There are relatively few people who know about Macau and the one’s who do know may not know there is more to do in Macau than just going to the casinos. And if they do know about this tiny region in China just across the water from Hong Kong, the first thing they think of is casinos and gambling. In fact, Macau tops the infamous Las Vegas in terms of gambling dollars. The sheer amount of money that changes hands in Macau in a single bet might be more than the worth of an entire country (wow – crazy right?!?!).
But with it’s long Portuguese history, this place deep in the heart of Asia is rich well beyond the casinos. Our recent trip to Macau left us impressed, and desperately wanting more.
What to do in Macau – Beautifully Mixed Portuguese with Chinese Culture
Macau & China’s ties with the Portuguese go back in history even further than the relationship with the British and Hong Kong. While this small area (only 11 square miles) of peninsula and islands barely off the coast of the mainland was initially inhabited by the Chinese, it was the Portuguese explorers and traders who played a major role in developing the area.
When the Portuguese landed, the locals referred to the place as A Ma Gao (meaning the place of A Ma – the Goddess of Seafarers). Her temple sits upon the rocks near the historic water’s edge.
Eventually, the name turned into Macau and the Portuguese trading activities helped build a strong relationship with the Chinese. As a result, they were eventually allowed to help build up, defend, and control (to a certain extent) the city. This included their own government, architecture, cuisine, and traditions…including religion. It’s interesting to see the mix of traditional Chinese temples and historic and intricate Catholic churches!
That’s what we love most about Macau — the mix. One of the main things we like to do in Macau is walk down the street and smell the incense of a traditional Chinese temple, while looking at a beautiful and intricately designed Catholic church! You can relax in a Portuguese coffee shop and gaze out at a large European style public square, then head off to get a traditional Chinese massage.
Even the language is a mix — while many people speak Chinese, some of the population speaks Portuguese and nearly all the signs are in Chinese, Portuguese…and of course English.
This combination of East and West in one tiny place is truly what makes Macau a unique destination to visit. And it’s nothing like its neighbors of mainland China or Hong Kong just across the water.
Get a Feel for Europe…in Macau!
While some parts of Macau definitely feel Chinese, others retain much of the Portuguese heritage that helped to make the city. The most famous sight in all of Macau is the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The steps leading up to this façade, what is left of this 16th century cathedral that mostly burned down many years ago.
The ruin’s of St. Paul’s Cathedral is the cultural heart, and icon of Macau.
Never would you think that of things to do in Macau you would find so much Portuguese history, including the old fort that once defended the city against Dutch invaders. A walk up to the top gives you a great lookout over the historic neighborhoods of Macau. Other popular Portuguese sights include Senado square, complete with mosaic tiles all across the square and a European style fountain.
Don’t Miss in Macau – Taste the World in Macau
As a result of Macau’s rich cultural mix, there is an abundance of incredible food. The Portuguese were known to be great explorers back in the day, so they not only brought their own food but the foods of many other countries too. This combined with the local Chinese cuisine to create something that is truly unique.
One of the most famous (and our personal favorite) is the Portuguese egg tart. Although the Macau version is slightly different than the ones we have had in mainland China, this sweet and savory street snack is the great way to start your day — or top off your evening. But there’s much more than just egg tarts to be sampled in Macau.
We were actually overwhelmed with the amazing food options in Macau…there’s no way you can taste it all in just a couple days! And it definitely is foodie town!
Popular Festivals in Macau you have to do
There are so many great festivals to see and do in Macau. There are an abundance of festivals in Macau to be enjoyed, especially because both Chinese and Portuguese festivals are celebrated! And the city does a great job at playing host to these events, with great venues, organization, and support of the local community. While it can get crowded during some of the most popular festivals, there is no doubt visiting during these times would give you a unique and enjoyable experience.
One of the most popular (and busiest) festivals is the Chinese New Year celebrations. For 10 days there will be public events all around town, including dragon and lion dances in the streets, shows all around the public squares, and crowds visiting temples. Other traditional Chinese festivals include the feast of the Drunken Dragon, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid Autumn Festival…and many more!
Popular holidays that are traditional Portuguese or Catholic include Lent (Senhor Dos Passos — Procession of the Passion of Our Lord), and of course Christmas — which is a beautiful time to visit and be able to experience this important holiday among the backdrop of Asia.
Beyond these culture festivals you can do in Macau, there are many other international festivals. This includes the Macau Grand Prix, a formula one race that is possibly the most famous event in Macau where cars race on a circuit through the cities streets! There is also an international music festival, numerous art festivals, and even an international fireworks festival / competition (yes, a festival for fireworks!!!).
It’s easy to see the Macau really knows how to put on a good show, and have a good time!
