An often overlooked special administrative region during the Republic of China, the Macau peninsula is as cultural as its southern climate, a fusion of Portuguese architecture and a Chinese-inspired way of life, and a vibrant administrative region that is finding its own.
Hanging on the edge of the southern coast of mainland China is the Macau Peninsula. This Chinese special district, with its low, gray buildings and gilded casino hotels, is a stark contrast. Walking between the small streets and alleys of China where normal daily life goes on, and then turning a corner gives a synthesis of European luxury that feels a bit odd. But behind the front is still the core culture of Macau, which can be discovered if one is willing to take the time to look for it.
The southern coastal region of China has long been a major site for international maritime trade in Asia. The long coastline provides a convenient port for ship trade between the East and West. Back in the early 15th century, at a time when many Western countries were trying to expand their empires and seize land in this area, the area now known as Macau was peacefully leased to Portugal through a lease agreement.
During Portuguese rule, Catholic missionaries took the opportunity to try to infuse their religion into the East. This has led to the construction of many Catholic churches in Macau, many of which still have UNESCO heritage status and are still available to visitors today.
In 1999, Macau officially returned to Chinese sovereignty and became the first and most recent European colony in Asia. However, Macau’s return to China is not without its problems. In the battle for ownership, a number of controversial casinos opened in Macau, and it was quickly realized that while it was illegal in mainland China, Portuguese law provided that gambling could continue to bring wealth to the region after the decline of maritime trade.
The money quickly flowed into Macau from some places in Asia where gambling was illegal or restricted. This idea was put to good use, giving Macau the title of “Asia’s Vegas”, from which it now derives most of its tourism resources. Despite being the most densely populated area in the region, the Macau peninsula has a relatively calm feel to it. With most of the busier casinos and tourist hotspots located in the Cotai and Taipa areas, the Macau Peninsula is left with more room for authentic local cuisine and cultural centers.
An example of Las Vegas-style casinos in Macau, the Sands Hotel (203 Monte Carlo Lago) doesn’t skimp on luxury. Whether it’s a steakhouse, casino or spa, the hotel’s interiors are designed in gilded and marble with luxurious oriental décor, including dark wood columns and deep red plush upholstered furniture. One of the largest and most popular casinos on the Macau Peninsula, the midnight casino here is bustling for most of the day.
To avoid casinos while preserving Macau’s nightlife, the mid-range Hotel Guia (1-5 Estrada Do Engenheiro Trigo) has an underground nightclub instead of a casino to keep guests entertained at night. Although the facilities are slightly lacking, the rooms are good value for money and are located in the old town, making them an ideal place to stay for sightseeing tours.
Another luxury find is the Legend Palace Hotel (1315-1339 Avenida da Amizade). This hotel looks like a Portuguese palace from the inside out, with floor-to-ceiling windows and royal blue and gold jacquard patterns incorporated into the hotel’s ocean views whenever possible. The high ceilings and ornate domes give it a palace feel, and the various activities at the hotel ensure that guests don’t get burned out.
Macau isn’t all about the nightlife; its southern island climate also makes for some beautiful scenery. Tucked away behind a grove of trees, just a short distance from the casino area, the quieter King’s Landing Hotel (956-1110 Avenida) offers clean and tidy modern business-style rooms with sea views and plenty of recreational facilities to relax in the city. Guests can enjoy Macau’s subtropical climate in the lush greenery of the outdoor, family-style pool area and terraced breakfast restaurant.
The MGM Casino Hotel (Zhongshan North Road) is a little hard to distinguish from an adult theme park. The whole building stands in gleaming bronze, silver and gold, and not an inch of it lacks extravagant decoration. The first phase of the hotel is a public promenade, divided into four wings: north, south, east, and west. There are restaurants with a variety of Chinese and European dishes, conference and banquet halls, art galleries, aquariums, and even its own theater with regular celebrity concerts and Broadway shows. Phases II and III are only open to hotel guests, who have access to their own private rooms and rooftop infinity pool.
