Macau, in China’s Guangdong Province, is less than 40 miles as the crow flies from Hong Kong – much less if you measure from the Eastern tip of Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. So it’s no surprise that many visitors to its larger neighbour make time for an excursion to see the sights of Macau (also spelled Macao).
We travelled via a TurboJET ferry from the Macau Ferry Terminal in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island directly to Macau Outer Harbour Ferry Terminal. You can travel the same route with Cotai Water Jet, and both operators also run crossings from the China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Tsa Shui, Kowloon. Alternatively, you can fly into Macau International Airport.
We took in most of Macau’s sites in one long day trip, accompanied by a private guide and driver, but many choose to stay one or more night, thanks in part to the burgeoning casino district and its collection of super luxury hotels. Of course, there’s plenty more to Macau than casinos, as we discovered.
Macau’s history has shaped its food, culture and architecture.
Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China; it belongs to China but is governed as an autonomous territory – China is responsible for military defence and foreign affairs but Macau runs its own legal system, police, currency, customs policy and immigration policy. And just like Hong Kong, this came about because of Macau’s colonial history.
Whereas Hong Kong was a British colony (until 1997), Macau belonged to the Portuguese. They arrived there in the 1550s and initially leased the territory from China; it became a Portuguese colony in 1887. It remained Portuguese until 1999 – the last European colony in Asia – when it was returned to China in a treaty signed by both countries. The Joint Declaration stipulated that Macau would be permitted to operate with a high level of autonomy until at least 2049.
Today, Macau is one of the world’s richest places, boasting one of the highest GDP per capita in the world. Much of that will no doubt be down to the gambling industry – to my surprise, Macau surpassed Las Vegas (by total gambling revenue) back in 2007. In fact, it’s often nicknamed Asia’s Las Vegas and many of the familiar big name casinos of Las Vegas have opened equally grand properties in Macau.
In addition to the SAR’s financial success, Macau residents have the fourth highest life expectancy in the world and score very well on education levels.
One of the contributors to the explosive growth of the casinos is the success of land reclamation from the sea – our guide Alorino told us that as of today Macau is 30.4 km² in size; in 1999 it was only 23.8 km² and in 1912 just 11.2 km². And land reclamation is on-going so that figure will continue to go up.
The reason I mention this is to assure you that all the shiny new buildings do not mean that historical Macau has been pulled down to make way – in fact much of it has been maintained and refurbished, and there are a number of districts with strict preservation orders to prevent loss of character.
We started our day with a visit to A-Ma Temple, dedicated to Mazu, the Chinese Taoist sea-goddess and protector of seafarers. Built in 1488, it not only predates the arrival of the Portuguese by more than 60 years, it may also have given Macau its name – when Portuguese sailors first landed here, on the coast near to the temple, they asked the locals where they were. It is thought that a native replied either A-Maa-Gok (‘Pavilion of the Mother’) or A-Ma-Gau (‘Bay of A-Ma’) and from that the Portuguese named the peninsula Macao (Macau in English).
Outside the entrance are two stone lions, guarding the temple from evil. Many worshippers touch one or other for luck before entering.
There are multiple parts to the temple – the Gate Pavilion, the Memorial Arch, and several prayer halls including Hongren (the hall of benevolence, the oldest part of the temple), the Hall of Guan Yin (goddess of Mercy) and the Buddhist Pavilion (currently closed for restoration after a fire last year). It’s well worth climbing up the winding paths through the complex to explore the different altars. In the main courtyard, a large rock features a colourful depiction of a lorcha (a hybrid style of boat developed by the Portuguese, combining a European hull style with Chinese junk rigging); it was carved over 400 years ago and is now coloured with paints. In front of the boulder sits a red metal rack for worshippers to hang their prayer cards and bells, these flutter and tinkle in the breeze.
A-Ma Temple is one of over twenty locations that, together, make up the The Historic Centre of Macau, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.
The most iconic of these must surely be the Ruins of St Paul’s, a facade all the more striking for the lack of a building behind it. The original Mater Dei (mother of God) Church, together with a Jesuit College – the first western university in the Far East – was built in 1580 but the church burned down in a fire in 1601. Construction of a new church started almost immediately and was completed in 1637. The church was the largest Catholic church in East Asia at the time and its three halls and vaulted ceilings were magnificently decorated. In 1835 a violent typhoon destroyed the church once again, leaving only the granite frontage standing. The facade was built by local Chinese artisans together with Japanese Christians (who were fleeing persecution at home during this era) and this is reflected in the decorative carvings; they include a fascinating mix of classic Christian figures and motifs intertwined with Oriental elements including lions and a peony to represent China, a chrysanthemum to represent Japan and a Portuguese sailing ship.
