Manila, Philippines, is a city of contradictions. Residents often complain about the pollution, garbage and lack of adequate infrastructure, but many choose to live in the city for its upbeat tempo and laid-back atmosphere. The sight of beggars confirms the country's economic struggles, but a few minutes in the shopping complexes show happy-go-lucky people who try to find a day's pleasure, regardless of what tomorrow may bring. A rising middle class is fueling growth among consumers, both domestic and international.
Despite Manila's vulnerable economic conditions, the mall culture has thrived. At an average of four stories tall and spanning entire blocks, malls are the landmark of even the poorest district—and the pride and joy of the most affluent neighborhoods. Filipinos have made the malls of Makati, Ortigas and Manila their second home. Many go to them to watch a movie, dine at a restaurant or just walk around in the air-conditioned environment. Sunday Masses are even held in malls.
Manila is a city where people live for the moment. The heritage sites in Intramuros, the old bombed city of Manila, have been transformed into speakeasies, government buildings and public schools. The development of government museums is slow—residents are too caught up in present-day life to secure the past.
It is this carefree spirit that marks the way of life in Manila: Work can be put off for tomorrow. The city appears crazy, chaotic and even incomprehensible to some visitors, but it is these same elements that will allow them to let their hair down and unwind. It also helps that foreign currency goes a long way in Manila, offering access to convenience and luxury beyond what many tourists experience in other cities.
Manila is actually made up of 13 cities and four municipalities that President Ferdinand Marcos placed under one urban umbrella in the 1970s. Many of the municipalities were granted city status and are now bustling beehives of commerce and industry.
The Pasig River connects the Laguna de Bay at the south with Manila Bay and the South China Sea. The river was once crystal clear with lilies adorning it, but it is now dull brown.
Manila lies on the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon, the largest of the archipelago's three major land bodies (the other two are Visayas and Mindanao). From north to south, Navotas, Manila proper (the capital during the Spanish era), Pasay City, Paranaque City and Las Pinas lie along Manila Bay. Old Manila is defined by a breathtaking view of the bay, the presidential palace and other government buildings, as well as the landmarks of Rizal Park and Intramuros. Pier 15, where most foreign ships dock, is found in the south harbor.
To the east of Manila proper are the three business districts, which can be reached on a 30-minute to hour-long ride: Mandaluyong City, Pasig City and Makati. Quezon City, north of Mandaluyong City, is a hub for businesses and government offices. However, the country's main financial district can be found in Makati City. There are two stock exchanges, one in Makati and one in Ortigas.
Farther south is Muntinlupa City, the rising district of southern Manila, thanks to corporations that have established themselves there and high-end malls such as the Ayala Alabang Town Center.
Maynila, as the first Malayan settlers called it, started out as a thriving trading center—merchants from ancient China, Japan and Thailand bartered goods there. Aristocrats from the nearby island of Borneo settled in Maynila and transformed it into a city protected by strong wooden palisades. The area remained protected by local rulers until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Raja Sulayman, a fierce Maynilan ruler, was able to thwart the first Spanish attempts to take over the land, but Spain's empire eventually won out.
In 1791, Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi completed his conquest of the Philippines and made Maynila—renamed Manila—the capital. The wooden palisades gave way to a stone-walled fortress protected by a battery of guns. The fortress became known as Intramuros, and only the most powerful, wealthy and purebred Spanish were allowed to live inside its walls. In the late 19th century, Filipinos, encouraged and inspired by a growing middle class of intellectuals, tried to shake off Spanish rule. The attempt failed, and Jose Rizal—the leader of the uprising—was executed publicly in Bagumbayan (now known as Luneta).
Under terms of the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. in 1898, and the islands remained a territory until 1946. Under U.S. control, some of Manila's most important buildings were constructed, including the Philippine General Hospital. The roads were improved, and an educational system was established.
During World War II, U.S. forces gave up Manila to hold their ground in Bataan where they, along with Filipino troops, fell to the Japanese. Liberation came in 1944 with the return of Gen. Douglas McArthur. But the infighting left Manila devastated. Entire buildings were razed, and the fleeing Japanese killed many residents.
From Manila's independence through the early 1970s, the country enjoyed a thriving democracy and economy. The atmosphere quickly changed when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, citing the Communist insurgency as a reason. Though the dictator was responsible for building many of the edifices and roads in the capital, he also institutionalized corruption in all systems of government, and the modern country is still recovering from the effects. After Marcos' main challenger, Benigno Aquino, was assassinated in 1983, popular opinion solidified behind his widow, Corazon Aquino, and she was elected in 1986. Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were forced to flee the Philippines.
