Why go now? You may have to put up with the occasional rainfall, but great travel deals can be had during the lean months of February and March. Hotel and tour package rates are cheaper.
Touchdown The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is a major hub for international and domestic airlines. Philippine Airlines has direct flights from Manila to Caticlan in Aklan, the neighboring island of Boracay known for its white sand beaches. Clark in Pampanga, north of Manila, and Cebu in the Visayas are also international hubs. Travel by land from Manila to Clark takes about an hour, depending on traffic.
Get your bearings Malate, Intramuros, Quiapo and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) complex are the best places to explore Philippine history and culture. “Downtown Manila will always show you the heart and soul of the Philippines while Makati will always tell you what the Philippines wants to be,” says Carlos Celdran, operator of Celdran Tours.
Malate is located at the southernmost end of Manila, bordered by Pasay City in the south and Ermita in the north. In the 70s, the western portion of Malate, which used to be an exclusive residential area, was transformed into a commercial area. Big private houses and apartments were turned into small hotels and rented houses.
In the 90s, plush hotels such as Hyatt Hotel and Casino, now known as New World Manila Bay Hotel, and Pan Pacific Hotel, Manila Diamond Hotel, Sheraton Hotel, now known as Century Park Hotel, and Grand Boulevard Hotel (tel+632 526 8588) sprouted in Malate and neighboring Ermita. The portion that’s east of Taft Avenue is constantly changing with new recreation and entertainment outlets opening up.
Malate is known as the bohemian district. It’s the place to enjoy al fresco dining and drinks, carefree street dancing, and open-air concerts. The area has rows of restaurants and bars, and a sprinkling of arty shops and galleries.
Intramuros, situated along the southern bank of the Pasig River, and considered to be the oldest district of Manila, is a definite must-see for those interested in Philippine history. Take a leisurely afternoon walk around Intramuros’ Fil-hispanic landmarks or book to join one of Celdran Tours' walking tours, and enjoy a humorous analysis of Philippine art, culture, and society from pre-Hispanic Manila to the present.
The name Intramuros was taken from the Latin word intra muros meaning “within the walls.” During the Spanish colonization period of the Philippines, which lasted some 300 years, Intramuros alone was considered Manila.
The walled city is barely touched by modernization, retaining its cobblestone streets, brick walls dating back to its construction, and Hispanic houses owned by old-rich families, and glorious adobe churches.
“Manila is a city of contrast. You see old nineteenth century mansions; there’s rich and poor; and there’s quiet and chaos,” says Celdran. The Spanish culture is strongest in Manila compared to any other city in Southeast Asia, where there’s a mixture of different religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hindu, among others. “Where other cities have temples, we have catholic churches made out of volcanic ash seashell painted with limestone like San Augustin Church, the Malate Church, and one of the few adobe churches around— San Sebastian Chapel and Binondo Church.”
Manila is named after a white flowered mangrove plant. It was founded 327 years ago by Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi. Because of his conquest, Manila turned into a strongly-founded Christian city, overthrowing its former identity as a small Muslim village ruled by Filipino chieftain Rajah Sulayman.
Everything around Manila is about taking a jeep, hopping on a pedicab (bicycle with a sidecar) or even going around in a coach-driven horse carriage, a popular way of seeing the city.
But if you want to explore the busy and crowded streets of Chinatown and Quiapo, where there are interesting shops and great value-for-money eating places, the best way to go is to walk. And if you feel you've had enough of the humidity and heat (average temperature in March is anywhere from 23 degrees celsius to 32), you could always flag down a cab or rent an air-conditioned car to take you around.
The 609-room Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila in the CCP Complex has an amazing view of the famous Manila Bay sunset from its sprawling garden and pool area, and most rooms have a view of the sunset and the bay strip, Roxas Boulevard.
Manila Hotel is the Philippines’ grand old dame, witness to a number of coup d'etats, revolutions, and dictators. American general Douglas McArthur stayed here – you can book his suite – and so did Michael Jackson. The hotel has the old world feel and needs some updating here and there. It has a stunning hotel lobby lighted by crystal chandeliers and a coffee shop that serves a Filipino favorite, the bibingka (rice cake with salted eggs and coconut meat). Going to the hotel for coffee and bibingka for a nightcap is perhaps the equivalent of going to the grand Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong for tea. The former is not as posh, but you just have to experience that slice of history.
Diamond Hotel in Malate has 500 well-appointed rooms with wide bay windows with a fantastic view of Manila Bay and of the whole of the city. The Peninsula Manila is the first Peninsula established outside Hong Kong and is pretty much one of the three top hotels big businesses book in Makati. Rivals Makati Shangri-La Hotel and Ascott-Makati, formerly known as Oakwood, in the Ayala Avenue area are the other two.
