It’s two decades since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China. Our writer, a former resident, returned to find the city as vibrant – and quirky – as ever

Victoria Harbour is breathtaking, especially during the nightly laser show, when the pleasure junks, ferries and container ships seem to dance in the lights. On this warm April night last year, my husband, Jules, and I are standing at the railing of a rooftop restaurant on Hong Kong Island, in awe at the spectacular skyline. Brightly lit skyscrapers some 1300 of which are over 100 metres high, by far the most of any city in the world spike the night sky around us and across the teeming harbour on Kowloon Peninsula.

As the breeze shifts our hair, we feel Hong Kong’s energy. In the distance twinkle the lights of Tsing Ma suspension bridge, the world’s longest for cars and trains, whisking people towards the modern 20 year old airport on Lantau Island. Beyond it is a nearly completed multi-billion-dollar bridge linking Hong Kong to Zhuhai in mainland China and the gambling haven of Macau.

It feels good to be back. Jules and I lived here in the 1990s, before Britain relinquished Hong Kong to China in 1997. Now, 20 years later, we’ve returned for ten days to see how the city has fared. It’s also our 20th wedding anniversary.

Next morning, we leave our Cause way Bay hotel and walk towards Wan Chai, a district two kilometres away. Walking is the best way to experience Hong Kong’s colourful sights, sounds and smells.

We join the sea of people in a wide pedestrian crossing on Yee Wo Street that leads us past one of the city’s largest department stores, Sogo, swathed in posters advertising designer labels. Young women sporting sleek heels and luxury handbags – a couple of them with beribboned apricot poodles tucked under an arm – are a common sight this morning.

By the time we reach Wan Chai, we’ve left the brand shoppers behind. At Bowrington Road market, which spans a couple of blocks, housewives are haggling loudly over meat, fish and vegetables.

Street markets are a must see in Hong Kong, but be prepared for the smells – meat, seafood, stinky durian fruit – and a little gore.

On a sunny morning, we hop onto a ferry bound for Lamma Island. It’s a 30 minute trip to Yung Shue Wan village and a world away. Although Hong Kong isn’t often associated with green spaces, there are many, and Lamma, where we lived, has some of our favourite hikes. We drop our bags at our guesthouse and walk for two hours on paths that wind down towards sandy beaches and steeply upwards again.

At a hilltop pavilion, we buy refreshing pineapple slices from an old woman in a straw hat. From a nearby path we can see the fishing boats and stilted seafood restaurants of Sok Kwu Wan village below. Walking back, we spot graves set into green slopes that face the sea for favourable feng shui. During the Ching Ming Festival two weeks earlier, families had swept loved ones’ gravesites and burned incense for departed spirits.

In Yung Shue Wan, we head to Andy’s Seafood Restaurant on Main Street and find a table with a view of the sun setting over the sea. It’s slice of Hong Kong heaven to dine on fresh grouper with soy sauce and ginger, and razor clams in black bean sauce.

Back on Hong Kong island, we walk from the pier into Central and Sheung Wan. The walk is a few minutes longer than in the 1990s; the shoreline has shifted to accommodate new skyscrapers. One thing hasn’t changed; most high rises under construction are clad in traditional scaffolding of bamboo tied with nylon strips.

We browse antique stores along Hollywood Road and Cat Street, looking for an anniversary gift to each other. The symbol for the 20th year is, fittingly, china, and we find the percent item; a gold painted teapot with wicker handles, featuring the Chinese character for double happiness, a wedding symbol.

The teapot tucked under Jules’ arm, we pass galleries and, surprisingly, coffee shops with a hipster vibe; Winston’s, The Cupping Room, Café Deadend. When I lived here, tea shops were ubiquitous. Stores selling olive oils, vinegars and cheeses also exemplify changing tastes; before 1997, we had to search those things out.

This evolution contrasts with Man Mo Temple, a Taoist and Buddhist temple dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo). Built in 1847, its sloping roof is decorated with carvings of dragons and human figures. The quiet, candlelit interior is scented with burning incense coils hanging from the ceiling.

It’s humid on our final day. In Sheung Wan, we find a noodle house on Des Voeux Road. It’s full of chattering office workers. At the front window, the chef is dropping fresh noodles into a huge pot of steaming broth.

On the street, it’s raining. We sprint to our hotel, grab our luggage and hail a cab. “Central Station, please, Airport Express,” I tell the driver.

At the station, the driver points to where we can check our bags to the airport. “Make sure, come back soon!” he says, waving. “This is world’s best city!” I couldn’t agree more.