Hong Kong's top public bus sightseeing tours

Hong Kong's top public bus sightseeing tours

Slow, cheap and terrific, the bus trip is the new road trip in Hong Kong
Hong Kong bus routes
Touring Hong Kong by bus -- strictly about the journey and not the destination.

One of Hong Kong’s best tour options offers unparalleled sights and a healthy dose of local culture at rock-bottom prices. It happens to be the public bus.

Suspend your idea of what a public bus is for a moment and consider that the top deck of Hong Kong’s double-decker bus fleet offers a unique vantage point from which you can explore all of Hong Kong for just a handful of dollars.

The MTR rapid transit railway system is speedy and convenient, but it whisks you mostly underground from place to place and there’s little chance to view more than tunnel walls.

The bus, however, trundles along, stops every few hundred meters, and offers a bird’s-eye view of everything along the way. Short of walking, it’s the best way to slow things down enough so that you’re able to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. And isn’t that the very essence of travel?

With this in mind, we spotlight three bus routes that will enable you to explore large swaths of Hong Kong frugally and with eyes wide open. The caveats are that it is imperative to ride on the top deck and highly preferential to ride in one of the front four seats, where the views are unfettered.

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1. Iconic Hong Kong: Victoria Harbour to Victoria Peak

Hong Kong bus routesView of the Happy Valley racecourse from bus no. 15.

First Bus #15 
Start: Central Pier 5 
End: The Peak Tower 
Cost: HK$9.80 
Duration: 60 minutes

Get in line early and get ready to do battle with the mainland tourists who opt for this roller-coaster bus route over the more staid Peak Tram.

The minute the bus leaves the waterfront, the air is alive with loud chatter. As the bus lurches past the old Legislative Council building and the Cenotaph, be sure to glimpse the imposing apartment buildings of the Midlevels between Central’s glass-and-steel buildings.

Past Admiralty, the bus veers right onto Queen’s Road East in the heart of old Wanchai. Look for two notable buildings -- Hung Shing Temple and the old Wanchai post office -- on the right.

Peer left down the narrow streets to spy small shops and markets that have remained intact through years of turmoil and development.

As the bus climbs out of Wanchai, it makes a right onto Stubbs Road at the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple, which serves as a center of activity for Hong Kong’s large and active Sikh community.

Hong Kong bus routesPass the Opus Hong Kong... construction site.Stubbs Road ascends sharply and passes the Happy Valley Cemetery, which dates from 1845. Keep looking left as the expansive jumble of Happy Valley seems to fall away at your feet. Ahead are Highcliff (252 meters) and The Summit (220 meters), two of the tallest residential buildings in Hong Kong, appropriately nicknamed “the chopsticks.”

After a sharp right, your ears begin to pop with the rise in altitude. Branches of overhanging trees slap against the windshield like a violent metronome.

King Yin Lei, a massive brick and tile Chinese-style mansion, is to the right. Farther up Stubbs Road, Frank Gehry’s new creation, the Opus Hong Kong, is visible to the left.

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As the road continues to climb, you marvel at the idea that there is no way a double-decker bus should be plying this road. The pitch and the width make each switchback a nerve-wracking exercise in geometry and the crowded bus oohs and aahs with every turn of the road.

To the right, the skyline is visible through the trees. As the road continues to rise, the harbor soon comes in sight, and so too do the mountains of Kowloon.

Over Magazine Gap, the entire south side of the island opens up. The chasm that yawns to the left as the bus leans toward the abyss causes everyone on the upper deck of the bus to gasp. Islands dot the far waters. Clouds ring the radio towers of The Peak.

Our heartbeats finally slow down as the bus pulls into the terminus.  We enjoy walking around for a spell but forgo a trip down on the Peak Tram. We like to gird ourselves instead for the even more harrowing return trip on the no. 15 bus.

2. Iconic Kowloon: Below the Lion Rock

Hong Kong bus routesNathan Road, aka the Golden Mile.

KMB bus #87D
Start: Bus terminus outside Hung Hom Station
End: Bayshore Towers, Ma On Shan MTR station 
Cost: HK$8.50 
Duration: 70 minutes

Leaving the terminus, the bus passes the Hong Kong Coliseum, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Hong Kong Museum of History, and the Hong Kong Science Museum before making a right turn onto Nathan Road.

During the postwar years, Nathan Road was known as Hong Kong’s “Golden Mile” due to the bounty that could be found here. The name could well still be valid since there are seemingly more jewelry stores here per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world.

