This fabulous museum is Hong Kong's largest, yet it still seems a well-kept secret: chances are you'll have most of its 12 massive galleries to yourself. They ring an inner courtyard, which pours light into the lofty entrance hall.
The New Territories Heritage Hall is packed with local history—6,000 years of it. See life as it was in beautiful dioramas of traditional villages—one on land, the other on water (with houses on stilts). The last gallery documents the rise of massive urban New Towns.
In the T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art, exquisite antique Chinese glass, ceramics, and bronzes fill hushed second-floor rooms. The curators have gone for quality over quantity. Look for the 3½-foot-tall terra-cotta Horse and Rider, a beautiful example of the figures enclosed in tombs in the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). The Tibetan religious statues and thankga paintings are unique in Hong Kong.
Opera Heritage Hall is all singing, all dancing, and utterly hands-on. The symbolic costumes, tradition-bound stories, and stylized acting of Cantonese opera can be impenetrable: the museum provides simple explanations and stacks of artifacts, including century-old sequined costumes that put Vegas to shame. Don't miss the virtual makeup display, where you get your on-screen face painted like an opera character's.
Kids love the Children's Discovery Gallery, where hands-on activities for 4- to 10-year-olds include putting a broken "archaeological find" together. The Hong Kong Toy Story charts more than a century of local toys.
Look for the audio tours in English, which are available for special exhibitions.
There's lots of ground to cover: prioritize the New Territories Heritage, the T.T. Tsui Gallery, and the Cantonese Opera Halls, all permanent displays, then move on to the temporary history and art exhibitions if time permit.
The museum is a five-minute signposted walk from Che Kung Temple station. If the weather's good, walk back along the leafy riverside path that links the museum with Sha Tin station, in New Town Plaza mall, 15 minutes away.