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Doing time at Tai Kwun used to be an alarming prospect. Now you’ll want to devote hours to the free heritage site’s exhibitions and performances.

Built in the 1860s as a prison complex with police barracks, Tai Kwun (“big station” in Cantonese) occupies 300,000 square feet of prime real estate near Hollywood Road’s antique shops and the expat-filled bars of Lan Kwai Fong. So when it was decommissioned in 2006, the site could easily have been bulldozed to make way for more shiny condos or office towers.

Instead, it became Hong Kong’s most ambitious restoration project—a partnership between the local government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club, plus the talents of Swiss architecture firm Herzog and de Meuron.

More than eight years and $484 million later, Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts opened in May with a dynamic cultural lineup and two new aluminum-clad cubes: a 200-seat theater and a contemporary art gallery.

This summer they host Niv Patel’s play Knock Knock (July 19 to 22), which was a hit at Edinburgh Fringe, and works by artist Wing Po So (until August 19), who grew up in the neighborhood.

The complex hosts art exhibitions and plays.
Staircases and pathways connect these cubes with the 16 colonial-era buildings that once played host to some notable occupants. Duck your head into original cells to see how inmates lived—among them, Ho Chi Minh—and learn about Tai Kwun’s stint as a Japanese army base during World War II.

An inaugural temporary exhibit, “100 Faces of Tai Kwun” (until September 2), brings everyday moments to life through anecdotes from former police officers. And as you wander, you’ll encounter artifacts like the police station gong and archival video footage at various heritage storytelling spaces.  

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Tai Kwun’s arts programming extends to the outdoors, where two expansive courtyards, the former prison yard and parade ground, create welcome breathing room in one of Hong Kong’s most congested areas.

You might sit in the shade of a decades-old mango tree and admire the surrounding installations. The prison yard also hosts lunchtime concerts and stand-up comedy on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the nearby Laundry Steps function as an open-air amphitheater for Sunday movie screenings.

The former prison opened as an arts complex earlier this year.
Such recurring events are free as are guided tours; just make an advance reservation online for a Tai Kwun pass with a specific arrival timeframe. You’ll find there’s always something on at Tai Kwun, which stays open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, and you may end up sticking around for dinner or drinks.

About a dozen open or soon-to-open venues include Madame Fu for Cantonese specialties and Dragonfly for craft cocktails. You can even pick up a bespoke souvenir from Yuen’s Tailor, which fitted the uniforms and kilts for Hong Kong’s British garrison forces.

Tai Kwun is the biggest but not the only notable example of a heritage site recently repurposed for the arts. Here are three more to add to your Hong Kong itinerary.

PMQ is full of workshops and boutiques.
PMQ

Walk five minutes from Tai Kwun to reach PMQ, the former Police Married Quarters dormitory complex, which is built around a central courtyard. It reopened in 2014 as a one-stop destination for nearly 100 art galleries, makers’ workshops, cafés, and boutiques stocking mostly local designers. PMQ also stages pop-up collaborations and special events.  

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Comix Home Base

Preserved balconies with ornamental ironwork, timber French doors, and pitched tile roofs grace a series of 1910-era tenements in the nearby Wan Chai district. But they’re outshone by the main visual attraction: comics by talented Hong Kong artists, some of whom you may encounter working in Comix Home Base’s studio spaces.

Asia Society Hong Kong

U.S. husband-and-wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien transformed military buildings once used for explosives, ammunition production, and storage into an eye-catching outpost of the Asia Society. Come for the timely lectures and art exhibits; stay for a meal or afternoon tea at Ammo, the gorgeous restaurant space.

>>Next: 10 Brilliant U.S. Art Exhibitions Worth Traveling for This Summer