Haul yourself into a jeepney and brace yourself for the wild ride that is Manila. Overwhelming and overpopulated, Manila will engulf you in all her chaotic glory, only letting go if she’s called up for karaoke.
Mall rats, take note – Manila is home to the third largest mall in the world, the SM Mall of Asia in Pasay, not to mention the gazillion other malls scattered around the city, which rival Manila’s rich cultural and historical heritage as the national treasure.
Take a stroll down the 16th Century cobblestone streets of the old walled capital, Intramuros, and see the remains of Spanish colonial ruins.Rizal Park, also known as ‘Luneta’, is the ideal place to take a break (or nurse the hangover), and watch life go by alongside laidback locals.
And when it comes to causing that hangover, Manila’s non-stop nightlife, particularly in Ermita and Malate districts, will test your drinking limits. Before embarking on any binge (shopping or drinking), it’s a good idea to embrace the Filipino motto: “Bahala na” – ‘whatever will be, will be’ – and let the good times in Manila roll on... and on… and on.
Manila’s Top 10
10. Malacanang Palace Disconcertingly opulent amongst the outer-lying slums, it’s home to the Philippine President and houses some interesting historical and cultural memorabilia. In days gone by, it housed a pretty impressive shoe collection, too.
5. Coconut Palace Constructed from coconuts and banana fibres, this Palace is a testament to the Filipino’s thrifty nature and the excesses of former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
9. National Museum With free entry, air conditioning and a collection of impressive art displays, the NM is definitely worth a visit. Did we mention it’s air conditioned?
4. Rizal Park Not to dampen the holiday mood, the light show depicting national hero Jose Rizal’s execution is a mix of education, drama and fun.
8. Quaipo Church A major religious drawcard in Manila thanks to the life size statue of Christ, believed cure deafness.
3. Cultural Centre of the Philippines
Distinctively Filipino artistic and cultural heritage displays, as well as ticketed musical and theatrical performances.
7. Metropolitan Museum of Manila Ancient pottery artefacts dating back to 220BC, a blinding display of gold, visiting exhibitions, if you like things on the old side, it’s the place for you..
6. SM Mall of Asia Its slogan - ‘No Other Mall Comes Close’ pretty much sums up this colossal shopping experience.
1. Manila Bay The most spectacular sunset in Asia also provides some much needed respite from the hustle of Manila.
- Fort Santiago – This park is the first of the riverside barricades.
- Intramuros – These are the ruins of the Spanish Colonial Capital.
- Manila American Cemetery and Memorial Park – Dedicated to thousands of American soldiers who were killed in World War II.
- San Agustin Church – Considered a must-see site, as this building has lasted through fires and earthquakes.
- Chinese Cemetery – Many say this is one place where you have a better house dead than when you are alive.
Manila Art & Culture
- Museo Pambata – A children’s museum with many hands-on activities.
- Cultural Center of the Philippines – This place has everything from ballet to Broadway.
- National Museum – Celebrates the art and history of the Philippines.
- Villa Escudero – A working coconut plantation with historical displays, performances and activities for children.
- Malacanang Palace and Museum – This is a former private house that is now owned by the government and houses a museum.
- Robinsons Place Mall – The best word to describe this place is “convenient”, as shoppers can find almost anything here.
- Divisoria Market – A mix of local and international stores.
- 168 Shopping Mall – A mall that is notable not only for its stores but for its air-conditioned interior.
- Tutuban Mall – Regular mall with products that were made locally.
- Pistang Pilipino – An authentic and native flea market.
Gay & Lesbian Manila
- Malate District –You will find the majority of gay clubs and bars in this area.
- Long Yany Club Manila – A social organization with chapters throughout Asia.
- Remar Cinema Cubao – A meeting place for gay men.
- Pride Exchange – The only gay shop in the Philippines.
- Stonehouse Hotel – Has large rooms that are used for parties, weddings and other events.
- Corregidor Island – Known as “The Rock” and was a base of operations during World War II.
- Avilon Zoo – Clean and well-maintained zoo that features many birds and other animals.
- Manila Ocean Park – Includes marine exhibits, dining and an area with a great view.
- Paco Park – This was once a cemetery, but now hosts concerts and beautiful views.
- Manila Bay – While many would not recommend swimming in this area, it is still a wonderful place to take a walk or admire beautiful sunsets.