For mid-range, there’s the Orchid Garden Suites on Vito Cruz, a converted art deco mansion in the 1930s. It has 89 rooms and offers elegant and comfy rooms, a restaurant, cafe bar (karaoke can be arranged), business center and a swimming pool.
Miramar Hotel is an art deco apartment building offering 40 Wi-Fi-ready rooms, each with cable TV, safety deposit box, and toilet and bath with hot and cold shower. It’s classified as a three star-star hotel and although it doesn’t have a swimming pool, its open-air atrium is a good place to hang out.
For budget accommodation, try Friendly’s Guesthouse in Malate, a backpacker hostel with rooms ranging from aircon rooms with private bath. Most of the rooms share a communal toilet and bath. Guests are allowed to access its fully equipped kitchen plus it’s a Wi-Fi building for those with laptops.
WALK THROUGH TIME
An Intramuros tour is a must for any visitor. First stop is Fort Santiago, a former Spanish garrison that’s now a vast romantic garden. Here, you can take a mini tour inside the Rizal Shrine dedicated to Philippine National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal, and see Rizal’s memorabilia, books, artworks and manuscripts. This is the very place where Rizal was held captive – and throughout the captivity he wrote his famous novel Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) – before his execution on December 30, 1896.
Next stop is San Augustin Church, located on General Luna and Real Streets (tel +632 524 7141 or +632 521 8113), the oldest surviving church in the country built in 1587-1604. This UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts of a magnificent facade and richly decorated Baroque-inspired interiors. Just beside the church is the San Augustin Museum (tel +632 527 4061), a two-floor, square edifice connected by a grand staircase. Running its length are four corridors and leading off each are the various rooms displaying paintings and santos (religious statues, usually of carved ivory or wood). As you enter the old porters lodge, you are greeted by this giant bell in the center of the room, weighing 3,400kg. The museum is within the confines of San Agustin Monastery. From the upper floors of San Agustin Museum, you can see the gorgeously landscaped Father Blanco’s Garden, another recommended stop. Father Blanco was a botanist who experimented with native plants in an attempt to discover plants with medicinal properties. The current garden was reproduced based on the original garden which was destroyed during the war in 1945.
An Intramuros tour is never complete without seeing Casa Manila on Calle Real del Palacio. It shows how aristocratic families of Manila lived in the 19th century. Each room of this faithfully reconstructed, three-storey house is decorated with antique furniture and chandelier. It also houses an attractive central courtyard with a fountain.
It is recommended to tour Intramuros on a calesa or horse-drawn carriage to complete the feeling of going back in time. It costs about P300 per hour for the regular calesa. A bigger calesa can accommodate a group of 10 or more for a higher fee. Calesas ply the roads of Intramuros and drivers even call out to offer rides.
LUNCH IN STYLE
Just along Calle Real is Ilustrado (tel +632 527 3674 or +632 527 3675), a 19th century house that has a coffee shop, dining area and ballroom for functions. Its dining room has exposed beams and colonial ceiling fans. Try such house specialties as callos lengua and bangus relleno or pick a dish from its a la carte menu. You can also sample the unconventional – kalderetang kambing (goat stew). Ilustrado offers full bar service and a choice of wine to go with your meals.
HUNT FOR LOCAL BUYS
Chinatown is the “core of Chinese culture and influence in Manila. Starting from Binondo church, explore the streets of Paredes, Carvajal, Ongpin, Salazar and Benavidez until you reach Sta. Cruz Church. All along the way, you will find quaint shops, herbal drugstores and some of downtown Manila’s best Chinese cuisine,” says Celdran.
You can find a great variety of reasonably priced items such as mahjong tiles, cheongsams or traditional apparel for Chinese women, gold jewelry, hardware and Chinese traditional medicine for cough called pepaqua, which comes in liquid and candy packaging.
And of course, shopping is never real shopping in Chinatown if you don’t buy a local specialty, hopia, a bean-filled pastry that comes in two types – the flaky, which uses Chinese puff pastry, and the cake dough type, which uses a soft cookie dough. It comes in classic flavors mongo, ube (yam) and baboy (pork). Newer versions include cheese, pineapple and pandan (lemon grass) hopia. You can buy these at Eng Bee Tin Hopia (tel +632 242 9765 or +632 242 9766), Tai Shing Bakery on Salazar Street, or Salazar Bakery (tel +632 733 1392 or +632 733 1397) on Ongpin Street. Another specialty from these bakeshops is tikoy, a round, sticky, sweet cake. Demand for this cake is high during Chinese New Year because it’s believed to bring money, sweetness and prosperity throughout the year if given as a gift.
In Intramuros, you can buy hand-crafted products at Silahis Handicrafts (tel +632 527 2112) and novelty books at Trade Winds Bookstore.
On Padre Faura Street in Ermita, you can find Solidaridad Publishing (tel +632 254 1068), a small old bookstore and publishing house run by renowned Filipino writer and national artist F. Sionil Jose. It sells books handpicked by Jose himself as well as a complete set of choices the writer's novelas and short stories.
