Manila on the mouth of the Pasig River is the capital of the Philippines. It is its largest city by far, with a population of over 10 million people. The vast metropolis was created in the 1970s when eight cities and nine towns merged to become what is now Metro Manila. The old city of Manila on the shore of Manila Bay is home to the older districts such as Intramuros, Ermita, Malate, Paco and Binondo, which are all clustered around the Pasig River.
Surrounding these is the massive urban conurbation of Metro Manila. The best-known areas are Pasay to the south, Makati to the South-East and Mandaluyong to the East.
Manila is very overcrowded and many people find the traffic, noise and air pollution overwhelming. Like any other major city, I would strongly advise against walking around alone at night. Also, only visit public parks during daylight hours.
Getting Around Manila
There are various ways to get around Manila, jeepneys go everywhere (except for a small area of Makati). Taxis are easy to hail and buses are plentiful. If you are lucky, you will be based close to either the LRT or MRT railway systems. The trains are packed (especially during rush hour), but they are frequent and it’s easy to work out the routes.
The sakay app (“sakay” means “aboard” in Tagalog) can be very useful as it will work out how to get between two points by MRT/LRT, bus and jeepneys.
Poverty and Shopping Malls
Scenes of poverty in Manila can be disturbing, homeless families seem to be everywhere. What’s perhaps more unsettling is that shopping malls and wealthy neighbourhoods sit side by side with squalid slums. The inequality of Manila’s rich and poor is not something you can easily deal with.
In the Philippines and Manila in particular shopping malls are everywhere. These are places to enjoy and walk around as well as shopping and are great if you like people-watching. Most malls are air-conditioned which offers some respite from the heat. As well as shops you’ll also find bars, food markets, cinemas, churches and even ice-skating rinks.
Many visitors leave Manila as soon as possible to head out to the islands, but there is plenty to see if you overlook its’ annoyances. There are also a number of other popular destinations within easy reach of Manila. The Island of Corregidor is only a ferry ride from Manila. This has a number of World War II museums and monuments.
The largest lake in the Philippines, Laguna de Bay, where you can find the Pagsanjan Falls is just to the south of Manila.
Taal volcano is only a short distance away, easily travelled in a day trip.
You’ll find Rizal Park along Roxas Boulevard, Manila, next to Intramuros. One of the largest urban parks in Asia, it has open grass areas, ornamental gardens, small wooded areas and lots of statues of Filipino heroes. Thousands of Filipinos visit the park every day. People come here to stroll, jog and relax. Some visit just to get away from the traffic which surrounds the park. Early morning is a good time to visit as various groups come to practise tai chi and other martial arts. Others come for a more traditional fitness class, usually accompanied by loud disco music.
The park’s name comes from Dr Jose Rizal, a national hero. Rizal was executed by the Spanish in 1896 for inciting revolution. A monument in the park contains Dr Rizal’s remains. Soldiers in full uniform stand guard at the monument day and night. Visiting heads of state usually lay a wreath here.
At the other side of the boulevard opposite the monument is the 0km post. Flying from the post is a giant Philippine flag. All distances in the Philippines are measured from here.
The Quirino Grandstand sits at the western end of the park. This is where new presidents take their oath of office and give their first speech to the nation. At the opposite end of the park is a three-dimensional model of the whole Philippines Archipelago sitting in a pond complete with fountains.
Along one side of the park there are three ornamental gardens; the Chinese Garden, the Japanese Garden and the Manila orchidarium tropical garden. You’ll also find a chess plaza, a planetarium and numerous statues and monuments in the park.
This area lies south of the Pasay River. The old walled city was the capital of the Philippines during the time it was ruled by Spain. The area is the most historic in Manila. At the time it was built, horse-drawn carriages (Calesa) and Spanish architecture were normal. As you walk around the streets and between the walls is quite easy to get a feel for what it was like to live during the Spanish period.
Intramuros was founded in 1571 and it was Manila until the end of 1898 when Spanish rule ended. It was built as a home for the Spanish government officials and was also where the most influential citizens and elite had their houses. Local people and Chinese were not allowed to live inside Intramuros.
