A special administrative region of the Republic of China, with a culture as tropical as its southern climate, and a blend of Portuguese architecture and Chinese lifestyle, the Macau Peninsula is an administrative region that is finding its own way.
The Macau peninsula is located on the southern coastal edge of mainland China and is a special administrative region of China. This Chinese Special Administrative Region is a stark contrast between the low-slung grey buildings and the gleaming gilded casino hotels. It feels a little odd to walk between the small Chinese streets of normal everyday life and turn a corner to become a complex of European luxury. But behind the front remains the core of Macau’s culture, as anyone who takes the time to look will find.
The southern coast of China has long been a prime stop for international maritime trade in Asia. The stretches of coastline have provided convenient ports for trade vessels between East and West. As early as the 15th century, when many Western nations were looking to expand their empires and seize land in the region, the area that is now Macau was peacefully leased to Portugal through a lease agreement.
During the Portuguese rule, Catholic missionaries took the opportunity to try to inject their religion into the East. During this period, Catholic missionaries took the opportunity to inject their religion into the Orient and built many Catholic churches in Macau, many of which still retain UNESCO heritage status and are open to visitors today.
Macau officially returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, becoming the first and last European colony in Asia. However, the return to China was not without its problems. Some casinos were controversial in Macau during the struggle for ownership, and it was soon realised that after the decline of maritime trade, gambling – illegal in mainland China but legal under Portuguese law – could continue to make money for the region.
Gambling money soon poured into Macau from Asia, where gambling was illegal or restricted, and Macau earned the title of “Asia’s Gambling City”. This idea was exploited to give Macau the title “Asia’s Gambling City” and now brings in the majority of its tourism revenue. Despite the fact that the Macau peninsula is the most densely populated part of the region, it has a relatively calm feel to it. Most of the busy casinos and tourist hotspots are tucked away in the Cotai and Taipa districts across the harbour, with the peninsula leaving more room for authentic local eateries and cultural centres.
A classic example of a Las Vegas-style casino, the Sands (203 Monte Carrango) doesn’t skimp on luxury. Whether you’re staying at the steakhouse, casino or spa, the interior is designed in gilded and marble with luxurious oriental touches, including dark wood columns and plush cushioned furniture in deep red. The casino here is one of the largest and most popular on the Macau peninsula, and manages to keep the midnight casino bustling during much of the day.
To get away from the casino while retaining some of the buzz of the city’s nightlife, the mid-range Guia Hotel (1-5 Estrada Do Engenheiro Trigo) has an underground nightclub, rather than a casino, to keep guests entertained at night. While the facilities are slightly lacking, the rooms are good value for money and the location in the old town makes it an ideal place to stay for sightseeing.
Another luxury hotel is the Legendary Palace Hotel (Avenida da Amizade 1315-1339). Resembling a Portuguese palace inside and out, this hotel has been fitted with floor-to-ceiling windows wherever possible and uses jacquard prints in royal blue and gold tones to make the most of the sea views. High ceilings and regal domes give the hotel the feel of a true palace, while a variety of activities on the premises ensure guests don’t miss out, including the bustling hotel itself, the opulent casino and the luxurious spa.
Macau isn’t all about the nightlife, and its southern island climate makes for some beautiful landscapes. Hidden behind a grove of trees and located a short drive away from the casino district, the quieter Grand Lapa (956-1110 Avenida Da Amizade) offers clean and modern business-style rooms with ocean views and plenty of relaxation facilities for a city escape. Guests can take some time out from the hustle and bustle at the outdoor family-friendly pool area and the terraced breakfast restaurant, both shrouded in greenery, to experience Macau’s sub-tropical climate.
It’s a little hard to distinguish the MGM Grand Casino Hotel (Avenida Dr. Sun Yat Sen Nape) from an adult theme park. The building stands as three phases of shimmering bronze, silver and gold, and not an inch of the place lacks extravagant adornments. The first phase of the hotel is a public gallery divided into four wings of North, South, East and West. Here, there is a large variety of restaurants of both Chinese and European cuisine, meeting and banquet rooms, art galleries, an aquarium and even its own theatre which regularly hosts celebrity concerts and Broadway shows. The second and third phases are limited to hotel guests, where they are able to access their private rooms and the rooftop infinity pool.
For those seeking little more than a bed for the night, Villa Hou Va (1/F, No.86 Rua Da Ribeira Do Patane) provides clean budget rooms in a local walk-up building with a simple check-in and check-out process, leaving more time to enjoy what the real streets of Macau have to offer.
