There are two very distinct sides to the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Macau. On one side you have the hedonistic Vegas style casinos full of crazy Baccarat gambling and on the other the old Portuguese UNESCO centre with its charming old buildings and cobbled streets.
Due to its autonomous status from the mainland it is the only place where casinos are allowed in China, and if there’s one thing Chinese like to do its gamble. I first went there in 2012 for a 2 night stopover on the way to a longer trip in Vietnam. I flew Emirates into Hong Kong then caught the hydro-foil ferry directly from the airport for the 90 minute crossing to Macau. All the hotels / casinos have free shuttles from the ferry terminal to their hotel. You can use these even if you are not staying there so take advantage. The casinos fully expect you to lose your money to them anyway!
I was staying at the Lisboa, the sister hotel to the larger and more expensive Grand Lisboa next door. This is a good base whether you plan to gamble or explore the old town as it is located on the Macau Peninsula close to both. Besides the city itself, Macau includes the islands of Taipa and Coloane, which are connected to Macau by bridges and to each other by a causeway.
So what about the gambling. The casinos generate $33 billion a year , which scarily is 5 times bigger than Las Vegas. Baccarat (also known as Punto Banco) is the game of choice, their tables dominate the casino floors. I struggled initially to find the more western games of Blackjack and Roulette. They do exist but you have to hunt around for them. The stakes are relatively high, starting at the equivalent of around $25 per hand and going much much bigger. Texas Hold’Em poker tournaments and cash games also exist. I played some my self when I was there and found the standard very poor, I do believe in the 5 years since the Chinese have improved somewhat so the games aren’t as soft as they were. The Texas Hold’ Em poker games here also play seriously high, whilst there I witnessed a $300000 pot in the high stakes lounge! Unlike Las Vegas that has much more to offer other than gambling Macau has little in the way of shows and entertainment, there are some very good restaurants however.
So if you are degenerate gambler like myself you will maybe only visit the casinos themselves and not even bother with the other side of the island. I did regret this after leaving as there is much more to see and do there. Fortunately I got another chance when I visited again in 2015, this time as a day trip from Hong Kong. Catching the high speed ferry from Kowloon was easy as they run regularly enough you can do a long day trip there should you wish. The free shuttles from the ferry will drop you off at casinos and from here you can easily walk to the UNESCO Heritage centre. The main site to visit here is the Ruins of St Pauls, a 17th century church built by the Portuguese settlers. Cobbled streets selling local delicacies such as Pasteis de nata (Egg Tarts) and Pato de cabidela (Bloody Duck) showcase the fusion food that is so unique to Macau whilst touristy shops selling the usual tat also feature. I found an afternoon in the old town centre is sufficient, especially like Hong Kong the temperature can get quite stifling.
So whether you want to gamble it up with the locals or explore the world heritage centre, small but interesting Macau packs a multi-cultural sometimes dangerously expensive punch!
Top tips for visiting Macau:
- Get a ferry direct from the airport if you initially plan not to stay in Hong Kong.
- Use the free hotel shuttles from the ferry port on arrival in Macau.
- Combine with a stay in Hong Kong and get the ferry from Kowloon. Pre-book ferry tickets a couple of days before or online as they do get booked up for the more popular times.
- Take plenty of money if you plan to gamble and learn the rules of Baccarat, these tables dominate all the casino floors.
- Visit the larger casinos on the peninsula and on Taipa
- You will need to have shoulders covered and wear closed shoes in the casinos.
- Bring your passport for the ferries and to get into Macau
- Hong Kong Dollars (HKD) are widely accepted as well as the Macanese Pataca (MOP)