East Meets West: A Guide to Macao

March 3, 2019 Updated: March 3, 2019

MACAO—While in Hong Kong some years ago, I took a ferry across the Pearl River Delta for a day trip. The objective: bungee jump off the tallest thing on earth a person could leap from—Macao’s AJ Hackett Tower. On that overcast day, the view from 765 feet wasn’t too exciting, and little did I know the wealth of heritage and gastronomy sitting right under my nose.

After the adventure, I looked up Macao and quickly realized I’d made the same mistake as many first-time visitors: I’d just breezed through. I atoned for my negligence with a return visit to pay homage to its rich heritage. Like neighboring Hong Kong, it is a Special Administrative Region of China; upon Macao’s handover from Portugal in 1999, China promised the region could maintain its established system of government with a great degree of autonomy. The cultural hybridity seen throughout Macao, resulting from over 400 years of Portuguese rule, is what makes it so unique. Imagine Asian temples and buildings erected on maritime-themed Portuguese tiles, Cantonese banter echoing throughout streets with Portuguese names, and Chinese hot meals accompanied with vinho verde. 

The storied history also makes for an interesting culinary scene. In late 2017, Macao was named an official UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. Macao then dubbed 2018 its official “Year of Gastronomy,” with a mission to educate consumers on the region’s rich culinary culture. This extends well beyond Macao’s 19 Michelin-starred restaurants. Whether traditional dim sum, Portuguese egg tarts, or Macanese minchi (ground meat stir-fried with potatoes), there’s food to fit every budget.

Many think “Macao” and picture the Cotai Strip, which has been likened to an Asian (and clean, essentially crime-free and low-liquor) version of the Las Vegas Strip. While the hotels and entertainment in Cotai are world-class, the city offers much more than luxury and glitz. Instead of casinos, Macao wisely chose to promote its historic sites, culture, and cuisine, becoming one of the fastest growing Asian destinations among U.S. travelers, with a 10.5 percent increase from 2017 to 2018. In October 2018, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the longest bridge in the world, opened for business, making getting to Macao easier than ever.

See streets in bloom during June’s Lotus Flower Festival or the October night skies illuminated during the Macao International Fireworks Display Contest (this year marks the 30th anniversary). Many believe November’s Grand Prix, a 60-year tradition, to be the finest street race circuit in the world. I can personally attest to the splendor of a December visit. The Light Festival, so popular in 2018 that it was extended, showcases beautiful luminary displays with much of the decor in-sync with the holiday season and dazzling projections onto several of the region’s architectural wonders. This year promises to be even bigger, as December marks the 20th anniversary of Macao’s handover from Portugal to China.  

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The annual Grand Prix. (Macao Government Tourism Office)
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Macao Light Festival’s projections shine on St. Paul’s. (Macao Government Tourism Office)

History

In 1557 China gave Portugal the right to settle in Macao in exchange for clearing the area of pirates, making Macao the first European settlement in the Far East. The initially small population of Portuguese merchants rapidly became a growing city and strategic port of call, providing a crucial connection in the export of Chinese silk to Japan.

Although the Portuguese were initially prohibited from fortifying Macao or stockpiling weapons, the Fortaleza do Monte, the historical military center of Macao and now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, was constructed in response to Dutch naval threat. In 1622 the Dutch attempted to take Macao but failed. Portugal formally relinquished Macao as an overseas province in 1974, naming it a “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.” Later, pursuant to an agreement signed by China and Portugal in 1987, Macao became a Special Administrative Region of China in December 1999, ending over 400 years of Portuguese administration.

As the earliest European colony in Asia and the last to be relinquished, Macao’s visible colonial history is remarkable. In many places, so long as I ignored the faces and voices of those around me, I could’ve convinced myself I was in Europe. The Portuguese and Macanese (meaning native-born multiracial people with mixed Portuguese ancestry) populations maintain a presence but most of the population is native Chinese.

Four Districts

Macao was geographically divided into three regions: the Peninsula, often called “the city of Macao,” is connected to the two islands of Taipa and Coloane by bridges. The build-up of the causeway between the two islands forms the fourth region of Cotai, also known as “the Cotai Strip.” Each district is unique, and visitors should take note of their differences when deciding where to rest their head. This diversity is much of what makes Macao such a surprising travel destination.

