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Often ignored in favor of Tokyo or Hong Kong, Macau sees many tourists from other parts of Asia but not nearly as many from the US. Many American travelers discount this autonomous territory on the edge of mainland China as simply a mini Las Vegas, only meant for those favoring massive hotels and late nights spent gambling. But Macau has a rich culture and history, tracing its modern-day roots to the mid-16th century when Portuguese traders first settled here permanently, creating what would be part of the last remaining European colony in Asia — Macau will be autonomous until 2049 as part of a 50-year agreement made when it became a territory of China in 1999. So whether you’re into gambling, family fun or European and Asian history, it has something for everyone. Here’s why you should plan a visit.
1. It’s an Easy Trip From Major Asian Hubs
We’re constantly seeing cheap flight deals from the US to Asia so you can easily combine your Macau trip with a visit to another popular Asian city like Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul or Taipei. Although you can’t fly nonstop from the US to Macau, you can take the ferry (less than an hour) from the nearby island of Hong Kong. I’d recommend going with TurboJET, which offers discounts and offers via its app. Prices can run as low as $16 each way, and going through customs is a breeze because US citizens don’t need a visa for visits under 30 days.
2. There are Plenty of Points-Hotels
Starwood’s presence includes the Sheraton Grand Macao Hotel, Cotai Central (from 10,000 Starpoints per night) and the luxurious St. Regis Macao (from 25,000 Starpoints per night). The JW Marriott Hotel Macau, which has more than 1,000 rooms, has award nights from 40,000 Marriott Rewards points, while the Conrad Macau, which has four outdoor swimming pools, has award nights from 40,000 Hilton Honors points. At the aquatic-themed Grand Hyatt Macau, 20,000 World of Hyatt points will get you a grand deluxe fountain-view room for the night.
3. Las Vegas Glitz, Without the Smoke
With hotels like The Parisian, the Wynn Macau, The Venetian Macao and the MGM Macau mimicking the Vegas scene, Macau is Asia’s version of Las Vegas. Even if you aren’t into gambling, there are plenty of shows, events and activities these hotels put on for adults as well as families. Spend time at Fisherman’s Wharf, which has replicas of famous monuments and natural wonders, including the Forbidden City, the Roman Colosseum and a giant volcano that erupts nightly to the delight of young children. Avid gamblers who don’t smoke will prefer Macau over Vegas, as smoking is banned in all casinos. Although alcohol is served, many visitors are serious card players who don’t partake while gaming, so the scene may seem slightly calmer than in Vegas, where visitors value the party scene as much as the card tables. If you really want to experience the Macau gambling scene, order tea instead of cocktails at the gaming tables, like many of the locals do.
If you’d prefer to save your points or don’t have any, you can shell out for what may be Macau’s most famous and luxurious casino and hotel, the Grand Lisboa (from $150 per night). For starters, the impressive hotel’s flower-like exterior looks like pure gold. It also houses some of the fanciest restaurants in Macau, like the three Michelin-star Robuchon au Dôme on the 43rd floor, which has some of the best views of the city. In fact, the Grand Lisboa is the only hotel in the world to house four Michelin-starred restaurants under one roof.
4. The Historic Centre of Macau
Now that we’ve gotten the gambling out of the way, Macau has so much more to offer than casinos, like the Historic Centre of Macau, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Portuguese occupied Macau for more than 400 years, and parts of Macau, such as Senado Square, make you feel as if you were in Portugal. A short walk around Fortaleza do Monte offers incredible views of the city and some of its most famous hotels, like the golden Grand Lisboa. Walk over to St. Dominic’s Church and admire the colorful colonial architecture. Another example of bold yellow buildings is the neoclassical Moorish Barracks, a mix of both the Mughal and neoclassical styles. Built in 1874, the structure was created to house soldiers coming from Goa, India, and since 1905, it’s been used as the headquarters for the Macau Port Authority. When exploring the ruins of St. Paul’s Church and the famous gate, you’ll feel as if you’re in Europe, not Asia.
Besides enjoying the sights, you can also indulge in Portuguese wine and food, which is served at many of the local restaurants. Most shops sell Macau’s famous Portuguese egg tarts, which you can take away and enjoy as you stroll the city center.
5. Asian Treasures on Every Corner
The fusion of the Portuguese and Chinese cultures is something that differentiates Macau from other Asian cities. Although the historical Portuguese city center is charming as can be, there are also many temples and Asian-inspired green spaces that demonstrate Macau’s mix of cultures. An especially peaceful escape from the city noise and traffic is Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, located next to the Macau Tea Culture House. Discover the lotus flowers, ponds and bamboo trees of this Suzhou-style park, which features a zig-zag bridge to ward off evil spirits (Chinese legends say evil spirits only move in straight lines).
The Ming-era A-Ma Temple is another spot not to be missed and is one of Macau’s oldest temples, dating back to 1488. Dedicated to the goddess of the sea, it may actually be responsible for the name of the city: When Portuguese settlers landed, they asked the locals what the place was called. Thinking the Portuguese wanted the name of the temple, the Chinese replied “Ma Go.” The Portuguese heard “Macau,” and the city has been called that ever since.
Have you ever been to Macau? Did you find the mix of Chinese and Portuguese cultures intriguing, or did you prefer the casino scene? Let us know in the comments, below.
Featured image of the A-Ma Temple courtesy of Stefan Irvine/Getty. All other images by the author except where otherwise indicated.
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