Visit Manila. What to do in 24 hours
We’re in Manila for a day. My mind boggles at the population statistics. Can you even imagine living in a teeming metropolis with over 10 million people as they do in ‘Metro Manila’; and Greater Manila houses over 25 million souls. This mental vision of seething humanity and some reports of street crime clouds my expectations about the capital of the Philippines. However, with 450,000 Filipinos in Dubai I was keen to see visit capital; and the reality I experienced was so very different to the dystopian scenario I had in my head.
While it’s charmingly named after a white flower that grows in the mangroves, Manila is not the most picturesque city. Some of the wide concourses and roundabouts remind me of Plymouth (Devon), which was also devastated during World War II. Manila was second only to Warsaw in terms of destruction. That utopian planning zeal of the late 50s and 60s is evident. Traffic is naturally a problem but limiting cars via a number plate system is helping to cut jams and emissions. Smoking is banned in all public places. This added to a seriously impressive commitment to environmental issues that kept cropping up throughout my week in the Philippines. Driving into the centre of the city we pass areas of precarious wooden housing structures and shelters around the river (Tagalog means river dwellers), multi-coloured jeepneys, and some staggeringly bland concrete structures (the Cultural Center of the Philippines could earn Prince Charles’ ‘carbuncle award’) and the gargantuan Mall of Asia (which fails to excite our group of mall-weary Middle East dwellers).
Coasting along the open corniche, we are finally liberated from our mini bus in the heavily restored walled part of the city founded under 300 years of Spanish rule. Our guide for the day is quite a character; enthusiastic, mercurial and forthright; she reveals many contrasting sides of the city, sometimes unwittingly. One snippet of information she feeds us is that boxer Manny Pacquiao owns most of the taxis. Manila seems the embodiment of a forward thinking ambitious nation, with the almost fifty years as part of the US top of mind, still mindful of the legacy – both good and bad – of their Spanish rulers of the past…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself….
1. Old Manila
A small, leafy area of narrow streets, colonial houses and open squares in contrast to the modern concrete of much of the rest of the city. Known as the walled city or intramuros, this was the seat of the Spanish government, fortified to protect them from invaders and uprisings. Am I imagining that our guides are a bit protective? While hawkers of hats and beads approach, they are not intimidating, although some very brazen begging children tug the heartstrings as one is so little. We are taken by bus to the various sites but, with flat shoes, water and a guide (either written or in person) it would be good to go by foot especially at cooler times of the year or by Bambike (see below).
2. Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica
Imposing rather than beautiful, this cathedral which has been raised to the ground many times since 1579, was completely rebuilt after World War II and this reincarnation finished in 1958. It is worth a visit for the contemporary stained glass windows and to immerse yourself in the devotion of this staunchly Catholic nation. We wander under the high, arched ceiling among crowds of nuns and worshippers and buy bamboo hats in the square outside.
3. San Augustin
By contrast San Augustin is palpably swathed in history. The only building to remain unscathed in World II this treasure built in 1589 has UNESCO status. The monastic corridors feel so traditionally familiar, yet the view is incongruous overlooking a courtyard of palm trees. The trompe l’oeil ceiling is breathtaking and my eyes are riveted while I steal photographs, not wanting to disturb a very serious-looking religious ceremony next to the altar. “Getting married in this church is every Filippino woman’s dream” says our guide. “All my family did. They’re divorced now.”
4. Casa Manila
It’s easy to imagine life within the walls of the house of a rich family during 1800s in Spanish colonial times with the slatted wooden blinds, parlour palms, gleaming dark wood, polished parquet flooring and a wealth of beautiful antique furniture. The cool, elegance contrasts with the view from the window down into a make-shift shelter where little children, naked in the shimmering heat and humidity, wave up at us. Finding out afterwards that Casa Manila is a replica house built in the 1980s under the guidance of Imelda Marcos was like peeping behind the curtain at a magic show. (No photography was allowed of the interior.)
5. Fort Santiago
Perhaps it’s the time of day but we are solitary strollers in the peaceful tropical gardens leading up to the Spanish-built fort which has guarded Manila for over 400 years. As well as protecting the city from a variety of invaders it houses a shrine dedicated to the national hero of the Philippines José Rizal. Rivalling Leonardo Da Vinci in his litany of accomplishments he was an ophthalmologist, novelist, poet, sculptor, linguist, painter, architect and historian. He also excelled at fencing and martial arts. The main focus of of our guide’s narrative is dedicated to his memory.
“Have you been to the British Museum?” she asks and explains that José Rizal was in London at the time of Jack the Ripper. “Do you know what Jack the Ripper did?” We’re too hot to reply. “He ripped off prostitutes!” Apparently his initials and coincidence that the murders stopped when José returned to the Philippines led to suspicion that the two JRs were one and the same (still documented in the British Museum). So potential serial killer was added to this amazing man’s biography.
He met his end wrongly accused of conspiracy and rebellion against the government in 1896 and was led to his death by Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army. It was quite moving to follow a path of bronze footsteps showing the final journey across the lawn in the gardens of this ambitious and talented champion of the people.
6. Forbes Park
On an unexpected detour through Forbes Park we see how the other half live in this millionaire’s gated community. On the main road through, flanked by Manila Golf and Country Club, high nets protect our vehicle from misguided balls. Jeepneys and tricycles are not allowed in to keep the air pure for the ambassadors and wealthy families who live here.
