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10 Great Ways to Learn About Hong Kong History

Traditional Chinese junk on Victoria Harbour Hong Kong

Hong Kong is an international financial centre, a popular tourist destination and a great place to shop. But it’s also a fascinating place to visit with an interesting colonial past. One of the best ways to learn about Hong Kong history and culture is to visit. Find out where to go and what to do to experience the History of Hong Kong. Discover ancient Chinese traditions and links to the past that will bring the history books to life and give you a greater understanding of Hong Kong as it is today.

The beautiful islands of Hong Kong lie off the coast of Southeast China. As you explore you’ll discover that Hong Kong is a very scenic place to visit and is a wonderful mix of new and old. Modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline, but nearby there are heritage buildings that are evidence of Hong Kong colonial history. And in the laneways, there are temples and markets that will reveal Hong Kong’s colour and rich culture.

When you visit Hong Kong, you’ll meet the people who live there, you’ll see how they live, eat their food and walk in their footsteps. You’ll visit their sacred places, shop at their markets and explore their villages. Even on a short stay, you’ll soak up Hong Kong’s history, when you see some of the best tourist sites and discover some places off the beaten path that are also great to visit.

The Lions Pavillion Victoria Peak Hong Kong
The Lions Pavillion Victoria Peak Hong Kong

One of the best ways to see the sights and to learn about Hong Kong history is to book a personalized tour with a local. You’ll get a different perspective of the top attractions and see some of the lesser-known parts of the city.

**Covid-19 travel restriction may apply for travel to Hong Kong. Check with your local government for the latest information.

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A brief history of Hong Kong

  • In 1557 the Portuguese settled in Macau, across the water from Hong Kong. This was the first European settlement in Asia and an important trading post for the beautiful silks and porcelain of China.
  • At this time the islands of Hong Kong were sparsely populated with small fishing villages.
  • In the mid-1800s, during the First Opium War, the islands of Hong Kong were occupied by the British.
  • In 1841, China surrendered Hong Kong to the British and in 1842 the Nanking Treaty was signed to end the First Opium War. Trade in opium and other goods from Asia was lucrative and the British colony of Hong Kong became a commercial centre in Asia.
  •  In 1898 China leased Hong Kong to the British for 99 years. The ongoing growth of trade through the port in Victoria Harbour lead to the development and growth of the city.
  • From 1941 – 1945, during the Second World War, the British were unable to defend Hong Kong and the islands were occupied by the Japanese for almost 4 years.
  • In the 1970s China opened up to foreign trade and strict regulations were introduced. Hong Kong’s focus changed to financial services
  • In 1997 Hong Kong was returned to the Chinese after 156 years as a British colony
about Hong Kong history the peak
Walking on The Peak, Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong part of China?

Hong Kong is officially controlled by China. But Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region that operates independently from China. This means that Hong Kong has a degree of autonomy with independent laws and judicial powers.

10 Great Ways to Learn About Hong Kong History

There are some wonderful places you can go to learn about Hong Kong history. Here are 10 that are really enjoyable.

1. Visit the Hong Kong Museum of History

 What better place to learn about Hong Kong history & culture than at the Museum of History. You can see photographs of early Hong Kong at The “History Through the Lens” exhibition and The” Hong Kong Story” exhibit gives a good overview of Hong Kong’s history beginning in pre-historic times. People have lived on the islands of Hong Kong since the stone-age. The exhibit covers the historical development and folk culture in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Museum of History opens at 10:00 AM and is closed on Tuesdays.

How to get there

Catch the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui and the museum is located in Kowloon on Chatham Road South next to the Hong Kong Science Museum.

The Star Ferry, Hong Kong
The Star Ferry, Hong Kong

2. Ride the Star Ferry

The iconic star ferry began taking people across Victoria Harbour in 1880. It was known as the Kowloon Ferry and played an important part in Hong Kong’s history. 

The crossing to Kowloon takes about 10 minutes and is one of the best ways to see the famous Victoria Harbour. From the Kowloon side, you’ll get a spectacular view of the skyscrapers and high rise buildings on Hong Kong Island. Riding on the Star Ferry is one of the cheapest Harbour cruises you can find and one of the most scenic in the world.

The Star Ferry leaves from Central Pier 7 every 5 – 10 minutes from 6:30 am – to 11:30 pm. The Hong Kong Hop- on-Hop-Off Red Route Sightseeing Tour stops here.

