More than a dash of European flair fills the streets of Macau. Macau is a fascinating destination where east meets west.
I’m standing in the centre of Senado Square with my eyes shut, listening to the sounds of the city. The voices of the crowd in Macau’s Senado Square are a symphony of Cantonese, Mandarin and English. I open my eyes and – for a brief moment I convince myself I’m somewhere in Europe. But I’m not in Europe. Macau is on the western banks of the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province, 60km south west of Hong Kong.
The compact region is rich in European architecture and Macau’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage gem with a distinctive Portuguese flavour. Think cobblestone streets with pastel European-style townhouses.
Even the street names give away Macau’s heritage. Drive along the tree-lined Rua da Praia Grande or stroll down the broad Avenida Almeida Ribeiro and you’ll spot a blend of Chinese and Mediterranean architecture.
There are streets with intriguing Portuguese names like Avenida do Coronel Mesquita, Rua das Estalagens and Avenida do Almirante Lacerda.
This rich heritage is a legacy of Macau’s colourful past. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders came to Macau seeking the fabled land Marco Polo had called Cathay. They discovered Macau and the colony prospered. The Portuguese were followed by Jesuit missionaries who turned Macau into Asia’s religious hub.
Those golden years left Macau with a legacy of historic buildings, plazas and churches.
Macau has some beautiful churches located in picturesque settings. For instance, the Chapel of Our Lady Guia is high on a hill and has views of the city and the Chapel of St Francis Xavier is in the picture-book Coloane Village.
Macau’s most famous landmark is the Ruins of St Paul’s, which was built in 1602 adjoining the Jesuit College of St. Paul’s. This was where missionaries studied the Chinese language before they were sent to serve in Beijing, at the Ming Emperor’s Court. The Jesuits embedded themselves into China as advisers, astronomers and mathematicians.
While the Portuguese played a major role in shaping Macau’s heritage, it’s easy to forget that Macau is part of China. Actually, Macau is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China. Macau has its own legal system, police force, monetary system, customs policy and immigration policy.
There are plenty of other signs revealing Macau’s unique blend of eastern and western culture.
The city’s laneways are filled with shops selling dried meats, local cookies and cakes and Chinese vegetables. The scent of Chinese and Macanese cooking wafts through the air.
Macau is a city of Chinese temples, such as the Taoist Lin Fong Temple, which was once an inn for visiting mandarins, and the Kun Iam Temple, which is a complex of 15th-century prayer halls and funeral parlours. The latter has an impressive 20m tall gilded bronze statue that stands at the edge of the harbour.
Most people who visit Macau have A Ma Temple at the top of the list. Built by fishermen in the 16th century in honour of the sea goddess, the temple is an impressive labyrinth of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards linked by winding stone paths and moon-shaped gates.
In the north, alongside the Barrier Gate is the lovely Sun Yat-Sen Park, created to honour the founder of the Chinese Republic.
Portugal formally conceded control of Macau to China in 1999. When that occurred, Macau’s residents were offered the opportunity to apply for Portuguese citizenship and move to Portugal. Many stayed in Macau and the city has continued to prosper.
These days, Macau’s Cotai Strip – the strip of land between Coloane and Taipa Islands – is giving Las Vegas a run for its money. All the big names are competing for a slice of the pie. The Cotai Strip is a drawcard for serious punters who flock to try their luck at one of the many new casino resorts. There’s Wynn Macau, Venetian Macao, City of Dreams and Sands Cotai Central, which has a trio of hotels as well as a well-patronised casino.
City of Dreams has an Australian connection. It’s a partnership between James Packer’s Crown Limited and Lawrence Ho, the son of Macau casino veteran Stanley Ho.
Macau’s Cotai Strip is not just a Mecca of gaming tables and poker machines, it also has plenty of other attractions. The entertainment precincts are exciting hubs with luxury hotels, sleek bars, fine-dining restaurants and high-end shops.
There are impressive floor shows (don’t miss The House of Dancing Water for spectacular special effects and acrobatic feats) and audio-visual entertainment such as the musical water fountains display in front of Wynn Macau. The nightly water show is a wondrous sight at night.
Australian passport holders can stay in Macau for up to 30 days without requiring a visa. Macau’s currency is the Pataca (MOP) but the Hong Kong dollar is accepted in most places in Macau.