Macau is a fascinating place. The former Portuguese colony and trading port have transformed into a tourist paradise with dozens of casinos, hotels and restaurants intertwined with Baroque colonial buildings and Chinese temples. While you won’t come for the natural beauty, you won’t be short of things to do!
Macau was first settled somewhere between 221–206 BC, but the first Chinese didn’t move in until around 1100 AD when thousands fled south to avoid the rampaging Mongols.
It wasn’t until the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century that Macau developed as a major settlement. In 1513, Jorge Álvares became the first Portuguese to land in China. In 1535, Portuguese traders obtained the rights to anchor ships in Macau’s harbours and to carry out trading activities, and sometime in 1552–1553 they obtained temporary permission to erect storage sheds onshore.
Finally, In 1557, the Portuguese established a permanent settlement in Macau, leasing the area for an annual fee of 500 taels (18.9 kilograms / 41.6 pounds) of silver. The Portuguese continued to pay an annual tribute until 1863.
On 1 December 1887, the Qing and Portuguese governments signed the Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking, under which China ceded the right of “perpetual occupation and government of Macao by Portugal” in compliance with the statements of the Protocol of Lisbon. Portugal now had full governmental autonomy in Macau. In return, the Macau puppet Government would assist Hong Kong’s illegal trade of Indian opium, and China would profit from imposing customs taxes.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Beijing government declared the Sino-Portuguese Treaty invalid as an “unequal treaty” force on China by evil foreigners. However, Beijing maintained “the status quo” for the time being.
In 1976, Lisbon redefined Macau as a “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” and granted it a large measure of administrative, financial, and economic autonomy. Three years later, Portugal and China agreed to regard Macau as “a Chinese territory under [temporary] Portuguese administration”. The Chinese and Portuguese commenced negotiations for the official handover of Macau in 1986, and the two governments signed the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration the next year, officially making Macau a special administrative region of China.
The Chinese government assumed formal sovereignty over Macau on 20 December 1999. This event officially marked the end of the Portuguese Empire and European colonialism in Asia.
Where is it
Macau sits in the Pearl River Delta metropolitan region in the south-west of China, the most populated area in the world. With a population of 650,900 in an area of 30.5 km2 Macau is also the most densely populated region in the world.
How to get there
You can’t fly direct to Macau from Australia, but multiple airlines will take you there via their hubs. However, you can fly directly to Hong Kong. From there, it’s a short flight or an hour by ferry.
When to go
The best time to travel is anywhere between October and April. Being so close to the equator, you’re guaranteed to get warm weather despite it technically being the winter months. Avoid going during the hot season, as sky-high temperatures and sweltering humidity will affect your stay.
Where to stay
The Macau most people think of is actually a relatively new piece of reclaimed land called the Cotai strip. This is the pumping gambling and entertainment hub of the island, full of huge Vegas-style casinos like the Venetian and the Parisian. This is the best place to stay if you’re keen to spend a weekend in luxury, play some cards and see some shows.
If you’re more interested in doing the touristy thing, then check out Old Macau. As the name suggests, this part of town predates the expansive properties in Cotai and is the home of most of Macau’s boutique and budget accommodation.
Uber has recently arrived in Macau, so now getting around is easier than ever.
What to see
Most of the 30 000 000 visitors who come to Macau each year are there to gamble. Macau is the only part of China where Casino gambling is legal and explains why some 70% of the tourists who come to visit are from mainland China.
Head to the Cotai strip. There you’ll find a heap of mega-casinos like the Wynn, the Altira and the Banyan Tree. All of the casinos have entertainment hubs and put on spectacular shows and concerts. Yes, there’s even a Cirque du Soleil!
If you’re keener to delve into the colonial history of Macau, then there are some beautiful Baroque buildings to check out. The UNESCO listed Casa Garden is one of the oldest buildings in Macau, built in 1770.
Then there’s the spectacular façade of the Church of St. Paul. The spectacular frontage is all that’s left after the church was destroyed by fire in 1835. Or if you like to see the even seedier side of Macau, check out the shuttered terraces of the Street of Happiness, formerly Macau’s main red light district.
Finish off with a stroll around Guia fortress, built to fight off invading Dutch armies and sporting some spectacular views.
For the more culinarily inclined, the Lee Kum Kee shop, the company that invented oyster sauce, is in Macau. Macau played a significant role in the history of this well-known brand, as the training of the second generation of family onwnership and the first forays into overseas markets occurred during the 44 years Lee Kum Kee was based in the city. Macao offered a larger market and a degree of safety during World War II, as it was the only city in East Asia not occupied by the Japanese military, although it was not entirely free of Japanese control. Even after the corporate headquarters moved to Hong Kong in 1946, the firm maintained its manufacturing in Macau for several years.
Today, you can check out some of the best oyster sauce in the world and learn the history of a fascinating company.
What to eat
All the casinos have fantastic restaurants covering cuisines from Italian to Chinese to French to American burger stands.
If you’re looking for something a little more left field, then you’ve come to the right place! Macau could very well be the home of fusion food. The occupying Portuguese and the local Chinese freely borrowed from each other and the result is delicious! It’s even been given a name – Macanese – and is unique to Macau. Dishes range from fried rice with chorizo, capsicum and olives to beef ribs braised in tamarind. And then there’s the unofficial national dish, minchi. This is ground pork or beef, onions and diced potatoes stir-fried with molasses and soy sauce, and topped with a fried egg and a generous dash of Worcester sauce.
Try one of the food stalls or hole-in-the-wall restaurants in old Macau for some truly unique and delicious food.
How to get around
There’s a heap of taxis and local buses running at all times of the night in Macau. If you feel like day-tripping to Hong Kong head down to the ferry terminal. Uber is now up and running so you can use the rideshare app if you prefer, and all the big casinos offer complimentary shuttle buses to help their guests get around.