Just a hop, skip and a ferry ride from Hong Kong’s new cruise terminal, Macao is one of the best destinations for a visit or a shore excursion. Fabulous food, historical sites, great shopping… Mark Chipperfield discovers the best of this island.

Few places have embraced the 21st century with as much gusto as Macao. High-rise towers crowd the skyline, the old fisherman’s wharf has been transformed into a shiny entertainment hub and work on a 50 kilometre road-bridge to Hong Kong is almost complete. And yet an older, more genteel way of life continues.

Young people still flock to street stalls for local delicacies such as pork chop bun and pasteis de nata (egg tarts), while older Mecanese take their caged birds for a stroll around the cobbled streets.

“In Macao we say if the birds are happy, the people will also be happy,” says our guide João Sales. “Don’t be surprised to see people walking in the streets with their birds in a cage – usually it’s a man thing. Women prefer to keep dogs or cats.”

For the past 18 years Macao, an easy 55-minute ferry ride hour south of Hong Kong, has been a Special Administrative Region within China. Before that the tiny enclave, which comprises Peninsula Macao and the islands of Taipa and Coloane, was under Portuguese control for almost 500 years. That colonial legacy is evident in the picturesque town squares, baroque churches and, of course, the local Mecanese food, a fusion of Portuguese, Indian, South American and Chinese cuisine.

Macau Pin 1

But in Macao there are many other cultural legacies at play. Alongside colonial landmarks such as the Ruins of St Paul’s and the much-photographed Senado Square, are historic Miu temples (which combine Buddhist, Taoist and Animist beliefs), Moorish barracks, 19th century theatres and traditional Chinese merchant houses.

But in Macao there are many other cultural legacies at play. Alongside colonial landmarks such as the Ruins of St Paul’s and the much-photographed Senado Square, are historic Miu temples (which combine Buddhist, Taoist and Animist beliefs), Moorish barracks, 19th century theatres and traditional Chinese merchant houses.

“We are not Portugal, but neither are we China,” says our guide João, who has Portuguese, Chinese and Russian blood in his veins. “Macao is something apart.”

Indeed, visitors are immediately bowled over by Macao’s intoxicating combination of thrusting modernity and colonial romance. One minute you can be exploring the back streets of Taipa, now packed with cafes, restaurants and gourmet food outlets, the next stepping into a luxurious modern hotel lobby. The Parisian, inspired by the Palace of Versailles, offers luxury accommodation, restaurants, Renaissance frescos, shopping arcades and a neon-lit replica of the Eiffel Tower.

Macao may be a pint-size destination, but it caters for every type of visitor. Away from the shopping malls, fun parks and giant Ferris wheels, you’ll find museums, street markets and a surprising number of green spaces, such as the wooded hills and beaches of Coloane.

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Although known for its frenetic energy and hedonism, Macao offers plenty of gentler pursuits. Take a quiet stroll through the magnificent Taipa Houses, a row of superbly restored colonial villas, join the worshippers at A-Ma Temple or step back in time at the Grand Prix Museum, which celebrates more than 60 years of motorsport on   Macao’s treacherous road circuit.

Afterwards, drive south to a beachside restaurant, such as the Miramar, in Coloane for a relaxing lunch and sample authentic Portuguese fare such as charcoal grilled sardines, bean stew with black pork ham or suckling pig. Sit back with a chilled glass of white wine, the Albarino is excellent, and ask yourself: are we really in  Macao or is it the Algarve? 

Australian cruise passengers don’t need a visa. There are frequent ferries between Hong Kong Central and Macao and the journey takes less than 60 minutes.

Macau Sendo Square

6 reasons to visit Macao

1. Food

Eating is a mainstay of life in Macao. From Mecanese and Cantonese street food to rustic Portuguese fare and international fine dining, you’ll be impressed by the variety and quality of the food (and wine) on offer.

2. Entertainment

From spectacular dance shows to Chinese opera and world-class magicians, Macao has something to please every age group and interest.

3. Outdoor adventure

Green space is highly valued in Macao. Guia Hill and Taipa both offer pleasant walking and jogging trails, while the enclave of Coloane is popular for mountain biking, windsurfing and other aquatic sports.

4. Architecture

From colonial squares to ultra-modern towers, Macao has embraced every style of architecture. Sparkling new structures, such as the Grand Lisboa, the Macao Science Museum and The Parisian, fill the skyline.

5. Shopping

Perhaps you’re looking for Chinese antiques, a rare bottle of Portuguese wine or an exclusive fashion label? Macao has something for everyone – from flea markets to laneway shops and marble-clad shopping malls.

6. Family fun

Whether they are riding in the SkyCab, exploring Pier 16 Macao 3D World, going wild in Warner Bros. Fun Zone or spinning around in Asia’s highest Ferris wheel (Golden Reel) your kids will never be bored in Macao.

Why I love Macao

Portuguese-born chef António Coelho settled in Macao in 1996 and now runs his own restaurant, António, in Taipa Village.

Macau Antonio

Why did you move to Macao?

I first came to Macao in 1971 as a sergeant in the Portuguese armed forces. The place captured my heart. In 1996, I was invited by a group of local businessmen to run a restaurant here. At the time I was working in Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa. Moving to Macao was an easy decision – and I have lived here ever since.

What is your favourite local dish?

There are many excellent Mecanese and Chinese dishes available, but as a long-term resident, I would have to nominate fresh abalone stew in a special Chinese sauce as my personal favourite.

What makes Portuguese cuisine special?

The appeal of our cuisine owes much to the excellent ingredients available to us. I’m thinking of fresh meats, such as beef, pork, chicken, duck, rabbit, lamb, but also the range of seafood, vegetables and spices.

What are the signature dishes at António?

As an entrée I’d suggest our goat’s cheese served with acacia honey, bread, lettuce and balsamic vinegar or the António-style wet seafood rice. Our grilled codfish and Portuguese steak topped with egg and bacon are popular mains. We are equally famous for our flaming Crepes Suzette.

Best time to visit Macao?

I personally like May when the weather is a little cooler. September and October are also pleasant months.

António Open daily, 12pm-12am

Rua do Clérigos No. 7, Taipa, Macao