Macao, China’s first and last European colony, blends the contemporary with the traditional seamlessly. The historic influence of 400 years under Portuguese rule is strongly embedded into its character and unique identity.
I look outside my window as my flight lowers into Hong Kong. The azure blue waters of the ocean are dotted with ships and boats and at one point they are so close that I am wondering if the flight is lowering into the sea. However, I soon notice that the airstrip is next to the ocean, as is the ferry terminal to my eventual destination of Macao.
The historic center of Macao has been a World Heritage Center since July 2005 and is an ode to cultural exchanges between the East and West spanning more than 400 years.
I begin my sojourn at the famed Ruins of St. Paul’s. The majestic 84 feet (25.5 meters) high façade boasts a mix of Eastern and Western styles with motifs of Christianity inscribed in Chinese. This façade is what remained after a fire in 1835 burnt the Church of St Paul—also known as Mater Dei—built between 1602 and 1640. The church was part of St. Paul’s College, the first Western inspired university in the Far East, which was also burnt in the fire.
In proximity is the Na Tcha temple that was originally built in 1888 and rebuilt in 1901. The fact that this temple is almost adjacent to the church is a clear indication of the religious camaraderie of the city.
A favorite character in Chinese folk stories, Na Tcha was a teenage hero endowed with special powers by a Taoist priest. He used his powers to fight against the Sea Dragon King and protect his village. Worshipped as a God of protection, there is a procession that starts from the temple through the town once every year. An adjoining exhibit room here displays excavated remains of tiles, ceramic objects, part of a large stone wall, and old inscriptions.
A quick walk around Macao’s historic center easily reveals over 22 historic buildings. The eclectic Lover’s Lane is flanked with heritage colorful buildings on both sides, offering the perfect Instagram-worthy snapshot. The Senado Square close by is not just a shopper’s landmark, it also features century-old churches and incredibly well-maintained historic buildings too.
Macao’s connection with Portugal is evident everywhere. In fact, the first thing I notice almost immediately is how different the buildings look here compared to other parts of China. The influence of Portuguese architecture is apparent in the cobbled streets, colorful buildings and churches. After all, they had a settlement here from the 16th century, leaving an indelible mark on both the city and its cuisine.
Being an architecture aficionado, I head to the charming sea green hued Taipa Houses—a set of five Portuguese residences built in 1921. Originally used as the residences of senior civil servants, these were revamped in 1991 and converted into a museum site. The Macanese Living Room, Exhibitions Gallery, Creative Casa, Nostalgia House and House for Receptions are part of the Taipa Houses and offer a glimpse into how some of Macao’s residents used to live.
Remember to pay a visit to the only Catholic church in Taipa: ‘Our Lady of Carmel Church’, built in 1885. The ochre-colored, three-storied façade has a distinct Neoclassical architecture that you won’t want to miss seeing.
Macao has a varied food culture that has been dubbed as Macanese cuisine, a mix of Cantonese and Portuguese food. Take the traditional route for food and you will discover some of the best kept secrets of Macao’s old-time eateries. For instance, the quaint Long Wa Tea House is a vintage restaurant serving Chinese-style dim sum and teas. Boasting a large collection of antique teapots, the restaurant is over 50 years old and its sepia toned space will transport you back in time.
To sample the famous egg tart, head to where it was first made—Lord Stow’s Bakery in Coloane Island, founded in 1989. Don’t forget to stop by Wa Sang Hong, a Chinese herbal specialist known for their turtle Jelly, herbal tea and double boiled soup. Likewise, Tai Lei Loi Kei is where the pork chop bun was first made.
After a long day, I headed back to my hotel—MGM Cotai. I happened to look out of my room window and facing me was the replica of the Eiffel tower lit up in dazzling colors, and I couldn’t help but admire how well this city has maintained the equilibrium of the past with the present.
Enjoyed learning about the Portuguese influence in Macao? Discover A Taste of Porto: The Must-Try Food and Drink of Portugal and A Photographer’s Guide to Lisbon, Portugal.