Before I visited Macau, I was under the impression that the only thing to do there was gamble. My impression couldn’t have been more wrong—Macau is a beautiful little corner of China which makes for an easy, relaxing day trip, and if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth your time.
Macau (also spelled Macao) became a colony of Portugal in the mid-16th century. It remained under the country’s control until 1999, when it was returned to China. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a special administrative region of China, which means it operates with a high degree of autonomy as compared to most Chinese provinces. It means that the culture and architecture of the city is a blend between China and Europe, a combination which is obviously rare and unique.
The first major convenience of Macau is that it really does cater to tourists. Personally I arrived with little notion as to where I was going or what I wanted to see there, although being so unprepared when traveling is rare for me (okay, it’s more common than I’d like to admit…) I’d failed to consider a host of factors—that the two major languages spoken here are Portuguese and Cantonese and not necessarily English, that the ferry does not drop you off in the center of the city, that there is a different currency, that it is several degrees colder here than in Hong Kong, and so on.
When I left the boat and found myself in the outskirts of Macau, I was hit with a flash of panic when I realized I had no idea where to go or what to do next. But after heading to the closest McDonald’s where I could get some saturated fat into my bloodstream ASAP (it helps me to relax, okay?) and checking out a map, I saw that it was quite easy to find where the central area of the city was, and an information booth pointed me onto the right bus for getting there. So it’s not so difficult, really, because the whole entry process is catered to tourists.
The second major convenience of this city is that it is actually built for unprepared wanderings and discoveries and perhaps can be best enjoyed through such, so no real trip planning is necessary. There are 25 UNESCO world heritage sites scattered around Macau, and all of them could probably be walked to within a day. My trip lasted about four hours and I got halfway across the city. It is very walkable and there are signs everywhere in Chinese, Portuguese, and English pointing to all of the upcoming attractions. All you have to do is wander along, following the roads.
And the third awesome thing about Macau is that it is most definitely under-appreciated and under-traveled by many of its visitors, and apart from one central tourist district was almost entirely empty. I got to the central tourist area first to see a scattering of shops and a hill dominated by a massive abandoned church façade, which is admittedly quite impressive in person. The area was thick with throngs of tourists, almost entirely Chinese mainlanders, and contained designer shopping and these Portuguese egg pastries which were being sold every ten feet (justified, as they were delicious). The area also has an old fort, which has some great cannons around the edges, now pointing towards the giant casinos and hotels dotting the skyline. From up here there is also a pretty nice view of the skyline of Macau, which is incomparable to Hong Kong’s skyline (as is everywhere in the world I’ve been so far) but is worth a few pictures.
To get to the rest of Macau, you have to go back down the hill with the church façade, and then just follow the signs into the rest of the city. This was the part where things started to get a bit strange. Although I was less than a ten-minute walk from the main tourist areas, there were almost no other tourists at the next attraction! The first place I went to was a public park, with wandering paths leading to some interesting sculptures and structures, and more views of the skyline which I actually preferred to the ones from the fort. But the only other people in the park were a few old Macanese men out for an afternoon stroll, who actually nodded and smiled to me because I was clearly the only foreigner there. I couldn’t understand why so few people had opted to venture further into the city, and trekked on to discover more hidden places.
Things continued in this manner for the next several hours. Each attraction I visited was nearly empty, and I felt like I was a lone traveler exploring an uncharted land. And there’s so much cool stuff to see! There are European-style churches scattered around on cobblestone streets, with small Buddhist temples just down the road. There are vibrant, hidden murals in back alleys. There are plazas and hills and fountains and gardens, and long, narrow streets covered in motorcycles and Chinese characters. There’s even an excellent example of Chinese architecture nestled in between the European streets, a large residence called Mandarin House, which at one point was the home of a famous Chinese author. Each of the attractions I saw was completely free, and almost completely empty. Apart from a few stragglers like myself, almost everyone outside of that main area was a local.
At the end of my trip I wanted to get back to the ferry port, and wasn’t sure how. But I was able to soon find a bus stop and asked a girl who was probably around my age if she spoke English. She understood a decent amount, and helped me figure out which bus to use. My language fears had been overstated—globalization has run its course, and even in autonomous provinces of China most young people now speak basic English.
I suppose the draw of the dazzling new casinos in this city has worked so powerfully that most backpackers would overlook Macau as a cool place to visit. As I mentioned, almost all of the other tourists I saw in the main area were Chinese (who, as I observed in Thailand, rarely backpack), and the only Western tourists I saw were tucked away in the area with all the casinos, fairly separate from the more historic district I’d been wandering around in. What seems to be happening in Macau is that Western tourists use it as a place to gamble, whereas Chinese tourists use it as a place to take selfies with a church façade (and also gamble). The rest of the city is open, unexplored, and tourist-ready.
So, in short, if you’re ever in Hong Kong, don’t skip Macau. It’s another interesting little facet of modern China and definitely deserves a look.
-Fun fact: Apparently the government of Macau has made hostels illegal. So if you’re not willing to shell out big money to stay at a huge casino, it’s best to head back to Hong Kong for the night. (Historic Macau is essentially a day trip anyways)
– If you’re coming from Hong Kong, don’t bother withdrawing MOP (Macau patacas). Almost every store I visited accepted Hong Kong dollars as well as MOP, and the exchange rate is 1:1. My MOP were basically as useful as Monopoly money.
– It was noticeably colder on Macau than on Hong Kong. Check the weather before you go.
– Your best bet for getting help in English will be asking younger people; older people may only speak Cantonese. The girl who helped me out was friendly and I’ve heard people from Macau in general are friendly towards foreigners because of their multicultural history.
– Bring good walking shoes. Blisters for days…
– But for real, go to Macau, and see everything. It’s a cool place.