There’s no other place on earth quite like Macau (also spelled Macao), for the simple reason that Macau is the only place on the planet that blends Portuguese flair with Chinese sensibility, a dual heritage stretching back five centuries. Macau’s old neighborhoods are delightfully Old World, with twisting Portuguese-named streets, pretty plazas shaded by banyan trees, and majestic churches, but there are also ancient Chinese temples, open-fronted shops selling the sundries of everyday life and noisy Chinese restaurants.
Although historic Macau is what first stole my heart three decades ago, the past 15 years have witnessed a dizzying explosion of huge resorts, high-end shopping malls, casinos and first-class nightlife, much of it on reclaimed land called Cotai and offering a multitude of things to do. Yet there are also places for escape, especially Colôane, which boasts beaches, hiking trails and that commodity mostly missing in diminutive, crowded Macau: space. I used to visit Macau on a day-trip from Hong Kong; now there’s so much to do, three or four days are hardly enough.
My first trips to both Hong Kong and Macau were in the mid-1980s, when the differences between the two destinations seemed like night and day. While they have similar histories–Hong Kong was a British colony that was handed back to China in 1997, while Macau was a Portuguese enclave that reverted back to China in 1999–Macau 30 years ago was a sleepy backwater compared to bustling Hong Kong, with locals getting around by pedicab and the road from the ferry terminal to downtown was a lonely stretch of potholes. There were no major museums, not even a department store. Most visitors were Hong Kong Chinese, who came to gamble in low-key casinos, while the few curious Westerners were lured mostly by Macau’s slow-paced lifestyle, its blend of Chinese and Portuguese architecture and unique Macanese cuisine. My favorite pastime was hanging out on the verandah of the venerable but weathered Bela Vista hotel, drinking incredibly cheap Portuguese wine and gazing upon the fishing boats in the outer harbor.
Today, the Bela Vista has been transformed into the Portuguese embassy (lucky them), fishing boats have been replaced by hydrofoils zipping in from Hong Kong every 15 minutes, and Macau is a boomtown, determined to become Asia’s #1 destination for leisure and business tourism. Two-thirds of its 30 million annual visitors hail from mainland China, with Macau’s biggest draws its 30-some casinos (Macau’s gaming revenue is about five times that of Las Vegas’) and glitzy designer shopping malls.
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While Macau’s mega resorts, huge casinos and malls are certainly worth exploring, especially because they also have great restaurants and live entertainment, I still love wandering around the old downtown, which is actually better than ever after 25 sites, including temples, churches, forts, mansion, squares and other landmarks were spruced up and became the UNESCO Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site in 2005. The Ruins of St. Paul’s is certainly the most photographed structure in Macau, but my favorite historic sight is the Mandarin’s House, an impressive 60-some room mansion constructed around 1860.
There are also more than a dozen museums, including the must-see Macao Museum, housed in an historic fort and the best place for a 101 crash course on Macau’s history, and the Taipa Houses-Museum consisting of five houses once belonging to Macanese (Eurasian) families.
Taipa and Coloane, two former islands now joined together by reclaimed land named Cotai, both have quaint villages and plenty of other diversions. Coloane is especially relaxing with its two public beaches, hiking trails and family-style lodgings. Families will find much to do in Macau, including the excellent Macao Science Center and the Maritime Museum, but Cotai notches things up a level with its Batman simulation ride, the Golden Reel Ferris Wheel and Kids’ City, an indoor playground. Coloane offers space for kids to roam, including Seac Pai Van Park with its Giant Panda Pavilion and two public beaches.
The food here developed over the centuries as Portuguese settlers brought ingredients from around the world and blended them with Chinese cuisine, is also a huge draw, and reasonably priced, too. African chicken, minchi (minced beef with fried potatoes, onion and garlic) and spicy shrimp are among my favorites, but there are also many Portuguese restaurants serving Portuguese sausage, codfish, and other traditional dishes, as well as restaurants serving Chinese, Italian, French and other international fare.
In short, Macau is a fascinating destination for two days or more, and it’s my guess you’ll be hearing more about this town that packs it all in–in only 11.5 square miles (29.9 sq.km) of land.
Macau is a tourist destination all year, thanks to its subtropical climate zone. October to December and April are the most pleasant months for a visit, with relatively warm weather and low humidity. In winter, January through March, it can be chilly yet it’s also mostly sunny (thick jackets or coats are recommended). It’s hot and humid from May to September, with rainy and sometimes tropical storms that escalate into typhoons, but like Hong Kong, it has a good early-warning system.
