After freezing almost to death in Shenyang (only slight exaggeration), I decided I wanted to go somewhere warm! Macau seemed like a great choice because it was doable in 2 days (a weekend trip). It would not only be warm, but also be luxurious! Macau is known for its casinos and high life, but also has a large historic city center to explore.
What You Should Know About Macau
The city was part of Portugal for a long time, so it is very, very close to Hong Kong geographically and culturally. Like HK, it has a European feel. Unlike that global financial center, though, Macau is much calmer and runs in large part because of its tourist infrastructure. It’s split essentially into two parts: Taipa/Cotai/Coloane and Macau proper. The airport and Taipa Ferry Terminal are on the Taipa/Cotai/Coloane island. Macau proper is where the Macau Ferry Terminal – the most popular if you’re coming in from Hong Kong – is.
Surprisingly, it is not very backpacker- or cheap travel-friendly. The one great thing about it is that almost all the attractions are free, though! I guess they want you to save all your money for There are a few guesthouses sprinkled around the city, but you really have to go to the tourist information booth at the airport to get a brochure to find them. Online are extravagant hotel/casinos, and almost none of them have room prices less than $100 USD per night.
[Recommended Read: Travel Tips for Macau: Make the Most of Your Macau Trip!]
The public transportation system also isn’t ideal. You can only take the bus, but instead of English buses only have traditional Chinese characters (different from mainland China) and Portuguese. That’s really only helpful if you just happen to be Brazilian, Portuguese, or traveling with someone like that. The streets are also almost all winding and one-way, which means if you take the wrong bus it’s a bit of a nightmare to navigate back. In addition, though there are so many tourists, a surprising number of employees and taxi drivers can’t understand or read English. You will have to use Mandarin or use your phone show them where you want to go to get help. (As I speak Mandarin, I got around okay. I did find one taxi driver who didn’t seem to speak Mandarin, weirdly.)
You can expect to take hotel buses, though! Since all the hotel/casinos are classy, they have shuttles that can make up for a portion of the poor public transport. From the airport, you can find a multitude of free hotel shuttles. Even if you don’t need to go to a specific hotel, they will get you to the area! You will also see free shuttles from those hotels to the places that you will want to see.
Day 1: UNESCO Historic Center of Macau
I knew that there were historic areas in Macau that I should go see, but I didn’t know that the entirety of the area of UNESCO-designated. Had I known, I would have gotten a UNESCO map of the city center and focused on that for the day. I chose to go to Macau proper first because I knew there would be more to do, and I had scheduled a show and my hotel in Cotai for day 2.
From the airport, I took the Venetian Hotel/Casino’s shuttle to the Venetian itself. I picked up my tickets for the House of Dancing Water show for day 2, then took a bus from the City of Dreams mall to the city center. There are 30 separate landmarks and buildings that qualify for UNESCO protection in downtown Macau, including:
- A-Ma Temple
- Barra Square
- Moorish Barracks
- Mandarin’s House
- Lilau Square
- St. Lawrence’s Church
- St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church
- St. Augustine’s Square
- St. Augustine’s Church
- Dom Pedro V Theater
- Sir Robert Ho Tung Library
- “Leal Senado” Building
- Senado Square
- Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple (Kuan Tai Temple)
- Holy House of Mercy
- The Cathedral
- Lou Kau Mansion
- St. Dominic’s Square
- St. Dominic’s Church
- Ruins of St. Paul’s
- Company of Jesus Square
- Section of the Old City Walls
- Na Tcha Temple
- Mount Fortress
- Camões Square
- Casa Garden
- Protestant Cemetery
- St. Anthony’s Church
- Guia Fortress
With all of these and just 2 days, I had to be selective about where I went and actually looked around. The ones that I found online and you undoubtedly need to see are:
[Recommended Read: UNESCO Historic Center of Macau: Travel Guide]
As you walk towards Senado Square, you will see less Asian-influenced architecture and more Portuguese-style decoration, buildings, and overall feel. The Square is at the entrance of the historic center, and has a little fountain in the front. You should be able to walk around and shop a little! It has been around since the 16th century as the center of the city. The pattern on the floor was installed in 1993 to bring out the colors, and you will definitely notice it!
When you walk towards the St. Dominic’s Square and Church, you’ll see little signs that label all the UNESCO-designated attractions in the area. They are a bit confusing at first, but eventually you will come across little poles that have Chinese, Portuguese, and English! They explain the history and significance of each place you visit.
