East meets west in Macau

Travelling Well | Mary O’Brien | Posted on 20 July 2017

There's more to the island of Macau than the bright lights and roulette wheels.

Macau has become the go-to place for many seeking the most dazzling gambling culture in Asia. It’s no surprise that it has four times the revenue of Las Vegas. But away from the bright lights of Macau’s casinos, traditions are still important. 

Walking through the old city, you see local families queuing at a medicine shop. A man takes his caged bird for a walk on a busy street. Across from my hotel, women practise their morning tai chi by the harbour.

Originally a Chinese fishing port, in the 16th century Macau was colonised by Portuguese traders who established an array of buildings impressive enough to see the old city declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

Macau Tower at blue hour The iconic structure, Macau tower standing at the magical timing give a beautiful scenery when all light up from the usual day look.

Macau Tower at blue hour. 

The colony was handed back to China in 1999 (two years after Hong Kong, an hour’s ferry ride away) and is now a Special Administrative Region.

The best time to absorb this culture is first thing in the morning, before the shops have opened and while most visitors are still tucked away in their hotels.

Wander around Senado Square, the heart of Macau since the 16th century. On the western side is the Leal Senado, built in 1784 as a municipal office. It’s been remodelled over the years and the pretty tiled steps leading to the first-floor library are a glimpse of old Portugal.

Further west is one of many beautiful European-style squares with St Augustine’s Church, Sir Robert Ho Tung public library (a charming 1890s villa and gardens) and the 1858 Dom Pedro V Theatre – luckily for me, it’s open. Nearby, office workers sip on coffees at Terra cafe; they could as easily be in Rome or Melbourne.

Macanese people are of mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage, and their recipes incorporate the best of both worlds.

To the east of Senado Square, all signposts lead to the ruins of the Jesuit church St Paul’s, Macau’s best-known historic site. Built in 1602, it was destroyed by fire in 1835 and only the facade remains. Right behind the ruins is the tiny 19th-century Taoist temple Na Tcha.

Macau comprises the old city, set on a peninsula and cut off from mainland China by the historic Border Gate, and two islands, Taipa and Coloane, linked by bridges. The marshy land between the islands was reclaimed to form Cotai, now home to a jaw-dropping number of huge hotels and casinos.

This precinct, like all gambling places, is about creating illusions. You can visit a mini Eiffel Tower at the Parisian, see fake Roman ruins at Fisherman’s Wharf, ride a cable car at Wynn Palace or take a gondola at the Venetian. Shows aren’t on the same scale as Vegas but the Monkey King and House of Dancing Water are local favourites. 

Senado Square, Macau at night

Senado Square, Macau.

close up of a hand holding Portuguese Egg Tart with macau city lights in background

The legendary Portuguese egg tart.

An upside of this glitz is the excellent restaurants, which include 19 Michelin-starred eateries. But seek out Macau’s excellent Portuguese, Chinese and, most importantly, Macanese restaurants. Macanese people are of mixed Chinese and Portuguese heritage, and their recipes incorporate the best of both worlds as well as spices from other colonies.

Within a stone’s throw of the Cotai strip is the centuries-old Taipa village with classical Portuguese buildings and multi-hued houses. Chef Antonio Coelho, whose party trick at restaurant Antonio is to open a wine bottle by slicing off the top with a sword, is a driving force behind the village’s revival.

For a few precious minutes I have Coloane Pier to myself.

Taipa Houses Museum offers a glimpse into times past for the Macanese. For more recent history, visit the rather grand Handover Museum, which contains gifts from different Chinese regions welcoming Macau back into the fold.

Quiet Coloane Island is where I feel closest to the Macau of old. Ignoring the queue for the famous egg tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery, I explore the quaint streets, historic squares, churches and rustic fishing shacks. For a few precious minutes I have Coloane Pier to myself.

There’s no doubt that 21st-century Macau is a busy place but despite the skyscrapers in the distance and a forthcoming bridge from Hong Kong, the Macanese pride in their culture past and present is still palpable.

Visitor tips

  • Visit in the cooler months
    (October-April) so you can walk through the historic quarter in comfort.
  • Take a ferry from Hong Kong airport, Hong Kong Island or Kowloon.
  • Use Hong Kong dollars (interchangeable with Macau patacas), which are easier to get.
  • Take the free buses from the casinos to get around. Taxis and local buses are reasonably priced.             
  • Portuguese fried rice, egg tarts, pork chop buns ... try them!

Photos: Getty Images

close up of a tray with six Moon cakes, Chinese bakery product traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival/ Zhongqiu Festival.

Moon cakes. 

Macau Street food Assortment of various street food snacks, including steamed dumplings and fish balls, Macau

Macau street foods.