Macao Peninsula

This northernmost region is connected to the Chinese mainland. You’ll most likely land here if you enter the territory by sea or land, as the main ferry terminal and the mainland border crossing are located here. The Peninsula is the most populous district and center of most tourist activity. What makes this district shine are the historical attractions and buildings from the colonial period. The Old City Center, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, encompasses 25 locations of cultural and historical significance and is best seen by taking the Macao Heritage Walk. Stay here if you want to be close to the heritage.

Must See:

The city’s most famous—and photographed—landmark is considered the greatest monument to Christianity in the East. The Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral refers to what remains of the Church of Mater Dei, built from 1602 to 1640. The church was part of St. Paul’s College, the first Western-styled university in the Far East. It burned down in 1835, leaving only the imposing facade with biblical statues and reliefs. Behind the facade is the Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt, containing archaeological excavations of the site and exhibits on early Christian life in the East.

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A glimpse of the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral through a narrow street on the Macao Peninsula. (Macao Government Tourism Office)

The colorful Largo do Senado (Senate Square) has been the heart of Macao city since the beginning. It’s surrounded by pastel neo-classical buildings that served administrative functions during the Portuguese era. The square is a popular venue for public events, and crowds gather here to socialize and sight-see. From here it’s less than 1,000 feet to Koi Kei Bakery’s main shop, so you might as well pop in for some almond cookies, which make great Macanese gifts.

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Neo-classical buildings around Senate Squaure once served Portuguese administrative purposes. (Macao Government Tourism Office)
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Koi Kei Almond Cookies are a famous Macanese treat. (Macao Government Tourism Office)

I spent several hours at the Handover Gifts Museum of Macao and could’ve gone back for more. The primary exhibit commemorates the handover of Macao from Portugal to China, with a special display gifted to Macao from China’s 56 ethnic groups, each designed with the regional artistic style and heritage in mind. From solid gold to textiles, from carved jade to intricately whittled wood, the displays were stunningly beautiful.

Must Eat: 

Riquexo Cafe is a no-frills destination for traditional Macanese food. Daily options include minchi, an authentic, homey dish of minced meat sauteed with diced potatoes, and their must-try, Galinha Africana, or African chicken, arguably Macao’s most renowned dish. In Macao, spice route ingredients were readily available, and this African-influenced Portuguese dish was adapted by the Chinese. Essentially, it’s chicken baked in a rich sauce of shallots, garlic, peanuts, grated coconut, red pepper, paprika, curry powder, and oyster sauce.

Taipa

The island of Taipa is located just south of the peninsula and accessible by three bridges. This area, the main residential area of Macao, has many new apartment complexes under construction and an abundance of houses and quaint boutiques. Taipa is home to Macau International Airport, Macau Stadium, and Jockey Club racecourse. Stay here if you want to be quite central but want to mix with the locals.

While wandering the narrow streets I discovered durian ice cream and couldn’t resist. Having been raised eating it from time to time, I knew what I was getting into. Further investigation turned up durian candies, durian cookies, and even durian pizza! Despite the polarizing smell, Macao loves durian fruit. If you’re game to taste, Taipa is the place to dive in headfirst.

Must See:

Opened in 2006, the Museum of Taipa and Coloane History, housed in a gorgeous green, refurbished Portuguese building, contains detailed and informative displays of the two islands. On the first floor are excavated relics and other artifacts. On the second floor are religious objects, handicrafts, and architectural models.

The Taipa Houses Museum complex is made up of a row of five colonial houses built in 1921. They have been restored and preserved inside to show the living style of their original owners, well-off Portuguese families who lived in Macao during the first half of the 20th century. I sat outside these homes for well over a half-hour listening to local musicians play.

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The Taipa Houses Museum showcases 1920s Portuguese residences. (Macao Government Tourism Office)

Must Eat:

It’s hard to miss Taipa’s highest building, the 38-floor Altira Macao Resort. Inside there are three world-class eateries—one with a Michelin star. Aurora, offering a Mediterranean and French menu devised by the Portuguese-born chef de cuisine, was a revelation of both modernity and simplicity. Standouts, beyond the impressive wine list, include the spiny lobster ravioli, roasted carabinero prawn, and seared beef strip loin. Also of note: the stunning panoramic views from the outdoor terrace.

Coloane

The southernmost island was formerly a haven for pirates who sought shelter in the many coves. The largely rural Coloane is green and mountainous, making for a nice break from the more crowded areas of Macao. Coloane also has Macao’s best beaches, Cheoc Van and Hac Sa, and many hiking trails. Many residents from other parts of Macao come to Coloane to feast on Macanese cuisine and seafood and relax. Stay here if you want a sense of retreat at the end of the day.

