Kowloon was once known simply as the place to go for the best view back towards Hong Kong Island. But, over the last two decades, this bustling Chinese metropolis has moved out of the shadows of its better-known sister city across Victoria Harbor. Kowloon always was the place to go to get a properly authentic Chinese experience. Now, that sense of 'taking the pulse' of the Chinese mainland has grown, as Kowloon has boomed and modernized.
These days, Kowloon also has the glittering attractions, the designer-store stuffed shopping malls and the neon-lit hotel towers found across the water. But it still has its famed tong lau shop-houses, its crowded, story-filled streets and its exotic garden-parks. It also has an overwhelming choice of accommodation. A good way to narrow the choice down is to look what each hotel district has to offer in turn.
The first point of arrival for the Kowloon-bound is Tsim Sha Tsui, the southerly peninsular sticking out into Victoria Harbor. This is the modern heart of Kowloon, the place where its towers soar highest, and where its stores are most extravagant. So, as you might expect, its best hotels are as fabulous and high-class as their room rates are stratospheric.
But once you step a block or two away from the harbor-front, and the Salisbury and Chatham Roads, the hotel choices open up. In fact, this district is reckoned to have more hotels per square kilometer than any other part of greater Hong Kong. There are still many luxurious hotels here, but these are more fairly priced (but still elegantly swank).
Then there are its innumerable cheaper guest-houses and lodgings, found especially flanking Nathan Road. These offer a no-frills, basic service— perfectly suited to their clientele of back-packers, guest workers and locals. Perhaps the most famous is the 17-storey Chungking Mansions, with its combination of bazaar-like shopping corridors and maze of 'compact' rooms.
Although Tsim Sha Tsui covers all the main angles for tourist accommodation, some may prefer a holiday stay closer to Kowloon's old-time spirit. To discover this, head further north, along Nathan Road, into Yau Ma Tei. This former fishing village still has much of the vibrant community-feel that made Kowloon famous.
The lodgings here, away from the main streets, are either somewhat faded hotels or guest-houses. Needless to say, alongside bags of character, they offer some of the best rates in town. Another place-name to conjure up Kowloon's unique character is Mong Kok. This northern district still has many original tong lau shop-houses. It can sometimes feel like the whole area is one giant open-air market.
Inevitably, Mong Kok's hotels fall towards the budget end of the spectrum, though many are very nicely presented. There are more expensive, but well-serviced, modern hotels around the edges of the district, too. A contrast to Mong Kok's manic bustle can be found on the other side of the Kowloon Bay, in Kwun Tong.
While this district was once Kowloon's industrial heartland, today its waterfront has been remade into a shining, modern commercial hub. There is a new promenade and park, and several brand-new hotel towers looming over the Bay. These are on the deluxe side, aimed at business travelers and well-heeled tourists. From factories to five-star hotels— Kowloon's transformation, it seems, is never complete.