, all of which are impossibly cheap (think of a 30-cent ride on the Star Ferry at night as the cheapest cruise you’ll ever go on). MTR fares are charged by distance and cost an average of less than $2 per trip. A handy (and cute!) Octopus card can be pre-loaded with money used to access public transit and pay at convenience stores like 7-Eleven, which, in Hong Kong, are loaded with goodies like dozens of types of bottled green tea, cheesy instant ramen, fruit-flavored potato chips and other delectable temptations.
Eat a lot for less
Saving room for snacks can be a challenge when so many excellent Hong Kong specialties are available for single-digit dollar amounts at the city's many markets. The open-air Sham Shui Po market — known for textiles and electronics — has plenty of daytime eats like life-changing Kong Wo Bean Curd while night markets, like Temple Street Market, give visitors a place to indulge in seafood and people-watching at low sidewalk tables. Covered markets like the Haiphong Road Temporary Market, which will actually always be there, and ritzy Tsim Sha Tsui are also great places to snag an affordable snack in Hong Kong.
Pretty much anywhere in the city you can procure steaming bowls of brothy noodles, pineapple buns, egg waffles and grilled or fried proteins on a stick for just a few bucks. It’s not just street food that comes cheap. Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant, makes some of Hong Kong’s best dumplings and rice rolls for a few dollars per steam basket. And Mak’s Noodle serves beloved wonton noodle soup even the most cash-strapped can afford. Supermarkets and fast food joints are also emporiums of unfamiliar ingredients and combinations, and in many cases all you need is a microwave or hot water to make a meal out of the packaged treasures.
You don't have to pay to hike
The best way work up an appetite for all the fantastic and endlessly accessible eating in Hong Kong? Hiking — miles and miles of it. Though Hong Kong is often pictured as a metropolis with a glitzy skyline and jam-packed streets, half of the city is protected greenery, meaning plenty of hiking trails, swimming beaches and mountains to summit for free.
“The countryside is one of our greatest assets, and it’s all free,” Chan says. His and many Hong Konger’s favorite hike is Dragon’s Back, an 8.4 mile hike that earns you incomparable views of the South China Sea and Hong Kong’s surrounding fishing villages and islands. Another popular hike is The Peak, which Chan recommends starting at Peak Circle Walk from Lugard Road, where you’ll follow an easy path down to the University of Hong Kong.
Free is more common than you'd think
For those more attracted to culture than nature, the Ping Shan Heritage Trail winds through historical Hong Kong, passing landmarks dating back to the 13th Century, including a pagoda, shrine, walled village and more. On Lantau Island, the 112 foot tall Big Buddha is free to visit to anyone willing to climb the 268 steps up to his resting platform. Back below, the Po Lin Monastery is open to the public. Closer to the city is Chi Lin Nunnery and the adjoining Nan Lian Garden, a bright orange and yellow hued Buddhist complex built in the style of the Tang Dynasty — it was renovated in the 1990s — curtained with a backdrop of modern skyscrapers creating the perfect parallel of Hong Kong’s ties between old and new.
For some extra special views, head up to the observation deck in Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), which offers a 55th floor panoramic view of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers and surrounding nature, all for free. And at night, the Symphony of Lights projected on the skyscrapers flanking Victoria Harbour, offers free outdoor entertainment.
The list of sights to see without paying a cent is seemingly endless. One of Hong Kong’s many lures for those interested in a visit is that at every turn there are more free and cheap diversions. A walk through Kowloon Park can lead to joining in a community Tai Chi session, followed by bird watching with new friends (or maybe that's just me!). A wrong turn in Sham Shui Po may lead to an afternoon of "street sweeping," Cantonese slang that Chan defines as “grabbing every delicious street snacks you can find.” Or maybe it's just getting lost exploring streets, trails, sounds and smells — all for free — of one of the myst dynamic cities on the planet.