Macau marks its tenth anniversary as a Special Administrative Region of China this Sunday. From a sleepy Portuguese enclave, it has managed to transform itself into the gaming capital of the world.
Unique to Asia and perhaps the world, this petite hot spot is big on attractions. Gone are the days of Macau being though of as the Las Vegas of Asia. Everything is Macau is now world-class, from the famed gaming to the hotels, dinning, shopping, and even golf. Culture abounds from Macau’s Portuguese and Chinese heritage and the fascinating imprints of each are evident at every vantage point.
Located 37 miles southwest of Hong Kong, the city consists of the Macau Peninsula itself and the islands of Taipa and Coloane. The Pearl River estuary on the east and the Xijiang West River on the west form the peninsula. It borders the Zhuhai Special Economic Zone in Mainland China. Originally just an island in the rivers, the connecting sandbar gradually turned into a narrow isthmus, thus changing Macau into a peninsula. Land reclamation in the 17th century transformed Macau and expanded its perimeter, a practice that still occurs today, and numerous steep hills still mark the original land mass. Alto de Coloane is the highest point in Macau, with an altitude of only 559.7 ft.
The first recorded inhabitants of the area were people seeking refuge in Macau from invading Mongols during the Southern Song Dynasty. Under the Ming Dynasty, fishermen migrated to Macau from Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Major settlement in Macau did not occur until the 1500s when Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in Macau’s harbors, although they were not allowed to stay onshore. In 1553 they obtained temporary permission to erect storage sheds onshore, and soon after they built rudimentary stone houses around the area now called Nam Van. In 1557, the Portuguese established a permanent settlement in Macau, paying an annual rent in silver to China. The Chinese and Portuguese started negotiations about Macau in June 1986. The two signed a Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration the next year, making Macau a special administrative region (SAR) of China. The Chinese government assumed formal sovereignty over Macau on December 20, 1999 and with great foresight Macau arrives today has a jet-set city.
Where to Dine and Stay in Macau
Macau has a host of world class hotels that cater to the jet-setter, such as Wynn, Four Seasons, Sofitel, MGM Grand, and the very impressive Venetian. Along with these world-class hotels and resorts, delectable dinning options featuring cuisine from all over the world can be found in Macau. Over the years Macau developed a unique cuisine that combined Portuguese, Chinese, Indian, and even Malayan cooking. Known as Macanese cuisine, it is served in restaurants all over the city but mostly along Rua Almirante Sérgio on the Praia Grande and on Taipa. I enjoyed a sensational meal at Antonio, which serves authentic Portuguese cuisine inspired by renowned chef Antonio Coelho, located in scenic Taipa village. Other great Portuguese/Macanese dining can be found at Restaurante Litoral located near the interesting A-Ma Temple and Espaco Lisboa “Lisbon Space” on Coloane Island.
Top Attractions in Macau
Macau is a small place where, on a good day, you could drive from one end to the other in 15 minutes. This makes walking and bicycling the ideal ways to explore winding city streets, nature trails, and long stretches of beach. Most of Macau’s population lives on the peninsula attached to mainland China. The region’s most famous sights are here—Senado Square, the Ruins of St. Paul’s, A-Ma Temple—as are the luxury hotels and casinos. As in the older sections of Hong Kong, cramped older buildings stand comfortably next to gleaming new structures.
Ruínas de São Paulo, the symbol of Macau. Only the towering facade, with its intricate carvings, remains of the original St. Paul’s Church, which was built between 1602 and 1640 by Jesuits and destroyed by fire in 1835. The church, an adjacent college, and the nearby Forteleza de Monte (Mount Fortress) once formed East Asia’s first western-style university.
Macau Sky Tower measures 338 m (1,109 ft) in height from ground level to the highest point. An observation deck with panoramic views, restaurants, theaters, shopping malls and the Skywalk X, a thrilling walking tour around the outer rim. It offers the best view of Macau and in recent years has been used for a variety of adventurous activities. At 233 meters, the Macau Tower’s tethered “skyjump” and Bungee jump by world renowned AJ Hackett from the tower’s outer rim, is the highest in the world. The tower was created by the architecture firm of Craig Craig Moller.
