Macau: A Historical Walking Tour
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Macau in a Nutshell
Macau (Aomen) is possibly the most interesting city in East Asia, yet it is greatly underappreciated. Although fifty percent of its GDP is earned from gambling, something that it is best known for, Macau’s history has a greater claim to its character than slots and craps. While often outshone by its larger and more well-known neighbor, Hong Kong—a great city of unimaginable contrasts and energy—Macau’s historical antecedents make it a must-see for any visitor to the region. The two cities are virtually inseparable as they are connected by scores of ferries that make the trip between the two in just over an hour. The degree of separation will soon be even less physical as plans for a bridge linking the two is underway. While Hong Kong was a one-stop fishing village when the British grudgingly discovered its potential in 1841, Macau already had 300 years of colonial history as an outpost of Portugal settlement, culture, and trade.
In this article, I will lead you on a walking tour in four sections. Please join me on a virtual walk through Macau. I hope it might inspire you to make it a reality!
Brief Historical Background of Macau
Portuguese settlement of the city began in 1535 when the Portuguese gained rights to anchor their ships and trade. In 1557 it became a Portuguese administered trading post and in 1887 a Portuguese colony. On December 20, 1999 it was given back to the People’s Republic of China and is now Special Administrative Region (SAR). You will have to clear customs (even when arriving from Hong Kong) and a valid passport is required. Macau has its own money called the pataca which is pegged to the Hong Kong Dollar. English is widely understood although the official languages are Portuguese and Cantonese.
Exploring Macau on Foot
The best way to see this compact city is to walk it and there is no shortage of sites that inspire a dedicated foot tour of the former Portuguese colony. Numbering 542,200 people, Macau is a densely populated island of 11.39 square miles, or 29.5 kilometers square. Today, Macau is better known for its casinos, but most of them, now huge mega-hotel resort-casinos, line the city’s southeast rim and form a dazzling breakwater with a picket of steel and glass that demarcates the island’s watery contours. Many of them are monuments to tackiness and gaudiness that are handmaidens of the hotel-casino industry. Resembling a Vegas-like scene in this otherwise beautiful city, many would provide perfect backdrops in B-rated films. Once you pass these ungainly monoliths head to the center of the city where a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites quickly erase doubts about the city.
Section 1: A-Ma Temple to Maritime Museum
The best place to begin the walk is from the A-Ma Temple near the southern end of the island. Starting here will prevent backtracking and allow you to beat your way through the streets back towards the Macau Ferry Terminal, assuming that’s your point of arrival and departure. Hail a taxi to the A-Ma Temple from the Macau Ferry Terminal which takes about ten minutes traffic permitting. Taxis are reasonably priced (at the time of writing). Offset by a wide plaza, the A-Ma Temple is easily recognizable and the oldest BuddhistTemple in Macau. Situated across the street from the Macau Maritime Museum there are plenty of landmarks to get your bearings. Established in 1488 the A-MaTemple predates Portuguese settlement in Macau. It is dedicated to seafarers and fisherman and it was in this location that the Portuguese first landed. Wedged in between and among granite boulders, the brilliant red painted structures seem to grow out of the rocks. If time permits visit the Macau Maritime Museum across the street. The museum displays exhibits dating from Macau as a fishing village, and chronicles the respective time periods. It is divided into four main exhibits which include maritime ethnology, maritime history, maritime technology, and finally an aquarium.
