Location and Geography:
On the South China Sea in Southern China’s Guangdong Province, about 37 miles southwest of Hong Kong. Macao lies in the Pearl River Delta and is made up of the Macao peninsula and two islands to the south, Taipa and Coloane. A man-made isthmus connects the two islands and was named the Cotai Strip. Taipa is connected to Macao by several bridges. Macao has a sub-tropical climate that can range from cold and rainy to hot and humid. It has a yearly temperature range of 50 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Chinese, it’s 澳門 or Ao Men. The question of whether it’s spelled Macao or Macau has long frustrated writers. Most of the world uses the Portuguese spelling for the city, which ends in “u”. However in English, the name should end in “o”. Despite the fact that the correct English spelling is Macao, many English-language publications continue to spell it in the Portuguese style.
Macao has been documented as part of Guangdong Province from as early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). It first saw large settlement in the later part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). In later dynasties, many fishermen migrated to the island from the mainland. It’s location made it ideal for trade and Portuguese settlers began arriving in the 1500s. Portugal obtained a lease for Macao in 1557 marking the territory under Portuguese administration and establishing the first foreign presence in China.
Arrival of Casinos:
In the 1800s, the region faced economic decline and a Portuguese governor decided to legalize gambling to spur the economy. That decision would change Macao forever. Since then, Macao has been known for its glittering casinos and active nightlife. Many of its 520,000 residents are employees in the tourism and casino industries. But along with gambling has also come organized crime and prostitution. Today many Mainland Chinese tourists travel to Macao to gamble, as it’s the only place in China where it is legal.
Return to China:
In 1999, Macao returned to Chinese administration, making it the last foreign presence in China. Under China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Macao is known as a Special Administrative Region which promises 50 years of a high degree of autonomy. Unlike Hong Kong, many Macao residents are more receptive towards China.
Casinos had long been relegated to the peninsula, but with the development of the Cotai Strip, casinos have sprouted up in the traditionally residential region. But there are still charming spots in Taipa and Coloane that are casino-free. Taipa has modern high rises and Colonial-style neighborhoods with cobblestone roads. The Taipa Houses Museum is a hit with locals getting their wedding photos done. Coloane is more removed from the bustle and his home to Hac Sa (Black Sand) beach. The seaside area is quaint and has a great small town feel. Coloane is also home to the famed Fernando’s restaurant.
Macanese food blends Chinese, European and South and Southeast Asian flavors for a distinct taste. Fernando’s serves up roasted baby pig, which may not sound so nice, but is succulent and delicious. For the sweet tooth, there are delightful almond cookies and thinly layered pancakes with seaweed and shreds of dried pork for a blend of sweet and salty. Finally, the egg custard tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery in Coloane Village are a tourist attraction in and of itself. The tarts are unique and are unlike other Chinese egg tarts.
Macao sees about one million tourists each month, so it can get crowded. To have the best comprehensive experience, allow for one day at the casinos and visiting tourist attractions like the Ruins of St. Paul - a former Jesuit school that burned down with only the façade remaining; the Leal Senado or old government area, now turned shopping center. Then spend time experiencing spots less traveled, like Macao’s amazing art museum, or Camoes Garden - a park where many locals congregate including amateur Cantonese opera singers and elderly bird walkers. The beach trails in Coloane also offer spectacular views.