Some 40 miles west across the Pearl River Delta from Hong Kong lies the former Portuguese enclave of Macau. Occupying a peninsula and a couple of islands of just about 20 square miles in extent, Macau’s atmosphere has been unmistakably shaped by a colonial past – predating Hong Kong’s by nearly three hundred years – which has left old fortresses, Baroque churches, faded mansions, cobbled public squares, unusual food and Portuguese place names in its wake.
But what draws in millions of big-spending tourists from Hong Kong, the mainland and neighboring countries are Macau’s casinos, the only place in China where they have been legalized. Their combined income – reportedly over five billion US dollars annually – now exceeds that of Las Vegas, and has funded a construction boom for themed resorts, roads and large-scale land reclamation. Macau showcases many of the same brands as its Nevada counterpart: MGM, Wynn, and Sands are all in town, while its flagship Venetian Resort – complete with canals and mock Italian piazzas – is currently the largest casino complex on the planet.
Home to 15 museums, over 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and more Michelin-star restaurants per square mile than any other city in the world (besides Paris), the tiny autonomous region of Macau is a destination meant for discovering far more than just gaming.
When Macau’s historic center was added to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list in 2005, it highlighted the strategic and cultural importance, which the territory has had over the centuries. For more than a thousand years, all trade between China and the West was indirectly carried out overland along the Silk Road through Central Asia. But from the fifteenth century onwards, seafaring European nations started making exploratory voyages around the globe, establishing garrisoned ports along the way and creating new maritime trade routes over which they had direct control. Portuguese colonists arrived in the mid-16th century, and developed Macau into a major regional trading post. They held onto it long after it had been eclipsed by Hong Kong as a magnet for merchants – much longer than they held on to Goa or Brazil. Given that the Chinese were forbidden from going abroad to trade themselves, and that other foreigners were not permitted to enter Chinese ports, their trade blossomed and Macau grew immensely wealthy. With the traders came Christianity, and among the luxurious homes and churches built during Macau’s brief half-century of prosperity was the basilica of São Paulo, the facade of which can still be seen today. The church façade—which features columns, biblical statues and Chinese inscriptions and motifs—illustrates the blending of Chinese and Portuguese cultures that took place during this period.
Macau comprises several distinct parts. The largest and most densely settled area is the peninsula, bordering the Chinese mainland to the north, where the original city was located and where most of the historic sights and facilities remain. Off to the southeast and linked to the peninsula by bridges are Taipa and Coloane, once separate islands, and now joined by a low-lying area of reclaimed land known as Cotai, which is being developed as a new entertainment strip. Despite the development, both islands retain quiet pockets of colonial architecture where you can just about imagine yourself in some European village, while Coloane also has a fine beach. It’s all very compact, and it’s possible to get around much of Macau on foot, with public transport available for longer stretches.
A day-trip from Hong Kong is possible (tens of thousands do it every weekend), though you really need a couple of nights to do the place justice. With the world’s longest bridge, which will connect Macau to Hong Kong, set to open later this year, it’s easier than ever to access this waterfront region rich in history, crafts, world-class architecture, and innovative cuisine.
The city is a paradise for food lovers, witha widerange of delicious cuisines from all over the world including unparalleled Macau-style Portuguese cuisine, traditional Cantonese cuisine, as well exotic specialties from Italy, France, Brazil, India, Japan, and Korea. Macanese cuisine typically fuses Chinese with Portuguese elements, further overlaid with tastes from Portugal’s Indian and African colonies. Fresh bread, wine and coffee all feature, as well as an array of dishes ranging from caldo verde (vegetable soup) to bacalhau (dried salted cod). Macau’s most interesting Portuguese colonial dish is probably African chicken, a concoction of Goan and East African influences, comprising chicken grilled with peppers and spices. Other things worth trying include Portuguese baked custard tarts (natas), served in many cafés; almond biscuits, formed in a wooden mould and baked in a charcoal oven, which can be bought by weight in many pastellarias, such as Koi Kei, around São Paulo and Rua da Felicidade; and sheets of pressed roast meat, also sold in pastellarias.Like much of South China, Macau experiences a significant monsoon season. Precipitation is at its worst between April and September when inches of rainfall hover in the double digits. So, for those looking to stay dry and avoid the rain as much as possible, visit the region between October and March when days are just warm enough (60 to 70 degrees on average) and humidity is at its lowest.
AirlinePros partner Air Macau is the flag carrier of Macau, operating service to international destinations, as well as regional service from its hub at Macau International Airport. Air Macau operates a fleet of Airbus A321s, A320s, A319s, and they currently fly to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Chengdu, Ningbo, Xiamen, Nanning, Taiyuan, Chongqing, Zhengzhou, Tianjin, Guiyang, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Osaka, Tokyo, Okinawa, Fukuoka, Seoul, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Da Nang.