Kowloon in some people's minds if Hong Kong's evil twin: while most of Hong Kong island is modern and flashy, Kowloon's image is more run down and trashy. While Hong Kong is the sorority sister with the perfect hair and nails, Kowloon is her naughty sister who is the life of any party. Judge them as you will, but certainly take a look at Kowloon and enjoy the things it has to offer with eyes open so that it all fits with your family.

Getting There

Unless you can afford the hundreds of dollars per person helicopter rides or swim really well, there are three ways to get to Kowloon. Taxis from the Hong Kong side go through an underground tunnel, which is slow, expensive and boring. The subway (MTR) is cheap, fast and I guess also boring but cheap and fast; the most common stations on the Kowloon side to use are Tsim Sha Tsui (known among foreigners as TST) and Jordan (see more on the subway here). Our recommended way of crossing the harbor however is the Star Ferry (we talk about the ferry in detail elsewhere).

Tsim Sha Tsui

After avoiding the touts near the ferry or subway exit (how many cheap suits and fake Rolexes does the world really need?), there are a couple of places of interest.

While not likely to be officially impressed, the kids may at least tolerate a look at the Peninsula Hotel. The place just screams old money and puffy classism. Built some 75 years ago when the waterfront was right at the front door before landfill fun, this place is expensive and likely designed for people not like us with kids. That said, do look around the lobby and if you want a treat, go for the afternoon “High Tea.” The price in 2005 is about US$20 a person, for which you get tea and a tiered tray of sweets and yummy cakes. The kids will like this, though whether it is worth the price is up to you. I wish I could afford to stay there and feel guilty about poor people while having an in-rrom foot massage.

All those cool modern buildings across the street or so are where you are headed for more-kid-friendly fun. Crossing the street is not kid friendly however, so look for the underground walkways. The big one is near the TST exit and is well marked. Depending on when you are reading this the passage will be choked with either dust and paint fumes or intensive retail shops. Watch the signs and choose the right exit.

The Other Side of the Road

Assuming you made it across the street somehow, you now have a selection of things to explore.

Hong Kong Cultural Center

If you are hungry, head towards the Hong Kong Cultural Center and its dim sum restaurant “Serenade.” We cover Eating in Hong Kong in general, and dim sum in the specific, elsewhere, so please read that too. The important things to know about this restaurant are that it is reasonably priced (maybe US$10-15 a person) and has an amazing panoramic view of Hong Kong/Victoria Harbor, the w-h-o-l-e skyline view of Hong Kong you have seen and read about. Wonderful. They have a subsection of their menu available in English but you have to ask. Monday through Friday between 2-4pm the prices drop almost by half. No discounts on weekends, sorry.

The Cultural Center offers all sorts of performances and programs, so check their web site. On Sundays many local maids from the Philippines gather to dance and socialize on the front steps. There is some drinking and dancing that some families might find suggestive, so be advised.

Hong Kong Museum of Art

This is an easy decision: if you or your family like Chinese traditional art in all of its forms, this is the place. There are floors of it, attractively displayed and not too crowded. However, if you do not like Chinese art, skip this museum as that is what they have. If you are lame or just not sure, admission is only HK$10, about US$1.20, so pay and have at least a quick look.

The Museum has an excellent bookstore worth looking at even if you skip the art stuff. They offer quite a few nice books on Hong Kong, as well as a good selection of not tacky souvenirs (also tacky ones if you insist) at decent prices. Check out the carved name stamps (“chops”) for about US$10. The aisles are quite narrow and a lot of very breakable stuff is on low, open shelves, so be very careful with strollers and young children.

Hong Kong Museum of Space

Next door is the Hong Kong Museum of Space, though in many minds the terms “space exploration” and “Hong Kong” are not always directly linked. The museum is really more for local kids to discover space and the planets and not really about Hong Kong's work in the universe. They do have an IMAX and the whole thing might work as a bribe, um, encouragement, to allow you to detour later into more adventurous travel fun with reluctant kiddies.

Nathan Road

One way or another, Nathan Road is a kind of right of passage for Kowloon visitors, so you have to do it too. This is the center of all shopping in the known universe, from real to fake watches to designer goods, both real and fake. It is where you are most likely to have your pocket picked in Hong Kong, and where you will be able to buy the cheapest stuff, albeit at a price. That price is that the whole area is a bit sleazy in feel, and crowded, and you are required to bargain for everything but McDonalds.

Chung King Mansions

If you really want to descend as quickly as possible into the ooze, wander into the street level arcades at the Chung King Mansions. This is the cheapest place in the area to stay for the night, maybe US$20 and if you hate your kids and want your spouse to divorce you, book a room here. Otherwise, browse among the stalls for stolen cell phones, very cheap electronics from somewhere, CDs and VCDs of unknown origin and inexpensive Indian foods. Really, I would not bring my own kids here but found it interesting enough by myself to look around a bit while the family enjoyed fast food nearby.

For some excellent, evocative photos of the place, try www.nathanward.com.

Temple Street Night Market

Near Yau Ma Tei MTR Station is Temple Street, where, in the evenings you will find the Temple Street Night Market. Similar to other such markets in Kowloon, this is a collection of small stalls selling cheap clothing, food, fake stuff and electrical gadgets and souvenirs from the Mainland you don't need but may buy because it is all “so cheap.”

If you are used to shopping only in air conditioned malls, the place has some charm as a new way to exchange money for goods, but otherwise seems a bit sad, like a place destined for ghost town status that decides to revive its fortunes with a new wax museum. Bargain on all prices and no matter what anyone says it is all fake and Region 3 DVDs will not play in your US-standard Region 1 player at home no matter how hard you wish for it to be true. The nearby food markets are full of bloody carcasses of pigs and cows if you need to buy meat; otherwise, just enjoy the sweet smell of flesh while you shop. If your kids accidentally touch anything, just cut off their hands to stop the spread of disease and continue your vacation. Its all a party, baby.

Mong Kok

Up and down Nathan Road is more of the same. If you want markets, take a tram, bus, taxi or subway up to Mong Kok. Ask anyone to point you toward the Ladies Market and enjoy the most crowded shopping on Earth. There is no room for strollers and kids will get trampled and pushed. No public toilets are within the blast radius and the many cheap toys on display will demand tantrums. About every twentieth stall sells G-strings and male underpants with an elephant head design (think of the trunk, Flanders) that cannot possibly help but cause your kids to stare. The place also has that amazing Southeast Asia smell, a mix of sewage, sweat and spilled soda that ends up sticking to your hair. That said, for fake bags and watches, as well as dirt cheap T-shirts, this is ground zero, so live it up.

But, wait, there's more!

Scattered throughout the area and especially on Portland Street in Mong Kok are “saunas,” many of which have lighted signs with photos of girls in bathing suits with their mouths open as if gasping for a last breath. Older kids will no doubt wonder what is going on, and slightly older kids will have no doubt as to what is going on. Decide ahead of time how badly you really want that knock-off Vuitton bag.

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