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Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China and one of the world's most densely populated spots. Located across the Pearl River estuary from Hong Kong, until 1999 Macau was an overseas territory of Portugal. Macau is best known as a major destination for gambling. This goes back to colonial times, when Hong Kong had tight limits on gambling — it was legal only at the horse racing track twice a week — but Macau had casinos. Macau overtook Las Vegas as the world's highest revenue gambling destination around 2008 and now has a substantial lead; several of the major Las Vegas casinos have built new establishments in Macau to cash in on the trend. A UN World Tourism Organisation list of the top ten destinations in the world by tourism industry revenue treats Macau, Hong Kong and China as separate destinations. Macau ranks ninth on the list while Hong Kong is tenth and China itself is not among the top ten. For the full list, see Wikivoyage:World cities/Large. However, Macau is by no means only a gambling destination. Other attractions include gorgeous colonial architecture, some of it on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a lovely climate and some fine beaches, and excellent food and drink. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Macau
Although best known for gambling, Macau is extremely rich in attractions and oozing with atmosphere, thanks to hundreds of years of fusion between European and Chinese cultures.
Macau is a fascinating place to just walk around as the place is packed with churches, temples, fortresses and other old buildings bearing an interesting mix of Portuguese and Chinese characteristics. Besides buildings, there are also hundreds of narrow alleyways forming a maze in the old part of Macau where the people of Macau carry out businesses and work. If the sheer density of humans gets to you, take a break and enjoy several pretty gardens or head to the island.
One of the interesting things to see in Macau is a statue of the Bodhisatta Avalokitesvara (known as 觀音 kwoon yam in Cantonese) located next to the sea near the Sands Casino and MGM Grand. Despite being a Chinese deity, the statue is distinctly European in design and resembles the statues of the Virgin Mary you can find in Europe.
And if history is not your thing, there is the Macau Tower of awesome views and adventure sports, or Fisherman's Wharf to enjoy some theme-park activities and shopping.
You'll find most of the attractions in Macau Peninsula, but Taipa and Coloane, each with a pretty village, also draw hordes of visitors. Visit the Cotai reclaimed land area to see its transformation into the "Las Vegas Strip of the East". The Venetian is the most famous with its Venice-styled shopping mall with rivers running through, and is also currently the largest casino in the world.
The City of Dreams is a giant casino with high end fashion shops, a free video 'bubble' show, three hotels and the world's most expensive theatre show. The 'House of Dancing Water' costs US$250 million and the stage holds five olympic swimming pools worth of water. Ushers give the front few rows of the audience towels. Free shuttles from the main ferry terminal leave constantly.
A large section of Macau Peninsula has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site and 25 buildings and sites within the area have been deemed to have cultural and historic significance. One of the best ways to cover the sights is to do the Macau Heritage Walk circuit. The heritage Buildings, the Sao Paulo Cathedral, the Fort and the Macau Museum are all adjacent to each other and can be conveniently seen individually even if one cannot catch the Heritage walk timing.
Taipa Village and Coloane Village, previously inhabited by fishermen, are also interesting with their colonial-era shops and houses along narrow lanes.
Macau has several museums. The "Macau Museum Pass", which gives discounted entry to most of these, is currently off the market. The main museums, such as the Macau Museum, are in Macau Peninsula although there are two museums on Taipa - the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History and Taipa Houses Museum.
In the 16th Century, China gave Portugal the right to settle in Macau in exchange for clearing the area of pirates. Macau was the first European settlement in the Far East. It was also the last; pursuant to an agreement signed by China and Portugal, Macau became the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China on 20 December 1999, ending over 400 years of Portuguese administration.
Like any port city, Macau has always had brothels and some rather dangerous bars catering to seamen. Like many other places, it has also had organised crime; in the 1990s there were gang wars sometimes involving automatic weapons in the streets. However, after the 1999 Chinese takeover the gangs were rather firmly crushed and today Macau is no more hazardous than any other major tourist destination.
