Conquering Macau: Travel Planning Guide

Macau is one of the more interesting places in all of Asia.  While some know it as the Vegas of Asia, the small island has influences from colonial Portugal, China, as well as the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas.  There is plenty to see and do even if gambling is not your cup of tea.  

   

Get To Know Macau

Macau became a Portuguese trading outpost in the 16th century.  It was the first European trading post in the far east and became the last to turn over administrative control to China.  In 1999, it became part of China.  Like neighboring Hong Kong, it is designated a Special Administrative Region (SAR.) Macau is in many ways part of China, but is able to enact several of its own laws and has a separate ruling party that enjoys some independence from mainland China.  The most famous and lucrative show of independence is the legalization of gambling, which is how Macau makes most of the its money.   

Macau is located less than 40 miles southwest of Hong Kong.  The region has  4 districts on two islands.  The Macau Peninsula is connected to mainland China.  Bridges connect the Macau Peninsula to Taipa Island.  Coloane is the southern most regions primarily consisting of mountains and beaches.  Cotai is reclaimed land that connects Taipa and Coloane.  Cotai is patterned after the Las Vegas strip with casino’s lining a large boulevard.     

When To Go

Macau has a subtropical climate.  Summers are hot, humid, and rainy.  Winters are mild.  Typhoons often hit between July and October.  It is a year around destination, but the best time to visit is October to December when the weather is pleasant.  Early spring is also a good time to go.

Avoiding locals holiday’s like Chinese New Year is advisable.  Crowds are high and hotel prices skyrocket.  Going between holidays in the winter will allow you a combination of good weather and lower crowds/prices.  It is also less crowded on weekdays as many Chinese take weekend trips.     

How Long To Stay

Many visitors take a day trip to Macau from Hong Kong.  If you have no interest in casinos, it is possible to see the best of Macau in a day.  Spending a night or two in Macau will allow you to see more of what it has to offer.  Even if you do not gamble the casinos are spectacular to see and offer plenty of non gambling activities to keep you occupied.

Language Barrier

Cantonese is the most widely understood language followed by Portuguese.  English is understood by many employees in tourist areas such as hotels and restaurants.  Venture outside the tourist areas and English it will be hit and miss.  Be sure to have someone write down your destination address in Cantonese if you plan on using a taxi, as the majority of taxi drivers understand little to no English.   

Getting To Macau

Immigration is separate from mainland China and treated by the Chinese government essentially as a separate country. This is also the case with Hong Kong and you must go through immigration when transiting between Hong Kong and Macau.  This is an advantage in that most people do not need to obtain a Chinese visa before entering Macau.  Citizens from the United Kingdom allowed to stay for 180 days without obtaining a visa and European countries and many others enjoy 90 days in Macau without a visa.  U.S. residents have 30 days of visa free access.  If you enter mainland China, come to Macau and return to mainland China, you must have a multi entry Chinese Visa.  For those taking advantage of visa free transit through mainland China, both Hong Kong and Macau are considered separate regions and qualify as final destinations.       

By Plane

  • Macau International Airport (MFM) is a smaller airport located off Taipa Island.  Budget airlines that service Asia are the primary users of this airport.  If you are arriving from outside of Asia you are likely going to have to land in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong Airport offers direct service to and from Macau through a ferry terminal located at the airport.  See below for details.

You may take a bus or a taxi from the airport to your destination.  Taxi is the quickest but most expensive.  Many casinos offer free shuttle service to and from the airport from their casino.  You do not need to be staying at the casino to use their shuttle.

By Ferry   

Ferries run between Hong Kong and Macau 24 hours a day as long as weather holds up.  The trip lasts approximately 1 hour.  There are multiple locations where you can depart of or arrive from.   The Macau Ferry Terminal or Outer Harbour is located on the Macau Peninsula.  The other main ferry terminal is the Taipa terminal located on Taipa Island.  A third is called the inner harbour and located on the Macau Peninsula, but is primarily used for transit between Macau and mainland China. 

As mentioned earlier there is also a ferry terminal at Hong Kong Airport that offers direct service between the airport and the Outer Harbour terminal.  Be sure to check where your accommodations are and plan accordingly.  Also make sure your ferry is going to the right ferry terminal so you don’t get lost.

By Motor Vehicle

You can arrive from mainland China at Zhuhai.  Note that mainland China drives on the right and Macau drives on the left.  The nearest large city in mainland China is Guangzhou.  A bus takes roughly 3 hours too Macau.

Getting Around Macau

Macau lacks the public transportation infrastructure that Hong Kong and many other cities have.  Arguably the best way to get around is by walking.  However that can become difficult during the heat of summer.    

Bus – Multiple companies run bus service.  If you plan to use them it is advisable to do some planning yourself in advance as city busses are not well developed for toursits.  Drivers rarely speak English.

The best option is to take advantage of the complimentary shuttle bus services offered by the casinos.  You do not have to stay or even gamble in the casinos to use their service.  Each of the major casinos will offer shuttles between the airport, ferry terminals, and their other casinos in Macau.  Most major operators have at least one casino on each island and so it is an excellent and free way to travel from one island to the other.  In addition, the Cotai Connection is a free shuttle bus that loops between all of the major casinos on the Cotai Strip.

Taxi – The fastest way around and a good value if traveling in a group.  Taxi’s are located outside most major hotels and casinos.  Also they are at the ferry terminals and the airport.  Be sure you have the destination written in Cantonese or the driver and be wary of drivers overcharging.    

  

  What To See

Macau has a diversity of things to see.  European architecture, famous ruins, old military installations, and glitzy casinos are all on the list of top sites in Macau.

  • The Ruins Of St. Paul’s – The most popular destination that isn’t a casino is the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It was once the biggest catholic church in the far east, but the facade is all that remains.  
  • Senado Square – A fine example of the Portuguese colonial architecture that is prevalent in Macau.  Perhaps it’s most distinguishing feature is the wavy mosaic sidewalk.  The Spanish St. Dominic’s Church and old Senate building are some of the must see buildings that occupy the square.
  • Fortaleza do Monte – The fort sits at a high point in Macau and was once home to the Portuguese military.   Many of the walls still stand and cannons remain, allowing visitors to picture what the place was like when it was built in 1626.  Today it is home to the Macau Museum as well as offering wonderful views of Macau. 
  • Fisherman’s Wharf –Located near one of the ferry terminals that shuttle visitors between Macau and Hong Kong, the Fisherman’s Wharf has plenty to see and do.  The Maritime Museum, shopping, and even a theme park.
  • A-Ma Temple – Macau’s oldest and most famous temple is named after the sacred sea goddess Mazu. The temple was built to honor her and continue to help fisherman ward off danger on the seas. 
  • Casino’s – It maybe hard to believe after seeing the large casinos of Las Vegas, but Macau’s casino’s are even bigger.  The largest casino in the world is the Venetian Macau with over 500,000 square feet of gaming space.  Other standouts are Wynn Palace, City of Dreams, and the Grand Lisboa.   
  • Kun Iam Statute – Standing off Macau Peninsula is the 100 foot tall statue dedicated to the goddess of mercy.  Cast in bronze, the statue is near the MGM Grand and offers great views of Taipa Island in the distance.  
  • St. Lawrence Church – A classic example of European architecture in Asia.  The Baroque style church dates back to 1560.  St. Paul’s maybe the most famous church in Macau, But St. Lawrence is the most beautiful.    
  • Taipa Village – Across the street from the extravagant Galaxy and Venetian resorts is the historic Taipa Village.  Among the places to see is the Taipa House Museum which recreates the life of the average Macau home during colonial times.  Small temples and shrines also dot the village landscape.

What To Do

  • Casino hop – You can wander around for days and not take in everything these massive casinos have to offer.  Gambling, shopping, eating, entertainment, these places have it all.     
  • See a show – Las Vegas style shows are common in the large casinos.  The Hosue of Dancing Water is an absolute must see for fans of Cirque du Soleil fans.  Wynn Palace has a free fountain show and as an added bonus you can watch from a gondola.  
  • Eat Portuguese Egg Tarts – The most famous snack in Macau.  The battle for Egg Tart supremacy is between Margaret’s Cafe e Nata and Lord Stow’s Bakery.  Try them both and figure out for yourself.  
  • Bungee jump off Macau Tower – If you enjoy jumping off really tall buildings you are in luck.  The 764 foot tall Macau Tower make it the highest commercial bungee jump in the world.  
  • Eat free Samples – In Taipa village and around the Ruins of St. Paul’s are shops offer free food samples.  Traditional Chinese snacks and jerky are the main items available to sample.  Be aware that they are really good and often have their intended effect of creating a sale.  

