Most people come to Macau to gamble, eat cheap seafood, and shop. But don’t overlook Macau’s unique culture, born from centuries of both Portuguese and Chinese influence. This Special Administrative Region of China, on the Pearl River delta’s western bank, is less than an hour from Hong Kong by hydrofoil. It consists of the Macau Peninsula and Taipa and Coloane islands. The reclaimed area of Cotai lies between Taipa and Coloane and virtually merges the two. If you have 24 hours in Macau, here’s how you can sample the best of Macau.
10 a.m.: Roll in the Dough
Along the downtown street leading to the iconic Ruínas de São Paulo are several Portuguese pastelarias (pastry shops). One of the oldest and best is Pastelaria Koi Kei (70-72 Rua Felcidade, 853/938-102, AE, DC, MC, V). You’ll see lots of Hong Kongers hauling the shop’s distinctive tan bags — no doubt filled with pasteis de nata (custard tarts) — back home for friends and relatives.
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11 a.m.: Count Your Blessings
Head for the 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.
Inside, check out the free Museum of Sacred Art, where samaurai angels and a Chinese Virgin and child are intriguing Asian interpretations of Christian images. It’s open everyday but Saturday from 9 to 6. The nearby Templo de Na Tcha was built in 1888. Hours are daily 8 to 5.
1 p.m.: Square Things Up
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. Grab a Macanese lunch in the peninsula’s oldest restaurant, the no-frills Fat Siu Lau (Rua da Felicidade, 853/573-580, AE, DC, MC, V) near the fountain at the top of the square. Look for the small cow sign of the Leiteria i Son, a milk bar at Largo do Senado 7. The decor is cafeteria-style spartan, but the bar whips up frothy glasses of fresh milk from its own dairy and blends them with all manner of juices: papaya, coconut, apricot.
2 p.m.: Hunt for Treasure
Macau is a hub for Chinese arts, crafts, and antiques (or high-quality reproductions). You can often see craftspeople at work, particularly on the side streets of Tercena and Estalagens, which borders Largo do Senado, and the alleyway shops in front of the Ruins of St. Paul. Look for lacquer screens and pottery. Remember to bargain hard and bargain soft, and then bargain again.
4 p.m.: Survey the Colony
Take in all of Macau from the Fortaleza da Guia, built between 1622 and 1638 on the town’s highest hill. You can walk the steep, winding road up or take a five-minute cable car ride from the Flora Garden on Avenida Sidonio Pais. Inside the complex are a lighthouse and a chapel whose elaborate frescoes mixing Western and Chinese themes look stunning in the afternoon light.
6:30 p.m.: Make Your Fortune
Races start at 7 at the Macau Jockey Club in Taipa. The five-story, open-air grandstand accommodates as many as 15,000 spectators. All the facilities are top quality — you can even get a great meal here. Stop by the northeast exit to visit the large Four Face Buddha statue, where you can say a short prayer for luck. General admission is free; grandstand seating is MOP$20.
If you didn’t eat at the track, consider dinner at a casino-hotel restaurant, where you can easily find your way to a blackjack table for a postprandial brandy. The 888 Las Vegas Buffet at the Sands Casino’s is worth checking out. The buffet offers more than 330 feet of Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Thai, and other food options, and it’s also a very good deal. The multicourse tasting menu is a good bet at the more expensive and romantic Robuchon a Galera, the French restaurant in the Hotel Lisboa.
Macau’s Lan Kwai Fong district (Av. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, Edificio Vista Magnifica Court) is essentially a few bars on a small stretch of street in the New Reclamation Area. Unlike its rowdy Hong Kong namesake, this version is really just a bunch of nice, quiet bars where expats come to drink and relax. If you hop into a cab and tell the driver “Lan Kwai Fong,” he’ll have you here in 10 minutes or less — no matter where you are in Macau.
Visitor Information: The Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO; www.macautourism.gov.mo) has branches in Hong Kong and at the ferry terminal in Macau.
Passports & Visas: To enter Macau, Americans, Canadians, European Union citizens, and others only need a valid passport for stays of up to 20 days.
Currency: The official currency is the pataca (abbreviated as MOP) with a fixed exchange rate of MOP$1.032 to HKD$1, roughly MOP$8 to US$1. Patacas come in 10, 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1000 MOP banknotes plus 1, 5, and 10 MOP coins. 1 pataca is divided into 100 avos and come in 10, 20, and 50 avos coins. That said, Hong Kong dollars are accepted on a 1:1 basis throughout Macau.
Language: Chinese and Portuguese are Macau’s official languages. Both Cantonese and Mandarin are widely spoken. English is often used in commerce, but relying on it will be frustrating outside of tourist areas and with most taxi drivers.
Travel Between Hong Kong & Macau: Ferries run every 15 minutes 24 hours a day with a reduced schedule from 1:30 a.m. to 7 a.m. The trip takes 55 minutes one way. Tickets run HK$142–HK$1,650, depending on class. Buses and cabs await you in Macau. You only need reservations on weekends. For more information contact Turbojet Tickets or First Ferry.
You can also reach Macau from Hong Kong via a 16-minute helicopter flight from Hong Kong’s Shun Tak Centre to the Macau Ferry Terminal. Click here for details.
Photo credits: (1-3) Courtesy of the Macau Tourism Bureau; (4) ©Istockphoto/ Stuart Dunn