Which of these great gateway cities is your perfect starter on Asia tours?
On the surface, Hong Kong and Singapore are two great cities with a lot in common. Both are major crossroads and trading ports within Asia, with a colourful and complex Chinese culture (alongside numerous others), world class airlines and international airports, a serious devotion to shopping, hopping nightlife, fast, efficient public transit, and restaurant and street food scenes to send even the most demanding foodie straight to Nirvana.
Yet exploring the two, Hong Kong and Singapore feel almost nothing alike. Part of that can be put down to urban planning. We’re comparing the world’s skyscraper capital to “the city in a garden” after all! But the differences run so much deeper, and to really understand them, you need to hit the streets and explore. It’s time to pull up the blinds on your Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines flight and discover which is your perfect gateway to Asia – Hong Kong or Singapore.
To be perfectly honest, you could spend a week in either Singapore or Hong Kong and not run out of unique things to see or do. But each does have some standout attractions you shouldn’t miss, on Asia tours, that you aren’t going to find anywhere else in the world.
Hong Kong’s most spectacular and famous view can be had from The Peak, reached via the equally famous Peak Tram. Ascend the mountain and you’ll have an eye-popping view back over Hong Kong Harbour and Kowloon, peering over the tops of the island’s skyscrapers. Still, that view has competition. Cross over to Kowloon and take in A Symphony of Lights sound and light show that brings those skyscrapers to spectacular life each night. One of that show’s stars is the HSBC headquarters building, and while I never thought I’d recommend visiting a bank’s HQ as a tourist attraction, it’s worth ducking inside for 10 minutes to see the unique design, built for optimal feng shui. At the southern edge of Hong Kong Island, you can visit Stanley Market and the ironically named Repulse Bay Beach (one of Hong Kong’s most inviting).
Dive a little way into Kowloon, and you’ll find the Wong Tai Sin Temple, home to one of Hong Kong’s most beautiful gardens, a short distance from the serene Chi Lin Nunnery. Take the longer trek out to Lantau Island and you’ll come to Ngong Ping 360, a cable car ride that brings you to… okay, it’s an unabashedly touristy artificial village. But the views from the cable car are so spectacular, it’s impossible to feel like you’ve wasted your time, particularly as you approach the enormous Tian Tan Buddha. If you need a dose of something more authentic atop the mountain, step inside nearby Po Lin Monastery. Reaching the other attractions and points of interest on Lantau can be difficult on your own, so consider booking a tour if you’d really like to unearth the best of the island.
Dating back just 53 years as a nation, Singapore isn’t so much about historic sights, but there are plenty of highlights worth visiting. The city state’s current crown jewel is Gardens by the Bay, the space age garden behind the boat-shaped Marina Bay Sands building. An easy addition to a circuit around Singapore’s marina (home of the famous Merlion), Gardens by the Bay showcases cutting edge environmental and water recycling technology, not to mention the surreal experience of wandering between its massive “Supertrees.” If you’d prefer a more traditional garden experience, Singapore still has among the most varied and beautiful Botanic Gardens on earth. It’s also one of the few cities were I heartily recommend a visit to the zoo – actually one of three animal parks occupying a section of land in the island’s north. Enclosures are integrated to emulate each animal’s natural environment as closely as possible, and the variety of creatures in residence is staggering.
Other Singapore icons worth a visit include the legendary Raffles Hotel, the triple museum treat of the Singapore Museum, the new National Art Gallery, and the Asian Civilisations Museum, and Santosa Island. This last one is pretty much Singapore’s theme park island, complete with its own Universal Studios. Of course, Hong Kong’s Lantau Island offers Hong Kong Disneyland, so if you’re seriously feeling homesick, or just want to see an American favourite done in local style, either Hong Kong or Singapore can sate your theme park cravings while on Asia tours.
For Outdoor Types
Despite their wildly different geography, both Hong Kong and Singapore are great destinations for an outdoorsy escape, though the experience will be almost nothing alike.
