Once upon a time, I used to be a Manileño. Twenty-five-years ago, I came into the world during typhoon season and spent my first two years as a resident of a neighborhood called Sampaloc. Even after I immigrated to the US, I would spend summers in Manila to be raised by my relatives up until I was eleven. As a kid, I remember watching teenage boys congregate in the street to shoot some hoops after rush hour traffic died down and selling bags of ice for a peso each to save enough money for chicheria (Filipino junk food).
Returning to Manila as an adult hit me with a wave of nostalgia for the time when I had once called this city my home. The metropolis has gained a rotten reputation amongst visitors for its harmful pollution, merciless bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the apparent disparity between the rich and poor. Ninoy Aquino International Airport is ranked as one of the world’s worst airports so even upon arrival, you are welcomed by this talked-about unpleasantness. But the city thrives on despite these complaints. Because of its tendency to be overlooked on tourist routes, it has preserved an authenticity most capital cities in Southeast Asia lack. A majority of the citizens of Manila are everyday Filipinos, not expats or elite urbanites, making the probability of meaningful encounters with the locals much higher than that of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. The probability of thrilling discoveries is also increased as you submerge yourself in a place that hasn’t been infiltrated by flocks of tourists. The Philippines is called “The Pearl of the Orient Sea” for a reason – in order to find a treasure, you must be willing to pry open a hard shell first.
1. See Intramuros during Golden Hour
Intramuros is the oldest district of Manila and also its most famous. Its name comes from Latin, meaning within the walls. Here, behind a massive fortification of stone is a walled city that is closed off from the bustle of modern-day Manila. This site, also referred to as Old Manila, was once occupied by the Spaniards, the Americans, and even the British for a short period of time before being reclaimed by the native Filipinos. The major attractions include Fort Santiago and its iconic gate, Plaze de Roma and the Manila Cathedral, and Philippines’ oldest stone church, San Agustín. Don’t be on the fence about doing a tour — the tours here are as riveting as the action that took place centuries before. The two tours I recommend are the Walk This Way Tour with political activist, Carlos Celdran, who brings history to life with his passionate performance and the Bambike Bicycle Tour that my friends and I opted for. The Walk This Way Tour is publicized as one of Manila’s top recreational activities and thus, is booked weeks in advance. They run once per day, but not everyday. Check the schedule here. On the Bambike Tour, you get to ride bicycles made out of recycled bamboo by the folks at Gawad Kalinga, a non-profit dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in the Philippines. It’s a super amusing way to cover long distances as you get the experience of maneuvering through Manila traffic. These tours run once in the morning from 10:00-12:30 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00-5:30 pm. I suggest going during the afternoon one because Intramuros is more enchanting during golden hour. The Carlos Celdran Tour and Bambike Tour are both 1,200 pesos each. If you prefer to do an express version of the Bambike Tour, it costs 600 PHP for one hour.
2. Learn More about your Fate at Quiapo Church
The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene is known to locals as Quiapo Church. Here, you will witness the folk interpretation of Catholicism at its strongest. Enshrined in the front of the church is the Black Nazarene, a reinterpretation of Jesus Christ as a darker man believed to be miraculous. Outside is Plaza Miranda, a place where the mystics of Manila congregate and will happily reveal your future in exchange for a small fee of 150-300 PHP depending on how well you bargain. Note: they might not speak any English so ask before sitting down. The fortune tellers consult their tarot cards and spew out slightly humorous, sometimes unsettling predictions. Roaming secretly in the crowd are vendors selling herbal potions which they vow will relieve the patient of a number of physical ailments, including those looking to perform illegal abortions.
