Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. September’s theme is ‘Build it Big,’ as we share the stories behind some of the world’s most impressive feats of engineering.
Exploring the bustling Central business district of Hong Kong on foot can be quite the challenge.
The area’s hilly landscape, combined with subtropical heat and smothering humidity, would test the stamina of a mountaineer.
Luckily, there’s the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator – an 800-meter-long chain of moving stairs and walkways that’s been dubbed the world’s longest outdoor escalator system.
Opened to the public in 1993 and built at a cost of $30 million, it’s a series of 16 reversible escalators and three travelators – all covered to protect against sudden downpours.
Building a system of people movers that intersects 13 busy streets on a slope was as challenging a task as one would expect.
The escalators were designed to follow the natural inclination of the hill slope. As most of the slopes’ gradients don’t fall within the normal standards for escalators, a dedicated production line was set up by the escalator manufacturer.
With limited spaces between Hong Kong’s old buildings and new skyscrapers, most of the escalators on the link only have one reversible track that changes direction “following the prevailing direction of pedestrian flow during the day.”
Running at around 0.65 meters per second, the network of escalators has its own CCTV system with 75 cameras, a PA system with 200 speakers, four LED displays and a control room to monitor the system.
But most importantly, it’s a congestion-free means of commuting between Central and Conduit Road in Mid-Levels, serving 78,000 pedestrian trips daily. And there’s no charge.
Snaking through narrow streets in the busiest neighborhood in town, it’s actually a great way to tour Hong Kong’s dramatic cityscape – from dai pai dong food stalls in small alleys to the trendiest bars in Mid-Levels, from colorful old walk-ups to sleek modern skyscrapers.
Here are some highlights that can be found by hopping on and off the escalator system.
Hong Kong's amazing outdoor escalator system
READ: 17 beautiful places to see in Hong Kong
Famous movie scenes: ‘Chungking Express’ and ‘Dark Knight’
The section of the travelator closest to Hollywood Road was featured significantly – and thus, immortalized – in famed director Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 romantic classic, “Chungking Express.”
Riding up the escalator, Faye – the female protagonist played by Faye Wong – would crouch and peek into the apartment of Cop 663, played by Tony Leung, which stands right next to the escalator.
Not far from where Wong spied on Leung, Christopher Nolan also filmed a few scenes for Batman movie “The Dark Knight” in 2008.
Top traditional Canto eateries
Many of the city’s most legendary old-school eateries can be found along the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator System.
Lan Fong Yuen (2 Gage St., Central) still makes a queue-worthy Cantonese milk tea. Snagging a wooden stool here is a bonus – only three are available in an incredibly tiny space. A bigger indoor space is available behind the stall.
Other classics locals clamor for include wontons at Mak’s Noodle (77 Wellington St, Central), Yat Lok’s roast goose (34-38 Stanley St., Central) and Tai Cheong Bakery’s cookie crust egg tarts (35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central).
‘New’ Hong Kong tastes
Sitting underneath the escalator along Cochrane Street, XTC (45B, Cochrane St., Central) is a homegrown gelato brand featuring a wonderfully rich Cantonese milk tea-flavored gelato.
Meanwhile, with chef Archan Chan now at the helm, the long-time favorite Ho Lee Fook’s (3-5 Elgin Street) menu has undergone a major revamp.
The restaurant now serves classic Cantonese dishes packed with wok hei and fresh local ingredients. What hasn’t changed are the playful bar-like atmosphere and the wall of waving lucky cats at its entrance.
Hong Kong’s finest cheongsams
Near the beginning of the escalator system sits one of the longest-standing cheongsam workshops in town, Linva (38 Cochrane St., Central).
Founded in 1966, Linva really came into the spotlight after tailoring a few figure-hugging cheongsam dresses for Maggie Cheung in “In The Mood For Love,” also by Wong Kar-wai.
For a modern take on the tradition Chinese dress, G.O.D. Goods of Desire (48 Hollywood Road) sells bold locally inspired designs that are good as a souvenir. Yan Shang Kee Qipao (4 Wing Lee Street) offers cheongsam rental services at an affordable price.
Easy access to Hong Kong’s best bars
The escalator system can be a lifesaver for wobbly heel-wearing party-goers hitting bars and clubs near SoHo – up the hill from Central.
Hidden down the staircase of an unassuming alley, the tiny bar The Old Man (37-39 Aberdeen Street) took the number one spot in Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2019. If a three-minute walk is too far, Penicillin (23 Hollywood Road), Hong Kong’s first sustainable bar and a newer venture from the same founders as the Old Man, is right underneath the escalator.
If you prefer your watering hole to have a theme, Behind Bars (G/F E Hall, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road) is a cocktail bar set inside a former jail cell at the historic Tai Kwun Centre.
Quench your thirst the traditional way
Instead of lemonade, locals prefer to rehydrate with a detoxifying and immune-boosting herbal tea-to-go.
Good Spring Company (8 Cochrane St., Central), a traditional Chinese medicine clinic with a street-side herbal tea counter, is a favorite among office workers nearby. It sells drinks like Sweet Flower Tea and 24 Flavors Tea for about $1 a glass.
Kung Lee (60 Hollywood Road, Central) is famous for its thirst-quenching sugar cane juice.
Take a closer look at Hong Kong’s heritage buildings
The escalator system offers elevated views of heritage buildings such as Central Market and Central Police Station – both still under renovation.
Home to three declared monuments, the old Central Police Station (10 Hollywood Road, Central) is being redeveloped into a contemporary art and cultural destination called Tai Kwun Centre.
PMQ and Dr. Sun Yat Sen Museum (7 Castle Road, Central) – only a short walk from the escalator – are worth a detour.
PMQ (the former Police Married Quarters) is a historic site that’s been transformed into a creative center filled with local arts and designs.
Housing the Sun Yat Sen exhibition, Kom Tong Hall is an attraction in itself. The Edwardian mansion is among the few well-preserved Hong Kong buildings from the early 1900s.
Other practical information
The Central-Mid-Levels Escalator officially begins at Des Voeux Road Central but the easiest way to begin your journey is through the footbridges linking the IFC – the financial and shopping complex above Hong Kong Station.
On average, it takes about 20 minutes to ride from one end to the other. The escalators run downhill from 6-10 a.m. and uphill from 10 a.m. to midnight.
As for Hong Kong itself, the city is open to fully-vaccinated travelers from certain countries however they must pre-book a three-day stay in a quarantine hotel and provide proof of a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of departure. Full details on entry requirements can be found on the official Hong Kong government website.
This feature and video were first published in 2017. The article was updated and republished in September 2022.