Ok, Macau Casinos are a Must — Just for Entertainment
Even if you aren’t a high-roller, a visit to Macau wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the many casinos. Unlike Las Vegas, the casinos are a bit spread out around town. On the peninsula to the east of the historic center of Macau, you will find some of the original and classic Casinos, such as the Grand Lisboa. This is also where you will find the luxurious Wynn, the MGM, and a few other small establishments.
Of these, the Wynn really brings it home with their incredible water show on “Performance Lake” and the “Tree of Prosperity and Dragon of Fortune” — visual masterpieces located inside one of the main atrium entrances.
Another great activity to do in Macau, traveling to the south and across the water to the island of Taipa, you will find the newer mega resort casinos that are starting to be built up. This area is known as the Cotai strip is actually a bunch of reclaimed land…where they have essentially connected the island of Taipa with the southern island of Coloane.
The area is turning into the Las Vegas Strip, with multiple casinos now open…and many more being built. The Venetian is our favorite. It’s quite similar to the one in Vegas…but bigger! It’s always nice to walk around the soak up the Italian atmosphere, do a bit of shopping, dining, and definitely enjoying the gondolas and singing gondoliers along the Grand Canal!
Across the street from the Venetian is the enormous City of Dreams. Comprised of multiple hotels, this massive complex makes it easy to get lost. There are many hotels, casinos, a ridiculous amount of shopping, and some pretty yummy restaurants — including a Hard Rock Café and SOHO – a collection of restaurants and entertainment.
The City of Dreams also has one of the most popular shows, The House of Dancing Water — one of the biggest and most elaborate water-productions ever created! There are also some mega-nightclubs here who often have big name headliners.
Top Things to Do in Macau
The heart of the Portuguese culture in Macau. Visit the square to admire the European feel, mosaic tiles on the ground, fountain, and beautiful historic buildings. There is lots of shopping and restaurants in the area, and many events take place in the square.
Walk the Historic District
Walk the Historic District of Macau. There are so many historic sites to see in Macau, stretching north of Senado Square all the say south toward the A-Ma Temple. There is great signage and maps around town — so you can easily just wander and enjoy the sights. You can also pop into the local Macau tourism office (located in Senado Square) to pick up a paper map, or even better…download their walking tour app to your phone!
Read also Geocaching on the Historic Portuguese Walking Tour in Macau
Visit the Historic Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral
Perched on top of a small hill in the center of the old district in Macau, you will see this iconic façade of an old church dating back to 1602. It was destroyed by fire in 1845, the nearby old St. Paul’s college was actually the first western-style university in the Far East. You can peek behind the façade if it’s open, but there isn’t much to see. Most people sit on the steps and take photos – and it really is a great photo op!
The Macau Museum & Mount Fortress
Right next to the Ruins of St Paul is the Macau museum and Mount Fort. Built back in 1617, it was the city’s primary defense — equipped with cannons, military barracks and a huge arsenal. It was key in holding off many attacks. Walking along the top of the old fort gives you a great view over Macau.
Long before Macau existed, this temple was here for the local residents. It is a beautiful combination of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and a number of other local folk beliefs. Nearby this area is an open plaza and some old neighborhood streets for walking.
Taipa Village is a Must Visit!
Located on Taipa island and easily accessible by bus from most parts of Macau, we LOVED Taipa Village! The heart of the village area has a number of wonderful Portuguese restaurants and some nice shopping and people watching. It’s a small area, but a wonderful visit. Nearby the village there are also some old Taipa-Houses that have been turned into museums. There is also a beautiful cathedral and gardens nearby.
Lou Lim leoc Gardens
Perhaps our favorite outdoor area in Macau, this beautiful Suzhou-style Chinese garden has pathways winding through the bamboo forests and flowers. There is a pond with fish, quiet pagodas and places to sit, as well as big rock gardens. You will see locals relaxing here and chatting, while others will be doing Tai Chi.
Other Notable Sights to Visit in Macau
- The Guia Lighthouse & Hill
- Macau Tower
- The Wynn & Old Casinos – Including the Grand Lisboa
- Macau Tea Culture Museum
- Mandarin’s House
- St. Dominic’s Church
- Lou Kau Mansion
- St. Augustine Square
- Sir Robert Ho Tung Library
- Get Away From It all at Coloane Village & Beaches
- Geocaching in Macau
Transportation in Macau
Being that Macau is so small, there is no need for an underground train system here, and Macau’s bus system is fantastic. There are an endless stream of air conditioned buses going all over Macau’s peninsula and the islands (connected by bridge). It’s super easy to ride the bus in Macau. Head to any of the stops and read the schedules (Chinese and English), and you should only have to wait for a few minutes.
Just be sure you get on the bus going in the right direction!
All buses on the main peninsula have a flat rate of MOP$3.20, but if you go to another island it could be MOP$4.20 or a little more. ** Keep in mind that you must have exact change for the bus.
Another option is to buy a ticket on the Macau open-top hop-on-off bus tour. A convenient and scenic way to explore the city, and you don’t have to fuss with routes / timetables, etc. Just sit back and enjoy while it takes you to all the main sights!