Traditional Chinese Junk on Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong

3. Sail in a traditional Chinese junk on Victoria Harbour

Experience Hong Kong’s history as you cruise on Victoria Harbour in a traditional Chinese junk boat. The famous Victoria Harbour is a deep stretch of water that separates Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. It brought trade and prosperity to colonial Hong Kong through its busy port. The harbour is deep enough to accommodate large containerships and huge cruise ships. Victoria Harbour was given its name in honour of the English Queen Victoria. And Hong Kong is named after the sweet-smelling incense that was transported from Victoria Harbour. The name Hong Kong means “fragrant harbour”.

Once full of Chinese junks and fishing boats, Victoria Harbour is now a modern port but there are a few traditional Chinese junk boats still on the water. Their brightly coloured sails and wooden decks are a remnant of Hong Kong’s history and you can watch them sail past from vantage points along the harbour shores in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. They are especially beautiful at night when their sails are lit up and you can cruise on a Chinese junk boat. These restored vessels sail the harbour with passengers on board and it’s a great way to experience the history of Hong Kong.

4. Ride the Hong Kong Trams

Get a feel for Hong Kong’s colonial history as you travel through the city on the narrow double-decker trams. You’ll discover that comfort was not so important in the early1900s as you bump around on the hard wooden seats. Old narrow-gauge trams operate from Kennedy Town to Shau Kai Wan and Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island. On the early trams, conductors would collect the fares but these days you can pay your fare with an Octopus Card. Top up your octopus card as you go and use it on all public transport in Hong Kong.

The Peak Tram

Ride The Peak Tram, one of the world’s oldest and most famous funicular tramways and relive Hong Kong colonial history. The trip to Victoria Peak is one of the most popular tram rides in Hong Kong. It operates on a cable system on the steep slope of Mount Austen. 

The Peak Tram service began operating in 1888 and is the most direct way to travel to Victoria Peak for tourists and residents. There are spectacular views on the way up the mountain and you’ll see the classic view of Hong Kong from the lookout when you reach the top. You can enjoy the view from the Peak Tower complex but you don’t have to pay to see the view. It’s a short walk from the visitors centre to the Lions Pavillion where you can enjoy an almost identical view for free.

Discover the colonial history of Hong Kong in the lovely parks and walking trails on The Peak. From the visitor’s centre, follow Mount Austen Road to the Victoria Peak Garden. It was once the site of the Governor’s summer residence and it’s now a lovely English garden with Victorian pagodas and winding pathways. Follow the path to the Lugard lookout and enjoy sweeping views over the other side of Hong Kong island.

The Peak Tram leaves from Garden Road in Admiralty. You can catch public transport to get there or the Hong Kong Hop- on-Hop-Off Red Route Sightseeing Tour will drop you at the station.

Inside the Man Mo Taoist Temple in Hong Kong
Inside the Man Mo Taoist Temple in Hong Kong

5. Visit the Man Mo temple

One of the oldest and most visited sacred places in Hong Kong, the Man Mo temple is located in Sheung Wan, a short walk from Hong Kong Central. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the Toaist religion of Hong Kong and China. When you visit you’ll see people lighting incense, bowing and praying at the altar. The temple is full of lanterns and red incense coils hanging from the ceiling. The air is heavy with smoke from the burning sandalwood incense. From the street, the Man Mo Temple is small and unassuming. It was built in the 1800s during the Qing Dynasty and is dedicated to the Gods of Literature and War.

During colonial times the Man Mo Temple was used as a place of worship but it was also used as a courthouse to settle local disputes. And the ritual oaths that were taken at the temple often included the beheading of a rooster.

Next door to the temple is the Ancestral Hall, a place where local people pay their respects to their dead ancestors and perform the rituals of ancestor worship.

Menstruating women are asked not to enter the main hall and cameras are not allowed in the Ancestral Hall of the Man Mo Temple.

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery Hong Kong
The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery Hong Kong

6. Explore the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery

The Ten Thousand Buddha’s Monastery, or Man Fat Tsz, is one of Hong Kong’s historic Buddhist Temples. It’s a remarkable place to visit near Pai Tau village in the New Territories and was one of my favourites in Hong Kong. As you approach the monastery you’ll follow a steep path to the top of Po Fook Hill. There are 431 steps and it takes around 20 minutes to climb to the top.

Lining the steep staircase are thousands of golden Buddha statues. Each of the statues is unique. There are young Buddhas, old Buddhas, monks in meditation, praying and doing everyday activities. The goddess Kwun Yam is also amongst the statues. She is the goddess of mercy and represents the feminine qualities of compassion and gentleness.

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery was built in 1965 and was funded by the local people of Hong Kong. No monks are living at the monastery but it is a centre of worship. There are several temples, and in the main hall, the embalmed body of Yuet Kai is exhibited. He was the much-revered monk who built the monastery.