For those interested in learning more, you can visit the Museum of Sacred Art and Crypt which were built when the facade was restored in the 1990s.
Facing the facade, if you take the sloped road to the left, you can see a remaining section of the Old City Walls which surrounded the colonial city in the 16th and 17th centuries The wall has an unusual construction of clay, sand, rice straw, rocks and oyster shells.
Against the walls sits the tiny Na Tcha Temple, built in 1888 to pray for an end to the plague sweeping the region at that time.
Right next to the Ruins of St Paul’s is Monte Fort, a military fortification built on Monte Hill by Jesuit monks almost 400 years ago.
Originally built to protect Jesuit properties from pirates, it was later taken over by the Portuguese for the defence of the colony and played a crucial role in holding off the attempted Dutch invasion of Macau in 1622. The following year, it became the residence of the first Governor of Macau and remained so for successive governors until 1740.
In the early 1800s, two companies of the Portuguese Prince Regent Battalion were stationed here as a local police force.
From 1966 to 1996, a meteorological weather observatory was placed here, until it was relocated to Taipa. During this time, the fort was open to the public as well.
The weather observatory was moved in order to make way for The Macau Museum, which opened in 1998. Housed in a beautiful modern space, the museum has three floors dedicated to the history of Macau from the pre-colonial era, through Portuguese ownership and on to modern day. All of this is placed into the context of what was happening more widely at the time – both in Europe and in East Asia, making for a very informative visit.
Make sure you make time to visit the roof of the Fort, now a beautiful park with impressive views out across the city.
From the museum, we made our way down the wide steps in front of the Ruins of St Paul’s and into the historic town centre. Crowds of people throng the narrow segment of Rua de Sao Paulo that leads down the hill, eager to shop in one of the many specialist stores.
Judging by the huge branded bags many visitors are carrying – many of them are clutching several bags each – the most popular shop is the Pasteria Koi Kei which is in such high demand that it has several outlets on this short road alone, and more across the rest of Macau. Koi Kei specialises in peanut brittle and ginger candy but it has a wide range of other sweets and biscuits including chewy sesame bites and phoenix egg rolls (sweet biscuits made of thin folds of dough with a sheet of nori seaweed folded inside).
Make sure you try bakkwa, a salty-sweet dried meat sold in flat sheets (that shop keepers will cut into smaller strips on request) – originating in China’s Fujian Province, traditional bakkwa is made form pork but these days producers also offer beef, lamb and even chicken versions with many different spices and flavourings.
Another popular bakery chain is Choi Heong Yuen – their crumbly almond biscuits (cookies) are particularly delicious, you can buy them to eat now or in beautiful gift tins as a souvenir. They also sell many of the same items as Koi Kei.
In some of the stores, you can watch a few of the products being made in front of you.
Continue down Sao Paulo onto Rua de Palha, and Rua de Sao Domingos, to reach St Dominic Church, it’s sunny yellow and white frontage impossible to miss. Built in 1587 by Dominicans, it’s open to enter, but be respectful of those who are there to worship. From here the Largo do Senado will take you down to Senado Square, the wide road lined with beautiful European colonial architecture.
Our visit was a few days before Chinese New Year, so the roads and square were being decorated ahead of the celebrations.
If you’re looking for somewhere to pause for a break or a meal, this entire area (from Rua da Ressurreicao up by the St Paul’s facade, down to the square, and all the little side streets along the way) is full of cafes and restaurants offering all kinds of delicious dining.
A few minute walk to the East of Monte Fort and the Ruins of St Paul’s is the St Lazarus district, an area of beautiful colonial era buildings. Today, the neighbourhood is enjoying a renaissance as a hub for entertainment and creative industries, and as such, many of the buildings have been restored, but a few decayed corners remain, lending an air of history to the area.
We paused to take a peek at Albergue SCM. This former poor house was run by Portuguese Catholic charity Santa Casa de Misericordia (SCM) and provided shelter to elderly women. Today, it houses art galleries, creative work spaces and a Portuguese restaurant.
