Manila: Discovering the Sultry City’s Charms

Travelers who visit the Philippines, a country of over 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia, usually fly into the capital city of Manila – the country’s bustling and crowded metropolis – only to spend a day or two there before flying off to a lovelier, more pristine destination in the country. It’s unfortunate because Manila, for all its grit and traffic, possesses great charm if only one looks beyond the surface. I know that to be true because it is my beloved hometown.

Spain colonized the Philippines for over 300 years, founding the city that lies along the eastern shore of Manila Bay on Luzon island in 1571. The Americans ruled for over 40 years after Spain, followed by a brief Japanese occupation in World War II before the country gained independence.  Manila was heavily bombed in the war, destroying much of the Spanish-era architecture. Skyscrapers, shopping malls, hotels, and other trappings of progress now dot this vibrant megacity.

If I were to recommend a tour of Manila, I’d start with the Walled City or Intramuros, which was built in the late 1500s to function as the Spanish colonists’ governmental and residential center. The walls, erected for protection against foreign invaders, were restored in the 1950s after the WW II bombings. Inside the Walled City are UNESCO World Heritage sites San Agustin Church and the Manila Cathedral, 16th century Catholic churches which still showcase the splendor of churches built during that era. You can easily walk around the Walled City or take a tour by hiring a calesa, a horse-drawn carriage used during colonial times to transport locals but now mostly utilized for tourism purposes. Other must-see places in Intramuros are Fort Santiago, a citadel which also housed Spain’s political prisoners and Casa Manila, an elegant reconstruction of an 1800s Spanish residence.

Manila has the oldest Chinatown in the world, having been around in the Binondo district since 1594.  Crowded and frenetic, you can go there to shop for goods such as herbal medicines and jewelry but its restaurants are the real draw.  The best way to enjoy its culinary delights would be to take a food tour offered by any of the noted foodies-turned tour guides who will take you to the best eateries for samplings of scrumptious noodles, dim sum, roasted meats, sweets, and other delicacies. (You can find these guides on the internet, such as at www.oldmanilawa offered by Old Manila Walks.)

Shopping is a major Filipino preoccupation, which explains why shopping malls abound. You’ll need not just buying power but stamina if you visit one of the biggest in the world, the Mall of Asia, as well as the plush Greenbelt Mall in Makati. Eating, however, is undoubtedly what Filipinos enjoy best — and it doesn’t take much to find good, if not greatly satisfying meals in the city with its proliferation of restaurants. Enjoy local favorites like the lip-smacking sisig, a sizzling platter of crispy chopped pork jowl and other pig parts served with runny fried egg, and halo-halo, a refreshing shaved ice dessert topped with ice cream in local flavors like mango or purple yam.

For a quick break from Manila’s sultry weather, find time to visit Tagaytay in the south, only a couple of hours drive from the city to see the scenic and active Taal Volcano, situated in the middle of Taal Lake. The cool weather and restaurants offering farm to table cuisine make this trip extra worthwhile.

Friendly locals, a myriad of shopping and eating choices, tropical weather (avoid rainy July to November), and a cool, seemingly endless nightlife scene – these are just some of the earthly delights that make my hometown worth exploring.

By Maria Steinberg

A horse drawn calesa in front of restored Spanish-era buildings inside Intramuros, aka Walled City, which was originally built in the 16th Century to protect it from foreign invasion. It was damaged during World War II but was reconstructed starting in 1951 after being declared a national landmark.

They say that the best things in life are free – and nothing could be truer if you watch the famous sun setting over Manila Bay.  You’ll see this incredible view while walking or cruising along the Roxas Boulevard promenade.

About 2 hours by car from Manila is scenic Taal Volcano which lies within Taal Lake.
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