Manila or Maynila is the capital city of the Philippines, a city defined not so much by the exterior facade but by the warmth and hospitality of its citizens. Just like any capital city, Manila is a showcase of sparkly sky scrapers, massive shopping malls, fashionable restaurants, luxury hotels, rhythmic bars and just about anything and everything “de rigueur” of a thriving metropolis. The commercial and business districts of Makati, Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio exude that aura of affluence inherent in bigger, cosmopolitan cities.
But the heart and soul of this burgeoning metropolis lies in the ‘older’ parts of the city, an enclave of historic significance. In the midst of Malate’s quirky cafés and lively bars are oasis of tranquillity and quiet. The Ermita Church houses the oldest Marian image in the Philippines, Nuestra Senora de Guia; and Our Lady of Remedies, is a beautiful baroque-style church overlooking Manila Bay. Further down the road is a welcoming escape of green grass and tall trees that is Rizal or Luneta Park with an open-air theatre. Standing aloft in the middle of the park is the monument of Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero. The nostalgic vibe is complemented by a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) ride along Roxas Boulevard lined with prominent embassy offices and luxury hotels to the narrow streets towards the grand dame in hospitality, The Manila Hotel which was built in 1909 and once served as home to General Douglas MacArthur.
The best display of the country’s mixed heritage is found in Intramuros, the Walled City or what remains of it. Now a national historical landmark, this district used to be the centre of trade, education and religion during the Spanish period. Fort Santiago resembles a medieval city with beautiful gardens, piazzas and fountains and the Rizal Shrine museum. San Agustin Church, in all its splendour is a popular venue for weddings and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Manila Cathedral, another magnificent church in Intramuros has to be re-built time and again after natural and man-made disasters destroyed the original structures. At the cobble-stoned Plaza San Luis, visitors can admire the different eras in Filipino-Spanish architecture with a collection of 5 meticulously crafted replicas of houses in different periods; Casa Manila, Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos and El Hogar Filipino. If the names are anything to go by, including Calle Real Del Palacio, Palacio del Gobernador and Ilustrado, surely you must be in a Spanish fortress (at least, used to be).
Binondo is the world’s oldest Chinatown, another significant part of old Manila with a totally different character. Colourful, frenzied, full of excitement, challenging, chaotic but can be so much fun to meander in the cramped alleyways in search of the best dumplings, hopia, siopao, noodles, kikiam, all for a few pennies (and more). Binondo, together with the outlying districts of Sta. Cruz, Quiapo and Sampaloc are not just gastronomic landscapes but a bargain haven. You will be surprised at what you’ll find and for how much. In modern times, Binondo is honoured to be the birthplace of the first Filipino saint, Saint Lorenzo Ruiz.
More than the bustling markets, vibrant night life, gigantic malls, Manila has long established itself as the centre of culture and arts. In the late 60’s, the Cultural Centre of the Philippines was founded as the national centre for performing arts and premier venue for ballet performances, concerts, musical theatres, exhibits and workshops. Within the CCP complex are other structural landmarks such as the Philippine International Convention Centre (PICC), Folk Arts Theatre, Manila Film Centre and the exquisitely built Coconut Palace. Adding to Manila’s sparkle are architectural legacies from great Filipino architects, Tomas Mapua and Juan Arellano. The Manila Central Post Office was built in a neoclassical design in 1925 whereas the Manila Metropolitan Theatre is an art deco building inaugurated in 1931.
Manila maybe Asia’s most underrated city but is certainly one of the coolest. Nothing can be too serious that cannot be brushed off with a big, warm smile from Manilenos.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) services over 40 airline carriers with multiple daily flights to domestic, regional and international destinations.
Cruise ships and other leisure vessels also depart from Manila Port.
*Haggling is the norm at flea markets.
*Try original Filipino restaurants such as Aristocrat, Barrio Fiesta and Kamayan for a taste of local cuisine.
*Ride a jeepney, the backbone of Manila’s transport system displaying Filipino ingenuity and creativity at its best.
*Pinoy ice cream sandwich is a novelty. If not, have a ‘dirty ice cream’ cone from the street vendor.
What else to see?
Manila Ocean Park
The first marine theme park in the Philippines with an aqua-themed hotel attached.
Located in Makati, the museum houses ethnographic and archaeological exhibits on Filipino culture, art and history.
Corregidor Island (Isla ng Corregidor)
A historical island located at the entrance of Manila Bay which served as a temporary headquarters of the Philippine government during the Japanese invasion. In honour of those who fought and died during the war, the island is designated as a National Monument and War Memorial.
The cooler climate, wonderful sceneries and close proximity to Manila make this as one of the country’s most popular weekend getaway. Sitting on a high altitude, it overlooks the active Taal Volcano surrounded by Taal Lake. Travel time from Manila is approximately 2hrs via SLEX.