The idea of saving money in the city that’s known as the ‘Monte Carlo of the Orient’ might seem strange, especially to those travelling (like me) on a backpacker’s budget. And while it’s true that Macau’s gambling revenues now exceed those of Las Vegas, a visit to the island doesn’t necessarily have to break your bank—you just need to know where to save and where to spend. Only an hour-long ferry ride from Hong Kong, Macau could make the perfect place to visit if you already happen to be stopping over somewhere close by in Asia. Squeezing a population of half a million into a mere seven square miles, there’s more than enough in this former Portuguese colony to keep you going all weekend.
1. Save: Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral
It’s hard to miss this architectural anachronism: an elegantly carved façade standing high above shop-lined alleys and red signs covered in Chinese characters. Although it was something I would more expect to find in Italy or Greece—not China—the ruins are all that’s left of what was at the time the Church of Mater Dei and St. Paul’s College, the first western-style university in the Far East. The wooden structure burned down three times—when fire struck for the last time in 1835, no one bothered rebuilding, leaving only the tan stone façade that is now a key icon of Macau.
2. Save: The Venetian Macau Casino
While my budget didn’t exactly allow for a big night in a casino, I was curious to see one for myself. Fortunately, there is a three-sided counter on the ground floor of the ferry terminal that houses representatives from the island’s many casinos, all offering hotel packages and—more importantly—free shuttle rides to and from the city center. I decided to explore The Venetian and, after a fifteen-minute ride, soon entered another world, getting lost in row after row of computer games—a total of 2,130 of these machines in the Venetian alone—and grabbing a bite to eat in the food court, with its ceiling painted like a bright blue sky and each food vendor housed in a different Italian villa. You may even feel tempted to take a gondola ride down the Grand Canal…when in Venice, right?
3. Save: Lou Lim Leoc Garden
There’s no end to the number of gardens there are to see on the island, but I chose the Lou Lim Leoc Garden, which is said to be the most Chinese of Macau’s gardens. I spent the better part of a morning on its twisting paths, winding through bamboo groves and climbing up dense groups of rocks shaped into stairs, caves, and dramatic overhangs. As I read in a brochure, the garden is designed to be a miniature landscape and the piles of rocks are actually molded concrete “mountains.” From the top of such a peak, you can take in the garden as a whole, from the classical pavilion overlooking the pond to the nine-turn bridges, built in a zigzag to deter straight-moving “evil spirits.”
4. Spend: Macau Highlights Tour
Cost: MOP 118 (about US$15)
As an independent-minded backpacker, I’m always somewhat hesitant before jumping on a tour bus, but the Macau Highlights Tour was definitely one I don’t regret. Faced with the difficulty of navigating around a city whose language I can’t read, as well as giving up precious hours on public buses, the cost of this tour was well worth being able to see so many sights in a single afternoon. From the top of the Macau Tower (where A.J. Hackett operates the world’s tallest commercial bungy jump of 233 meters) to the pastel colonial villas that line the Avenida de Praia, there isn’t much the tour leaves out. I especially enjoyed wandering through the many levels of the A-Ma Temple, the oldest of its kind in the city having been constructed in 1488. Pick-up for the tour itself is right at the Macau Ferry Terminal’s Barrier Gate, and just in case it isn’t running in English when you need it, don’t worry—I had no choice but to sign up for the Cantonese tour and still managed to enjoy it. It’s worth the easy transport alone!
5. Spend: Macau Museum
Cost: MOP 15 (about US$2 – or free on the 15th of every month)
Museums aren’t always my first stop in a city, but if you’re as curious as I was about Macau’s unique history, it’s worth an hour or two of your trip to visit. The Macau Museum begins with a long, narrow room, one side devoted to early Chinese history, the other to European, leading to the point of “convergence” when the Portuguese came to Macau in the 1550s. They governed until 1999, when the island followed a similar path as Hong Kong and became a part of China again. Perched on Mount Fortress overlooking the city’s skyline, the view alone is worth the trek up to the museum.
How to get there: With over a hundred sailings a day across the forty miles between Hong Kong and Macau, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a high-speed ferry to suit your needs. Alternatively, budget airlines like Air Asia also offer Macau as a destination from Thailand and Malaysia.
Getting around: The city itself is very walkable, but a taxi from the airport to the city center cost around MOP 80, or about US$10, while a single bus fare was MOP8, about US$1.
Where to stay: I had trouble finding a hostel through a standard booking site like Hostelworld.com, so I ended up at the SanVa Hospedaria Hotel on the Rua da Felicidade, where one double bed goes for MOP 100/night, or about US$13. Don’t expect any frills, though—no wi-fi, no breakfast, and certainly no air-conditioning!
This guest post was written by Candace Rose Rardon. She also writes on her personal blog Rare Travels.