Most stop-overs in Macau are short, but one thing that demands time for sampling is their signature egg tarts. Glazed and burnt over like a crème brulee, Macau’s egg tarts have a thin, crispy layer on the outside with a thick, gooey egg custard waiting to ooze out upon the first bite. Local café Margaret’s Café e Nata (17B Goldlion building, Rua do Comandante Mata e Oliveira) is the perfect place to sample these, along with some of Macau’s other Portuguese fusion pastries.
Although visitors won’t be far from the dim sum centrals of Hong Kong and Guangdong, Macau’s locals serve up their own take on the meal at Tou Tou Koi (6-8 Travessa do Mastro), and it’s worth the visit to explore how different regions of Southern China prepare their dim sum dishes differently. Macau’s dim sum highlights are dumplings with fresh seafood, sourced from their shoreline location, and crispy pastries refined by Portuguese patisserie influences.
A quick, in-and-out style of dining for the busy traveller can be found at Nam Peng Café (85-85A Rua de Cinco de Outubro), where fast-food style dim sum, as well as oily ramen and Chinese roasted meat sandwiches, can be picked up and enjoyed for an easy meal on the go at any time of the day.
To taste some of Macau’s colonial history, Dom Galo Portuguese Restaurant (32 Avenida Sir Anders Ljungstedt) serves up traditional Portuguese plates, with a big Macanese emphasis on seafood dishes, where the menu includes a wide variety of seafood paellas and oyster dishes. With the walls painted bright yellows and blues, and the authenticity of the food on the table, it’s easy to forget which continent you’re dining in.
Culture and History
The most popular sightseeing spot in Macau is the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Rua de Sao Paulo), and upon arrival, it’s not hard to see why. The magnificent archway that once stood as the cathedral entrance sits at the top of a hill like an ancient gateway to Macau, its bricks stained with the patina of the region’s secrets and history.
To stop for a tea break with a slice of education on the side, the Macau Tea Culture Museum (Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida) offers free admission and often holds tea ceremonies, where Macau’s history of tea is told and local brews can be sampled. The architecture is also a unique marvel, where the exterior could be mistaken for a European villa, yet the interior is very typical of a Chinese tea house.
A smaller find whilst exploring the streets of Macau, the Lin Kai Temple (No.21-35 Travessa da Corda) sits modestly in against grey residential buildings and can be found by following the strong scents of burning incense. Despite the temple being small, the Lin Kai Temple is a big tourist attraction because of its normality, and the stark reds of the Buddhist symbolism create an artistic contrast to its plain location.
Built by the Portuguese on the highest point of Macau, the Fortress of Guia Lighthouse (Guia Hill) stood as a look-out point when other European regions sought to overthrow the Portuguese stronghold. The white and yellow lighthouse now stands as a beautiful UNESCO heritage site next to the Guia Chapel, which is also open for viewing.
Those seeking to make the most out of Macau’s cultural blend can find their take-homes at The Portuguese Corner Shop (8 Calcada da Igreja de Sao Lazaro). Unlike the modern-day corner shop: this little store houses eclectic collections of traditional home-made jams, European healthcare imports and Portuguese cooking essentials. The soap collections here are also quite unusual, with scents including tobacco blossom and spring lettuce.
Gamblers come to Macau to spend big money at the casinos through the night, and on designer goods at One Central Macau (Avenida de Sagres) the next day. Hosting designer brands from Dior to Luis Vuitton, the decadent mall also has a variety of upscale restaurants and bars with extravagance coming from the attention to the finer details, including the crystal champagne flutes.
For smaller spends, local stores can be found in the floors of high street retailer Macao Ginza Plaza (1-15 Rua de Pedro Nolasco da Silva). Here, there are plenty of one-of-a-kind clothing boutiques, tea emporiums, small bakeries with packaged sweet treats, and Chinese medicine stores selling herbal remedies to the smallest of ailments.
Book lovers and linguistics enthusiasts can lose themselves for hours in Livraria (16-18 Rua de S. Domingos). This vibrant Portuguese book shop sells everything from fictional classics to travelogues in languages including, and certainly not limited to, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, English and French. The store holds a quirky initiative through its doors known as ‘Blind Date with a Book’. The owner’s top picks are wrapped up in brown paper so customers truly don’t judge a book by its cover, and make their choice based on the comments written on the packages.