St. Dominic’s Church and St. Dominic’s Square
This is the main church in the city, and has stood since 1587. It was the first church built in China and has a small museum to the side! It’s open for touring, and you can buy a variety of souvenirs inside of it. I thought it was okay, but just a bit crowded. The facade was a bright mix of colors, though, and makes a great place for close up pictures.
Ruins of St. Paul’s
These ruins are an absolute must. If you don’t visit St. Paul’s, it’s like you haven’t visited Macau at all! The ruins are just a short walk from St. Dominic’s, and you definitely can’t get lost. Along the way you can see all types of street vendors, typically selling Macau snacks. Grab a Portuguese egg tart, which is extra creamy! You can also try the pork chop bun, little egg rolls, almond cookies, and sweet pork jerky. You should see plenty of people handing out samples of the egg rolls, cookies, and jerky!
The St. Paul’s ruins are honestly not that exciting. All that’s left of them is the unburnt front gate of the old church. The rest of the church burned down several times throughout history. You can now go in, and there is a little exhibition of religious artifacts in the back. It takes just about 10 minutes to see it all.
On the right of the Ruins of St. Paul’s is Mount Fortress (the signs may say something different). You can choose to take either the right or left path to it, but it’s a circle. The right path will take you first to the fortress garden and the roof, where you can see cannons on the side. You can get a great view of Macau from up top! The left goes through the building where the Macau Museum is housed. It’s a small fee but the floor plan looked to have pretty thorough coverage of modern Macanese history. I chose not to go through the museum because of time constraints.
Along the way between the Fortress and the A-Ma Temple, I walked through smaller streets. In these areas, it is amazing how close the locals live to their history and heritage. On one side of the street are apartment buildings, and if you climb to the balconies you can see into various UNESCO-protected structures! It’s kind of mind blowing how close they are.
The Moorish Barracks are along that road, and you could see people hanging their laundry literally across from the building. It was seriously reminiscent of Valparaíso, Chile with its UNESCO buildings peppering the city, and the locals figuring out how to live along with those areas.
A-Ma Temple and Barra Square
This temple was built in the 16th century and is the oldest building in Macau. It’s on a hilly little area, so you will have to climb up and down stairs, but it’s worth a little visit! The Maritime Museum is right across the Barra Square from it.
Even more than the Macau Tower, the Guia Fortress offers an amazing view of the city! The lighthouse/fortress part sits on a little hill, which is confusing to get up to. You can either walk up from the south or take the cable car from the northwest. I didn’t know about the cable car, so I walked! The paths are full of runners who use the hilly terrain to build stamina. You have to make sure you go on the path for the Guia Lighthouse to take you to the top!
Hotel: Hotel Royal Macau
I wanted to stay at the Venetian for night 2, so I didn’t want to spend too much for accommodation on night 1. Hotel Royal Macau was quite nice, with a comfortable indoor pool and free breakfast! It was also walking distance from the Guia Fortress. They even upgraded my room, and I stayed on the 16th floor with a great view of the city!
[Recommended Read: Hotel Royal Macau: A Review]
There really isn’t much to complain about. Macau was beautiful, and I got to have great views of the city both on the ground and from a hill! I only really started my day at around 1:30pm, after leaving the airport, getting my House of Dancing Water ticket, and arriving to Senado Square. I wish I had more time, but for what I had it wasn’t a bad day!
Overall, I wish I’d just managed my time better. You’ll see why when you see my day 2 itinerary! I just didn’t know that the entirety of Macau’s city center was worth seeing, so I would have hit up those places before continuing on. It would have freed me up to go to more places the next day. I also ended up walking a lot which usually isn’t a problem. This day, however, I hadn’t worn my most comfortable shoes and foot pain got to me a little. I wanted to check out the casino in my hotel as well, but it definitely wasn’t as lively as I’d hoped. The walk to the bigger casinos in Macau proper was only about 10 minutes (to MGM Grand, Hotel Lisboa, etc.), but walking alone after 10pm through small Macau streets just didn’t seem worth it.
Day 2: Macau Tower, Coloane, and Cotai
Day 2 started with a great breakfast! I typically don’t order breakfast at hotels, but this was included in the price and was really good. Then I started my day!
