The pioneering spirit is not new to Macau. The region was colonised by the Portuguese more than 400 years ago, resulting in a fascinating and unique culture that delightfully intertwines Chinese and European traditions. Its proximity to Hong Kong (a one-hour fast ferry ride) and the Chinese mainland has seen many kingdoms battle for a strategic foothold at this ‘Crossroads of the East’. The lingering historical footprints are still highly visible in old Macau, and add intrigue to the modern and glitzy development that has transformed the city into what’s known as ‘Asia’s Las Vegas’. But don’t let that moniker fool you. While there may be a smörgåsbord of flash gaming floors, and some familiar Vegas names, the overwhelming investment in Macau as a gambling destination equates to an entirely incomparable experience.
If you only have a couple of days in Macau, don’t fret – it’s possible to see most of it in that time and grab a good dose of its diversity, although you’ll no doubt be left wanting more. A lot of the grand sparkle and over-the-top action takes place in Cotai, which is a short taxi ride over one of the two bridges that stretch out from the Macau Peninsula across the mighty Pearl River. The Cotai Strip gets its name from the two islands that it connects: the suburban-like Taipa and leafy Coloane – Macau’s answer to a beach. You can spend entire weeks exploring the multimillion-dollar resorts, each one less than 10 years old, and find yourself completely lost in the acres of luxury-brand shopping malls and endless bars, shows, nightclubs and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Back on the peninsula, where gaming originated in the Fifties as China’s only legalised gambling destination, wander through gaming godfather Stanley Ho’s contribution to Macau's big pastime in the form of the Grand Lisboa. It’s the casino building shaped as a huge neon showgirl feather, which is impossible to miss as it towers over the skyline. Spare some time to look at Mr Ho’s extravagant array of artwork and collectables in the foyer and also at his original property, which opened in the Seventies and is linked by a walkway.
If you’d like to peruse the city from on high, make your way to the 338-metre Macau Tower and take a flying leap with a bungee jump (the world’s highest from a man-made structure). You can also walk the perimeter of the tower (yes, outside), with nothing between you and the ground but some (very well maintained) safety cords. Or climb to the top of the tower’s mast on vertical ladders. If you’re not quite the adrenalin junkie you used to be, you can still enjoy the views from the safety of the observation lounge.
Once you’ve been wined, dined and entertained to the extreme, take time to discover the heritage side of Macau. Begin with the historic charm of the city centre at Leal Senado Square, or San Ma Lo as the locals refer to it. The beautiful, swirling mosaic-floored piazza is circled by pastel neoclassical buildings and leads to one of the city’s main landmarks, the Ruins of St Paul’s. The 17th-century façade is all that remains of the church, which was destroyed by fire in 1835. Further on, you’ll discover the Praça Luís de Camões, a garden dedicated to the memory of the poet Camões – Portugal’s version of Shakespeare. Don’t miss the Old Protestant Cemetery opposite, where the well-preserved tombstones relay all manner of fascinating stories about early travellers meeting their untimely end during the 1700s. It’s quite fascinating.
The entire area leading down to the old Inner Harbour is where you’ll discover the ‘real’ city and its people. Quaint tea and incense shops nearing a century in age still operate as they did all those years ago, and Chinese medicine and local acupuncture treatments abound. Meandering around these tiny lanes, cobbled in the old Portuguese style and lined by traditional shop houses, is an experience well worth leaving the gaming floors for. You’ll also find local eateries serving the best dim sum you’ve probably ever tasted, and, if you fancy it, it’s a good place to try those Chinese BBQ pork chops.
Check if your visit is timed with one of the many world-class festivals held throughout the year. From mid September to early October, the Macau International Fireworks Display Contest features countries competing from around the world over five days, in what’s possibly the most spectacular example of gunpowder artistry you’re likely to see. During November the major arterial roads close for the Macau Grand Prix and racing fever takes over the entire city. Chinese New Year, towards the end of January, is always a wonderful time to visit. And in June, the river comes alive for the annual International Dragon Boat Races.
Macau is a one-of-a-kind city, pulsating with life, entertainment and opportunities to explore. You may want to reconsider if you thought a ‘quick trip’ over from Hong Kong would suffice. After all, the city has a way of surprising even the most regular visitors.
Writer Anita Duffin has spent a decade in Asia. Previously based in Macau, she now lives in Indonesia, where she continues to write about Asia, and is travel editor for Singapore travel search site wego.com