What comes to mind when you think of Macau?
Casinos? Something to do with Portugal, perhaps?
You'd be correct in either case. Much like neighboring Hong Kong, Macau is an autonomous locality on China's southern coast. The people of Macau have their own currency (the Macanese pataca) and passport, and the population is as diverse as the architecture. The destination is frequently compared to Las Vegas thanks to its abundance of casinos, though Macau is the easy winner when it comes to annual gaming revenue. (Here's a nifty infographic from late 2017 comparing Macau and Vegas, if you're interested!) For a remarkable expanse of time, from 1557 until 1999, Macau was under Portuguese administration. This 442-year stretch of European influence has naturally left its mark on the architecture, food, language, and way of life throughout the region. Macau is a juxtaposition in the truest sense and is easily one of the most fascinating places I've visited so far.
(All photos in this post can be enlarged by clicking on them, btw.)
As you can see from the festive decorations, Macau was still sporting its holiday finest when Johan and I arrived at the end of December following our time in Shanghai.
As Hong Kong and Macau are just a 55-minute ferry ride apart, it's an easy day trip to visit one from the other. While we thought about doing things this way, we ultimately decided to spend a night in Macau to give ourselves more time to wander without having to keep an eye on ferry schedules. I'm glad we did, and I highly recommend doing the same if you have any intention of exploring Macau beyond the casinos or shopping malls.
We stayed at the Hotel Royal Macau, which we ended up with via Hotwire.com (you can choose your area of preference with Hotwire, but you don't know the exact hotel until after you pay) and it proved to be a nice, walkable location along Estrada da Vitoria, not terribly far from the peninsula's ferry terminal. Unfortunately, we weren't able to make it over to the interesting used-to-be-two-islands-but-thanks-to-land-reclamation-is-now-one area comprised of the Taipa, Cotai, and Coloane districts during this visit—but there's always next time.
With limited interest in the casino scene, Johan and I were keen to explore the Portuguese remnants of Macau. Our first stop before taking to the streets was Fortaleza do Monte, a 16th-century Jesuit development later used as a military base. Today, the fort is home to a museum, park, and observatory. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and yields some fantastic views over Macau.
But Macau's greatest vantage points are actually its streets, which are best explored by foot while turning corners and climbing staircases, allowing yourself to get a bit lost in the surreal metropolis.
Don't forget to look down from time to time, as you'll surely admire the splendid Portuguese pavement designs.
This famous facade and its stairs are the Ruins of St. Paul's, a once-grand Catholic church constructed during the first half of the 1600s. The church met its demise in 1835 in a fire during a severe typhoon, and what stands today is the result of preservation and restoration efforts throughout subsequent decades.
Good thing for all the on-foot exploration as it helps with our other hobby: eating.
We could scarcely walk down the crowded Rua de São Paulo (the street leading to the Ruins of St. Paul's) without running into Portuguese egg tarts, almond cookies, and Macau's signature beef and pork jerky offerings every few steps. The latter comes in a wide variety of flavors, and sampling is highly encouraged by the scissor-wielding shopkeepers who cut thick strips of the stuff to present for tasting.
Unfortunately, both Johan and myself failed to take photos of these delicacies; probably because we were too busy either eating jerky samples, contemplating egg tarts, or trying to stay upright in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. As a consolation, please accept this peek into a cookie shop.
One restaurant I can recommend, however, is Mariahzinha, a Portuguese restaurant located on Rua do Monte. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch here, as evidenced by this sandwich stuffed with ham, mortadella, cheese, beef, chorizo, then covered with more cheese and a tomato-based sauce. And an egg, because why not?
This Alvarinho "green" wine made for a lovely pairing, earthy and crisp on a warm day.
While there's no shortage of things to see or eat around Macau, we did notice a distinct lack of bars. Lots of coffee shops and small eateries, but very few places to just sit down and grab a drink without delving into the full restaurant experience. I'd be curious to know if this is due to all the casinos somehow, or if there are high operational costs in Macau for establishments serving alcohol...? If anyone knows, drop a note in the comments please and thanks!
Our short stay in this unique locale made me eager to plan another visit. Macau was well-worth the intermission between Shanghai and our next few days in Hong Kong, and there's still much to see for next time.
Adventures to be continued...