Macao, China Is Much More Than Just Flashy Casinos
Most people know Macao as the "Vegas of Asia," but the truth is that Macao is ever flashier than the famed Sin City. After all, the autonomous Chinese region has five of the world's 10 largest casinos, whereas Las Vegas has only one. And Macao makes about seven times as much revenue from its casinos as Vegas. So, really, it would be more accurate to say that Las Vegas is the Macao of the Americas.
But based on our own experience there, while Macao's casinos and overly opulent resorts call attention with their flashiness, we actually think they're the least interesting part about the territory. If you're able to peel yourself away from the lights and noise, you'll discover the only place in China with a strong Portuguese influence. That's because Macao was a Portuguese colony from 1557 to 1999.
Thanks to this unique blend of cultures, Macao has 22 places listed in UNESCO and flavorful gastronomy that has earned it 15 Michelin-starred restaurants. Learn more about what makes Macao so fascinating, in and outside its casinos.
What Makes Macao Unique
The Portuguese had a strong presence in Macao (also known as Macau) for over 400 years and were once a significant minority. That is not to idealize their historic role over the territory since they wiggled their way in after the Ming dynasty allowed them to lease a part of the land. They later full-on colonized the territory, bringing with them European culture, religion and, of course, people.
During World War II, many people from mainland China escaped to Macao for safety, so Chinese culture became dominant again. This was cemented when the Portuguese finally gave Macao back to China in December 1999.
But it's undeniable that the mix of Chinese and Portuguese influence sets Macao apart from any other place in China. The small autonomous region has different gastronomy, its own money and architecture you won't find anywhere else in the country. Portuguese is still an official language along with Mandarin.
In its historic center, you could easily believe you are in Europe — that is until you see all the signs written in Chinese. Twenty-two sites in the center combine to make a giant UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO, "With its historic street, residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings, the historic centre of Macao provides a unique testimony to the meeting of aesthetic, cultural, architectural and technological influences from East and West. The site also contains a fortress and a lighthouse, the oldest in China. It bears witness to one of the earliest and longest-lasting encounters between China and the West, based on the vibrancy of international trade."
Are the Macao Casinos Worth Visiting?
Let's touch on the casinos and resorts for a second since this is what most people come to Macao for.
Is it worth spending any time in Macao's casinos? Based on our personal travel style, sure, but only briefly to see them and say you did. Gambling seems like a boring way to waste time in a place with a unique and rich cultural history. Yes, the Venetian Macao recreates the canals of the beautiful city and gives you the chance to ride a gondola through them. In the end, though, it's gilded beauty — it shines but there's not much underneath the sparkle.
That said, if you want to enjoy nightlife, the casinos do offer some of the best parties, shows and concerts in all of Macao, and those are very much worth it. The absolute best show to see is the "House of Dancing Water."
Of course, travelers who want a flashy vacation at large resorts will be happy gambling the days away here. As we've stated, the Macao casinos are some of the largest in the world, so if that's your jam, have at it! The best casino-resorts are the aforementioned Venetian Macao (second-largest in the world, largest in Asia), the City of Dreams (third-largest in the world), and the Wynn Macau (fifth-largest in the world).
Still, do tear yourself away from the Cotai casino strip to see some of the other sites.
What to Do in Macao Outside the Casinos
Hopefully, we've managed to convince you to have the casinos be only a part of your trip to Macao.
Though small, the territory has a surprising amount of landmarks. Like Hong Kong, you could spend days or weeks here and never get bored.
But let's start with the top five essential things to do while in beautiful Macao (outside the casinos).
1. Visit the UNESCO-Listed Historic Center
If you have time to only do one thing in Macao, make sure it's strolling around the historic center. As we've said, 22 amazing sites have been bundled together to make the center a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Start at Senado Square, which follows the European model by being the point from which everything else stems. Considered the symbol of Macao, its pretty pastel, colonial houses and azulejo tiles contrast starkly with the 20th-century Chinese architecture that can be seen in its background.
From the square, you can walk to the ruins of St. Paul. This impressive site stands where Macao's main cathedral and college once stood. A fire consumed most of the structure in the 19th century, and the only thing that remains is the facade of the complex and the stairways that lead up to it. The landmark is a sight to behold: From the front, you could easily believe it's a church, but change your angle just a bit, and the illusion breaks as if the church were but a set in a play.
In front of St. Paul are the ruins of the Guia Fortress. Walk up the hill through the stone walls, which sometimes open up to make way for cannons left to stand in their original place. The fortress itself is amazing, but it also provides panoramic views of the city that only get better and better the farther up you get.
