It’s one of those places that’s a bit of a mystery to most. Spelled two ways, Macao or Macau, either works.
Although it lacks the fame and hip reputation of neighboring Hong Kong, just an hour to the north by ferry, like Hong Kong, Macao is a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China.
Its history and geography takes some thought to wrap your head around. Macao is composed of a peninsula and two islands. Thanks to land reclamation efforts, the two islands, Taipa and Coloane, are now connected and form what’s called the COTAI area, home to Asia’s equivalent of the Vegas strip, including a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower and the world’s highest figure-8 Ferris wheel. It’s hard to imagine it was all water before the 1999 handover from Portugal to China.
When cosmopolitan Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 after 156 years of British rule folks took notice. When the red and green Portuguese flag came down in Macao, not so much.
To best appreciate and understand Macao’s allure today, it helps to know a bit about its past as a crossroads between Europe and Asia. In the 1550s, Macao was leased to Portugal as a trading post. For hundreds of years, east existed side-by-side with west. Macao was known as a hub for fishing and shipbuilding. Then in 1999, after 442 years of Portuguese rule, it was returned to China and there were some changes.
Fast forward nearly 20 years, and dozens of casinos call Macao home. There are more than 100 hotels and guesthouses, and Macao can now brag it has more five-star properties than any other destination in the world. With just 360 rooms and suites, the Four Seasons Macao Cotai Strip is considered a boutique property by neighborhood standards. Across the street, the Sheraton Macao Hotel, with a whopping 4,001 rooms and suites, is not only the largest hotel in Macao, it’s also the largest Sheraton in the world. With 19 Michelin-starred restaurants, Macao is arguably also a tough place to be on a diet.
If one were to judge based on the glitz and glamour of the gambling industry that dominates large stretches of the Macao skyline, it would be easy to think its European heritage had been wiped clean. While gaming may be what draws many visitors, don’t let the dazzling lights trick you into losing sight of the real payoff of a visit. As bright as they may be, casinos can’t outshine Macao’s true charm. Its notable Portuguese connection makes it a place in the world where western and Chinese culture co-exist.
“The Historic Centre of Macao” was designated a World Heritage site in 2005. Arguably one of its most famous landmarks, the ruins of St. Paul’s, are all that remain of the once magnificent Christian Church of Mater Dei. Built in 1602, a fire destroyed everything but the imposing façade and grand stairs leading to it in 1835. The façade is unique in that it integrates Christian and Chinese influences. Take time to look and some of the things you’ll see include Chinese lions, statues of Jesuit saints, the Virgin Mary, a Portuguese merchant ship, and statue of Jesus Christ as a young child.
Stand just about anywhere to take in the view, and you’ll most-likely smell or see the burning incense coming from the next-door Na Tcha Temple. Built in the late 1800s, the pair of seemingly unlikely neighbors serve as a symbol of congruous relationship between the Chinese and Portuguese. Wander just a matter of steps and you could bump into a section of the old Portuguese defensive city wall, or find yourself enchanted by the photogenic alley Travessa da Paixao, and its European-style buildings drenched in bubble gum pink.
Traces of the days of Portuguese rule are everywhere. Spend some time roaming through the Historic Center and the pattern of how two strikingly different cultures are not only surviving, but thriving side-by-side is clear and colorful. Storefronts loaded with Portuguese pastel de nata inspired egg tarts, Chinese dim sum, and almond cookies, are located side by side. The Lou Kau Mansion is a traditional Chinese mansion built in 1889 by a prominent Chinese merchant. Step outside and up Travessa da Sé toward Cathedral Square, and it’s the gurgling fountain flanked by blue and white, glazed Portuguese tiles that will have you reaching for your camera.
The Mediterranean atmosphere is particularly robust in Senado Square where 19th century, neo-classical buildings the color of Easter eggs, are surrounded by mosaic waves of black and white Portuguese cobblestones. You feel as though you’ve been transported to Europe. But you are in China. Well, at least according to the map. Welcome to the cultural jackpot that is Macao. Spend time exploring. The payoff is guaranteed.