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What is there to see and do in Macao?

A tale of two cities

A pocket-sized peninsula artificially joined to two offshore islets, Macao has a wonderful split personality that is both puzzling to ponder and captivating to explore. It's surprising to find such a strong Portuguese presence on the edge of the exotic orient, where a baroque church and a Taoist temple share the same sense of history. Clear elements of its Chinese and Portuguese heritage coexist side-by-side, simultaneously accentuating one another and blending together, sometimes even on the same menu.

But Macao's mutant culture and contrasts don't end there. While they both have their plus-points, the kitsch musical fountains and mind-blowing scale of Macao's waterfront is a world apart from the deeply charming colonial squares and Chinese nooks of original central Macau and Taipa. Equally, the man-made marvels and over-the-top gaming resorts of the Cotai Strip make a stark contrast to the natural beauty and Zen-like peace and tranquillity of Coloane Island that lies just next door.

Macao covers a compact, easy-to-explore area of just 11 square miles that packs in everything from traditional museums, heritage sites and amazing viewpoints to luxury shopping centres, spectacular shows and, of course, plentiful high-rollers. Less than an hour's boat ride west from Hong Kong, which lies on the opposite site of the giant Pearl River Delta, Macao makes an ideal day trip or short break stop on a tour of southern China.

Heritage spots and culture

Ruling from 1557 until 1999, the Portuguese left a clear mark on Macao, especially on its appearance and tastes, and there are pockets of colonial character sheltering between the high rises of Macao peninsula, and in adjoining Taipa and Coloane too. In fact, Macao is said to boast the best preserved examples of colonial architecture in China. For history geeks, Macao's UNESCO-listed historic centre is a real treat to walk around, encompassing heritage mansions and picturesque squares. Senado Square could have been lifted right out of a Portuguese town with typical bold patterned paving stones and pretty neoclassical buildings.

Nearby the 17th-century St Dominic's Church is a baroque remnant of the Roman Catholic church in Asia with a small museum dedicated to the subject situated in the bell tower. Wealthy Chinese merchant Lou Kau's 19th-century mansion, the oriental-hybrid Mandarin's House, D. Pedro V Theatre and St Augustine's Square are among the most worthwhile sights that make up the rich architectural fabric of the area. To sample Macao's traditional tea culture, be sure to stop by the Macao Tea Culture House and explore the adjoining Lou Lim Leoc Garden that's a garden oasis in the city full of lotus ponds and ornate Chinese pavilions.

Perhaps the most striking fragment of Macao's past is the remaining facade of St Paul's, an eerie and atmospheric ruin stood atop a hill that is one of the city's most photogenic sights. Once Macau's chief promenade, Praia Grande is a fascinating example of how the city has been altered over the centuries. A few colonial buildings that used to overlook the bay still remain dwarfed by larger modern buildings and reclaimed land that has turned the bay into the giant enclosed Nam Van Lake where today the popular International Dragon Boat races are held every year. The modern Praia Grande has been extended all the way around the new waterfront with the cloud-skimming Macao Tower perched at the end.

The peninsula is dotted with high green hillocks that make good vantage points from which to appreciate the city. Get the cable car up Guia Hill to explore the Portuguese heritage lighthouse and fortress and enjoy great views of the urbanscape and open water. Macau Museum, housed in a former Portuguese fortress, probably gives the best overview of the enclave's unique history but the enormous Cultural Centre includes the Macau Museum of Art, a modern spacious gallery with a great collection of paintings and artworks offering different perspectives on the city's life. In fact, there are a wide range of cool and quirky museums in Macau including the excellent Maritime Museum and Fisherman's Wharf with its fabulous selection of boats and potential for cruises out on the water.

One of Macau's most important heritage sites, the A-Ma Buddhist temple overlooks a reservoir to the north-east of the peninsula, and dates back to 1488. Its weathered stone buildings, statues and beautifully landscaped gardens make it an unmissable stop on any sightseeing tour of the city.

But the cultural spots on the linked islands of Taipa and Coloane should not be overlooked either. Across the water, you can take a walking tour of the little lanes and traditional markets of Old Taipa Village and stop to eat in one of the many restaurants along aptly-named Food Street. You can explore the atmospheric residences of Taipa Houses Museum and seek out the ancient-feeling Pak Tai Temple. Get a great perspective of Macao's futuristic skyline from Taipa's shores where you can gaze back at the peninsula and see the towering statement casinos dwarfed by the impossibly high Macao Tower.

Further south on green and pleasant Coloane Island, you can find yet more history in the form of Buddhist temples, a little catholic chapel and a quaint colonial village. Atop the loftiest hill stands the world's highest statue of Macao's patron goddess A-Ma surrounded by lush parkland. Nearby, the recently-built A-Ma Cultural Village offers a fabulous insight into local folklore and customs with a reconstructed Qing Dynasty palace, altars, drum tower, bell tower and a museum among other tourist attractions.

Food and leisure

Macanese fusion food is a big part of the local identity and you can find a feast of restaurants, cafes, tea houses and eateries lining traditional Chinese lanes. Sampling some of the delicious local fare is one way to get to the heart of this unique enclave. Top of the list are delectable egg custard tarts at Lord Stow's Bakery on Coloane Island, though there are a few branches dotted around Macao including at the Venetian resort. Foodies in search of high-end dining should not miss a visit to Antonio's restaurant where Michelin-starred chef Antonio Coelho cooks up mouth-watering specialties. If gastronomy is high on your list of things to do in Macao, consider timing your visit to coincide with Macao Food Festival in November.

Beach lovers visiting this subtropical peninsula and its little connecting islands might be pleasantly surprised to discover the sleepy green backwater of Coloane with pretty natural shores fringed by a few sandy bays. The largest - Hac Sa beach - is the perfect relaxing spot on a sunny day. Originally named for its black sand, it has since been topped up with golden sand to prevent further erosion along its 4km length. Visitors can stay here too, at the Grand Coloane Resort on a green hillside flanking the beach. To the south, the less-visited Cheoc Van beach is another relaxing location framed by verdant hills with a few places to stay nearby.

For walkers, the island is easy to explore on foot via a network of well-marked hiking trails, and there's an extra bonus too in the natural park with its Panda Pavilion home to China's most famous creatures - two beautiful and playful giant pandas. Golf enthusiasts visiting Macao should not miss a trip to the Macau Golf and Country Club with a superb 18-hole course that has sweeping views over Coloane and the South China Sea. Every year it hosts the Macau Open Golf Tournament. For those who want easy access to the club's undulating landscaped greens, the Grand Coloane Resort is right next door.

Shopping and entertainment

China has spared no expense in turning Macao into the world's number one gaming destination studded with more than 33 outrageously lavish casinos. And like Las Vegas, the casinos are accompanied by bold hotel developments, spectacular shows and luxury malls. Some of the most famous and unique casinos in Macao included the Venetian, Grand Lisboa and the Macao Palace Floating Casino.

Studio City in the upmarket tourist district of Cotai is the newest casino resort integrating shopping and entertainment into the mix. Contained in a monolithic glass art deco-inspired building, its two towers are bridged by the world's first figure-8 ferris wheel offering a 15-minute ride taking guests to a height of 130 metres. There are a whole host of theatrical attractions to entertain visitors day and night too such as the Batman Dark Flight experience. If you enjoy spectacular theatrics and acrobatics, don't miss the highly-acclaimed House of Dancing Water show.

The Venetian Macao Resort is another all-round entertainment hotspot housed in a large grand building with the world's largest casino alongside a venetian-style shopping mall with gondola rides on the waterway, and plenty of facilities including family attractions. It's the ideal place to shop until you drop and features high-end labels like Prada and Armani. But in this wealthy region there's no shortage of designer shopping malls and city centre stores to explore, with the Four Seasons and Wynn hotels incorporating luxury malls, for instance. For something abit different, you can hunt for antiques and local wares in Macao's centuries-old alleys.

For the most jaw-dropping views on the peninsula, visitors should take some time to scale Macao Tower, which resembles a giant needle piercing the sky with a pearl planted on the end. In the 338-metre high crow's nest you can dine in a revolving restaurant with 360-degree views, or to get your adrenalin pumping you can opt to try the outdoor 'Skywalk' or the highest bungee jump on the planet.

Depending on the time of year that you visit Macao, you can enjoy a diverse range of well-run festivals. There are religious festivals, cultural festivals and sports events all celebrating the peninsula's multi-faceted culture. Chief among them is Chinese New Year, which is celebrated with great fervour in Macau with parades, costumes and music. A relative newcomer to the scene, Macau Arts Festival is held in the early summer, with performances, shows and exhibitions filling venues across the metropolis. There's Cantonese opera, western music and Chinese theatre, even circus acts and visual arts, some staged in the atmospheric settings of Macao's World Heritage Sites.

One of the most popular festivals is the colourful International Dragon Boat Race that takes place from the historic Praia Grande waterfront on Nam Van Lake every May/ June. The city also hosts the Grand Prix for four days every year when the best motorcycle, WTCC and Formula 3 racers from around the world whizz around the Guia Street circuit. Equally as thrilling, the annual Macau International Fireworks Display Contest staged on Macau Tower shorefront from mid-September to October gives visitors the chance to witness the best pyrotechnics in the world night after night.

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