The walls of Intramuros protected the city from invaders. Six metres high and three kilometres in length, the walls enclosed an area of about 160 acres. The only entry and exit points were through seven fortified gates. Inside the vast walls, there were all kinds of buildings including churches, military barracks, schools, hospitals, government offices, and houses belonging to the Spanish elite.
Intramuros was mostly destroyed during World War II. Since then it has been restored to resemble what would have been one of the most fortified cities in the country.
It’s possible to walk around Intramuros either with or without a guide. If you don’t fancy walking, many of the tricycle drivers will take you around. More traditional transport is available by one of the horse-drawn Calesa that wait around everywhere (be sure to negotiate a price before setting off).
If you are looking for somewhere nearby to stay the Bayleaf Hotel is a great place to base yourself. The hotel sits right by the city walls and nearby Victoria Street which is worth exploring. The views from the roof terrace are excellent and it’s also one of the best places to see the famous Manila sunset. I once stayed here over the new year, and they hold a fantastic party on the rooftop.
There are lots of interesting places to see in Intramuros.
Manila Cathedral, Fort Santiago, Puerta Teal Gardens and Plaza de Roma
Manila Cathedral. (Sto. Tomas). Manila Cathedral or Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica, is one of the oldest and most famous churches in Asia. This is located in the heart of Intramuros. Papal Masses have been held here. It is also the seat of the Archbishop of the Philippines. This Neo-Romanesque-Byzantine cathedral has had several major reconstructions to repair damage from WWII, fires, typhoons, and earthquakes.
Fort Santiago (Corner Santa Clara Street). Inside Fort Santiago, there are quiet gardens perfect for a walk and a large lily pond with fish. There is plenty to see inside the Fort itself. The highlight for me was the Rizal Shrine Museum with its very atmospheric Contemplation Room. The Rizal Shrine lies at the heart of Fort Santiago but it is only a small part of the entire site. Many of the original stone structures of the fortress still exist today.
Severely damaged during the war, the Fort is now restored.
Puerta Real Gardens (62 Gen. Luna St.). Puerta Real is right next to the front of the main entrance to Intramuros, outside the south wall. It is an open green space garden.
Plaza De Roma (Sto. Tomas). During Spanish times, Plaza de Roma was considered the centre of the city where bullfights and other public events were held. It was converted into a garden in 1797. At the centre of the Plaza is a monument to Charles IV of Spain, built in 1824. Charles IV was responsible for sending the first consignment of the smallpox vaccine to the Philippines. Manila Cathedral to the south, the Palacio del Gobernador to the west, and the Ayuntamiento de Manila to the east surround the Plaza de Roma.
San Augustin Museum and Church, Casa Manila, Bagumbayan Light and Sound Museum
San Agustin Museum (Cor. General Luna St.). Next to San Agustin Church, the San Agustin Museum showcases the history of Catholicism in the Philippines. The museum used to be a monastery which was converted into a museum in 1973. The museum houses a huge collection of religious art and antiques from around the world.
San Agustin Church (Cor. General Luna St.). San Agustin Church was the first church built in Luzon during the Spanish colonial period. Over 400 years old it is the oldest church in the Philippines. The present building is the third Augustinian church on the site. It is fashioned after Augustinian temples in Mexico. This church is in great demand for weddings and other ceremonies. Both the government and UNESCO recognise it as a historical landmark.
The tomb of the first governor-general, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi is in the church along with a number of others of lesser-known Spanish conquistadors.
Casa Manila. (Plaza San Luis Complex, Cor. General. Luna St.). Across from the historic San Agustin Church, you’ll find Casa Manila, a museum showcasing Spanish colonial architecture. This two-story house is designed to look like one of the 1850’s grand houses, but dates from the 1980s.
Intramuros And Rizal Bagumbayan Light And Sound Museum (Sta. Lucia St.). This museum showcases the history of the Philippines in a one-hour show combining different media. The show narrates the life of Jose Rizal.
