A few weekends ago we had to take a day trip to Macau. I say “had to” because it was for visa purposes, not because going to Macau was a big hardship. Jonathan’s two-year work visa came in, and in order to activate it he had to leave the country and re-enter on the new visa. The cheapest and easiest way for us to do that was by taking the ferry over to Macau. I’ll include specific details about how to do that at the end of the post.
The ferry ride took about an hour and was a surprisingly rocky ride. Be warned…if you struggle with seasickness, this ferry would likely make you sick. This is not the kind of ferry you take from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld. The seating is assigned and is much like an airplane with seatbelts and tray tables. You aren’t able (or allowed) to get up and walk around during the trip.
We did have to go through passport control on the way out of Hong Kong and when we entered Macau, though the lines moved very quickly on both ends, and with US passports, we were barely given a second glance.
Because this was a last-minute trip, we hadn’t had much time to research things to do or places to go. We left the outer ferry terminal in Macau and simply started to wander. For the first few hours, we walked around an area called the Fisherman’s Wharf, which is full of buildings made to look like they are from different parts of the world. There were a few restaurants and shops, but a lot of the buildings seemed empty or were under construction. There also weren’t very many people around, and the people who we did see seemed to have one purpose: Instagramming. It was honestly a little bit creepy, like being on an abandoned movie set.
In the little research that we did, we’d learned that one of the most popular tourist sites in Macau is the ruins of St. Paul’s, a historic Catholic church which had burned down leaving only the facade standing. As we started heading towards the church, we stumbled into the busier and more exciting parts of Macau.
We spotted one of Macau’s iconic buildings, the Grand Lisboa Casino and Hotel, in the distance and headed towards it. We walked through the lobby and even went up to one of the floors of the giant casino. We couldn’t take photos on the casino floor, but all around us were tables of baccarat and blackjack with rows of slot machines towards the back. Where casinos in Vegas seem to be loud and bright, this one was quiet and subdued. There was a light hum from people talking and placing bets, but overall players and dealers alike seemed to be taking things extremely seriously. It might have been fun to hang out and watch a bit, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were breaking some rule just by walking through.
It was a very surreal experience. I’m not a gambler, and I’ve never particularly dreamed of going to a casino in Macau, but it just felt so much like a scene from a spy movie that I had one of those moments where you stand there and think, “Never in my life did I imagine I would be here.” I admit, I kept my eyes peeled for men in black suits or a ridiculously attractive woman with a dress slit all the way up her thigh, but no dice. (See what I did there?)
From the casino area we continued on a few blocks and finally came to an extremely crowded pedestrian area leading to St. Paul’s. This area was full of street food stalls and souvenir shops and was a great place to appreciate the interesting architecture of Macau, which is a fascinating combination of standard East Asian city buildings and European (particularly Portuguese) style.
Macau has a sort of parallel history to Hong Kong in some ways. In the same way that Hong Kong was a British colony until 1999 and continues to function very independently even though it is technically under Chinese control, Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999 and is now under Chinese control. (You can read more about how Hong Kong is and is not a part of China in this post). What this means in Macau is that there is a lot of European, specifically Portuguese influence in the architecture, the food, and the culture (for example, all of the Catholic churches). Signs are written in Portuguese and Cantonese and they have their own currency, the pataca.
The food is also a hybrid of Portuguese and Cantonese and some things all its own. Some of the most popular Macanese street foods are pork chop buns (like a hamburger, except it is a thin-sliced marinated pork chop on the bun), Portuguese egg tarts (to die for), almond cookies (like shortbread cookies, would recommend), Durian ice cream, and dozens of different kids of jerky.
After walking through this area (and, ok, stopping for an egg tart and a bubble waffle) we walked up to the church facade of St. Paul’s. The original church was built between 1602 and 1640. It burned three separate times over the course of its history (which seems excessive, but I guess that’s the danger of using so many candles in those services). But the last time it caught fire (in 1835 because of a typhoon of all things), all that was salvageable was the front wall, which is the bit you can see today. (I only know this because I looked it up on the internet just now. When we were visiting, I read all of the informational signs, then walked away and immediately forgot all relevant information. Jonathan and I had an argument about whether the church was built in 1640 or 1680. He said 1680. I will leave you to decide who the winner of that argument is).
Adjacent to St. Paul’s is Mt. Fortress which is… you guessed it!…a fortress on top of a mountain. This was built between 1617 and 1626 to protect the city from invasion. In fact, it successfully protected the city from a Dutch invasion in 1622. Who knew the Dutch tried to get all up in Macau? The view from the top was gorgeous, especially since the sun was just starting to set and the lights of the casinos were starting to turn on. Being able to see the ruins of St. Paul’s and the lights of the Grand Lisboa at the same time was fascinating.
After enjoying the view, we wandered back down to the casino area to see the lights in all their glory now that it was fully dark. I did some more excellent posing.
Then we started our long walk back to the ferry terminal where we rode back to Hong Kong, went back through immigration, and successfully activated Jonathan’s new visa. Mission accomplished!
I really enjoyed the chance to explore a new place so close to home. It was incredibly convenient to take the ferry over and back all in the same day. Macau was interesting and certainly worth the wander around, but after spending time in Hong Kong, it honestly felt a bit small. Of course, we by no means saw everything there is to see in Macau, but that was just my first impression.
If you are interested in gambling, I’m sure going to the casinos could be a fun experience. Even without spending much time in the casinos, I had a positive experience, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to go. But at the end of the day, I prefer Hong Kong, especially as a place to live.
How To Take the Ferry from Hong Kong to Macau
There are two primary companies that offer ferries from Hong Kong to Macau (TurboJET and Cotai Water Jet). We took the TurboJET ferry because we had read that TurboJET runs more service to downtown Macau, where we wanted to go, while Cotai Water Jet has more service to Taipa Island. The terminal was very convenient to access from the MTR, though there are also ferries that leave from the Kowloon side and from the airport, if either is more convenient for you.
If you leave from Sheung Wan, simply take the MTR to the Sheung Wan stop on the (blue) Island Line. Then take exit D and follow the signs upstairs to the ferry terminal.
The tickets for us cost $386 HKD per person round trip, though there’s some small variance depending on when you go (night/day, weekday/weekend). Or, if you really want to be fancy (and spend a lot more money, something like $3000 HKD each way) you can actually take a helicopter over to Macau from the same terminal.
We reserved our tickets online ahead of time (https://www.turbojet.com.hk/en/) because we absolutely had to go on the date that we did to avoid visa issues, and we didn’t want to take any chances since it was a holiday weekend. It is also possible to buy them when you arrive at the terminal as long as you area bit more flexible about your schedule.
We purchased tickets for a 12:00 PM ferry, but we arrived a few minutes early and they let us get on the 11:45 AM instead, so that is worth noting. The same thing happened on our way home when we arrived at the terminal before our ticketed time and were pretty easily able to get onto an earlier ferry from the standby line, though it was definitely more crowded on the evening ferry back than the morning ferry to Macau.