Las Vegas of Asia
As quite mandatory for the average tourist visiting Hong Kong for few days, a day trip to Macau is out of question. The second of such SAR, Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China under the same principle of “one country, two systems”, hence what you have here is a totally open region with a high level of self-administration where the politics of China are not affecting in regards of freedom of speech, gambling, political views, economics, education and more.
It was great to return after almost 7 years since the first and only time I’ve been here, hence a great chance for updating this guide which was as old as the year when I started with my travel blog project with briefly described and not so complete guides as what kept coming the years after. Considering I very much enjoy to return to several places after the years, there are not many “older” guides left awaiting to be appropriately updated.
Macau, a very small piece of land that once was one of the first European settlements in Asia, was also the last European colony to ever leave Asia back in 1999, becoming one of the most densely populated places in the world, topping an already over-crowded Hong Kong, however things are very different here. The space is really minimal, and even with the massive reclamation project that completely filled-up the space between the islands of Taipa and Coloane to form a bigger island, was still not enough considering the high demand and also knowing that the entire reclamation was given in full for the purpose of building the gigantic casinos and hotels the city is so well famous for. The yearly revenue from gambling is 7 times higher than the collection of Las Vegas. Can you imagine that? Now think twice again, how is it even possible to happen in such a small piece of land which you can walk side to side? Las Vegas is huge in the other hand, with plenty of space in the middle of the desert.
The growth of population and demand for more and more space came at a toll. It is sad to see the current state of what once was a beautiful colony filled with great Portuguese architecture, now trashed by hideous Chinese constructions. Until not long ago, it was the norm to bulldoze the past to make way for such “edification of dubious design and structure”. Awful communal blocks with tiny space for living, thousands of windows and air-con units everywhere in their facades. Fortunately, the government saw the potential of what was left from the colonial times and started a deep restoring and refurbishment project, which can still be seen around the old city centre.
Although small, the colonial historic centre has been listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and it’s very much worth the trip to see and walk through the mosaic-tiled pavements, squares, churches and forts. Everything is concentrated in the Peninsula area and it’s a short walk distance from edge to edge and all the sights in between. Expect some hills up and down, but overall, straightforward yet confusing to orientate through the little irregular streets. A day is well more than enough, and unless your objective here is to gamble, there is nothing else to do. It might sound curious to you about the gamble, but for a Chinese citizen, gambling is forbidden in mainland China hence this is their little paradise where they come for holidays and spend countless fortunes.
With regards to food this is like in Hong Kong. A blend of Chinese with European where the dumplings, rice and noodle dishes are imperative, but also some very Portuguese traditions such as salty cod, feijoada (kidney bean stew), pato de cabidela (duck cooked in its own blood, herbs and served with rice). Finding a restaurant is easy, basically there are way too many specially around Largo do Senado Square and the streets around it, with plenty of choice for everyone and a wide range of prices. Of course no need to mention any Western restaurant and fast food chain is matter of few meters walk. And of course the best news is a famous desert brought by the Portuguese, the Pastéis de nata, an egg tart pastry you can enjoy with a great coffee (also well done in Macau) or on its own.
For more information about the city’s history visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Macau’s currency is the Macanese Pataca (MOP), although widely used is the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) to the point where there is no really need for changing currency if you are on a day or two trip here. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Macau
- Cotai Area Although the location of the international airport and main ferry terminal, it is also the area which has become to be known as the Macau Cotai Strip, in resemblance to Las Vegas Strip. Gigantic casinos and hotels in a very reduced space. But to those who have been to Vegas and enjoy to have a little fun, note that the minimum bet is no less than $50! Crazy and insane.
-The Venetian The largest casino in the world, seventh largest building in the world by floor area. A larger replica of Las Vegas one, a sight on its own to be honest. The best way to reach it from the ferry terminal or airport is by taking the free shuttle bus which drops you in the main entrance.
-City of Dreams Opposite the Venetian, this huge complex of various hotels, the Grand Hyatt, Crown Towers, Countdown and the Morpheus, a mega casino and shopping mall, bars and restaurants. The latest addition was the Morpheus hotel, designed by “the queen of the curve” Zaha Hadid (1950-2016), becoming a new landmark and sight itself.
-Sands Cotai Central Immediately south from the City of Dreams and opposite the Venetian and Four Seasons. Another gigantic complex of hotels (Saint Regis, Conrad, Holiday Inn and Sheraton), casinos, shopping arcades, entertainment and more. A fantastic view of it all is from the Venetian fountains lagoon.
-Parisian Opposite the Sands complex, the next complex south of the Four Seasons. One of the most recently built, with the thematic of Paris as the main setting, with a reproduction of a half-size Eiffel Tower one of its key elements.
-Studio City The next resort south of the Parisian. While having seen the others is enough for being the best, this one has something unique, the world’s first figure-eight ferris wheel built in between both hotel towers. It is also unique in its decoration as it is based in 1930’s art-deco Gothan City-like.
