Settled by Portuguese traders in the mid-16th century in an area already occupied by Chinese farmers and fishermen, Macau fostered exchange between East and West for more than 400 years, reminders of which include traditional Chinese architecture and the oldest Western structures on Chinese soil. There are lots of places to go in Macau that combines the traditions, architecture and cuisines of both China and Portugal.
Little wonder the Historic Centre of Macao was declared a World Heritage Site in 2005, with temples, churches, mansions, squares and other ancient monuments, urban spaces and familiar Macau tourist spots among its 30 protected sites.
My love affair with Macau began in the 1980s when it was still under Portuguese rule before being handed back to the Chinese in 1999.
Its old-world charm is what lures me back, especially its historic neighborhoods laced with narrow, winding streets leading past banyan-shaded squares, pastel-painted colonial architecture and ancient temples.
Scenes of everyday life seem unhurried and timeless, with the chatter of children in school uniform filling the air, elderly gathering in parks and plazas, and women returning from market with food for the evening’s meal.
This walking tour through Penha Peninsula, one of Macau’s oldest neighborhoods and still largely residential, introduces what I consider Macau’s grandest colonial buildings, its most remarkable Chinese mansion and a few of my personal favorites.
A-Ma Temple to Mandarin’s House
Macau’s oldest temple was already here when the Portuguese landed in the 1550s, making this the oldest building in town.
It’s named after A-Ma, the goddess of seafarers, and because local Chinese called the area A Ma Gao (“Place of A Ma”), Portuguese settlers named their new home Macau.
Built along a steep hillside with winding pathways and moon gates, it has prayer pavilions dedicated to deities from Taoism, Buddhism and folk beliefs.
Across the street, about where the Portuguese first stepped ashore, is the Maritime Museum, with displays relating to A-Ma and Macau’s maritime history.
Walking into the interior of Penha Peninsula via Calçada da Barra, you will soon pass the attractive Moorish Barracks on your right, built in 1874 as accommodations for an Indian regiment from Goa and now headquarters of the Maritime Administration.
But it’s farther along that you’ll come to the star of this stroll, the elegant Mandarin’s House.
Built in the 1860s and Macau’s largest remaining Chinese residence, the 60-room complex shows such traditional features as open courtyards, moon gates and Chinese lattice windows but also European influences like French windows.
I wouldn’t miss it. And to think that before restoration began in 2001, the home had deteriorated into a squalid tenement, packed with more than 300 residents.
Lilau Square to St. Augustine’s Square
Across from the mansion is petite Lilau Square, my favorite plaza in the city.
Bordered by gaily-painted homes and shaded by giant banyans, it’s popular with locals, just like in centuries past when housewives came to draw water from the plaza’s natural spring.
Legend has it that anyone who drank from the fountain would return to Macau. The fountain is now dry, but a kiosk sells drinks and children come to play.
St. Augustine’s Square to Rua da Felicidade
About a 10-minute walk away is imposing St. Augustine’s Square, heralded by the Dom Pedro V Theatre, constructed in 1860 as the first Western-style theater in China.
Here, too, is the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, once a private residence built in 1894, and St. Augustine’s Church, erected in 1591 by Spanish Augustinians and famous for its Easter procession.
Walking downhill on Calçada Do Gamboa and then turning right, you will soon recognize Rua da Felicidade on your left by its row of whitewashed buildings with red shutters and doors.
Once a red-light district, its name, appropriately, means Street of Happiness.
At its far end is a lively market with open-fronted shops selling barbecued beef jerky and other local favorites.
Rua Felicidade to Leal Senado
Turning right off Rua da Felicidade, you will find yourself on busy Avenida Almeida Ribeiro, Macau’s main thoroughfare, called San Ma Lo by the Chinese.
On the opposite side is the Tak Seng Pawnshop, now a museum, which once gave patrons down on their luck up to three years to reclaim their possessions; adjoining it is the Cultural Club selling tea, souvenirs and antiques.
Further down, on the right, is Leal Senado, probably Macau’s most imposing colonial building, erected in 1784 for the municipal chamber.
Its small gallery stages changing exhibits related to Macau; it’s free, making it worth a spin through just to see what’s there.