There are some cities in the world, which are really special, not standard, but unique in many ways. One of them is Macau- a small country within a big country, with its own spirit, atmosphere, culture, and image. Many people explore various places on the Earth. And one interesting idea is to come to this point on the Earth’s geography, located on the southern coast of China and to explore Macau, this amazing gem, where East and West meet in their own way.
Let’s explore Macau
Macau is a really interesting place. Many people come to visit this city. They visit it for different reasons. A significant part of the visitors goes there attracted by the gambling industry since Macau is well known as the “Las Vegas of Asia” and one of the “gambling capitals” of the world. Others go there just to enjoy seeing and experiencing luxury travel opportunities, which Macau has to offer. Some go there to look for parties and light life, some go for the food experience.
But there are also people, who are interesting to visit this city, just to explore its geography, its history, and its current reality. I am one of them, and I write this article for this purpose. So, let’s go and explore Macau, a unique pearl in the southern coast of China.
The name “Macau” actually has formed gradually by twisting the meanings and words. First, it comes to a misunderstanding when the Portuguese explorers asked the locals what is this place. The locals thought that the Europeans ask for the nearby temple, dedicated to “goddess Ma” and said “Ma Kok”. Later the Portuguese twisted it into a more Portuguese sounding word, which gradually became sounding “Macau”. On the other side, the rest of the world, especially the English speaking people additionally twisted it into “Macao”. In fact, both “Macau” and “Macao” are right, but “Macau” is more authentic.
However, the Chinese has another name story. They have called Peninsular Macau “Jing Ao” (井澳), and the island area “Shizimen” (十字门). When they united the whole territory in one name, it became “Aomen” (澳门), which is the official Chinese name of Macau today.
Macau and the Pearl River Delta
Macau is a part of the giant city chain of the Pearl River Delta. And together with Hong Kong, it is one of the Delta’s special gem. It is located on the west coast of the main gulf of Pearl River, bordering with the rest of China at Zhuhai City. Its main population is Chinese, Cantonese of Han ethnic group. And as it is normal for the city of such kind, there are also many foreigners. Thus Macau has quite a mixed Western and Eastern image and culture.
Macau and Hong Kong
Macau is in many ways the “little brother” of Hong Kong. Both cities have a quite similar history, mixed culture, and their location on both sides of the Pearl River Delta makes them like two pillars, standing on the map. But just Macau is the smaller one, and Hong Kong- the bigger. Now there is a modern highway bridge, connecting the two glorious cities, thus closing the “circle” of the city chain around the large Delta.
Geography of Macau
The land of Macau is actually very small. Much smaller than Hong Kong. Now it consists of two main parts- Peninsular Macau and Island part of Macau. Peninsular Macau is a compact area, almost fully filled with an urban zone, with three larger reservoirs near the seacoast, closely pasted to the border with China and Zhuhai.
The Island part of Macau used to be actually two separate islands- Taipa and Coloane. But recently, since the beginning of casino and luxury resort industry development, the government started claiming additional land between these two islands, forming a zone called Cotai Strip, where the most luxury resorts of Macau were built. Thus Taipa, Cotai Strip and Coloane now are actually one whole new island, much larger than Peninsular Macau. There are still more natural areas in this island, especially in Coloane, where you can find low mountains covered by wild forests, a few beaches, and local villages.
History of Macau
This city is well known for its Portuguese culture. While you explore Macau, you can see signs in Portuguese everywhere. The names of the streets and places are in Portuguese. When you use city transport, you will hear the noticing voice about the bus stops in a few languages, one of which is Portuguese. Obviously, Portugal has had a significant influence on Macau. How it has begun and how it modeled this city to its modern image?
Early Chinese history
Since Macau is part of the Chinese territories, the historical background of this city is Chinese, and before the arrival of the Portuguese, its area’s history has been just a part of the history of South China.
The Hundred Yue (from few thousand years ago to 3rd century BC)
As in the whole area of Guangdong, Guangxi and the neighboring provinces of China, the earliest settlers of Macau were people of Southeast Asian origin, called Hundred Yue. Now only some Chinese minorities left of them, living mainly in Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan, but in the ancient times, they have lived in what is now Macau too.