-Galaxy Macau One of the biggest complexes of several hotels, casinos and entertainment, in which more phases of the project are yet to come. Located behind the Venetian.
-Wynn Palace Recently built in the plot directly east from the City of Dreams, designed almost identical to that in Las Vegas, it does include a dancing fountain, nice for enjoying the show when the sun is setting, although there are performances through the day from 12.00pm to 00.00am. See schedule here.
- Peninsula Area This is where the old Portuguese colonial administration was based and were you will find the historical centre and sights. Within small distances, it is easy to walk and enjoy in just a few hours.
-Nam Van Lake Originally the bay and shoreline until the construction of the causeway at the southeast closed it, and land reclamation did the rest. A cybernetic fountain installation has performances through the day.
-One Central Macau By the eastern side of the lake is one of the largest shopping mall among hotel and residential towers designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, the same ones who did the Shanghai World Financial Center, one of the tallest buildings in the world.
-MGM Macau Behind Once Central, is a casino and hotel, worth to mention its architecture. One of the key elements is the Sky Roof Plaza designed to look very European with Portuguese inspired design.
-Wynn Macau The next after the MGM, almost an identical copy of the one in Las Vegas.
-Star World Hotel Behind the Wynn, a great addition to the skyline for its ultra modern architecture. Impressive day and night.
-Casino Lisboa Opposite the Wynn, was built in 1970 becoming one of the very first large properties to include a hotel and casino. It retains the bygone era of the casinos you can find the Las Vegas old town with thousands of bulb and neon lights.
-Grand Lisboa Across the road from the old one, was fully opened in 2008 remaining the tallest building in the city. One of the main features is the sphere shaped podium that lights up at night with the thousands of LED that change into countless colors.
-Praia Grande Palace By the northwest side of the Nam Van Lake is the Government Headquarters. Back in the colonial days it was facing the sea before the land reclamation. The street name remained unchanged, Avenida Praia Grande (avenue of the long beach), however the beach is long gone.
-Mandarin’s House Not far west from the Praia Grande Palace along Rua do Padre Antonio, are a great example of late Qing Dynasty residential houses, dating from 1869. Nowadays a museum so you can wander around and inside.
-Lilau Square Opposite Mandarin’s House, a truly charming square to transport you back in time to the old Portuguese colonial times for the architecture of every building around.
-Moorish Barracks Some 100 meters west from the Mandarin’s House. Built in 1874 originally to accommodate a regiment from Goa, the Portuguese colony in India. Thereafter turned into the Port Authority.
-A-Ma Temple While I would only recommend you to come here if you have the time, it is in the same street as the Mandain’s House, but at the western end. Built in 1488 during the Qing Dynasty, is the oldest in Macau. A gem of architecture and history, listed a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO together with the old town.
-Saint Lawrence Church Just a block behind the Praia Grande Palace. One of the 3 oldest churches in Macau, was built by Jesuits in 1560, with the current look dating to the 19th century.
-Saint Joseph Seminary Church In Rua do Seminario, a block behind north and east from St Lawrence, built in 1758, part of the UNESCO listed area.
-Santo Agostinho Square At the east side of St Joseph Seminary, one of the most charming surrounded by nice colonial architecture.
-Don Pedro V Theatre One of the first Western style theatres in East Asia, dating from 1860 in neo-classical style.
-Saint Augustine’s Church Originally built in 1586 by Spanish Augustine priests, the current neo-classical façade dates from the 19th century.
-Sir Robert Ho Tung Library Housed in a 1894 mansion built for Dona Carolina Cunha, where later in 1918 Sir Robert Ho Tung, a businessman from Hong Kong bough it as his retreat home until his death in 1955, when upon his will, it was turned into a library.
-Alameda Almeida Ribeiro One of the principal thoroughfares, it becomes especially important at the height of Senado Square, where if one walk towards the west, can find several colonial buildings one after another all with porticoes and the walkway under its roof.
-Senado Square Largo do Senado, along Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, is the heart and central square of the old town filled with many colonial buildings at all sides. Notice the mosaic floor made of thousands of small pieces of granite, a very traditional feature found in Portugal and all their former colonies.
-Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau Home of the Leal Senado, former seat of the Portuguese Macau’s government was built in 1784. It faces the entire west side of the square.
-Post Office Headquarters At the southwest corner, dating from 1884, was built as a separate service in parallel to China Post. Nowadays one of the finest and largest neo-classical structures.
-Holy House of Mercy Or in Portuguese the Santa Casa da Misericordia was founded in 1569 by the Bishop of Macau as one of the first medical clinics, later becoming an orphanage and refuge for widows of sailors lost at sea.
-Tourist Office Bureau Along the north side of the square, with the traditional arched gallery.
-St. Dominic’s Church Continuing ahead on Senado Square, by the intersection with Rua de Sao Domingos. Originally built in 1587 in Baroque style by Spanish Dominican priests that came from Acapulco in Mexico, effectively becoming one of the oldest in West Asia.
