Macau

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An hour’s ride on a high-speed ferry (there’s a departure every 15 minutes) across the mouth of the Pearl River from Hong Kong gets to you Macau, Hong Kong’s “Sister SAR.” Macau’s history is similar to Hong Kong’s, except with Portugal as the foreign power instead of Britain.

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Largo do Senado (Senate Square), the center of old Macau

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Largo de Santo Agustinho (St. Augustine’s Square) in Macau’s historic center

Macau has considerably less land, and fewer people, than Hong Kong, but it packs them in: at 51,000 people per square mile, it’s the most densely-populated country in the world. It’s called a “country” because, although it’s technically been part of China since 1999, it has it’s own government, currency, and border control policies under the same “One country, two systems” policy that Hong Kong is subject to. The end of Portuguese administration and greater ties to mainland China have precipitated a tourism and gambling boom: gaming revenue in Macau overtook Las Vegas’ in 2007 and hasn’t slowed down since.

Casino district:

As a visitor, the first thought that comes to mind to describe Macau is: two-faced. On one hand there’s the casino area: a boxy, tacky new district built on reclaimed land filled with jewelry shops (real gold, I’m sure…), massage parlors (wink wink, nudge nudge), and some of the dive-iest gambling dens anywhere (and I don’t mean “dive” in a hipster sort of way). The new Vegas-style casinos, like the Wynn Macau, are entirely inwardly-focused, designed to make you feel like you’re anywhere except Macau. The area even features a strong contender for the title of world’s ugliest building, the Grand Lisboa Hotel & Casino. All said, the casino district has about as much charm as a parking ramp. Vegas is certainly no utopia, but it’s a lot more pleasant than a visitors’ first impression of Macau.

But, on the other hand, there’s the Historic Center of Macau, the one that existed long before 1999, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a cozy and atmospheric place with winding streets and colonial Portuguese architecture. We spent a very nice afternoon walking the dramatically-tiled streets, seeing the old churches, drinking coffee, and visiting the Macau Museum, which does a great job of describing Macau’s dual Portuguese/Chinese heritage. Hong Kong has only a small handful of buildings older than, say, 50 years; Macau is a much better example of European colonization into China and some of the vaguely incongruous, but fascinating, sights it produced.

Colonial architecture:

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Largo de Santo Agostinho (St Augustine’s Square)

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Largo de Santo Agostinho (St Augustine’s Square). You wouldn’t have guessed this is in China, would you?

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Courtyard in the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library

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Leal Senado, now Macau’s city hall

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Sir Robert Ho Tung Library

Our stroll through the historic center was nice, but if you’re looking to fly across the ocean to see that kind of thing I’d probably recommend going to Portugal itself. I had an interesting day in Macau, but it’s unlikely I’ll go back to there myself. I would, however, recommend a short day trip to Macau to someone who likes colonial architecture and is looking to get out of Hong Kong for a while. Just remember to take a taxi back & forth from the ferry terminal to the old town; the walk between them is dreary and left me with a tainted opinion of Macau.

Historic Center & Museu de Macau:

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All our Macau pics are available on Flickr.

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4 Comments »

    • Thanks, glad you liked it!

      For Macau, I’d say the “must do” is a walking tour through the old town… Sao Lorenzo, Senado, the ruins of St Paul’s cathedral, and the Macau museum (even if you don’t go in the museum itself, definitely climb to the top of the old fort on the hill for the views).

      For Hong Kong, it’s a lot harder to pin down a single “must do.” Here are a few recommendations:
      – HK is a vertical city, so go up: Victoria Peak via the Peak Tram, and/or one of the tall buildings. The Bank of China and IFC, both in Central, have free observation decks, but the ICC in Kowloon probably has the best view since it’s across the water from Central. There’s a paid observation floor “Sky100”, or a spectacular roof-top bar on the top floor (part of the Ritz Carlton)…we did both, but for my money the expensive drinks at the bar were a more memorable experience than paying to go to Sky100.
      – The waterfront promenade on the Kowloon side has awesome views; the Star Ferry ride across the harbor (especially at night) is something I’d recommend
      – Wong Tai Sin temple was very interesting, and the ground were beautiful
      – The Mid-Levels escalator was pretty cool; the neighborhoods it serves are probably the most expat-friendly places in HK; if you want European food that’s the place to head. Taking the escalators up and then leisurely walking back down through the winding streets was a great way to spend 1/2 day.
      – The Temple Street night market was fun; although the stuff they sell there is fairly kitschy, there’s some cool street food vendors and outdoor bars, and a nice, energetic atmosphere to the place

      Let me know if you’d like any other recommendations! Enjoy your trip!

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