China uses the slogan "one country, two systems" for relations between the central government and the two SARs, Hong Kong and Macau. Both are part of China, and neither can have an independent foreign policy or military force, but each has it own laws and legislative assembly and issues its own visas and currency. The governing systems are complex and some locals complain that they are insufficiently democratic and there is too much control or influence from Beijing.
In recent years, Macau's economy has bloomed rapidly due to the opening of the gambling licenses. Thousands of tourists are in Macau each day, mainly from mainland China and neighbouring regions. The standard of living in Macau has as a result grown significantly, and in many cases, is on a par with some European countries. The tourist industry has also diversified - as well as casinos, Macau is also promoting its historic sites, culture and cuisine.
Besides the city itself (Macau/Peninsula), Macau includes the islands of Taipa and Coloane, which are connected to Macau by bridges and to each other by a causeway. The area between the two islands has been built up into the Cotai Strip; that has become an area of intense development with many new casinos and hotels.
The Chinese city of Zhuhai borders Macau to the north, and the border crossing carries heavy two-way vehicular and pedestrian traffic. The Zhuhai Special Economic Zone extends south to Hengqin Island, an area west of Taipa, Cotai and Coloane; the Lotus Bridge from Cotai connects to that area. There is significant movement by the local population of both Zhuhai and Macau across the border, making the two feel like twin cities.
Macau is subtropical with hot summers and mild winters. Although winter is generally mild, there are occasional cold fronts which could make temperatures drop 10°C (18°F) in a day. See below for a discussion of typhoon risk.
Gambling is Macau's biggest industry and busloads arrive daily from mainland China to try their luck. In addition, many Hong Kongers arrive on weekends with the same aim. For decades, the Casino Lisboa was the largest and most famous, a landmark well known to people outside Macau, but recently many more casinos have sprung up. Nevertheless, the original Casino Lisboa is still worth a visit as its halls contain many original antiques on display from the private collection of gambling tycoon Stanley Ho.
Most casinos are located along the waterfront on the southern side of Macau Peninsula. North of the Lisboa is a strip with many smaller casinos, a number of hotels and bars, and quite a few restaurants. This can be one of the more interesting areas of Macau; among other things it has quite a good Indian restaurant and several Portuguese ones. However, parts of it are also fairly sleazy, with lots of hookers and touts, so some caution is in order. New casinos have also opened in the area called NAPE south of Avenida de Amizade, including Wynn Macau and Sands Macau.
All this is going to be overtaken by the new development on the Cotai Strip, which is being made into "The Las Vegas Strip of the East". The biggest casino in the world, Venetian Macao, opened its doors in August 2007 and the not-much-smaller City of Dreams followed in 2009, with many more still to come. There are also several casinos on Taipa, including the Crown Macau.
There are ATMs available at any casino, and many other Forex facilities to change your money. Gamblers are required to be at least 21 years of age to be allowed to play. Interestingly, local civil servants are not allowed to enter the casinos with the exception of the first three days of the Chinese new year.
For the full listing of casinos, see the respective district pages.
Another popular form of gambling in Macau is greyhound racing, where people bet on dogs in the same way that many people in other countries bet on horses. The minimum bet is 10 patacas and payouts can be made in both Macanese Patacas and Hong Kong Dollars.
Canidrome is your spot for great Greyhound racing. It is located on Avenida General Castelo Branco. Greyhound races are held at Canidrome on Monday, Thursday and Friday plus weekends - racing starts at 7:45PM with 16 games each night.
$10 admission fee (redeemable when betting) to get in. Box seats are $80 for non-peak days and $120 for weekends and holidays. There is off-track-betting available for Canidrome at Jai-Alai Palace, Hotel Lisboa and Kam Pek Casino.
At a height of 233m, the bungy jump from Macau tower, maintained and operated by A. J. Hackett is the 2nd highest in the world. Along with the bungy, one can also try the Sky jump, that is somewhat like a jump but is more protected and doesn't involve a free fall, and a sky walk, that is a protected on a platform running around the circumference of the floor. Bouldering and sport climbing activities are also conducted at the tower's base. See the Macau Peninsula page for details.