-Travesia do Soriano Heading west from St. Dominic’s Church has some fine Portuguese colonial shophouses.
-Travesia da Se By the northeastern-most side of Senado Square, heading south towards the Cathedral.
-Lou Kau Mansion On Travesia da Se, it is one of the best examples of Portuguese-Chinese architecture blend. Built in 1889, it is free to visit inside, open from 09.00am until 18.00pm.
-Largo da Se The Cathedral Square, at the south end of Travesia da Se, is the next major square, just a block away from Senado, and location of the main catholic cathedral.
-Cathedral Or also known just as Se in Portuguese, was built in 1850 only to be almost completely destroyed in a typhoon less than 30 years later. It was rebuilt in 1937.
-Diocesan College Attached to the Cathedral, it completes with the other surrounding buildings this nice corner of Macau.
-Rua de Sao Paulo Taking this road from behind the Senado Square, you will reach the last area of the historic centre, with the major landmark, the façade of Saint Paul’s.
-Jesus Memorial Square With the famous stairs leading up the façade of Saint Paul’s.
-Statue of the friendship between Portugal and China At the southern side of the square, from where you get a great picture of the statue and Saint Paul’s in the backdrop, the perfect cover picture of Macau. Notice the old post box at the opposite side.
-Ruins of Saint Paul’s The most famous stamp of the city. Only the front façade remains with beautiful gardens on the sides of the stairs leading up. The once grand Baroque style church was built in 1582, however became barracks in the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it in 1835.
–Na-Tcha Temple Behind Saint Paul’s ruins and the former city walls at the west side. A small Chinese temple built in 1888.
-Fortaleza do Monte By the east side of Saint Paul’s ruins, was built on top of the hill and completed in 1626. The views at the top are great.
-Guia Fortress Farther east from Fortaleza do Monte, this is one of the sights I would refrain from going if you are on just a day trip to Macau as it takes a while to reach and the is nothing really special. At the top, you have a little fort, a chapel and the light house.
Although Macau does have an International Airport, it is nevertheless very small and the routes served are mostly across China and Southeast Asia, still, slowly becoming a good option for budget airlines hence a cheaper option into Hong Kong after all some 65 kilometres to the east.
Considering the great amount of tourist are on day trips to Macau from Hong Kong and Shenzhen in mainland China, the best and fastest way if to take the fast ferry. In Hong Kong the terminal is in Sheung Wan and operates 24 hours a day at frequencies of every 15 minutes during day and half-hourly at night. All you need to do is show up and buy a ticket for the next available ferry however be aware that tickets sell pretty quickly, therefore for a safer position, it is advisable you buy it a day in advance and also get the return. At the other end, they dock at the Macau Maritime Ferry Terminal, next to the airport terminal. Remember to have the passport with you at all times as you will need it to cross the straightforward border, and any relevant visa should you need one but remember for both Special Administration Regions the visa requirements if any, are very relaxed compared to mainland China.
TurboJet ferries for example, costs 171 HKD (weekday), 186 (weekend) for a single during the day sailing, or 211 HKD at night. It costs 11 HKD less on the opposite direction, Macau to Hong Kong. These run every 15 minutes between 07.00an and 23.59pm, thereafter half-hourly and depart/arrive at Macau Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal. Other company such as Cotai Water Jet provides the same service but to/from Macau Cotai Ferry Terminal.
Another option is to grab a bus over the newly opened bridge that connect both cities via Hong Kong Airport. It does take the same time than the ferry, but at half the cost. It’s your choice anyway, since the ferry is an awesome way of transportation with incredible views of both cities as you depart/arrive.
Once in the Macau ferry terminal, you have several options in order to reach both the main areas of the city. One is the Cotai area where the gigantic casinos and shopping malls are, the other the peninsula, home to the historic core. For getting into the old town straightway then get on any of these buses, 1A, 3, 3A, 10, 10A, 10B, 12, 28A, 28B, 28BX, 32 and AP1. If on the other hand you want to first visit some of the casinos, which I strongly recommend you do before the old town, you can take any of the FREE buses, like the one heading to the Venetian which is by far the best and next to many other great architectural icons. Once there, the Venetian has a big bus station with again, FREE buses towards the Macau Peninsula by the Grand Emperor, Grand Lisboa, Wynn or MGM near the old town.
The Cotai Connection bus is another free service running a circle line connecting all of the casinos. This is another great way to jump onboard and go from one to another without even walking.
No one can argue that accommodation here is like in Las Vegas, grand and gorgeous towers with gigantic casinos at their bases. Absolutely any hotel chain, from big to small are in the city, and while looking for a deal should not be complicated, prices are generally high. But for many visitors, Macau is a day out from Hong Kong which was our experience, therefore I cannot recommend anything here other than giving you a good and reasonable point to start your search by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, Hotels Click or Ebookers.