For those who just want to stay for one night, Villa Hou Va (86 Pataling Street, 1st floor) offers clean budget rooms with easy check-in and check-out, giving you more time to enjoy the real streets of Macau.
Most stays in Macau are not long, but one thing that takes time to savor is their signature egg tart. Macau’s tarts are glazed and toasted like buttercream, with a thin, crispy outer crust that melt in your mouth and a thick mayonnaise waiting to ooze out on the first bite. Local cafe Margaret’s Café e Nata (17B Kinlila Building, Rua do Comandante Mata e Oliveira) is the perfect place to sample this egg tart and other Portuguese pastries.
While visitors won’t be far from the dim sum hubs of Hong Kong and Guangdong, Macau locals have their own specialties at Tau Tau Pao (6-8 Travessa do Mastro), and it’s worth exploring the dim sum-making methods of different regions of southern China. Macau’s signature pastries are fresh seafood dumplings from its coastline and crispy pastries influenced by Portuguese pastries.
Nam Peng Café (85-85A Rua de Cinco de Outubro) is a quick in-and-out for busy travelers, with fast-casual dim sum, fried ramen and Chinese grilled meat sandwiches to enjoy anytime, anywhere.
For a taste of Macau’s colonial history, Dom Galo Portuguese Restaurant (32 Avenida Sir Anders Ljungstedt) offers traditional Portuguese cuisine, which features a variety of seafood dishes and oyster dishes on its menu. With the walls of the restaurant painted a bright yellow and blue, and the original taste of the food on the table, it’s easy to forget what continent you’re dining on.
Culture and history
Macau’s most popular tourist attraction is the ruins of the St. Paul’s Cathedral, and once you arrive it’s easy to see why. This magnificent arch, which once served as the entrance to the cathedral, sits atop a hill, like an ancient Macau gate, its bricks stained with traces of Macau’s secrets and history.
If you want to take a break, you can also visit the Museum of Tea Culture (Avenida da América) for free, which often hosts a tea show to tell the history of tea and taste the local tea leaves. The architecture is also a unique marvel, with an exterior that could be mistaken for a European-style villa, but the interior is very much a Chinese tea house.
Lam Hoi Monastery (No. 21-35) is a small attraction on the streets of Macau, nestled amidst grey residential houses, which can be found by following the strong smell of incense. Despite its small size, the temple attracts a large number of visitors for its ordinariness, and the bright red Buddha statues provide an artistic contrast to its unpretentious location.
Built by the Portuguese on the highest point in Macau, the Guia Oriental Lighthouse (Guia Oriental) served as a vantage point as the rest of Europe tried to overthrow the Portuguese stronghold. The white and yellow lighthouse is now a beautiful UNESCO heritage site, and is located next to the Guia Chapel, which is also open for tours.
To make the most of Macau’s cultural fusion, you can find your own little shop at The Portuguese Corner Shop (8 Calcada da Igreja de Sao Lazaro). A departure from the modern little shop: this little shop is stocked with traditional homemade jams, imported European health products and Portuguese cooking essentials. The soap collection here is also special, with scents like tobacco flower and spring lettuce.
Macau gamblers came to the casino to splurge and the next day they went to 1 Central (Avenida de Sagres) to buy brand name items. The mall is home to designer brands from Dior to Luis Vuitton, as well as a variety of fine restaurants and bars, and the level of luxury is evident in the subtleties, including the crystal champagne glasses.
If you’re spending less, you can find local shops in the upscale retail outlets of Plaza de Ginza (Rua Pedro Nolasco da Silva, 1-15) in Macau. There are many unique clothing shops, tea shops, beautifully packaged bakeries and Chinese herbal medicine shops for small ailments and big treatments.
Book lovers and linguists can spend hours enthralled at Livraria (16-18 Rua de S. Domingos). This vibrant Portuguese bookstore sells books in a variety of languages, from fiction classics to travelogues, including but not limited to Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, English and French. The shop has a quirky event called “Blind Date with a Book”. The shopkeeper’s selections are wrapped in kraft paper, so customers really don’t judge a book by its cover, but rather make their choice based on the reviews written on the packaging.