7. American Cemetery and Memorial
White serried rows of crosses on impossibly green undulating lawns amid a few gleaming sky scrapers are an astonishing contrast to the ramshackle parts of the city. It feels like little America but with views over the city to mountains beyond. The site of 17,206 graves of American servicemen killed in World War II were buried here although some of their bodies have been repatriated. 570 Filippino military lives are laid to rest here too. It’s extremely peaceful, contemplative and moving.
16 cities or districts make up Metro Manila and Makati is the financial and business centre right at the hub. We stayed in the Shangri-la Makati, it’s not far from the airport, and the views through the gleaming towers to the skyline were compelling day and night. Samantha and I went in search of street food stalls and an organic market but were thwarted (it was the night before). However, a really helpful security guard gave us directions to Greenbelt and personally escorted us across the road. It felt very safe to wander in the vicinity of the Shangri-La. There are three museums, four parks and two heritage churches, as well as a lot of high-end shopping.
Yes, it’s an upmarket shopping mall but year round outdoor living makes designing a mall so that two floors of restaurants and cafés look out over a small park a completely viable proposition. Great for hanging out and people watching in the evening. There’s a real buzz and a good selection of places to eat and drink, plus there’s the Ayala museum including an ancient gold collection.
10. Santo Niño de Paz Chapel
Leaving the brightly aisles of designer shops behind us, we crossed stepping-stones and bridge to enter super-modern open-sided church in the middle of the Greenbelt shopping centre park. People of all ages wander in and worship and a service was going on as we strolled through. The confessionals look like milk cartons. Walking out the other side there are model water buffalo amid bamboo and palms. Eating and shopping are all happening a few metres away. Really quite an extraordinary spectacle and a slice of modern life in the Philippines.
A few other places to visit: Art Galleries on Chino Roces Avenue including Manila Contemporary, which hosts local and international exhibitions including major artists. Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown. Quiapo Church which is the site of the Black Nazarene statue credited with various healing powers for the market stalls in front of the church and surrounding streets.
Safety in Manila
There was a lot of debate with our group and guides about safety in Manila. The top Google results are alarming, slamming the city for being unclean and dangerous. Our guide assured us that it was safe if you didn’t put yourself at risk (by walking around in the wrong areas at night wearing gold jewellery for instance). This vast city where the average wage is 2 USD a day means that petty crime is a factor to beware of. As an organised group we were cocooned a bit but I think that the reality is somewhere in the middle. Keep possessions safe, don’t wander off the beaten track especially at night and go with a guide (see below) to the more down-to-earth areas.
Tours and guides
Where to stay
I stayed for two nights at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati which has the excellent facilities that you’d expect from a five-star hotel but much more too. It had a character and warmth which made me very sad to leave. The rooms are all curved and lined in a blonde wood which gave it a Biedermeier meets Scandinavia feel. It’s welcoming without fussiness although has flourishes of quirky opulence – make sure you look up at the chandelier and down at the amazing carpets. The atrium and lobby lounge are huge overlooking a small tropical area absolutely crying out for you to sit and drink afternoon tea to the sound of the 14-piece orchestra which plays live every afternoon. The corridors felt like I had stepped into a 1930’s movie with rippled silver walls and gilt. I swam in the outdoor pool on one of the upper floors with the sun turning the sky pink and took a hundred of photos of the compelling view of Manila from my window.
Where to eat
Although our mission to eat street food while in Manila was thwarted (more of that in posts to follow) the places we visited did give us a good opportunity to sample many Filipino classics right away.
Circles Event Cafe – Shangri-la Makati: A good range of traditional Filippino dishes and some international (excellent sushi) at this buffet style restaurant with three open kitchens. Masses of pork and a good introduction to halo-halo.
Café Ilang-Ilang – Manila Hotel: An opulent entrance and the staff dressed in Victorian clothing (think Filippino artful dodgers!) make this an interesting venue. We were fascinated by group of glam older ladies were dressed to the nines in stunning grey dresses all different styles. We discovered that this was a renewal of wedding vows. Another gleaming buffet style venue mixing international favourites with traditional dishes such as lechon. There is also a pork-free section. A show-stopping patisserie display went down well.
People’s Palace:Modern Thai restaurant amid the Greenbelt shopping mall complex. We sat outside on sleek leather benches flanked by a wall of greenery – a good place to watch the world go by. My chicken larb was really fiery and fresh with herbs. Good cocktail and mocktail selection, the latter included some made with calamansi juice and dalandan, both types of citrus. Calamansi is fresh and tangy, a bit like yuzu and this sip started an addiction that lasted all week.
Marriot Cafe – Manila Marriot Hotel: A good buffet lunch selection (including crispy pata – deep fried pork leg) and a very short distance from the airport. Marriot Café is the place to go if you have a couple of hours between flights and are feeling hungry. I recommend the rice pudding.
My friend Rowena, compiled a great list of other places to eat in Manila over on Honest Cooking.
Many visitors to the Philippines skip Manila, rushing on instead to fly to tropical islands with aqua seas and white sand beaches. By missing the capital you also miss understanding a lot about this country, its history, why the Filipinos you meet will probably speak impeccable English and also have an indomitable work ethic.