Aquino was popular but not an effective leader: Her term was marked by a number of coup attempts. Ensuing leaders made some progress in alleviating the country's endemic corruption and poverty, but progress went downhill, and in 2001 President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in a massive nonviolent street protest known as the Second EDSA Revolution by those who accused him of embezzling millions. His successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was able to partially restore investment confidence in the country, but her presidency was marred by several corruption allegations. Benigno Aquino III, son of Corazon and Benigno Sr., was elected to a six-year term as president in May 2010. Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 as the first president from Mindanao.
Sightseeing in Manila encompasses two categories: the ancient and the modern. Intramuros, the remnants of the walls of Manila when it was still the capital of the Spanish colonizers, is a must-see if only for the sense of history. Within Intramuros are several churches and museums worth checking out.
A short drive away from Intramuros is Rizal Park, a rectangular field that contains a monument to Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero. Nearby you'll find Quiapo, a sweltering market, and Quiapo Church. Outside the church, fortune-tellers give readings and sell miracle herbs and charms that can allegedly cause pregnancies, enhance sexual potencies or cause someone to fall in love. North of Quiapo is Binondo or Manila's Chinatown, where immigrants from mainland China and Taiwan settled and built their homes.
Visitors can easily explore Intramuros, Rizal Park and the Makati area on foot. However, tour guides and reliable transportation will be needed for Quiapo, Chinatown and Binondo—the areas are marked by zigzagging alleys and clustered bazaars, and pickpockets are active.
Malate used to be a red-light district that had live shows and bars that stayed open until sunrise, but it is now known for its cozy, intimate spots that attract the after-work crowd. Although the Malate area is still a favorite hangout, the crowds have thinned because of the boom of the glitz-and-glam mall bars in Eastwood City and Greenbelt 2. The malls occasionally hold concerts and live shows on weekends. Although Eastwood City patterns itself after street events that fill entire minidistricts, the nightlife of Greenbelt 2 and 3 is more romantic, with music playing amid the sparkling waters of a fountain in the garden park.
The strip in The Fort at Bonifacio has also attracted a fair share of the nightlife, despite the area's distance from downtown (it is a 30-minute drive from Makati). Another popular development in the vicinity is Serendra at The Fort, which has both shopping and food outlets.
Late-night snacks in the form of Filipino appetizers, such as sizzling pieces of meat known as sisig, are available almost everywhere. (Sisig is traditionally made from pigs' ears and cheeks.) If you are worried about sanitation, try sisig at more mainstream restaurants such as Dencio's. The local appetizers (known as pulutan) include various combinations of solid foods that go well with alcohol.
For Filipinos, eating is not just a culinary pleasure, it is a social event—a way to bond with colleagues over a business transaction or to strengthen the ties between old friends. You'll see groups of no fewer than three chatting animatedly over lunch, snacks or dinner in any restaurant. Filipinos have a hearty appetite and dine out often with family and friends. There is a wide gap between the rich and poor, however, and you may sometimes be aware of it when you find yourself in the most modern facilities while the poorer segment of society can hardly eat three meals a day.
Many restaurants are found at the malls. It is common for every mall to have a strip of restaurants, each offering a particular culinary specialty: Filipino, Thai, Italian and Vietamese are all represented. The SM Mall of Asia includes a fresh seafood market where you can choose your own ingredients to be cooked by nearby restaurants. Away from the malls, Tomas Morato Street in Quezon City has a nice selection of international cuisine.
Filipino food is served in almost every restaurant in town, regardless of its stripe or specialty. Local dishes include liempo (steamed spare ribs), lechon (spit-fire roasted pork), kare-kare (a stew with peanut sauce and ground toasted rice), lumpia (an eggroll-like dish served in a golden-brown edible wrapping) and halo-halo (a drink of beans, fruit bits, milk, cream and sugar).
It is important to double-check with each restaurant about which credit cards are accepted, as the signs posted at the door may not be correct.
Filipino lunches are typically two hours long. Lunch hours are 11:30 am-2 pm, and then there's merienda or late-afternoon snacks, which happen 3-5 pm. Dinner is taken later in the evening, usually around 7-8 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than P560; $$ = P560-P1,115; $$$ = P1,116-P2,785; and $$$$ = more than P2,785.
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