You used to be able to do Macau in a day, but this former Portuguese enclave has doubled in size since the 1970s, adding casinos, resorts, shopping centers, nightlife and more. Add Macau’s many museums, its UNESCO Historic Centre of Macao World Heritage Site, its unique Macanese cuisine and even possibilities of escape in Colôane, and it’s clear that you’ll need two days to do Macau justice, possibly more.
Public holidays in Macau include government holidays, Christian religious holidays and Chinese lunar holidays, which change according to the lunar calendar. These include Near Year’s Day, Chinese Lunar New Year (3 days), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Cheng Ming Festival, Labor Day (May 1), Buddha’s Birthday, Tung Ng Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), the Day following Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, China National Day (Oct. 1), Chung Yeung Festival, All Soul’s Day, Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Establishment of the Macau SAR (Dec. 20), and Christmas.
There are also some famous annual events in Macau, most notably the Macau Grand Prix, first held in 1954 and featuring motorcycle and Formula Three races on the 6.2km (3 3/4-mile) Guia Circuit on the third or fourth weekend in November, and the Macau International Fireworks Display, the world’s largest fireworks contest and held Saturday nights in September.
Macau used to be a bargain compared to Hong Kong, but now that it attracts high rollers from China you can expect to spend about the same as you would in Hong Kong for a good night’s sleep and a memorable meal. Still, Macau’s museums won’t break the bank, and there are countless restaurants serving great food for moderate prices.
The Pataca (MOP$) is Macau’s official currency and comes in coins and in
10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 banknotes. The Pataca is linked to the
Hong Kong dollar (HK$) at a rate of MOP$103.20 to HK$100. Although you
can change money in hotels, banks and authorized exchange dealers
everywhere, there’s no need to if you have HK$, because they are
accepted everywhere. Note, however, that you’re likely to receive change
in Pataca. US$1 is roughly equal to MOP$8.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than MOP$10 per person
$$ => Tickets MOP$10-MOP$30 per person
$$$ => Tickets MOP$30 per person
$ => Up to MOP$160 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => MOP$160-MOP$300 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => MOP$300 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
Macau is easily reached by high-speed boat from Hong Kong and by air from regional airports.
BY FERRY: Hong Kong, the most popular entryway to Macau for long-haul travelers, has three ferry terminals providing shuttles to Macau. The biggest and most commonly used is the Macau Ferry Terminal on Hong Kong Island, above Sheung Wan MTR Station. TurboJET operates jetfoils that depart for Macau every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, with the journey to Macau taking about 1 hour. Fares are slightly more expensive on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays and for night service. Seniors older than 64 and children under 12 receive a slight discount.
The two other ferry terminals are the China Ferry Terminal on Canton Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and, with fewer departures, from Hong Kong International Airport, where you can transfer directly to the ferry without going through customs.
Most TurboJETs land in Macau at the Macau Ferry Terminal, a short bus ride from the main business district. If you’re staying in a hotel in Taipa, Cotai or Colôane, however, you’ll find it more convenient to take a COTAIJet departing from Hong Kong Island’s Macau Ferry Terminal (and less frequently from Tsim Sha Tsui and Hong Kong International Airport) directly to the Taipa Ferry Terminal.
BY BUS: Long-distance bus companies operate between Macau and major cities in Guangdong Province, including Kee Kwan Motor Road Co. and China Travel Service (Macao) Ltd.
BY AIR: From greater distances, the Macau International Airport receives flights from Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka Tokyo, and many other cities in Asia.
Many hotels offer free shuttle service from both ferry terminals and the airport. Otherwise, there are taxis and public buses.
Macau Peninsula (usually just referred to as Macau), where the historic downtown and many of its museums, restaurants, hotels and businesses are located, is best explored on foot. The heart of the town is attractive Senado Square. Three bridges connect Macau with the island of Taipa, which because of Cotai land reclamation, is now fused to
what was once its own island, Colôane.
Buses are the most convenient way of traveling from one end of Macau to the other or to Taipa and Colôane, with the fare ranging from MOP$3.20 to MOP$6.40, depending on the distance traveled. You have to pay in exact fare; or, you can buy a MACAUPass, though this makes sense only if you plan on staying for more than a couple of days.
Otherwise, taxis are fairly cheap, starting at MOP$17 for the first 1.6km (1 mile), with a MOP$3 surcharge for each piece of luggage and a MOP$5 surcharge tacked on for trips from the airport or from Macau to Colôane.
As for those pedicabs (a tricycle rickshaw), only tourists use them now, and truth be told, I hardly ever see them out on the streets. If that’s what you want, you might be able to find some at the Macau Ferry Terminal or near the Hotel Lisboa. Be sure to settle on a price before being carted around.