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Macau was once on par with Las Vegas as a hub of casino tourism but in recent years, the competition has taken on a Harlem Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals tone, with the city in the Nevada desert the patent loser. Indeed, the tiny special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China is a rocket-rise free-market triumph under the “one country, two systems” policy and has left a considerable wake for also-rans to drift in over the past decade. If you measure success in cold economic numbers like GDP per capita and GDP growth, as a lot of analysts do, Macau is a global force to contend with, not just in the future, but now.
Long before Las Vegas was the “Macau of the West”, however, Macau was the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. In what was surely a pre-eminent omen, Portugal made casinos legal in the pocket colony in the mid-19th century. Fast-forward over 150 years and the likes of the Casino Lisboa, Sands, Wynn, MGM Grand, City of Dreams and Venetian now account for 50% of Macau’s economy and lure well over 25 million people a year. The fact that the vast majority of visitors come from Guangzhou province and the rest of mainland China, where the zealous adoption of pure capitalism has led to a mobile, nouveau riche tourist class, is beside the point. From a UNESCO World Heritage historic quarter to shiny new frontiers of resort glitz, Macau is a dynamo.
The edifices of the Wynn, Venetian and MGM casinos on the Macau harbour shoreline are a pretty firm directive for visitors. You’re here to check in, beeline to the ATM then settle in for a good 12-14 hours at the craps table, right? Not necessarily. 400 years of Portuguese governance of this Chinese territory has left a remarkable euro history behind the gambling infrastructure that powers the region.
The Portuguese and Cantonese culinary pastiche see egg custard tarts sitting snugly alongside stir-fry curry crab on restaurant menus. Art Deco churches adorn fragrant green squares, so impressive in fact, that Unesco has named 30 of them as the Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site.
But it’s the Coloane Village where the old Macau really lives on. Pokey back streets, ruins transporting you to Lisbon and colonial splendour all underpinned by that ubiquitous fusion cuisine this place is so famous for. Dietary guilt can be purged with a stroll along the black sands of Hac Sa Beach.
Macau’s Top 10
10. Casinos form the economic lifeblood of the new Macau and are duly impressive in their freakishly colossal ambition.
5. Na Tcha Temple is a modest Buddhist and Taoist worship site in historic Macau.
9. Senado Square gives off few hints of being steps from the South China Sea. The heart of the UNESCO World Heritage old city looks every bit the part of a Portuguese colonial intersection.
4. A-Ma Temple is the most famous temple in Macau and dates back to the late 16th century.
8. Guia Fortress dates back to the early 17th century.
3. The facade St. Paul’s College is the most indelible symbol of the former Portuguese colony.
7. Dom Pedro V Theatre, built in 1860, is still a vital host for myriad public events in Macay.
2. Casa Garden is the beautiful compound of a wealthy 18th century Portuguese merchant.
6. St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church is a premier archetype of Portuguese colonial church architecture.
1. Macau Museum is perhaps the best reason to make the trek to Fortaleza do Monte. The museum has some excellent exhibits on the history of the city.
- A-Ma Temple – Built in the 15th century, it is one of the city’s oldest examples of a Taoist temple.
- Ruins of St Paul’s – This 16th-century Macau complex includes the ruins of St Paul’s college.
- Historic Centre of Macau – Recently made a UNESCO World Heritage site, this centre contains many historical monuments.
- Mount Fortress – Built in Macau in the 16th century and used to guard the city from invaders.
- Old Protestant Cemetery – This historic cemetery was established by the British in the 18th century.
Macau Art and Culture
- Museum of Macau – This museum tells about the long and rich history of Macau.
- Dom Pedro V Theatre – Built in the 19th century, this Macau landmark was one of the first Western-style theatres in China.
- Leal Senado – This building was once the seat of the Portuguese government during its rule over Macau.
- Na Tcha Temple – This 19th-century Macau temple illustrates the rich history of Buddhism and Taoism.
- Casa Garden – These grounds were once the home of a rich Portuguese merchant.
- Senado Square – The area is filled with high-end boutiques and the best place to find name brands.
