Macau Travel Guide
When I arrived in Hong Kong I wasn’t actually planning to visit Macau. In fact, I read a lot of great reviews from other travelers so putting Macau on my bucket list may have seemed obvious. But no, the true reason why I went there was my friend’s friend. He offered us a tour around the island of Macau and the overnight stay in his flat. I thank him for the opportunity to visit this amazing city with Portuguese architecture on the other side of the planet.
Macau has a small area but a very dense population –staggeringly more than 20,000 people per square kilometer. It lies just an hour away across the South China Sea from Hong Kong by hover ferry. It encompasses three distinct areas- Mainland Macau and the two islands of Taipa and Coloane. They are connected to each other by a bridge and causeway respectively. Although the two territories are historically related, and have Cantonese speaking locals, the atmosphere of the two SARs (Special Administrative Regions) of China couldn’t be more different.
Macau’s history as a colonial outpost is much longer than Hong Kong. It was a Portuguese colony from 1557 until its return to China in 1999, two years after the Hong Kong handover. Macau still has some fine examples of Portuguese architecture and many of the street names and the shuttered windows of the old buildings reflect the influences from that nation.
How to Reach Macau
Many people arrive in Macau from Hong Kong by fast ferry and at peak times they run at thirty-minute intervals. There is also an International airport with direct flights to many cities in China and elsewhere in the region. Macau benefits from its proximity to China and many foot passengers arrive from the neighboring Chinese city of Zhuhai – one of Southern China’s Special Economic Zones.
Taxies in Macau are plentiful and relatively cheap. You will have to know the Cantonese word for your destination or else have a Chinese friend write it for you – few Macanese taxi drivers speak English. Free shuttle buses run from the airport and Hong Kong ferry pier to some of the larger hotels and there are local bus services. It is still possible to ride on an ancient tricycle rickshaw in the downtown area. But these are becoming less common.
St Paul’s Church
A good starting point for wandering the crowded streets of Downtown Macau is from the façade of St Paul’s Church. This is a partially derelict Catholic church very centrally located. The side and back walls no longer exist but if you have the interest it is possible to enter the crypt and view dozens of human skeletons behind glass cases!
All taxi drivers will recognize a picture of the façade which is a symbol of Macau. The streets around St Paul’s are good for wandering and people watching. You can find some shopping bargains too. Notably wooden artifacts such as old rice or jewelery boxes and wooden furniture. I should say that most of them can easily be shipped abroad.
Language and Currency
While Cantonese is the language of many Macanese, you are also certain to hear Mandarin spoken as there are many visitors from across the border. You may also hear a few Europeans speaking Portuguese. Some of the expatriates have remained in the territory. Macau has its own currency – the pataca but Hong Kong dollars and Chinese Yuan are widely accepted.
Macau has a subtropical climate and the summers become very hot and humid. The months between May and September are the least comfortable and the temperatures can soar to 34 degrees with more than 90 percent humidity. The autumn and spring months are the most comfortable.
Casinos And Gambling
Unlike Hong Kong, there are no gambling restrictions in Macau and to many, this is its main attraction. Huge investments have been made in the casinos and the territory has been appropriately dubbed “The Las Vegas of Asia”. There are numerous casinos dotted around Macau and Taipa – many linked to large and lavish hotels. China’s new wealth and Macau’s easy links to Hong Kong mean that big spenders come here.
One of the largest and most lavish of the casinos is the Venetian. Named for its indoor gondolas complete with singing gondoliers. These ply tourists around the massive indoor complex of shopping arcades and casinos in a constant false twilight.
Many visitors spent their entire vacation in the resort’s air conditioned atmosphere and it is easy to lose track of time – something conductive to chancing your luck at the gaming tables. The Venetian has also become a venue for famous International cabaret acts. Macau’s economy is closely linked to the gambling industry and the Chinese are often avid gamblers staking thousands of dollars on games of roulette and blackjack.
Macau also boasts a horse racing track and is the venue for the Macau Grand Prix – which includes Formula Three and motorcycle races on a street track.
Places to Visit in Macau
These are limited because of the size of the place but Macau’s location has presented it with a fascinating history. An excellent starting point is the Museum of Macau just a few minutes’ walk from St Paul’s. Here you can find all about Macau’s turbulent past. A particularly enjoyable exhibit is the one where life size models of different trades men and women realistically shout their wares to attract customers. A short walk away you can reach the Municipal Park with its auspicious banyan trees and tai-chi enthusiasts.
Close by is the historic Protestant cemetery where you can read the names of some of the British adventurers and missionaries who breathed their last a long way from home. Also on Mainland Macau, you can visit the A-ma temple which was erected long before the arrival of European invaders. It is always very well attended –perhaps with gamblers looking for good luck! It is dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Taipa has little of interest other than casinos and restaurants. But Coloane still has a vestige of a sleepy colonial past with some pleasant beaches alongside fine examples of Portuguese architecture
Macanese food has a large Portuguese influence and the enclave has many restaurants which still sell Portuguese cuisine. The most famous is Fernando’s on Colonane. It gets very busy and you are advised to arrive early – it is not possible to book. Specialties include Portuguese sausage, caldo verdi soup, and fresh sardines washed down with Portuguese wine. Other parts of Macau have restaurants to cater for most tastes and of course, there is an abundance of Chinese restaurants of all cuisines.
Macau is an interesting place to spend a few days on your travels through the Far East.
My Impressions of Macau
Macau was one of most incredible experiences I had in my life. Apart from gambling and casinos, it has a rich blend of cultures to discover and outstanding food to try. You can combine a visit to Macau with a trip to Hong Kong to get the most out of your trip. Taking the ferry is a convenient and easy way to reach Macau as a side tour from Hong Kong. I would recommend spending at least two days in Macau to feel the spirit of this place.