Gold Behind the Glitter: The Other Side of Macau

Cash in the casino chips and explore the buzzing tourist destination. | By Mitali Parekh  
Chapel of St. Francis Xavier Macau China
The Chapel of St. Francis Xavier used to house a relic of the saint. Photo: San Hoyano/Oriental Touch/Dinodia

At first glance, Macau is a city of gold. Towering hotels are stacked with casinos and brimming with fortune seekers attempting to out-gleam each other. But there’s another side to Macau, and it’s far from the slot machines and card tables. Once a Portuguese colony, a hideout for pirates, and a Jesuit stronghold, Macau is a hodgepodge of European, Chinese, and local Macanese influences. Macau city is a peninsular region in southern China and was the last European colony in Asia, governed by the Portuguese until the late 1990s.

The peninsula, neighbouring islands of Coloane and Taipa, and the reclaimed Cotai Strip, are dotted with historical gems and cultural treasures, including niche museums and an opera.

Around Macau

China Macau Taipa Island Taipa House Museum

The five colonial-style houses of Taipa Houses-Museum provide an alternative view of Macau by showcasing its Portuguese and Macanese heritage. Photo: Manfred Gottschalk/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

Taipa Houses-Museum

The waterfront at Taipa Praia was prime property for colonial administrators and civil servants, who built bungalows here instead of living in apartments or townhouses in Macau’s Lilau Square. They built family homes in the Portuguese style, with sweeping patios, parlours, kitchens downstairs, and bedrooms upstairs. Five of these pretty mint-and-white painted houses from the early 1920s have been restored and turned into the Taipa Houses-Museum.

Each house is its own mini museum, and together they demonstrate how the Macanese of mixed Portuguese descent lived in the past, and continue to live now. The first house is preserved as a residence, its rooms crowded with restored teak furniture, fourposter beds with gauzy mosquito nets, cold boxes for storing dairy, musical instruments, reading and writing tables, and carved room dividers. Catholicism was the dominant religion of the time, and the master bedrooms have elegantly carved and embellished altars, with kneelers to pray on before tucking in for the night.

Wedding China Macau

Newly betrothed couples posing for pre-wedding photographs are frequently spotted at scenic locations across Macau. Photo: Mitali Parekh

The adjoining houses hold memorabilia from the Coloane and Taipa islands, in the form of maps, and artefacts from important historical events. The focus of another house is Portuguese cultural history, by way of costumes, instruments, and photographs. Outside the museum, newly betrothed couples pout and primp for photographs. Pre-wedding photography is a major ritual in Macau, and couples are shot in traditional Chinese as well as Christian wedding outfits. On any given day, you will see a team of photographers, make-up artists, and a couple posing: he in a sleek tuxedo with spiked hair and she in a fluffy gown. (+853-288271053;; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m, no admission after 4.30 p.m.; entry Macanese Pataca or MOP5/₹42; Tue-Sun, free for adults over 65 and children under 12; entry free on Sunday).

St. Francis Xavier’s Chapel in Coloane holds a surprising connection between Macau and India. This yellow-and-white chapel once held a bone relic of Saint Francis Xavier, whose body now rests at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. As a Jesuit missionary, Xavier spent some time in this region before he died on Shangchuan Island, about 80 kilometres away. He was buried there for some time before his body was excavated and taken to Portuguese India. The chapel here, built in 1928, also has relics of other Catholic martyrs. Unlike the grand, sombre Basilica of Bom Jesus, this chapel is sunny and homely. The alcove behind the pulpit is painted blue with silhouettes of seagulls on top, giving the illusion that the sermons are held underwater. This chapel is meant to honour the humble Jesuit shepherd who loved his community (Ruo do Caetano, Largo Eduardo Marques; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.).

A short walk from the chapel in Coloane, stop at Lord Stow’s bakery for the original Portuguese egg tart. There are other outlets of Lord Stow’s but this one at 1 Rua Do Tassara is where owner Andrew Stow claims to have given the egg tart a Portuguese twist in the 1990s. The little tart contains wobbly, caramelised custard held within a flaky pastry shell. Stow’s is slightly eggier than versions found at other stalls and bakeries. Eat it warm, fresh out of the oven (+853-28882534;; MOP10/₹84).

