By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
Parks & Recreation
People have lived in Tai Po for more than a thousand years, making a living by clamming, pearl harvesting and fishing. Surrounded by lush and fertile valleys, Tai Po eventually became an important market town, and when the British leased the New Territories from China in 1898, this was where they established their first headquarters.
These days, Tai Po is one of Hong Kong’s most agreeable districts. Home to just over 300,000 people, it’s a greener, more relaxed version of the city, with bicycle tracks, leafy riverside promenades and markets filled with family-run businesses. When the old market town was expanded with new shopping malls and housing estates in the 1970s, urban planners took care to make sure there was abundant greenery and places to linger.
That makes the bustling town centre a fascinating place to wander, with a mix of tranquil parks and thriving street markets. It’s also a good jumping off point for some more rural excursions. To the west, you’ll find the lush Lam Tsuen Valley and the slopes of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain. To the east, Tolo Harbour is a haven for water sports, flanked by monasteries, butterfly sanctuaries, barbecue sites and plenty of other diversions.
Getting to Tai Po is easy enough, thanks to the MTR’s East Rail Line and a variety of buses that travel along the Tolo Highway, which passes through Tai Po as it makes its way north to Shenzhen. But it’s just far enough removed from the rest of Hong Kong to feel like its own place — and a very nice one indeed.
Watch the sunset over Tolo Harbour from the Plover Cove Dam.
Hire a bicycle and make your way along a scenic cycle track from Tai Po to Tai Mei Tuk.
Take a detour and a break at the charming Bride’s Pool Waterfall.
Explore Hong Kong’s diverse flora and fauna at the Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.
Go birdwatching at the Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve.
When it was built in 1905 as a residence for government officers, this whitewashed mansion was a typical example of Hong Kong colonial architecture. The pitched tile roof is a nod to Chinese building styles, while large verandahs allowed its inhabitants to stay cool in the summer. There’s also a watch tower that overlooks Tolo Harbour. Today, the villa is protected as an historic monument and it is home to the WWF’s Island House Conservation Studies Centre, with exhibitions, workshops and an English-style garden — home to 140 species of plants. Bookings required for public tours (Cantonese only) of Island House and its gardens.
This pint-sized museum is based at the former Tai Po Market Railway Station, though given the exhibits are life-size trains, most of the museum is outdoors. Alongside the historical interest of seeing a traditional steam locomotive, an old 1950’s Australia-made diesel electric engine and retro passenger coaches, visitors can learn about the development of the railways and MTR in Hong Kong, plus there’s an interactive educational corner. The market building is of interest alone for its early 20th century traditional Chinese pitched-roof architecture.
13 Shung Tak Street, Tai Po Market, Tai Po, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2653 3455
When it opened in 1980, this was one of the first indoor public markets in Tai Po. By the time it had reached its 30th birthday, however, it was half dead, with vacant stalls and maintenance problems. That led to an ambitious renovation that gave the market a complete makeover, doing away with crowded, narrow aisles and adopting a more inviting, aesthetically pleasing design. Today, there’s a broad mix of tenants, from greengrocers to fishmongers and delicatessens, and there’s even a rooftop farm that produces fresh vegetables. Stay for lunch at one of the 10 cooked food stalls.
10 Ting Kok Road, Tai Po, New Territories (View on Map)
When the British leased the New Territories from China in 1898, they chose a small hill in Tai Po to raise the Union Jack for the first time. Shortly thereafter, a regional police headquarters was built on the same site. Today, the historic complex is now the Green Hub, where you can enjoy locally grown vegetarian food, take part in a nature-related workshop and explore the site's history through exhibitions and guided tours. Jail cells, living quarters, an armoury and a parade ground have all been preserved. The restoration effort won a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award in 2016.
11 Wan Tau Kok Lane, Tai Po, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2996 2800
Dim sum doesn’t need to be an hours-long affair in a huge banquet hall. Many people in Hong Kong enjoy a few steam baskets of dishes every morning in little neighbourhood places like Lam Kee, which is located in the cooked food centre of the Tai Po Hui Market. They are famous for their steamed black bean spare rib rice, but the quail egg siu mai, char siu bau and custard buns are just as delicious.
Shop CFS08-09, 2/F, Tai Po Hui Market, 8 Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po, New Territories (View on Map)
For nature, temples, relaxation, adventure, family
Tai Mei Tuk is a high-spirited destination that promises a weekend of fishing, cycling, boating and barbecuing. Located next to the Plover Cove Dam, it's actually a cluster of several distinct villages, each with their own shrines and ancestral halls. All of them have sprawled together to form a kind of holiday destination for people looking to escape the pressures of city life.
“I like to come out here to sit on the dam. It’s one of the most beautiful places in Hong Kong,” says Greg Brown, a regular visitor. On a clear day, you’ll find families flying kites and riding bicycles back and forth across the dam, the waters of Plover Cove lapping against one side of the dam, the waters of Tolo Harbour on the other.
Cycling is one of the best ways to reach Tai Mei Tuk. Start in Tai Po town centre, where bicycle rental shops and app-controlled share bikes compete for customers. From there, dedicated cycle tracks take you along the Lam Tsuen River to the Tai Po Waterfront Park, which is home to an insect enclosure, a flower garden, a model boat pool and an observation tower that spirals up into the sky. A large lawn overlooking the harbour is a great place for a picnic.
