Manila: The Ultimate A to Z Guide
In this series of city guides, we highlight the top spots in each destination, from the most iconic landmarks to the least-known hidden gems, with a sprinkling of survival tips from A to Z.
Manila is a strange beast of a city, an East-meets-West kind of destination that combines the resplendent architectural remains of its colonial past with a new creative energy that powers its urbanscape. Most travellers brush off the capital of the Philippines as a dull, characterless city, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll uncover tons of hidden, idiosyncratic attractions. Here’s an introduction to a more colourful side of Manila.
Unleash your inner acrobat at Flying Trapeze Philippines, the only facility in the Philippines equipped with a full-scale flying trapeze. Unlike your average outdoor obstacle course, this adrenaline-fuelled activity gives you a taste of what it’s like to perform in a circus, and primes you for a potential job at Cirque du Soleil.
Ever since the boom of American barbecue in 2016, an abundance of barbecue joints have sprouted in this city, offering authentic, American-style smoked meat along with a family-friendly dining environment. For the best cuts, head over to Mighty Quinn’s BBQ, or Holy Smokes.
At the Chinese Cemetery, every grave is larger than life. Rather than solitary tombstones, each grave has its own space, complete with water closets, mail boxes (to send messages to the deceased) and air-conditioning. The more extravagant ones that span multiple storeys come with a Jacuzzi, Wi-Fi, free-roaming pets and actual guards. Because of its personalised graves, the cemetery is massive and takes days to view extensively.
Developing bird embryos
Balut, a common street food dish in the country, is not for the faint of heart. Essentially a hard-boiled bird foetus that’s eaten from the shell, it may seem revolting and perplexing that many in Manila actually enjoy it. Consider this Fear Factor challenge a rite-of-passage that inducts you into the local community as a proper insider.
Take a stroll down this former Fifth Avenue-esque Art Deco boulevard, which has been revived with flea markets, street parties and a throng of alternative art studios such as 98B Collaboratory and Pan///Project Space. Ablaze with creative stimuli, Escolta Street is a testament to the city’s embrace of its history and reinvention.
Fort Santiago is a grandiose historic relic, first constructed in 1590 and named after Saint James the Great, the patron saint of Spain. Also considered as the birthplace of Manila, the hauntingly beautiful yet ramshackle citadel has over the centuries witnessed the imprisonment of national hero Jose Rizal, and the massacre of thousands at the hands of the Japanese, and the devastation caused by the Americans in World War II.
No ordinary shopping mall, the Greenbelt Mall is one of the largest and most luxurious in the city with a complex of five high-end malls featuring every retail brand you could dream of. You want to get your wallet and your walking shoes ready because it’s going to be a long session of retail therapy. If you need to rest your feet mid-shopping, there’s also an entire park and organic garden within the compound.
Anthony Bourdain once described it as “oddly beautiful”. An icy dessert unique to the Philippines, halo-halo is sort of a cross between ice cream and Singapore’s ice kachang. Served in a sundae cup, it layers sweetened beans, various fruits, shaved ice with evaporated milk, and tops it off with a scoop of ube ice cream.
An ancient walled city located right at the heart of this modern metropolis, Intramuros is an enormous spread of land that travellers can walk through and stand where the country’s colonisers once stood. Built as a military and political base, it is home to a slew of ornate, aged monuments and buildings that you can view while on a traditional horse carriage ride.
An icon of the country, jeepneys are a common mode of transportation for the locals. These kitschy, technicolour, often graffiti-sprayed mini buses, made from the remaining US military jeeps from the Second World War, aren’t like cabs or Thailand’s tuk-tuks though. Each one follows a specific route. It can get incredibly congested, and payments usually get passed down from passenger to passenger until it reaches the driver.
No one does karaoke like the Filipinos. On top of its first-rate karaoke bars, Manila also features videoke bars, where the karaoke singers’ performances are also video-recorded. Take it one step further with Rockeoke sessions, where you’ll get to sing along with a professional live band, headbanging to your set.
Luneta Park, otherwise known as Rizal Park, doubles as a memorial for various national heroes, chief of which is Jose Rizal, a martyr and nonviolent reform advocate who was nonetheless publicly executed for an uprising against the Spanish that he had nothing to do with. While steeped in sombre history, it’s also a lush location of wooded corners, quiet ponds and vast lawns for a laid-back evening stroll.