The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is a bit off the beaten tourist path located in Sha Tin in the New Territories. But the monastery is unique and very special to visit so it’s well worth the effort to get there.

How to get there

Sha Tin is around 16 kilometres from Hong Kong Central. It takes about 30 minutes to get there by train and it’s a 10-minute walk from Sha Tin MTR and bus station.  At Sha Tin station take metro exit B and walk to Pai Tau Street. Don’t be distracted by the Pai Tau Ancestral Hall. Walk to the end of Pai Tau Street and the pathway to the monastery is off to the left. It’s unmarked and hard to find. I used my google maps app and still need to ask for directions from a local.

The Monastery of the Ten Thousand Buddhas is open from 9 – 5:30 daily.

7. Visit the Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Also in Sha Tin, is the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, another great place to learn about Hong Kong History. The museum presents a mix of history, art and culture and is an entertaining and educational experience for visitors.

The Hong Kong Heritage Museum is located beside the Shing Mun River, and not far from the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. You can catch the MTR or take a bus to get there. The Heritage Museum is closed on Tuesdays.

The Po Lin Monastery Hong Kong
The Po Lin Monastery Hong Kong

8. Discover the Po Lin Monastery & Tian Tan Buddha

The Tian Tan Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery are popular tourist attractions in Hong Kong. The Po Lin Monastery has an attractive shaded courtyard with seating and it makes a lovely retreat from the heat. As I wandered through the monastery there was a Buddhist ceremony in progress with monks chanting and praying. The temples are beautifully decorated with colourful tiles and visiting is a lovely way to learn about Hong Kong history, religion and culture. The Tian Tan Buddha sits at the top of the mountain beside the monastery. The main temples at the Po Lin Monastery have several sacred statues of the Buddha representing his past, present and future.

The Tan Tien Buddha, Hong Kong

The Big Buddha

The Tian Tan Buddha or the Big Buddha draws people to Lantau island in Hong Kong. Throughout Asia, you’ll see many statues of the Buddha that represent the Buddhist teachings. Visiting the impressive Big Buddha is a great way to learn about Hong Kong history and culture. The Big Buddha is one of the largest outdoor Buddhas in the world. It’s 34 metres tall and made from bronze. The impressive statue sits at the top of Mount Muk Yue Shan beside the Po Lin Monastery and the Ngong Ping village.

How to get to the Big Buddha

The best way to get to the Big Buddha is to take Ngong Ping 360 cable car from Tung Chung MTR station on Lantau Island. The scenic cable car ride has breathtaking mountain and sea views and it takes around 30 minutes to reach Ngong Ping Village. From there it’s a short walk to the Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery.

I waited for over an hour to buy my ticket but you can skip the queues and buy your Ngong Ping 360 cable car ticket in advance.

Alternatively, you can catch a bus to Ngong Ping village. It’s much cheaper than the cable car. From Hong Kong Island take a ferry from Central Pier to Mui Wo on Lantau Island then bus no. 2 from the ferry pier.

Find out more about visiting the stunning Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery.

Ngong Ping Cable Car to the Big Buddha
Ngong Ping Cable Car to the Big Buddha, Hong Kong

9. Explore Cheung Chau & Lamma Islands

Visiting the islands in Hong Kong is a great day trip and a lovely way to learn about Hong Kong history. In the beginning, the islands of Hong Kong were sparsely populated with small fishing villages. Today tourism has become more important as a source of income but fishing fleets are still operating. Seafood is a speciality and it’s fresh and delicious. You’ll experience this first-hand if you visit the villages on Cheung Chau, Lamma or Lantau Islands.

To get to the islands you’ll travel by boat as people have for centuries. You can learn about Hong Kong’s history and enjoy the fun of a ferry ride. When you arrive at Cheung Chau island, you’ll find a harbour full of colourful fishing vessels. It’s worth the trip just to see the colourful harbour but there are lovely sea views, forested walking trails and pretty beaches to enjoy as well.

Village life continues on Cheung Chau and Lamma islands as it has done for centuries. There are no cars and people walk or ride bicycles to get around. If you stop and listen you’ll notice there’s no traffic noise. The ever-present hum of the city has disappeared, replaced by the lapping of water and the singing of birds. To explore the islands simply follow the pathways on foot or hire a bicycle. All the islands have seafood restaurants on the waterfront near the ferry Pier and you can relax by the harbour and enjoy a meal. Spend a day visiting each of the islands and you’ll see a slower, more traditional way of life.

fishing boast on Cheung Chau Island Hong Kong
Cheung Chau Island Hong Kong

Smugglers caves

On Cheung Chau Island you can visit the legendary smuggler’s cave to learn about Hong Kong history and see where the Chinese Pirate, Cheung Po Tsai, hid his treasure.

