Chilling out by MTR: 5 seriously relaxed stations in Hong Kong

Chilling out by MTR: 5 seriously relaxed stations in Hong Kong

These hip neighborhoods are just a train ride away

Hong Kong getawayFormula for slowing down the pulse -- cold drink, newspaper and people to watch.

Escaping Hong Kong’s noisy, crowded streets doesn’t require a long trek off the beaten path. Sometimes the most laid-back neighborhoods are just a short hop from the MTR.

Here are five seriously relaxed parts of town less than 10 minutes walk from the MTR.

1. Sheung Wan: Blake Garden

The neighborhood around Blake Garden has emerged from a macabre past to become an offbeat art and design district.

First settled by Chinese migrants in the mid-19th century, it quickly became an overcrowded slum after colonial authorities excluded non-Europeans from the more spacious streets of Central.

In 1894, a massive outbreak of the plague killed thousands here. In response, the government razed part of the area to build Blake Garden, Hong Kong’s first public park.

Today, the park anchors a quiet collection of laneways, staircase streets and pedestrian-only terraces lined by low-rise buildings.

Traditionally home to printers, coffinmakers, woodworkers and other craftsmen, the area’s low-key atmosphere has attracted a new generation of design studios, art galleries and cafés.

Some of the most interesting newcomers include the Start from Zero street art boutique Rat’s Cave; open source design hub Hatch Space; cozy coffee shop Homei; and the Viennese-style Café Loisl.

There are plenty of worthy old-timers, too, like Yuk Kin Fast Food, which serves light meals and tasty milk tea, and Ho Luen Kee’s junk shop, which is always good for kitschy old treasures.

For a more haunting glimpse at the area’s past, venture into the 159-year-old Kwong Fuk Tsz Temple at 40 Tai Ping Shan Street, where residents maintain a shrine to the area’s deceased.

How to get there: Sheung Wan MTR, exit A2. Walk for six minutes up Hillier Street and Ladder Street until you reach Bridges Street.

hong kong getawayI'm so relaxed, I'm barely conscious.

hong kong getawayHistorical buildings hidden in Sheung Wan's quiet nooks.

2. Tin Hau: Tai Hang

hong kong getawayCafé culture in Tai Hang.

Once an old Hakka village on the shores of Victoria Harbour, Tai Hang has been landlocked since the surrounding waters reclaimed 60 years ago.

The old village atmosphere remains, however. Narrow streets, low-rise buildings and the complete absence of through traffic make this an exceptionally peaceful district.

The main drag is Wu Sha Street, which is home to one of Hong Kong's bing sutt, called Man Seng, which is famous for its steamed meatcake mountain.

Recently, though, the action has moved onto the sidestreets, which are filling up with cafés like the newly-opened Unar Coffee Company, housed in a beautifully-restored pre-World War II shophouse.

It’s not the only historic building in the area. For various reasons, Tai Hang has escaped the onslaught of urban renewal seen elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Wander the streets and you’ll come across pre-war shophouses and even a few century-old, tile-roofed stone houses. Hidden down an unassuming lane is the elegant Ka Fung Temple, built in 1863.

Recently, developers have been buying up many of Tai Hang’s older buildings, so it’s unlike the neighborhood’s small scale will survive for much longer. Some real estate agents have already dubbed it “the next Soho.”

Tai Hang is also an outpost of Hong Kong’s enthusiastic zakka scene, being home to La Belle Époque, Billie Ng’s popular craft boutique and workshop. Every so often there’s a small craft fair and the handmade dolls and accessories spill into the street outdoors.

How to get there: Tin Hau MTR, exit B. Walk for five minutes along Tung Lo Wan Road.

Hong Kong getawayAging beautifully in the Tai Hang neighborhood.

hong kong getawayTai Hang -- even the taipans are relaxed.

3. Kam Sheung Road: Kam Tin

Hong Kong getawayVacation mood-enhancing: the palm tree.