Lotus Square and Fisherman’s Wharf
The Lotus Square isn’t anything special, except for a large lotus in the middle. It was close to the Fisherman’s Wharf and there were hoards of tourists around.
The Wharf was mainly closed when I visited, but it did have a small model of the Colosseum! It was closed but you could see the seats like it was a stage, and I saw a couple taking what looked like wedding photos there. If shops were actually open, it looks like a rather fun place to stop by! The Sands Hotel is also in this area.
Lou Lim Ioc Garden
I wanted to hit up some of the parts of the UNESCO city center that I missed before going to Taipa, Cotai, and Coloane. This garden was relatively small, but looked like a great place to stop for a little breather! It reminds me of some of the gardens in Japan or elsewhere that are simply a place for peace.
Camões Square and Casa Garden
Here, there are several places to go. The Casa Garden was way larger than I thought it would be. I only had time to go to the very front, but it seemed to be almost like a baby Central Park with how big it was!
There is almost no transportation to the Macau Tower, even though there are several buses that purportedly go there. I’m sure they do, but you’re better off catching a taxi because of how confusing the buses are! I think I tried for probably an hour to wait for a bus, only to find out that it went the wrong way, then tried to walk a little to the bus stop again, only to find no buses. I gave up and took the taxi, which was fast and not expensive.
I didn’t want to just walk around the top of the tower, and considered bungee jumping! They have that as one of the active/sporty options at the Tower. However, it also costs almost $500 USD to do that, which honestly just didn’t make sense for my budget. I ended up doing the Skywalk, which was a walk around the top rung of the tower with just rope on my person. There weren’t any handrails! It cost $100 USD, which was pricey but still not terrible. It was great in the sense that I could see an amazing 360° view of Macau, but we kept stopping to take pictures of everyone which turned out to be less exciting than I expected.
[Recommended Read: AJ Hackett Macau Tower Skywalk: A Review]
Studio City Golden Reel
There was only one hotel shuttle to Cotai that I saw, and it ran every 30 minutes or so to Studio City. The House of Dancing Water ticket I picked up the day before allows you to ride the Golden Reel – the little ferris wheel – in the middle of the figure “8” in the building. The ride itself isn’t that special, but it does have some nice views! You can see the Studio City pools on one side of the little car, and they look absolutely amazing.
A-Ma Cultural Village
This cultural village is a bit out of the way. You can actually visit it along with the Giant Panda Pavilion, which is a small zoo. However, I didn’t have time to see the pandas and skipped it. You can take a taxi to the Pavilion entrance, though, and then visit it and walk over to the entrance of the hill to the cultural village. There is a bus that stops there that should take you from the bottom to the top where the village is. It runs every 30 minutes.
The village itself is pretty nice! It is one of the only places in Macau that looks like it has pure Chinese influence, as you can see with the buildings there. You can also walk up a tiny hill to see the large statue of A-Ma, who is a patroness who is said to protect the seas. I spent just about an hour here, and then took the shuttle bus to the bottom of the hill and transferred to regular public bus back to Cotai.
Window Shopping in Cotai
I hadn’t booked my hotel for the night yet, but I figured I should before it was too late. I walked around a bit, but I already knew I wanted to book the Venetian – it is beautiful and also one of the largest buildings in the world, and the largest casino. It’s also connected to (almost) all the other hotels and shopping areas in Cotai by bus or building, even though walking is not even that far.
I loved seeing the Venetian because it has unique architecture inside the building/mall! There are little rivers that you can ride gondolas on, where the gondoliers are dressed like actual Venetians. The ceiling is painted blue with beautiful clouds, so it feels like you are outdoors even though you’re not! Also, walking amongst fancy stores just makes me feel like I’m rich.
This was a show that I had read good things about, but my cousin hadn’t liked much when I asked him about it. It was also quite expensive, at 780 HKD for a B-level seat. I tried to book my ticket online, but it required a credit card that had Verified by Visa or Mastercard SecureCode, which is stupid because US banks don’t support that! UGH. I called one week ahead to get tickets reserved for me because I didn’t want to miss the show, but without paying for it you just never know. Luckily, there were no problems at all. In fact, I had a seat just to the left of center in the second row! For the B-level ticket, this was literally the best I could get.
