Everyone I know hates Manila. Even us Manileños hate Manila so much that we tell our friends from other countries the bad side of the capital.
If someone asks us what they can do in the metro, we will probably answer, “There’s nothing to do in Manila. Go somewhere else!” I’m not sure if we are too proud of our beaches and mountains, or we dread the city so much we suggest to everyone to skip it in their itinerary.
When I started traveling, I promised to change my perspective about the places I would visit, including Manila of course. I used to love to hate this city, but I’m now starting to appreciate it. If people would ask me about Manila, I would say now, “You could spend more than a couple of days to appreciate the city. We have old churches, the oldest Chinatown in the world, museums, big malls, amazing skyline, 5-star hotels and budget hostels. But to set your expectations, traffic is terrible and our train system sucks!”
Fair enough, right?
So let’s talk about Metro Manila or simply Manila. The capital city of the Philippines is home to over 12 million people, making it the 9th most populous metropolitan in Asia. From the moment you book your flight to the Philippines, you will probably ask yourself, “How many days should I stay in the Capital?”
As someone living here for 26 years, I would say 3-5 days is enough-depends on what you want to see and do.
I have to admit though that, even though I grew up in this city, I have visited only a few spots. If you have limited time, I will be glad to welcome you to Metro Manila and introduce its beauty and the beast.
Let’s travel back to the past to understand the Manila of today. Once, this city was called the Paris of Asia. During the Spanish occupation, it was known as the jewel of Spain’s empire in the Pacific. It was described as a splendid city. The Philippines was under the rule of Spain for more than 300 years.
When the Spanish-American war officially ended, The US and the Spain government signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. Spain agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million.
The original colonial Manila was designed by the American architect who designed Chicago & Washington DC, Daniel Burnham. Imagine how beautiful Manila was before it was heavily damaged during World War II.
You can expect Manila as a combination of Chicago and Washington DC. The Chicago part of Manila is the Manila Bay area and the wide boulevards of Quezon City are the Washington DC.
So, how does the city look like today? If you want to have that “First-world” feel, visit Manila’s three Major Central Business Districts (CBDs) namely Makati, Ortigas, and Bonifacio Global City.
Makati CBD, which spans 150 hectares, is only 3 km away from Ortigas, which spans 100 hectares. They are connected by the metropolitan highway called EDSA.
Today, Bonifacio Global City is changing the face of Manila really fast. The 500-hectare former army base, just a few kilometers away from Makati and Ortigas, is Making the skyline of the Metro more impressive. And we are talking about high story buildings here. Now, imagine, if these three CBDs were adjacent to one another, Metro Manila would be like a midtown Manhattan.
How about the other side of Manila? If you are looking to stay in the “old district” of Manila, go to Ermita and Malate. To this day, they are branded as the tourist belt of the city. Probably because of its proximity to some historical tourist attractions in the city like Rizal park, National Museum, and Intramuros.
But in my observation, this part of the city which was once a vibrant part of Manila is slowly dying and a big part of this area is dilapidated. But, I have heard of some projects aiming to revive this part of the city.
So, what’s pulling up the “old district”? Something to look forward to is the Bagong Nayong Pilipino in Pasay City. A 1,000-hectare reclamation site by the bay is Manila’s equivalent of Macau. Today, there are big hotels and casinos situated in the area. Construction of other establishments is ongoing. This, I hope, will extend gentrification to the old district of Manila.
There is poverty in most areas of the Capital. It’s a usual scene in the city, but surprisingly, despite the fact that the Philippines is still a third world country, 4 out of the 11 biggest malls in the world can be found in Metro Manila. And did you know that SM City North EDSA in Quezon City is the third largest shopping mall and the largest solar-powered mall in the world?
Therefore, never criticize the purchasing power of the Filipinos. Henry Sy, the richest man in the Philippines, would never build the biggest malls in the world if nobody was buying. In addition, Metro Manila has just been declared the city with the most number of shopping malls per capita in the world.
I once read that the culture of the Philippines as a whole is different from the rest of Asia, specifically in the South-East. I will help you understand why.
The Philippines is where the US and Europe meet in Asia that’s why our culture is a bit different.
Let’s talk about food as a good example. I have been to almost all major cities in Southeast Asia where people love spicy food. However, the Spanish and Americans changed our eating habit. Admit it or not, the Philippines is a class-conscious society, where quality could economize for those who couldn’t afford.
Majority of Filipinos adopted the Spanish culture “Your worth is measured by the price of what you’re eating,” so most dining tables in Filipino homes usually have two or more viands per meal. Meat would always be one of the choices. And a lot of Filipinos dine in a fancy restaurant. The more expensive the food, the higher the status is–or so they feel.
American brought to us the fast food culture and this separates us from other Asian countries. While it’s expensive in the different parts of Asia, it’s a different story here in the Philippines. Fast food chains are everywhere. Most of the middle-class eat at these quick service restaurants during lunch break. Try to visit Makati at lunch time and you will see how jam-packed all the fast food stores are.
The small food stall or carinderia in the local language, which is equivalent to those patronized by budget travelers in Bangkok, is patronized by the lower-class. Try to visit neighborhoods near the public market, close to jeepney stations and factories.
If you love American and Spanish food, it would be easy to love Filipino food. Some of my favorites are Kare-Kare, Adobo, Sinigang, Lechon, Crispy Pata, Chicken Inasal, Arroz Caldo, Laing, Fish Kinilaw, Halo-Halo and Leche Flan. Make sure you try these the next time you visit Manila.
Where to Stay in Manila?
Majority would agree that Makati City is still the best place to stay in Manila because of many factors: modernity, organization, wide array of budget and luxury hotels/hostels, proximity to the airport, big malls for shopping experience, vibrant nightlife, wide selection of restaurants, and proximity to other major areas like BGC, Ortigas, Pasay and Manila.
What to do in Manila?
Here are some of my recommendations on what to do in the city..
- Visit Century Old Churches
- San Agustin Church
- Manila Cathedral
- Quiapo Church
- Walk around the Park
- Rizal Park
- Paco Park
- Manila Ocean Park
- Explore the oldest Chinatown in The world located at Binondo, Manila
- See what’s inside the wall of Intramuros
- Manila is Shopping Haven
- Visit Divisoria for budget shopping
- Visit Greenhills for class A products
- Visit Greenbelt for luxury and branded items
- Discover all the street arts in Bonifacio Global City (BGC)
- Food Crawl in Poblacion, Makati
- Nightlife? Enjoy it with Philippine’s very own San Miguel Beer. Check out these clubs!
- Valkyrie at BGC
- House Manila at Resorts World Manila
- The Pool Club at the Palace at BGC
- Royal at Makati
- Also, there are line up of bars found in Malate, Makati Ave, and Tomas Morato.
- Looking for meaning in life? Take a look at the life of the poorest of the poor Filipinos at Smokey Mountain.
Manila is not your ordinary city and it’s not the most beautiful city that you can find in Asia. For a first-timer, one will find it a bit annoying. Cars, jeepneys, and motorcycles are everywhere which keep the city moving and cause a gateway-to-hell-like traffic situation. But in the coming years, once all the major road constructions are over, things might get better.
Despite everything negative about our city, I hope our people could change your impression of Manila. Majority speak English and our hospitality is incomparable.
Our city is unique in every single way. It’s a mysterious city that grows on you and before you feel it, Manila will become like a long lost friend that you enjoy having with.