The Pearl of the Orient
Finally the date has come! 10 months waiting for this moment since we booked our tickets, now a reality. And thankfully as we found a good air fare in hotukdeals app on our phones (remember you can also check the website version here, just type flights in the search box). Although originally on a split flight from London to Abu Dhabi with Etihad, and Abu Dhabi to Manila on Philippine Airlines (both companies do code-share on this route); the flight times dramatically changed for the Philippine Airlines leg meaning we could not make the connecting flight in Abu Dhabi on time. Luckily for us in this case, Philippine Airlines re-booked us instead on the direct London to Manila which they recently introduced.
If you are the kind of person who cannot sleep on long haul flights then try to make everything possible to get some sleep on the outbound flight, always any flight from west to east; otherwise the jet lag will be definitely terrible. If you can or have someone who can get for you some sleeping tablets then that’s a good bet however needless to say careful with it and mind the doses. This flight is among one of the longest direct in the world, and to this date the longest I’ve ever done. And it was our lucky day, we managed entire 4 seats rows for each of us since the outbound flight was half empty.
Our plan on this trip was not only visiting Manila, but some other places during the 9 days in total we stayed across the Philippines and Taiwan. For instance, our stay in Manila was shortened to 2 days on our arrival and a last one before our departure back home. The rest of the places we would visit are Taal, Laoag, Paoay, Santa Maria, Vigan, Boracay and Taipei.
Manila is a huge city, one of the largest in the world, and still quite messy in the sense of unplanned construction, congested roads and general chaos. But hey, this is what you can expect from huge cities across Asia/Southeast Asia; and basically, do not listen to what is over the internet nor what people might tell about how disastrous or ugly the city is. It is not. There are lots to see and do and still retain its Spanish colonial charm around Intramuros.
That Manila has not as many sights as it could have it’s due to the WWII. It was the 2nd most devastated city after Warsaw. That speaks for itself. What once was known to be “the Pearl of the Orient”, was left in total ruins. Only few here and there were rebuilt as how once they were and even today you can see many empty plots awaiting to hopefully one day being rebuilt following the original designs. This is vastly painful to see within Intramuros, where everything could have been perfectly reconstructed but was not, or still awaiting developers and local government to take the step. It is around this area the highlight in the city, where most of the sights are.
Another nice part of the city is along Roxas Boulevard, what is called the Baywalk, to the west of the city. Recently revamped is a great stroll overlooking the ongoing frenetic construction of ever higher towers. In contrast, to the north of Intramuros is Binondo, which is the largest and oldest Chinatown outside of China. Unfortunately Binondo is not any nice as you might expect. The few nice locations are spread around, meaning it will involve walking along rather very run down streets with many homeless. Not dangerous at all during the day, though I would reconsider if walking at night.
The new areas in the city form what is called Metro Manila and makes it to rank number one city in Southeast Asia with the largest number of skyscrapers. This reaches its peak on Makati area where the residential and office towers do not stop rising. For modern architecture lovers this is the place and specially if you have the chance to see the city from above from any of the towers, as we luckily did from the Rockwell Tower. Enjoying the rooftop pool and views at floor 68 was one of our highlights while in Manila!
Now to a great point: food. You will never be far from a great restaurant or more local place; all of them being amazing! To name a few Philippine chains you must try are Chowking (for a blend of East with West, with incredibly cheap and tasty dishes based with rice or noodles), Jollibee (the answer to McDonalds in the burger world), Greenwich Pizza and Yellow Cab Pizza (for obviously, pizza). Those 3 chains you will find almost everywhere you go, but of course you have plenty of local places doing fantastic street like food.
Apart of food, desserts rank the same in importance among the Filipino live. Three that deserve special mention are Leche Flan (a custard and caramel soft cake), Cassava Cake (classic Filipino cake made of cassava root, condensed, evaporated and coconut milks, egg and cheese), and Halo Halo (ice cold drink by excellence which base is shaved ice and evaporated milk with numerous sweet fruits and beans). For the best Halo Halo visit Razon’s, which is a chain. They are not the most colourful but are the best and tastier ones!
