Known as the 'Vegas of China', Macau is indeed an epicentre of gambling and glitz. While luxury entertainment here is world-class, the city has much more to offer than that. Macau was a Portuguese colony for 300 years, a history marked by a cultural hybridity that manifests itself in all aspects of life: Chinese temples stand on maritime-themed Portuguese tiles; the sound of Cantonese permeates streets with Portuguese names; and when you're hungry, it could be Chinese dim sum, pastéis de nata (Portuguese egg tarts) or Macanese minchi (ground meat stir-fried with potatoes) that come to the rescue.
Macau Peninsula holds the Unesco World Heritage–crowned old city centre. Further south are the former islands of Taipa and Coloane, joined together by a strip of reclaimed land named Cotai. Taipa has lovely Macanese houses and quaint boutiques; Cotai hosts the new megacasinos; while Coloane is a laidback village with shipyards and beaches.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Macau.
The most treasured icon in Macau, the towering facade and stairway are all that remain of this early-17th-century Jesuit church. With its statues, portals and engravings that effectively make up a ‘sermon in stone’ and a Biblia pauperum (Bible of the poor), the church was one of the greatest monuments to Christianity in Asia, intended to help the illiterate understand the Passion of Christ and the lives of the saints.
St Joseph’s, which falls outside the tourist circuit, is Macau’s most beautiful model of tropicalised baroque architecture. Consecrated in 1758 as part of the Jesuit seminary, it features a scalloped canopy and a staircase leading to the courtyard from which you see the arresting white-and-yellow facade of the church and its dome. The latter is the oldest dome ever built in China. The interior, with its three altars, is lavishly ornamented with overlapping pilasters and attractive Solomonic 'spiral' columns.
The historical part of Taipa is best preserved in this village in the south of the district. An intricate warren of alleys holds traditional Chinese shops and some excellent restaurants, while the broader main roads are punctuated by colonial villas, churches and temples. Rua da Cunha, the main pedestrian drag, is lined with vendors hawking free samples of Macanese almond cookies and beef jerky, and tiny cafes selling egg tarts and serradura pudding.
As the highest point on the peninsula, Guia Fortress affords panoramic views of the city. At the top is the small but stunning Chapel of Our Lady of Guia, built in 1622 and retaining almost 100% of its original features, including frescoes with both Portuguese and Chinese details that are among Asia’s most important. Next to the chapel stands the oldest modern lighthouse (c 1865) on the China coast – a commanding 15m-tall structure, often open every Saturday and Sunday in July.
Macau’s oldest temple was founded in the 13th century, but the present structures date to 1627. The roof ridges are ornately embellished with porcelain figurines and the halls are lavishly decorated, if a little weathered. Inside the main hall stands the likeness of Kun Iam, the Goddess of Mercy; to the left of the altar is a bearded arhat rumoured to represent Marco Polo. The first Sino-American treaty was signed at a round stone table in the temple's terraced gardens in 1844.
This charming building, founded in the 19th century, was the country retreat of the late tycoon Robert Ho Tung, who purchased it in 1918. The colonial edifice, featuring a dome, an arcaded facade, Ionic columns and Chinese-style gardens, was given a modern extension by architect Joy Choi Tin Tin in 2006. The new four-storey structure in glass and steel has Piranesi-inspired bridges connecting to the old house and a glass roof straddling the transitional space.
Tent-like with a long, slanting roof, like hands in prayer, this church was raised in the Ká Hó leper colony in 1966. It was built for use by the female leprosy patients staying at the leprosarium, along with their families and caretakers. Italian architect Oseo Acconci designed the simple and graceful structure. The sturdy wooden door has planks echoing the angularity of the roof and the bell tower. The bronze crucifix was by another Italian, sculptor Francisco Messima.
Facing Largo do Senado is Macau’s most important historical building, the 18th-century ‘Loyal Senate’, which houses the Instituto para os Assuntos Cívicos e Municipais (IACM; Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau). It is so-named because the body sitting here refused to recognise Spain’s sovereignty during the 60 years that it occupied Portugal. In 1654, a dozen years after Portuguese sovereignty was re-established, King João IV ordered a heraldic inscription that is displayed inside the Leal Senado's entrance hall.
Just east of the Ruins of the Church of St Paul, from which it is separated by a pebbled path and picturesque foliage, Monte Fort was built by the Jesuits between 1617 and 1626 to defend the College of the Mother of God against pirates. It was later handed over to the colonial government. Barracks and storehouses were designed to allow the fort to survive a two-year siege, but the cannons were fired only once, during the aborted attempt by the Dutch to invade Macau in 1622.