Manila is often described as the only capital city in Asia that resembles a Latin American city. Many visitors have described it as polluted and crowded, but there is much to discover in Manila that makes it a must-visit for the tourist. Next to Warsaw, Poland it was one of the most destroyed cities during World War II, but before this, Manila was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, having been compared with London, Paris and other European cities. Manila was the capital of the Spanish East Indies for 3 centuries and Intramuros, the ruins of the original city founded by the Spaniards in 1571, still stands today despite bombings during WWII. This modern capital city is considered as the hub of Christianity in Asia and considered as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world with a bustling growing population of 1.5 million people. As a whole, Metro Manila is the most populous of the twelve defined metropolitan areas in the Philippines. As of the 2007 census, it had a population of 11,553,427, comprising 13% of the national population. Including suburbs in the adjacent provinces (Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal) of Greater Manila, the population is around 20 million.
Manila is but one of 17 cities and one municipality that comprise the area known as Metro Manila or the National Capital Region (NCR) of the Philippines. The NCR is in the southern portion of the island of Luzon, in between the Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog Regions, between Manila Bay and the inland lake of Laguna de Bay. The City of Manila, where most of the historical attractions are located, lies at the confluence of Manila Bay and the Pasig River.
The City of Manila is in the western part of Metro Manila. It is bordered on the west by Manila Bay, to the north by Navotas,Quezon City and Caloocan City, to the east by San Juan and Mandaluyong City and to the south by Pasay and Makati.
The Philippines has a tropical climate with two distinct seasons: wet and dry. Typhoons and tropical storms are a common occurrence during the wet season, particularly in the northern part of the Philippines, and occurs from late May till early November. Dry season starts from late November until late April. December to February is a pleasant time to visit the Philippines. Temperatures during this time range from 24-30°C (75-86°F) at its peak. From March to May, temperatures heat up but as Manila is by the coast, it rarely goes beyond 37°C (99°F).
Manila is distributed into 16 territorial districts, which are all original towns except one, the Port Area District. All of these original towns except Port Area have their own churches and several of these districts have attained identification in their own right.
The eight districts north of the Pasig River are:
- Binondo — country’s Chinatown before the arrival of Spaniards in 1571 and the city’s main center for business, finance, wholesale trade and exotic delicious foods
- Quiapo — Hometown of the Black Nazarene and also a place which offers cheap prices on items ranging from electronics to native handicrafts, plus pirated DVD films
- Sampaloc — means tamarind fruit is the district wherein the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest university and the famous Dangwa Flower Market is located (near Windsor Inn at Maceda Street).
- San Miguel — known as the University Belt District and the location of residence of the Philippine Government, Malacañang Palace
- San Nicolas — shares Divisoria Flea Market with other co-district is the hub for the adventurous shoppers that may venture for cheap buys
- Santa Cruz — is on the edge of Chinatown, which is the district of usual frenzied mix of commercial and residential premises
- Santa Mesa — from the Spanish term Holy Mass, this district marks the first shot of the Filipino-American War
- Tondo — the largest, historically 1100 years old, it is one of the first provinces to be established and rebelled against Spain and is now the Southeast Asia’s Most Densely Populated District
- Ermita — one of the two Tourist Belt (another is the Malate district), it is the former Red District but now with all kinds of bars, nightclubs, cafes and also offers numeorus coin, art and antique shops. It has a lively and diverse nightlife. Ermita is also where the American Embassy is located, also Rizal Park, and Manila Bay Hostel is in the 4th floor of a pre-war building across Museo Pambata children’s hospital and beside Miramar Hotel.
- Intramuros — taken from the Latin, intra muros, literally “with in the walls”, the History Town of the Philippines and considered as Old Manila itself during Spanish times, just beside Ermita
- Malate — known as the center of bohemian night life in the city and in the metropolis and beside Ermita
- Paco — lies city’s historic but mysterious octagonal park cemetery
- Pandacan — district home of many of the country’s literary and musical geniuses
- Port — the country’s chief seaport consisting of North and South Port where one can witness the dramatic sunset of Manila Bay
- San Andres Bukid — was previously part of Santa Ana, this district has a touch of Moslem culture and has a mosque
- Santa Ana— known as Sapa in ancient times, this district is the old capital of Namayan Kingdom which is the precursor of modern Metro Manila
English and Filipino (Tagalog) are the common languages in the northern mainland of Luzon. Tagalog is the native tongue of most Filipinos native to Manila and the surrounding Tagalog-speaking regions of Luzon. English comes second as a medium of instruction in any institution including businesses and the like (although some homes in the Philippines choose English as their first language; it depends upon preference). In Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown district, Hokkien is widely spoken while Mandarin might also be known as it is taught in Chinese educational institutes.