Imperial China (from 3rd century BC to 1513)
When the kingdom of Qin conquered all other competing kingdoms in China, its king, who became an Emperor (Qin Shihuan) conquered Guangdong with Macau too. From that moment the territory of Macau remained a part of all Chinese kingdoms and empires who controlled the southern part of China- Han, Wu, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and other short living states. This area soon became Chinese, with Chinese population and culture, of Cantonese type. But Macau itself hasn’t grown into a significant city. Only a few small settlements have been established there, and some temples from that period still remain until today.
The Portuguese Colonial Age (from 1513 to 1999)
The Portuguese arrived in China for the first time in 1513, lead by Jorge Alvares. First, they tried to establish their trade base in Hong Kong, but have been banned by Ming authorities. The struggle continued until 1557 when finally they found their constant base in the present day Macau.
The new Portuguese city began growing rapidly. So the other European rivals of the Portuguese, especially the Dutch, didn’t like it. Finally, the Dutch navy tried to conquer the city in 1622. But they were defeated in the Battle of Macau, and the city continued its Portuguese way and direction.
During the following years, Macau passed times of decay and flourish, caused by the changes in the political environment in this part of the world. In the 19th century, when Hong Kong was established, Macau lost its leading role in Pearl River Delta, but in the same time, using the weakness of the Qing government, declared full independence from China and took the island territories of Taipa and Coloane.
The 20th century was generally peaceful for Macau. During the WW2 Macau avoided the destruction of the war, declaring neutrality, which was respected by the Japanese. It was bombed by the allies in 1945, due to a suspicion that the city sells fuel to the Japanese army, but soon after the war, the damages were repaired.
After the war, Macau had a new flourishing, economic developing, and growing its famous casino industry. It was gradually relinquished by its “mother” Portugal, and following some treaties, negotiations and even incidents, finally, it was transferred to China in 1999.
Macau- a part of China
Now it is a special political region, which, similar to Hong Kong, has its own system, different than the rest of China, but still part of China. All its historical and cultural heritage, as well as the developed entertainment industry, attract tourists from all over the world.
The two main parts of Macau
Macau is divided into two main parts. The first part is the Peninsular Macau. It is smaller, but it is the main part of the city, where most of its places of interest (mainly historic) are located. And the second part is the Island of Macau (which is actually two islands, now connected into one), consisting of the areas of Taipa (in the north), Cotai Strip (in the middle) and Coloane (in the south). The Island area of Macau is modern, some parts of it- hilly and covered by forest. There are also a few small beaches. The most modern attractions of Macau are located there.
Basic and necessary to know facts about Macau
Macau is a special place. It is part of China, but at the same time is like another country. So, there are some things which are local, different than the rest of China, which you need to have in mind and prepare.
The currency in Macau is MOP (Macanese Pataca). Currently 1 USD = 8.09 MOP and 1 EUR = 9.18 MOP. There are money change offices at the borders- the international airport and the border with Mainland China, also in many places around the city, mainly in Peninsular Macau. Basically, everything in Macau is more expensive, compared with Mainland China, similar to Hong Kong.
The mobile network in Macau is different than in Mainland China. There are other mobile operators, from which the largest one is CTM. The other two are Three and SmarTone. Anyway, the Chinese mobile operator China Telecom also has a service in Macau, although in a different mode than in Mainland China. For more information see here.
The citizens of most of the countries in the world can enter Macau only with their passport, without a visa, for a certain period (usually 30 or 90 days). The rest of the residents can obtain a visa on arrival for 100 MOP. There are only a few countries, whose citizens are required to arrange their visa in advance, from the Chinese diplomatic mission in their country. These countries are Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. For more information see here.
The accommodation in Macau is more expensive than in Mainland China. There are large luxury hotels, well fit with the casino industry of the city. For the budget backpackers is relatively hard to find cheap and good places to sleep, but the following are good: Vila Ka Meng, Heisha, San Va Hospedaria, Cheoc Van and Ole London Hotel. Another hostel which has been known as a cheap place is Vila Universal, but recently it has too many bad reviews.