- Rizal Memorial Sports Complex – This was the site of the FIFA World championship in 1978 and continues to host sporting events.
- Robinson's Place – This was the site of the 2010 World Cup of Pool.
- Club Intramuros Golf Course – It might be difficult to play golf without being distracted by the beautiful scenery.
- Rizal Memorial Baseball Stadium – This stadium once hosted games with baseball legends Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
- University of Santo Tomas Sports Complex – Holds collegiate sports and tournaments.
Manila is (dis)organised into 16 districts and five main cities, each offering something uniquely different to the next (bar the omnipresent shopping mall).
Pasay is home to the SM Mall of Asia, the biggest shopping complex in Southeast Asia and third largest in the world! But if the thought of covering four hectares of shopping ground makes your ankles instantly swell, then rest easy knowing you can always take a seat and watch a movie at the San Miguel Coca-Cola IMAX Theatre, or gain some brain at the interactive Science Discovery Centre. Or join the hordes of tourists and locals ice skating at the Olympic-size rink.
Happily, Pasay isn’t all mall. It’s got a soul, and one it will gladly show anyone who can see beyond the superficial. Enjoy the beachside feel at Manila’s Harbour Square, just next to the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Shop at Pasay’s Paluto Seafood Market before night turns this seaside square into a hub of live music venues, bustling bars and seafood restaurants.
Pleasure-seekers take note – this is the red-light district and hotspot for gay nightlife in Manila. A mish-mash of wealthy expats and top-notch hotels alongside impoverished but proud local slums makes Malate a unique party town. Al fresco bars are scattered along the roads, and it’s not uncommon for the party to hit the streets in a parade of song and dance, one to rival the annual Gay Pride Parade of Malate. If your hangover allows it, take a gentle stroll along Manila’s Baywalk at Malate or visit the Baroque Malate Church.
With a bustling expat community, Makati is where most tourists head when wanting to escape the intensity of Manila’s dirty streets. Stay in one of the district’s five-star hotels, all within a stone’s throw of the impressive Greenbelt Complex. Cosmopolitan dining and civilised bars are a stark contrast to the inebriated karaoke performances of Malate. For a touch of culture, visit the quaint Sto Niño De Paz Chapel, conveniently located (where else?) in the middle of Greenbelt Mall.
Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, is one of the oldest and most authentic you will ever find, with an abundance of Chinese restaurants plating up delicious dim sum and noodle soups. Which is all very well, but where’s the adventure in that? For a walk on the wild side, you want to visit Arranque Marketwhere you can enjoy such dubious delights as bull’s balls or snake!
Shanty markets and food vendors burst from the sidewalks of Ongpin Street, so take your time to browse the Chinese market stalls for an eye-popping experience. Binondo Church or ‘Minor Basilica of St. Lorenzo Ruiz’ is one of the oldest in the Philippines and has stood the test of time, surviving war and natural disasters. It is home to the sacred – and apparently miraculous – Santo Cristo de Longos(the crucified Christ).
Quiapo district is a cultural fusion of Catholic, Chinese, Muslim and Buddhist vendors selling clothing, sunglasses, watches, handbags and ‘genuine’ DVDs. Mingled among the junk, however, is the opportunity to pick up a great deal on cameras, so head to Felix R. Hidalgo Street for a cut-price Kodak moment. Quiapo Church is fascinating as much for people-watching as it is for its history and architecture. Watch Black Nazarene devotees shuffle on their knees to pray, plus a host of beggars, buskers and blind masseurs. Just don’t become too captivated by the orgy of human suffering and praying – pickpockets love the area.
Manila Eat & Drink
Sample the smorgasbord of Spanish, French, Italian, Mediterranean, Chinese, Japanese and, of course, Filipino food that Manila has to offer. From fine dining in five-star restaurants to surprisingly good street food, Manila has something to whet the most fickle of appetites.
Shang Palace: Intricate Chinese wooden latticework walls and chandeliers set the elegant ambience for the best Cantonese food in Manila.
Hobbit House: It should be illegal to come to Manila and not come here. Lord of the Rings-inspired, with midgets manning the bar and huge range of booze.
Manila Diamond Hotel's Le Bellevue
Aubergine has an impressive range of French delights. Good luck deciding between the Pan-seared scallops and braised veal cheek hash, or duck foie gras and smoked duck breast.