One of Macau’s most lively neighbourhoods is Taipa Village, just a stone’s throw from the new and glitzy casino hotel resorts on the Cotai Strip.
We explored just a fraction of the maze of alleys and narrow streets lined with traditional Chinese shops, restaurants. Rua do Cunha is popular for its food outlets including the same pasteria brands we found along Rua de Sao Paulo in the old town so this is another good place to sample and buy specialist pastries, sweets and bakkwa – you can watch some of the items being made right in front of you too.
Taipa Village is known for its restaurants and considered one of the best places to visit for food. Our dinner at Antonio’s (see below) in the evening was a delicious end to the day.
A few minutes walk from the bustling heart of the village is a row of five early 20th century era houses that have recently been restored. Today, they form the Taipa Houses-Museum and are open to visitors interested in learning about the lives of rich Portuguese residents of Macau. They are also a popular spot for wedding photography, overlooking a small lake that is covered in lotus flowers during the early summer.
We also made time for a whistle stop break at famous Tai Lei Loi Kei, a cafe renowned for its Pork Chop Bun. Established nearly fifty years ago in 1968, the pork chops are certainly delicious but next time I’ll ask for the softer pineapple bun wrapping. The fish balls served with curry sauce are also well worth trying, though be warned, that sauce is fiery hot!
If you want to get away from the glitzy lights of Cotai or the crowds within the old town, the island of Coloane is a good choice, offering some quiet green spaces that would be lovely to explore with more time.
We visited Coloane Village in the late afternoon, and loved the way the amber sunlight washed the yellow and white exterior of the tiny Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, located in the sleepy Eduardo Marques Square. There is a popular seafood restaurant here, showing off the freshness of ingredients swimming around in large tanks. The narrow streets leading off the square are home to food and fresh produce shops, cafes and restaurants and private homes. There are small temples to visit, as well as the pretty church, the doors of which were locked when we visited but which is often open to visitors.
The other reason to visit Coloane Village is to make a pilgrimage to the original location of the now international chain, Lord Stow’s Bakery, lauded for its custard tarts.
Although these are thought to have been introduced by both the English and the Portuguese (the English having a long history of custard tarts that are quite different in style from the Portuguese pastel de nata) there are also records of similar tarts being made in the Guangzhou province a couple of decades before egg tarts began to appear in Hong Kong – the Guangzhou recipe is thought to be a variation of European fruit tarts, rather than the plain custard ones but as butter was difficult to come by, the Guangzhou chefs used lard for their puff pastry instead.
Englishman Andrew Stow first moved to Macau to work as an Industrial Pharmacist in 1979. A few years later, he opened his first business, Tropical Health Foods, which imported various European baking products necessary to make good quality European-style bread.
So well-known did he become that he was quickly given the nickname Lord Stow, though he didn’t have an actual title.
In 1989 he opened Lord Stow’s Bakery, specialising in European cakes and breads. Keen to add egg tarts to his product range, he experimented to create his own recipe combining influences from both Portuguese and English tarts. His recipe also took into account local Chinese tastes – Chinese sweets are often much less sweet than European ones, especially Portuguese.
Stow’s egg tarts quickly gained a loyal following, with press coverage helping to spread the message. He expanded the business into mainland Macau in the early 1990s, and across to Hong Kong in 1997. Now there are stores in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan.
In 2006 the Macau Government awarded Stow with a Medal of Merit for Services to Tourism, recognising him as the creator of the iconic Macau Egg Tart. Sadly, Stow died later that same year.
Today, the business is looked after by his sister Eileen and daughter Audrey.
For me, what I like about these egg tarts is that they are wobblier and eggier than the custard tarts of England, and quite a lot less sweet than those of Portugal. I like too that they are traditionally served warm, though they are just as good cold as our breakfast the next day will attest!
One of the reasons I was keen to visit Macau was to try Macanese food, a unique cuisine that combines ingredients, techniques and flavours from both Portuguese and Chinese cuisines plus many more from other places across the world in which the Portuguese held colonies – India, Africa, South America, Malaysia.
A great place to try Macanese dishes is Restaurante Litoral, located a couple of minutes’ walk from A-Ma Temple. The restaurant is run by Manuela Ferreira, who serves authentic family recipes of the kind long cooked and enjoyed in Macanese homes.
