A city guide to Macao
The constant traveller: Macao
Words— Kate Dingwall
The city of Macao lives in the minds of many as an island of excess. Once a sleepy island on the South China sea, Macao (or Macau, for foreigners) is now a mecca for the gambling scene: casinos here are zealously exuberant temples of gambling with building costs in the billions. Each is themed, and over-the-top: the Parisian boasts a replica Eiffel Tower, one can traverse the canals of Venice at The Venetian, and the Galaxy complex boasts a rooftop waterpark complete with a lazy river (the world’s longest) and a wave pool.
But amongst the glitz and glamour lies another side of the city, one steeped in history. Ruled by the Portuguese until 1999, threads of the city’s rich history is best found away from the playgrounds of the ultra-wealthy. Roam away from the casino-filled Taipa district and head off the beaten path: street vendors turn out both Portuguese tarts (Pastéis de Nata) and Cantonese steam buns. Architecture is just a cross-cultural, flirting between soaring modernist skyscrapers, serene centuries-old temples, and Portuguese Gothic facades.
But the best way to explore the city isn’t sticking to either side of the city: it’s to explore both sides of the high-low cultural tapestry.
Where to eat
Macao is best experienced by floating between the high and the low ends of the city. Snack on hawker fare on the streets, or opt for W-5 Wagyu and Michelin-starred spots. Hit Happiness Street, once an accordingly-named hub for ladies of the night, and slip into YYT on the Northern corner. It serves up low-end local delicacies—like shark fin soup (sustainably sourced, they urge) and bird’s nest pudding. The latter is literally made from dehydrated birds nest—it may sound unappealing, but it tastes most similar to a coconut pudding. For the less adventurous, stir-fried abalone and crab noodle soup with udon noodles are always a good bet.
Or, spend a languid long lunch trying out Portuguese cuisine. While there will be standard Portuguese fare on most menus—bacalhau and sardines are staples—the more exciting dish here is the African chicken. It’s a dish unique to Macao, invented by Portuguese spice traders who combined spices picked up by sailing up the African coast with peanut butter to make a creamy, spicy baked dish.
But when in China, more regional fare is not to be skipped. Lotus Palace in the Parisian Hotel serves up the most luxurious hot pot around—think lobster and wagyu, and Ying is a Michelin-starred dim sum spot with sweeping views of the city and a specialization in figurative dim sum.
Wherever you end up, a stop at Lord Stow’s in Coloane is a must. They are the inventors of the famed Macanese egg tart—a flaky, buttery pastry that skips the Portuguese nutmeg in favour of creamy English custard.
Where to drink
Wander down to Docas, a mass of bars on Avenida Dr. Sun Yat Sen. It’s a local hotspot, so bars here are low-key and tourist-free. Stay late into the night and order local beers (the favourite here is the aptly named Macao Beer) by the round to prep yourself for the Cantopop Karaoke sessions that start up around midnight.
Once your stomach grows weary of local beer, head up to the bar at the Ritz Carleton and soak in the lap of luxury. The drinking den is situated on the top floor of the lofty hotel, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the entirety of Taipa island. The gin cart is the real move here: a bartender will wheel over a mahogany cart of dozens of different gins, and make you a G&T based on your favourite flavours.
Galleries and museums
When Macao was handed from the Portuguese to the Chinese, the provinces of the country celebrated their new cousin by showering Macao in gifts. Each, more over-the-top than the last. There are 7-foot vases; hand-painted with paints made of precious metals, and giant jade drums. All are now displayed in the Handover Gift Museum.
Things to do
As touristy as it may lean, heading up the Macao Tower is a must. It’s one of the tallest freestanding structures in the world, meaning, it is the place for some of the best views of the city. For the more daring, the tower offers an edge walk around the perimeter or a bungee jump—past jumpers include Kanye West and Anthony Bourdain. Macao is home to a host of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Mount Fortress, an old Portuguese fortress. At the base of the fort is the ruins of St Paul’s, a Portuguese church, juxtaposed by the teeny Na Cha Temple, where locals come to light incense in offering to their ancestors. Nearby is Senado Square, a cobblestoned shopping area with stunning, rainbow-hued Portuguese facades (though current store occupants are high-street clothing stores).
Where to shop
Macao’s luxurious nature means malls are filled with top-name designers (think the Guccis and Pradas of the world). There’s no shortage of these stores, and you’re welcome to max out your credit card having a Pretty Woman-dress up moment, but much of the city’s best shopping is found off the beaten track. Head to any of the market streets and stock up on local delicacies. Spiced jerky is a must —most places will carry a range of flavours, as are almond cookies. Macao Creations sells less edible souvenirs designed by local artisans—t-shirts with cheeky Portuguese tarts and patches and pins playing off Macanese signs.