There are plenty of airlines offering flights to Manila from major UK airports including London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Aberdeen, Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, New Castle, London Gatwick.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport From overseas, most visitors arrive by plane. Manila is served by three international terminals at Ninoy Aquino International Airport(IATA: MNL)
- Terminal 1 serves major international airlines and currently is the main international terminal, serving most international carriers.
- Terminal 2 is exclusively used by Asia’s first airline and the Philippines’ flag carrier, Philippine Airlines (PAL).
- Terminal 3 newly opened, used by Cebu Pacific and Air Philippines. There are future plans of using Terminal 3 to replace Terminal 1.
- Manila Domestic Passenger Terminal this was Manila’s former gateway before the construction of NAIA, currently used by domestic carriers; Zest Air, Interisland Airlines and Southeast Asian Airlines.
PAL usually provides “seamless” transfers between their international and domestic network, which one cannot usually get with other carriers.
The airport is served by Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, KLM, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Delta Air Lines, AirAsia and many other airlines.
The journey between terminals can take between 5-20 minutes in a taxi depending on traffic. Be wary of this if you have a connection between a domestic and international flight. There is also a regular shuttle bus service between the terminals operated by NAIA (every 15 min, ₱20). Departure tax for all NAIA airports is ₱750 for International, and ₱200 for Domestic. The airport only accepts cash payments. Make sure that you have enough cash to pay the tax when arriving at the airport. If you do not have cash you can use one of two ATMs outside the airport. The airport has two security checks, one to get to the terminal and one for departures. The ATMs are located outside of both security checks. Make sure to use the ATM before getting in or you will be forced to go out and go through security lines again.
Diosdado Macapagal International Airport
Diosdado Macapagal International Airport(IATA: CRK), next to NAIA, DMIA is another major airport that serves the area of Metro Manila and Luzon. Mostly low-cost carriers such as Air Asia, Cebu Pacific, Spirit of Manila Airways and Tiger Airways operate here, other than low-cost carriers, Asiana Airlines also use the terminal. A departure tax(all airlines to, from and within the Philippines exclude taxes in their tickets) of ₱600 should be compulsory paid at the airport.
Ferries run all over the Philippines, but should you not reserve a first class cabin be prepared for uncomfortable cramped conditions. There seems to be lax enforcement of Western safety standards.
Supercats and fastcrafts connect short distances between islands on high-speed air-conditioned hydrofoil crafts. Not only do they provide a faster option than ordinary ferries, they are also much better maintained and have a remarkable safety record. Among the major routes serviced by fastcrafts in and around Manila are: Manila-Bataan, Manila-Cavite and Batangas-Puerto Galera.
The Strong Republic Nautical Highway has made inter-island travel by bus possible. Major islands are connected by Roll On – Roll Off ferries which can carry cars, buses and cargo trucks. An example is the Manila to Boracay route which goes via Batangas, Calapan and Roxas in Mindoro then Caticlan. Philtranco and ALPS The Bus, Inc. serve various inter-island routes and has a terminal in Cubao, Quezon City. Needless to say, however, that these trips can take quite a bit of time and may not be worth the savings if you have only a few days to spend in the Philippines.
Normal provincial buses serving other parts of Luzon also have terminals in various portions of Metro Manila. The Cubao area in Quezon City and the Bonifacio Monument area in Kalookan City is where buses serving the northern portions of Luzon (e.g. Baguio, Zambales) have their terminals.
The Buendia Ave. or Taft Ave. intersection in Makati and the area near the Taft Ave. and EDSA intersection in Pasay is where buses to the south (e.g. Batangas, Laguna) have their terminals.