However, there is another option for those who combine visiting Macau with Mainland China and have more than 1 entry Chinese visa. At evening you can cross the border and go to the neighboring Zhuhai (yes, Macau is so small and Zhuhai is very near, just 20-30 mins walk from the center of Macau), which is much cheaper. There you have more choices, but it is better to contact with the property in Booking or Agoda, to confirm that they accept foreigners.
Check out the accommodation options in Macau or Zhuhai!
On the streets of the Old Macau
10 main places to visit in Macau
If you visit Macau and want to explore it, depending on your time, it is better to stress first on the most important destinations, which are landmarks of the city and best presenting its image. Then, once understand Macau better, your exploration can penetrate deeper, into the off the beaten and less known places and hidden angles of this city.
The Ruins of St. Paul Church
This is the main landmark and symbol of Macau. It was a building complex, including St. Paul College and the Church of St Paul, built between 1602 and 1640. This complex flourished in the 17th century, but later it faced a decline, until 26 January 1835, when it was destroyed by fire due to a unique typhoon (winter is not a typhoon season).
Only the southern facade survived. Long time it remained relatively neglected. There were even appeals for its demolition in 1990 because it was considered dangerous. However, the Macau government began excavations revealing its foundations, as well as many relics. So there was a decision to turn it into a historical memorial. They enforced the facade with concrete and made it a tourist attraction, a World Heritage destination.
The traditional route to The Ruins come from the Old City of Macau and goes upstairs to the symbolic facade. After you pass through its gate, you will see a small museum and the Crypt, which is underground. In the Crypt you can see a tomb, which probably belongs to the founder of the church, as well as some relics of the Chinese and Vietnamese Christian martyrs.
And in the same place is the Museum of Sacred Art, exhibiting mainly Catholic religious relics, such as paintings, crosses, statues, etc., not only from this church but from other churches in Macau, with high historical and art value. Entrance fee: Free.
Monte Fortress and Macau Museum
The Ruins of St. Paul are located on the western side of a hill. And after you visit this place, the next place, right beside The Ruins, is Macau Museum. Turn right and proceed to ascend on the hill. There are a few escalators, which will lead you to the museum.
This museum is located under the top of the hill, where is the Monte Fortress. It has three underground floors. The 1st floor presents the history of Macau. The 2nd floor is mainly dedicated to the art and culture of Macau. And the 3rd floor introduces the life of modern Macau. Entrance fee: 15 MOP. For more information see here .
When you go out of the museum, proceed upward and you will go out to the top of Monte Fortress, over the museum. This is an emblematic place. It was built in the 17th century as a fort for military protection. Now there is a plain square, from which you can enjoy a magnificent panorama to the whole city of Macau.
It is another fortress of Macau, actually the most important one. The fortress is built on the top of Guia Hill, which is a beautiful park today. Its most significant symbols are the white Lighthouse and the White Chapel.
This fortress was built at the beginning of the 17th century and played an important role in the Battle of Macau in 1622. Somewhere at that time, the Chapel was built inside the fortress too. And the Lighthouse, which is the first one in Western architectural style in East Asia, was built around 1835.
Tower of Macau
This destination leads us to modern Macau. Thousands of cities have TV towers, but some of them are really special, serving not only for TV signal spreading but as a city symbol. Some well known symbolic towers are presented in cities like Shanghai, Berlin, Tokyo, Toronto, some of which recorded as some of the tallest constructions in the world. Macau Tower is one of them and is one of the city landmarks.
The Tower of Macau is located in the southern end of Peninsular Macau. It is 338 m high and is opened in 2001. Now it is used not only for broadcasting but also for entertainment, panoramic views to the city and even extreme sports like bungee jumping. Entrance fee: 165 MOP. For more info see here.
Grand Hotel Lisboa
The next symbol of Macau. This time it symbolizes what makes Macau “the Las Vegas of Asia”- its gambling industry. Grand Hotel Lisboa is the tallest residential building in Macau, visible from almost every point of Peninsular Macau and even from the island area and the neighboring Mainland China. It is not only tall, but its architectural image is a real piece of art.
