Before about 2019, Hong Kong was in a class all its own. Call it “Asia’s World City,” or use any other word or phrase to describe it, but the reality was the same. No other place—certainly no other place in the Far East—could boast having as much wealth, culture, cuisine and just plain fun within so few square miles.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s government badly shit the bed during the pandemic, walling off the city to the rest of the world in early 2020 for what ended up being three years. This came on the heels of protests the previous summer, during which Hong Kong authorities largely sold out their population to the whims of lawmakers in Beijing. The city didn’t stand a chance.
And why am I teeing up my comparison of Hong Kong vs Singapore this way? Because it’s as much a story of what Singapore did right as it is one about all the wrong that befell Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Was “Asia’s World City,” Until It Wasn’t
The question of Hong Kong or Singapore came into acute focus in late 2021, when Singapore began taking steps away from the farcical “covid zero” policy that had plagued most of Asia for the previous 18 months. This started first with limited Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTL) and relaxations of the outdoor mask mandate; within a year, Singapore had removed almost all covid-related travel restrictions, as well as indoor mask mandates. Hong Kong, by comparison, was effectively still in lockdown—and was locked away from the rest of the world.
Throughout the business world, and especially within the travel industry, people began to wonder how one of the most isolated jurisdictions on the planet could claim its former title of “Asia’s World City.” Conversely, many of these same people began noticing Singapore, some for the first time. Singapore had Hong Kong’s international flair, food scene, upscale feeling and warm climate, but was decidedly more friendly to business, tourism and arguably to quality of life in general.
How Singapore and Hong Kong Compare
Both Singapore and Hong Kong feature pretty impressive cityscapes, but they are arranged differently. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than basically any other city in the world, split between two main lobes: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The hundreds of metal-and-glass spindles glittering along Victoria Harbor are its defining visual feature. While Singapore has an impressive business district, it also features a variety of interesting structures of varied heights, from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown, to the “super trees” of Gardens by the Bay.
Culture and Cuisine
This is another area where it’s not quite “one or the other” in terms of Singapore vs Hong Kong. Singapore certainly has more diverse cuisine (largely due to a more diverse population), from chilli crab at Chinatown’s Maxwell Hawker Centre, to the flavorful curries of Little India, to all manners of Muslim cuisine along Arab Street in Kampong Glam. Hong Kong, while cosmopolitan and home to large expat communities and plenty of international restaurants, it is basically a Chinese (well, Cantonese) city. Think raucous wet markets, sumptuous dim sum served in yum cha restaurants, and roasted duck, pork and soy sauce chicken washed down with milk tea.
Both cities have excellent public transit, which is defined in both cases by urban rail. Confusingly, Hong Kong has an MTR, while Singapore has an MRT. You can ride these systems to basically anywhere within either city center, although in Hong Kong you sometimes need to take buses to access various hiking trails and beaches. Airport-wise, both Hong Kong International (HKG) and Singapore Changi (SIN) are huge, busy international hubs: Hong Kong’s is better connected to the city center via the Airport Express; Singapore’s is more of an “experience” including due to The Jewel (pictured above).
Given that both are known as urban destinations, you might not think that either Singapore or Hong Kong would be a good place for nature. In general, I’d say Hong Kong wins in this department, with not only better city-center hiking trails, but also genuinely awesome beaches, including Shek-O, which is probably my personal favorite. While Singapore does have some nice urban nature (the National Orchid Garden is one of my favorite flower gardens in the world) both the beaches of Sentosa and the hiking trails outside the city leave something to be desired.
I’ll be honest: Neither Singapore nor Hong Kong is a budget destination. Of the two, I’d probably say Singapore is a bit cheaper, simply because food is much more affordable. It’s not uncommon to be able to enjoy a full meal at a hawker center for under S$10; even restaurant meals in Chinatown and Little India are often just S$20-30 per person. Unfortunately, all but the most basic hotels will set you back way more than they should in both cities, although I’ve prepared a little guide below that may help you save some cash.
