Macau – the Vegas of Asia (almost)

Macau is just as unique from Mainland China as it is from Hong Kong. Many of my students assume it would be just like HK since it was a colony of a European power; however, it is so different.

First, a little history, Macau was a Portuguese territory for a few hundred years, nearly twice as long as Hong Kong was British. Because of this history, there was a lot of Catholic influence with many of the first colonizers being monks and missionaries.

This history gives Macau its unique culture, from its architecture to the language; everything is a hybrid of Chinese and Portuguese influences. Macau was given back to China in 1999 under very similar conditions to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region.

Our trip to Macau was just a day long, and, unless you’re planning to do a bit of gambling, that was just enough time. We got to see and experience a lot of the history, see some casinos and not get tired with it, but got just enough to understand it and appreciate it.

The Main Attraction (for me anyway)

Macau’s main historical attraction is a huge UNESCO World Heritage area that includes a few old churches, residences and some very interesting history. The crown jewel is the façade of St. Paul’s cathedral at the top of a hill. The best way to reach this through Senado Square and the winding streets lined with old European architecture.

It is a beautiful place with a great mix of China and Europe. It shows how people with such diverse cultures and beliefs could live and work together with respect for each other. One great example of this is the small Chinese temple with incense burning right next to the ruins of the cathedral.

At the top of the hill next to the cathedral ruins is the old Monte Fort that now houses the Macau Museum. The museum is all about this merger and blending of two completely different cultures. It gave a great perspective on everything we were seeing.

The Island

Macau is made up of two areas, a peninsula and the island of Taipa, both pretty small and right across a small harbor to the mainland either connected directly or by bridge. The peninsula is the more developed part of the region with a lot of the history and original casinos. The island is where the airport is and the new development of mega-resort casinos. It is also home to some small fishing villages that seem untouched from the casino environment.

We took a bus to the far end of the island to the small village of Coloane. This small village showcases a similar mix of Chinese and Portuguese influences with both a small Catholic church and a Taoist temple. The architecture throughout the village also shows this with blends of Asian and European motifs, colors and elements.

On the top of the biggest hill of Taipa is a large and colorful temple dedicated to A-Ma, goddess of the sea. We went up on a free bus that takes you from a parking lot at the bottom of the hill, right next to the main road with public bus stops, up to the temple.

Also on the island are some other sights we didn’t get to see but if I went back I may, including the Macau Giant Panda Pavilion.


No trip to Macau is complete without at least going into a couple of casinos, just like Vegas. Now, some say that Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia, but I don’t think it is quite there yet. Right now it is Reno. However, in a year or two when many of the ginormous mega-resorts are completed on the island, it may be better than Vegas.

On the peninsula is where a lot of the older casinos and their new incarnations are. These mostly focus on gambling not the entire entertainment package, hence Reno and not Vegas. These casinos are mostly owned by one man who had a monopoly in the Macau market until a few years back. That’s when some of the big chains started moving in.

The old ones include the Lisboa and the Grand Lisboa, both icons for Macau casinos. Some of the newer ones include the Wynn and Sands. Out on Taipa is a new development where Vegas-style mega-resort casinos are popping up, the most recognizable and seemingly the favorite being The Venetian. This is the area that feels like a strip of sorts is growing with more consideration for shopping, eating, entertainment and gambling.

Before we headed back to the ferry terminal to catch a boat to Shenzhen, we wandered the Venetian and had dinner in the food court. It is beautiful inside with the full ceiling frescos and rich architectural elements and has the signature canal. Biggest difference was the Chinese girl gondoliers with Italian names.

If you ever make it to Macau, be sure to take advantage of the free things like free bag check at many casinos and free shuttle buses from many casinos to others and to the airport and ferry terminal. It is also easy to get to, both from the Mainland and Hong Kong.

I enjoyed the day in Macau and may find myself back in the future. However, it can never compare with Hong Kong.

71 responses to “Macau – the Vegas of Asia (almost)

  1. I should’ve visited Macau when I visited Hong Kong, but 4 days wasn’t enough to truly take in HK. Every corner has its own charm, and every street is teeming with culture. Macau and Hong Kong are very different, so indeed, they cannot be compared.