Of course, many travelers visiting Macau, are not interested in gambling, including me. But this destination has more reasons to visit. It is a symbol, and it is beautiful. You can go just near the hotel, in front or behind it and take photos. But it is also worth to enter inside because there are a lot of art collections. There is also a famous diamond, called The Star of Stanley Ho, exposed permanently there.
This symbol of Macau is dedicated to the transfer of the city from Portugal to China in 1999. Similar to Hong Kong, which also has a flower-symbol, this is a lotus. A lotus statue with blooming leaves, featuring the bloom of Macau. It has three parts, symbolizing the three main parts of the city- Peninsular Macau, Taipa, and Coloane. The bronze lotus is located in the middle of a square, which is today also a favorite place for skaters, due to the convenient design of this square.
Cotai Studio City
It is a new attraction, presenting the best of the super-modern side of Macau. It is located in the Cotai Strip, in the island part of the city. Actually, it is a glamorous resort, featuring a grand hotel, restaurants, casinos (of course) and many other luxury resort elements.
But along with this- there are some unique attractions. The most famous of it is the 8-shape Ferris wheel, called Golden Reel, the first and only one of its kind in the world. Other attractions are Batman Dark Flight- a “flying theater”, a food center called “Cosmos Food Station” and a large children’s playground called “Warner Bros Fun Zone”.
Honestly, all this looks quite far from the wanderlust of those who are adventure travelers and backpackers, but, as Grand Lisboa, it is worth to visit, just as a part of exploring Macau, at least for photos and impression.
Senado Square and the Old part of Macau
It is the most prominent square of Macau. Located at the southwest side of the old part of the city, it is a famous touristy place, traditionally serving as a starting or ending point of the walk from The Ruins of St. Paul, through the old streets, to the rich casino area of Peninsular Macau. Its wave-shaped pavement, its fountain in the center are all landmarks. The buildings on the square are mostly in European style. Many events in Macau are held here, and generally, it is a very vivid place.
After visit this emblematic place, it is time to dive into the narrow streets of the Old part of Macau, if you haven’t passed through this area already. It consists of many old buildings and a few other small squares. Among the buildings, you can see a few prominent Catholic churches and Buddhist temples.
Among the Catholic churches, I can mention Se Cathedral and St. Dominic’s Church. Buddhist temples: Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple and Na-Tcha Temple. There are also many other smaller house museums, such as Lou Kau Mansion, and a few more.
This area is often very crowded with visitors. It is highly touristy, it’s narrow and it’s also full of street food stalls, cafes and street vendors. But since it is an important part, presenting Macau, it is really a must to visit.
Taipa Houses Museum
It is a beautiful complex of five old houses, dating from the first half of the 20th century. The houses used to be residences of rich Portugal families, later abandoned, then restored into a museum. They are located in a calm and tranquil area and are well featured by their cozy green-bluish color. Four of them exhibit a lot of artifacts and art pieces from that period, and the fifth is used for events and performances.
Taipa Houses Museum used to be at the southern coast of Taipa Island, but later, since the land reclamation for Cotai Strip, there is only a small lake beside it. Now the museum’s houses are considered one of the most beautiful building complex in Macau, thus becoming one of its landmarks.
This is a luxury theme park, located at the east coast of Peninsular Macau. Again, it presents the modern image of the city. There are a lot of hotels, restaurants, casinos, a convention and exhibition center, and many other attractions. What is interesting in it, it the design of many of the buildings and the whole area- to represent some famous cities in the world like Capetown, Miami, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Rome, Lisbon, and some others.
Deeper exploring of Macau
These are the main symbolic destinations in Macau. Yes, they are touristy, and they are usually crowded. But after you visit these places, or at least during your visit there, you can have a better understanding of this city and you can penetrate deeper into its less known hidden gems and off the beaten secrets.
Here are some of the hidden small places which you can check out while exploring Macau more deeply. Most of them are in the urban area of Peninsular Macau. Other places are in the Island area. Some of the places can be found in the most touristy and crowded parts of the city. But other places are very isolated and remote.
In Peninsular Macau
Portas do Serco
This is an old gate, marking the border between Colonial Macau and Mainland China. Now the border passes again through the same place and has modern border checkpoint buildings, but the old gate still remains as a memorial. Good for photos.