For lunch we shared delicate lamb samosa, a large fresh salad, Casquina a Litoral (baked crab meat in a creamy sauce with breadcrumbs on top), Galinha Africana (barbequed chicken served in a rich, robustly-spiced coconut and peanut sauce), Minchi con arroz e ovo estrelado (a beautifully spiced minced meat and potatoes dish served with rice and fried egg; considered to be the national dish of Macau) plus a couple of sweet desserts from the dessert tray. Everything was absolutely delicious, and there was so much more on the menu I would love to try next time I visit.
Dinner was another memorable meal, this time at Restaurante Antonio, a Portuguese restaurant in Taipa Village. The restaurant was opened in 2008 by renowned Portuguese chef Antonio Coelho who wanted to offer classic Portuguese cooking, made with quality ingredients. The interior is simple and comfortable, and fairly quiet until the restaurant’s resident entertainer takes to his guitar to sing a mix of Portuguese and English-language favourites.
During our meal we enjoy Gambas ao Alhinho (prawns with garlic sauce), Pastéis de Bacalhau (fried codfish cakes), Queijo de Cabra Gratinado, Temperado com Azeite e Mel de Acácia, servido em Pão Torrado com Alface e Vinagre Balsâmico (grilled goat’s cheese with olive oil and Acacia Honey with toast, lettuce and balsamic vinegar), Bife à Portuguesa Com Alho, Vinho Branco, Servido com Presunto, ovo e Batata às Rodelas (Portuguese steak with garlic, pickles, potatoes and white wine sauce topped with Portuguese smoked ham and fried egg) and Lombinho de Porco Preto grelhado com b batata frita e espinafres com molho de alho (barbecue black pork loin with french fries and a vinagraite and garlic sauce). Of these, all but the last were superb, good quality ingredients deftly and simply cooked in classic Portuguese style. The pork loin was not a bad dish, just outshined by the textures, flavours and quality of the rest.
Our meal was washed down with wine from Antonio’s own wine shop, located a few doors away.
At the end of the meal, we were persuaded to try the Crepes Suzette, and delighted when Antonio decided to take on the table-side cooking himself. It was hard not to laugh when he peered at a bottle of brandy (I think), with a generous measure of alcohol within, only to frown that it was not enough and ask for an additional bottle to be brought out. Carefully he cooked the crepes in a staggering amount of butter and sugar, adding the juice and zest of an orange and plenty of Grand Marnier. At the end, he poured in copious amounts of brandy and flames shot up far above his head, but undaunted, he poured in more liqueur from a great height before finally deeming the crepes ready, and serving them in a huge puddle of delicious sauce.
Dining here was a great experience, full of warm hospitality from the staff and shared smiles with fellow diners, especially when encouraged to join in with the singing; that said, for Pete the live entertainment and calls to join in were black marks rather than positives. Food wise, it was enjoyable but quite expensive, and of the two restaurants we ate in, I’d pick Litoral to return to again.
Most of what we wanted to see in Macau was historical – particularly those neighbourhoods that gave an insight into how Portuguese and Chinese architecture, culture and cuisine have merged to create something uniquely Macau. But the one modern building that was firmly on our itinerary was the impressive Macau Tower; at 338 metres it’s one of Asia’s tallest buildings, and visible from miles all around.
As well as the amazing viewing deck which offers a 360° view from the 58th floor, the Tower also boasts a revolving restaurant on the 60th floor, and an activities hub on the 61st where the very brave (or foolhardy) can skywalk around the external walkway, climb up the mast at the tip of the tower or dive off the walkway in a bungee jump or skyjump; the latter offers a slightly slower descent than the bungee.
There are other restaurants also available in the tower plus a couple of shops as well.
Because we had a dedicated guide and driver, we were able to pack in a lot more into a single day than may be possible for most first time visitors without private transport, so factor in extra travel time if you plan to make your own way around Macau, or consider hiring a rental car if you are happy to self drive. Alternatively, stay a night or two and sightsee at a more leisurely pace; check out this guide on where to stay in Macau and this for more ideas on sightseeing in Macau.
Kavey Eats’ visit to Macao was organised and funded by the Macao Government Tourism Office. Many thanks to Alorino Noruega for his wonderful guided introduction to Macau.