Should you happen to be visiting Hong Kong, you should consider a side trip to Macau. There are similarities between the two places but there are also many contrasts.
Just as Hong Kong, in 1999, became a Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China, so did Macau. Prior to that, it was, for over 300 years, a Portuguese colony. This is what makes Macau special, as it is an Asian destination with a European influence. You will see many street signs in Portuguese as well as advertisements. The architecture, the cuisine and the lifestyle all reflect this influence on a trip to Macau.
From Hong Kong, Macau is 60 kilometres/37 miles away and is reached by frequent high-speed ferries which take you there in about 1 hour. Macau is made up of 4 parts. Macau Peninsula contains the main city and is connected to the Chinese mainland. It is where most visitors will spend their time. Taipa is an island to the south which is basically residential and is the location of Macau’s airport. Cotai, also an island, is a strip of reclaimed land and home to many of Macau’s casinos. Coloane is another island, more remote and mountainous with a couple of beaches and several hiking trails. Taipa and Coloane are connected to the city by bridges. Macau has a population of around 12 million. It is busy but not crowded.
Known as the “Las Vegas of China,” Macau is a gambler’s heaven with a number of large world-class casinos. I understand there are at least 35 casinos in Macau. If this is your thing on a trip to Macau, you will be spoilt for choice. However, this is just one small aspect of Macau and only one of many reasons to visit.
The old city on the Macau Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This should be your starting point, specifically at Senado Square (Senate Square), with its wavy black and white paving stones and noted for its old buildings. This is the heart and soul of the city where locals gather and socialize. It contains three major buildings of interest. The first is the impressive Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) Building which was the seat of Portuguese Macau’s government and dates back to 1784. The second is the Holy House of Mercy which was established in 1569, once housing a charitable organization but now a museum displaying items from its previous times. The third is St. Dominic’s Church founded in 1587 by Spanish Dominican priests. The bell tower at the back of the building has been converted into the Museum of Sacred Art with around 300 artifacts on display.
Not far from Senado Square are the Ruins of St. Paul, a church which was first constructed in 1602. It was the most important of Macau’s many churches, with a long and involved history, but burned down in 1835. All that is left today is its large and beautiful facade and front stairway. It is the city’s most famous landmark and is regarded as the greatest monument to Christianity in the East.
From Senado Square, walk up to Guia Fortress on Guia Hill. This is a fortress originally built in the 1600s to ward off any attack by China. Inside are the Chapel of Our Lady of Guia and the tall Guia Lighthouse, said to be the first modern lighthouse on the Chinese coast. The Guia Fortress can be reached by cable car. An important temple on the peninsula is the A-Ma Temple built supposedly to protect merchants and fishermen who went off to sea. Two sides of the gate to the temple are interestingly inscribed with the words, “Boundless Humanity and Generosity” and “Benefiting all Human beings.” One wonderful, attractive and serene venue on the Macau Peninsula is the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden. This is very Chinese in nature as locals come here to practice Tai Chi, play Chinese music, or simply sit and relax amidst the lotus ponds and bamboo groves. Next to the garden is the Macau Tea Culture House, with its displays of teapots and paintings relating to the drink itself.
The Avenida da Republica is one of the most beautiful avenues in Macau and runs along the seacoast of the peninsula. It is Macau’s oldest Portuguese neighbourhood. This tree-lined street has some of the prettiest Portuguese colonial residential buildings which include the residence of the Portuguese Consul-General and the ornate Santa Sancha Palace, once the residence of Macau’s Portuguese governors. The avenue is lined with park benches from which you can sit and take in lovely views of the adjacent Sai Van Lake.
One special street is the Rua da Felicidade (Happiness Street) named probably because it is located in what was once the Red Light District. Today it is an interesting shopping street with stores selling antiques and handicrafts. This area is also popular with movie makers, and several movies including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom have been filmed here.
The Monte Fort is around 400 years old. It is a stone fort offering great views and also the place to see superb sunsets on a trip to Macau. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site together with the Macau Museum which is located inside. It is the best-preserved European construction of its age in East Asia, built in the early 17th century. You can find large cannons on top of its battlements. The Macau Museum is the official museum which presents the history and the current development of Macau. The city also has a large number of museums to please everyone’s interests. They include the Maritime Museum, the Wine Museum, the Grand Prix Museum, The Macau Museum of Art and the Macau Science Centre.
We now come to the Macau Tower. Besides being used for observation and entertainment, the tower is also used for telecommunications and broadcasting. My experience here is something I will never forget. It is a very high tower which is 338 metres/1110 feet tall with observation decks on the 58th and 61st floors. The big attraction here is not only the views of Macau but the skywalk around the edge of the tower. I once duly took part in this with a small group. You are fitted with a harness and then let loose to walk around the edge which has no barrier. I understand that you can also bungee jump and sky jump from this place and climb up the side. The skywalk was enough for me.
Moving on to Taipa, the historical part of the island is well preserved and in its rabbit warren of alleyways, you can see old Chinese shops and also find some excellent restaurants. On the island are some other museums which include the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History with its nine floors of exhibits of religious objects, handicrafts, and architectural models, and the Taipa Houses Museum which displays life during Macau’s colonial era. Food Street attracts many people to savour the true taste of Macau along with Cantonese and Italian cuisine.
Coloane Island has several interesting and historical sites and has maintained many of the traditional ways of Macanese living. Coloane Village itself is a large fishing community with local shops and colourful temples along its narrow lanes. The Chapel of St Francis Xavier is worth a visit. This chapel was built in 1928 to honour St Francis Xavier, a missionary to Japan who died in 1552 and which contains some of the most sacred Christian relics in Asia. Coloane is also a great place for both Portuguese and Macanese restaurants and cafes where you can find one of my favourite desserts, the famous Portuguese egg tart. The Natural and Agrarian Museum is located in a park and displays traditional farming equipment and the island’s distinct fauna and flora.
Just a word on restaurants and eating out on your trip to Macau. Portuguese-style restaurants are everywhere and it is just like dining in Portugal. Another style of dining is with Macanese cuisine, which consists of a blend of Cantonese and Portuguese cuisines, mixed with a few other influences from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and south-east Asia. You will not want for choice of where and what to eat in Macau.
So, if you only take one day away from Hong Kong, you will be well rewarded on your trip to Macau. If you can stop over for 2 or 3 days, you will come to appreciate this unique destination all the more.