And there’s Second World War history on Lamma Island. Follow the path across the island to the cave that hid Japanese Kamikaze speed boats during WW11.

How to get there

Ferries to Cheung Chau, Lamma and Lantau islands leave from Hong Kong Central Pier.

10. Shop at the Aberdeen Fish Market

The Aberdeen fish markets are a bit off the beaten tourist path but are fun to visit and you’ll get a feel for the history of Hong Kong and its seafaring origins. The Aberdeen Fish Market has been operating since the 1800s and you can learn about Hong Kong history by shopping with the locals.

Queue at the fresh fish stalls by the waterside on the promenade at Aberdeen harbour and watch the fishermen selling their catch straight from their brightly coloured boats. It’s a fun way to start the day and the fish are as fresh as you can buy. But make sure you get there early. The markets are open from 4 am.

How to get there

It takes about half an hour to get to Aberdeen on the other side of Hong Kong Island and the Hong Kong Hop- on-Hop-Off Green Route Sightseeing Tour will take you to Aberdeen. Or you can catch a local bus.

TIP: If you’re looking for somewhere great to eat try the Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market. Book in advance and arrive early as it’s open from 5:00 am – 2 pm.

Aberdeen Fish Market in Hong Kong
Aberdeen Fish Market in Hong Kong

Do I need a Visa for Hong Kong?

People from most nationalities can visit Hong Kong without a visa for up to 14 days but will probably need a visa to visit mainland China.

Where to stay in Hong Kong

Budget: YHA Mei Ho Hong Kong

Mid-Range: The Salisbury YMCA of Hong Kong near the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui

Luxury: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel has a fabulous location in Central Hong Kong

The Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui is a luxury heritage hotel in a great location.

Accommodation in Hong Kong is expensive and Airbnb can also be a good option.

***Book a transfer from Hong Kong Airport to your hotel and take the stress out of your arrival.

Final Thoughts

Travel is one of the best ways to educate yourself about Hong Kong history and experience first-hand the wonderful sights of Hong Kong. You’ll learn a lot from reading history books and articles, but when you experience the place, meet the people, visit their sacred places you’ll get a feel for what is valued and respected. Visiting will bring the history of Hong Kong to life and you’ll never forget the sights, the smells, the tastes and the colours that you can only imagine unless you have experienced them.  

Know where you are and where you’re going. Take a trusted Travel Guide for China.  I rarely travel without a Lonely Planet Guide.

For peace of mind make sure you buy travel insurance before you go, especially if you are travelling solo. I use and recommend World Nomads because it covers overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities so I can concentrate on enjoying my trip without worrying about something going wrong.

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17 thoughts on “10 Great Ways to Learn About Hong Kong History”

  1. The Man Mo temples look so nice. I have been to a Chinese temple in Malaysia, and I loved how lovely it is to visit temples in a foreign destination. These places of worship are such a gateway to the culture of a country.

  2. I enjoyed my time in Hong Kong. What I remember the most is the Harlem Globe Trotters coming down the escalator in my hotel as I was going up! Plus I loved the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram.

  3. I lived in China for 2 years but somehow never made it to Hong Kong which is a shame. I’ll have to get there one day as it seems like it had quite the history and these places all sound really good. The Man Mo temple looks so beautiful, and I like the sound of visiting the smugglers caves

  4. These are all such fun ways to learn about Hong Kong’s history! I would love to take the Hong Kong Trams or the ferry! Those sound so fun and interesting. Now I need to visit Hong Kong!

  5. I really loved this post. Hong Kong has always been a mistero to me and I was not sure if to add it to my Travel list, but I will definitely do it after reading this!
    Thank you!

  6. I love learning about the history of pplaces before and during my visit! I think it is really important to understand a place and what has shaped it when you visit! The Hong Kong Museum of History sound like a great place to start! The ferry and the temple also sound like fascinating highlights! Thanks for the great guide!

  7. Great guide. Over the years when I’ve visited Hong Kong I have always taken the Star Ferry, it’s like a tradition each time. But riding the trams is also fun & a visit up to the Peak should be obligatory! Loads more ideas here for the next time I am there. I’ve never made it to the Big Buddha & many of the other places she mentions. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I have been to Hong Kong once on a layover between the Maldives and India. I would love to go back and spend more time exploring the highlights you posted above. Some are new to me so I plan to save your post for the future!

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