When the Portuguese packed their bags and departed Macau for good in 1999 they left behind a rich cultural heritage stretching back nearly 450 years. Rather than try to expunge all traces of Portuguese influence from Macau’s history, the new Macau Special Administrative Region government has instead accentuated its past and has preserved and restored nearly all of the historic buildings and spaces that make Macau unique. These efforts were recognised by UNESCO in 2005 when The Historic Centre of Macau was added to the list of World Heritage Sites.
The Historic Centre of Macau comprises twelve core buildings (shown on the map) and a number of other buildings and spaces of historical and architectural importance. These can be covered on foot as part of a Macau Heritage Trail for an enjoyable day’s outing (excluding Guia Fortress which is a taxi ride away).
1. A-Ma Temple (1488).
This temple, after which Macau is named, is the only building on the list which pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese in 1556 when Macau was just a small fishing village. The temple’s numerous pavilions follow Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and traditional Chinese folk beliefs.
2. Moorish Barracks (1874).
This building housed two hundred soldiers recruited from Goa (a Portuguese possession at the time) to help support Macau’s police force. The Quartel dos Mouros is now the head office of the Macao Port Authority.
3. Mandarin’s House (1869-1881)
This sprawling compound made up of several courtyard houses was the residence of prominent Chinese literary figure Zheng Guanying. It is located adjacent to Lilau Square, a Portuguese style piazza. They say that one who drinks from the natural spring in Lilau Square never forgets Macau (dysentery perhaps)?
4. St. Joseph’s Seminary Building and Church (1728)
From this seminary, Jesuit missionaries fanned out across China, Japan and around the region to spread Christianity, with varying results. The Church (1758) is a fine example of baroque architecture. Inside the Church lies one of Macau’s most valuable religious relics, a piece of bone from the arm of St. Francis Xavier who died on the southern Chinese island of Shanchuan in 1552.
There are a number of other historic churches in Macau which, though not appearing on this list, are well worth visiting.
5. Dom Pedro V Theatre (1860)
Built as the first Western-style theatre in China. It is still used for cultural events.
6. Leal Senado Building (1784)
This was, and still is, Macau’s municipal chamber and it was from here that most of the important decisions concerning the city were made and they resented interference from their political masters in Portugal and Goa. Dubbed Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) in reference to Portuguese King João IV’s praise of Macau in 1654 that “there is None More Loyal”. The building retains original features including a courtyard garden where there are busts of Camilo Pessanha and Luís Vaz de Camões, Portugal’s national poet. There is also an ornate library on the first floor and a small chapel.
7. Holy House of Mercy (1569 – 18th century)
Santa Casa da Misericordia was established by the first Bishop of Macau, modelled after one of the oldest charitable institutions in Portugal and provided the first medical clinic and other social welfare structures that still function to this day.
8. Ruins of St. Paul’s (1637-40)
This granite facade is all that remains of the Church of Mater Dei which was destroyed by fire in 1835. This is now Macau’s most famous landmark and symbolically appears on the logo of the Macau Tourist Office. It is continually besieged by hordes of selfie-taking tourists.
9. Na Tcha Temple (1888)
This tiny temple to the irreverent god Na Tcha was built adjacent to St. Paul’s Ruins after the Church of Mater Dei was destroyed by the fire of 1835. The fact that a traditional Chinese temple stands close to the remains of the main Jesuit institution of the region is held up as an example of Macao’s multicultural identity and religious tolerance.
10. Section of the Old City Walls (1632)
The temple adjoins one of the last surviving sections of the Old City Walls. Fortification of Macau began in the early 1600’s to defend the city against the Dutch who were threatening to invade. The wall is made of a solid compound named chunambo, an elaborate mixture of clay, soil, sand, rice straw, crushed rocks and oyster shells compacted in successive layers.
11. Mount Fortress (1617-1626)
This square of strong fortress walls was built by the Jesuits and played a key role in repelling the tentative Dutch invasion of 1622. The ramparts were lined with cannons which were made in a foundry in Macau, producing the finest weapons of their kind in Asia. The fortress now contains the Macau Museum.
12. Guia Fortress (1622-1638) (including the Chapel, pre 1622, and Lighthouse 1864)
Guia Lighthouse is believed to be the oldest lighthouse of the South-China seas. Guia Chapel was established by nuns, who resided at the site before establishing the Convent of St. Clara. In 1998 frescoes were uncovered inside Guia Chapel during routine conservation work. These frescoes depict both Western and Chinese themes and are an example of Macau’s unique multiculturalism.