Built on mountainous islands, as well as the Kowloon Peninsula, up to the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong offers terrific hiking and a chance to immerse yourself in nature well away from the often chaotic city. If you want to skip the tourist crowds and queues, consider doing what the locals do and hike up Victoria Peak for the city’s most famous view. Or simply choose one of the many great walks and trails from the summit once you’re there. Lantau Island, as I’ve mentioned, is home of the enormous Tian Tan Buddha. It is possible to walk up to the Buddha from the nearby suburb of Tung Chung, provided you have fine weather, just under two and a half hours, and the energy for the mountainous, but easy to follow path. If you really want to get out into Hong Kong’s wilderness, hit the trails of the New Territories, particularly Tai Mo Shan Country Park.
While Hong Kong has built itself up amid the peaks, Singapore has tamed its humid island geography into perhaps the world’s most impressive urban garden. That doesn’t mean it’s all been painstakingly landscaped either (though some of it certainly has). You can lose yourself amid the beauty of the Botanic Gardens, or Gardens by the Bay. But also consider a walk along the Southern Ridges, a 10 kilometre series of elevated walkways above and through the lush forests. You’ll swear you’re no longer in the city. Want to get even higher? Follow the suspension bridges of the TreeTop Walk near Singapore’s Central Water Catchment. You can also get away from it all in the eastern part of the island, near Changi Airport. Hire a bike and set off on the ferry, bound for Pulau Ubin Island and Ketam Mountain Bike Park.
And here is where it’s at! People from both Hong Kong and Singapore will quite rightly set you straight when you claim either city is all about food and shopping. But let’s be honest. If we were to name the top ten foodie cities in the world, it would be wrong not to add both Hong Kong and Singapore to that list.
Let’s start with Hong Kong, and before we do, know this. Dim sum is the dish you ordered. Yum cha is the meal (and gathering) at which you consume it. Know that distinction and you’ll be a head above many foreigners in the city already. Whether it’s seafood, noodles, soup, barbecue, dumplings, wontons, egg tarts, or refreshing juices and sweets, Hong Kong is ready to blow your tastebuds’ expectations apart with the sheer variety of its specialties. Cantonese cuisine is well known for being game to make a meal out of almost anything, and Hong Kongers can be pleasantly surprised when foreigners are up for the more unusual local specialties. Even if you play it safe, tucking into some of the tastiest pork, seafood, and other staples you’ve ever tried either on the street, or in a local eatery, it’s rare to walk away either hungry or disappointed. My personal, if relatively simple loyalties are torn between the barbecue pork (or duck, or even pigeon), and steaming dumplings of almost any description.
Many Hong Kong staples have made their way to Singapore, where ethnic Chinese comprise 70% of the population. Mix in the local Malay dishes and influences, and a healthy shot of innovation from India (that’s just the city’s three largest ethnic groups) and you have a bona fide foodie utopia. Much like Hong Kong, Singapore has no shortage of top shelf restaurants luring world class chefs. It received its first Michelin dining guide in 2016. But it’s the hawker centres that remain a uniquely Singapore phenomenon, accessible to travellers on any budget. You’ll find these collections of busy, noisy food stalls, surrounded by unpretentious plastic chairs and tables in all the key neighbourhoods of Singapore, including enclaves such as Chinatown and Little India. Food is generally cheap and delicious across the board, but if you’re looking for the good stuff, a queue of locals is your best bet. It’s also possible to buy a Michelin-starred lunch for just $2 at (don’t get confused now) Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodles on Chinatown’s famously tasty Smith Street. You will probably need to queue for this one, but if you don’t have time to wait, a worthy rival is never more than a few steps away.
The other great stereotypical vice of both Hong Kong and Singapore shouldn’t be ignored either. While tastes and buying habits have gone decidedly upscale over the years, the belief in the value of retail therapy has stayed constant. You can certainly swoop through luxurious malls in either city, while on Asia tours, and be bombarded with mile high photographs of celebrities selling the latest designer handbag (indeed, you can do this without even leaving the airport in both cities). But there are some slightly more localized and authentic shopping opportunities you shouldn’t miss.
