In Macau, temples and colonial architecture vie for space alongside Vegas-style casinos and designer boutiques. But this former Portuguese outpost has always excelled as a cultural melting pot

The Macau Tower and observation deck

The Macau Tower and observation deck

Looking west across the sparkling waters of the Nam Van Lake, and south along the sleek bridge to the bright lights of Taipa, Macau is all space, scale and futuristic sophistication. And there is no better place to take in the views than at the new Mandarin Oriental, Macau, which opened in the summer of 2010 – a modern, luxurious haven, with chic restaurants and a soothing spa, specifically designed to feel a world away from the crowds and buzzy casinos and shops that sit alongside it on the peninsula’s smart Nape waterfront.

The hotel is a fresh example of how cleverly Macau adds the new without replacing the old. Its many centuries as port of call for spice, porcelain, tea and silk traders, for East India Company officials, adventurers and the shipwrecked of the South China Seas have left a rich mix of languages, people, food and gods, all of which coexist. This is the place to give in to and soak up the culture rather than unravel and analyse it; however, an early trip to the Maritime Museum will help set your bearings. A 15-minute stroll west of the hotel, skirting the Outer Harbour along the Avenida Dr Sun Yat-Sen, takes you under the bungee jumpers of the Macau Tower and around the foot of Barra Hill to an impressive modern building on the southern tip of the peninsula. If it looks a lot like a cubist boat, it’s the museum. The cool and cavernous interior is a good place to recover from the heat while studying charts of the trade routes showing who came here and why, and intricate models of what they arrived in. The Portuguese ships that limped into harbour to shelter from storms in the 1550s are tubs compared to the ingenious 100-metre-long paddlewheel boats and five-storey junk warships that the Chinese had launched into these waters, but the men who sailed them stayed and eventually took over, governing Macau until 1999.

The incoming Christians built churches but the old gods remain, and across the museum concourse, the A-Ma Temple, dedicated to the best-loved goddess of seafarers, is loud with firecrackers. It bustles with tourists, Buddhist monks, trinket sellers, families and the devout, waving great fistfuls of incense, squeezing past each other on paths that zigzag up the hillside through painted boulders to prayer rooms and tiled pavilions, where they pray to Taoist goddess A-Ma, or the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kun Lam, or any god they choose, because religion, like everything else in Macau, is an all-embracing fusion. If you manage to get to the top moon gate, a large circular doorway set into the wall of the temple, touch it. They say it will keep you lucky in love.

Such raucous devotion can be hungry, thirsty work. Macau is famous not only for its sweet and savoury dim sum, but for its bacalhao (salted cod) and Portuguese stew. Happily, some of Macau’s best Portuguese restaurants are just a couple of minutes away on Rua do Almirante Sérgio. Restaurante Litoral, where chef Manuela Ferreira serves up hearty home-cooking in quintessentially Portuguese surroundings, is especially good, although you may want a lie down afterwards.

The A-Ma Temple is one of 25 Unesco World Heritage Sites packed into an area of just over 10sq km. Trying to see them all in a day might be pushing it, but take the Rua da Barra and head generally north, and you’ll saunter past the majority.

The past is part of the fabric of modern Macau, and daily life plays out against it

With the exception of the Guia Fortress and Lighthouse in the Colina da Guia park rising above the reservoir on the east of the peninsula, the historic sites, which include churches, more temples, entire squares, a library and sections of city walls, lie left and right of a 3km route. The past is part of the fabric of modern Macau, and daily life plays out against this backdrop.

Macau’s population is almost entirely Chinese: shop signs and fluttering banners are in Chinese, most people speak Cantonese, there’s a preponderance of red, and the aroma of noodle stalls and dim sum restaurants drifts across the streets. The vibrant atmosphere is all very oriental, but the architecture isn’t. The Mandarin’s House, which has its entrance to the left on Travessa de António da Silva, at the point where Rua da Barra becomes Rua do Padre António, is one of only two traditional Chinese houses preserved for posterity as a World Heritage Site (the other being the more modest Lou Kau Mansion, close to Senado Square). The grey brick walls, interconnecting rooms, moon gates and courtyards shouldn’t be out of place here on the Pearl River Delta, but in the historic centre of this strange enclave, old Europe dominates.

