One of the densest urban areas in the world, Hong Kong can be overwhelming for many travellers. The sky-high towers, the escalators carrying commuters from the Mid Levels down to the Central District, the cacophony of sounds and signs — it is constant sensory overload for those just passing through.

But for those who live there, the city, the harbour and surrounding peaks and islands become not only navigable, but welcoming.

What is it known for?
Hong Kong reverted to China's control in 1997, but it has still retained a separate identity with its own customs and political system. The Sino-British culture that percolated through the city for 100 years has not been entirely washed away, but the city is future looking, with a sense of purpose that runs from the arts and real estate to finance and fashion.

The city is the gateway to Asia, with an international airport serving connections all over the continent. The famous skyline and iconic harbour are the city's touchstones. And visitors would be hard-pressed not to shop in Hong Kong's vast malls, browse the stalls of counterfeit luxury goods or visit a tailor for custom-made clothes. From vendors selling skewered fish balls on the street to Michelin-starred chefs, the variety of world-class food available to residents is staggering. Cantonese and other Chinese cuisine like Shanghainese, Pekingese and Chiu Chow, along with most Asian styles, can be found alongside top French, Italian and other Western restaurants.

For residents with the time and inclination to get out of central Hong Kong, the island's hiking trails on the peaks and parks are a revelation, and the surrounding islands' greenery and beaches are a respite that many residents try to take advantage of.

Hong Kong's cultural reputation is also growing with the Hong Kong Film Festival, the Art Fair and the new cultural and arts hub in West Kowloon. Designed by Norman Foster (who also designed the airport), the building is likely to change the face of the waterfront.

Where do you want to live?
Mid Levels and Soho are good options for those who want to be near Central and close to nightlife, as are older areas like Wan Chai. The terrain in these neighbourhoods is steep, so escalators operate one way in the morning for commuters and switch direction before lunch. Many expats first live in Central, but after a certain amount time, people begin to look elsewhere. "You realize the name of the game is to escape pollution and live near a green space," said Amy Wood, an American ex-pat who has been living in Asia for seven years.

Popular areas include Sai Ying Pun (which translates as West Mid Levels) and the university area, which are quieter, greener and have access to the hiking trails. "I hike all of the trails -- they are really well-managed and have lots of organized outdoor activities, and you can go to the beaches six months of the year," said Wood. Richard Elms of Castle Asset Holdings agrees that these areas are a good bet in terms of investment as well. "Because of the new stations on the MTR (the metro), there has been a lot of development in these areas which will eventually push up prices for both rental income and capital value," he said.

Families look at Pok Fulam, an area outside of the city but still on the island, and the Tin Hua area, known for great restaurants and a large recreational park. Avoid the planned ex-pat communities like Discovery Bay that remain separate from the life and rhythm of the city.

Those in the creative fields like designers, architects and artists are fixing up loft spaces in old industrial warehouses in Chai Wan, Aberdeen and Ap Lei Lau on the south side of the island where a new metro line is being built. Hong Kong's compactness and excellent transport means that you can live in the area you want without sacrificing access to restaurants, shopping and nightlife. "For such a small city (in terms of size), it has many districts all with different characteristics," said Richard Elms of Castle Asset Holdings. "With transport being as good as it is here, you can live far out, but still be in reach of the city centre."

Side trips
Those looking for sun and surfing head to Big Wave Bay on the south side of Hong Kong Island. Tai Long Wan on Sai Kung Peninsula, which can be reached by boat or by hiking trail, is a white sand beach close to the China border, framed by green peaks and fields with excellent seafood restaurants.

With so many countries within a two-hour flight from Hong Kong, going farther afield is a breeze. Vietnam is a popular weekend destination, with Hanoi only an hour's flight away, and the red-eye to Bali is a favourite for a four- or five-day getaway. Even better, you can check in to your flight from a mall in Central, drop your luggage off and spend the day unencumbered before hopping on the train for the 20-minute ride to the airport.

Practical info
The real estate market in Hong Kong is extremely robust and prices are on the rise. In fact, it was one of the quickest to bounce back after the financial crisis in 2008. "Properties have increased in price around 40 percent, and some people are predicting a further increase of 10 percent this year," said Elms. The government has implemented measures to try and cool the market down and dissuade buyers who flip properties. "The result is less speculation, but prices are still rising," said Martina Ebert of estate agents Engel & Völkers.

Because space is at a premium, flats are the most common, with many buildings of 20 to 30 floors and four units per floor. Most do not come with Western-style amenities. "Many of my clients are expats from Europe and America and they expect the same standards," said Ebert. "But many units don't come with an oven or a dishwasher." Houses and villas can be found in the New Territories or on the south side of the island, but are very expensive, as is outdoor space, balconies and terraces.

Purchasing a property is relatively straightforward, but nearly all of the land is owned by the government, and buyers will have a lease-hold only. Before you buy, ask if structural alterations have been made, and if so, did the previous owners have consent from the building authorities. If not, you can be asked to put it back to its original state.

Further reading
HK Magazine: City magazine covering restaurants, nightlife, news
South China Morning Post
: Morning must-read
Sassy Hong Kong
: Female-friendly events and city guide