- Venetian Macau – This sprawling shopping plaza sells just about anything a traveller might want or need.
- Red Market – A favourite among the locals, which makes it a great place to find food.
- The Cultural Club – A historic building started as a pawnshop but now houses art galleries and gift shops featuring handmade gifts.
- Travessa da Felicidade – Now one of the best places in the city for a late-night snack.
Gay & Lesbian Macau
- Club Cubic – This massive club is one of Macau’s favourite spots for gays and lesbians.
- Focus Bar – This gay hotspot in Macau has karaoke and a very friendly male staff.
- D2 – This gay- and lesbian-friendly dance club is known for DJs and dance floor.
- Face Disco – This dance club caters mostly to the gay and lesbian community.
- Fashion Club – This trendy Macau hotspot attracts a young and attractive crowd.
- Coloane – The beaches are a perfect place for swimming.
- Macau Fisherman’s Wharf – A wonderful spot for a scenic walk in Macau.
- Macau Canidrome Dog Club – Watching greyhounds race around the track is a great way to spend a sunny day.
- Seac Pai Van Park – This scenic park includes a children’s zoo, as well as great trails.
- Penha Hill – A walk to the top of this Macau hill will offer spectacular views of the city.
- Come see the impressive speed at the Macau Grand Prix in November.
- Get behind the wheel in Macau at the Motor Sports Club.
- Thrill yourself from great heights at the Macau Tower Bungee.
- Ride a retired racehorse at the Macau Horse Riding School.
- Hire a bike from Taipa Village and see Macau on two wheels.
Macau borders the South China Sea and the province of Guangzhou. The peninsula part of the special administrative region is home to most of the population of 550,000 and absorbs the bulk of tourists as well.
The Historic Centre of Macao is a remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers 39.5 acres (16 hectares) and many significant architectural monuments. The venerable region evinces a rare East West aesthetic and cultural fusion and deserves more attention and scrutiny from tourists than any casino table game.
Taipa is the more diminutive of the two islands that join with the peninsula to form Macau proper. The island contains the Taipa House Museum, Macau International Airport, University of Macau, Macau University of Science and Technology, Macau Jockey Club and Macau Stadium. Take a stroll down Rua do Cunha when hunger strikes.
Coloane, at 8 km<sup>2</sup>, is the big island of Macau and has points of interest like the Museum of Nature and Agriculture, Hac Sa Beach and Bay Park, Coloane Park and a few Taoist temples.
Cotai is a product of land reclamation and did not exist in any map or atlas a few short years ago. Now, however, the Cotai Strip is a prominent hive of casino resort activity between Taipa and Coloane.
Macau Eat & Drink
If the Macau food scene was not on the highbrow epicure radar before, the arrival of Joël Robuchon, the man with a record constellation of Michelin stars and the Gault Millau "Chef of the Century", was a surefire signal. The scene was fine before the arrival of Robuchon, quite frankly, what with a singular Lusophone-Chinese blend and ensemble of humble hole-in-the-wall establishments. Now, however, the level of culinary sophistication and amount of star chefs in the city has gone up in lockstep synchronicity with the advent of billionaire casino developers. It all makes for a wildly eclectic scene.
Praia Grande (10A Praça Lobo d'Avila) serves superb Portuguese fare on a desirable parcel of real estate on the main boulevard.
Portofino (Estrada da Baía de Nossa Senhora da Esperança, Venetian Macao Resort Hotel) may be the best of the 30 or so restaurants at the gargantuan Venetian.
Margaret’s Café e Nata
(Rua Alm Costa Cabral) is a stellar choice for Portuguese-style coffee and desserts.
Ou Mun Café (12 Travessa de São Domingos) is a breath of fresh air in Macau and perfect for a casual afternoon bite.
Chun Yu Fang (42 Rua de Hong Chau, Taipa Island) is a serene teahouse sanctuary in Taipa.
Robuchon á Galera (2-4 Avenida de Lisboa 3rd fl, New/West Wing, Lisboa Hotel) is the Michelin three-star talk of the town.
Henri’s Galley (4G-H Avenida da República) is a Macau institution with a supreme lakeside locale.
