Old Version
Outside In

Taking a Gamble

The enclave of Macao is known for its flashy casinos and its mix of Portuguese and Chinese culture. Will China’s new mega-bridge change the territory?

By NewsChina Updated Dec.1

The Grand Lisboa dominates old Macao. The ugliest building in the world? You decide

Practicalities Getting there: Macao has an international airport, and it can be reached by bus and ferry from Hong Kong and Zhuhai in the mainland. The ferry from Hong Kong takes one hour and departures are frequent from Kowloon and Central. Direct buses using the bridge are supposed to start in the next few months, although they will be run by casinos, so you will have to take public transport or a taxi to reach tourist sites. The ferry is always busy on the return journey, so make sure you have a confirmed departure time, or you will have to wait.Getting around: Public buses are plentiful and easy to use. A single trip costs six patacas, although drivers will accept the same amount in Hong Kong dollars. Just drop the money into the box near the driver. 

I do like a nice bridge, so when I realized I’d be visiting Hong Kong for the weekend just after the latest of China’s new mega infrastructure projects was slated to open, I decided the time was ripe to visit Macao, the former Portuguese colony that returned to the Chinese mainland in December 1999. Despite having visited Hong Kong dozens of times in the last two decades, I’d never managed to make the short one-hour ferry crossing to Macao, perhaps put off by the fact that all I knew was that it was a Mecca for gambling in the Far East. But now the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge (HKZM), officially opened to traffic by Chinese President Xi Jinping on October 23, was promising a crossing time of around half an hour for the 55-kilometer trip across three bridges, a tunnel and four artificial islands. It would be exciting, I thought. 

Arriving in Hong Kong, I asked in my hotel about how to make the crossing, and they laughed. Take the ferry, they said – the bridge takes three times as long. Other tour guide friends agreed. Get up early, one advised. Because direct bus services have yet to start from downtown Hong Kong, if you don’t have permission to drive your own vehicle, you have to travel by public transportation to the HKZM Passenger Clearance Building – at least an hour – then wait to clear customs. Such is the interest in the bridge, lines are so long to clear immigration and get on one of the shuttle buses, that it could take a couple of hours. The ease of walking 10 minutes to the ferry port got the better of me, and I set off on the trip to Macao, having taken only 15 minutes to buy a ticket, clear immigration and board the boat. 

You do get a nice view of the Macao end of the bridge as you arrive at the Outer Ferry Port (one of two ports in Macao). Once again clearing immigration, you are greeted by staff who hand out maps and information, including where to get the public bus to see the main sights. The currency is the pataca, which has almost, but not quite, 1:1 parity with the Hong Kong dollar, and is widely accepted. For just a day trip, it’s really not worth changing money.  

The Macao tourist authorities have developed a very useful smartphone app, more user-friendly than their website, which has a number of walking tours around the main historical sights. There are eight different routes on the main island of Macao and on the island of Taipa. They are also marked with shopping stops, restaurants, public facilities and bus stops – it could not be more convenient to navigate. 

I was not prepared for just how densely packed Macao is. It is the second-most densely inhabited place in the world (after Monaco), with an average of 21,150 people per square kilometer, and some 632,000 squeezed into its two islands. The new jostles against the old and it has to be said some of the most garish and ugly modern buildings I’ve ever seen – step up the Grand Lisboa casino – a quick search online shows it’s made it onto a number of the ugliest buildings lists in the world. Built in the shape of a lotus, and covered in yellow glass, at 261 meters tall it is Macao’s tallest building, dominating the skyline. On the plus side, should you get lost in the warren of small streets and alleys, you can always use it to find your way. 

But don’t let the sight of this building put you off. Although I followed some of the walking routes to hit the main sights, I found I was utterly charmed by the higgledy-piggledy nature of Macao’s lanes and streets – you never knew what you were going to find around a corner in this historic center which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

Starting at Senado Square, which has been the heart of the city for centuries, you’ll see it surrounded by pastel-colored Mediterranean-style buildings – many of which have been turned into chain stores and tourist shops. It is very attractive, but it’s possibly the busiest place on the island, so I hurried away from it up to one of the island’s natural high points – Mount Fortress, or Fortaleza do Monte. It was built with the help of Jesuits in the 1620s, and was once the territory’s main military defense structure – said to have contained enough supplies to withstand a two-year siege. It’s quite a steep walk up, and I almost regretted it after having stopped on the way for a Portuguese lunch of wet rice and monkfish, with a glass (or two) of sangria. Later, I discovered there was an escalator on the other side.  

At the top, you’ll find the modern Museum of Macau, and you can walk around the walls where there are cannons that pleasingly point in the direction of the Grand Lisboa. From there, you can look down on the ruins of what is probably Macao’s most famous site – the façade of the church of St. Paul. Already afflicted by several fires, the church was rebuilt in 1644, but then burned down again in 1835. The imposing five-story façade is all that remains, apart from the crypt, which contains a small religious museum.  

From there, I decided to just plunge into the maze of old Macao’s streets – apart from the useful app, there are street signs everywhere pointing to different sites, with often no indication what they may be. It could be a historic building, a neighborhood temple, a small square or a church. It really is best to just wander and see what you can see. The narrow Rua da Tercena is a big contrast to some of the main streets like the Avenida de Alemeida Ribeiro, lined with swanky jewelers and high end stores. Some of the small streets like this do have an air of neglect, but increasingly there are signs of development and more modern stores and facilities. It is much more pleasant walking along these older streets, however.  

There are hipster coffee roasteries sitting next to a traditional medicine seller, groups of retirees playing mah jong in small wooden rooms that double as little convenience stores, trendy cafes selling piri piri chicken next to dumpling shops selling pork buns. Then there are the ubiquitous bakeries selling what is perhaps Macao’s signature food – the egg custard tart. Although you can find them everywhere now, until you’ve tasted the real deal in Macao, you haven’t really had a proper egg tart.  

I didn’t stay on to visit one of the flashy casinos with their light shows and buffets, but many people certainly were. But I am looking forward to my next visit to Macao, and hopefully that time, I can take the bridge.