China Macau Hac-sa beach

The Hac-sa beach at Coloane has plenty of water sports as well as gentle waves, perfect for young children. Photo: Holger Leue/Look/Dinodia

Explore the Terrain

For active travellers, there is some good hiking and beach bumming in the region. The Coloane trails start near the A-Ma goddess statue on Coloane Hill. Tourist shops, kiosks, and newspaper stands stock maps for visitors, and the trails are well marked. The longest one is about eight kilometres and meanders all over the mountain. Shorter trails branch off it, such as the Northeast Coloane Walking Trail or the Long Chao KokCoastal Trail, which has stone outcrops with views of the beach below. There are rest stops, barbecue pits (families carry coal and marinated meats with them), and picnic areas. Sturdy sandals or sports shoes should suffice. It’s a gentle walk in and out of shaded woods and sunny promontories that are perfect for sitting and sipping iced tea.

On the beach, there are picnic tables, food stalls, and convenience stores. All along the waterfront are shops renting kayaks, swimming gear, or offering kite-surfing lessons. If you’ve emptied your pockets at the casinos, there is also beach-side dormitory-style accommodation to be found here (government buses from Macau city to the A-Ma statue MOP5/₹42 and Hac-sa beach for MOP6.40/₹54).

In Macau

China Macau Tai Chi Lou Lim Ieoc Garden

T’ai Chi experts exhibit their skills at the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden. Photo: Godong/Robert Harding/Dinodia

Speed and Swig

The Grand Prix Museum and the Wine Museum are housed in the same building, the Tourism Activities Centre, and these niche institutions are more fun than the casual visitor might expect.

Macau’s Guia circuit is considered one of the toughest Grand Prix racing street circuits in the world, and the Grand Prix Museum displays the mean machines that raced and conquered this track. One of its most popular exhibits is the F3 car that Ayrton Senna drove during the circuit’s inaugural race in 1983. Meanwhile, the Wine Museum, organized by Portugal’s wine-growing regions, with mannequins wearing traditional regional costumes, has wine samplings of various commercially produced bottles. But it also stocks a collection of port wine, the oldest of which dates to 1815. (+853-87984108;; Wed-Mon; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

Chinese Landscape

The Lou Lim Ieoc Garden is created in the style of the classical gardens of Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in China. It’s a good place to enjoy a calm afternoon among foliage. In gazebos located amidst bamboo groves and sweeping trees, cellists, flautists, violinists, and retired members of the Chinese opera practise their art. Lotuses bloom in a pond and koi fish swim underneath while people practice t’ai chi. Look up, look around, and don’t forget to look down—the cobblestones are shaped like swans in flight (No. 10 Estrada de Adolfo Loureiro; entry free; open 6 a.m.-9 p.m.).

Into The Hotels

Art in Macau

Beyond their jade-studded floors and gold-flecked ceilings, hotels in the NAPE neighbourhood use their art collections to distinguish themselves, and entice guests to stay. Foremost is the MGM Macau, where surrealist Salvadore Dali’s “Alice in Wonderland” statue stands outside. His “Dalilian Dancer” twirls in the lobby underneath glass sculptor Dale Chihuly’s “Fiori di Paradiso Ceiling.” Chihuly’s handblown installation has 1,000 rippled, lotus leaf-like pieces suspended in mid-air. The MGM’s Art Space gallery has Chihuly’s “Drawing Wall,” and other temporary exhibitions (; entry free).

MGM Grand Hotel China Macau

The lobby of MGM Macau is a walk-through art gallery with all manner of works on display. Photo: Tibor Bognar/Alamy/Indiapicture

Dancing Water

The City of Dreams resort on the Cotai strip hosts the 1.5 hour show, House of Dancing Water. Developed by Belgium’s Franco Dragone Company, the show takes place in a stage pool that holds 3.7 million gallons of water, in an auditorium with 270° seating. Weaving many elements of Macau’s maritime culture together, the performers enact the story of a Chinese fisherman who is transported to another time, where he befriends a soldier and rescues a princess. This simple tale is told through a mind-boggling range of performing arts—ballet, mild burlesque trapeze acts, martial arts, water ballet, acrobatics, high diving, and even stunt biking—all in the water. (; adults from MOP598/₹5,070, children from MOP419/₹3,552; two shows daily at 5 and 8 p.m.)

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Gold Behind the Glitter”

The Guide

Getting There There are no direct flights from India, and Macau can be reached via a layover at a hub like Bangkok or Beijing. A convenient option is to fly to Hong Kong, from where it is possible to get to Macau by ferry (65 km to the east).

Visa Indians are eligible for a visa on arrival in Macau as well as Hong Kong.

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