“Macao? That’s a long way to go to place a bet.” A friend declared when I told him I was going to Macao for the week. I reminded him I didn’t gamble and explained that I was going there for the other side of Macao: great food, lots of attractions and good entertainment. Macao is also small enough that it’s easy to see in a few days.
Macao is a peninsula and a series of islands (less than 30 square kilometres in all) to the south west of Hong Kong. Like its neighbour it’s an autonomous part of China. It was a Portuguese enclave for almost 450 years until it reverted to China in 1999 two years after Hong Kong. It’s now a Special Administrative Region, which means that it retains its own legal system and has its own currency (the Pataca) and locals hold Macao passports.
While almost all of Macao's 650,000 population is Han Chinese and only two per cent are Portuguese there’s still a strong Portuguese influence across Macao. That’s not only in the signage and the architecture but also in the food.
The histories of Macao and Hong Kong are fascinating. Perched at the edge of an extremely reclusive ancient China they were the sole trading links between China and the rest of the world for a long time.
Macao remains a rather disjointed destination. There’s old Macao at the tip of the peninsula and from there a couple of long bridges lead to Cotai where most of the casinos are located. It’s effectively dehydrated ocean: much landfill has been added to fill in the area between Taipa and Coloane islands.
Beyond lies relatively undeveloped Coloane, invariably referred to as “Macao’s lungs” where you’ll find the cleverly designed Macau Giant Panda Pavilion where giant pandas live in close to their natural habitat. Macao’s airport lies offshore on more completely reclaimed land to the east. Looming over it all is mainland China that’s generally as close as the adjoining suburb.
Macau or Macao?
Both are correct. In modern Portuguese it’s Macau but English uses the archaic Portuguese Macao. A Macao passport uses both.
Heart of the nation
The whole of the historic centre of Macao is scattered across just a few city blocks. A short walk from the port takes you past the building where Ian Fleming met the role model for Goldfinger to Senado (or Senate) Square with its distinctive wave-patterned mosaic.
The pedestrian path leads past innumerable shops and food stores to the facade of St Paul’s Church, first built in 1580 and destroyed by fire in 1835. Macao’s most notable historic feature, the stabilised, richly decorated granite structure is at the top of a set of stairs that’s nearly always crowded with people grabbing selfies.
Explore high-street shopping at the Venetian
Next door is the Monte Fort, which offers great views of the city, and the impressive Macao Museum built into the base of the fort. It’s a good place to understand the tiny nation’s convoluted history.
However, the best viewpoint over the city is provided from the top of the 338 metre Macau Tower where there are both observation decks and restaurants. If you’re really brave you can also bungy jump from the tower.
Macao is the perfect add-on to a visit to Hong Kong and Australian visitors don’t need a visa for either destination.
Indeed, if you catch a Cathay Pacific flight from Australia you can take a 70-minute ferry connection from Hong Kong Airport’s Sky Pier directly to Macao without going into the city.
Signs of Macao's colonial past – the ruins of St Paul's
If you are flying Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong and your ticket or frequent flyer status allows you lounge access, check out the airline’s new Pier Business Lounge that is one of the world’s most stylish with an excellent open kitchen.
Macao and Hong Kong tie in seamlessly when planning your accommodation, too. Macao is mainly a weekend destination so you’ll find good mid-week deals. Hong Kong is business so it can be (relatively) quiet at weekends when deals may be offered.
Where to stay
Choosing accommodation in Macao comes down to why you’re here.
If it’s for history you should stay on the Peninsula. The Sofitel at Ponte 16, particularly the 17th-floor Club Sofitel, is excellent. If you’d like to stay within history, there’s the boutique 12-room Pousada de Sao Tiago built inside a 17th Century Portuguese fortress.
Discover Macanese cuisine in the city's laneways and alleys
Macao is not only one of the richest countries in the world, it’s a much larger gaming destination than Las Vegas. The casino strip over on Cotai reveals this with some truly monumental hotels. The 3000-room Venetian Macao has a replica of Venice’s campanile at the front. Some 330 luxury brand shops (sorry “Shoppes at Venetian”) are built around an indoor canal where you can take a gondola ride. The recently opened 3000-room Parisian Macao next door has a half-sized Eiffel Tower at the front where you can dine at a lower level or visit the viewpoint at the top. Down the road, the new 1700-room Wynn Palace offers a cable-car ride around an artificial lake with fountains and light show. It’s all over-the-top but good fun. Unlike Vegas you could spend days here and not see a poker machine or gaming table though they are only metres away.
While there’s a lot of shopping in the hotels, much of it is in the rarified haute couture category and, even then, the prices appear higher than the same items in Australia, the USA or even France and Italy. However, out on the streets there are definitely bargains to be found in everything from cameras to ceramics, clothes to electronics.
Food and culture
While Macao has a typically bustling Chinese street scene that’s great for photography it operates at an altogether slower pace than Hong Kong or the big cities of China. So, in a way, it feels like a welcome step back in time.
The Parisian boasts 3000 rooms and a half-size Eiffel Tower
With 22 buildings and 8 public areas that are World Heritage sites it’s no wonder it has appeared as the backdrop in many movies. Indiana Jones, James Bond and Johnny English have all visited.
The blending of Portuguese and Chinese culture has permeated the food scene, too. In Iberian unity there’s a Spanish influence, too and they all come together to form Macanese cuisine. That makes Macao a very special destination for foodies.
Here are four of the many dining options that will give you a good taste of Macao across various districts.
For Macanese cuisine, visit Restaurante Litoral at 261-A Rua do Almirante Sergio, just around the corner from the A-Ma Temple in the old town. It’s decorated in Portuguese style and has a long history in hospitality. A featured dish is spicy African chicken from a fusion of Portuguese colonies worldwide.
The delightfully light Macao Portuguese Egg Tart is quite a variation on the original Portuguese pastry. Visit Lord Stowe’s Bakery in the rustic little fishing community of Coloane Village where it was created by an Englishman, the late Andrew Stow who melded English and Portuguese egg tart recipes. There’s a Lord Stowe Bakery in the Venetian complex, too.
The quaint fishing village of Coloane
Wynn Palace Wing Lei Palace serves Cantonese dishes at a superb level of taste and presentation. It’s too new to have a Michelin rating yet, but I expect it to be regarded highly.
Old Taipa Village is not far from the Cotai casino strip but its narrow lanes and cobbled streets seem a world away. Here you’ll find Antonio Macau, an affable Portuguese restaurant that is well regarded by locals and critics alike. The wines and many of the ingredients are imported from Portugal and you’ll find it’s a fun night of good food and wine.
More information for Australian visitors to Macao (including free apps) is available here.
Have you been to Macao? What are your favourite spots?