The Malacañan Palace is like the White House for the president of the Philippines, designed with Spanish, Filipino and neoclassical influences. Before it became a “palace”, it was just a little weekend house for a Spanish family. It was eventually sold to a colonel for a thousand pesos in 1802, and then given to the government after the colonel’s death.
Never tip at the airport
For those who are new to the Philippines, here’s a tip. Never tip the staff members at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, especially if they ask for it. Thanks to the no tipping policy, they can be reported to the authorities for asking for and accepting such monetary rewards.
The Manila Ocean Park, which coincidentally is owned by a subsidiary of a Singapore-based company, is more than an aquarium with endless species of marine life. It offers once-in-a-lifetime experiences as well, such as swimming like a mermaid, training a sea lion, and swimming with sharks and rays. It also features exhibits of land animals, a fish spa, and neon Volkswagen-style pedal cars for you to ride around the park.
Paco Park Cemetery
Constructed in 1807 in the middle of Manila, the Paco Park Cemetery houses the graves of the Spanish colonial elites, the victims of the cholera epidemic of the early 1800s, and other more recently deceased people. However, the most intriguing graves are unmarked. One of which belongs to three Filipino priests who fuelled a mutiny against the Spanish colonial government, which, despite failing, led to a full-blown revolution.
Quirky cafe and healing sanctuary
If you’re planning on trying one of those urban cafes in Manila, try Van Gogh is Bipolar. Intended also as a healing sanctuary that “empowers every single being to celebrate thy greatness as we celebrate thy imperfections”, this intimate, vintage-style cafe has a menu that changes every day, and a collection of love letters that you can add to.
Ramon Lee’s Panciteria
One of the oldest restaurants in the city, Ramon Lee’s Panciteria is a 90-year-old family business that serves some of the best fried chicken in town, better than any fast food chain you can find. Its stir-fried noodles are also a crowd favourite. You’ll want to drop by before it closes down, along with the copious independent restaurants that have been replaced by gentrified cafes and F&B franchises.
Salcedo Saturday Market
Established in 2005, the Salcedo Market opens every Saturday to vendors of the freshest produce and a range of artisanal products that the millennial crowd is always on the hunt for. You’ll find all sorts of international dishes here, as well as handicraft and contemporary paintings. Don’t miss the craft coffee sourced from the rural provinces of the Philippines.
Touring on two wheels
As you venture around Manila, you’ll come across folks riding Bambikes—sleek bicycles with a bamboo frame and leather seats that can be rented by the hour. Hop on one of those and join a guided bicycle tour to see the city in a more sustainable way.
Bibliophiles will love Biblio, a bookstore and cafe that specialises in second-hand titles and rare, vintage tomes. Its homely atmosphere and book-inspired decor make for the cosiest backdrop, against which to flip through some paperbacks and indulge in a bit of light reading and coffee sipping. What’s more, you don’t have to burn a hole in your pocket.
Venice Grand Canal
Who needs a ticket to Italy when you have the Venice Grand Canal Mall in Manila? Designed to replicate the Grand Canal in Venice right down to the street side architecture, it no doubt enhances the shopping experience with gondoliers and rides along the canal. Not to mention, its pastel tones offer major eye candy, perfect for the ‘gram.
Soak in the setting sun and take in the glistening water, while sauntering down the Manila Baywalk. This romantic path also connects to a variety of local attractions, such as the Manila Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, making it a convenient choice to take, en route to your next destination.
A stone’s throw away from the Manila Baywalk are a handful of the most lavish estates in the city with killer views of the bay. Coconut Palace, a presidential residence, for instance boasts a chandelier made of over 100 coconut shells. Situated in the Cultural Centre of the Philippines Complex, the £30 million building is basically a giant ode to the tropical fruit.
Yield to the midget boxing experience
It’s a little outlandish, but midget boxing matches are real in Manila and it’s exactly as it sounds. Of course, it’s meant to be more comical than anything else. Guests are welcome to take the stage and emcee the event as well, if you’re up for it.
Z Compound Food Park
An open food court with at least 10 participating restaurants, the Z Compound Food Park is a one-of-a-kind dining experience that’s neither like a hawker centre or a street market. What it does offer is diversity, with a variety of cuisines and cocktail.
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