48 Hours In: Macau

The former Portuguese colony is the Las Vegas of the East – but you can bet that's not all the territory offers. By James Palmer

Click here for 48 Hours in Macau map

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The devil on your shoulder is telling you to spend the next 48 hours in a casino; the angel on the other suggests a stroll around a Portuguese church. It's Macau or bust, baby. Saints and sinners have been drawn to the 17th-century chapels and dens of iniquity of this former Portuguese colony ever since gambling was first permitted here in 1847. Today, Macau is the only legal place to gamble in China, and rakes in more gaming revenue than Las Vegas. A rash of giant casino resort building in recent years means plenty of spare room – but that won't last forever, so bag a bargain while you can.

Touch down

Fly from Heathrow to Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport (1) for around £540 return with Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 20 92 770; virginatlatic.com) or British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com).

Catamarans (00 85 2 2859 3333; turbojet.com. hk) depart the airport's SkyPier every hour and cross the South China Sea to Macau's ferry port (2) in 50 minutes for HK$215 (£18) one way.

Major hotels provide free minibus transfers from the ferry port. For a high-flying alternative, arrive by helicopter from Hong Kong with Sky Shuttle (00 85 2 2108 9898; skyshuttlehk.com; HK$2,900/£240 one way).

Get your bearings

You're on a peninsula in the Pearl River delta. Macau's historic centre, a Unesco world heritage site, lies to the south-west, presided over by the 261m-high golden lotus of the Grand Lisboa Hotel (3) (00 853 2828 3838; grandlisboahotel.com) – a useful, if garish, navigational aid, courtesy of the Hong Kong casino mogul Stanley Ho. The peninsula is connected to the southern islands of Taipa and Coloane by three bridges. The two islands are welded together by a wedge of reclaimed land called Cotai. Here the Las Vegas Strip is being cloned in earnest – it even has a Venetian (4) (00 853 2882 8888; venetianmacao.com) complete with indoor canals, gondolas and Chinese sailing junks.

Check in

The cheapest deals come via the casinos themselves: the Venetian (4) offers a "discover Macao" package from HK$1,698 (£140) for one night in a suite including breakfast, airport ferry tickets and a half-day tour of Macau.

The five-star Grand Hyatt in the City of Dreams complex across the Cotai strip (5)(00 85 3 8868 1234; macau.grand.hyatt.com) has deluxe doubles from around HK$2,000 (£166), including breakfast.

To escape casino central, plump for the charming Pousada de São Tiago (6) (Avenida da República;00 853 2837 8111; saotiago.com.mo), a 17th-century fortress on the south-western tip of the peninsula, which has 12 suites from HK$3,565 (£257) a night with breakfast.

On the glitzy Macau waterfront, the brand new Mandarin Oriental (7) (Avenida Dr Sun Yat Sen; 00 85 3 8805 8888; mandarinoriental.com/macau) has doubles from £203 with breakfast. It is one of the few non-gaming five-star hotels in Macau – although gamblers can slip into the MGM Grand next door via an adjoining shopping mall.

Day one

Take a hike

Cleanse the soul with a waft of incense at theA-Ma Temple (8) (open daily, 7am-6pm, admission free) on Rua de Sao Tiago da Barra, dedicated in the 16th century to the seafarers' goddess, A-Ma, after whom Macau was named. Walk north up Calçada de Barra, past the exotic arches of the Moorish Barracks (9), which housed a regiment of Goan soldiers in the 1870s.

Off Lilau Square, call in at the Mandarin's House (10) at 10 Antonio da Silva Lane, the traditional Chinese courtyard home of the influential 19th-century writer and social reformist Zheng Guanying.

North-east of here is where the Jesuits made their mark from the 16th to 18th centuries, building a vast array of churches including the neo-classical St Lawrence's (11) and the baroque St Joseph's (12). Cross the colourful mosaic cobbles of St Augustine's Square towards the green-and-white fluted columns of Dom Pedro V Theatre (13), the first Western theatre in China, built in 1860. End your hike in bustling Senado Square (14).