For your cultural whirlwind through the numerous museums in Macau I recommend Museum Pass, which gives you access within a period of 5 days to each of the following museums: Grand Prix Museum, Wine Museum, Maritime Museum, Lin Zexu Museum, Museum of Art, and Museum of Macau. Passes, which cost MOP$25 (US$3.25/£1.60) for adults and MOP$12 (US$1.55/80p) for children and seniors, can be purchased at any of the museums.If you have limited time for museum visits, make sure you check out the Macau Museum that was inaugurated on 18th of April, 1998, where the cultural traditions and historical heritage of Macau come to life in exhibits. The Macau Grand Prix Museum houses a selection of remarkable cars and motorbikes and each year in November a full scale Grand Prix takes place throughout Macau. Another must-visit museum is the Handover Give Museum, located on the site of the actual handover of Macau to Mainland China in December 1999 and now part of the Macau Cultural Center. The “gifts” from other nations to Macau are stunning masterpieces of riches and cultural traditions.
The Largo do Senado (Senado Square), Macau’s hub for centuries, is lined with neoclassical buildings and churches painted bright pastels. Only pedestrians are allowed on its shiny black-and-white azulejos.
Where to Shop in Macau
Macau is a wonderfully accessible city and there is much to discover besides history and culture. Shopping on Macau is amazing, from the luxury and designer shops at the Four Seasons and the Venetian to the street shops that line the area starting at the expansive Senado Square. On Avenida Almeida Ribeiro you will find narrow streets leading off the main square selling fabulous accessories and clothing. Also a must-visit is Avenida Horta e Costa, a long street full of shops that begins at the Red Market and extends as far as the Flora Gardens beneath Guia Hill. The avenue has several up-market shops specializing in clothing and shoes, electronic items and cameras, and more. But the best bargains are found on the side streets where antiques, handcrafted furniture, and handicrafts of excellent quality can be found. The historic “Three Lamps” (Rotunda Carlos da Maia) and surrounding streets are full of tiny shops selling many kinds of goods at bargain prices. If you consider shopping to be a sporting event, Macau is a marathon.
The city is always alive, both with tourists and residents of both Macau and nearby China who flock to the markets and shopping areas for necessities, bargains, and luxuries. Make sure you make time for one of Macau’s most famous tea-time snacks, the Portuguese Egg Tart. The world’s best can be found Lord Stow’s bakery on Coloane Island. Macau is a great jet-set city chocked full of things to do both during the day and into the evenings when the casinos and nightclubs come alive.
In 2006, Macau overtook the Las Vegas Strip in the United States as the biggest casino market in the world.
Macau is the only region where gambling is exclusively legal in China. From the late 1960s until 2001, Macau native Dr. Stanley Ho owned all the casinos, helping him to become one of the world’s wealthiest people. One of the first steps the Chinese government took after the 1999 handover was to break up Dr. Ho’s monopoly and award casino licenses to several consortiums from Las Vegas. The grand plan to transform Macau from a quiet town that offered gambling into one of the world’s top gaming destinations is well underway.
Video of Wynn Macau Fountain Show and Fireworks
Cream of the Crop
Sands Macao Casino Hotel (Largo de Monte Carlo 203, Downtown, Macau. 853/883-388. www.sands.com.mo). Mandarin Oriental Casino Hotel (956-1110 Av. da Amizade, Downtown, Macau. 853/567-888. www.mandarinoriental.com). Wynn Macau (6-8 Av. da Amizade, Downtown, Macau. 853/889-966. www.wynnmacau.com). Venetian Macao Resort Hotel (Cotai Strip, Macau. 853/883-311. www.venetianmacao.com).
Hotel Casino Lisboa (2-4 Av. de Lisboa, Downtown, Macau. 853/377-666. www.hotelisboa.com). Hyatt Regency Hotel Casino (2 Estrata Almirante, Marques Esparteiro, Taipa. 853/831-537. www.macau.hyatt.com). Jai Alai Casino (Jai Alai Building, Av. de Amizade, Downtown, Macau. 853/726-086). Macau Jockey Club Casino (Grandview Hotel, Estrada Governador Albano de Oliveira 142, Taipa. 853/837-788). Golden Dragon Casino (Hotel Golden Dragon Rua de Malaca, Downtown, Macau. 853/727-979).
Greek Mythology Casino (889 Av. Padre Tomas Pereira, Taipa. 853/831-111. www.newcenturyhotel-macau.com). Pharaoh’s Palace Casino (The Landmark Hotel, Av. de Amizade 555, Downtown, Macau. 853/781-781).
International flights do come into Macau, but there are no flights from Hong Kong, which is only 10 minutes away by plane. There are, however, 16-minute helicopter flights between Hong Kong’s Shun Tak Centre and the Macau Ferry Terminal; they leave every 30 minutes from 9:30 AM to 10:30 PM daily. Prices are HK$1,268 Monday to Thursday and HK$1,477 Friday to Sunday and holidays. Reservations are essential. For more information about the history, attractions, special events and accommodations visit the official website of The Macau Government Tourist Office.