Tiny Macau, an enclave on China’s Pearl Delta, is best known for glitzy casinos but also offers a fun fusion of colonial style and Asian flavours
Macau, upon first sight, seems to be all urban glitz and glamour with giant casinos and vibrant light shows. The Las Vegas of the East, however, holds much more culture and adventure than you’d think.
Founded by Fujian fishermen and farmers from Guangdong, this small island started life as a port called Ou Mun or ‘trading gate’ because of its proximity to the Silk Road where ships would load with silk bound for Rome. This business and trading history brought the Portuguese merchant explorers to Ou Mun, today known as Macau.
This Portuguese influence can still be seen across the whole island with historical European architecture on every street intermingled with Chinese culture and temples. Although Macau may be known for its casinos, it is the history of the autonomous region that draws visitors from across the world.
Take a stroll down the main thoroughfare and sample the cuisine for sale on the street stalls. Squeeze through the crowds to find knick-knacks in the market stalls and souvenir shops before enjoying an ice cream at the Venetian hotel, sampling a taste of Italy in the middle of Asia.
1. Eat local There is a multi-storey marketplace with different floors for different wares. Although by no means pretty, this market, used by the locals, has everything you could possibly need. The fish floor, if you can stand the smell, has fresh seafood for sale. If you’re not in the mood for cooking, a little further up in the never-ending maze of market stalls there’s a place to eat. Although it looks like a British greasy-spoon cafe, the locals recommend this place for a real taste of Macau. Portuguese spice paired with Asian style cooking, large portions and a cheap price make it an unmissable stop. If you can find it!
2. Soak up some history Visit the ruins of St Paul’s and discover what lies behind – and beneath – the ancient façade. Below ground level lies the previous church’s crypt where relics of Japanese and Vietnamese martyrs lie as well as a museum of Sacred Art exhibiting paintings, sculptures and liturgical artefacts from the island’s various churches and monasteries. Free maps can be found all over the tourist areas of the city which will show routes to all of the main churches and museums.
3. Take in the view Macau is a maze of winding back alleys and you can’t predict what will be around the next corner. Colourful Portuguese architecture and Chinese temples can be viewed from above, if you want to tackle the steep steps to the top of Mount Fortress. It gives spectacular view over the city, including the gaudy Grand Lisboa which dominates the skyline in its pineapple-esque stature. Take a seat and read about the history of the fortress whose numerous cannons have only been used once in 1622 when the Dutch invaded Macau.
4. Go Italian The Venetian casino is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Although the attempt to emanate Italy in the middle of Asia doesn’t sound like it should work, the gelato is surprisingly good and it’s a cooling stop off if you’re visiting in the heat of summer.
Here’s a tip…
Try some of the meats on sale in the street food stalls. Most places will allow you to try a certain type before you buy as they vary in flavour and spice level. For vegetarians, the Portuguese egg tarts are a must!
While you’re in the area, take the short boat ride to the nearby island of Hong Kong for some more East meets West adventures.
I wish I’d known…
Get a map straight away. Your hotel or hostel will probably have one for free but there are so many bits and bobs dotted around the island that it would be impossible to experience everything without one. Although the best way to find a hidden treasure is to get lost and stumble upon it, a map will be able to point out historically interesting destinations and tourist information points should you need them. It’s a complicated city – you will get lost.