Most of you reading this have probably heard of Macau as it’s famous for a couple of reasons. First, it’s similar to Hong Kong in that it’s a former European colony (Portuguese) that was returned to China in the late ’90s and today functions as a special administrative region of China. Second, it’s known as the Las Vegas of Asia and gambling here is big business, and I mean BIG. For instance, the casinos in Macau brought in an estimated $28 billion (USD) in 2017, compared to the $11 billion by casinos in Las Vegas that same year. Third, and most relevant to this post is that the tiny territory of 33 square kilometers (12.7 sq miles) received an astounding 35.8 million visitors in 2018 placing it among the top destinations in the world. To put that number into perspective it’s just shy of what the United Kingdom (37.7 million) receives in a year and Macau is only projected to grow with 38 million visitors estimated for 2019, meaning it’s possible it can and most likely will overtake the UK in tourist numbers if not this year then maybe next year! This, of course, means the tiny territory is absolutely teeming with tourists, mainly from China, making it a good example of overtourism.
To put it simply, based on my experience, Macau is not worth the hype and not worth visiting. This might actually be our very first post where we advise people not to travel somewhere and I don’t do this lightly as I know how important tourism can be to the local economy. I do think it’s possible to go and have a decent time as I’ll explain later, but there are a few things you should be aware of beforehand.
Some of you might be on a mission to visit every country and independent territory in the world and this means at some point you’ll have to travel to Macau. This was part of the reason why we traveled there as Carrie had not yet visited and now that we’ve experienced it we’re free to never return. In my opinion, based on my experience save yourself precious time and money, and spend more time in Hong Kong. Here’s why you should reconsider your trip to Macau.
Macau is the poster child for overtourism in Asia. Our realization of the volume of visitors to Macau hit us as we boarded our ferry from Hong Kong, which depart every 15 minutes and all seemed to be full.. Mind you these are not small ferries either and can hold a couple of hundred people.
As we walked towards Senado Square, one of Macau’s most popular sites, the crowds on the streets began to intensify the closer we got to the square. When we finally reached the square it was totally unbearable as there were thousands of people all crammed into the square and the surrounding streets. I’ve been in lots of crowds in my life and this was up there with the worst. Upon realizing the extent to which the historic area of Macau was teeming with tourists sightseeing and shopping we decided to get ourselves out of there as quickly as possible. We maneuvered our way through the jam-packed square and crossed Avenue de Almeida Ribeiro where we had to literally push ourselves through a crowd, all the while getting pushed from behind ourselves. It was an awful experience and one we had to unfortunately repeat on our journey back to the ferry terminal as we were unable to catch a taxi. More on that later though. To escape the mayhem we ducked into the first side street we spotted and from there we planned our route to the restaurant we were trying to reach by taking only side streets. This part of Macau was a nightmare.
It’s important to note that our visit, unbeknownst to us coincided with a long weekend holiday in China which meant the place was more crowded than usual. With that said it was pretty unbearable and the territory should seriously consider some sort of system to regulate how many people enter Macau or at least the historic areas at a time, as based on our experience the historic part of the territory was maxed out.
Little to do in Macau
So what the hell is there to see and do here that draws in tens of millions a year? Sadly, for us, the most popular thing to do in Macau is to go to a casino and that’s not our scene so we opted for the historic and culinary scene. More on that below. If you are into casinos the biggest ones are The Venetian Macau, Sands Macau, and the MGM Grand Macau, which happen to be some of the largest in the world.
There are several historic sights spread throughout the territory, enough to fill up part of a day trip, but not beyond that, and as you just read from our experience they can be jam-packed with tourists even outside of holiday weekends. Most people travel here for the casinos and shopping so if that’s your scene then you’ve come to the right place!
It is hard to get around Macau
Maybe it’s because we had spent the past two weeks traveling around Taiwan and Hong Kong and were spoiled by high quality and efficient transportation but Macau’s didn’t measure up at all. The ferry terminal had buses going to all parts of the territory which was great, but unfortunately, it wasn’t clear that we needed a transit card (similar to the Octopus in Hong Kong) and if so where we had to buy it. When we happened upon a kiosk outside we attempted to buy a transit card, but we were told we had too large of a bill that was freshly dispensed from the ATM.
