Victoria Peak, also known as The Peak, is the highest point on Hong Kong Island. With sweeping views over the city, it has become Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attraction – and its most expensive residential area! So how did this hill become so popular?
Geology & Wildlife
Victoria Peak is essentially a big hill, not exactly a rare thing in the world. Much of the history that makes it unique is about how humans have used this hill. But, it existed for millions of years before humans ever did anything with it, so we have to go back to the beginning and discover how it was formed. Most of the land formations in Hong Kong are a result of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. The Earth’s plates are always moving, and where one slid under another, it lowered the melting point of the Earth’s crust. This melted into magma, which rises up until it erupts as a volcano. When everything eventually cooled down, millions of years later, volcanic rock formations remained. Most of Hong Kong‘s highest mountains were formed in this way – Victoria Peak stands at 554m, the highest on Hong Kong Island.
Hong Kong has a subtropical climate, meaning there are four distinct seasons, with hot and humid summers, and cooler winters. Rainfall can be heavy at times, and typhoons are common in summer. However, The Peak is a little cooler and more temperate than the lower parts of the city. This climate suits the evergreen forest that covers much of the slopes of Victoria Peak, along with many ferns and mosses. The Peak was also home to many species of wildlife over the course of its history, before humans arrived. Some of these remain today, including plenty of species of birds, butterflies, and snakes, and occasionally porcupines and wild boar.
When humans began to settle in Hong Kong thousands of years ago, they mostly formed fishing villages around the coast. Living high in the hills would have been more difficult for them! It wasn’t until Europeans arrived in the region (Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841) that they saw potential health benefits atop Victoria Peak. It was also the Brits who gave the hill its name, after their Queen Victoria. The cooler air up there would be a refreshing relief from the sticky humidity around Victoria Harbour (also named after her)! In 1849, Dr William T. Morrison proposed building a sanatorium on The Peak, but his plans never came to pass. There was too much debate and differing opinions between doctors as to whether the benefits were real or not.
In 1859, construction began on a military hospital on top of the hill. It wasn’t very successful though, as the patients didn’t seem to improve any better there – some said they actually got worse! Not all doctors had given up on the idea though. Dr James Cantlie founded ‘Peak Hospital’ in 1890, and later, the banker Granville Sharp funded Matilda Hospital, which opened in 1907. The former has since been demolished, but the latter remains to this day.
Colonial Rule in Hong Kong
But while the health benefits were still debatable, British colonial settlers were becoming more attracted to living on Victoria Peak during the 19th century. They enjoyed the cooler, temperate climate, and the panoramic views over Victoria Harbour. Many of them started to buy land and build houses there, often calling them “sanatoriums”. In reality, they were more like summer homes, for getting out of the heat and crowds of the city centre.
However, there were only a few to begin with, because it wasn’t exactly easy to reach these houses. There was no road or transport, so they would make their servants carry them up in sedan chairs – exhausting work carrying such weight, uphill, in the humidity! This also meant the area was reserved for the wealthy, who could afford to have servants and build such homes. For example, the sixth Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Richard MacDonnell, built his residence there around 1868.
Building the Peak Tram
The decision to build a tram to get up and down Victoria Peak would transform the hill forever, making it far more accessible to people. The Scotsman Alexander Findlay Smith first proposed the idea in 1881, and the governor approved it. His goal was to attract more visitors to the Peak Hotel, built on land he owned and opened in 1873. However, Findlay Smith had to spend several years travelling Europe to learn about mountain railways there, before work began on the Peak Tram in 1885. Workers had to haul much of the heavy equipment uphill, with no machinery to help. They completed the project three years later, in 1888, and it was a feat of engineering in Asia at the time!
The tram is a funicular railway, originally operated using a steam engine to haul the cable. Two wooden cars for passengers would run on a single track. It had three classes of seating, with the front two seats always reserved for the governor. It transports passengers 400m up in elevation, over the course of a 1.4km track. As well as its two terminuses, Garden Road and The Peak, there are four ‘request stops’ along the way as well. In 1926, they replaced the steam engine with an electric motor, and in 1956, replaced the wooden cars with lightweight metal ones. More upgrades took place in 1989 to computerise the system, and again in 2018, and the tram now carries around 4 million people annually.
With the tram making access to Victoria Peak so much easier, it exploded in popularity as a residential area. It was still very exclusive though, with only the wealthiest British colonials able to afford to build houses there. Plenty of visitors came to The Peak Hotel as well, until it burned down in 1938. The Peak was soon the most prestigious area of Hong Kong to live in.