Macau's two beaches - Hac Sa (黑沙 - black sand) and Cheoc Van (竹灣 - bamboo bay) - are located on the southern side of Coloane island. They are very popular and are frequented by locals and visitors, especially at the weekend.
Besides beaches, there are several public swimming pools all over Macau. All high-end hotels also have swimming pools.
There are opportunities for hiking and cycling on the relatively rural islands of Taipa and Coloane.
There is a bowling centre of international standard which was constructed in 2005 for the East Asian Games at the Macau Dome (澳門蛋) in Cotai area. There is also a bowling alley in Macau near the Camoes Garden/Protestant cemetery.
Macau is famous for excellent restaurants, unique cuisine and mellow bars. Above all, the city is famous for two cuisines: Portuguese and Macanese.
Portuguese food (cozinha portuguesa), brought in by its Portuguese colonizers, is hearty, salty, straightforward fare. While many restaurants claim to serve the stuff, fully authentic fare is mostly limited to a few high-end restaurants, especially the cluster at the southwestern tip of the Peninsula. Typical Portuguese dishes include:
- pato de cabidela (bloody duck), a stew of chicken with blood and herbs, served with rice; sounds and looks somewhat scary, but it's excellent when well done
- bacalhau (salted cod), traditionally served with potatoes and veggies
- caldo verde, a soup of potato, chopped kale and chouriço sausage
- feijoada (kidney-bean stew), a Brazilian staple common in Macau as well
- pastéis de nata (egg tarts), crispy and flaky on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside
Macanese food (comida de Macau) was created when Portuguese and Chinese influences were mixed together with spices brought from Africa and South-East Asia by traders, and many restaurants advertising "Portuguese" food in fact serve up mostly Macanese dishes. Seafood and barbecue specialist Fernando's on Coloane's Hac Sa Beach is probably the best-known Macanese restaurant.
- almond cookies. Dry Chinese-style cookies flavoured with almond. Macau's top souvenir, they're compact, durable and hence sold pretty much everywhere.
- galinha à africana (African-style chicken). Barbecued chicken coated in spicy piri-piri sauce.
- galinha à portuguesa (Portuguese-style chicken). Chicken in a coconutty curry; despite the name, this is not a Portuguese dish at all, but a purely Macanese invention.
- pork chop bun. The Macanese version of a hamburger, the name pretty much says it all: it's a slice of freshly fried pork (often with a few chunks of bone left) with a dash of pepper placed inside a freshly baked bun.
- beef jerky. More moist and fresh than typical jerky, and quite delicious. Easily found on the street leading up to the Ruins of St. Paul, where vendors will push free samples at you as you walk by with great enthusiasm. Be sure to try them all before choosing the one you like best!
All that said, the food of choice in Macau is still pure Cantonese, and a few aficionados even claim that the dim sum and seafood here beat Hong Kong. The streets of central Macau are littered with simple eateries offering rice and noodle dishes for under $30 (although menus are often only in Chinese), while every casino hotel worth its salt has a fancy Cantonese seafood restaurant where you can blow away your gambling winnings on abalone and shark's fin soup.
The greatest concentration of restaurants is in the Peninsula, where they are scattered throughout the district. Taipa is now a major destination for those going for Portuguese and Macanese food and there are many famous restaurants on the island. There are several restaurants in Coloane, which is also home to the famous Lord Stow's Bakery, which popularized the Macanese egg tart. Yummy!
Reasonably priced Portuguese wine is widely available. A glass in a restaurant is around $20, while bottles start from under $100, and a crisp glass of vinho verde ("green wine", but actually just a young white) goes very well with salty Macanese food. As elsewhere in China, though, locals tend to prefer cognacs and whisky. Macau Beer is passable and widely available, as is the Filipino brand San Miguel which has a brewery in Hong Kong. There is also a wine museum in which you can have the opportunity to taste over 50 varieties of wine.