Sun Yat Sen Park
A nice park, west of the border checkpoint, featuring beautiful garden design, an old Victorian greenhouse, and a library.
The residential area of Peninsular Macau
If you visit Macau from Zhuhai and pass the two above mentioned border points of interest, you can walk through the streets of Macau, just to see and feel the daily life of its citizens. There are a lot of shops, markets, small gardens, cafes, restaurants, and many other normal city places. Walking further south, you can reach some other “secret places”.
Lin Fung Temple
Straight to the south is Lin Fung Temple- a quite large and high Buddhist temple, with a garden and some more Chinese traditional buildings north of it, presenting some Chinese art.
It is a little known museum, located near the east coast of Peninsular Macau. Although its purpose is not to present any historical, geographical or artistic features of the city, it is a surprisingly attractive place, full of science games, especially for children. Entrance fee; 10 MOP
Proceed further and you will enter an area with more attractions. The first one is Guia Fortress, one of the basic destinations. West of it you can see the following less known places:
Lou Lim Lok Garden and the Tea Culture Museum
It is a nice garden in Suzhou (Jiangnan) style, featuring beautiful garden art. There is a museum in its southeast angle, especially dedicated to the tea and its culture in China.
General Ye Ting Residence
Only some 50 m west of this garden you can find General Ye Ting Residence- a small two-story building, where a controversial general, related with the war against Japan and the Communist revolution has lived with his family. Worth to visit shortly.
Victory and Vasco da Gama Gardens
These two gardens are located southeast of Lou Lim Lok Garden, and west of Guia Fortress. Victory Garden is dedicated to the victory of Macau of the Dutch navy in 1622. And Vasco da Gama Garden is dedicated to the famous Portuguese navigator, with his memorial statue.
The Patane Nightwatch House
On the west side of Peninsular Macau, you can also find some “hidden gems”. One of them is the mini-museum The Patane Nightwatch House, which has been used by the night watchers (people whose job was to warn the residents of coming disasters, fire or war) in the past.
Luis de Camoes Garden and Grotto
It is another nice park, south of the Patane Nightwatch House. It is not only a nice place to relax but also features some memorials dedicated to the one-eyed poet Luis de Camoes.
The other points of interest in the Old part of Macau
After this place, you can proceed to the Old part of Macau, where you can visit many points of interest. Besides the iconic Ruins of St. Paul, Monte Fortress and Senado Square, there are lot more buildings of significant interest, as I mentioned above.
Southeast of the Old Macau
From the Old part of Macau (Old town), if you get to the east and southeast, you will arrive in the most modern part of Peninsular Macau, with its Lotus Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Grand Lisboa and many other glamorous hotels and casinos. And in the southern end, you will see the large Nam Van Lake and the neighboring Sai Van Lake with the Tower of Macau.
On the Southwest
And there are a few more interesting places west of this area. There are some houses and museums, which are interesting: Mandarin House, Don Pedro V Theatre, and Sir Robert Ho Tung Library. There is also a beautiful street, called Rua da Felicidade (Street of Happiness), known for its Indiana Jones film shots.
North of Sai Van Lake you can see A-Ma Temple. This is the most famous Daoist Temple in Macau, located at Barra Square.
Island of Macau
After finish exploring of Peninsular Macau, the next is the Island part of Macau- Taipa, Cotai Strip, and Coloane. There are three bridges, which are not proper for a walk, but better by bus or taxi. Then you first arrive in Taipa, the former northern island of Macau.
Now Taipa is a relatively rich residential area and a few parks, such as Central Park, Natural Park, and City of Flowers Garden (another Suzhou style garden in Macau).
The Museums in Taipa.
Beside this, there are two museums in Taipa. The first museum is one of the basic destinations in Macau, which I already mentioned above. And the second one is Taipa and Coloane Museum of History, exhibiting artifact related to the history of the Island part of Macau.
This is the area south of Taipa, the reclaimed land. It is mainly prominent with its luxury resorts, especially Cotai Studio City, and the large hotels and casinos, such as The Venetian and The Parisian.