Taxi’s are readily available in Macau; however, they aren’t very cheap. Currently, the price is MOP$17 for the first 1600 meters, then MOP$2.00 for each 260 meters after. They may also charge MOP$3.00 for bags of luggage that go in the trunk / boot, and their are surcharges to and from the airport and the southern Coloane island.
Macau is a very walkable city! In fact, we really enjoyed walking all over the historic district of Macau — it’s easy to follow their signage to all the main spots.
There are traditional rickshaws around town, mostly in front of the Grand Lisboa Casino and near the A-Ma Temple. These are not really transportation, but more like guided tours from the drivers. They have a map and will show you where they can take you. Just be sure to negotiate a good price with them first before getting in.
Accommodations in Macau
Where you choose to stay in Macau will depend on a number of factors. For us, we weren’t interested in gambling and we were mostly interested in exploring the history of the old area. So for us, we prefer to stay on the Macau peninsula near the old historic part of town.
This area is near some of the best restaurants and it’s close to all the main the sights. You can easily take a bus or walk to most places — making it the most convenient.
During our first weekend trip to Macau, we stayed at the Emperor Hotel. It was a good hotel. Clean and quite comfortable. They had good facilities, huge rooms and good service.
If you would prefer to stay at a casino, then some of the top options include: The famous Wynn hotel, historic Lisboa, the MGM Macau, the Venetian Resort, the Galaxy Resort (awesome waterpark!), the Hard Rock Hotel, and the City of Dreams.
If you are looking for a budget option, then we recommend checking out Airbnb. There are a number of affordable Airbnb’s in Macau. If you have never tried it before, basically it is a service where people can list their own properties — such as guests houses, spare apartments, and bedrooms. We love Airbnb and have stayed in many Airbnb’s all across America!
Getting To and From Macau
Macau is located in southern China, at the mouth of the Pearl River. You can easily fly into Macau, as it has its own international airport. But better flight options may be found in and out of Hong Kong. Macau is literally across the water from Hong Kong (on the other side of the Pearl River).
Being so close to Hong Kong, there are many ferries that carry passengers to and from Macau; including fast ferries. While Macau can be considered a day trip from Hong Kong, we recommend that you spend a few days in Macau…because there is quite a lot to do!
Macau borders mainland China and the city of Zhuhai. There is both bus and train service into Zhuhai Gongbei port — which is where you cross over into Macau. The train does not go into Macau, but you are literally on the border — and just walk over. Macau is so small, that you just take a bus or taxi to your destination anyway.
Planning a Trip to the Hong Kong and Macau area? Check out our sample Itineraries for Hong Kong
The same is true for buses, many of them will drop you on the Zhuhai side and you will just walk over the border and get a local bus in Macau. On return to the mainland, you can book a bus ticket with a cross-border bus company (they will take you to the border, you exit for border control, then return to another bus). However, we have never done this because we fell like it’s just easier to get the bus at the border. Macau is tiny – you are on the bus for a few minutes before getting off at the border crossing anyway.
Nearby Cities to Macau
Zhuhai, a coastal city bordering Macau is well known for it’s long promenade along the coastline, swaying palm trees and hundreds of islands! It’s a laid back city, with a low-population density. Water activities are popular here, as well as golfing. Popular sights include the famous Fisher Girl statue, New Yuanming Palace, beautiful Jintai Buddhist Temple, as well as the Imperial Yuwenquan Hot Springs.
Guangzhou is the third biggest city in China, and is located barely two hours by bus from Macau. We currently live in Guangzhou, and it is an easy journey from Macau by bus; and by fast train it is less than 1 hour! A visit to Guangzhou is a must if you are in the area. If you want to stay connected with your social accounts like Facebook & Instagram then you will need to have a VPN to be able to stay connected.
Guangzhou is a modern city, but with deep and important historical roots in China. Popular sights include the famous Canton Tower, particularly beautiful at night when it is lit up! Shamian Island is home to historic European mansions, and Chen Clan Academy is a stunning traditional home of a wealthy and important family in Guangzhou.
There are numerous temples around town, beautiful parks, and shopping streets such as Beijing Road, where you can actually see remnants of the old road that linked historic Guangzhou with Beijing! Lastly, Guangzhou is a great hub for transportation and sightseeing all around southern China.
Macau is a Must Visit in Southern China
At first, we really weren’t too excited about Macau. We thought it was just another place to gamble. But after our visit, we realize that there is so much more to Macau than gambling. We were in awe at the beautiful blend of history, architecture, and food. It’s a small area that is easy to navigate for tourists, it’s clean, and safe.
We absolutely loved our visit and strongly believe that it should be on everyone’s travel itinerary if they plan on coming to southern China (including a visit to Hong Kong).
There is no reason to skip Macau — it is one of the coolest cities that we have visited!
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