Within the complex of CCP, Halls 6 and 7 of the Philtrade flea market (tel: +632 833 2019) sell antique products.
FEAST ON AFFORDABLE CHINESE
Manila is known to house some of the best Chinese restaurants and eateries in the country. Carlos recommends Suzhou Dim Sum on Masangkay St. in Binondo, one of those that serve the juiciest and tastiest dumplings. The eatery originated in China and later branched out in Manila.
For authentic Chinese, Lailai Palace on Ongpin St. is a sure win. Try the salted fish fried rice and buttered chicken. Sincerity Restaurant, a cozy family-owned restaurant on Nueva Street is known in town for its delicious, garlic butter fried juicy, aromatic fried chicken.
A CULTURAL AFTERNOON
If you are in the Makati business district, a must visit is the Ayala Museum, housing a rich historical collection of the country’s archaeology, ethnography and fine arts, including works of artists Juan Luna and Fernando Zobel. It’s also a regular venue for year-round events and exhibitions.
In the Manila Bay area, visit the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex. It is part of a “master planned complex of convention centers, exhibition halls, and art institutions designed by the National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin. From the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum in the Central Bank Complex, cross Roxas Boulevard and enter the CCP,” said Celdran
The imposing 88-hectare structure of the CCP was built in 1969 and has been since a venue for local and international performances and various art exhibitions. It also supports numerous regional and local cultural centers in their objective to hone local talents. Within the complex is the Philippine International Convention Center or PICC, another important events’ venue of cultural and art shows.
“Don’t forget to tour the Coconut Palace (tel +632 832 0223) next door to the Sofitel. With the walls made of inlaid coconut, it’s a kitsch lover’s delight.” It’s made out of 70% chemically-treated coconut lumber plus other components of a coconut tree.
Other must-see within the complex are the Metropolitan Museum, the Design Center of the Philippines (+632 832 1112 loc. 130), GSIS Museum, and Star City Carnival located on Sotto Street if you like lively rides for kids and food kiosks.
REFUEL FOR THE BIG NIGHT
After a full day of tours, you’ll need to get back to your hotel to shower and rest, before a night out.
SPLURGE FOR DINNER
La Cocina de Tita Moning is a Celdran's favorite and one he highly recommends. It used to be the Legarda mansion, one of the first are deco houses built in Metro Manila. The owner Ramona Hernandez (Tita Moning) was known for her lavish parties and sumptuous meals. Dinner here starts with cocktails in the patio deck, then a tour of the mansion which also houses valuable works of Filipino artists. Dinner is in the main dining room where a set menu of Filipino heirloom dishes, are served using antique china, glassware and silverware. A complete meal at La Cocina will set you back a minimum of P1,300 per person. Lunch and dinners are strictly by reservation only. Book at least a day in advance. Call +632 734 2146 or +632 734 2141 for reservations.
If you’re up for shopping for fresh seafood, and having it cooked just the way you want it, go to Seaside Paluto on Macapagal Avenue. Expect great satisfaction at a very reasonable price.
Carlos’s favorite bar is Oar House on Jorge Bocobo St., Malate. In the late 70s, this bar was opened by US navy Chuck Monroe and is perhaps one of the oldest running bars in Malate. The clientele now is much younger. It is also a venue for photo exhibits since it’s a favorite hub of photojournalists and artists. Go to Saguijo Club (tel +632 897 8629) for live music and alternative scene; Absinthe Bar, now known as ABV Cocktail and Absinthe Bar (tel +632 832 5330).
Go for Filipino breakfast at The Aristocrat Restaurant and Bakeshop (tel +632 524 7671-80) for old Filipino favorites as chicken barbecue and pinakbet (vegetable stew with shrimps and pork). Aristocrat’s bakeshop is open 24 hours a day. Buy croissant, turnover, chicken pie and Japanese bread, a sweet creamy-crusted bread filled with meat, mushroom, peas and carrots to go with your hot cup of coco or coffee. Aristocrat’s cocoa used for its hot chocolate is from Mindanao and its coffee beans are from Batangas and Cavite.
The most convenient way to get around Manila is by cab, with fare ranging from P50 to P200. Uber and Grab apps are also popular transport services in the city. You can also try taking jeepneys, buses, pedicabs (bicycle with a sidecar) and tricycles.
About our insider
Carlos Celdran owns and operates Celdran Tours, which organizes regular walking tours of Intramuros, from Fort Santiago to San Agustin Church. Celdran Tours is at Unit 24, North Syquia Apartments, 1991 MH del Pilar, Malate, Manila, tel +632 484 4945, mobile +63920 909 2021, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
-By Monica de Leon
Originally published in InFlight Traveller August to September 2007. Updated February 2016