Where to begin with Macau? Just 45-minutes by boat ride from Hong Kong, it’s a tiny country alive with culture. And not just one culture – it’s a melting pot of Chinese customs and Portuguese heritage with a glitzy gambling scene thrown in for good measure!
Often overlooked by backpackers due to its reputation as a playground for the rich, it is possible (and definitely worth it) to visit this fascinating little island country without spending like a Bond girl (or boy).
It’s rare to go somewhere that does the traditional and the modern so well and to such extremes. To go from crumbling ruins to jaw-dropping casinos that give Vegas a run for its money, you only need catch a 15-minute bus.
The Chinese city was inhabited by Portuguese colonialists from the 16th century and as a result, the old city centre showcases buildings that would be at home in the cobbled back streets of Lisbon.
Staple Portuguese dishes are as easy to come by as Chinese cuisine which is good news for foodies like me and a rarity for this region of Asia!
Places to stay in Macau
One consideration when visiting Macau as a backpacker is that it’s not peppered with cheap hostels – just yet anyway!
I spent $65 USD a night at Ole London Hotel in the heart of the city. This was perfect as it was walking distance to all the sights and meant I got my own room – a rare occurrence for a backpacker!
IFU Hotel is another reasonably priced option, with extremely clean rooms available for $64 USD and close to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Luckily it’s easy to eat cheaply in Macau and there are lots of free things to see and do which will keep the cost of your visit down. Breakfast is also included at most hotels. Check out more budget hotels on Booking.com.
Food in Macau
The culinary scene in Macau is definitely one to check out. There’s Chinese food aplenty so look out for clay pots, hotpots, meat on sticks, and noodles galore. However, there are a few staple Macanese dishes worth trying which take inspiration from both Chinese and Portuguese cuisine.
- Custard tarts (a la Pasteis de Belem) – with crumbly pastry and warm custard, these were my go-to snack during my stay. You’ll find them at bakeries on almost every corner and they’ll cost you pennies.
- Sticky pork buns – don’t leave without grabbing one from Tai Lei Loi Kei. These are the Macanese version of a hamburger: a sticky pork chop in sweet, crumbly bun with added extras such as pineapple or fried egg. Mine cost me MOP$33 (£3) so it’s worth living on these if Macau restaurant prices get a bit hefty.
- Portuguese chicken – you’ll find restaurants doling out dishes that make Brits think of Nando’s (only it’s so much better in Macau!).
Things to do in Macau
In the heart of the old city lies Senado Square, one of the features that’s secured Macau a UNESCO World Heritage status. The paved square boasts European style, pastel colours and a whole load of colonial charm.
Whilst dark wooden shutters and ornate iron balconies characterise the area, wandering and sampling the gelato is the best way to while away an afternoon. Buildings brimming with character include yellow Saint Dominic’s Church, the impressive Macau Cathedral and quirky Lou Kau Mansion.
Ruins of St Paul’s and Monte Fort
A short walk from Senado Square stands the (heavily supported) Ruins of St Paul’s. What’s left of the once-great church is the front-facing wall and the grand staircase. It seems like a miracle they made it as three fires have ravaged St. Paul’s over the years.
Wander the back streets
If you thought Hong Kong was densely populated, get ready for Macau. At 55,454 people per people per square mile, it’s one of the most crowded places on earth. Wander the back streets to get a better understanding of the bustling city and keep cool with a tasty gelato.
Get a skyline view
Work off all those custard tarts and pork buns with a brisk walk up Monte Fort. The view out over the city is peppered with skyscrapers, casinos and mountains – definitely worth the climb!
Visit a casino
Known as the ‘Las Vegas of Asia’, Macau is a playground for those who want to have a carefree good time. If – like me – you’re not a gambler or simply don’t have the money to lose, they’re still worth a visit, if just to people watch
I went inside the Venetian – not only is it the biggest casino in the world, it’s actually the seventh biggest building on the planet. There are entire floors dedicated to gambling but you’ll also find department stores, food courts and a replica of Venice including an indoor river and gondola rides.
Many of the shopping malls and food courts continue the theme and I dined on world cuisine under a sunny fake blue sky despite the fact it was night-time.
The Venetian is one of the many casinos on the Cotai Strip in the south of the city. There you’ll also spy a replica Eiffel Tower and various other casinos to rival Las Vegas.
This is one of the few places in the city you can learn about the background of Macau and how a Portuguese settlement came to exist in the heart of Asia. I learned that Macau was actually under Portuguese rule until 1999, making it the last European colony in the continent.
Now, contemporary Chinese culture lives alongside the remnants of the colonial era. I came away from an interesting afternoon at the museum clued up on Chinese homes, marriage ceremonies, arts and theatre.
Macau’s population is 95% Chinese so alongside a lot of delectable Cantonese cuisine you’ll spy lots of oriental architecture. One of the most famous examples is the A-ma Temple which has been around since the 1400s.
Apparently, the name ‘Macau’ itself was influenced by this building. Portuguese settlers asked locals the name of the area of land they were on and they misunderstood and thought they were being asked the name of the temple.
They responded with its original name ‘Ma Ge’ which was later translated to ‘Macau’ and used as the name of the city. History lessons aside, it’s gorgeous and really worth a visit!
Getting to Macau
Macau is easy to reach. From Hong Kong, it’s a just a 45-minute ferry ride. Lots of Asian airlines also serve it and I flew from the Philippines for the bargain price of $40 USD.
If you’re yet to check out Hong Kong, now’s the time. Make the 45-minute ferry journey and you’ll be in the vibrant metropolis known for its fast pace and crazy skyscrapers.
About the writer: Rose Munday is a British blogger currently based in the UK after extensive travels around Asia and Africa. She finds it impossible to pick a favourite place and swears by befriending the locals. You can usually find her searching for street art or sniffing out the best coffee in town. Check out her blog ‘Where Goes Rose’ here.