First rate shopping at all price points abounds in Hong Kong, but Kowloon’s famous markets, particularly the Temple Street Night Market, are the centre of it all, with bargains to suit all tastes and interests (just be sure to bargain down the price). The Flower Market and Ladies Market are also both worth wandering as much for the experience as for the goods, while Stanley Market, in the south of Hong Kong Island, is another old-school favourite. If you’re looking for souvenirs just that little bit different, take a stroll along Cat’s Street, also known as Upper Lascar Row. Running alongside Hollywood Road, this is primarily an antique market, and you can forget about any semblance of order among the wares. But the ramshackle collection is interesting to browse for its own sake, and can reveal some unique finds at great prices. You also shouldn’t leave Hong Kong without visiting a “Wet Market,” where fresh food ingredients are sold… partly because at the rate Hong Kong is gentrifying and modernizing, its wet markets may be gone from the city before you are.
The first name in shopping in Singapore is Orchard Road, and there’s no disputing that this is the Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue of Singapore. Luxury brands abound, but you’ll also find a wide range of mid-priced stores, ready to update your wardrobe on a more modest scale. The abundance of air-conditioned malls along Orchard Road makes it a decent place to escape Singapore’s heat for the afternoon as well, even if you don’t plan on spending. Way on the upscale end of things sits The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, and while budget travellers should probably leave their purses at home, it’s worth taking a few free minutes to admire the impressive architecture on your way between the Marina and Gardens by the Bay. At the other end of the luxury spectrum, swing by Tekka Centre in Little India. This unassuming hawker centre may not look like much, but it’s remarkably easy to lose an hour or two inside, in between sampling your way through the hawker stands, and going upstairs to browse the superb selection of tailor shops. What better memento of your trip to Little India than a tailor-made sari from a local merchant?
Both Hong Kong and Singapore are great choices for a family Asia vacation, particularly if you want to stay in a safe city with lots to keep the kids occupied. They’re not as budget friendly as say, Bangkok or Beijing, nor will they offer as much culture shock. But the tourist infrastructure is much more intuitive, which when you’re trying to manage little ones as well as enjoy your vacation, makes a huge difference!
Hong Kong on the surface looks like the less kid-friendly of the two. Assuming you don’t go to Hong Kong Disneyland – which is worth it, but very expensive compared to other attractions – the key draws are the city’s views, parks, temples, markets, and dining. Still, if you treat the city like a discovery, exploring it rather than rushing between attractions trying to tick off a list, kids can find Hong Kong endlessly entertaining. Take the same approach at meal time. Yum cha is probably the easiest meal in the world to share and explore as a family. Many of Hong Kong’s parks feature an impressive array of birds (don’t miss strolls around Hong Kong Park and Kowloon Park) as well, so it’s easy to keep kids amused at a bargain price.
Singapore presents somewhat flashier options, particularly if you spend any time on Sentosa Island, which from Universal Studios to its go karting track, is a kid’s delight (including big kids). Kids will also have a great time exploring Gardens by the Bay, including the two vast conservatories, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. As for wildlife-based attractions, Singapore has three of the most famous, innovative and eco-friendly zoos in the world. The Singapore Zoo is world class, but the Night Safari and River Safari are both unique experiences that justify some extra time in the zoo precinct. They’re also more expensive, which is going to be the rub with family travel in Singapore. Options abound, but most of them are pricey by Asia’s standards. If you want to get around this and skip the big names, take the same approach recommended above for Hong Kong, or seek out unique, “traditional” family attractions like the free, if occasionally macabre Haw Par Villa, which was designed to teach Chinese morality lessons to young visitors through a vast collection of colourful dioramas. Most every Singaporean of a certain age has memories of coming here on school trips, and it’s one of the city state’s most curious attractions.
Getting There with Goway
Goway has a wide range of options for visiting both Hong Kong and Singapore, either on their own, or as part of longer Asia tours. Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines both rank among the finest airlines in the world, so you’re assured of a comfortable journey. If you’re unable to decide or want a taste of both cities (along with Bangkok), Goway’s 10-Day Classic South East Asia is for you. It’s also possible to pair Goway’s 10-Day Hong Kong and Bali Escape, or the 10-Day Singapore and Bali Escape, combining an exciting city break with a vacation on one of Asia’s most beautiful beach islands.