Explore Macau also spelled Macao, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Located across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong, until 1999 Macau was an overseas territory of Portugal. One of the world’s most densely populated spots, Macau generates more revenue from gambling than anywhere else on the planet, including more than seven times the revenue generated by “The Strip” in Las Vegas.
Macau was one of the earliest European colonies in Asia and the last to be relinquished (1999). Walking through the old city you could convince yourself you were in Europe – if the streets were devoid of people and signs in Chinese, that is. The Portuguese and Macanese populations continue to maintain a presence but, as expected, most of the population is native Chinese.
Besides the city itself, Macau includes the islands of Taipa and Coloane, which are connected to Macau by bridges and to each other by a causeway, now built up into the Cotai Strip.
Macau is subtropical with hot summers and mild winters. Visitors should note that typhoons often strike from mid-summer to Autumn which could stop many activities there.
In the 16th century, China gave Portugal the right to settle in Macau in exchange for clearing the area of pirates under strict Chinese administration. Macau was the first European settlement in the Far East.
China has promised that, under its “one country, two systems” formula – Macau is officially the same country with mainland China, but maintains its own ruling systems. Like its neighbor Hong Kong, Macau still does not have a full democracy and the locals often think that there is too much control or influence from Beijing (more one country, less two systems).
In recent years, Macau’s economy has boomed rapidly due to the issuing of gambling licenses. Thousands of tourists visit Macau each day, mainly from mainland China and neighboring regions. The standard of living in Macau has as a result grown significantly, and is now on par with some European countries. The tourist industry has also diversified – instead of casinos; Macau is also promoting its historic sites, culture and cuisine.
Macau was geographically divided into three regions: the peninsula and two islands. However, reclamation of the area between Taipa and Coloane has created the fourth region of Cotai.
Districts of Macau
- Macau Peninsula. The northernmost region connected to the Chinese mainland. It is the center of most tourist activity and is densely crowded.
- The island south of the peninsula, accessible via three bridges. It is a major residential center and is the location of Macau’s International Airport.
- A strip of reclaimed land between Coloane and Taipa, with vast new casinos rising up (such as The Venetian, the largest casino in the world).
- The most southern island, it is considerably less developed than the other regions due to its mountainous terrain. It has two beaches, several hiking trails and a resort. It is also the location of Macau’s first golf course.
For many years, the usual way to get to Macau was to fly into Hong Kong and take a ferry across to Macau. Today, Macau is becoming a low-cost airline hub, and some are now arriving at Macau to later go to Hong Kong.
Macau International Airport is off the Shore of Taipa Island. It has basic facilities and a couple of aerobridges.
Cycle rickshaws (triciclo or riquexó) are a dying breed, although a few still lurk around tourist haunts like the ferry terminal and Hotel Lisboa. Prices are negotiable.
Car rental is not a popular option in Macau given the territory’s high population density and small size. Avis provides car rental services in Macau and you have the option of renting the car with or without a driver. Roads are generally well maintained and directional signs are in both Chinese and Portuguese. Unlike in mainland China, international driving permits (IDP’s) are accepted in Macau, and traffic moves on the left side of the road with most cars being right-hand drive (largely due to influences from neighboring Hong Kong).
Macau’s official languages are Cantonese and Portuguese.
Cantonese is the most commonly spoken language of Macau. Mandarin is not widely spoken, though most locals are able to comprehend it to some degree. Staff working at major hotels and tourist attractions will usually be reasonably competent in Mandarin.
English is spoken by most front-line staff in the tourism industry. Nearly all museums and casinos have some staff with excellent English, as do many hotels, shops and restaurants, especially the up-market ones. However, English is not as widely spoken outside the main tourist areas, especially in establishments catering to the average working class, you will find that most people are not conversant in English.
What to see. Best top attractions in Macau
Although best known for gambling, Macau is rich in attractions and oozing with atmosphere, thanks to hundreds of years of fusion between European and Chinese cultures.
Macau is a fascinating place to just walk around as the place is packed with churches, temples, fortresses and other old buildings bearing an interesting mix of Portuguese and Chinese characteristics. Besides buildings, there are also hundreds of narrow alleyways forming a maze in the old part of Macau where the people of Macau carry out businesses and work. If the sheer density of humans gets to you, take a break and enjoy several pretty gardens or head to the island.
- One of the interesting things to see in Macau is a statue of the Bodhisatta Avalokitesvara located next to the sea near the Sands Casino and MGM Grand. Despite being a Chinese deity, the statue is distinctly European in design and resembles statues of the Virgin Mary one can find in Europe.
- Rua da Tercena is the most popular art, antique, and flea market street in Macau, a little off the beaten track with less Chinese tourist crowds and a lot of character. It is located near St Paul’s, behind Senado Square.
- And if culture is not your thing, there is the Macau Tower for awesome views and adventure sports, or Fisherman’s Wharf to enjoy some theme-park activities and shopping.
- Visit the Cotai reclaimed land area to see its transformation into the “Las Vegas Strip of the East”. The Venetian is the most famous with its Venice-styled shopping mall with rivers running through, and is also currently the largest casino in the world.
