Macau is a mysterious melding of east and west, a fusion of ancient architecture and high-tech pizazz. It’s a city that has grown explosively into a futuristic entertainment centre while continuing to preserve rich Chinese and Portuguese culture and traditions in its beautiful temples, churches, museums and festivals. Here’s our bucket list of 20 places to visit in Macao.
In the 16th century, Portuguese traders came to Macau seeking the fabled land Marco Polo had called Cathay. They discovered Macau and the colony prospered. The Portuguese were followed by Jesuit missionaries who turned Macau into Asia’s religious hub.
Those golden years left Macau with a legacy of historic buildings, plazas and churches. Even the street names give away Macau’s heritage. Drive along the tree-lined Rua da Praia Grande or stroll down the broad Avenida Almeida Ribeiro and you’ll spot a blend of Chinese and Mediterranean architecture.
Places to visit in Macau on a day trip
1- Macau’s Ruins of St Paul
You’ve seen it in photos and brochures. Macau’s Ruins of St Paul’s is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is as famous as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or Sydney’s Opera House.
Constructed in 1602, the sculpted church facade is all that remains of the original Catholic church after a fire razed its wooden walls and interior in 1835.
Right next to the ornate facade is St. Paul’s College, which was the first western-style university in Asia. This was where missionaries studied the Chinese language before they were sent to serve in Beijing, at the Ming Emperor’s Court.
The Jesuits embedded themselves into China as advisers, astronomers and mathematicians. Unfortunately, the college was also burnt to the ground.
2- Senado Square
More than a dash of European flair fills the streets of Macau. Macau is a fascinating destination where east meets west. Stand in Senado Square with your eyes shut and listen to the symphony of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
The compact region is rich in European architecture and Macau’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage gem with a distinctive Portuguese flavour. Think cobblestone streets with pastel European-style pastel-hued neo-classical buildings.
Senado Square is a vibrant piazza where you will find a roll-call of festivals, celebrations and spontaneous street-theatre.
Classically paved Portuguese-style tiles seem like they have been teleported from the streets of Lisbon.
Senado Square is packed with souvenir shops, local food stores and boutiques. Grab an ice cream and sit and watch the crowd go by.
3- A-Ma Temple
Most people who visit Macau have A-Ma Temple at the top of the list. Built by fishermen in the 16th century in honour of the sea goddess, the temple is an impressive labyrinth of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards linked by winding stone paths and moon-shaped gates.
Macau’s oldest temple was built in 1488 before the city was formed. A-Ma Temple sits on a rocky hill. Along the rock cliff behind the temple is a series of ancient inscriptions of classical Chinese poetry.
The 15th-century temple is a working temple and lots of people come here to pray. Spend a couple of hours taking a leisurely walk to the top of the hill as the view is stunning.
4- Museu de Macau
If you’re interested in history and culture, put aside at least a day to explore the Museu de Macau.
Mount Fortress, the city’s main military defense fort for three hundred years, now houses this impressive museum. The displays and exhibits offer deep insights and interesting stories about Macau’s history.
Three levels of galleries are packed with information. You’ll find out everything you need to know about Macau including Macau’s history, commerce and culture.
There’s an entire floor dedicated to traditions, pop art and festivals. And another floor with displays focused on city life.
More historic places to visit in Macau
5- St Lawrence Parish
While Macau now generates a massive amount of revenue for China, it once was a modest fishing and port town known as Ou Mun which translates as “Trading Gate”.
Its strategic location at the mouth of the Pearl River, which leads inland to the thriving metropolis of Canton (now known as Guangzhou), meant it was visited by trading boats from all over the world.
The Portuguese made it one of their key Asian ports in the 1550s and conducted a huge amount of trade through Macau. They had administrative control over the area from the mid-16th century until 1999, when it was handed back to China, and left behind beautiful buildings like the 16th-century Baroque church, St Dominic’s.
Impressive colonial-style administrative offices are strewn throughout the historic part of Macau, reflective of the era during which the Portuguese had control over the region.
The Macau Government Headquarters, pictured here, is the office of Macau’s Chief Executive. Constructed in 1849, the elegant pink-and-white building was designed using the famous Pombaline style of Portuguese architecture commonly seen in the oldest parts of Lisbon and Porto. It has been well preserved, as have many of the most significant Portuguese structures in Macau.
The architect responsible for the Macau Government Headquarters building, Tomas de Aquino, also designed the neo-classical St Lawrence’s. It is one of the three oldest churches in Macau.
Before Macau’s skyline started to grow, this church had a clear view of the harbour and Portuguese families would gather there to wait for sailors to return from the sea.
This church is one of more than 20 timeworn monuments which comprise the UNESCO listed area including squares, temples, residences, fortresses and theatres.
6- Kuan Tai Temple
Kuan Tai is located in a small backstreet right near Senado Square and its traditional Chinese architecture contrasts with the Western buildings in this area, symbolising the way in which varied cultures existed peacefully in Macau for centuries.
Macau’s Chinese temples are open to the public, who are free to wander the grounds and admire their faded grandeur. Incense smoke drifts through these religious structures as locals kneel in silent prayer and leave offerings to the Gods.
