This former Portuguese colony is one of the smallest municipalities in the world, yet it delivers in a big way when it comes to excitement, history, architecture, food, music and culture. Going back to 1557, when Portugal established a major trading port from a sleepy fishing village, Macau has evolved into a melting pot of many cultures, making it an increasingly premiere world destination. The diversity of life is everywhere in Macau’s unique balance of culture and style.
Dubbed the “Vegas of the East”, many visitors go straight to the Cotai Strip, where lights and action dominate the casino floors and glitz and glamour abound in decor. True to its reputation as the place for gregarious gambling, Macau rivals many when it comes to spirited and serious player dynamics. It’s wild and worth a visit to some of the many opulent and pulsating hotel casinos.
But don’t get lost (literally) on the draw of the casinos alone. The Cotai Strip and its bright skyline is just one aspect of a cornucopia of diverse attractions in Macau. This special administrative zone of China boasts a variety of activities, interesting art, lively music, well-manicured parks, eclectic neighbourhoods, and exciting yearly festivals. Here are some of the less-frequented and lesser-known must-see locations on our list.
East meets West at Senado Square, where architectural jewels coexist. Rows of colourful arched buildings in white, pastels, and greens line the square. This is where you can visit St. Dominic’s Church, with its upper floors dedicated to a collection of ecclesiastical art. The collection includes robes, crowns, sculpture, ancient chalices, paintings, silver serving ware, and other very fine artifacts of historical value to Christians. The museum collection is free to visit, but closed during church services.
Other sites in the square include the Temple of Guan Yu, an historic figure of Chinese lore whose education and humanity are revered, and an array of affordable-to-expensive trendy shops and souvenir stalls. As you walk along through this main square, you will eventually reach the walkways that gradually narrow to bring you up toward the iconic Ruins of St. Paul’s. The stairs and façade of the landmark St. Paul’s Church, built in the mid-17th century, whose main structure was burned down during a typhoon in 1835, towers above one of the busiest areas in Macau.
Portuguese pork sandwiches on soft rolls are a favourite grab-and-go lunch, along with sampling almond shortbread cookies and a slice of cured spicy dried meat as you walk up, down, and through the alleyways to find little treasures and to admire the small details of the eclectic buildings there.
It’s worth the 30-minute bus trip to the south of Macau to get to Fernando’s at Praia de Hac Sa beach, especially for authentic Portuguese food in a family-owned, casual restaurant by the seaside. Shrimp in garlic clam sauce, stewed beef and broad beans in rich gravy, and the best chargrilled native sardines, along with house oven-baked Portuguese rolls, will keep you coming back for more. The late, great foodie and cultural storyteller, Anthony Bourdain, tagged Fernando’s as one of his favourites.
Checkered tablecloths and hearty dishes, along with friendly family staff, makes it my go-to restaurant every time I visit Macau. And later, after a walk on the beach, for dessert, treat yourself to a few custard tarts made right here in town. These Macanese variations on the Portuguese pastries called “pastel de nata,” with creamy insides and a sweet flaky crust were first invented by 15th-century monks in Lisbon, Portugal.
The best around are at the famous Lord Stowe’s in the heart of this charming village of Coloane, just a few minutes’ bus trip from the waterfront area. Lord Stowe perfected his recipe back in the 1980s and now the pastry is one of the sweetest features of Macau.
Coloane is the village to see life in Macau as it once was long ago, by taking a walk along the centre square with its black and white tile pavement, seeing the local church whose interior is hand painted, or doing some shopping for artisan goods made of porcelain, wood, or Chinese fabric. The fishing village also has colourful buildings as well as small shops to buy dried fish, a good coffee, or some handmade items like baskets, jewellery, or painted trinkets.
A Tranquil Space
Luis Vaz de Camoes, who lived 400 years ago, was the inspiration for the Camoes Garden and Grotto. He is the most celebrated Portuguese poet and author of the epic work Os Lusiadas. The park, dedicated to his memory, is the largest in Macau, and the ponds, gardens, and natural feel here are decidedly poetic. Cameos composed much of his celebrated works here in the grotto and it is easy to see why.
The walk up to the gazebo displaying his bronze bust is filled with trees, flowers, and stones, offering a pleasant diversion to your day. The entrance to the park features a pathway of mosaics and the statuary throughout reminds visitors of the bond between the Chinese and Portuguese which influenced the Macau of today.
Locals gather to play Chinese chess or card games or just to sit and chat under the shady trees with their caged birds at their side. You will often see them reading their newspapers in the morning, as well as many who come early to practice Tai Chi. The gardens are inspiring, and offer a kinder, gentler way of life within.
Image: Natalie Montanaro (Camoes Gardens)
Macau is really a fabulous place to visit any time of year. Its people are friendly, it’s easy to navigate, and has so many interesting places to see and things to do that it’s a wonder you will ever want to leave. It’s a veritable “Magic Kingdom” in the heart of Asia, and including some extra added explorations outside of the standard guide book will surely make your visit that much more enjoyable.