The Allure of Macau
They come in their thousands to pay homage at altars of flashing neon whose hymns are the jingling of coins and the digital beep-boop of half-mad robots. Pilgrims with wallets full of money and hearts full of ill-placed hope flock from Mainland China to try their hand at tricking Lady Luck out of a few HKD.
It’s certainly a city that does a good job of recreating some of the glitz and glamour of North America’s own den of chance and iniquity, Las Vegas.
Here and there, jutting out of the weather-stained tenements and industrial estates, are dazzling towers at odds with the earthy feel of their surrounds.
They cluster on one side of the island like the end of an evolutionary timeline. Something for their humbler, smaller neighbours to aspire to.
Despite their shining exteriors and their eye-catching architecture, the casinos rarely hold my eye for long. Indeed, it is to the low-lying areas of grime and disarray that my eyes are drawn.
There’s a certain charm in the jumble of tumbledown buildings in various clashing colours all united in the uniformity with which they’ve been weathered.
Many of these one, two, or three story buildings are adorned with shocks of green – tenacious gardens resisting the ever encroaching urban sprawl that spreads across from the mainland like an illness.
I paint a less than flattering picture, but this juxtaposition is far from depressing – it’s fascinating.
The glitter of the modern casinos is emphasised by the dour tenements, just as their antique charm is highlighted by their proximity to these shrines to decadence.
Standing out from these two warring dynasties – commercialism and colonialism – the crumbling ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral sit in quiet contemplating amidst an island to greenery.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Macau, but it’s been quick to capture my imagination.
More Than Just Casinos
Macau, sometimes known as the “Vegas of China” gets a bit of a bad wrap from tourists. The glittering casinos make people think that there’s nothing more to Macau than the skin-deep; shallow enjoyments designed to conceal a place without charm.
This assessment couldn’t be farther from the truth, as I found out on my recent two-day visa run to the gambling capital of Asia. Far from being a tacky Vegas knock-off, Macau was bursting with charm and hidden secrets that I was only too happy to explore.
With just one day to see the best that Macau had to offer, I came up with a one day Macau itinerary to ensure I saw it all.
Macau in 24 Hours: A One Day Macau Itinerary
Eat a Macanese breakfast
You’ll want to start your day bright and early. While Macau isn’t a large area to explore, we’re going to be doing quite a bit of walking (and eating), so save your sleep in for tomorrow!
With so much delicious Macanese food you’ll want to try, my advice is to head over to Travessa do Auto Novo and see what is on offer.
Looking for some inspiration? La Jolla Mom has a great blog about the foods you should eat in Macau.
I helped myself to a hearty pork chop bun, which is the Macanese equivalent to a hamburger. It’s a filling bite!
Wander the Old Town
I can’t overstate this enough: Macau’s old town is fascinating!
While there aren’t any ‘must see’ landmarks in the labyrinthine alleys of Macau’s old town, you’re living and breathing real local life as you traverse these man-made canyons of colourful buildings, taut power cables, and hidden shrines.
I dedicated an hour or two to just meandering through the hustle and bustle of everyday Macanese life and it was one of the highlights of the day. Watching kids play soccer in narrow alleys while their parents cooked or cleaned or shouted for customers was a real pleasure, and I delighted in finding cute little nooks where Buddhist shrines or Catholic crosses had been hung up for locals to pray at.
Your wandering might feel a bit overwhelming, but all roads lead to civilization – just follow long enough and you’ll eventually come to a sign pointing you in the direction of local landmarks such as Senado Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Tip: If you’re getting peckish while you wander around, look for a little stall or hole in the wall eatery with at least one person in line. Go eat there!
People watch in Senado Square
Senado Square is one of the most popular non-casino destinations in Macau, but the open European-style square doesn’t feel over-crowded as you wander its black and white cobblestones and soak in the ever present sun.
Once the beating heart of colonial Macau, Senado Square is not a mixture of heritage buildings and modern style. Inside these gorgeous old buildings, you’ll find trendy boutiques, Western pharmacy chains, and overpriced eateries looking to capture the eye of hungry tourists.
St. Dominic’s Cathedral
Ducking into the beautiful St. Dominic’s Cathedral is a great way to escape the heat and the crowds, with a polite guard on hand to shush the over-enthusiastic as they wander this classic example of a Baroque church.
Take a few quiet moments to soak in the beautiful interior of the church or (if you’re a lapsed Catholic like me) say a long overdue Hail Mary or three.