Jeepneys are usually the cheapest and fastest way to get around the city with a trip costing not less than 7-8 Pesos however it is not suggested to use it at night as crimes have increased relating to jeepneys. Taxis are affordable, comfortable and you can get where ever you want at any time, flag down rates cost P30 however if a taxi driver gives you a fixed price and doesn’t follow the meter refuse it as this is illegal, you can contact local police for cases like this. Tricycles are also fast and affordable but for some people it might not be as comfortable as it seems, it is similar to Thailand’s tuk-tuk; small and uncomfortable, prices are based on the distance of your destination from your origin. Water buses are cheap and OK, and runs through the Pasig River which now is fortunately odourless thanks to the efforts of NGOs and the local government, Water bus stations aren’t decent but who cares? The Pasig Ferry River Service have some stations around Metro Manila. LRT and MRT are cheap and fast however during rush hours (especially from 8-10AM) expect to squeeze in a bit.
Places to see in Manila
The main tourist sites of Manila are located along Manila Bay.
- Baywalk – South of the Luneta is the renovated Baywalk a linear park adjacent to Manila Bay. This promenade has now been all but shut down by a new mayor as at July 2007, most of the bars and restaurants are just empty shells.
- Bonifacio Shrine – A shrine in honour of Andres Bonifacio who was one of the Filipinos who struggled and fought for freedom for the country against the Spanish forces.
- Chinatown – Manila has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world, where one can find exotic Chinese goods and delicious cuisine.
- Intramuros – At the northern end of the Bay lies the remnants of the old walled Spanish settlement of Manila, Intramuros (Spanish for ‘within the walls’). Intramuros contains some of the city’s most interesting museums, ruins, and churches including the Manila Cathedral, the most important church in the country.
- Mabini Shrine – Apolinario Mabini’s former home. Mabini was a Lawyer and fought for Philippine Independence. During the American Occupation, this home became the first intellectual headquarters of the First Philippine Republic.
- Malacañang Palace – Manila is the host of the official residence of the president of the Philippines. While heading your way here, you will see wonderful places. People can roam the garden afterward.
- Manila Hotel – Just outside Intramuros and on the edge of Manila Bay is the beautiful and historic Manila Hotel, a legacy of the American colonial era and the place where General Douglas MacArthur made his home before World War II.
- Plaza San Luis – A commercial complex consisting five house; Casa Manila, Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos and El Hogar Filipino. Plaza San Luis showcases Filipino-Hispanic Architecture. Other than Souvenir shops there is a museum in Casa Manila.
- Rizal Park – Right outside the walled city is Rizal Park more widely known as the Luneta. The Luneta is the venue for the best museums of the city, bayside restaurants, an open-air theater featuring free classical music concerts, a planetarium, early morning jogging and tai chi enthusiasts, and the Manila Hotel. It is a popular meeting spot for family picnics and was the site of the execution of Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines.
- University of Santo Tomas (Unibersidad de Santo Tomas (UST)). This University is oldest and first University in the whole of Asia and the Philippines. It was used as a camp by the Japanese during their occupation where the imprisoned about 10,000 people even though it only can hold 4,000.
- Paco Park – An old cemetery, where Jose Rizal was first buried, the place is now a park, often a venue for concerts, wedding, etc.
Manila has seen a drastic improvement in its museum offerings with the recent renovation of old favorites such as the National Museum of the Filipino People and the Ayala Museum. Other must-see museums in the city are the Bahay Chinoy (Chinese House), Casa Manila, San Agustin Museum and the Museum of Filipino Political History, the “Museo Pambata” children’s museum’.
- >National Museum of the Philippines (Pambansang Museo), P. Burgos Ave, ☎ +63-2-5271209, . Built and opened in the 1900s The museum showcases significant collections from archaeology, arts, cultural properties, zoology, botany and many more.
- Ayala Museum, Makati Ave. corner De La Rosa St, ☎ +63-2-757117/757121 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . Tu-F: 09:00-18:00, Sa-Su: 10:00-19:00, Mon: Closed.
Nature and Wildlife
- Paco Park was actually built as a final resting place for Spanish families residing in Manila, after Jose Rizal’s execution, his remains were sent and buried here.
- Manila Zoo however is a sad sight, leaving much to be desired, and includes a lone elephant caged in a concrete octagon. The Manila Zoo covers an area of 0.055 square kilometers
- San Agustin Church
- Manila Cathedral
- Basilica of San Sebastian – The only all steel church of the Asia, the Europeans were tired of building the church over and over again after fires and earthquakes, they finally decided to build the cathedral in solid steel. The materials were ordered from Europe while the architect is Gustav Eiffel; the architect of the Eiffel tower in France and the Statue of Liberty. Its Gothic architecture might make you think you’re somewhere in the middle of Europe.