Must See: 

Quiet yet vibrant with color, Coloane Village, the main village on the island is best explored on foot. The narrow lanes are lined with pastel Portuguese-style houses and shops. On the main esplanade, Avenida de Cinco de Outubro, look across the channel to China’s Hengqin Island. Set back from this street, is a tiled square containing a monument dedicated to the fight against piracy. At the far end of the square sits the picturesque Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, flanked by small, casual restaurants.

Must Eat:

One of those restaurants, Nga Tim, with its authentic Portuguese and Chinese fare, is where I had my most memorable meal while taking in the church plaza and waterfront, which surely added to the ambiance. I enjoyed an authentic, deliciously drawn-out dinner of Chinese hot pot, serviced with baijiu, a strong white spirit I couldn’t tolerate too much of, and Portuguese vinho verde wine, which miraculously paired well with everything I ate. Adding to the magic of this particular meal were street musicians, namely an exceptionally talented pair, both playing 12-string guitars, who serenaded me with George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” It can’t be a coincidence they knew that song to be my karaoke go-to. It was a slice of time that will live with me forever—and reasonably priced at that.

Lord Stow’s Bakery, a Macanese institution is famous for its cheesecakes, fruitcakes, sandwiches, and most of all, its Portuguese egg tarts, now famous throughout Asia. These tarts resemble pasteis de nata, a kind of egg tart that originated in Portugal in 1837. The dish has an outer pastry crust and is filled with egg custard, then baked. I am sure I ate no less than two dozen while in Macao, and I have no regrets.

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Egg tarts. (Unsplash)

Cotai

Cotai, the reclaimed and built-up strip of land between Coloane and Taipa, is known as the “Las Vegas Strip” of China. Cotai generates more revenue from gambling than anywhere else on the planet, and more than seven times the revenue generated in Vegas. I’m no gambler, yet this area had plenty to offer me in the way of cuisine and top-tier entertainment. Stay in Cotai to be centrally located, and if you prefer luxury accommodation.

Must Do:

“The House of Dancing Water” show at the City of Dreams Resort is the world’s largest water-based entertainment extravaganza. Running for 90 minutes, the show features jaw-dropping aerial and waterborne acrobatics from over 80 gymnasts, circus artists, dancers, divers, and motorcyclists. The 2,000-seat theater took five years to build to the tune of $250 million. 

The Hollywood-themed Studio City hotel’s Golden Reel is the world’s highest figure-eight Ferris wheel, offering breathtaking views of the city from 430 feet in the air. The only rivaling view in Cotai is from atop The Parisian’s half-scale, 525-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Must Eat:

Located on the 28th floor of Hotel Okura is the elegant yet minimalistic Yamazato. No flourishes necessary, as the breathtaking views serve as an accompaniment to the Japanese sushi and traditional kaiseki dishes. I suggest everything on the menu.

Getting There

There’s no need for a visa as long as travelers hold a valid U.S. or Canadian passport. There are several ways to get to Macao. First is flying directly into Macau International Airport from one of 31 connecting airports in the greater Asian region. Alternatively, the hour-long ferry rides to and from Hong Kong are reliable. Lastly, the bus to Macao via the HKZM Bridge takes just a half-hour.

The New HKZM Bridge

After nine years of construction and with a $20 billion dollar price tag, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, at 34 miles the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge, opened in October 2018 connecting the three cities. The bridge is built to withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake, super typhoon, and strikes by waterborne cargo-vessels. There’s a 4-mile submerged tunnel section running between two artificial islands to keep the bridge from interfering with the busiest shipping lanes of the Pearl River Delta.

The bus runs 24 hours a day and costs from $8 to $10 each way, cheaper than a standard ferry ticket and taking less than half the time.

Climate

Macao is subtropical with hot summers and mild winters. Visitors should note that typhoons often strike from mid-summer to autumn, which could put a stop to many activities there. Although winter is generally mild, there are occasional cold fronts that cause temperatures to drop up to 25 degrees F in a day.

Amanda Burrill sees through an adventurous lens, typically focused on culinary and travel. Her education includes a bachelor’s in archaeology, a master’s in journalism, a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu, and wine and spirits credentials earned while living in Paris. She is a U.S. Navy veteran, Ironman triathlete, high-alpine mountaineer, and injury connoisseur who ruminates on UnchartedLifestyleMag.com

She was a guest of the Macao Government Tourism Office.

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