Bright lights, poker chips, and gondoliers are all part of the reason most people come to Macao. It’s a city that has become famous for its casinos. But there is life beyond the slot machines.
Macao has a rich Portuguese past, its very own blend of Macanese culture and can claim to be the original city in Asia where East meets West. Below we’ve picked some of the more offbeat things to do in Macao—from a hidden museum commemorating the not so swinging sixties in Macao to the lesser known Bamboo Bay beach.
Explore at an Iberian Pace in the St Lazarus District
Yes, there are the big hitters like the Ruins of St Paul’s and Senado Square to tick off your list, but the best place to get a sense of Portuguese Macao is in the St Lazarus District. The cobblestoned streets, pastel-painted houses, and quiet courtyards give these dozen alleys their very own colonial atmosphere. The centerpiece is the wonderfully preserved St Lazarus church, while cafes and restaurants use the cobblestones to good effect for al fresco dining.
Sit at the Table Where the First China-america Trade Pact Was Signed
That’s right, hidden away in the back garden of the Kun Iam Temple is where the first trade deal between the two soon to be superpowers was inked in 1844. Today, you can still see the stone table and chairs where the plenipotentiaries sat to start a relationship that is now shaping the world.
Step Inside an Imperial Mandarin's House
Portuguese architecture tends to steal the show in Macao, but there are some fantastic examples of Chinese architecture as well. The Mandarin's House is probably the most impressive. Built in the late 19th century in imperial style, the Mandarin’s House is a mini estate of buildings set out along several courtyards. The wooden lattice windows, timbered ceilings, and mother of pearl screens look like they are straight from the set of your favorite kung-fu movie.
Load up on Local Gifts at the Macau Design Centre
Unlike near-neighbour Hong Kong, Macao isn’t really a shopping destination – unless you want to pay too much for fancy handbags and jewels inside the newly minted boutiques at each casino. Instead, try the Macao Design Centre for gifts created by local artists. On the ground floor, you’ll find a collection of startups selling their latest designs – everything from wallets to T-Shirts. The rooftop, meanwhile, often plays host to exhibitions and an outdoor cinema.
Stretch Out on the Sand of Bamboo Bay Beach
It’s Black Sand Beach (Hac Sa) that gets all the attention – and the crowds. Instead, escape the hordes at Bamboo Bay beach (Cheoc Van). You’ll find a neat stretch of sand and a large outdoor swimming pool where you can take a dip when the South China Sea is a bit chilly.
Barter at the Bustle of the Red Market
For something more traditional head to the Red Market, Macao’s oldest. Built in 1934 this grand building has been hosting sellers since the day when the doors first swung open. Today, the focus is on food and produce, while the streets around are filled with flower sellers and mom and pop sized electronic stores.
Explore Carmel Gardens
There are half a dozen prim and proper European style gardens to wander in Macao but Carmel Garden enjoys the best location. Set on a hill overlooking Taipa and the South China Sea, you’ll find beautifully executed beds of flowers, vine-covered gazebos and plenty of benches to rest on away from the bright lights of the casino.
Taste Macanese food at A Lorcha
You’ll find the influence of Portugal in the architecture, the culture and the dinner table in Macao. Macanese cuisine is a fusion of Portuguese spices and Cantonese ingredients. The national dish is Minchi, a mix of minced beef or pork cooked with potatoes, onions, soy sauce and occasionally an egg. There are plenty of Macanese restaurants to choose from in Macao, but many people rate A Lorcha as the best.
Sample a Few Vintages at the Wine Museum
The Portuguese influence in Macao goes beyond the dinner table. You’ll also find it in the local taste for fine wines. Nowhere in Asia has such a long and distinguished culture of serving up grand reds or classic vinho verde. Explore Macao’s history in the wine trade with the somewhat dusty exhibitions at the Wine Museum – made more enjoyable by the tasting of a glass or two of the good stuff at the end of your tour. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see some traditional Fado music.
See the Handover Gifts Museum of Macao
Wonder how the regions of China marked the return of Macao to China? Wonder no more. The handover gifts museum of Macao was built on the site of the handover ceremony of the then colony from Portugal to China and now houses all the gifts given by China’s 56 regions to mark the occasion. You’ll find silk embroidery, calligraphy, and fancy looking vases.
Try Some Traditional Tea Making at the Macao Tea Culture House
Tea making means more to the Cantonese than dipping a tea bag in some hot water. Ignore the collection of teapots at the Macau Tea Culture House and head here on Saturdays and Sundays when they give an exhibition of traditional Chinese tea making skills. Be sure to check ahead of time to find out what time the tea tastings are being held.
Uncover the Macanese Past at G32 Gallery
While much attention is lavished on Macao’s colonial past and the return to China, the decades in between are a bit of mystery. Fill in the blanks with a visit to this small museum inside a typical Macao tenement, where an apartment has been decorated in 1960s style and period fixtures and fittings, You’ll find floral wallpaper, sewing machines, and pastel lampshades. It’s a short but fantastic introduction to life in the colony back in the sixties. At the time of writing, the museum only had limited opening hours on Saturday and Sunday.
Meet the Pandas at the Macao Panda Pavilion
Who doesn’t love the world’s cuddliest bears? Macao is the proud owner of Kai Kai and Xin Xin, a pair of bamboo chomping presents from the mainland. The 3000m2 pavilion must be one of the most luxurious bear pads in the world and includes two separate levels for viewing so you won’t be crushed by the crowds.