But as if it wasn’t exclusive enough, the government introduced the Peak Reservation Ordinance in 1904. This designated The Peak as an area only for non-Chinese to live in. The official reason behind this was an outbreak of Bubonic plague in mainland China, which was spreading into Hong Kong, and causing an influx of Chinese to the city. The segregation protected Europeans from being infected.
However, some historians believe that the law was actually for social segregation, as the altitude of your home directly correlated to your social status. The law also included the tram, which was only for use by residents of The Peak during rush hours. Either way, the law remained in place until 1930, shortly after the plague was eradicated. Now, people of any ethnicity can live here – but only if they can afford the highest property prices in the city, even the world!
Although the tram was initially built for residents of Victoria Peak, it soon helped to develop the area as a visitor location as well. People were always desperate to see the panoramic views over Victoria Harbour, and in the latter half of the 20th century, tourism really developed in the area. Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, who own the Peak Tram, also built Peak Tower, which serves as the tram terminus. The first tower opened in 1972, containing a restaurant and cafe, before being demolished again in 1993. The second tower opened in 1997, and contains eight floors of retail space, and has a 360 degree viewing platform on the roof.
Behind Peak Tower, you can also now find the Peak Galleria, a second shopping centre, owned by Hang Lung Properties. The bus station is underneath the building, the alternative transport for reaching The Peak. The Galleria opened in 1993, and contains plenty of shops and restaurants. It has its own rooftop viewing platform, which is larger than the Tower’s and free to access, but the view is more obstructed. Victoria Peak has become Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attraction, with over 7 million visitors scaling the hill each year.
The Peak Tower & Tram
The tram is definitely the most popular way to reach The Peak, and practically an attraction unto itself. Running for over 130 years now, it is iconic to the city. The ride up from Garden Road, in Central, is pretty quick, although at an alarmingly steep angle at times! There’s a strange optical illusions that happens, where the buildings seem to lean back into the hill! Much of the ride goes through forested area, so you have to wait until the top to really appreciate the views.
A combo ticket for the tram also includes entry to the Sky Terrace, on top of Peak Tower, where you can enjoy panoramic views over Hong Kong and Victoria Harbour. Time your visit for sunset, or go twice, during the day and night, so you can see how the city looks at all times of day. And while the views are the main reason to visit Victoria Peak, you won’t run out of other things to do up there either. The Peak Tower and Galleria have plenty of shops and places to eat, and you can also visit Madame Tussaud’s inside the Tower as well.
Beyond the retail spaces on the Peak, there is also plenty of natural scenery to explore as well. You can visit Victoria Peak Garden, located at Mountain Lodge, which was once the governor’s summer residence. This is right at the summit of the Peak, which is a 20 minute uphill walk from Peak Tower. Or, try the Circle Walk, a walking trail that loops around the top of The Peak. Parts of it are under the cover of the forest, but there are also breaks in the foliage. You’ll get views to the southwest of Hong Kong Island, and out west over the sea. It is an easy, flat route, that takes around 40 minutes to complete.
For a more strenuous hike, you can skip the tram or the bus, and walk up Victoria Peak itself. Most of the routes start in the Mid-Levels, where the skyscrapers give way to the forest. From Central, you can first take the Mid-Levels escalators, the longest outdoor covered escalator in the world, enjoying glimpses of city life along the way. From there, you can either go up Old Peak Road, which is the more direct but steeper option, emerging right next to Peak Tower. Or, go up Hatton Road (also known as the Morning Trail), which is gentler and brings you out further west, halfway around the Circle Walk.
Skypass (combo): Adults $99, Children (under 12) & concessions $47
Tram only: Adults $52, Children & concessions $23
Sky Terrace 428 only: Adults $52, Children & concessions $26
Prices listed are for return tickets on the tram, single tickets are also available. You can also hike up The Peak and access other viewpoints around the hilltop for free.
The Peak Tower & Sky Terrace 428: Mon-Fri 10.00am-23.00pm, Sat-Sun & public holidays 8.00am-23.00pm
The Peak Lower Tram Terminus: Daily 07.00am-00.00am
Victoria Peak is located on Hong Kong Island, behind Central. The tram terminus is on Garden Road, close to Central MTR station and Hong Kong Park. You can also take bus number 15 to reach the summit of The Peak instead. It has several stops around Central, and is cheaper than the tram, but takes 40-60 minutes. There are several hiking routes as well, as listed above, or you can take a taxi. There are plenty of amenities on top, found in the two shopping centres, plus public bathrooms along the hiking routes.
Have you visited The Peak before? Leave a comment about your experience!