The interiors of Macau’s temples are particularly interesting, with intricately-carved woodwork, impressive statues and bright colours throughout.
The peace they offer can be a reprieve from the noise and crowds of the streets of Macau, which is one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas.
7- Mandarin’s House
Just north of A-Ma temple is another of Macau’s key tourist attractions, Mandarin’s House. Built about 150 years ago, the huge residential complex was the home of a revered Chinese writer, Zheng Guanying.
Tourists can inspect most of the 4000sqm building, which is predominantly Chinese in style but which incorporates some elements of Western architecture, such as its decorative motifs. Its courtyards, overlooked by large windows, are especially attractive and a nice place to take a rest.
8- Rua de Felicidade
North beyond Senado Square, the former Red Light district of Rua de Felicidade is one of the liveliest areas of the historical precinct. With its weathered Chinese shophouses, their doors and windows painted bright red, this area has a unique appearance.
Having long shed off its seedy past, Rua de Felicidade now is punctuated by small Chinese restaurants, several of which specialise in seafood, including the infamous delicacy Shark Fin Soup. The Roasted Duck in this neighbourhood is spectacular, making it a perfect spot to have dinner and end your day exploring the Historic Centre of Macau.
9- Guia Lighthouse
Macau attained UNESCO status because it was (and still is) a strategic maritime port. It was in Portuguese hands from 1513 until it was officially returned to China in 1999.
Like most ports, Macau has a fort and lighthouse (situated on Guia Hill). Guia Lighthouse is a historic star that has been featured on a set of stamps by Macao Post today (8 July 2015).
In recognition of the lighthouse’s 150th anniversary, Macao Post has released a special souvenir set of two stamps and a souvenir sheet with images of the lighthouse and view of Macau peninsula from the old Guia fortress.
The lighthouse is accessible by walking up a gentle rise on a landscaped hillside but there’s also a cable car to the summit. It’s worth the effort as there are good views of Zhuhai in China and across the South China Sea to Hong Kong.
The fortress on Guia Hill (open from 8am to 6pm) was built between 1622 and 1638, after an unsuccessful attempt by the Dutch to take control of the small but strategic territory.
One of the buildings is a small chapel originally established by Clarist nuns who lived here before establishing the Convent of St. Clare.
Nearby, the lighthouse, built in 1864 was the first modern lighthouse to be constructed along the Chinese coastline. It stands 91m high and the beam can be seen for 20 nautical miles on a clear evening.
Parts of Macau’s heritage heartland of narrow cobble-stoned streets resemble those back in Portugal.
Macau rose to fame as trading port to export Asian goods to Europe. Its architecture is an attractive mosaic of Moorish buildings, Chinese temples and European churches dating back to the 16th century.
10- Macau’s Inner Harbour
Travessa do Mastro and Rua da Felicidade are two streets along the A Tour of Historical Trails walk. It receives a lot of attention as it is lined with Chinese restaurants and is the ideal place to take a break from the rigors of sightseeing.
The trail winds its way to Rua do Almirante Sérgio. Pier 16 is a good place to view the protected Inner Harbour and the fishing boats that moor here in the waterway separating Macau to mainland China.
Kun Iam Temple is a complex of 15th-century prayer halls and funeral parlours and an impressive 20m tall gilded bronze statue that stands at the edge of the harbour.
11- Opium House
Just off the main waterfront road is Opium House at 16 Praça de Ponte e Horta. This warehouse was built in 1880 in an architectural style typical of the era.
Opium was only banned in 1946 and in 1996 the building was meticulously banned. Close by is Praça de Ponte e Horta which is an open square along the Inner Harbour.
12- Macau’s Handover Gifts Museum
The Handover Gifts Museum of Macau commemorates the handover ceremony on 20th December, 1999 when Macao was returned to China.
When Portugal formally conceded control of Macau to China, Macau’s residents were offered the opportunity to apply for Portuguese citizenship and move to Portugal.
Many stayed in Macau and the city has continued to prosper.
The three-storey museum’s exhibition gallery has floor-to-ceiling cabinets filled with impressive gift from various Chinese regions, including gold horses, giant paintings and other works of art.
Some of these works are so grand they would have taken teams of artists months to complete.
Exciting places to visit in Macau
13- The Cotai Strip
Asia’s version of Las Vegas has its own Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge.
The strip of land joining Cotai Island and Taipa Island is the spot for high rollers. But even if you aren’t interested in gaming tables, the bright lights and spectacular shows in Macau’s casinos are amazing to see.
You could spend weeks exploring Macao’s hotels, resorts and entertainment precincts of The Cotai Strip. Many of the attractions are truly spectacular and new resorts are popping up each year.
There’s Wynn Macau, Venetian Macao, City of Dreams and Sands Cotai Central, which has several hotels and City of Dreams.
The entertainment precincts are exciting hubs with luxury hotels, sleek bars, fine-dining restaurants and high-end shops.
There are impressive floor shows (don’t miss The House of Dancing Water for spectacular special effects and acrobatic feats) and audio-visual entertainment.