The story itself was a beautiful love story, with amazing visuals! The combination of wet and dry-land dance was juxtaposed beautifully, and I definitely loved the story! The whole thing was told with movements and dance, with no speech except for the occasional “NOOOOOOOOO” or “YES!!” shouted by the dancer/actors. The only thing that was curious was that about 80% of the cast was white. Shouldn’t they have been Asian?
[Recommended Read: Macau House of Dancing Water: A Review]
Hotel: The Venetian Macau
I was unsure about staying at the Venetian because of the price point. It would cost over $200 USD/night, and I have never spent that much money on a hotel before. I don’t think I’ve spent that much money on anything before, considering that my monthly rent is just over double that. After hearing how beautiful the hotel is, though, I couldn’t resist. It turned out that booking online was cheaper than trying to get a reservation at the front desk, which was weird. I booked a king bed suite on Booking.com and paid with cash, which had no problems. They didn’t even ask me to pay a deposit. It was AMAZING.
I also made sure to check out the pool area, which was open to all guests until 7pm. It was a bit chilly outside, so I only went in the pools that were heated, but it was soooooo beautiful! I would have stayed forever if I hadn’t been rushing to eat dinner before getting to the House of Dancing Water. Checkout was seamless, only annoying that I had to wake up at 5am for my 7am flight, and the airport shuttle only starts service at 10am (so late!). On the ground floor, you also have to walk through the casino to get from the rooms to the taxi stand, main entrance, concierge, or check in counter. It wasn’t too much of a hassle, but of course I was carded every time because I look about 12.
[Recommended Read: Venetian Macao: A Review]
Even though I spent more time than necessary at the UNESCO city center, I think it was worth it. The gardens were quite nice! I only wish I had more time. I also 100% loved the House of Dancing Water show. It was certainly pricey, but I felt captured by the story, visuals, and dancing. I definitely recommend it.
Getting from place to place, especially to and from the Macau Tower, was a major letdown. I also missed out on visiting Taipa, including the Taipa houses/museum and the little street food street in the area. I wanted to check out the shopping center in the Galaxy hotel as well, but didn’t have enough time. The panda pavilion was also on my list, but I skipped it for time again. At least I knew that I will have plenty to do if I go back to Macau!
I was worried Macau would be only gambling and shopping, but I was definitely wrong. You can spend a ton of time in the historic center alone, and there are places you can see in other parts of the city as well. One great thing is that (just about) all the places you can see are free! If you discount the cost of staying in a hotel and/or gambling, Macau is surprisingly affordable.
The Wi-Fi there was AMAZING – as in, ubiquitous and very, very fast. It was such a welcome surprise to the extremely slow and censored internet access of China! I wasn’t sure how money would work, but it’s actually quite simple. Most places will take HKD or MOP, and change will be given in whatever currency you used. You can also use credit cards for bigger purchases, so there isn’t a huge need for cash.
The public transportation system is literally terrible and confusing, due to the fact that almost all streets are one way and stops are in traditional Chinese and Portuguese – not English. But, the city makes up for it with an elaborate system of hotel/casino buses that are free! You don’t even have to pay for the shuttles. If that doesn’t work for you, hail a taxi. There are plenty of them everywhere, and especially at the higher-end hotels and main attractions.
Macau is expensive to stay in. The cheapest places to stay are a bit sketchy, as there aren’t actual budget hotels. You need to plan for that! Cheapest rooms are probably 900-1000 HKD/MOP per night. Also, expect to drop 100 HKD/MOP on the things that aren’t free – like a ride on Studio City’s Golden Reel, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower at the Parisian, a SIM card for 3 days, entrance to the Macau Tower viewing platform, a meal, etc. For higher-value things, expect to spend about 700-800 HKD/MOP on them. These include the Skywalk at the Macau Tower, House of Dancing Water, etc.
Taxi drivers don’t really speak English, either. At different places, it’s hard to know if people will speak English, but they almost certainly speak Mandarin. You’ll have to practice your Mandarin skills, or use a translator.
For my itinerary, I wish I had known to go through the city center more carefully the first time. It would have been much better for my schedule had I gone through all the places to see when I visited the area on the first day, and then headed to the Macau Tower first thing in the morning when it opened. I would have been in Cotai by lunch time, and probably had time to check out Taipa and/or the Panda Pavilion when I visited the A-Ma temple. I would also have been able to window shop more of the malls! Oh well!
[Recommended Read: Day Trip to Macau]
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