For first-timers in Manila: Where to go?

pinoy souvenirsIf it’s your first time in the big, bad city that is Manila, here is my curated guide for you.  This is part travel advice, and part wishlist for myself–I also need to touch base and get updates on my default Manila tour sites! My aim is to declutter the travel planning space for you and hopefully help you make your own choices as you map out your days in Manila.  This post is a also work-in-progress–do visit regularly and share your ideas and suggestions in the comments below. 🙂 (Updated as of October 2015)

Culture and History

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Intramuros and periphery — A historic walled “city” best viewed on foot or bike.  Option to ride the horse-drawn carriage or kalesa. Various guided walking and biking tours available.

A church visit: San Sebastian Church (steel church), Quiapo or Baclaran Church.  The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, and most churches are still filled with churchgoers on Sundays.  It’s an interesting place to start observing Pinoy spirituality.

manilart2010Art visits / Museum-hopping — Contemporary Filipino art is emerging and more and more, we see art fairs around the city being mounted every year. There is Art in the Park for affordable art, and Art Fair Philippines, a pop-up gathering of galleries in a covered carpark.  Both are held in Makati City every February. Manilart is an older art fair, usually held in a trade/convention center every October.  If your visit doesn’t coincide with an organized art fair, the next best thing to do is visit individual galleries. An efficient way to get a feel of current Filipino art is by window-shopping through galleries in Megamall, where they are conveniently located in one floor.   

Theater.  Keywords to search for PETA, Red Turnip, CCP.

Nature Visits

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Contrary to the image of Manila as a filthy, concrete jungle, there are pockets of green and interesting spots for nature if you care to look.

The Manila Bay sunset is still famous after all these years, thanks to good old dust and smog in the city.  Possible viewpoints are  any of the hotels/restaurants along Roxas Boulevard,  Roxas Boulevard Bay Walk, Mall of Asia Boardwalk.  If you wish to brave the waters of Manila Bay and sail the sunset, there is the Manila Bay cruise which I took a few years ago — you can check if the service is still available.

La Mesa Ecopark is the nearest true park in Manila, but it’s way up north in Quezon City.  Good bike trails and simple picnic grounds.

For breathing space in the middle of Manila, go to Manila American Cemetery in Bonifacio Global City. According to the ABMC website, the “cemetery is open daily to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except December 25 and January 1. It is open on host country holidays. When the cemetery is open to the public, a staff member is on duty in the visitor building to answer questions and escort relatives to grave and memorial sites.”

Mall Visits

Not to encourage shopping or consumerism, but mall culture is big in the Philippines, and if you visit them with an open mind, there is a possible aha experience to be had.

  • Greenbelt complex in Makati City.  Next to the main business district in the country is a series of shopping malls that have been relabeled as lifestyle malls.  Built and managed by the Ayala group, the same people who built the business district and nearby elite residential enclaves.
  • Mall of Asia, Manila.  Touted as the (second) biggest mall of Asia, it is a spectacle to behold and is home of the only true IMAX theater in the city.
  • SM Megamall and Shangri-la Malls in Ortigas.  I am partial to these malls as they are closest to me, but I also think they are the most organized and efficient malls to visit when looking to actually complete errands (SM’s tagline is “We’ve got it all for you”).  These two malls have been revamped and now house top food and shopping establishments.

Go on a mall visit and let me know if you start to understand why malls are a big deal here.

Markets

If you’re hardcore for the raw, local market experience, go to Divisoria and Quiapo, where you get your first try at haggling in the local dialect, Tagalog (caveat: best to ask a trusted local to come with you).

Weekend pop-up markets have come a long way in Manila, and my top picks are still the Salcedo and Legazpi Markets in Makati.  These are mostly artisanal food markets that occupy open parking lots in the middle of the Makati business district on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Pasalubong is the Filipino habit of buying gifts for friends back home.  For your pasalubong needs,  go pearl shopping in Greenhills or visit the handicrafts section of local department stores (SM or Landmark in Makati) for native products.

Eating

In college I was fortunate enough to have taken a class under the famous food critic, Doreen Fernandez, and I will never forget what she singled out as the main characteristic of Filipino food: its sourness.  Popular sour dishes are sinigang (clear vegetable soup with pork or shrimp), adobo (beef, chicken, pork or vegetables cooked in garlic, vinegar and soy sauce), and kinilaw (raw fish “cooked” in vinegar, similar to the Mexican ceviche).

You will notice that Filipinos love to eat (it’s a social event!), and eating establishments are well-filled until the wee hours of the morning.  I’m personally not a fan of splurge eating, but if you’re looking for a taste of local food, my suggestions are:

  • Paluto.  Loosely translated as “Can you cook this please?”  Various places exist where you point at fresh seafood as in a wet market and they cook it for you on the spot.  Keyword: Dampa.
  • Restaurants for Filipino cuisine:   Sentro, Abe.  Via Mare (for kakanin).  I personally love Max’s champorado (chocolate porridge).
  • Local food to try:
    • Savory:  If you’re a fan of pork, top choices are lechon (roasted pig–yes, on a stick over charcoal), crispy pata (deep-fried pork leg), sisig (sizzling pork cheeks and ears).
    • Sweet: taho (sweet tofu), all variants of kakanin or rice cakes (there are as many as there are provinces in the Philippines– 81 and counting!).

Nightlife

The clubbing scene is  alive, but always changing.  Last time I checked, EDM and hiphop were still the pop music of choice in clubs.  Search for: City of Dreams, Palace Pool Club. ManilaClubbing.com.

There is a rich indie music scene but I am not the best person to ask.  Live music is available in most city centers, but there are also places for dancing if that is your thing.

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