Manila has survived a turbulent and vivid past—Spanish colonial rule, the Philippine Revolution, the trading heyday of the 1900s, and the devastating effects of World War II. Modern Manila is the sum of all these influences. Now a megalopolis of 17 municipalities and districts, the chaos and color of this contemporary city encapsulates the fun-loving attitude of the Filipino people.
Take a kalesa (horse and carriage) tour of the old walled city at Intramuros for a close-up look at the historic plazas and churches built by the Spanish as a home away from home in the 16th century. The buildings were faithfully restored after many were decimated in the month-long, Japanese-American struggle for the city in 1945. Highlights of Intramuros include the iconic Fort Santiago and the baroque San Augustin Church and Museum—one of the oldest churches in the Philippines.
You won’t truly have experienced Manila without stepping into the huge Rizal Park, named after Jose P. Rizal, the proudly remembered national hero executed by the Spanish in 1896. The locals call the park Luneta and often picnic and practice tai chi around its themed gardens, statues, orchidarium, and butterfly pavilion.
Just a short walk from Rizal Park, the National Art Gallery and the National Museum of the Filipino People stand side by side. The latter houses an exhibition of the famous San Diego galleon and the Archaeological Treasures Gallery. There’s also a planetarium and weekly children’s events. Connoisseurs of the fine arts will find more gallery gratification at the Ayala Museum in Makati, Manila’s upmarket neighborhood.
The Oceanarium in the Manila Ocean Mall next to Rizal Park is well worth a visit for those who’d like to dip into the diversity of the surrounding seas without getting their hair wet—the marine park has plenty of fun activities for kids, too.
Remember though, Manila is vast, and traffic congestion can slow down your travel, so plan plenty of time to get about and see everything.
Manila is market mad, with lively outdoor markets such as those in Chinatown and Divisoria selling fresh produce, art, antiques, and traditional crafts. If you prefer air-conditioned, brand-name shopping, head to Makati’s modern malls or Ortigas Avenue.
Handicrafts from various regions of the Philippines are popular souvenirs, and you can get great deals on batik art, jade, porcelain, freshwater pearls, brassware, wood carvings, silver jewelry, and rattan furniture.
Everyone in Manila always seems to be eating, and there’s a food stall on every corner selling snack bites called merienda. However, the restaurants are probably a better option for visitors than street food. Try the malls and hotels around Makati for high-end eateries, while quality cheap and cheerful spots can be found in Malate and Chinatown.
Dishes from the region tend to be rich in salty, sweet, and sour flavors and feature the use of a variety of vinegars. For this reason, the local meals are not as hot and spicy as they can be in some of the other chili-happy countries of the East. The influence of Spanish culture is evidenced through the popularity of paellas, cocidos, and pork dishes on the menu. Don’t leave without tasting the national dessert, halo-halo—a crazy medley of fruit, beans, ice and evaporated milk, often topped with purple yam.
Excursions to neighboring islands can be easily arranged from Manila with a variety of excellent options, depending on whether you’re looking for relaxation or adventure. Cebu, the oldest city in the Philippines, is home to a number of tropical beach resorts and flourishing coral reefs for diving and snorkeling. Day trips can be arranged to the Jumalon Butterfly Sanctuary or the Moalboal Orchid Display.
Fly to the beautiful shores of Palawan on an inexpensive internal flight to explore the town of Puerto Princesa. From there you can catch a paddle boat to Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park, located in the Saint Paul mountain range. The forests here are a haven for exotic wildlife such as bats, monkeys, and monitor lizards. Finish off your trip with an unforgettable boat ride along the longest navigable underground river in the world through spectacular limestone cave structures.