History goes back a long way in Kam Tin, a broad and fertile valley that was settled by the Tang clan more than 1,000 years ago. It was the last place to lay down its arms when Britain annexed the New Territories in 1898.

Many of its walled villages, built to repel pirate attacks in the Ming Dynasty, still exist today. These days it’s far more easy-going than it was when the British arrived to take over.

The evidence is right outside the MTR station, where you will be greeted by wide-open skies, a large bicycle parking lot and a lively flea market where you’ll find everything from handicrafts to street snacks.

Walk north toward the town center and you’ll soon come across the Red Brick House, another flea market, which includes a likable collection of cafés and boutiques housed inside an old industrial building.

The area’s busy main strip, Kam Tin Road, contains an assortment of grocery stores, restaurants and run-of-the-mill neighborhood businesses. With a ramshackle appearance and nary a highrise in sight, it is hard to believe this is Hong Kong.

Near the western end of the street is Kat Hing Wai, a 500-year old village whose stone fortifications date back to the 1660s.

How to get there: Kam Sheung Road MTR, exit B. Follow the signs to the Red Brick House, which is a seven-minute walk from the station.

Hong Kong getawayGetting lost in Kam Tin's lanes.

Hong Kong getawayMarket at Kam Tin.

4. Shek Kip Mei 

Hong Kong getawayThe unexpectedly charming Shek Kip Mei.

People might still give you strange looks if you tell them you’re going to spend an afternoon in Shek Kip Mei, but an influx of new arts facilities is slowly changing perceptions of this working-class neighborhood.

Compared to the frenetic atmosphere of nearby Sham Shui Po, Shek Kip Mei is practically serene.

Set atop a hill in the west part of Kowloon, Shek Kip Mei was once a collection of squatter villages that were home to refugees from mainland China.

In 1953, a fire raged through the area, leaving 53,000 people homeless. In response, the government built Hong Kong’s first public housing estate.

All of the original blocks are in the process of being redeveloped into high-rises, with the exception of Mei Ho House, which is awaiting conversion into a youth hostel.

The Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre (JCCAC) opened in a former public factory building in 2008, and last year the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened in the former North Kowloon Magistracy.

The best place to introduce yourself to Shek Kip Mei is the roof of the JCCAC, which overlooks the entire area. After admiring the view, slip downstairs for a coffee at Café Golden and see what’s happening in the dozens of artists’ studios and three gallery spaces.

SCAD’s Moot Gallery is also nearby; student photographs of the neighborhood are currently on show until June 25.

How to get there: Shek Kip Mei MTR, exit C. The JCCAC is a five-minute walk down Wai Chi Street.

Hong Kong getawayShek Kip Mei's JCCAC.

5. Admiralty: Star Street

Hong Kong getawayStar Street's people and pets.

By turns posh and eclectic, the quiet tangle of streets near Pacific Place is a refreshing antidote to the hustle of Wanchai and the malls of Admiralty.

Once a quiet, mostly residential area, Star Street was transformed by the opening of Three Pacific Place in 2004, which brought an influx of well-heeled office workers looking for places to eat, drink and play.

Swire Properties acquired many of the surrounding buildings and attracted a slew of chic eateries like cheese room Classified, coffee den Epoch and French deli Chez Patrick.

But the area’s real charm comes from the constellation of streets just beyond Three Pacific Place, including Sun Street, Moon Street and St. Francis Lane, which host a quirky collection of boutiques, cafés, studios and creative gathering spaces.

Worth checking out is Kapok, with its impeccably curated selection of clothes and lifestyle items from independent designers, and local fashion design label Daydream Nation’s flagship shop.

Stop for a great Hong Kong-style coffee at the neighborhood dai pai dong before checking out global lifestyle magazine Monocle’s Hong Kong outpost.

How to get there: Admiralty MTR, exit F. Follow the tunnel to Three Pacific Place.

Hong Kong getawayHipsterism and yuppism cross in Star Street.

Hong Kong getawayStar Street's trusty dai pai dong serves velvety milk tea.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf