A Tale of Two Cities: Hong Kong or Macau?

A Tale of Two Cities: Hong Kong or Macau?

Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

What do a global gambling powerhouse and a population marching against their government by the million have in common?

That would be their current inclusion in the People’s Republic of China and status as former European colonies.

Macau and Hong Kong are very different in style and flavor, and yet so alike in their recent history, ethnic make-up, and geography. This is really where the similarities end, however.

It’s also where the rubber meets the road for the uniqueness quotient of either destination.

There’s so much to see in both cities. The culture, food, and architecture differ wildly between them and the mainland. I’d entreat travelers to visit both, but sometimes you have to make a choice (whether it be for visa-run purposes or time restrictions).

Which should it be, then? Hong Kong or Macau?

In today’s guide we’ll be exploring this question through the lens of culture, food, fun, safety, and more.

Food


Let’s be straight-up about the fact that one of China’s (and its diasporas) finest offerings is its food. Macau and Hong Kong are not exceptions, and their colonial histories imbibe them with varied cuisine options.

Hong Kong

dim sum hong kong
Classic Dim Sum in Hong Kong

Though much of Hong Kong’s food is traditionally Cantonese, the city lacks the sometimes disquieting dishes to be found in mainland Canton (you’re better off not knowing. Promise). That leaves Hong Kong with the tastiest varieties of Dim Sum and all the sweet and sour meat you can imagine.

It’s not just Cantonese that shines here, though. The global history of Hong Kong means that Japanese, Korean, and Western joints abound by the thousands. In my opinion, though, none of these can outshine the Dim Sum.

Hong Kong restaurant
This eatery, if you can find it, serves some of the best Chinese food I’ve had, period

For those who don’t know, Dim Sum is a style of cuisine that comes in bite-size pieces (usually three shrimp balls, three dumplings, or something of the like).

This presents an opportunity to sample just about everything on the Cantonese menu – a menu, I may add, that has something to please just about every palette.

Macau

Macau may not sport such a cornucopia of varied cuisine, but that’s no reason to write it off in the culinary book. From spicy noodles to sweet curries (occasionally in the same shop), Macau manages to surprise on every corner.

Macua’s cuisine is fully unique in that its often a trifecta of flavor bridging Portuguese, Southern Chinese, and Southeast Asian flavors.

It’s easier to start one’s day in Macau; the breakfast and coffee scene more accurately reflect a European milieu. Cafes abound, and one can find a myriad of breakfast joints peddling everything from American breakfasts to French Samovars.

Western breakfast in Macau
Western breakfast is sometimes a luxury in China

Macau is probably best known in the culinary world for its egg tarts. These pudding-filled, flaky delights may not sound delicious to the uninitiated. They are, however, a scrumptious treat that taste more like custard than they do eggs.

Macau’s egg tarts are the best in Asia, especially near the Ruins of St. Paul’s.

egg tarts near St. Pauls, Macau
the alley of egg tarts

And the winner is…

For the overall variety, I would say Hong Kong has a better selection and thus wins on the culinary side of things.

However, for uniqueness of flavor and the Western palette, I’d give the title to Macau. Food is incredibly subjective, of course, but travelers are sure to find something to suit their tastes in either city.

Architecture

Colorful house in Macau
Among the random finds in Macau

Though often symbolizing a somewhat troubled past, Asian colonial remnants tend to blend interestingly with local architecture. The style of these cities, however, is very different.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is known for its dramatic skyline, especially from the other side of Victoria Bay (and the top of Victoria Peak). The neon testaments to this city’s status as a financial powerhouse are sure to awe any lover of modern city architecture.

Hong Kong at night
Night-time Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

However, most British colonial architecture tends not to be as exciting as that of the continental European colonizers. While the international commerce center and Bank of China tower bespeak architectural prowess, they’re not exactly culturally relevant.

Banking is everywhere, and of course excess money can pay for cool building design.

Hong Kong Financial Center

So, though Hong Kong is the tallest city in the world with its uber-modern skyline, it doesn’t give us a cultural or historical picture via its architecture.

Macau

The Portuguese had flavor. They took Macau as a home and base long before the Brits took Hong Kong, and it shows in the colonial buildings.

The embassy
Embassy in Macau

In fact, besides the Russian influence in Harbin, Macau is the only city in China that feels authentically European. The Ruins of Saint Paul’s dominate the city’s hillscape, and the military holdout beside them (now a museum) is replete with yawning trees and weaponized palisades.

Macau from the history museum

There are a litany of brightly colored churches and buildings strewn through the city. The old district’s cobblestone streets are lined by hawkers and ice-cream vendors, adding another layer of interest to the fanciful buildings.