Section 2: Maritime Museum to St. Paul's Ruins
From the museum walk along the Rua da Barra, the main drag that separates the aquarium and A-Ma Temple, until you reach the Calcada da Barra Antonio on your right. Take that approximately 500 meters to Sao Lourenco Church (St. Lawrence’s). Built in the 1560s, it has undergone various renovations since the 19th century, most notably in 1846, and has been a church museum since 1990. Surrounded by a quaint garden, the yellow church has a distinctive Chinese tile roof. Continue along this street another 150 meters and turn left at the Dom Pedro V Theater. Sao Jose (St. Joseph’s), another 18th century church, is well known for its acoustics. It was originally established as the focal point for Jesuits to missionary activity in China and dates to 1728. The Dom Pedro V Theater is worth a look: built in 1860 it was China’s first western style theater. Continue across the street and you will reach Sao Agostinho (St. Augustine’s). Dating to 1586, its current baroque style structure mostly dates from 1814 with an elaborate faced that was added in 1875. After visiting Sao Agostinho’s, walk towards the Largo de Senado, the heart of historic Macau, if not the genuine center of the city even today. This is the Senate Square and its beautiful mosaic black and white wave pattern will be enough to remind even the historically challenged or disoriented where you are. The assortment of baroque buildings that surround the square are as beautiful and interesting as any in Europe and this is what makes Macau so unique. Take a closer look by going in to the Leal Senado which faces the square from across Avenida Almeida Riberio. Completed in 1784 its “loyal” (leal in Portuguese) namesake was earned because Macau steadfastedly refused to recognize Spain’s occupation of Portugal in the 17th century. See the following hub for an explanation of what happened. A staircase in this building leads up to a beautiful garden and to the senate chamber and library. Today the building serves as a municipal council building. Across the square is the Santa Casa da Misercordia (holy house of mercy), which was established in 1568 as a mission. Marked by a brilliant white façade it is one of the oldest missions in Asia. Adjacent to this is the Igreja de Sao Domingos (St. Dominic’s Church), an 18th century building that is said to be one of Macau’s best preserved colonial baroque structures. Infused with Chinese roof tiles, timber, and large shuttered windows, its faced has three tiers. The interior is as impressive with delicate stucco and a stone altar. Along the Rua de San Antonio there is the cutoff to the Rua de Sao Paulo and the base of Macau’s most well-known historic monument - the façade of Sao Paulo (St. Paul’s) Church. The Jesuit church was built in 1602 and destroyed in 1835 following a fire; the classical baroque façade was crafted by Japanese Christians from Nagasaki who fled the island’s Christian persecution. Views of Macau from the ruins are spectacular. Adjacent to the ruins is the Fortaleza do Monte constructed in the early 17th century which houses the Macau Museum. The Museum features three floors of excellent exhibits which chronicle both the island’s colonial and Chinese history.
Section 3: St. Paul's Ruins to Lou Lim Loc Gardens
Continue along Rua de San Antonio as it takes a hard right in a north eastern direction. On the left is the Camoes Grotto and Garden, somewhat farther back into the park and cemetery and not easy to find. A jumble of granite boulders is all that it really is but this should not belie the history of the location. It is said that the 16th century Portuguese poet, Luis de Camoes, wrote the epic poem Os Lusiadas here. Go back toward the street and you will notice your left just before the street the half obscured and easy-to-miss entrance to the Old Protestant Cemetery and Chapel. It mostly represents that Anglo-American community that existed in Macau during the 18th and 19th centuries. Well-known interred include George Chinnery (1774-1852) and Robert Morrison (1782-1834), the formers a painter; the latter a Protestant missionary to China who translated the Bible into Chinese. Behind Igreja de Santo Antonio (St. Anthony’s Church), an austere, grayish church, you’ll pick up the route via Rua Tomas Vieira. Before proceeding its worth stopping to recognize that St. Anthony’s sits on the site of Macau’s first chapel built in 1558. The current structure dates from 1940. Pass St. Michael’s Cemetery on your left and turn left on Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida. After passing some vintage 1920s era buildings you’ll come to the walled Lou Lim loc Garden. Inspired by the gardens of Suzhou they are heavily wooded with large ponds. The surroundings are beautiful and a great place to stop and relax. Bamboo groves and pagodas are mixed with pavilions and lotus-filled ponds.
Section 4: Lou Lim Loc Gardens to Mong-Ma Fortress
Back on Estrada Adolfo Loureiro cross Avenida do Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida and go one block to Avenida Sidonio Pais. After a right walk a short stretch to Rua de Silva Mendes and you will come to the Dr. Sun Yat-en Memorial House. Built in the 1930s the house contains photos and memorabilia. Known as the father of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-sen fought to overthrow the established dynastic order and is still revered in both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Sun Yat-sen lived in this house during his stays in Macau and the house was built by his family. Head toward the Guia Fort, the final stop on your walking tour of historic Macau. At Flora Garden at the base of Guia Hill (360’) you can choose to ride a cable car or wlak up via the footpath. Guia Fort is a 17th century construction and contains a working lighthouse that dates to 1865 – the first built along the Chinese coast. There are great views from here as well. Find your way back to the Macau Ferry terminal which sits about 500 meters to the east of Guia Hill. Off the beaten path on the northern part of the island are two more temples that are worth a visit time permitting: Lin Fong and Kun Iam sit off the beaten path. The latter dates to 1627 and is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of mercy, or Guanyin. It also marks the location of the signing of the first Sino-American Treaty in 1844. Atop the hill overlooking temple is the Fortress of Mong-Ma built in 1849 to provide protection for the Portas do Cerco in 1870. This gateway now provides a portal between Macau and Zhuhai, China. The Lin Fong (LotusTemple) is a Taoist Temple dating from 1592. It’s well known for its mythological stone animals.