Another major issue was figuring out which bus to take. The bus route maps located at each bus stop were only in Chinese and Portuguese, which necessarily isn’t a deal breaker, except it was hard to discern the route the bus took, especially for someone who doesn’t know the layout of the area. It would have helped had the routes been overlaid on a map of Macau showing where exactly the bus went. That way we could make an informed decision about which bus to take and where to get off, but nope, a place that receives 30 million plus people a year hadn’t figured that out. Many casinos offer free buses to their casinos, but if you don’t want to go that direction they are of no use to you.
When we were ready to leave Macau and head back to glorious Hong Kong we decided the best option would be to take a taxi, especially since we had a handful of Macanese Pataca left. After several unsuccessful attempts to hail a taxi, we stumbled upon a line at a taxi stand that must have been well over 100 people long. Sorry, but I’m not going to wait for a taxi like I’m at the airport! Not sure if taxis weren’t picking people up off the street because of the holiday weekend or what, but this was a major problem on the day we visited. We ended up walking the whole time we were in Macau. We got great exercise for sure, but were exhausted and ready to get back to Hong Kong at the end of the day.
What to see and do in Macau
If you’re still determined to visit and see it for yourself, which I can understand specifically if you’re already in Hong Kong or southern China then it makes sense to take a day-trip. So if you’re going to go here’s what you need to know.
Ferry from Hong Kong to Macau
At the time of our day trip over to Macau we were staying on Hong Kong Island so we grabbed a noon-time ferry from the Sheung Wan Ferry Terminal to Macau (Outer Harbour). TurboJet Ferries run every 15 minutes between 7 am and midnight with 6 ferries between 12:30 am and 6 am making it very accessible day or night to travel between Hong Kong and Macau. A weekday ferry to Macau costs $171 HK Dollars one-way per person.
Guia Fortress Lighthouse
Since we weren’t interested in casinos we stuck to the historic sites of Macau, many of which the Portuguese built during their rule over the territory. Our first stop was the Guia Fortress Lighthouse. The 17th-century complex, built on the highest point provides sweeping views of the territory and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the oldest structures at the fort is the small chapel next to the lighthouse. The chapel was completed in 1638 and remains very much intact.
As you can see the views from the fort are well worth the trek. Other perks of the historic site are that it’s completely free to visit and that very few people go, at least during our visit.
There’s actually a couple of other notable things to see including Monte Fort, the ruins of St. Paul’s and A-Ma Temple. The ruins of St. Paul’s is probably the most iconic historic image of Macau, which we decided to skip when we saw how busy Senado Sqaure was, knowing full well the most popular site would be even more crowded. A-Ma Temple, built in 1488, is Macau’s oldest and of course draws large crowds as do most things here. If you want to see it I’ve read it’s best to see early in the morning.
Walk along Rue da Felicidade
A walk along quiet picturesque and appropriately named Rua da Felicidade is otherworldly compared to the cacophony that is nearby Senado Square. It’s here you’ll have a chance to enjoy some peace and see traditional Chinese architecture. There are also several shops selling jerky meat and egg tarts! Both famous foods of Macau. This area was formerly the heart of Macau’s red light district and much of the distinct style remains.
Eat at Cheong Kei
If you’re going to subject yourself to Macau you might as well eat really good food and the best place to do that is at Cheong Kei located conveniently on Rue da Felicidade. This Michelin rated Bib Gourmand restaurant is a must. The inexpensive (200 MOP or less), quick, casual, and cash only restaurant provided us not only with some much-needed respite from the craziness, but also delicious food! The restaurant is best known for its shrimp roe noodles.
A family business since the 1970s, this noodle shop according to Michelin sticks to its roots and its thin, fine noodles are pressed by bamboo shoots in its own little factory.
When in Macau one thing you have to eat is an egg tart. Portuguese influence can be found in some of the food and that includes egg tarts or pastel de nata. Lots of street side places sell the small delicious pastry.
As you can see there are some cultural and historic reasons to visit Macau. If you’re still determined to go my advice would be to visit during the week and check China’s holiday schedule and make sure your visit doesn’t coincide with a national holiday otherwise you’ll have a terrible time. Unless of course, overtourism is your kind of thing!
Have you been to Macau? What was your experience like? Do you recommend going to Macau to others? We’d love to hear other stories from others who have traveled to Macau.
Photography by Albert and Carrie Bond
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