- The City of Dreams is a giant casino with high end fashion shops, a free video ‘bubble’ show, three hotels and the world’s most expensive theatre show. At the ‘House of Dancing Water’ the stage holds five Olympic swimming pools worth of water. Ushers give the front few rows of the audience towels. Free shuttles from the main ferry terminal leave constantly.
A large section of Macau Peninsula has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and 25 buildings and sites within the area have been deemed to have cultural and historic significance.
One of the best ways to cover the sights is to do the Macau Heritage Walk circuit. The heritage Buildings, the Sao Paulo Cathedral, the Fort and the Macau Museum are all adjacent to each other and can be conveniently seen individually even if one cannot catch the Heritage walk timing.
Taipa Village and Coloane Village, still inhabited by some fishermen, are also interesting with their colonial-era shops and houses along narrow lanes.
Macau has several museums. The main museums, such as the Macau Museum, are in Macau Peninsula although there are two museums on Taipa – the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History and Taipa Houses Museum.
Macau’s nature range from small urban gardens with fountains, sculptures to lush, forest with dense foliage and lengthy walking paths.
Gambling is Macau’s biggest industry, and busloads arrive daily from mainland China to try their luck. In addition, many Hong Kongers arrive on weekends with the same aim. For many years, the Casino Lisboa was the most famous and a landmark well known to people outside Macau, but it is being eclipsed by Sands Casino which opened in 2004. Nevertheless, the original Casino Lisboa is still worth a visit as its halls contain many original antiques on display from the private collection of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho. Most casinos are located along the waterfront on the southern side of Macau Peninsula. North of the Lisboa is a strip with many smaller casinos, a number of hotels and bars, and quite a few restaurants. This can be one of the more interesting areas of Macau; among other things it has quite a good Indian restaurant and several Portuguese ones. New casinos have also opened in the area called NAPE south of Avenida de Amizade, including Wynn Macau and Sands Macau.
All this is going to be overtaken by the new development on the Cotai Strip, which is being made into “The Las Vegas Strip of the East”. The biggest casino in the world, Venetian Macao, opened its doors in August 2007 and the not-much-smaller City of Dreams followed in 2009, with many more still to come. There are also several casinos on Taipa, including the Crown Macau.
There are ATMs available at either casino as well as Forex facilities to change your money. Gamblers are required to be at least 21 years of age, to be allowed to play.
Another popular form of gambling in Macau is greyhound racing, where people bet on dogs in the same way that many people in other countries bet on horses
At a height of 233 meters, the bungee jump from Macau tower, maintained and operated by A. J. Hackett is the 2nd highest in the world. Along with the bungee, one can also try the Sky jump, that is somewhat like a jump but is more protected and doesn’t involve a free fall, and a sky walk, that is a protected on a platform running around the circumference of the floor. Bouldering and sport climbing activities are also conducted at the tower’s base.
Macau’s two beaches – Hac Sa (black sand) and Cheoc Van (bamboo bay) – are located on the southern side of Coloane island. They are very popular and are frequented by locals and visitors, especially at the weekend.
Besides beaches, there are several public swimming pools all over Macau. All high-end hotels also have swimming pools.
There are opportunities for hiking and cycling on the relatively rural islands of Taipa and Coloane. The Coloane Trail is the first and the longest in Macau. The trail extends 8100 meters and encircles the central area of the Coloane Island at an average of 100 meters above sea level, suitable for experienced hikers developing their self-guided routes. Therefore, it is the most popular and most frequently used trail in Macau.
There is a bowling centre of international standard which was constructed in 2005 for the East Asian Games at the Macau Dome in Cotai area. There is also a bowling alley in Macau near the Camoes Garden/Protestant cemetery.
What to buy
Getting money is quite easy as there are banks and ATMs (cash machines) on nearly every street. Holders of a debit card on one of the international networks will have no issues withdrawing money.
Visa and MasterCard credit cards are widely accepted in major restaurants, stores and the ferry terminal but some merchants may require a minimum purchase amount.
Tipping is generally not practiced. In full service restaurants, a service charge is usually imposed and that is taken to be the tip.
While the newer mega casinos have introduced Macau to the joys of sterile franchise-filled malls, the city centre streets around the older casinos are still a bizarre monoculture of ridiculously expensive watch, jewelry and Chinese medicine shops, all aimed squarely at liberating lucky gamblers from their winnings. Finding tasteful souvenirs can thus be surprisingly challenging, although the streets between Largo do Senado and the ruins of St. Paul’s and in particular Rua da Tercena, do have a scattering of local art and antique shops.
Bargaining in the small shops can be done, usually working on the model of the shopkeeper quoting a price, the buyer making “hmmm” sounds and the shopkeeper lowering the price a bit. A full-fledged haggling match is quite rare, as most antique shops sell precisely the same things at precisely the same prices.
For a more Western shopping experience, head to New Yaohan on Ave Doutor Mário Soares n˚90. There is a bakery and supermarket on the 6th floor. On the other floors there are fashion, perfumes and everything else you would expect from a department store, but expect much higher prices to what you are used to.
