Despite being just an hour away Hong Kong via ferry, Macau feels like a different world. Instead of a dense, domino-like skyline, this historic port city is home to mostly low-rise buildings punctuated by unforgettable hotels, from the figure-eight façade of Studio City and the lotus-shaped Grand Lisboa to, most recently, the sinuous form of Morpheus at City of Dreams.
Upon arrival, fleets of buses shuttle casino-goers to their respective dens of indulgence, but you don’t have to climb aboard. If you’re more interested in culture, history and food than slot machines and baccarat, here’s a winning two-day itinerary that takes you below the gilded surface of this former Portuguese colony.
Believe it or not, Macau wasn’t always dipped in gold. Back in the day, the territory was synonymous with fishing, low-key mercantile interests and international trade. The Portuguese began settling Macau in 1557 and stayed until 1999. As a result, the territory feels like a slice of Portugal in some locations with well-preserved churches, squares and government buildings.
The best place to admire the pastel-painted, colonial-era architecture is in Senado Square, part of the UNESCO Historic Centre of Macau World Heritage Site. In and around this important public square, you’ll find several key historic structures, including the Dom Pedro V Theatre, Leal Senado (Portuguese for “loyal senate”) Building, Macau General Post Office and Holy House of Mercy welfare center.
Wander further through the cobbled alleyways until you reach the 68 stairs leading up to the Ruins of St. Paul’s — arguably the most identifiable landmark of Macau. The façade is all that remains of a magnificent Portuguese-style church, which burned down in 1835.
Now that you’ve checked off the major tourist boxes, stop for dim sum at The Eight. Said to be one of the best Cantonese restaurants in the world, this sleek and sophisticated restaurant within Grand Lisboa Hotel serves more than 40 types of meticulously crafted small plates, plus a wine list of more than 16,800 labels.
Continue your cultural adventure with an easy stroll up to Guia Hill, where you’ll find a 17th-century military fort and chapel, alongside a 19th-century lighthouse. Soak up the beautiful city views before moving on to explore the Chinese side of Macau at A-Ma Temple. Built in honor of Mazu (the Chinese goddess of the sea), the hillside shrine offers excellent lookout points that only get better the higher you climb.
For dinner, head to historic Macanese staple Henri’s Galley located nearby. Set on the shore of Sai Van Lake, the no-frills restaurant is home to a mix of indoor and outdoor seating. There’s not much in the way of décor, but the sangria, mussels and African chicken — a local specialty made with an addictive chili, coconut milk, paprika, peanut and butter sauce — make for one of the best low-key meals in Macau.
Cap off your action-packed day with cocktails at Vida Rica Bar within Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Mandarin Oriental, Macau. Sporting sky-high ceilings, dazzling chandeliers and views over the South China Sea, this marble-clad address is one of the best lounges this side of the equator.
Try a locally inspired signature, such as the lychee martini made with Thai-butterfly-flower-tea-infused vodka, lychee liqueur and puree, or the Dragon’s Cobbler, which features five-spice rum, raspberry syrup, fresh passion fruit juice, lemon and Angostura bitters.
The next morning, head down to the far-flung village of Coloane on Macau’s southernmost tip. Start the day with coffee and a famous egg tart from Lord Stow’s Bakery, where you’ll enjoy the caramelized pastel de nata fresh from the oven.
Walk off that deliciousness with a stroll around the town’s waterfront promenade and then make your way north to the Taipa Houses-Museum to soak up the Old World atmosphere. Here, you’ll find a row of five vibrantly turquoise, Portuguese-style residences built in the 1920s that are furnished with various artifacts and museum exhibitions that showcase what life would have been like for upper-class families in Macau during the first half of the 20th century.
A short walk southwest will take you past Our Lady of Carmel Church and into Taipa Village. Here, you can nosh on local street snacks along Rua Do Cunha — Taipa’s de facto food street — or sit down for a lively lunch at Antonio. One of the most elegant addresses in Taipa Village, this traditional Portuguese eatery is kitted out with colorful tiles, paintings, wood furniture and excellent seafood to boot.
While wandering about Taipa Village, stop into Quarter Square lifestyle boutique for coffee before making your way to City of Dreams to catch the famous House of Dancing Water show. This mesmerizing, action-packed performance involves a hydraulic stage that morphs from a dry, flat surface into a 3.7 million-gallon aquarium, enabling the dancers and acrobats to pull off amazing stunts and high dives. We won’t give too much away — this is a must-see while you’re in town.
Inside City of Dreams, stroll through the art-lined hallways over to Morpheus to grab dinner at one of acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse’s new openings. If you’re craving more casual pan-Asian fare, try a smattering of shared plates — all inspired by the toque’s world travels — at contemporary Voyages of Alain Ducasse. But if you’re celebrating something special, book a table at his namesake fine-dining spot, where you’ll indulge in a beautifully balanced French set menu in a romantic, nature-inspired atmosphere.
Just across the Cotai Strip, toast to a wonderful weekend with cocktails at Five-Star The Ritz-Carlton, Macau’s Bar & Lounge. As the highest bar in the city, the 51st-floor perch is known for its live music, classic cocktails, lengthy list of premium champagnes and roving gin cart with G&Ts served tableside — an Instagram-worthy way to cap off your adventure.