From the Mediterranean pinks and blues of nearby leafy Lilau Square, the oldest of the Portuguese residential quarters, to the white and yellows of the many churches, the heart of Macau is a beautifully preserved colonial gem. Two compulsory stops confirm this. The first is at the cobbled and peaceful St Augustine’s Square at the top of Rua de S Lourenco (the continuation of Rua do Padre António), which is flanked by St Joseph’s Seminary, St Augustine’s Church and the sea-green Dom Pedro V Theatre, the first Western-style theatre in the whole of China. The second, a little further north, is at Senado Square, which has the neoclassical buildings and wavy mosaic paving of Lisbon’s famous Pedro IV Square, although the McDonald’s and Starbucks spoil it a bit. If you fancy a fast-food snack here, go local and try a pork chop bun to take away from Leitaria I Son, or have Cantonese noodles in Wong Chi Kei.

The labyrinthine streets around Senado make for entertaining shopping. It’s a case of jumping in and being swept along. The shop signs, a fusion of Portuguese and Chinese (such as ‘Sapateria Tai Fong’ and ‘Merceraria Fong Seng’), and the shrines to district gods and Kwan Tai, the god of riches, literature, war and pawnshops, set up inside the shops or in doorways between them are as fascinating and distracting as the goods on sale.

Different streets are vaguely dedicated to their own particular specialties. Rua da Felicidade (or Street of Happiness) used to be a row of brothels, although today it’s a lovely, spruce little place. Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, a major thoroughfare that runs east and west just south of the square, is full of shops selling affordable paintings, prints and reproductions in which the Buddha and dragons figure large, while further north, on Rua das Estalagens and Rua da Tercena, the windows of dusty curio shops display sheets of stamps, pages from antiquarian books, Mao memorabilia and collectable coins.

Around these streets, too, if you peer through dark doorways, you’ll spot Chinese woodcarvers, watch menders, tailors and tinsmiths at work. The heaving, shadowy Rua de S Paulo, which links Senado to the top tourism destination of the Ruins of St Paul’s, is lined with cake shops and apothecaries, with shrill-voiced vendors inviting in all passers-by, while Rua de S António, the street winding onwards and upwards from St Paul’s, is wider and quieter, and the place to browse pricier antiques, jade, furniture and religious artefacts.

The Chapel of St Frances Xavier

Glass fountain structures on the island of Taipa

Glass fountain structures on the island of Taipa

The Chapel of St Frances Xavier

Once a church and college, St Paul’s is now, a ruin, but a really dramatic one. All that remains is a multi-tiered façade balancing at the top of a flight of stone steps, its windows open to the blue sky, and a crypt below, a resting place of martyrs and now a museum of sacred art. Crafted by Japanese Christians under instruction from an Italian Jesuit, the wall is wonderfully incongruous, featuring biblical inscriptions in Chinese, Mary slaying a seven-headed hydra, a Portuguese ship, saints and a preponderance of chrysanthemums (the national flower of Japan). It’s worth the aching neck to take that in.

Save the legs and take the escalator through the Macau Museum to the battlements of the 17th-century fort where decommissioned cannons point at casinos, churches, the dense urban sprawl and best views of the city. But make time for the museum itself in the bowels of the fort. Much like Macau, this is a lovely, exuberant place where history really comes to life. The middle floor focuses on the Chinese and Portuguese ways of doing things, with a small-scale street, audio recordings of people playing mahjong, firecracker factories and fishermen, and a room made ready for a typical Macanese spread, cha gorda, with a table groaning under the weight of an East-West, cross-cultural high tea of fried rice, dim sum, egg tarts and cream cakes so realistic you’ll need to pause at the café outside.