There is a buzzing nightlife in Macau. There are a variety of bars and clubs along the Avenida Sun Yat Sen close to the Kum Iam Statue and the Cultural Centre where you can have a good night out. Locals, especially among younger people, prefer to meet up with their friends in western style cafes or places that serve 'bubble tea'. 'Bubble tea' are usually fruit flavoured tea served with tapioca balls and can be served either hot or cold. The shops in town centre (near Senado Square) often open until late at night and are often crowded. The casinos have also become a big hit for entertainment, offering performances of international level (advance booking advised) and comprehensive shopping malls for those less interested in trying their luck with the machines. For ladies who want to pamper themselves after a shopping spree, there are Spas available in almost all respectable hotels. Note that these are different from "saunas", which are thinly disguised brothels (prostitution is legal in Macau), but these can be easily distinguishable by their shop appearance.
The currency of Macau is the pataca (MOP), which is divided into 100 avos. Prices are shown as $10, for example (10 patacas).
The pataca is pegged to the Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) at 1.03 patacas to 1 dollar. Hong Kong dollars are accepted by most businesses on a 1:1 basis, but most businesses will endeavour to give you change in HKD if you pay in HKD, if they have them. Occasionally, however, a business might give change in MOP notes and HKD coins or the other way around. The HK$10 coin may not be accepted because of numerous recent forgeries. Chinese renminbi (RMB, less often CNY) are also accepted in some areas and can easily be changed for either patacas or HKD. In casinos, the HKD is the preferred currency, and gamers with patacas may actually be required to exchange to HKD (or HKD-denominated casino chips) before playing. Transactions made at government offices though will require you to pay in patacas.
Getting money is quite easy as there are banks and ATMs on nearly every street. Holders of a debit card on the international networks will have no issues withdrawing money. Holders of Chinese Union Pay cards will not have trouble either withdrawing local currency from their accounts. ATMs usually dispense in MOP (100 and 500 bills) and HKD (100 and 500 as well) and some will also dispense in Chinese currency.
Changing your currency into patacas outside of Macau is just about impossible and pointless. Change enough HKD to tide you over, and then change the rest into patacas after arriving. The money changers at the Barrier Gate provide good exchange rates, and you can also change the HKD you are holding into patacas.
On the other hand, try not to leave Macau with a lot of patacas. Unlike the HKD, they are quite hard to exchange in most countries. Even if you try to exchange them in Hong Kong, money changers may charge high commission thus giving you fewer HKDs than for what the MOP is worth. Therefore because of the 1:1 acceptance between the HKD and MOP and the difficulty exchanging between the two currencies outside Macau, you are advised to use HKD as much as possible for commercial transactions.
Visa and MasterCard credit cards are widely accepted in major restaurants, stores and the ferry terminal but some merchants may require a token minimum purchase amount, usually $100.
Tipping is generally not practised, though bellhops may expect about $10 or so for carrying your bags. In full service restaurants, a service charge is usually imposed and that is taken to be the tip. However, you should know that the 10% service charge does not go to the actual people who served you, rather it is used by the owners to pay the salaries of said employees. If you wish to give a tip, you should give it in cash directly to the person you wish to reward for their good service. Taxi drivers also do not expect tips, and would return exact change, or round it in your favour if they can't be bothered to dig for change.
Quite frankly, the shopping options in Macau don't hold a candle to Hong Kong. While the newer megacasinos have introduced Macau to the joys of sterile franchise-filled malls, the city center streets around the older casinos are still a bizarre monoculture of ridiculously expensive watch, jewelry and Chinese medicine shops (with an emphasis on herbal Viagra-type cures), all aimed squarely at liberating lucky gamblers from their winnings. Finding tasteful souvenirs can thus be surprisingly challenging, although the touristy streets between Largo do Senado and the ruins of St. Paul's do have a scattering of antique shops.
Bargaining in the small shops can be done, but usually working on the principle of the shopkeeper quoting a price, the buyer making "hmmm" sounds and the shopkeeper lowering the price a bit. A full-fledged haggling match is quite rare, as most antique shops sell precisely the same thing at precisely the same prices.
There are many pawnshops, especially along Av de Almeida Ribeiro in the center of town, where losing gamblers sell their cameras and Rolexes to finance the trip home or a return to the tables. For buyers, prices are usually not particularly good, but if you know the merchandise and are prepared to bargain there are some good deals.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Macau on Wikivoyage.