For more information about Manila check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The Philippine’s currency is the Peso (PHP, ₱). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Manila
- Intramuros Is the former walled Spanish settlement of Manila, Spanish meaning for within the walls. It contains the most historical and old landmarks in the city, although unfortunately severely decimated after WWII. You can still of course get a glimpse of what once was called The Pearl of the Orient.
-Fort Santiago Is the former military headquarters of the Spanish colonial government. Parts of it restored after the damages of WWII, special attention to the gate with the wooden relief of Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moor-slayer, the patron saint of Spain. The Rizal Shrine housed at one of the barracks is the museum dedicated to José Rizal. It costs ₱75, ₱50 for students.
-Walls and fortifications The whole perimeter of the wall is still conserved. They give an overview of how powerful fortification system the city once had.
-Bastion of San Diego The most impressive of them all, dating from the 17th century. It surrounds the remains of the round fort of Nuestra Señora de Guia, the first stone fort built in Manila.
-Other bastions Including San Jose, San Pedro, San Andres, San Francisco de Dilao, San Gabriel.
-Puerta de Isabel II Built in 1861 as the last gate to be opened in Intramuros walls under Spanish rule. You can see the statue of Queen Isabel II of Spain in front of the gate.
-Other gates Including Puerta de Santa Lucia, Puerta Real, Puerta del Parian.
-Plaza de Roma The main square within Intramuros, the political and religious centre since colonial times. Also called Plaza Mayor.
-Manila Cathedral Also known for it’s name Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila and one of the most important churches in the Philippines. The current reincarnation dates from 1958, being at least the 6th to be built on the same site since 1581.
-Palace of the Governor Built in the 1970s on the site of the former Spanish Governor General’s official residence which was destroyed in the 1863 earthquake. Unfortunately the design does not follow anything of the original, with an overextended height.
-Postigo del Palacio Not in Plaza de Roma itself but just behind the Governor’s Palace. Built in 1662, it is where on 30th of December 1896 the national hero José Rizal was taken through this gate en route to the place of his execution, in what is today Rizal Park.
-Manila City Hall Rebuilt in 1884 after the earthquake of 1863, is the former seat of the colonial city council. Ruined since 1945 where only some parts of the first storey survived, it reopened not long ago in its former glory.
-King Carlos IV of Spain monument Cast in 1808 and erected in 1824 in the middle of the square.
-Plaza Moriones Just at the front of Fort Santiago and near Plaza de Roma.
-San Agustin Church South of the Cathedral on Calle Real del Palacio, is a Baroque church consecrated in 1607 and one of the very few buildings to survive the bombings of WWII though with some damage. Said to be the oldest stone church still standing in the Philippines. Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage as part of the group Baroque Churches of the Philippines. Miguel López de Legazpi, the first Spanish Governor General of the Philippines is buried here.
-Plaza San Luis Across the street from San Agustín Church, it is formed of a recreation of five houses showcasing Hispanic-Filipino architecture. Those are Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos, El Hogar Filipino. And the last one, Casa Manila, acts as a museum with objects in display of a typical upper class colonial Intramuros home. ₱75, ₱50 for students.
-Plaza de Mexico Overlooking the Pasig River it is the former port of call of the Manila Galleon, one of the key routes of the Spanish Galleon, connecting Acapulco in Mexico with Manila. A monument celebrating the 400 years of this maritime expedition which started in 1564 is the showcase in the square.
- Binondo/Chinatown To the north-east of Intramuros. It is one of the largest Chinatowns in the world.
-Santa Cruz Square Is the main square in this part of the city.
-Santa Cruz Church Dating from the 17th century in Baroque style, yet restored through the centuries. It is still one of the most remarkable landmark in the city.
-Ongpin Street The main street in Chinatown with many Chinese shops, restaurants and supermarkets. Starts in Santa Cruz on the north side and goes all the way up to San Lorenzo Basilica.