Colorful cobblestones in Macau
not a bad place to stroll

What about the new? Well, Macau is also renowned for gambling. The Venetian hotel and Casino is the biggest in the world. All major casinos in Macau, the most iconic being the Grand Lisboa, have serious character.

Macau's Grand Lisboa
Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino, Macau

The winner is…

Definitely Macau. Hong Kong has money, but money can’t necessarily buy good taste. The Brits may have won the old-world trade war, but the Portuguese were the masters of style and flair.

Safety

This hardly Merits a comparison ever since the outbreak of protests in Hong Kong. With million-man marches in the streets and the occasional exchange of rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails, Hong Kong has become a much more perilous place than Macau.

Spiders in Hong Kong
BECAUSE OF GIANT SPI… wait no. But watch out for em’

This will certainly change in the future. It’s uncertain whether the Chinese government plans to crack down, but the protests are at least (as of this writing) becoming more peaceful. However, these incidents will likely reverberate through the city for years even when the protests die down.

Macau, unless you’re addicted to gambling, is definitely a safer city. There’s a significant police presence but no unrest, and the atmosphere is decidedly laid-back and peaceful (though there are flare-ups of anti-CCP factions sometimes, they’re localized and non-violent).

cemetery in Hong Kong
Where HKer’s see their freedoms ending up if their protests don’t work

And the winner is…

For now and the near future at least, Macau. Even at times of peace (pre-protest) Macau residents are more chill and the city more laid-back. Because of this, for your safety and peace of mind (Hong Kong is a ruckus at even the best of times) Macau takes the cake.

Celebrate safety with gambling

Entertainment and Attractions


Hong Kong

Did you know that over 50% of Hong Kong lays in natural, protected areas? As a series of hundreds of islands, it’s much more than glitzy skyscrapers.

This means that nature enthusiasts can find a litany of attractions in Hong Kong. From hiking the Dragon’s Back trail to golfing and lounging on the beach (yup, it’s got those too), Hong Kong offers a handful of escapes from its urban cacophony.

Dragon's back trail
A different side of Hong Kong

The touristy viewing areas of Victoria Bay and Victoria Peak are renowned for their sight-line trajectories. The skyline presents in all its glory from either above or on the water, making either a must-see.

Victoria Bay, Hong Kong
Hong Kong from Victoria Bay

Also, Hong Kong has a thriving nightlife scene. Many bars and clubs stay open from dusk to dawn, and some even a few hours after that.

Let’s not forget, either, that Hong Kong is the home of several world-class amusement parks, namely Disneyland and Ocean Park (I suggest the latter – aquatic animals and roller coasters in the same day is as good as it gets).

Ocean Park, Hong Kong
View of the islands from Ocean Park

Macau

Being more compact than Hong Kong, Macau is the sort of attraction-lined city that you may as well tackle on foot. The old district with all the colonial architecture shouldn’t take more than half a day to hoof it through, and it comprises the cultural heart of Macau.

Macau old-style church
The walk should end at this church, I guess

There’s plenty to do besides looking at buildings, though. Ever wanted to climb to the tip-top of a space needle? At the Macau tower, you can harness up and scud to the needle’s point. If you’re not shaky enough upon completion then harness up again and bungee jump off the tower’s viewing platform (not cheap, but worth it!).

Macau Tower
Macau’s version of the space needle

Macau is now the largest gambling hub in the modern world. With multi-million dollar hotel projects popping up all over the city and emulating the planet’s most famous destinations, Macau delivers glamour among the pseudo-seedy industry.

The Venetian Macau
The Venetian, world’s largest casino

Aficionados of chance will be right at home among the stadium-size casinos. Even those who eschew gambling will be dazzled by the hotel attractions.

The Parisian Hotel

And the winner is…

This is a tough one, but for overall variety and because of the nature element, I’d give the victory to Hong Kong. I’m simply not much of a gambler, and much of Macau is centered around the casinos, including its nightlife scene.


Conclusion

The spread thus far comes in at 50-50. Comparing the cultures of either city would be disingenuous – there’re too many elements to culture which are subtle, and my limited time in these cities hasn’t allowed me to pick up on those faithfully enough for a write-up.

Honestly, I would choose Macau over Hong Kong if I were to go back. It’s simply a more laid-back place, and though there’s tons of gambling the city feels anything but seedy.

The casinos are quite clean and welcoming, really

The European feel really helps temper China’s aggressive urban environment, but that’s something which is likely only a problem for expats living in the mainland. If you’re simply visiting, Hong Kong with its regal skyscrapers is just as cool and different.

The best advice I can give is to get to both, but if you’ve only got limited time I’d suggest Macau for its size and how accommodating it feels. For a stay of over 5 days then think about Hong Kong, as you’ll have more to do.

Hong Kong from the pier Ferris Wheel

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