Macau – Explore the Las Vegas of the East

Macau is a peninsular off the Chinese mainland and includes 2 islands, Taipa and Coloane, that are connected to the peninsular by bridges.

The image above shows the Friendship Bridge, the Eastern-most bridge linking Taipa to the Macau peninsular.

Currently a Special Administrative Region in China, the same status as Hong Kong, Macau had a 400-year history of Portuguese administration prior to becoming an SAR in 1999.

During the 1500s and through until the 19th Century, it was a trading port and the main trans-shipment centre for goods being traded into and out of China and Japan.

It lost this status to Hong Kong during the late 1800s and, with the exodus of traders to Hong Kong, Macau settled into a mostly uneventful existence, notable for gambling and, from 1954, the Macau Grand Prix.

When I came to live in Hong Kong in 1995, Macau was a gambling venue for Hong Kong Chinese (gambling was, and still is, illegal in Hong Kong).

There was little other industry and even the gambling was very small scale by today’s standards.

A Little bit of Europe in the East

Instead, the Portuguese influence meant that there were numerous small seafood restaurants serving Portuguese style food and wine.

Further, Portuguese architecture and street signage made it feel as if a chunk of Europe had been transported to the East.

It was a laid-back respite from the hustle of Hong Kong life.

The evidence of its Portuguese past is still visible in parts:

European style street in Macau

The design and laying of the tiles gives the impression of an uneven surface, but it is completely level and smooth:

Square in front of the Municipal building in Macau

Perhaps one of the more famous images of Macau is the ruin of St Paul’s church. It was a Catholic church, built in 1602 but destroyed by fire in 1835, leaving only the Façade and the steps leading up to it:

Façade of St Paul's church, Macau

Gambling turnover beats Las Vegas

Soon after the territory became a Special Administrative Region, the Las Vegas casino industry moved in to capitalise on the Chinese love of gambling.

As I said earlier, Macau had been a gambling venue for Hong Kong Chinese for decades, so the regulatory environment was already receptive. Today it is still the only region within greater China where gambling is legal.

The promise of huge investments was welcomed by the new administration, and the investment was repaid in spades: by 2010 revenue from gambling in Macau casinos surpassed that of Las Vegas and it hasn’t looked back.

Macau, today, is the undisputed casino gambling capital of the world.

Companies like Sands, Wynn and Venetian developed venues in Macau that mirrored their Las Vegas developments.

Here’s the inside of the Venetian, complete with the false sky ceiling:

interior of the Venetian in Macau

And here’s the Sands:

The Sands, Macau

. . . with its false volcano:

False volcano at the Sands in Macau

The rest of Macau, meanwhile, has lost its original charm with the mushrooming of soulless high-rise buildings over the past 20 years or so:

Newly developed high-rise buildings in Macau

Nearly all the small Portuguese restaurants in the city have gone. If you want to see something of the old Macau you will need to cross over to Taipa and Coloane.

Those, remarkably, have been little affected by the frantic pace of Casino development – much of which has been done on reclaimed land.

Macau used to be a great day out from Hong Kong – a relief from the constant pressure and noise, with great food to be had in a wide choice of restaurants.

Still, if you cross to Coloane you can still have a gentle walk and make your way down to Fernando’s for a lazy seafood and wine lunch.

Getting there

You have a few options, depending on where you’re coming from and your budget:

  1. By air to Macau International Airport
  2. By ferry from Hong Kong (Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan)
  3. By ferry from Kowloon (China ferry terminal)
  4. By ferry from Hong Kong International airport
  5. By helicopter from Hong Kong (Macau ferry terminal, Sheung Wan)
  6. By bus via the Hong Kong-Zuhai-Macau bridge from Pitt street in Tsim Sha Tsui
  7. By taxi from Kowloon via the Kong Kong-Zuhai-Macau bridge

Depending on which method you use, the trip is between an hour, and an hour and a half.

The most frequently used service from Hong Kong is the ferry service from the Macau ferry terminal in Sheung Wan – services run every 15 minutes and take about an hour.

Test your knowledge! Have fun with one of our travel quizzes – click here!

Have you visited Macau? Tell us about your trip in the comments!

Martin Malden

Martin Malden
The Expat Traveller

What do you think?

2 comments… add one
  • Matt Lin Mar 7, 2020 @ 17:59

    Hi Martin,

    I’ve been to Macau in 2018 and I love the city still keeps many historical sites that Portuguese left. For example, Ruins of St. Paul’s and the pavement design.

    For my experience, I like to cross the bridge to the old area to be close to local life. The casino area is golden and very pretty(I get it!), but somehow I think it is just not my cup of tea.

    The old area expresses more true Macau flavors than I can imagine when I walk on the pretty designed pavements and cross small lanes. I love to wait in a long queue for a famous traditional restaurant or local delight store. When I finally get inside and taste the food, I feel I do visit Macau in my life.

    Love this article of Macau, it took me back to 2018.

    • Martin Malden Mar 8, 2020 @ 6:57

      Hi Matt,

      Ha ha – if there’s one thing I will not do, it is to queue for a restaurant..!! 😀

      Glad you enjoyed the article, though. Macau is very different now from what it was in 1995, when I first visited.



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