-Escolta Street Is the street following parallel to the Pasaig River. It connects to Santa Cruz Square on the west side.
-Arranque Market On Soler Street, to the north of Santa Cruz Square and Ongpin Street. You can find exotic food such as snakes, pigeons, rabbits, frogs and more.
-Basilica Minor of San Lorenzo Right at the end of Ongpin Street. One of the oldest churches in the city and the Philippines itself still standing. Built in 1596. The statue of the crucified Christ Santo Cristo de Longos is said to have been found in an old well in Barrio of Longos. It is on display at one of the niches on the side entrance to the church.
-Buddhist Temples Of typical architecture filled with incense and offerings.
-Kuang Kong Is a Buddhist Chinese-Filipino temple. Patron for Scholars and Martial arts as well as the God of War.
–Seng Guan On Narra Street to the north of Recto Avenue, on the northern edge of Chinatown.
- North-east of Binondo/Chinatown Farther to the north east of Chinatown is the place where many schools and universities are.
-University of Santo Tomas Is the oldest University in the Far East and second in the Philippines. A very beautiful and large building. Used as a concentration camp by the Japanese during their occupation in WWII. The nearest train station is PNR Espana, along Espana Boulevard.
- Quiapo District Located to the east of Chinatown.
-Quiapo Church Famous for the shrine of the Black Nazarene, claimed to be miraculous. Although originally built in 1586, the current construction is the 4rd reincarnation. Fires and earthquakes destroyed the previous ones.
-San Sebastian Church Completed in 1891 by Spanish architect Genaro Palacios, is a fine example of revival Gothic style in the Philippines. The only all-steel church Asia and claimed to be as the only prefabricated steel church in the world. It is currently included in the tentative list for possible designation as UNESCO Heritage Site. It’s been disputed that the design corresponds to Gustave Eiffel. Official archives states that Eiffel design and exported a church to Manila in 1875, this is, 13 years before the construction. Should this be true, there is possibility that Eiffel designed the metal structure with Palacios completing the actual design of the entire church.
- South of Intramuros Immediately south of the walls is the next most historical area in the city, which coupled with Binondo forms the core of the old town.
-Luneta Park Also known as Rizal Park, is located right outside to the south of Intramuros. It hosts Japanese, Chinese and Filipino gardens, museums and monuments.
-Monument to Jose Rizal Commemorates the execution of national hero Dr. José Rizal on December 30, 1896.
-Sentinel of Freedom The statue depicts Lapu-Lapu, a native Muslim chieftain of Mactan (province of Cebu), venerated by Filipinos as the first hero to resist Spanish colonisation after killing Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.
-Kilometre 0 Marks the point from where all the distances are measures across the Philippines.
-Independence Flagpole Standing at 32 metres, is the highest flagpole in the Philippines.
-Relief Map of the Philippines Located on a pond to the east of the park.
-National Museum of the Philippines Known as Pambansang Museum, occupies the former Senate Building. It was opened in the 1900s and showcases collections from archaeology, arts, zoology, botany and more. Unfortunately only a little part is on displayed, with most of the halls half empty. This is due to change upon the refurbishment and proper establishment of the museum itself.
-Museum of Filipino People It holds documents such as the signing of the Independence.
-Manila Hotel On the edge of Manila Bay and Rizal Park, near the south side of Intramuros. It is a historic hotel, legacy of the American colonial era. General Douglas MacArthur used it as his home before World War II.
-Baywalk Just south of Luneta Park is this boulevard along the Manila Bay. The busy road adjacent to it is Roxas Boulevard, the main thoroughfare along this part of the city.
-Metropolitan Museum On Roxas Boulevard. With traditional, Hispanic and modern art exhibits.
- East of Intramuros Considered still part of the historical area but outside of the walls.
-Metropolitan Theatre This art deco jewel was designed by Filipino architect Juan Marcos de Guzman Arellano and opened in 1931. Recently restored to its former glory.
