Header image courtesy of @kaahoo (via Instagram)
A literal urban oasis in the heart of Mid-Levels, the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens is a long-standing Hong Kong institution that outdates Hong Kong Park, Ocean Park, and even Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden. Even more impressive, the park dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, making it the oldest park in Hong Kong and one of the oldest zoological parks in the whole world.
Bound by Garden Road, Robinson Road, Glenealy, and Upper Albert Road, the 5.6-hectare park is bisected into eastern and western halves by Albany Road. The eastern half, a.k.a. the “Old Garden,” houses the park’s greenhouse, fountain terrace garden, and children’s playground, as well as its famous aviaries.
Meanwhile, the 146-year-old “New Garden” contains mammal and reptile enclosures, where you’ll find orangutans, lemurs, two-toed sloths, meerkats, and tortoises. From interesting historical tidbits to amazing plants and animals, Hong Kong heritage, and more, the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens has plenty to offer.
Built in 1860 on the land where Government House once stood, the Botanic Gardens—as they were then known—were partially opened to the public in 1864 before their completion in 1871. Owing to the site’s previous use—and the dual role of its inhabitant as Hong Kong’s governor and commander-in-chief—locals dubbed the park “Commander-in-Chief Gardens” (兵頭花園; bing1 tau4 fa1 yuen2).
Besides plants and seeds from England and Australia, the gardens were also home to native plant species collected for research and documentation. In the mid-1870s—the same time that the New Garden was built—the park began acquiring birds and mammals for its zoological collection.
Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, the park added monkeys, birds, and even a “Siberian bear” to its growing animal collection. However, the park’s moniker would not accurately reflect its new nature until a century later, in 1975, when it was officially renamed “Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens.”
Being in the centre of the city, there are plenty of ways to reach the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens. Besides walking from the Kennedy Road and Macdonnell Road stops on the Peak Tram, you can also catch bus 103 from Lok Fu (via Kowloon Tong), bus 23B from Braemer Hill (via Tai Hang), bus 23 from Wan Chai, bus 40 from North Point, bus 40M from Wah Fu (North), bus 13 from Central or Mid-Levels (near HKU), and buses 12, 12A, and 12M from Admiralty. Minibuses 1A, 22, and 22S from Central and 28 from Causeway Bay all have stops within a few minutes’ walk of the gardens as well.
The closest stops on most buses are all under 10 minutes’ walk from either the Garden Road, Albany Road, and Glenealy entrances, and comprise Kennedy Heights, Kennedy Road; St John’s Cathedral, Garden Road; YWCA, MacDonnell Road; Government House; Caritas House, Caine Road. Admission is free.
While it is not steeped in as much military history as the nearby Hong Kong Park (which was built on the former Victoria Barracks), signs of Hong Kong’s wartime and colonial history can still be spotted at the park. Five special features of importance make up the gardens’ heritage trail, namely the stone pillars and memorial arch at its southern entrance, the bronze statue of King George VI, the pavilion, and the fountain terrace garden.
Start at the southern entrance on Upper Albert Road. Make your way past the pillars—which still bear the words “Old Botanic Gardens”—and up the first flight of steps to see the memorial arch, which commemorates the British-Chinese soldiers who died during World War I and II.
Further inside the Old Garden—sandwiched between two aviaries—you will see the bronze statue of King George VI, which commemorates 100 years of British rule. From there, take the path on the right to the pavilion, which was built in 1866 with donations from the Parsi community and is the oldest structure in the gardens. Then, follow the path until you hit the visitor centre and turn around to see the fountain.
The original fountain—which was built in 1868 with stone imported from England—was removed in 1932 to allow for the construction of a service reservoir under the gardens’ lower terraces, after which a new fountain was installed (albeit in a slightly different location). There have been five fountains at the park so far, with the latest one having been installed in 2010.
The Old and Valuable Trees (OVT) trail comprises 23 points of interest dotted around both halves of the park. Given the well-dispersed nature of said trees, it’s fairly easy to begin the route from any point of the park—start at Glenealy to be greeted with the familiar scent of the white jade orchid tree (also known as white michelia), or make your way uphill to the edge of the park’s boundaries on Albany Road to see the rare Chinese mahogany. Click here to see the full map of the OVT trail.
Over a thousand plants can be found at the gardens, and many of those are organised into “thematic gardens” of populous genera like the bamboo garden, camellia garden, magnolia garden, palm garden, bauhinia garden, and azalea garden. There is also a herb garden, whose name may conjure up basil and parsley wilting in a kitchen windowsill, but actually refers to a garden with 300 species of Chinese medicinal herbs, organised based on the herbs’ intended use (i.e. treating bone injuries, removing heat, detoxifying, etc).
To admire the beauty of Hong Kong’s tropical plants, head into the park’s famous greenhouse, which houses orchids, ferns, bromeliads, carnivorous plants, and much more.
Over 200 birds, 70 mammals, and 30 reptiles live at the Hong Kong Zoological & Botanical Gardens. The eastern half is where you will find all four aviaries, containing birds of seemingly every size, from adorable little parrots to the blue-crowned pigeon with a fluffy plume atop its head; tall, black-headed sacred ibes; and the park’s famous flamboyance of American flamingos.
Take the pedestrian subway—or “Time Tunnel”—across to the western half of the park to check out the mammal enclosures, where you can find Bornean orangutans, ring-tailed lemurs, two-toed sloths, buff-cheeked gibbons, white-faced sakis, and various different species of tamarin monkeys, including the wise-looking emperor tamarin with its curly white whiskers.
Due to the pandemic, the mammal enclosures and education and exhibition centre are closed to the public until further notice. Please check the gardens’ website for the latest updates.