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The Peninsula Hotel stands on the left at the beginning of Nathan Road. Further along on the right is Chungking Mansions, the hub of activity for many South Asian and African traders in Hong Kong.

The minarets of the Kowloon Mosque are visible up the road, surrounded by the lush greenery of Kowloon Park.

Entering Jordan, the neon signs jut well into the road and seem to threaten decapitation.

Buildings to the left and right are caged in scaffolding, old tong lau-style tenements overhang sidewalks like chins and surrounding buses congest in a slow, claustrophobic dance.

The frequent stops allow you to peer into the small eateries that spill out onto the sidewalk.

Hong Kong bus routesGet a glimpse of Chungking Mansions.Entering the northern portion of Mong Kok, the bus seems too large for the narrow residential streets. It rolls down Boundary Street, once the border between British-controlled Hong Kong and the Chinese-controlled lands beyond, before heading into the heart of Kowloon Tong, a low-rise bedroom community where the large suburban homes and the road names -- Oxford, Lancashire, Waterloo, York -- evoke visions of Abbey Road.

Lion Rock looms above as the road climbs past the American and Australian International Schools, a number of posh wedding venues and Hong Kong Baptist University before funneling into the Lion Rock Tunnel.

On the other side, the landscape becomes reconfigured. Clustered housing blocks rise above small village houses. Sha Tin, one of Hong Kong’s original new towns, lies to the left, punctuated by its massive racetrack. The dramatic cliffs of Ma On Shan jut upward to the right and the new town that bears the mountain’s name looms ahead.

One of the newest MTR lines runs above ground here and its presence has given rise to gleaming new developments.

Alight at Bayshore Towers, one of these new developments where you can explore on foot before catching the MTR back toward Tai Wai.

3. Iconic New Territories: Manifest destiny, west to east

Hong Kong bus routesLet the bus do the hiking for you on Tai Mo Shan.

KMB #64K
Start: Yuen Long MTR station, exit G1
End: Tai Po Market MTR station
Cost: HK$7.60
Duration: 60 minutes

The heart of the New Territories is expansive, mountainous and difficult to navigate, but this bus route offers the perfect way to traverse it and view otherwise unseen portions of its breathtaking landscape.

The 64K is busiest on weekends, as families make the trek to otherwise hard-to-reach villages along the route. As it leaves Yuen Long, the pace of development in this evolving old town can be seen in the massive luxury developments that have been built on its outskirts.

The beautiful, dappled ridges of the mountains of Lam Tsuen Country Park rise to almost 600 meters on the left. The MTR’s elevated West Rail Line carves through the countryside like an oversized aqueduct.

As the bus winds eastward on Kam Sheung Road, shanties and corrugated roofs are at eye-level and junkyards and scrapheaps stand adjacent to low-rise village homes, both old and new. Some of the more dilapidated structures broadcast their build dates -- 1962, 1969 -- but one wonders how much longer they will stand as new, glass-walled mini-mansions go up in their midst.

After a right turn, the road skirts between some of Hong Kong’s highest peaks. Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain, looms to the right. The bus climbs an impossibly steep grade, offering glimpses of small farms and houses to the left. As it crests the top, it descends past Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, a center that encourages conservation and biodiversity and is a great spot for a weekend trip.

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The road rockets down into another valley. To the left and right are small roads that snake toward unseen villages. Houses dot the lower hillsides to the left.

The outskirts of Tai Po begin to make themselves known as the road infrastructure becomes more extensive. Highway overpasses flail in the air above and trucks roar loudly around rotaries. Closer yet to Tai Po proper are huge housing developments that rise like concrete monoliths.

The river on the right slides past Tai Po Old Market and the Hong Kong Railway Museum. When the bus arrives at the terminus, alight and head into the pedestrian tunnel to locate the entrance to the MTR station.

Honorable Mentions

Hong Kong bus routesHe's got the best seat in the house.

1) First Bus #14, Sai Wan Ho to Stanley: The bus traverses tightrope-like Tai Tam Road which winds across the top of the dam wall high above the reservoir.

2) Airport buses (#A10, A11, A12, E11): Zip through the Western Harbour Tunnel, view the massive Kwai Tsing Container Terminals and ride over the Tsing Ma and the Kap Shui Mun bridges.

3) Lantau bus #23, Tung Chung to Ngong Ping: Buckle up as you’re whisked from sea level to the Big Buddha through Lantau’s rolling countryside. Keep an eye out for feral cattle and water buffalo by the side of the road.

Freelance writer Jason Beerman has a predisposition for eating food that's served on a stick and sometimes wanders aimlessly for hours at a time.

Read more about Jason Beerman