Date Traveled, January 2012
Macau's historic city center retains a large part of its Portuguese legacy in its buildings and their architectural style. A walk around Macau's Senado square is a good way to experience this, starting with a visit to the beautiful surviving facade of the 16th century cathedral of St. Paul.
A visit to Hong Kong during the Chinese Lunar new year has its perks...and drawbacks, a lot of places close for the holiday. While some are closed during the entire week or so, even more are closed on the first day of the new year. This made it a perfect time to leave town for a bit and go see Macau. Turns out that is something people all over Hong Kong and China do. Gambling is a hugely popular Chinese pastime and the new year holiday is as good a time as any. Reaching Macau from Hong Kong is fast and easy. There are daily fast ferries to and from Macau and Hong Kong. It takes about a couple of hours and costs about a 100 USD for a return ticket making it reasonably cheap.
We were a group of three, me, my partner and her mom who planned to spend the whole day gambling until it was time to go see a show we had made reservations for at one of the casinos. My partner and I don't gamble much so were going just to see Macau and weren't entirely sure what we would be doing, but fortunately as I discovered, there is plenty to see and do in Macau on a short trip besides gambling. If anything, I think a day trip is too short to see everything and moreover pretty tiring. Would definitely stay longer the next time I get a chance to visit.
The ferry system and terminal is Hong Kong is efficient and organized, in stark contrast to Macau as we were to discover on our return journey...so be prepared for some pell mell chaos if you plan to return to Hong Kong at the end of a holiday in the evening. There a free shuttles between the Casinos in Macau and depending on where you are, it might turn out to be economical to walk to the sights from the nearest Casino as opposed to cabbing it. We made a stopover from the ferry to the Venetian Macau before heading on another shuttle to begin our sightseeing day. We went to one of the casinos near Senado square but it was still a bit of a walk and we were not too sure if we were going the right way. Here we discovered that the Portuguese names are not very well known to the local populace. I am fairly certain everyone we attempted to get directions from knew the places but could not help because they certainly didn't know the names we were telling them. My advice would be to take a picture and show that instead.
Eventually we stumbled upon the center and once there you have the benefit of signboards in English. We headed first to the moat famous landmark of Macau, the ruins of St. Paul's cathedral.
From the top of the facade of St Pauls
This used to be a 16th century cathedral that was destroyed in the early 19th century in a fire started during a typhoon. Through some weird twist of fortunes, the entire front facade survived and appears as a freestanding structure when viewed from the front, the best angle to see it. It has however needed help over the years and is propped up from the back today and has newly constructed stairs to allow you to climb to the top of the facade.
While the ruins were popular with the visitors, the crowds there were nothing compared to that at Senado square itself. Almost every inch of the place was teeming with people, I figure most were tourists. The square is so named because the Macau senate building is nearby but to be honest I did not notice one particular building from another except that there were a lot of buildings around the square that were constructed in an architectural style from the colonial times. But there were plenty of shops in those buildings as well so did not really pay attention to any historic government buildings. The most crowded section of the place was at the little narrow streets a bit further into the square where the streets start to go up a slope. Here are a number of shops selling Chinese sweets, candies and eats and providing the crowds with free samples of their pork jerkies which we availed ourselves to. This is also one of the main locations for the Koi Kei chain of Macau, famous for their Chinese sweets and snacks. We bought a lot of stuff here including gifts to take home. The other thing to keep an eye out for here are the great food shops. The key is to follow the shops with the longest line. The one we found that had the best item was in the store front that looked like this picture below.
Awesome pork buns that are worth the wait in the line
Pick the stores with the longest lines
They had amazingly good pork rolls made fresh. We got lucky the first time we eat there and decided to eat more, but then they had run out and were making a new batch. We joined the long line of people to get our pork roll and waited a patient 20 minutes for ours and they were absolutely worth the wait.
If you follow the signs from around where this shop is located and leave the central square area, you will find yourself going up a hill to Guia fortress. At this point you will be walking through some residential lanes and you get to see a slice of life in Macau for those who live there. There are much fewer tourists approaching the fort from this direction but do note it is a steep climb. Eventually you will reach the top of Guia hill, the highest point in Macau and the location of the Guia fortress.
The Guia fortress
Cannons still defend the fort
Guia fortress was built in the 17th century and was the center of Portuguese military power in the region and played a key role in resisting an attempted Dutch invasion in the past. Today it makes for great visit to get away from some of the bustle below and walk around the top of the fortress. The fortress still has many of its old cannons all around its walls overlooking the city. From the top you see a good bit of Macau, with its tall and gaudy casino buildings amidst the chaotic urban sprawl around them. You also get good views of the ruins of St. Paul's cathedral from points around the top. There is also a chapel at the top of the hill that was constructed shortly after the fort itself was completed.
One of the many cannons atop the fortress
The views of macau from the top of the fort
By then it was late in the afternoon and as we made our way back to Senado square, we were just in time for the start of an enjoyable Lion Dance show in a pavilion in the square complete with the drums and acrobatics...a nice way to end our day around Macau's historic city center.
Lion Dances for Chinese New Year at Senado Square