Macau was the last European colony in Asia. The handover, from Portugal to China, took place in late 1999, ending more than 440 years under Portuguese rule. Today, this former trading post is a tourism powerhouse, well known for its casinos; its gambling industry is roughly seven times that of Las Vegas. And while these casinos do invite comparisons to Sin City, Macau is more than gambling. Beyond the casinos is another side of Macau, one rich in history and local culture. Here’s how to find it.
The Macau peninsula has two islands, Taipa and Coloane. On the peninsula itself, start off at the excellent Macau Museum to understand the former colony’s storied history. Armed with your newfound knowledge, walk through the old Portuguese residential area, where the cobblestone streets, camphor trees and pastel buildings transport you halfway across the world to a small town in Portugal. Remind yourself you’re still in Asia by paying your respects at A-Ma Temple. Dating back to 1488, this is the oldest Taoist structure in Macau — and the one that gave it its name. The Portuguese pronounced “A-Ma-Gau” (Place of A-Ma) as “Macau.”
On Taipa, the smaller of the two islands, you’ll find quaint Taipa Village. It’s a 20-minute walk from Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel and a nice place to spend an hour or so strolling the cobblestone streets and seeing a slice of old Macau. The Taipa Houses Museum is made up of several beautifully restored 1920s houses painted mint green with crisp white trim. One building is set up as a typical home in early 20th-century colonial Macau, another is a gallery, and the third showcases Portuguese costumes from different regions.
Head to Coloane and wander its pleasant backstreets and along the water, and hike the trails in Coloane Park, which lead to its 557-foot-high peak. Visit the mustard yellow St. Francis Xavier Church, built in baroque style in 1928. You can also experience a different house of worship with a stop at Tam Kung Temple, erected in 1862 and dedicated to a sea deity. Coloane is the place to go to get away from the crowds on the Cotai Strip and to see a proper Macanese village — and, of course, to try one of Macau’s famous egg tarts.
When the Portuguese came to Macau, they used local ingredients to recreate their favorite dishes, and thus Macanese cuisine was born. It’s been heavily influenced by the cuisine of other Portuguese colonies, such as those in India and Africa.
On Coloane is Lord Stow’s Bakery, which opened in 1989. The egg tarts there are served piping hot, their crispy, flaky crusts giving way to a rich, creamy interior. The bakery is takeaway only, but Lord Stow’s has two cafés nearby. There’s a Lord Stow’s outlet at The Venetian, too, but we recommend making the trip to Coloane.
Sitting pretty on the 43rd floor of the Grand Lisboa Hotel, the tallest in Macau, is Four-Star Robuchon au Dôme. Housed in a gilded glass dome, the restaurant is dripping in royal colors and crystal, its glittering décor a sharp contrast to the open, expansive views from its windows. On the menu, which is updated seasonally, you’ll find classic French dishes such as roasted guinea fowl and foie gras for two, served with potato confit, or a soft boiled egg with caviar and smoked salmon.
On the Macau peninsula, a stone’s throw from the Macao Museum, is Albergue 1601. Absolutely charming, the restaurant is found in a cheery yellow colonial house in the St. Lazarus Quarter, and it’s surrounded by verdant camphor trees. The dishes at Albergue 1601 are what you’ll find at many Macanese restaurants — look for African chicken (blackened barbecue chicken in piri piri sauce), warm, fragrant seafood rice and serradura (sweet cream layered with crushed tea biscuits) — but its romantic ambience is nonpareil.
Macau is an easy day-trip from Hong Kong, but it’s worth spending a night or two and availing yourself of Macanese dinner and a show.
The Five-Star Altira Macau is the tallest building on Taipa island, which means knockout views of the Macau peninsula’s dazzling neon lights. Take in the vista from the hotel’s 38th-floor 38 Lounge, where the outdoor seating beckons you for a sundowner during Macau’s mild winter. The hotel is in a quiet residential area, making for a peaceful escape from the frenetic pace on the Cotai Strip. However, when you want some action, it’s easy to hop from the hotel onto jogging or walking trails both flat and hilly. Altira also runs a free hourly shuttle to its sister property City of Dreams, which sits smack dab in the middle of Cotai and is home to regular stage performances such as The House of Dancing Water.
If you’re traveling with kids in tow, book a stay at the 3,000-suite Venetian, one of the world’s largest hotels. Within its plush confines, you can golf, float on a gondola down indoor canals, shop at one of more than 600 duty-free stores (all located in the Shoppes at Venetian, the Shoppes at Cotai Central and the Shoppes at Four Seasons), eat all manner of Chinese dishes and, of course, squeeze in some time at the blackjack table. The Venetian knows how to keep families happy, too. Its Famiglia Suite houses a grown-up master bedroom and bathroom in addition to the kids’ room and bath. The colorful unit is outfitted with bunk beds, a pint-size table and chairs, beanbags, coloring books and crayons, and a Nintendo Wii. Even more exciting for the young (and young at heart) is the massive Kid’s Zone, an area complete with climbing equipment, slides, an air hockey table, video games and plenty of room to run around and let loose.