So, is Singapore or Hong Kong Better for Travelers?
After having re-visited both cities in 2023, I can safely say that I now prefer Singapore to Hong Kong. And not just because Singapore is significantly more “back to normal” than Hong Kong and bears fewer pandemic scars, although these these are both true. One thing I really prefer about Singapore is that it’s a genuinely multicultural country. Hong Kong is cosmopolitan, but only in terms of the foreigners who visit, work and live there.
Now, this is not to say that I don’t still love Hong Kong, whether that’s eating dim sum in yum cha shops, gazing down on the skyline from Victoria Peak, or riding the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong will always—and still does—hold an important place in my heart. At the same time, if I were deciding between Hong Kong or Singapore and could only choose one, I’d be hard pressed not to pick Singapore.
- Hotels in the Kowloon lobe of Hong Kong tend to offer the best bang for your buck. Properties like the Perkin Hotel and the Stanford Hillview Hotel feature large rooms at fair rates, and are only a short walk from the Hong Kong MTR.
- In Singapore, meanwhile, it’s best to stay in Chinatown. This is both where you’ll find affordable boutique hotels such as The Scarlet, as well as hostels like Atelier.
- For luxury travelers with no set budget, opulent hotels such as The Peninsula (in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui area) and The Fullerton Hotel (near Singapore’s Merlion) are among some of the finest luxury accommodations in the world, with views and cuisine as satisfying as the plush guest rooms.
- If you simply need a cheap and centrally-located place to stay in Hong Kong, Chunking Mansions on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui will do.
Other FAQ About Hong Kong and Singapore
Which is better, Hong Kong or Singapore?
Hong Kong and Singapore are both fantastic cities to discover if you have a few days to spare, but to me, Singapore is the more interesting choice. In addition to being at least as cosmopolitan as Hong Kong in general, Singapore has a much more diverse local population, which makes for better culinary options and more interesting cityscapes. Moreover, Singapore stayed closed for a much shorter period during covid-19, which meant that fewer businesses had to close—it still feels more or less like it did before the pandemic.
How are Hong Kong and Singapore different?
Hong Kong and Singapore are different in a few ways, including the following:
- While Singapore is a sovereign country, Hong Kong is a special administration region of the People’s Republic of China.
- Hong Kong’s population is predominately Han Chinese; Singapore is a multi-ethnic state with large populations not only of Chinese, but Tamil Indians and Malay Muslims.
- Both Hong Kong and Singapore live under various degrees of authoritarianism; Hong Kong is becoming less democratic, while Singapore is more or less maintaining its status quo.
- Singapore is about half the size of Hong Kong, with an area of 281 square miles compared to 430 square miles. One way this is evident is in the fact that vast swathes of Hong Kong (namely the “New Territories” are wild and rural); Singapore, as you can see when your plane is landing, is almost completely developed.
Is it cheaper to go to Singapore or Hong Kong?
Both Singapore and Hong Kong are expensive cities. It’s difficult to get by on less than 100 USD per person, per day in either, even if you stay in a hostel or a very cheap hotel. However, I’d say that on the whole you can expect to spend more in Hong Kong, because food and drink are more expensive there. In Singapore, on the other hand, food is surprisingly affordable, which decreases the cost of your travel experience more broadly.
The Bottom Line
In some ways, Hong Kong vs Singapore isn’t much of a competition these days—Singapore is rapidly ascending, and not just as a travel destination, while Hong Kong is stagnating or even falling behind where it used to be. On the other hand, no matter how much luster fades from Hong Kong, it once sparkled so bright that it will always be an alluring place to visit. No pandemic or political development could make me stand on the Kowloon waterfront looking across Victoria Harbor at Hong Kong Island and not feel deeply in awe. No matter which side of this debate you end up falling on, I do hope you’ll consider hiring me to plan your trip to Asia.