Most travel guides often suggest to skip Manila when traveling to the Philippines. While there are plenty of beautiful places to see and visit outside Manila, skipping it may deprive you of an experience you may not necessarily find anywhere else in the country. It is a modern city with all the luxuries yet the infrastructures are far behind than ts rich Asian neighbors. It is chaotic and crowded yet it is vivacious and so full of life. It’s certainly not perfect and just like any other big cities it sure has its share of problems. The traffic, for example, is frustratingly annoying with pedestrians crossing everywhere and vehicles not following traffic rules. But if one is willing to overlook its problems, there are plenty of good reasons to love Manila.
Manila best represents the country, in terms of lifestyle, culture, and the characteristics of the Filipino people.
Manileños can be just as warm as the people in the provinces and other cities in the Philippines. It is rare for a big city to be so friendly but not in Manila. In the service industry (restaurants, hotels, or shops), you are guaranteed to be greeted warmly and always with a big smile. As a Filipino-American, the overwhelming friendliness of the people in Manila had never ceased to amaze me. But regardless of their location, whether they are from a province or from a big city, you will realize the Filipinos’ unparalleled hospitality.
Manila is the place for culinary adventure. From the local cuisine to international, from fast food to fine dining, there are plenty of options to choose from. You can locate many of the famous international based restaurants along with award winning locally owned restaurants in Manila. Tim Ho Wan, a Hong Kong based dim sum restaurant and the only restaurant in its price category with a Michelin star, has a franchise in Manila. Todd English Food Hall has only two locations- in New York and Manila. Ippudo, the popular ramen house in New York just opened in Manila not too long ago. Bon Chon, a chicken fast food from Korea, has several franchises around the city (Dallas had one franchise but unfortunately closed down a few months ago due to lack of support from its residents).These are just examples of the array of restaurants in Manila and a proof that the city is a destination for the gastronomically inclined.
Manila also boasts some of the biggest and the best shopping malls in the country (and arguably within Asia). My husband once told me that the malls in Manila are the only malls he enjoys going to for the reason that they are lively and vibrant. Manila is a shopping mecca where you are guaranteed to find whatever you need and desire. You may choose from different shopping centers according to your budget. I purchased some really cool electronics that I brought home as gifts for my two boys and also was able to snatch myself a selfie stick, which is not commonly available in stores in the States. The prices were incredibly cheap. Manileños’ other favorite past time, aside from eating, is shopping.
City of Contrasts
Manila is surprisingly ‘rich’. The Philippines is always depicted as a very poor country in foreign movies and worldwide media. But there are many pockets of Manila that will change that perception. With the numerous skyscrapers and constant developments, it is undeniably catered to the wealthy. There are numerous million dollar homes that are in private residences, fully guarded with security, while shanty towns are built around them. It is mind boggling sometimes to see how a “third world” country can be so rich and yet so poor. Seeing this contrast is not one of the reasons why I love Manila but it will provide a full comprehension on the political and social climate of the country.
Manila has a vast art scene. It houses some of the best art galleries and museums in the country, not to mention the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which is the national center for the performing arts. Ayala Museum, located in Makati, is quite interesting with its six story building housing ethnographic and archaelogical exhibits on Fiilipino culture, art and history.
The over 100 years old National Museum of the Philippines (pictured above) had just undergone renovations and it’s better than ever with more new collections to boast. This is where you’ll find Spoliarium, the painting by Filipino artist, Juan Luna, that garnered first gold prize medal in Madrid in 1884. It is one of the most renowned paintings among modern Filipino art. The museum is divided into four different areas–the National Art Gallery, Museum of the Filipino People, National Museum of National History, and the National Planetarium. A must visit place for tourists and residents alike.
Culture and History
Manila has some of the most fascinating historical areas. My favorite is Intramuros, or referred to as the Walled City. It is the oldest district in Manila with structures reminiscent of the Spanish colonial days. The San Agustin Church (the oldest stone church in the Philippines) and the impressive Manila Cathedral (a favorite venue for weddings and baptisms) are both located in Intramuros.
In close proximity to Manila Bay, Rizal Park, or more popularly known as Luneta, is an important site in Philippine history. It is where the shrine of the national hero, Jose Rizal, stands and also the site where the Declaration of Philippine Independence from the American Occupation took place.
And of course, one shouldn’t miss the Malacañang Palace, the official residence of the President of the Philippines. There are available tours to the palace but you may have to reserve way in advance for security clearance purposes.
Manila has also a history of multiculturalism. It was a city that acted as the intermediary between Spanish and Chinese merchants in the late 1500’s. The Filipinos have been trading with the Chinese since its pre–colonial period. Hence, the oldest Chinatown in the world is in Binondo, Manila. (There are plenty of foodie and walking tours in Binondo if you search for it in the internet. While I haven’t done any, I plan to do it when I go back next year). There are also multiple ethnic and religious groups present in the city, along with the many expats from different parts of the world.
As I mentioned, Manila has its flaws. For a visitor, it is not an easy place to navigate because of its discouraging transportation system. But despite that, a visitor may still find Manila’s non existent language barrier an advantage over most cities in Asia. Although the city can be somewhat difficult, there is always someone with perfectly-spoken English who can help you with any trouble you might have. However, Manila is definitely not for everyone’s taste. And with all the amazing beaches and beautiful other tourist spots in the country, it is perfectly understandable to not love Manila. But, in my opinion, skipping it may not allow you the opportunity to experience and get to know the Filipino culture in depth.
So go ahead I encourage you to explore Manila for just a day (or two or three). I guarantee you it will be an eye opener. (Of course, if skyscrapers, cafes, or city life isn’t your thing, there are beaches and interesting towns you can visit that are only a few hours drive from Manila!).
Here are my favorite places to hang out in the city:
1) Intramuros- make sure to visit the two churches, San Agustin and Manila Cathedral. The Bayleaf Hotel has a sky top lounge where you can see the amazing view of Intramuros. The museums are also nearby. And not too far is Sofitel Hotel that has the best buffet in town, Spirals. Ilustrado, a Filipino-Spanish restaurant is also another one of my favorites. Manila Bay is also minutes away by car.
2) Makati– I love the Greenbelt area for upscale shopping and eating (or just plain window shopping or sightseeing). I recommend to visit Raffles for afternoon tea (see my previous post). I stayed at the Holiday Inn and it is very convenient because it has its own entrance to Glorietta Mall and Ayala Museum is nearby. There are plenty of restaurants in the area which is amazing yet indecisiveness can become a problem because of too many choices.
3) The Fort– If I can afford it, I want to live in this area (Serendra). Make sure to walk around the Bonifacio Global City, with all the restaurants and shopping. The nightlife is also pretty vibrant.
4) Eastwood– the Eastwood is also a fun area, with an indoor shopping mall but the outdoor area is much more interesting with great restaurants, nightlife, and shopping.
5) Greenhills– this is a shopping paradise for those looking for bargain. From clothing, electronics, to imitation designer brands, there is something for everyone here.