3. Go Mall Hopping around Metro Manila
Believe it or not but malls and Manila go hand-in-hand. In the Philippines, the mall culture is so prevalent that you’re bound to end up in one during a stay in the city. Even my boyfriend Tim who isn’t impressed by much was dazzled by the immensity of the malls, especially The Mall of Asia which is the 11th largest mall in the world! Locals can recite a listing of malls like Makati Greenbelt or Greenhills Promenade but the most well-known are the SM Malls, the largest chain franchise in the Philippines. Unlike other places in Southeast Asia where malls merely act as refuge from the heat, Manila’s malls are about entertaining their guests. At SM Megamall, the Taiwanese dumpling institution, Din Tai Fung, has set up shop. The chocolate lava xiao long baos are divine and are only served at the Manila branch! At Century City Mall, you can attempt to complete a live escape room challenge with Mystery Manila if you’re brave enough to face their sinister-sounding themed rooms. It might sound counter-intuitive but if you want to immerse yourself in the ongoings of the real Manila, make a beeline for the nearest mall.
4. Feast on Fresh Seafood in Dampa
Dampa is Manila’s answer to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market, only a bit more crude and humble. At this wet market, you scan for the finest of Manila’s seafood scene before cooking them any which-way you like at one of the restaurants found alongside the seafood emporium. It is located on Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard in Pasay City near a huge body of water (ie. Manila Bay) so you don’t have to question the freshness of the catch. Besides the popular Maya Maya or Red Snapper, you can also pick up some crabs, mussels, squid, and abalone. There are practically next-to-no tourists. The majority of the guests here are local regulars who all have a favorite paluto restaurant. Paluto literally means “to have someone cook something for you.” My favorites after our day were th adobong pusit, squid cooked in an adobo-style marinade, and kinilaw, the Philippine take on ceviche using coconut milk and vinegar in lieu of traditional lime juice.
5. Take a Bite out of Manila’s Street Food
Foreigners are forewarned to not partake in the street foodways of Manila because of sanitary concerns but I’m a firm believer that great food is found on the streets frequented by those who know best. I go by the rule that if there are a lot of customers crowding by and the food is being cooked fresh, you should be good to go! It was on my bucket list to have my travelmates eat balut aka underdeveloped duck embryo. We were brought to a balut stand by our guides at Bambike certifying it a safe place to eat. My friends were very apprehensive at first, especially being serious animal lovers, but with the guidance of the balut saleswoman, they worked their way to stomaching the challenge. Every person has their own way to eat balut but this is how I do it: crack the top of the shell (whichever end is most hollow), sip the warm broth found inside (this is only found in the masabaw version of balut as opposed to the tuyo version), and then peel the rest of the shell halfway to expose the cooked egg yolk and douse it with vinegar and pinch of salt. In the Philippines, it seems like barbecued offals are the street food of choice. By offals, I mean intestines, liver, and heart! Intestines are called isaw so look for stands advertising this word. The isaw is grilled on the spot and then you have the option of dunking your skewer in either sweet or spicy sauce. I always go for extra marination. Isaw usually costs 10-15 pesos per skewer so it makes it a very affordable snacking option for tourists on the go.
- Ever heard of coconut macaroons infused with leche flan? I didn’t think flan could get more decadent until I discovered the baked goods of Custaroonery by Gigi Gaerlan and then my opinion was changed forever.
- In Manila right now, live escape rooms are all the rage and the offerings they have in the city are incredibly creative. Try Mystery Manila if you want a good spook and for more action and adventure, head to Breakout Philippines.
- A free water light show happens daily at Rizal Park, also called Luneta Park, right after sundown. Its been nicknamed “Dancing Water” since the fountains legitimately seem to be grooving to the sounds of seventies disco music.
- Tagaytay is the perfect weekend escape from Manila relished for its location in the highlands of Batangas which provides an ethereal view of Taal Lake and Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest active volcano, accompanied by a gentle breeze.
- Van Gogh is Bipolar is restaurant aimed at cultivating awareness on mental health by serving up mood-altering inspired dishes (fun fact: the restaurant’s founder is bipolar!)
👉 Writing this piece was a labor of love to a city that is often is misunderstood so I hope it encourages more of you to visit! Any questions you have about accommodations and things to eat? Let me know in the comments below!