When I visited Hong Kong, I also took the opportunity to spend a few days in the nearby city of Macau. This is another Special Administrative Region of China only about 65 kilometres from central Hong Kong across the South China Sea. It offers a unique mix of Chinese and Portuguese culture, having been a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. It is also the only place in China where casinos are permitted, and the city has taken full advantage of that special status.
Getting to Macau from Hong Kong is quick and relatively cheap. You can grab a ferry from the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan, which takes about an hour, and while you will need your passport, most visitors won’t need a visa. You can also use HK dollars in Macau, though they have their own currency, the MOP, which has about the same value.
Two companies operate services between the cities. Both TurboJet and Cotai Water Jet run from central Hong Kong to Macau. TurboJet will leave you in the north end of the city near its historic city centre, while Cotai Water Jet will take you to Macua’s South island, which is home to its luxury hotels and casinos. Tickets for either line can be bought online or at the ferry terminal, and cost around $HK170 one way during the day. It can be significantly more expensive in the evenings and on holidays, so pick your travel times carefully.
Where to Stay in Macau:
Macau is comprised of the Macau Peninsula, Taipa, an island directly south of the peninsula. The entire city is only about 30 kilometres square, so it is possible to explore in just a few days.
It is on the northern peninsula where most of the historic sites of the city are located. Any exploration of this part of the city should start with Senado Square, named after the place where Chinese and Portuguese officials met between the 16th and 18th centuries. The square is populated by Portuguese style historic buildings and cafes and shops where you can grab Macau’s famous and delicious Portuguese egg and custard tarts, or an ice-cream to deal with the heat.
While wandering the surrounding streets, make sure to stop off at the Macau Post Office, which is probably the most majestic old European building in the city, and a great place to send a postcard.
The next must-see site is the Ruins of St Paul’s, a 17th century Portuguese church from the early 17th century, which was the largest in South East Asia and often called the Vatican of the Far East. The church was largely destroyed in a typhoon in 1835, leaving only 68 steps leading up to the ruins of the church’s façade, that was intricately carved by Japanese Christians, and the crypts of the Jesuits who established and maintained the church. The imagery mixes Jesuit and Oriental themes, for example, the Virgin Mary stepping on a multi-headed dragon.
Not far from the church ruins is the Fort of Macau, which is also where you will find the Macau Museum, which is a great place to discover the history of the city. The walk up to the fort is nice, through rustic parklands. Just walking around the exterior of the fort site is pretty cool, offering nice views of the city, and some pretty cool canons. Entry to the museum itself costs MOP15, though they are closed on Mondays and free on Tuesdays. The permanent exhibitions cover the history of the people who have lived in the area, local folk customs, and also local contemporary art. They also run an interesting programme of special, temporary exhibitions.
If you like this fort, then it is also worth visiting the Guia Fortress, a 17th century fort, chapel and lighthouse. It is at one of the highest points in Macau, so you can hike up, or jump in a cable car. It is a great place for photos, and an ideal picnic spot.
For the most important Chinese historic sites in the city head west to the Temple of A-Ma and Mandarin House. Dedicated to the Chinese sea-goddess Mazu, the Temple of A-Ma was originally built in 1488, pre-Portuguese colonisation, and may have given the city its name. The temple is made up of six parts, all of which are beautiful examples of classic Chinese architecture and Buddhist religion. It is also a great place for people watching as locals engage in traditional religious practices. If you are so inclined, you may also find someone to tell you fortune.
Nearby Mandarin House is a historic residential complex from the late 19th century where Zheng Guanyin, a Qing theoretician completed his masterpiece Shengshi Weiyan. While Zheng Guanyin and his family lived there for a number of generations, by the 1960s they had moved out and began to rent the complex, which was once occupied by more than 300 tenants. The government took over the house in 2001 after a fire, when it was converted into a tourist attraction showing classical Chinese residential architecture.
When you are ready to get to know the more modern part of the city, head to the Macau Colosseum at Fisherman’s Wharf, which is modelled on the famous Roman monument. Inside you will find about 70 shops and restaurants, designed in the style of different international seaports. It also has its own casino. To the north of the Colosseum you will also find the Legend Palace Casino, Casino Oceanus and Casino Golden Dragons. Not far south is the Casino Babylon Macau.
For the best low-key casino experience in the city, head to the Sands Macau, the city’s first Vegas-style casino. Here you will find free drinks and live music as well as affordable betting minimums. But if you are looking for the real luxury casinos, you need to head south the Taipa.
Where to Stay:
When it comes to James Bond worthy, luxury hotels and casinos, this is the place to be. Start at the Venetian Macau, which is the largest casino resort in the world, much bigger than anything you will find in Las Vegas. As well as its gambling floors, it has 3,000 luxury rooms and its own shopping mall, plus gondolier taxis to take you along the mock canals (obviously).
If you are more interested in the serious gambling than the lavish setting, then head to the City of Dreams casino, which is where you will find the high rollers, as well as five-star rooms and restaurants. Make sure you dress the part if you want to watch the big-ticket games.
If you need a break from all the gambling, then you can spend the day at the Caesar’s Golf Macau, an 18 hole course spread over 175 acres, so occupies about five percent of the entire city. Rates are surprisingly affordable (for what it is – it is still expensive), but they aren’t open Saturday afternoons or Sundays (at least not to us plebs).
If you are looking for a more cultural experience, then head a bit further south to Coloane Village. It centres on a yellow and white Portuguese chapel of St Francis Xavier from 1928, and is surrounded by nice little cafes and restaurants, and is a great base from which to explore this area of natural beauty. A short hike from the chapel is the A-Ma Temple, an ornate Chinese temple dedicated to the city’s sea goddess, which is en-route to Alto de Coloane, the highest point in Macau – it is about a five mile hike to the summit, definitely worth it for the views. From here, venture to the Macau Giant Panda Pavilion, a 3,000 square meter facility that is home to two giant pandas, their new-born twins, and a couple of adorable red pandas. The sanctuary is part of Seac Pai Van Park, a large natural green space which also has playgrounds, a small zoo, and outdoor activities such as kayaking.
Where to Stay:
If you are travelling on a budget, there is no escaping the fact that there is a distinct lack of hostels in Macau. The 5footway.Inn is probably the closest you will come, though it is really for booking a group, rather than a solo traveller. Located not far from Senado Square, you can book double or quadruple rooms, that will set you back about US$60 per night.
However, Macau’s luxury hotels are surprisingly affordable if you are keen to treat yourself. The Venetian Macao costs less than US$200 per night (depending on your room), though for the City of Dreams you are looking at twice that.
There are a number of good places to stay that mix luxury and affordability. On the peninsula consider the Galaxy Macau, where you can get a deluxe room from US$150-200 per night, or the Sofitel Macau at Pont 16, where you can get five-star waterfront accommodation for less than US$150 per night.
If you want to stay near Coloane, then the Grand Coloane Resort really is your only choice, which offers luxury for around US$100 per night. It offers an outdoor pool, fitness centre, mix of restaurants and bars, and basically everything you need to explore the small city of Macau.