Baluarte De San Diego, NCCA Gallery and Cuartel De Sta. Lucia
Baluarte De San Diego (Sta. Lucia Street). Built in 1591-1594, Baluarte de San Diego was originally called Nuestra Senora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance). It’s a famous bastion built as part of the fortifications and designed to repel invaders. This particular bastion has survived wars and earthquakes as well as the ravages of time. As well as the bastion itself, there are beautiful gardens, fountains, and original cannons.
NCCA Gallery (NCCA Building, 633 Gen Luna St.). This is located on the ground floor of the National Commission for Culture and Arts building and is an exhibition space for the Philippines contemporary art scene. The gallery helps young artists get some exposure and admission is free.
Cuartel De Sta. Lucia (Sta. Lucia Street). This building was ruined during World War II, the remaining walls were rebuilt by the Philippine Constabulary. The interior was never rebuilt and is being converted into a park.
Located in the North of Manila, Quiapo is host to one of Manila’s largest religious festivals. An annual parade takes place on the second Tuesday in January. The statue of the Black Nazarene usually housed in Quiapo church is taken through the streets. This event attracts huge crowds (over a million), all hoping to touch the statue. The belief is that touching the statue will bring about healing and the absolution of sins. Carved from Ebony the statue was first brought to Quiapo in 1767.
Quiapo Church (The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene) is open daily. This was built in 1933 to replace an older structure that was destroyed by a fire. The building is Baroque in style and the cream colour makes it easy to find. In front of the church is the recently restored Roman-like, Plaza Miranda.
After visiting the church and seeing the Black Nazarene in its special case have a walk around the nearby streets which are home to a busy, bustling market. Considered the largest market in the entire country, Quiapo Market is behind Quiapo Church with vendors selling a wide variety of items. Outside the church, you’ll also find herbal concoctions sold as the cure for certain illnesses. Other vendors claim to be fortune-tellers who can see what the future holds for you.
This is the economic hub of the country and the area where most international corporations have their headquarters. Home to many tall buildings the skyline is particularly attractive at night. Makati is a safe, clean, and friendly place. If you are a fan of shopping malls there are several to explore all grouped together.
Greenbelt Mall. Greenbelt Mall is the place to go if you are looking for expensive designer brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Five buildings make up the mall. Greenbelt 1 and Greenbelt 2 are where you’ll find a great selection of restaurants. The high-end boutiques are in Greenbelt 4 and Greenbelt 5. Greenbelt 3 is home to the cinemas and a number of different international brands. As well as the shopping area, there is also a park area with a chapel.
Greenbelt connects to another mall, the Landmark, which sells household goods and clothing at reasonable prices.
Glorietta Mall. This is located within the Makati Central Business District. It also has five sections (Glorietta 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) and these are home to a variety of shops, fast food, cinemas, arcades, and even a fitness centre. The middle of the mall is a large atrium that acts as a venue for exhibits, fashion shows, and other events.
Makati is home to the Ayala Museum which has interesting displays showcasing Filipino history, culture, tribes, and customs. The Museum also hosts concerts, international exhibitions, and photography workshops.
SM Mall of Asia.
The SM Mall of Asia is at the time of writing the fourth largest mall in the country. The Mall can easily keep you entertained for a whole day. Overlooking Manila Bay, there is an outdoor walkway where you can get a good, full view of the sunset and on special occasions such as New Year, spectacular firework shows.
This sprawling mall has four buildings all interconnected with walkways. In addition to hundreds of famous branded shops, restaurants selling every kind of food you can think of, the Mall also has an IMAX theatre, an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, and the Mall of Asia Arena.
Paco Park is a really quiet little park located on General Luna St. It is full of giant acacia trees and surrounded by thick high walls, making it seem like a secret garden. The park is circular with an outer of two concentric stone walls with a promenade on top with a church and gardens in the centre. The victims of the 1820 cholera epidemic lie in the niches in the walls.
La Mesa Eco Park.
Once Jungle, La Mesa Ecopark was created as a forested recreation park in 2004. Inside, the park features towering trees, botanical gardens, educational facilities, and offers a number of outdoor activities. The park is just a small part of the much larger La Mesa Nature Reserve, which protects the land around La Mesa Dam, Manila’s main water reservoir.
Other things to do in Manila
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