Cafe Havana is one of the popular haunts in the Greenbelt Complex, serving up Caribbean cuisines, cocktails and, of course, Cuban cigars.
Red Contemporary Western/Asian fusion cuisine inside a chic and spacious interior that will satisfy all your senses.
Inagiku: Master sushi chef Wataru Hikawa creates beautiful, fresh Japanese food. Specialties are the Blue Fin Tuna Belly and Soft Shell Crab, as well as an extensive Sake list.
Lolo’s Dads Café The last-standing fine-dining restaurant in Malate. Book now if you want to get in.
La Cocina de Tita Moning A family run establishment in Legarda ancestral home.
Ilustrado is the place authentic Spanish and Filipino cuisine in the old walled capital.
The Spanish may have left the Philippines but they left behind a hefty religious footprint. Happily, that’s a good thing as the Christian festivals – topped with a unique Filipino twist – are great excuses for great parties.
The Black Nazarene Festival, held on 9 January 9 at Quiapo Church is a jostling, barefooted procession of devoted Filipino Christians honouring Jesus. A life-size wooden figure of Christ is paraded through the streets with so much vigour, advanced crowd-surfing skills are required.
Sto Niño Festival (Holy Child Jesus Festival) on 15 January celebrates Jesus (he’s pretty big in the Philippines) by dancing through Tondo’s streets with images of said superstar in hand.
Chinese New Year in Manila bursts into life at the end of January/start of February. Traditional Chinese celebrations abound, with lion dances (not to be confused with line dancing), festive moon cakes and fireworks galore.
People Power Day is an annual tribute to democracy.Every year on 25 February, Manila commemorates the ‘the revolution that surprised the world’ – the end of Ferdinand Marcos’ tyrannical reign in the Philippines. The day includes a mass, speeches and performances at the People Power Monument.
Cocoa de Flores (Chocolate and Flowers) is a week-long cultural love affair in April. With costume parades, parties and free alcohol (on one night), there’s plenty of love to go around!
Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) Festival is a tribute to the Virgin Mary.
Every day in May, children scatter flower petals in church, as a sign of virtuous youth and beauty.
Also in May, the ‘Queen of Filipino Festivals’, Santacruzan, colourfully celebrates youth, love and religion. Metro Manila erupts into streets parades and beauty pageants (yes, beauty pageants) commemorating the discovery of the Holy Cross.
The Feast of St John the Baptist makes a splash in San Juan on 24 June. Imitating baby Jesus’ baptism, water fights break out in the streets, with unsuspecting tourists frequently getting drenched – which is reason enough to go along.
When To Go
With its tropical climate, Manila is hot and humid most of the year. Even if you hate shopping, that’s when all those air-conditioned malls really come into their own.
- The temperature is a constantly steamy 25 to 30°C (77-86°F) all year round.
- Manila’s wet season is roughly between May and November.
- It’s most comfortable to travel to Manila in the cooler, dry season between December and April.
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What To Miss
Tondo: Crowded and claustrophobic, Tondo has all the worst parts of Manila crammed into one downright dodgy slum.
Manila Zoo: Avert your eyes and hold your nose, because squalor and stench are the two main highlights of this so called zoo. If it’s wildlife you’re after, make the trip to Avilon Zoo, a bumpy three-hour ride from Manila.
Manila Ocean Park: Small, and with hardly any inspiring aquatic life, this is more like another shopping mall wrapped in an under-the-sea guise.
Whether it’s carefully dodging disastrous peak hours or smoggy traffic jams, deciding on the best way to get around is a skill. Manila has more transport options than you can shake a 100 peso note at, including:
- The MRT (Mass Rail Transit) and LRT (Light Rail Transit) run along the main roads of Manila, providing a brief escape from the chaotic streets. Cheap, but can get hideously crowded during peak hours.
- If you prefer your ride pimped, jump aboard the Philippines iconic Jeepney. These gaudy US Military Jeep conversions are the cheapest and most memorable mode of transport you’ll find.
- Pedicabs (pedal-powered rickshaws) and tricycles (motorbikes with a small sidecar) navigate the small neighbourhood streets, although prepare for a sore bottom and to inhale a headache-inducing cocktail of toxic fumes.
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