- Parish Church of St. Joseph – See the Las Piñas Bamboo organ here.
Food in Manila
Manila has most of the usual American fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Dairy Queen, Shakey’s Pizza, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, TGIF, Italianni’s, Outback, and KFC. Jollibee, the Filipino version of McDonald’s is very common in Manila. Coffeeshops such as Starbucks and Seattle’s Best have also recently become quite common in malls and commercial centers. Meals could be as low as US$2 to 3 in most fast food joints. A typical burger meal with fries and a drink would fall under this range.
Street food peddled by ambulant vendors is quite common and can usually be found in places with high amount of pedestrian traffic. Note however that street food in Manila and elsewhere in the Philippines may not be as clean as what you would find in Bangkok or hawker centers in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. There is very little (if any) regulation and hygienic practices of these establishments vary from place to place. The variety of street food available is tremendous however and may reward the truly adventurous traveler. Some notable examples are the following:
- Chicharon – Deep fried pork rinds, usually eaten while having a beer.
- Balut – boiled duck embryo, generally safe to eat as the whole duck egg is intact and well cooked. The sight of the fully formed duckling complete with wings, ribbed feet and beak may not be too easily swallowed by the squeamish however.
- Isaw, Helmet, Adidas and Betamax – grilled chicken (or pork)intestines, head, feet, and blood respectively
- Banana Cue – bananas fried in hot oil coated with caramelized brown sugar and served on a barbecue stick. There is also kamote cue which is sweet potato served the same way.
- Barbecue – the term barbecue in the Philippines usually means bite size pieces of pork marinated,skewered and charcoal grilled. Chicken barbecue (bbq for short) is also common.
- Kwek Kwek and tokneneng – boiled eggs (duck, chicken or quail) covered in an orangey batter and deep fried in hot oil. Usually dipped in vinegar with onions, chili peppers and garlic.
- Silog – Short for sinangag (Garlic fried rice) and itlog (fried egg), silog is one of the most common and popular breakfast dishes in Manila. Typical silogs are identified by their accompanying viand, ie tapsilog (Filipino tapa, which is fried cured beef strips), longsilog (longganisa), bangsilog (bangus, or milkfish), tocilog (tocino, which is sweet cured pork), hotsilog (hotdog, and cornsilog (corned beef).
- Sizzling sisig – A dish made from parts of pig’s head and liver, usually seasoned with kalamansi and chili peppers.
For a taste of street food without the accompanying risk, try out the following establishments:
- Balut Eggspress – serves balut, kwek kwek and one day old chicks, which are quite literally day old chicks marinated and fried in hot oil then eaten whole including the bones. They have a stall in the MRT Ayala Station.
- Nanay Q – serving special pork and chicken BBQ, liempo, grilled fish and shrimps. They also serve special Pinoy dishes such as Beef Caldereta, Menudo, Pinapaitan, Gambas and Sinigang. Sisig is also their specialty. They have branches at Robinsons Pioneer and Edsa Central.
Most sit-down and casual dining restaurants in Manila would fall under the mid-range category. You could generally eat well for under US$10 per person. At some establishments, this price will even allow you to partake of a buffet and eat to your heart’s content.
Manila is a city where one should exercise caution. A popular scam as of recent days is for someone to approach you and pretend they recognize you. They will say they work at your hotel (i.e. room service, security, or whatever) and that they know you from there. They then say it is their day off and since they just happened to bump into you they want to show you something nice that is nearby; perhaps only a 2 or 3 minute ride away by taxi. They may be very convincing even to a seasoned traveler. It’s a scam. Do not ever get into a car or go anywhere with anyone you don’t know (the trick to making this scam work is that they try to convince you that they DO know you and have helped you at the hotel on a previous occasion). Of course, if you ask them which hotel they will not be able to answer. They are best fended off if you just ignore them, or if they persist, say something like “Are you going to leave me alone or should I call the police?” This makes them do an about face and leave pretty quickly.
Theft is common as well as pick pocketing. You should act cautiously as you would in any poor country, especially considering if you do not look Filipino, theives and scam artists are likely to see you as an easy target. Travelers from other Asian nations especially South East Asians should have no problem blending in with the crowd however. One has to use common sense of course. Don’t wear valuable jewelry or anything else to broadcast your wealth. Displaying that expensive mobile phone or digital camera out in the open is also a good way to attract the undue attention of petty thieves.