Lunch on the run

The sweet egg tart was introduced to Macau by an English expatriate, Andrew "Lord" Stow, and is now adored by the Macanese. Try one after sampling a slab of cured beef and some skewered fish balls from the snack shops that line the narrow lane leading up to the ruins of St Paul's (15). As you munch, survey what was once the largest Catholic church in Asia. It burnt to the ground in 1835, leaving just the stone façade intact. Those with the time and budget for a spot of fine dining should book ahead in the Lisboa complex (3) at Robuchon a Galera (the only three-Michelin-star restaurant in Macau) for exquisite Wagyu beef or The Eight for a two-Michelin-star Dim Sum extravaganza.

Take a view

Soar to the top of the 338m-high Macau Tower (16) on the southernmost tip of the peninsula (00 85 3 2893 3339; macautower. com.mo) for the best view in town. Admission is HK$80 (£7); the highest bungee jump in the world costs HK2,488 (£200)

(macau.ajhackett.com), and gives you six seconds of freefall as you descend from 233m to just 30m above the ground.

Window shopping

Designer outlets abound in the glitzy casino malls. But for something authentically Macanese, delve into the restored 19th-century shop fronts with traditional red louvres along Rua da Felicidade (17), once the city's red-light district. Peruse the exotic curios, jewellery, "phoenix rolls" (shredded pork in seaweed) and live snakes. For antiques, navigate the narrow lanes of Coloane village near Francis Xavier Chapel (18).

An aperitif

The chic 38 Lounge at the top (38th) floor of the newly opened Altira hotel (19) (altiramacau.com) on the north shore of Taipa island is the place for cocktails, cognacs, single malts and wines by the glass, with spectacular views of the peninsula.

Dining with the locals

Altira has a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant, Aurora. But back down at street level, don't miss Antonio's (20) (00 853 2899 9998; antoniomacau.com), a cheerful Portuguese eatery in Taipa village. Here the gregarious António Coelho flambés Portuguese sausage by your table and uncorks champagne with a sword. His menu includes African chicken, one of the staples of Macanese cuisine that you can also find in the restaurants along Rua do Almirante Sergio (21).

On Coloane island, the shabby-looking Fernandos (22) is highly rated for authentic Portuguese food.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

In peaceful Coloane village, visit St Francis Xavier chapel (18), built in 1928 to house a gruesome relic: the severed arm of its eponymous saint, although that has since been moved to St Joseph's (12). The chapel overlooks the picturesque, arcaded Eduardo Marques Square that opens on to the channel separating Coloane from mainland China. Beachcombers scour this shore for oysters, as they have done for centuries.

Out to brunch

Rua do Cunha (23), known locally as "food street", bisects a small heritage area on Taipa island. Its restaurants and snack shops offer Chinese, Cantonese, Portuguese, Italian, French and Korean bites beneath a tangle of illuminated signs. Call in at the Taipa Houses Museum (24), pretty pastel-green colonial administrators' houses from the 1920s.

A walk in the park

While Coloane island is Macau's countryside, with a championship golf course and hiking trails, the urban Macanese more often head to the city parks. Elderly card players, fan-dancing troupes, tai-chi enthusiasts and old men carrying pet birds in cages convene in Luis de Camoes' Garden and Grotto (25).

Amateur Peking opera musicians practise in the pagodas of the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden (26), a miniature landscape of bamboo forests, winding pathways and terrapin ponds.

Take a ride

Take the cable car from the entrance of the Flora Garden on Avenida Sidonio Pais up to Guia Fortress and Lighthouse (27) for a panoramic view of the new and old city. The fortress was built in the 17th century but today its cannons appear to be aimed at the ferries unloading tourists from Hong Kong far below. The lighthouse, built in 1864, is still a shipping beacon, although its beam seems feeble beside the bright lights of the modern city.

Cultural afternoon

Next to the ruins of St Paul's (3) in the Mount Fortress is the Macau Museum (00 853 2835 7911; macaumuseum.gov.mo), offering a well-devised parallel walk through the Chinese and Portuguese histories of the territory. Open 10am-6pm daily except Mondays; admission free on the 15th of the month, otherwise HK$15 (£1.20).

The icing on the cake

No trip to the "Las Vegas of the East" would be complete without a big, brash show. The House of Dancing Water (thehouseofdancingwater.com) is as jaw-dropping a spectacular as any in Nevada.

The plot may be baffling, but the stunts more than make up for it as high divers plunge into a shape-shifting pool and modern-day Evel Knievels launch motorbikes across the arena in the belly of the City of Dreams (6).

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