-Manila Central Post Office Also designed by the same architect as the Metropolitan Theatre which stands near, Filipino architect Juan Marcos de Guzman Arellano in neoclassical architecture in 1926. It had to be rebuilt after WWII in 1946 preserving most of the original design and features. The best view of it is across the river from Jones Bridge.
-City Hall Large beautiful building which famous feat is the clock tower. As a curious note, the shape of the plan is of a coffin.
-Malacañan Palace Is the residence of the president of the Philippines. The best way to see is on a boat along the river.
Ninoy Aquino Airport is the largest in the country. It has 4 terminals which unfortunately are not well connected in between. Terminals 1, 2 and 3 are for international flights while Terminal 4 is the domestic. Taxis and jeepneys connect between terminals. Buses to the city centre are located right outside of the arrivals area of T1 and T2.
Yellow taxis which have the exclusive right to pick up passengers do have a basic fare of ₱70, metered, and are registered upon departure. On the other hand, city taxis (white) can be taken from the departures level once they drop passengers. White taxis are cheaper as the meter does not run so quick, with a basic fare of ₱40.
Apart from buses and taxis, you can take a jeepney (small buses) which are a fraction of the price of a taxi, ₱8.00 for first 4km, and ₱1.00 every km thereafter. They mostly connect with the MRT/LRT train network but mind the several stops and limited space inside.
A secondary but farther airport is Clark, 2 hours North of the city and has a direct bus connection (₱450) to the downtown area.
Within the city there are 3 lines of SRTS trains (Strong Republic Transit System), you can find it also named as MRT. Most of the tourist sights are along the Yellow Line. The main train station is Tutuban where most of the commuter trains meet.
Fares are distance-based being the minimum for a single ticket ₱12, then ₱15 if travelling for more than four stations. If you plan on using the metro system often then you should get a stored value card. Those need a minimum of ₱100 in order to be purchased and are valid up to 6 months after first use.
Buses tariffs start at ₱10. The routes are not numbered however the bus route is displayed on the side of the bus as well as on the dashboard, listing both the route’s endpoints and major points along the route.
Manila, and in general the Philippines is famous for jeepneys. Those are little buses with fares starting at ₱8.00 for the first four kilometres. Routes are not numbered but follow the same indications as on the buses, with the route displayed on the dashboard.
Needless to say that you won’t need any transportation once you are around the old town. Intramuros and the areas immediately north, south east and west, Binondo or Quiapo. Should you have a hotel around those areas then you will not need to take any transportation at all in order to make your sightseeing.
With such an enormous choice due to the vast size of the city and importance, surely you will not have any trouble in finding a great deal. As a tip, do not mind in spending the little more for getting a hotel with swimming pool. You will regret if you don’t. Temperatures here reach really high and are very humid therefore you will love to start or end the day resting in a pool. A good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
On our first days upon arrival to the Philippines we stayed at the luxurious Manila Hotel. One of the most historical hotels, legacy of the American colonial period. Right in the very centre of the city, literally meters away from the kilometre 0 in Rizal Park, could not be any possible better location with Intramuros minutes away on foot. The hotel itself was great! For staff, comfort and facilities. The pool was the best treat after the long sightseeing days. Definitely highly recommended to anyone.
For the next 2 times we spent the night in Manila while interconnecting for flights towards Laoag and Boracay we decided to stay in rather simple places as near to the airport as possible. We selected the Icon Hotel Macapagal, on 1010 Macapagal Avenue corner with Pacific Avenue; almost by the Manila Bay and a short taxi ride to/from the airport which in this case was the key feature we were looking. Although not as comfortable as we could expect, it was very quiet and clean. Just the basic we needed for the night.
As for the last 2 nights in the trip before departing back to London, we stayed at the Ramada Manila Central. Located right in the middle of Binondo, the Chinatown of Manila just to the north of Intramuros. Another very nice property totally recommended to anyone.