Wynn Macau has a nightly water show with 300 jets of water synchronised to music. The Dragon of Fortune in the Rotunda atrium is also worth seeing. It’s a display of lighting and audio effects as a giant Dragon emerges from a mist.
One of the newest resorts, The Parisian, is a fabulous chic version of Paris and comes complete with its own mini Eiffel Tower!
At night, Macau’s nightlife has plenty to keep you busy, with vibrant bars and shows.
14- Macau Tower
Best place for a bird’s-eye view? Macau Tower’s Outdoor Observation Deck on Level 61 offers a fabulous view with a dash of adrenalin thrown in.
Adventure seekers will love climbing the mast, bungy jumping or walking around the outer perimeter of the tower (on a walkway 1.8m wide) and base jumping (leaping off the tower like a stuntman while attached to a wire cable).
Is anyone up for the thrill of bungy jumping in Macau?
Green places to visit in Macau
15- Lou Lim Leoc garden
In a compact city like Macau, there’s nothing more precious than a Chinese garden.
The Lou Lim Leoc Garden is a beautiful spot to escape from the bright lights and the crowds. It’s a historic garden with ponds and pagodas.
Macau also has other lovely gardens where you can get away for some peace and tranquility.
Macau also has many luxurious resort spas that offer a slew of amazing spa treatments.
16- Cameos Garden
Totter up to Camoes Garden, one of Macau’s venerable parks, and arguably the lungs of the city. In the 18th century, this wooded refuge backed onto the residence of the British East India Company’s boss.
Later purchased by a Portuguese merchant, an enticing grotto was developed, crowned by a bust of his country’s most famous poet, Luis de Camoes.
From the grotto, pathways entice you through spacious gardens, artfully outfitted in stone courtyards, tropical finery and towering Banyan trees.
For well over a century, Cameos Garden has been the go-to locale for residents to play checkers, take their caged birds for a walk, catch up with friends, and most importantly, to undertake their morning exercises.
An unmissable highlight is the mass assembly of tai chi groups, a pageant of poise, colour and grace. And the affectionate tai chi ladies will happily welcome to join in!
I dutifully did – and managed to disgrace myself in the process – by exposing my appalling lack of coordination.
I also chanced upon spirited old men, giving their feet a vigorous reflexology work-out on the purpose-built pathways of foot massage pebbles. One chirpy chap vigorously exercising looked all of 70 but turned out to be 88!
The verdant gardens border another enriching historic find, the Old Protestant Cemetery, thronging with fragrant trees, gnarly old headstones and heartfelt inscriptions marking the graves of merchants, missionaries and fortune-seekers – many who died at shockingly youthful ages.
Some of the epitaphs bring to light the swash-buckling lawlessness of the fledgling trading post, with many of the buried, slain by pirates.
A notable grave is that of Lord Henry John Spencer Churchill, a Royal Navy Captain, who as you might have guessed, was a blood relative of Winston and Diana.
17- St Francisco Garden
The European influence on Macau’s peninsula is evident in the beautiful St Francisco Garden. This intimate green space unfurls down a hill a few hundred metres behind the Wynn Macau Casino.
Shaded beneath a dense tree canopy, the park’s ornate fences and grand fountain evoke the bold designs of many public spaces in Portugal.
It is particularly interesting in the early morning and in the evening when locals gather to exercise, sing, dance in groups, or practice water calligraphy on its pavement.
18- Taipa Village
An escape from the glamorous side of Macau into the past, Taipa Village is a traditional village that has recently undergone a renaissance.
The main attraction is the Taipa Houses Museum, restored colonial homes that where you will get a real feel for how Portuguese families lived in the early 1900s.
This serene side of Macau is a step back into history and one of the best places to visit in Macau if you want to escape to the past. Here are more reasons to visit Taipa.
Even though Macao is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia, there are still pockets of places to escape from the urban spread. Coloane is one such hideaway that remains unchanged by the passage of time.
About 100 years ago, Coloane was a den for pirates to hang out. Then in 1910, the Portuguese drove the pirates out of the area and built the village square. The centrepiece of Coloane Village is its baroque St. Francis Chapel, which is a charming reminder of the Portuguese era.
Where is Macau?
Macau is on the western banks of the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province, 60km south west of Hong Kong. Macau is less than an hour away by fast ferry from Hong Kong Airport, yet it is a contrast in scenery and sightseeing.
Macau or Macao?
The original Portuguese spelling was “Macao” but during the 20th century, “Macau” became more commonly used by both in English and Portuguese. After the official handover in 1999, the Macau government considered both “Macao” and “Macau” to be acceptable spellings of the name, however, “Macau” was the official spelling in Portuguese. That changed recently and the government of Macao, including the Macao Government Tourist Office uses the “Macao” spelling.
Is Macao a country?
While the Portuguese played a major role in shaping Macau’s heritage, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Macau has its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy and immigration policy.
What else to do in Macao
For more ideas and information on Macau see this Macao post.
Travelling with kids? Here are some other ideas you might like also.
On a budget? Here are 10 ways to explore Macau on a budget
Looking for somewhere luxurious to stay? Try these Macao hotels.