Macau is an island of superlatives.

The former Portuguese colony makes more money from gambling than anywhere else in the world (US$6 billion a year), it’s the most densely populated place around (18,000 folk per sq km) and it’s home to the world’s largest casino, The Venetian.

It’s also a place where bling is king and high-rollers are driven around in Bentleys and Jags. Yet even if you don’t win big and your chips are down, it’s still possible to experience all of Macau’s history and culture.

Here are our top five tips on how to get things for free in this former Portuguese colony, which is marking its 10th anniversary of Chinese rule this December.

1 The Bubble

A dazzling visual show of lasers, lights and fire displayed in a giant dome. The legend of the Jade Emperor and four ocean-dwelling dragons is projected on to the dome and brought to life in dramatic fashion. ‘The Dragon’s Treasure’ is shown nightly, for free, at The Bubble, inside the City of Dreams casino.

2 Transport

To get around town you can use taxis, which are cheap but are driven by the world’s grumpiest drivers. A great alternative is the buses, and with signs in Portuguese it’s relatively easy to figure out routes. Better still are the free casino buses that ferry people around. They’re supposed to be for gamblers, but nobody checks where you’re heading. It is possible to go from The Venetian and City of Dreams in the southern island of Taipa to The Sands casino in Macau. Casino buses also run to the Chinese border to bring in hoards of gamblers.

3 Eating

Macau food is a fabulous fusion of Portuguese and Chinese, but many of its restaurants are expensive. If you head to Senado Square and wander towards the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral you’ll be greeted by a line of vendors who are more than happy to give their food away. From just-baked cookies to crispy slices of super-sweet fried pork, it’s a great way to fill up and sample Macau’s snacks.

4 Sightseeing

The centre of Macau is a World Heritage Site teeming with churches, temples and forts, nearly all of which have no entrance fee.

At the ruins of St Paul’s only the façade remains of what was once a spectacular Jesuit cathedral. The rest was destroyed by fire, but today it’s still possible to climb up and see the ruins from close quarters. Be sure to visit the Museum of Sacred Art and crypt to the rear of the site. Other free attractions include the pavilions at A-Ma Temple, the Guia Fort with its fancy frescoes and the neoclassical buildings around Senado Square.

5 Coloane Village

Coloane is the farthest point from modern Macau, both geographically and culturally. Here it’s possible to see how Macau once was, with its old fishing boats, deserted cobbled streets and wizened locals.

Admittedly, you need to pay to get here (the 21a bus costs 50p), but once you’ve arrived you’re free to explore the range of religious buildings, from the matchbox-sized Chapel of St Francis Xavier to Tin Hau Temple and its Christmas-tree-like golden amulets. Be sure to sample the magnificent egg tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery before strolling down to Hac Sa Beach, famed for its black sands.

Mark Beales is a freelance writer and photographer. Based in Thailand, he writes for several magazines, newspapers and guidebooks.

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