The next point of interest along the cycle track is the Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve, home to 200 different species of butterfly — about 80 per cent of all the species that live in Hong Kong. There’s a butterfly festival on the last Sunday of each month, with carnival games and guided tours.
You’ll spot another landmark as you head west: an enormous white statue of Kwun Yam, or Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. Built in 2015, this is the second-tallest statue of the deity in the world, and at 76 metres, it is more than twice as tall as the famous Big Buddha on Lantau Island.
Another 10 minutes of pedalling gets you from the monastery to Tai Mei Tuk. This is place designed for escape. Cafes like Pimary (part of a lovely lifestyle store) offer tranquil spaces to while away the afternoon, while the row of alfresco restaurants along Sam Wo Road attract a constant stream of diners for lunch and dinner. Many opt to cook their own meals at the expansive public barbecue site overlooking Tolo Harbour. Each of the marble-clad pits is free to use; bring your own food and charcoal or buy it from the kiosks nearby.
Just past the barbecue area is the Tai Mei Tuk Water Sports Centre, where you can rent canoes, sailboats and windsurfing boards for as little as HK$14 per hour. A small hill nearby takes you to the Tai Mei Tuk Family Walk, an easy path that rewards you with views over the surrounding mountains and water.
Beyond that, you have a choice. You can continue beyond Tai Mei Tuk into the Plover Cove Country Park, where you’ll find the Bride’s Pool Waterfall — named for a bride who drowned after the men carrying her sedan chair slipped on a rock. Despite the morbid history, it’s actually quite a romantic place.
Or you can make your way to the Plover Cove Dam. It’s one of the most beguiling spots in the district, especially as the sun slips behind the mountains across the harbour – a perfect end to a playful day.
For nature, hiking, adventure
When the British first arrived in Hong Kong, Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston famously described it as a “barren island.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Centuries of human habitation had left most of Hong Kong denuded. From the tip of Hong Kong Island all the way up to the Sham Chun River, most hills and valleys were covered only by grass and scrub.
It wasn’t always like that. Hong Kong was once a land covered in thick broadleaf rainforest; there were tigers and deer. Things began to change when several waves of settlers from northern China established themselves and forest was gradually cleared away for farmland and fuel. By the mid-19th century, the only original forest left was in the feng shui woods maintained by villagers for good luck.
The colonial government began a reforestation programme in 1873. Although it faced several setbacks — especially during World War II, when much of the new forest was razed for fuel — the tree-planting effort has once again blanketed much of Hong Kong in a woodland. And while most of it is secondary forest, meaning it doesn’t have quite the biodiversity of old-growth woods, some of Hong Kong’s oldest reforestation areas offer a remarkable gateway into natural life.
Tai Po is where you’ll find two of the best examples. In 1958, two brothers from one of Hong Kong’s most prominent families, Sir Horace and Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, established the Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden on the slopes of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak. Although the initial mission was to help refugee farmers who were fleeing the tumult of mainland China, it soon evolved into something else — “to conserve nature,” according to Petra Fischer, a biologist who works as a guide to the farm.
Today, a visit to the Kadoorie Farm is a window into Hong Kong’s natural universe. As you make your way up to the farm's highest point, 548 metres above sea level, you'll encounter beautifully maintained gardens, experimental agriculture and a woodland filled with native species. You can meander along the 12 easy nature trails and take advantage of guided tours that take place twice every weekday — once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Or you can make your own way along one of four suggested walking routes that take between one and three hours to complete.
The Little Fish Loop follows a tranquil stream that was historically used by villagers to reach a holy spot on top of the mountain. The Woodland Loop passes through a monkey habitat before reaching a spectacular waterfall. The Never Never Loop begins in an orchid sanctuary before meandering through a forest named after Peter Pan's Neverland because it has such a magical feel. The Sky Loop is the farm's highest trail, with sweeping views over the New Territories and a visit to an experimental tree-planting site.
There’s something new to see whatever the time of year. January is the month when bauhinias — Hong Kong’s official flower — are in bloom. In April, garlands of pineapple orchids hang from the trees. Summer is fruit season, when you’ll see bananas, papayas, pomelos and pineapples ripening in the woods. Lychee trees are especially popular with monkeys; don’t be alarmed if you spot some simians lounging on their branches as they enjoy an afternoon snack.
Not far from the Kadoorie Farm is another one of Hong Kong’s natural wonders: the Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, Hong Kong’s oldest secondary forest. Hiking enthusiast Martin Williams, who manages the Hong Kong Outdoors guide to the city's backcountry, was surprised by the diversity of birds in Tai Po Kau when he first visited.
“Tai Po Kau has the best forest for birds in Hong Kong,” he says. “There’s a lot because of the variety of tree species being planted here. It gives a little idea of diversity that would have been in the original forests.” Among the forest’s inhabitants are minivets, sunbirds and plenty of northern visitors that spend their winters in Hong Kong.
Even if you’re not an ornithology enthusiast, Tai Po Kau’s thick vegetation makes it a spectacular place for a stroll. “There are fine trails here,” says Williams. He particularly enjoys the Red and Blue Trails that run in the lower part of the valley, close to a picturesque stream. “In places, you pass through woodlands a little like tropical jungle,” he says. It’s a reminder of nature’s resilience — and how Hong Kong is barren no more.
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