If you came to Macau to do some shopping, you can wander the nearby Rua da Tercena to browse the mixture of local market stalls and international brands selling everything from Korean beauty products to American sneakers to high priced liquors.
It’s not really my scene, but I did like wandering the market stalls to hear the haggling between hardened local women and wide-eyed international tourists.
Visit the Ruins of St. Paul
A short walk from Senado Square is Macau’s most recognisable colonial landmark: the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Once the largest cathedral in East Asia, St. Paul’s almost feels cursed when you consider that it burned down three times before the Church finally decided to leave well enough alone.
Today, its facade stands as a lonely testament to the fading of colonial Europe’s grip on the East and the growth of both local governance and local religions.
This is likely to be the most crowded place you’ll visit, so I recommend snapping a few pictures and then getting out of here.
Tip: If you want unspoiled photos of the monument, it’s best to come for the sunrise. The crowds don’t disperse until after dark, so morning is likely to be your best bet for a photo without someone in it.
Climb to Old Fort
Right next to the Ruins of St. Paul is Macau Fortress, which sits atop a hill that provides a nice view of the ruins and the city.
The green gardens are alive with mosquitos on a humid day, but it’s a nice spot to take a break if your legs are sore from wandering all morning.
The ruins themselves aren’t especially impressive, but the view out over the city and the bristling cannons do make for a good photo opportunity.
While up here, you’ll want to escape the heat and pay a visit to the Macao Museum. The museum not only has exhibits about Macau’s colonial history, but also its local culture and the city’s evolution in recent years.
Lunch at Albergue 1601
It’s a bit of a walk to our next stop, but you’ll be wandering more of those broad, cobblestone streets with the brightly coloured colonial buildings for company. You’ll also want to work up a bit of an appetite, as our next stop is the delectable Albergue 1601 restaurant!
Offering a mixture of Portuguese and Macanese favourites, this upscale eatery is set in a gorgeous old building and has some wonderfully friendly staff as well.
I ordered the spicy African Chicken for my main and finished with a sweet Serradurra (sawdust pudding), as well as enjoying an ice cold glass of sangria to cool me off after the walk.
Across from the restaurant, there’s also a small art gallery with rotating exhibits you might want to check out. It was an African inspired exhibition while I was there, but who knows what you’ll find?
Take the cable car to the lighthouse
With bellies full, it’s time to wander to our last landmark in the old town – the Guia Fortress and Lighthouse.
The walk is a less inspiring one, as you’ll be wandering along modern streets with the accompanying crowds and traffic, so feel free to grab a taxi or a local bus if you’re feeling like a break.
Another iconic bit of Portuguese heritage, Guia Fortress has a history dating back more than three hundred years. The accompanying chapel and lighthouse (the first of its kind in East Asia) are worth a look as well.
The cable car to the top of the hill is just $1 USD (return), so avoid the uphill and spend some time wandering the gardens and historic sites at the top of the hill. There’s also a stunning view of the city from up here.
Tip: If you come here for sunset or sunrise, you’ll get some splendid shots of the city.
Visit Taipa village and eat all of the things
It should be mid afternoon by now, so let’s bid farewell to the hustle and bustle and make our way to Taipa.
Best known for being where both the airport and the ferry terminal are, Taipa still has plenty of charm in the form of its local neighbourhoods and its own select of casinos.
The main thing we’re here to do is eat, and there is plenty of options when it comes to afternoon tea:
- Egg Tarts from Lord Stow’s Bakery;
- Pork Chop Buns from Cafe Tai Lei Loi Kei
- Seng Cheong for crab congee
- Local candies and almond cakes at Koi Kei Bakery
- Serradura or durian ice cream at Mok Yi Kei
All of the above are located in the popular Taipa Village area, renowned for its historic buildings and its local colour.
Go casino hopping
Casinos aren’t really my thing, but it would be remiss of me to write a one day Macau itinerary without at least touching on the peninsula’s most popular attraction.
Even if rolling the dice or spinning the roulette wheel aren’t your cup of tea, the casinos in Macau do offer a number of other distractions that don’t involve games of chance.
From The Venetian’s impressive canals to the impressive water show at the City of Dreams to live music and cheap drinks at Sands, there’s a little something for everyone here.
Kids can check out the waterslides at The Parisian or the amusement park at Studio City Macau, while the grown ups might want to catch a show in Macau.
Have you ever been to Macau? What were your highlights from China’s Vegas?
My stay in Macau was made possible by the wonderful people at Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16. I’ll write more about their fantastic hospitality soon, but they were a huge help in helping my plan my one day Macau itinerary.