The Vida Rica restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Macau

The Vida Rica restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Macau

From the Monte Fort area, Rua de S António climbs past old city walls and beyond the bus terminal to the most peaceful spots in the centre. Sometimes, wandering through Macau at dusk, you come across pockets of peace in the shady squares where neighbours have gathered for t’ai chi, or to gracefully dance with bat and ball, but the Luis de Camoes Garden is the prime oasis. A fairly large and surprisingly lush park filled with loud birds, it’s a good place to sit with the paper or study a map. Of course, it’s not quite as peaceful as the Protestant cemetery next to it. One hundred and fifty or so of the sailors, traders, priests and adventurers who arrived from Europe and the States with hopes and plans lie here, under the banyan and frangipani trees, along with their wives and children. Wandering around in the sunshine, reading the inscriptions and tributes, is pleasantly poignant.

Macau, confusingly, refers not only to the peninsula, but to the island of Taipa, which is connected by three bridges, and to Coloane, attached to Taipa by a reclaimed piece of land, the Cotai Strip. Each area has a distinct character of its own. Hác Sá beach at the southeastern tip of Coloane is a contrast to the urban sophistication of the Nape waterfront, but it’s actually only 20 minutes by taxi. The broad, dark sand beach is virtually deserted during the week, although the barbecue pits and the beautiful forested park are popular with big family groups at the weekends. A lengthy but fairly easy trail around the rocky headland will take you past lone fishermen in conical hats and bring you out at Cheoc Van beach.

Wandering around at dusk, you come across pockets of peace in the shady squares

The Ruins of St Paul’s

The Ruins of St Paul’s

After a cold beer or glass of Vinho Verde on the terrace of the Pousada de Coloane, the quaint, intensely-tiled Portuguese inn which overlooks it through the trees, you could either continue around the coast or cut inland to the steamy, sleepy village of Coloane. People come here to see the porcelain figures on the roof of the crimson Taoist temple of Tam Kung, the god of seafarers, but it’s worth the hike for sweet, warm egg tarts from Lord Stow’s Bakery in the village square alone. Although as ubiquitous as pork chop rolls in Macau, selfless research confirms that these pastéis de nata are indeed the best.

Turning onto the Cotai Strip as you return, the sight of Venice spread out to the left, complete with St Mark’s Basilica, bridges and gondoliers is gratifyingly surreal. This, of course, is the Venetian Macau, the largest of the 33-and-counting casinos for which modern-day Macau – and the Cotai Strip, specifically – is famed. If you visit one casino, make it this one. Not for the gambling necessarily, but for the sheer brio and chutzpah deployed by developer Steve Adelson’s design team. The Venetian theme is sustained throughout, so it is possible to wander for hours, from the Ponte di Rialto to St Mark’s Square via the food court and the souvenir shops, past balustrades and gondoliers, all under a gaily-painted Italian summer sky. For those who resist the temptation to squander their earnings on the fruit machines, known as Macau’s ‘hungry tigers’, there is designer shopping galore at the newest chic shopping mall, One Central, which links to Mandarin Oriental, Macau.

The Buddhist temple complex of Kun Lam Tong

The Buddhist temple complex of Kun Lam Tong

The Guia Lighthouse on Guia Hill

The Guia Lighthouse on Guia Hill

But before heading back to the hotel, take a pre-dinner stroll through Taipa Village. Despite the surprising glimpses of modern architecture towering around it, there’s a genuine, old-fashioned, local community feel to this area. Each evening there’s a kind of Macanese paseo of families spanning four generations, parents with toddlers on their shoulders, flirting girls, Japanese tourists following a guide with a flag, and couples arm in arm, up and down the Rua do Cunha. This noisy, colourful street is full of music and cheap and cheerful restaurants and food stores. It’s also the home of one of Macau’s best dessert shops; if you have a sweet tooth, join the queue and hubbub at Casa de Bolos Man Kei for phoenix rolls and almond cakes, and try the famous Serradura cream and biscuit crumb pudding at the Serradura restaurant and add inches to your hips. For Macanese food (literally a fusion of all influences, including Indian and African), queue at Dom Galo for famously good African chicken and clams in a very packed and eccentric setting.

Back at Mandarin Oriental, Macau, beside the Nam Van Lake at night, with the sparkling fountain and neon skyline reflected and rippling on the black water, all the noise and bluster of Macau’s past recedes and the future emerges out of the darkness. This is a front-row view for one of the best man-made panoramas in the world, and very cool it is, too.

Back To Top