Discover Macao's colourful heritage and diverse food offerings

Street art at Escada Do Coxo. — Photos: FLOREY D. MIKIL/The Star

Every which way you angle your camera, the possibility of capturing a decent photo sans strangers in the background is indubitably low. This was our first-hand experience at Macao’s famous Ruins Of Saint Paul’s, despite us stopping by between 4pm and 5pm – on a weekday, to boot – when the crowd had supposedly thinned out.

Unsurprising, since the towering remains of the 17th century historical landmark is a must-see when in Macao.

For the casual tourists, it serves as a stunning backdrop for vacation photos. And for the historically inclined, it is a window to the past, a remnant of the days when the Portuguese reigned over the little land that sits on the Pearl River Delta’s southwest side.

Here’s a brief history on this special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic Of China: Macao was leased to Portugal to be used as a trading post in 1557, and remained under Portuguese administration up until its return to China on Dec 20, 1999.

The 442 years’ worth of interaction and integration between the Portuguese and locals transformed Macao into the melting pot that it is today. The amalgamation of both sides’ distinct culture and heritage birthed “the Macanese” (a simplified explanation of this term would be Macao people of mixed Chinese and Portuguese descent).

For travellers on their inaugural visit to Macao, hopefully reading our recent exploration will offer you insights on where to go to experience the region’s multicultural offerings.

The Ruins of Saint Paul’s is a popular spot for photography. — Photos: FLOREY D. MIKIL/The StarThe Ruins of Saint Paul’s is a popular spot for photography. — Photos: FLOREY D. MIKIL/The Star

From the peninsula

It was on a relatively cool springtime afternoon that we found ourselves on the steps of the Ruins Of Saint Paul’s, admiring the imposing structure that was classified in 2005 as a Unesco World Heritage site.

It is one of the 30 monuments and urban squares that collectively make up the “Historic Centre of Macao”. Another two, Na Tcha Temple and The Section Of The Old City Walls, stand within the same compound.

We later ventured down to the nearby Love Lane. Walking past its pastel-coloured buildings, we turned left onto Rua de Sao Paulo, passing several tchotchke shops with salesladies beckoning us to enter. We continued to the less explored Rua dos Ervanarios, where small shops selling everything from handicraft to Coca-Cola memorabilia lined the paved street that was brightly lit with neon lights.

Our stroll continued to St Dominic’s Square, where we made a quick detour to MinMPlaza, a multi-storey souvenir store selling locally-made products (the “MinM” stands for “made in Macao”). Further down the paved roads are Cathedral Square and Senado Square; all these three squares are also part of the historic centre.

From Senado Square, a roughly five-minute walk up an incline will lead to Dom Pedro V. Theatre, another Historic Centre Of Macao site. When it was built in 1860, it was the first theatre in China to boast Western features.

We had the pleasure of watching a Fado – a music genre that originated in Portugal in the 1820s – performance at the theatre one evening. After the performance, we took a six-minute walk down to Rua da Felicidade, to Belos Tempos specifically.

Ana Manhão, the restaurant’s friendly owner who speaks fluent Cantonese, Portuguese and English, served us a hearty Macanese cuisine dinner – a tantalising blend of Portuguese and Chinese gastronomy that is actually recognised by Unesco as the world’s “first fusion food”.

Among the food we had was bacalhau (dried and salted cod), served as pastéis (oval-shaped fritters) and cod fish à brás (mixed with eggs, onions and julienne potatoes). Dinner closed with two desserts: genetes (cornstarch cookies) and serradura (aka Sawdust Pudding).

To further immerse ourselves in the local scene, we also visited Sam Chan Dang or Rotunda de Carlos da Maia. A sharp contrast to the glitzy glamour of Cotai’s shopping malls, here humble stalls and small shops vend goods that are largely locally-made.

You’d have noticed that so far these have only been the places in the main peninsula – Macau Peninsula (the “Macau” spelling here is influenced by the Portuguese, while “Macao” is the standardised English spelling today). It is the part most steeped in history as it was from here that Macao grew.

Land reclamation starting from the 17th century led to further expansion, including the formation of Cotai that now connects the islands Taipa and Coloane.

A tourist photographing street art at Coloane Village.A tourist photographing street art at Coloane Village.

Colourful islands

While both Taipa and Coloane share landscapes dotted with colonial buildings, the latter is decidedly more laid-back than the former.

Our day in Taipa started out peaceful enough, as we spent the morning changing into traditional Portuguese costumes at a little shop called Vestuário de Lisboa, which was hidden within a café called 9¾ The Porte Macau.

Once we began our stroll in Taipa Village, we encountered throngs of tourists. The draw here includes the pastel green Taipa Houses Museum next to the wetlands and the local street food at Rua do Cunha near the Feira do Carmo public square.

Also near the square is Rua dos Clerigos, a street where restaurants serving authentic Portuguese cuisines are located. Among them is Belmonte, where we had a filling lunch that largely featured seafood and cod fish.

Our post-lunch stroll took us down streets adorned with murals. Various Macao artists were commissioned by the Cultural Affairs Bureau to create street art that reflect the region’s multicultural tapestry, which can be found in places like Escada Do Coxo and Travessa da Boa Vista.

Colourful murals also adorn the buildings in neighbouring Coloane, specifically in the sleepy coastal village of the same name. A less than three-minute drive from Macao Giant Panda Pavilion (which does house other animals, from a red panda to monkeys to flamingos) took us to Coloane Village.

Visitors here enjoy meandering through the narrow streets or strolling leisurely along the riverbank, usually with a freshly-baked Portuguese egg tart in hand bought from the original outlet of the Michelin-recognised Lord Stow’s Bakery.

Savour all the street food that you want in Macao, the amount of walking you’ll do will justify the act. As there are no ride-hailing services like Grab or Uber, you will most likely be taking the buses, or the LRT in Taipa, to get around.

Taxi is an option, but this requires an app or getting your hotel to call one for you. The best option will be taking the shuttle buses from the hotels straight to the attractions you wish to visit.

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