If Manila was a boxer, it’d be the battle-scarred crowd hero that keeps getting up through determination and force or personality rather than technical proficiency.
If Manila was teddy bear, it’d be a dog-eared, bedraggled one with the stuffing coming out that somehow brims with charm and lovability despite its obvious flaws.
If Manila was a dog, it’d be a scruffy mongrel that bears numerous scars from fights with strays. It wins over with personality rather than looks. It’s chaotic, it was pretty much wiped out by Second World War bombs and there’s no definable centre. Yet it has a fun-loving exuberance that is rare for Asia. The rattling jeepney buses that swarm the streets tell you everything you need to know about the city. They’re cramped and possibly unroadworthy, but they’re painted in every colour the driver can get his hands on.
The gleaming malls and glass skyscrapers of Makati show which way the city is heading, but the Spanish forts and churches of Intramuros and American twangs in the accents nod to two very different colonial pasts.
The Manila Hotel (00 63 2 527 0011) is 100-years-old in 2012, but it manages to keep the contemporary buzz to go along with the grand, timeless looks and action-packed history. Pictures show previous guests – from General Douglas Macarthur to Michael Jackson, Rocky Marciano and Jon Bon Jovi – while there always seems to be something going on in the lobby. Expect to pay from 8,150 pesos including taxes and breakfast.
If the more sanitised experience in shiny, business-focused Makati is of more interest, head to the Mandarin Oriental (00 63 2 750 8888). Rooms – starting at 9993 pesos including taxes and breakfast – are classy and spacious, while the spa is often picked out as the best in town.
Weirder, but perfect for families, is the Hotel H2O (00 63 2 238 6100). It’s part of the Ocean Park complex and the underwater theme is extended to the hotel – some rooms have aquarium walls instead of windows. Others look out over the arena for sea lion shows or sound and light displays. Bargain room-only rates start at 3,416 pesos including tax.
Manila walking tour
Manila is best tackled one area at a time – urban sprawl and pedestrian-unfriendly roads make trying to string the districts together in one walking route inadvisable. Many of Manila’s highlights are found in and around Intramuros, however. The logical starting point is Fort Santiago. The crumbling walls of the old Spanish stronghold contain serene gardens, a shrine to national hero Jose Rizal and some marvellous views of the city from on top of the ramparts. A couple of blocks south-east is Manila Cathedral, the 8th incarnation of a church originally built on this site in 1571. Highlights include the characteristically colourful stained glass windows and displays explaining the country’s unusual history as a colony run by the Catholic Church.
The Spanish influence makes Intramuros feel more Latin American than Asian in places and that continues further down General Luna Street at the San Agustin Church. The oldest church in the Philippines, this was spared the bombing destruction during World War II by becoming the Red Cross base.
After exploring the cloisters and the treasures on display in the attached museum, veer west and head through the city walls to emerge in the middle of the gloriously odd Intramuros golf course. It wraps around the walls, offering a green lining before the chicken run across the snarling roads that bar the way to Rizal Park.
The best cultural attraction, however, is the Ayala Museum in shopping and dining hub Makati. Only masochists would attempt to walk it there from Intramuros, but for a superbly presented overview of Filipino history, it’s an essential detour.
Where the locals hang out
Rizal Park acts as Manila’s communal hub. In amongst the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, central fountains and pompous monuments, you’ll find picknickers, kite-flyers and chess players competing for grass space.
Otherwise, head to the hugely popular karaoke bars – there’s one on virtually every corner in Malate and Ermita – or Ongpin Street in Chinatown. The latter combines teahouses, traditional crafts and small owner-operated shops that are more suited to conversation than the malls.
Sentro 1771 (00 63 2 757 3941) inside Makati’s Greenbelt shopping centre is a great spot for inventive twists on the classic Filipino dish, adobo. It costs 320 pesos. Other local favourites are available alongside the garlicky, vinegary chicken, while the setting is young and hip.
For seafood plucked live from tanks and prime position for the often tremendous sunsets over Manila Bay, the Harbor View (00 63 2 524 1532) has long been a date night favourite. Mains cost between 350 and 700 pesos.
Shopping in Manila
Filipinos love shopping malls almost as much as they like randomly bursting into song in karaoke booths. The Mall of Asia is the giant – big enough to fit an Olympic-sized ice-skating rink and IMAX cinema inside – but the shopping is better at the Greenbelt Centre. The luxury stores include Jimmy Choo, Prada and Armani, but they’re interspersed with comparatively affordable high street brands.
What to avoid
Hiring a car in Manila is the stuff heart attacks are made of. Public transport is fairly hopeless, and taxis will get snared in the gridlock too – but at least they’re cheap. Take a good book and prepare to sit in traffic – it’s far less stressful than trying to get behind the wheel yourself.
Just outside of Makati, the American Cemetery and Memorial is both sobering and surprisingly peaceful for a city that doesn’t do tranquil all that well. This 152 acre cemetery offers sweeping arcs of headstones, featuring the graves of 17,206 World War II soldiers and the inscribed names of 36,282 whose bodies were never found.
Currency conversion: At the time of writing, US$1 = 42 pesos, one euro = 51 pesos and one pound sterling = 65 pesos.
DISCLOSURE: This guide was originally written by David Whitley for The National in the UAE. Information is correct as of January 2012 when the guide was researched. He was a guest of the Philippines Department of Tourism and the Manila Hotel.
This post was kindly funded by Roundtheworldflights.com.
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All content copyright David Whitley.