I recently went to witness some pals get hitched down in Zhuhai (which incidentally seemed very nice as far as China's seaside options go, though we unfortunately didn't have much chance to explore), and with it being so close and all, thought we'd pop across the water and spend the following day in Macau.
Now, I've been to Macau a couple of times before. In a previous incarnation I went as part of the opening team for a new restaurant opening up in the spectacular Venetian Macau, though I saw very little beyond those walls. In fact, I barely saw daylight for about three days, but that's a whole other story. Anyway, while talking to a friend at the wedding, I mentioned my plans for the next day and was met with the incredulous response "but why would you go to Macau for the day? The casinos must be much more impressive at night..."
The comment stuck with me because I find it such a shame that the glitz and glam of the "new" Macau has become the dominant face of this charming little island with a split personality. On one side you've got the old town. Over-flowing with history, its winding cobbled streets are filled with colonial-era architecture from 442 years as a Portuguese colony mixed in with a vibrant Chinese past and present. On the other, you've got the casinos, their massive structures replete with entire worlds in which the needs to eat, drink, sleep, consume and be entertained are all fulfilled under one roof.
The arrival of the Vegas big guns such as the Venetian and Sands and Wynn has, granted, done much to boost Macau's economy and clean up its game—pre-2002, "Godfather" Stanley Ho ruled the roost and money laundering, prostitution and gangland slayings were the order of the day—and yes, they are incredibly impressive, but there is much more to Macau than just the casinos, and I'd like to take you on a little photo tour of my afternoon, to give a taste of what else is on offer.
Let's start here in the heart of the old town, at the iconic ruins of St. Paul's Cathedral. The most striking of Macau's many heritage sites, the facade and stairway are all that remain of this 17th century church dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle. Built from 1582 to 1602 by the Jesuits, it was destroyed by fire in 1835, but the statues, portals and engravings still stand strong and show an interesting mix of Christian themes with an Oriental flavor. Consider, for example, a woman stepping on a seven-headed hydra, described by Chinese characters as ' Holy Mother tramples the heads of the dragon' (where else can you see the Virgin Mary stomping on the heads of mythical beasts?) Once the largest Catholic church in Asia, it still represents one of the greatest monuments to Christianity in the East and even with hundreds of multicolored umbrellas bobbing up and down in front of it, it's a sight to be seen.
Next, let's take a stroll up the neighboring cobbled streets and make our way to the Fortaleza do Monte...
The "Fort on the Mount" is the historical military center of the 17th century Jesuit holdings in Macau. Covering 1000 square meters, it was equipped with cannons, military barracks and enough ammo and supplies to last out a two-year siege.
Despite all those preparations, the cannons were only used once, when 150 Macanese and Portuguese defenders managed to fight off 800 Dutchmen making a full scale invasion attempt to take the colony in 1622. The cannons have remained positioned as they were. Facing off the threat that came from the south and the sea, today they seem to be trained on more contemporary Macau-invaders.
At 52 meters above sea level, there's a really great panoramic view of the mainland area of Macau to be had, and the park that occupies the platform on top attracts tourists and locals alike, who come to enjoy the history, tranquility and commanding cityscape.
We'll head downhill now to the bustling commercial and cultural center of old Macau, Senado Square. The heart of Macau's urban life for centuries, stepping onto the colorful mosaic pavement of Senado Square is like entering the town square of a successful county town lost somewhere in the Mediterranean. The surrounding neo-classical buildings are softened by pastel colors and sunlight, and the atmosphere, though busy, always feels like it's one step away from siesta.
Among the many historical buildings in this area is the Holy House of Mercy or Santa Casa del Misericorda (below). Home to the oldest charitable organization in Macau, the Holy House of Mercy was established in 1569 and was responsible for the first western style medical clinic and several other social welfare structures that are still in place today. Inside is a museum about the history of the institution and a collection of religious art. Being on a tight time schedule, we just enjoyed the view from the outside:
Another one to look out for here is St. Dominic's Church. Founded by three Spanish Dominican priests in 1587, it is one of the most beautiful churches in Macau—you can't fail to miss its bright yellow walls and green doors and white frosted edges.
Moving on once more, we'll wander over to my favorite street in old Macau, Rua de Felicidade, or "Happiness Street."
This charming little street is lined with red-shuttered shop-houses and was, once-upon-a-time, the heart of the red light district. Today, "happiness" comes in the rather more salubrious form of restaurants, guesthouses and boutiques and it's a good spot to check out some of the local culinary delights with plenty of lunch or snack options available, from dim sum to Portuguese bacalhau. Film buffs will also be pleased to recognize it as the location of several scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Strolling southwards, a steep ascent just before you reach Sai Van Lake (the smaller of the two on this southern point) will take you up to Penha Church. Sitting on the crest of the hill and overlooking the harbor below, this small chapel was founded in 1622 by a group of Dutch sailors after a close shave with Davy Jones' Locker and soon became a place of pilgrimage for sailors setting out on hazardous voyages.
The view up here is stunning and takes in the lakes, the Macau Tower, the impressive Macau-Taipa Bridge and even neighboring cities on the mainland.
Look carefully and you might even see the tiny figures of people throwing themselves from its dizzying heights... of course, they're attached to an elastic cord and bungee right back up again, courtesy of AJ Hackett (the bees-knees of bungee). At 233-meters it's the highest in the world and if you can't quite bring yourself to do the jump, there's also the Skywalk X where you can take in the amazing view (you can see all the way to Hong Kong on a clear day) from the handrail-less, open-air observation deck that encircles the outside, all while safely harnessed up of course. There's also a tamer observation deck complete with the usual windows, bars, shops and restaurants.
Our afternoon was drawing to a close by now, so bungee was out of the question, and instead we meandered back to the hotel to collect our bags and head for the ferry—next stop Hong Kong.
We only had one afternoon there but Macau is well worth a 1-2 day stop to fully experience all that's on offer. From the bright lights, big city vibe of the casinos to the sun-drenched charm of the old town, there's something for everyone, by day or by night.