What to eat
Macau is famous for excellent restaurants, unique cuisine and mellow bars. Above all, the city is famous for Macanese and Chinese cuisines.
Portuguese food (cozinha portuguesa), brought in by its Portuguese colonizers, is hearty, salty, straightforward fare. While many restaurants claim to serve the stuff, fully authentic fare is mostly limited to a few high-end restaurants, especially the cluster at the southwestern tip of the Peninsula.
Typical Portuguese dishes include:
- pato de cabidela (bloody duck), Duck meat stewed in duck blood, vinegar and herbs, served with rice; sounds and looks somewhat scary, but it’s excellent when well done
- bacalhau (salted cod), traditionally served with potatoes and veggies
- caldo verde, a soup of potato, chopped kale and chourico sausage
- feijoada (kidney-bean stew), a Brazilian staple common in Macau as well
- pastéis de nata (egg tarts), crispy and flaky on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside
Macanese food was created when Portuguese and Chinese influences were mixed together with spices brought from Africa and South-East Asia by traders, and many restaurants advertising “Portuguese” food in fact serve up mostly Macanese dishes.
- Almond cookies. Dry Chinese-style cookies flavoured with almond. Macau’s top souvenir, they’re compact, durable and hence sold pretty much everywhere.
- Galinha à africana (African-style chicken). Barbequed chicken coated in spicy piri-piri sauce.
- Galinha à portuguesa (Portuguese-style chicken). Chicken in a coconutty curry; despite the name, this is not a Portuguese dish at all, but a purely Macanese invention.
- Pork chop bun. The Macanese version of a hamburger, the name pretty much says it all: it’s a slice of freshly fried pork (often with a few chunks of bone left) with a dash of pepper placed inside a freshly baked bun.
- Beef Jerky. More moist and fresh than typical jerky, and quite delicious. Easily found on the street leading up to the Ruins of St. Paul, where venders will push free samples at you as you walk by with great enthusiasm. Be sure to try them all before choosing the one you like best!
- Minced meat with fried potato cubes, served on white rice.
All that said, the food of choice in Macau is still pure Cantonese. The streets of central Macau are littered with simple eateries offering rice and noodle dishes (although menus are often only in Chinese), while every casino hotel worth its salt has a fancy Cantonese seafood restaurant where you can blow away your gambling winnings on abalone and shark’s fin soup.
The greatest concentration of restaurants is in the Peninsula, where they are scattered throughout the district. Taipa is now a major destination for those going for Portuguese and Macanese food and there are many famous restaurants on the island.
What to drink
Reasonably priced Portuguese wine is widely available. As elsewhere in China, though, locals tend to prefer cognacs and whisky. Macau Beer is widely available in 330 ml bottles in supermarkets. There is also a wine museum which you can have the opportunity to taste over 50 varieties of wine.
There is a buzzing nightlife in Macau. There are a variety of bars and clubs along the Avenida Sun Yat Sen close to the Kum Iam Statue and the Cultural Centre where you can have a good night out. Locals, especially among younger people, prefer to meet up with their friends in Western style cafes or places that serve ‘bubble tea’. ‘Bubble tea’ is usually fruit flavored tea served with tapioca balls and can be served either hot or cold. The shops in town centre (near Senado Square) often open until late at night and are often crowded. The casinos have also become a big hit for entertainment, offering performances of international standard (advance booking advised) and comprehensive shopping malls for those less interested in trying their luck on the machines. For those who want to pamper themselves after a shopping spree, there are spas available in almost all respectable hotels.
There is a risk of typhoons, mainly between July and September. A system of typhoon warnings are issued by the Macao Meteorological and Geophysical Bureau are broadcast widely on television and radio:
One unexpected cause of sickness in Macau is the extreme temperature change between 35°C humid summer weather outdoors and 18°C air-conditioned buildings. Some people experience cold symptoms after moving between the two extremes often; it is not unusual to wear a sweater or covering to stay warm indoors, and it is therefore usually good advice to carry a long-sleeve item of clothing when expecting to visit air-conditioned places for extended periods of time.
Whilst tap water is technically safe to drink (taste aside), most locals boil or filter their water or buy inexpensive bottled water, which you are also recommended to do so.
People in Macau are generally friendly to foreigners (given the fact that Macau had hundreds of years of Portuguese colonial rule, the locals, even the older population is used to living side by side with Westerners). However, do not assume the locals speak English (or Portuguese) and a few essential Cantonese phrases are always helpful.
When visiting Chinese temples basic respect should be shown, but taking photos is usually allowed and you don’t need to ask for permission as long as there isn’t a no-photography sign posted.
Binge-drinking or drunken behavior is not tolerated in Macau.
Macau has excellent mobile phone coverage. Macau has both GSM 900/1800 and 3G 2100 networks.
Macau has extensive free Wi-Fi coverage throughout the city. It is known as the wifigo system. You can also use the encrypted service wifigo-s. The username is “wifigo” and the password is “wifigo”.
Official tourism websites of Macau
For more information please visit the official government website: