Macau (sometimes known as Macao) is one of the most unique destinations in Asia with its East-Meets-West architecture and culture which coexists side by side with a modern and lavish lifestyle generated by its casinos and tourist industry. Known by many as the Asia’s gaming capital, Macau is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 20 historical locations of note. Among the most noticeable attractions are St. Paul's Church and Largo do Senado (Senate Square) which are known as the heart of old Macau.
Macau Historic Centre Overview
The Historic Center of Macau is a great example of how Europe can successfully blend with Asia as in Macau Europeans and Asians have lived and traded with each other for a long time and still do so today. Macau was a Portuguese settlement and a stronghold of Christianity in Asia from the mid-16th century as well as displaying Chinese influences through a number of buildings and gardens. All are connected or linked along the island’s narrow streets, old mosaic pathways and squares.
This World Heritage Site is the location of many important ruins and structures such as the ruins of St Paul's Church, St. Augustine's Square, Senado Square, Barra Square, A-Ma Temple, the Moorish Barracks, Mandarin's House, Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, St. Lawrence's Church, St. Joseph's Seminary and Church, Holy House of Mercy, St. Augustine's Church, Dom Pedro V Theatre, the Leal Senado Building, Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple, the Cathedral, Lou Kau Mansion, St. Dominic's Church, Na Tcha Temple, Section of the Old City Walls, the Protestant Cemetery, St. Anthony's Church, Casa Garden, Guia Fortress (including Guia Chapel and Lighthouse) and Mount Fortress.
Macau Historic Centre History
Since the Portuguese traders and explorers arrived in Macau in 1557 it has been a major international port as well as one of the most important gateways connecting China and Europe. It was also the oldest permanent European settlement in East Asia.
Today the spotlight has switched from its traditional sea port to its new incarnation as a big-time gambling destination but there are still many physical features that stand out today as testimony to the long history of trading and culture exchanged between the two worlds while it was under the old Portuguese colonial regime.
Macau Historic Centre is a must-visit, especially those who are first-time visitors to Macau. It is amazing to see how well preserved these many centuries-old heritages are (most of them stand surrounded by modern buildings and new style establishments.) The Historic Centre was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2005.
Highlights and Features
- The Ruins of St. Paul: This is probably the busiest landmarks in Macau. It’s always crowded, especially during the day. The ruins are what are left of a Portuguese cathedral that was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1835. Tourists can go up to the inner part of the façade for an elevated view of Macau.
- Senado Square: Located in the heart of old Macau and close to other heritage sites such as the ruins of St. Paul and the Holy House of Mercy, the beautiful square is surrounded by many colorful vintage colonial buildings and busy day and night.
- Na Tcha Temple and Section of the Old City Walls: This single-chamber Taoist temple was built in 1888 and is located just behind the ruins of St. Paul's. The section of the Old City walls is right by the side of the temple. It was constructed as early as 1569 and is a sample of traditional Portuguese defensive walls found in their settlements around the world.
- A-Ma Temple: A-Ma Temple is the oldest temple in Macau and was built more than 500 years ago before the arrival of the Portuguese.
- Mandarin’s House: A Chinese residential compound with some western architectural influences; It was the home of Zheng Guanying (1842-1921), a scholar whose idea of ‘Saving the nation by enriching the nation’ influenced many Chinese leaders from Emperor Guangxu to Sun Yat-Sen and Mao Tse Tung.
- St. Lawrence’s Church: Established around 1560, St. Lawrence’s Church is one of the oldest churches in Macau. The beautiful neo-classical building as seen today is the fruit of renovation works from the year 1846.
- Mount Fortress: The fortress originally featured cannons and military barracks with a storage capacity that could keep arms and war materials for as long as two years.
- Holy House of Mercy: Founded in 1569, the Holy House of Mercy is famous for its beautiful arcaded façade and was modeled on one of Portugal’s oldest charitable organizations. Part of their work was to help the families of sailors who drowned.
- St. Joseph’s Seminary and Church: St. Joseph’s was set up as the base of missionaries to China and elsewhere in Asia. The church itself was built very elegantly in baroque architecture while the seminary is in a far more simple style with a neo-classical design.
- St. Augustine’s Church: Known as the place that published the first Portuguese newspaper in China back in 1822, the striking yellow building was established way back in 1587 by a group of Spanish Dominican priests who came originally from Mexico.
- St. Augustine’s Square: This historical square features a traditional Portuguese streetscape and many famous buildings such as St. Augustine’s Church, Sir Robert Ho Tung Library and the Dom Pedro V Theatre.
- Sir Robert Ho Tung Library: Sir Robert Ho Tung bought and used this residence as his home during WWII until 1955 when he passed away. The building was converted into a public library in accordance with his will. The original house was constructed sometime before 1894.
- Dom Pedro V Theatre: This neo-classical designed building was built in 1860 and was the first European-style theatre in China.
- Moorish Barracks: The Moorish Barracks is a neo-classical building with Mughal influences. It was built in 1874 as a home for an officer from Goa, appointed to strengthen the island’s police force.
- Lou Kau Mansion: The grand 19th century house located near Senado Square belonged to Lou Kau, a Chinese merchant who owned several properties in Macau. The two-storey house is a typical traditional Chinese mansion but it also has some motifs showing western influences.
- Leal Senado Building: This building has been Macau’s municipal chamber since the 18th century and continues to be so today.
- Sam Kai Vui Kun Temple: This temple was not limited to being just a religious site; the temple and the area nearby was at the heart of Chinese trading in Macau back in the old times.
- Casa Garden: Built around the late 18th century, Casa features the Old Protestant Cemetery, an old residence of directors of the East India Company, as well as an art gallery. It shows a strong presence of southern European style.
- Old Protestant Cemetery: In general non-Catholics had to fight hard to bury their loved ones on Portuguese colonial soil. Most of the time, they had to do it secretly. In 1821 the East India Company bought this piece of land and fought hard to have the cemetery possess legal status. The company later allowed burial of all foreigners there.
- Guia Fortress: This is a historical military complex consisting of a fort, lighthouse and chapel. Guia Fortress’s construction was started in 1622 and took more than 15 years to complete.
Good to Know and What Not to Miss
- Even though Macau was handed over to China in 1999, Portugal still has strong presence: All street signs are written in Cantonese and Portuguese as they are both Macau’s official languages.
- The majority of restaurants and stores accept Hong Kong dollars but Macau Patacas are not accepted in Hong Kong.
- Like nearby Hong Kong Macau is a ‘Special Administrative Region’ of China and uses a ‘one-country-two-systems’ principal; as a result to go there is convenient with no visa fuss.
- To really appreciate the Macao Historic Center, visitors might need a full day.
Ruins of St. Paul's
- Opening Hours: All year round
- How to get there: Hourly ferries depart from Hong Kong to Macau and fares start from about $18 to $24. It is easy to get around because Macau is a small destination and has frequent bus services. There are also many free hotel and casino shuttle services.