Other places to visit include the Leal Senado Building, a neo-classical 18th-century building that was once the municipal chamber; and the Mandarin's House, one of the territory's most gorgeous examples of Quing Dynasty–era traditional Chinese compounds. If possible, pass by theDom Pedro V Theatre, a pastel-green Portuguese edifice that is the oldest Western-style theatre in China.
2. Eat ALL of the Food
All that walking around through the historic center will leave you hungry, which is cause for celebration, because Macanese cuisine is truly one of the best we've ever had. Here, a fusion of Portuguese, southern Chinese and southeast Asian flavors has resulted in a distinct style that has yet to make it out onto the international scene.
Some standout dishes include tacho stew (which takes Portuguese stew and adds duck, cabbage and other Chinese ingredients) and minchi, minced beef or pork with potatoes, onions and Worcestershire sauce. And you absolutely can't skip eating at least one Portuguese egg tart, a traditional Portuguese dessert that is found in practically every corner of Macao.
Because of its status as a port city, you'll also be able to eat much more than signature Macanese food. Of course, purely Portuguese and Chinese (including Hunanese, Cantonese and Sichuan) restaurants exist. But it won't be hard to find French, Italian, Japanese or other internationally favored cuisines.
Especially in the casinos, there are numerous fine-dining establishments, 15 of which have at least one Michelin star. But if your budget doesn't allow for such pleasures, we assure you that the affordable local joints also serve food that you won't easily forget.
3. Visit Macao's Chinese Temples
What makes Macao's colonial architecture so interesting is not that it's European, but that it contrasts with the Chinese architecture that surrounds it. To fully experience Macao, however, you should also make time to visit structures that reflect the local culture. And there's no better place to do this than in its temples.
The most famous of the region's temples is the A-Ma Temple, which was built even before the Portuguese began colonizing the area and survived after they took over. As part of the UNESCO Site, the temple is always packed but somehow manages to keep an overall air of tranquility. Incense and candles are ever-present as offerings to the sea goddess, Mazu.
If you want to see more temples, don't skip the temple complex that houses three of them: Pao Kong, Temple of Divinity of Medicine and Nanshan Temple. Other beautiful temples include the Lin Fung Temple, the Kun Iam Tong and the Zhulin Temple.
4. See History Preserved in Taipa Village
If you want to see what Macao was like before Cotai strip was filled with casinos, take time to visit Taipa Village.
Taipa was once a quiet fishing village on an island separate from where the center of Macao resides. Today, it is connected and easily accessible from the center and Cotai — you can even walk there!
The village still preserves much of its original architecture, and parts of it will make you feel as if you're in the countryside. You can walk around small alleys filled with shops and restaurants housed in both Portuguese colonial and traditional Chinese buildings. Street food rules the game here, so indulge in as many snacks as possible.
5. Throw Yourself Off a Tower
Up for a true adventure? Head up to Macao Tower, where you can take the second-highest bungee jump in the entire world!
Before you jump, you'll get an amazing view of Macao, which will surely inspire you to take the leap and experience a true rush of adrenaline as you free fall for 754 feet. We'll be honest and say this was not one of the things we did while in Macao. But just because we lack guts doesn't mean this isn't worthwhile.
In fact, if we were braver, we'd definitely have skipped the casinos completely and done this instead.
How to Do a Day Trip to Macao from Hong Kong
Despite its relatively small size, Macao really packs a punch. If you can, try to spend a couple of days in this enchanting territory. But if that doesn't seem possible, you can easily do a day trip from nearby Hong Kong to Macao.
The easiest way is to go by ferry. You'll be on the boat for about an hour and will get to see some pretty sights at both the Hong Kong and Macao harbors. Tickets are only around $21 one-way for the economy price.
If water isn't your thing, you can also take a bus across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. With prices starting at about $8, the bus is an even cheaper way to visit Macao, and you'll still get views of the water, though not the harbors. The ride is around 45 minutes.
Finally, if you're planning to roll in like you're part of the cast of "Ocean's Eleven," splurge on a helicopter ride. This is definitely the most stylish and over-the-top way to get to Macao, but it goes well with a casino holiday. A flight will set you back about $550.
Another thing to consider is to fly into Hong Kong and out of Macao, or vice versa. That's what we did — taking a ferry in between — and it came out to be around the same price as a roundtrip flight to Hong Kong.
Plus, we got to experience a place that has a mix of cultures you won't find elsewhere, and you can't really put a price on that.