Money

Macau does have its own currency the Pataca,  but the primary currency is the Hong Kong Dollar.  Casinos exclusively accept Hong Kong Dollars and it is advisable to exchange Hong Kong Dollars as opposed to Pataca.

ATM’s are located all over and the best place to exchange money.  As you can imagine, a great place to find an ATM is inside a casino.

Budget Tips

Macau can cost you a pretty penny or you can travel here very inexpensively.  It has plenty of lavish accommodations, but there are also plenty of budget options available.  There is also a lot of things to see and do that are free.  While public transportation is largely underdeveloped, you can take advantage of free transportation to get around most places.

Accommodations

  • Stay outside holidays such as Chinese New New Year in February and avoid weekends when people take quick trips to gamble like Las Vegas.
  • Most of your budget options are in the inner harbour area of Macau Peninsula,  They are basic but will work out fine if you simply need a place to stay.
  • Use hotel reward points.  All the major players are here.  If you use a casino reward program in Las Vegas, it is also valid in their Macau casinos.

Attractions And Food

  • Many attractions are free or very cheap.  Many of the casinos offer free entertainment and some of the top sites including the ruins if St. Pauls and A-Ma Temple are free. 
  • You will see prices for the Wynn Palace gondolas.  That is the price for going from the casino out to the street.  If you take the gondola from the outside and use it to enter the casino, it is free!  It is a nice elevated ride and with good timing you get a great view of the fountain show. 
  • Take advantage of free museums.  The Macau Grand Prix Museum, the Wine Museum and the Taipa House are free.  The Macau Museum is free on the 15th of the month.  Otherwise it is very cheap to enter and worth it.
  • Walk around the city.  Enjoy the sights of this impressive city for free.
  • Local food is cheap and good.  The Pork Chop Bun and Portuguese Egg Tart are must haves.     
  • Most major casinos offer free bottles of water.

Transportation

  • Use the free shuttle busses.  They are clean air conditioned and will take you almost anywhere you would want to go.  All the major casino’s run a fleet of them and the Cotai Connection connects all of the casinos on Cotai.  
  • Walk when you can but be aware of the heat and humidity.  Also carry plenty of water if you decide to walk outside.

Getting The Most Out Of Your Trip

Things to know

  • Macau uses a 3 prong 220 volt outlet.  Be sure to have the correct adaptor for your electronics.  Most hotels will also have some available. 
  • The casinos in Macau have many rules.  You must be 18 to enter.  Macau casinos have all entertainment, shopping, and food on the perimeter with the gambling in the middle of the resort to accommodate younger patrons that can’t enter the casino.  No video taping is allowed.  Many of them do not allow you to wear sunglasses or a hat indoors.  At the very least security will ask you to take your remove your hat at the entrance so the security camera can see you.
  • The big games in Macau are Baccarat, Pai Gow and slot machines.  Blackjack and roulette can also be found in most casinos. Poker is only available at select locations.  Your best bet for a poker game is the Wynn or Venetian.
  • Don’t be surprised if another player bets on your hand.  It is fairly common in Macau for some players to only bet other peoples hands in a game like blackjack.
  • Tipping is not necessary.
  • They drive on the left.  Even if you aren’t driving be careful when crossing the street. 
  • Personal space doesn’t exist in Macau and many other crowded asian cities.  Expect to be bumped into without an apology. 
  • Free Wi-fi is widely available throughout the city.  Most hotels have it and the city has a network called wifi go.

Things to avoid

  • Know your gambling limits.  Macau takes in a lot more gambling revenue than anywhere else including Las Vegas.  Don’t get wrapped up in the big bets happening and gamble responsibility. 
  • Driving.  It’s crowded and confusing as they drive on the other side of the road.
  • Tourist scams.  These include pick pockets, and overcharging.
  • Don’t talk politics.  Macau is complicated politically.  There is tension between the local and mainland Chinese government. 

Time Saving Tips

  • Buy ferry tickets to and from Macau in advance.  They sell out quickly and you may end up stuck at the ferry terminal for a long time if you show up the day of.
  • Make a rough itinerary.  A little planning will allow you to be more efficient with your time.
  • Book accommodations in advance.


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