António (3 Rua dos Negociantes) is the best traditional Portuguese spot in the city.
Lord Stow’s Café (9 Largo do Matadouro) whips up ethereal pastry and cake concoctions.
Litoral (261A Rua do Almirante Sérgio) is a popular restaurant that serves bona fide Macanese classics.
Macau’s calendar of events is in a perpetual state of flux and mirrors the rise of the city as a global leisure tourism hub over the last decade.
Macau International Music Festival is a foremost culture bridge between East and West in October.
Dragon Boat Festival, or Duanwu Festival, or Double Fifth, is a major event in Macau and takes place at Nam Van Lakes.
International Fireworks Festival, held in late September and early October, takes pyrotechnic mastery to another level.
Feast of Buddha celebrates the birthday of Siddhartha Gautama at temples all over Macau.
Macau Grand Prix is a prominent touring car, motorcycle and Formula Three event held at Guia street circuit in November. The F3 race has been won by the likes of Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard.
Mid-Autumn Festival is big all over China and the diaspora and a wonderful time to be in Macau.
When To Go
Macau has a humid subtropical climate that takes occasional orders from area monsoons. The humidity is high, between 75% and 90%, and, as such, funnels swarms of tourists into the ample climate-control confines of the casinos. The average annual temperature is a high 73°F (23°C), with very hot weather between May and September. The long summer in Macau features a temperature range of 74.5°F (23.5°C) to 89°F (31.5°C).
Rain is a problem in summer as well, especially if you like to walk outside. The wet season produces over 60% of the annual precipitation in the city, which tops out at well over 80 in (2,032 mm). Heavy rainfall bedevils over half the days of May, June, July and August.
The easy solution to avoid the high humidity, swelter and monsoon rain of course, is to time your visit from November to March - but preferably in December, January and February, when temperatures waver between 54°F (12°C) and 67°F (19.5°C).
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What To Miss
If you like to gamble on occasion and enjoy the excitement and contextless luxury of casino resorts, Macau delivers a Vegas-like hit in, of all places, the People’s Republic of China. Yet the most famous draw in the city is also a blight to some and has come to define Macau in a way that many observers resent. With the expiry of billionaire Stanley Ho’s (who has a hand in almost every aspect of Macau’s economy) casino licence monopoly in 2002, the table was set for magnates like Sheldon Adelson and Stephen Weinberg (a.k.a. Steve Wynn) to swoop in and collect on the windfall. Which, of course, is just what they did. The rest is history.
The comparison to Las Vegas is deceptive, in fact, since Macau casinos rake in far more than resorts on the Sin City Strip. Casinos have been built with heft in mind as well, in order to accommodate a new emergent middle-class in mainland China anxious to spend discretionary income on leisure and amusement. See the hundreds of thousands who cross over daily by the busload (millionaire high-rollers get VIP helicopter service). If it all seems like silly nonsense and a good way to lose your hat, if not your mind, limit your visit to temples and non-neon-lit architecture and bypass the casinos. Relax, the city cum giant siphon for offshore tax havens will not suffer long from your indifference.
One may as well point out that you can abstain from slots and table games and still have a jolly good time at Macau’s casinos. Entertainment, restaurants and shops offer other latent diversions.
The old modus operandi was to fly in to Hong Kong and catch a ferry to Macau. Happily, improvements to Macau International Airport have made the extra leg more and more passé and unnecessary for those who want to save some time and money. The sleek airport has become a bit of a low-cost hub and now provides service to a wide variety of destinations within the People’s Republic, as well as the likes of Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul-Incheon, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo-Narita. More than 5 million passengers now use Macau International every year.
Despite the nascent rise of the airport as a convenient transport alternative, however, many still arrive via Macau Ferry Terminal. The busy hub offers hydrofoil and ferry service to and from Hong Kong and the port of Shenzhen.
The historic heart of Macau is compact and easy to navigate on foot, though most casinos do operate complimentary shuttle bus fleets. For points of interest further afield, however, visitors can rely on a solid public bus system or simply flag a taxi.
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