Proceed further south and you will arrive in the southernmost area of Macau- the former Coloane Island.
This is the most natural and rural part of Macau. A large part of it is mountainous. There is a small residential area in its north side, consisting mainly of high housing blocks. And behind this area, you will find a nice park, really worth to visit. This is Giant Pand Pavilion.
Giant Panda Pavilion
Panda Park is a nice place, holding the Panda as its symbol. There you can see a small Agrarian Museum, a small Zoo, a gift shop, and many pools, gardens, and other small attractions.
A-Ma Cultural Village
It is actually a small complex of buildings, presenting the Chinese traditional culture, located in the southern hills of Coloane. There is a temple, a museum, and a few shops.
Hak Sa Beach
This is the largest beach in Macau. There is also a small resort along the beach. This beach is far from the best beaches in the world, and the water is not so clean, since it is at the mouth of Pearl River, but it is still worth to visit.
Ka Ho Barbecue Park
The rest of Coloane consists of forests and a few small villages. The forest areas are a favorite place to relax and nature activities for the locals. One of these places is Ka Ho Barbecue Park- an off the beaten area, with barbecue tables and hiking trail with nice views.
Ka Ho Church of Our Lady of Sorrows
This is maybe your last and furthermost destination in Macau. And also- maybe the most mysterious place. It is located in the easternmost part of Coloane, almost at the end of the only road leading to this place. It has been an asylum for leprous people in the past. And there is a church in the shape of a tent, built especially for these people. Now everything there is silent. There is only a recreation hospital nearby, which somehow strangely fits with this church.
Transport in Macau
Most of Macau is actually very easy to be visited. The best way to explore Peninsular Macau is on foot. It is so small, that you can walk for less than hour on its length from north to south. And since its streets are quite narrow, often crowded by cars, and most of them- only in one direction, walking on foot can be even faster than any other transport.
But for the Island of Macau, the things are different. It is larger, scarcely built and if you walk on foot through the empty spaces between the main attractions, it can be really tiring and long.
Taxis are comfortable and convenient, but as in the rest of the world- they are expensive. In my opinion and experience, the best way to explore the Island is first by shuttle bus. If you enter from the border check, when you cross to Macau, you can see on your left a big bus terminal of shuttle buses. They are free and they go to the main casinos and luxury hotels of Macau- most of them- to the Island, but some just to the southern part of the Peninsula.
Another option is the normal city transport. The price for the buses going to the Island is 6 MOP (no matter how many bus stops you pass). And if you don’t have a bus card, you can put your money in the box beside the driver. But have in mind that if you don’t have exact money, he can’t back the rest.
A good way to explore the Island is also by bike. You can go to Taipa Waterfront Cycle Track, where you can rent a bicycle for 20 MOP per hour and 500 MOP deposit. Then you are free to go everywhere in this area.
The food of Macau
I am not too much in food- usually, I just look to eat something delicious, cheap and fast. But there are some meals which could be a part of your exploration since they are unique for Macau. The best and the most iconic one is the Portuguese Egg Tarts. Recently they can be found everywhere in China, but the best ones are here, in Macau.
Some other delicious local meals include Pork Chop Bun, Dim Sum, Steamed Milk Pudding, Curry Noodles, Congee and many more. See more here.
The seasons in Macau and the best time to visit
Macau is located in the southern part of the Chinese subtropical zone. As the whole of South China, it has four seasons. Spring starts at the end of February and is usually wet and rainy. Summer is the longest season, from the end of April to the end of October. It is hot, changeable and again wet. It is also a typhoon season, especially from July to October. And some typhoons from the Pacific Ocean sometimes strike Macau directly.
Autumn, in my opinion, is the best season. It is from October to December. Autumn is relatively dry and sunny. And winter is in the rest of the year- from December to February. It is again dry and sunny, but colder than autumn. And since there is no heating in the buildings, it can be uncomfortable. The worst time in winter is during some cold and rainy wave from the north when the temperature can drop under 10℃.
No matter which season you could choose, Macau can be a really exciting city to explore- the only place in the world with mixed Chinese and Portuguese culture.
Check out some travel books about Macau!
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