  2. Beautiful shots, and I love the mini history lesson…brilliant!

    And by the way, I just happen to live in Reno. We have a spectacular climate and the abundant fun gaming destinations, though that’s not the city’s focus…as you noted. So if Macau is more like Reno, then I say “Good for it!”


    • Mikalee, I spent a lot of time in Reno for work over the last few years, and was in Macau in November… I thought the casino area of Macau totally eclipsed Vegas, but the rest of it was more down to earth like Reno. It’s a great place to visit, but you definitely have to be prepared for it (and I missed the Grand Prix by one day 😦 )

      I agree, the shots are wonderful!

  3. We went to the casino in Macau and once we entered i had feeling everything stopped – we were the only females in the betting room…I am not sure if that is because the time of day ( night) – it was two in the morning or because women are not part of the gambling game…anyway we didn’t like it as it was too dark, full of man in leather jackets and full of cigarette fumes… we left without placing a bet…in las vegas i stayed all night betting without any discomfort…

  4. Nice photos. Like you, I prefer the historical and architectural elements of a destination. The China and Europe cultural mix is apparent in your snapshots. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy gambling and especially the fanfare that is Vegas, but a city like Macau seems to have more to offer. I’ll certainly put a pin on the travel map for the future. Thanks for sharing. Cheers.

  5. Macau is a nice place to visit when it’s a first time visiting Hong Kong. However, it is a big saddening to see the casinos bringing in tourists that do not pay much respect to the UNESCO heritage.

  6. Wow you’re talking me into going there! I’ve really wanted to visit Asia, but haven’t had a chance yet. I really like the way you laid out the areas history. I just researched MGM, which acquired one of those “ginormous” resorts and is constructing it.

  7. This is a great post! I went to Macau in 2004, and though I was old enough to remember it, I wish I would’ve appreciated it a bit more. Is Macau still “dirty” (as the Hong Kongers call it)?

  8. Lovely post! Personally I’ve always had a soft spot for Macau even though I have more ties with Hong Kong. For me, Macau seemed less polluted, more open and less congested with people, although the quantity of motorcycles could be really annoying. Haven’t been back to either cities in about 4 years, but you’ve got to take advantage of the food in Macau! I swear, I would go back there just for the food, it’s incredible.

  9. As a Macanese person, I am always grateful when someone separates Macau’s cultural identity from that of Hong Kong. I would just like to point out a small bit of misinformation here (pedantic, I know…)
    Macau actually consists of three parts: the Macau peninsula, Taipa island, and Coloane island. It is easy to mesh Taipa island and Coloane together because they are now joined by a giant strip of reclaimed land, where giant Casinos like the Venetian are. This strip has been oh-so-originally called Cotai. A-ma is actually on Coloane island. I don’t condemn you for getting things mixed up a bit, especially if you only had one day there.
    I’m guessing you didn’t get to see Taipa village. It’s at the south end of the island (near Cotai) and has a few independent shops, as well as a few tourist traps.
    If you ever curious about patuá (the old Macanese language, essentially a sino-portuguese creole barely spoke today) you can go to vimeo and search “patua macau”. This should give you two videos in patua with subtitles.

    • Thank you for the information. I do remember the new casino development area being called the Cotai Strip, but I didn’t know it was man-made land connecting two islands.

  10. What great photographs. I saw Anthony Bourdain’s show from Macau and he thinks the food is great, and that’s good enough for me. The downside of Bourdain’s show is that you don’t see some of the country’s beauty. You’ve made up for that. Nice post!

  11. Hey, thanks a bunch for posting! I love your writing style–concise and full of interesting tidbits.

    Macau brings back some memories, especially the cathedral and the casinos. Definitely a place rich with influences from a variety of cultures.

    Looking forward to going back one day. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Beautiful photos! Macau seems less vulgar than Las Vegas, which is a plus. Also, I think Kim Jong-il of N. Korea’s oldest son lived in Macau for a while in exile.

  13. Wow! I’m always kicking myself for not having visited Macau when we lived in Singapore. It seems like such a unique place.

  14. More like Reno??? Just FYI there is more money gambled away in Macau than in Las Vegas already.

  15. Amazing but also sad to see for an architect. I would rather see the effort and money go to build something relevant to the culture and environment of that region.

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