24 Hours in Manila
Transiting through Manila and got 24 hours to spend? Check out our list of things to do in this vibrant, cosmopolitan and complicated urban jungle we call Metro Manila.
Photo by Huno
Philippine History in a Nutshell
In recent years, tourism has been on the uptick in the Philippines – but somehow, Manila has been relegated to a mere stopover to the more popular destinations in the Philippines. Manila has its own charm however, and walking tours around the city are fast becoming popular not only with the local expatriate community and visiting tourists, but with skeptical locals as well – who thought Manila was nothing but a hodgepodge of indiscriminate Asian urbanity.
Amongst the most popular of all walking tours, Walk This Way (http://celdrantours.blogspot.com/) tours by the funny, irreverent and very knowledgeable Carlos Celdran rule the roost. His Walking Tour of Intramuros, Manila’s Old Walled City is easily the most popular of the tours – with his different take on the Philippine colonial history.
Traipse around the cobblestoned streets of Fort Santiago where the National Hero was incarcerated, marvel at the stunning artworks of San Agustin Church (A UNESCO World Heritage Site) and its adjunct Museum, and literally walking the walls of the Old City once the seat of Iberian power in Asia. Celdran also offers tours of Binondo (the oldest existing Chinatown in the world) and Quiapo through its frenetic streets of superstition, religion and quirky Filipino street cuisine. This tour weaves around Plaza Calderon de la Barca, Binondo Church, Carvajal Street Market, Kipuja Street Temple, Ongpin Street, Evangelista Herbalist Market, Ilalim ng Tulay (Under the Bridge) Handicraft Market, Carriedo Market and Santa Cruz Church. We took the Living La Vida Imelda Tour which is basically a trip around the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex – a collection of buildings built during the Marcos regime whilst being delighted by factoids about the life of the infamous shoe-hogging former First Lady that can put Evita Peron and Marie Antoinette to shame.
Want to learn who amongst the former Miss Universe 1974 contestants turned lesbian and ran away with a Russian diplomat or which one became a soft-core porn actress and cocaine addict? Better check out this tour. Better prepare your cameras because excellent photographic opportunities are abundant on these tours.
Photo by Frisno
After these walking tours, you will not see Manila the same way ever again.
Average time spent for any of the tours- 3 hours
A Glimpse of the Philippines Multihued Past
World-class museums abound in Manila but the most notable are the Ayala Museum (http://www.ayalamuseum.org/) in Makati, the National Museum of the Filipino People (http://philmuseum.tripod.com/index), and the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (http://metmuseum.ph/). The National Museum was then called the Insular Museum of Ethnology, Natural History, and Commerce and was established in 1901. Subsequently it was changed into a Bureau of Ethnological Survey under the Department of Interior in 1903, and after the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, the Office renamed it as the Philippine Museum. It went into further changes in its over a hundred years of history and in 1998 (in time for the Centennial Celebration of Philippine Independence), the new National Museum was inaugurated as the National Museum of the Filipino People with a permanent exhibit entitled “The Story of the Filipino People” and the world-class traveling exhibit, The Treasures of the San Diego- treasures recovered from a wreck off Batangas- one of the largest wreck finds ever in recorded world history.
Photo by Stitch
The Ayala Museum in Makati, which was built under the patronage of the elite Ayala clan, boasts a diorama of Philippine History as well as an extensive permanent exhibition of a pre-colonial collection of more than a one thousand gold objects that touts the sophisticated cultures that thrived in the Philippines prior to the Spanish colonization in the 16th century. Find a stunning array of golden necklaces, pectorals, earrings, rings, anklets, diadems, funerary masks and almost 4 kilograms of gold expertly and intricately woven into a gold halter believed to be the Upvaita or the Sacred Thread (usually worn by the Brahmins in a traditional Hindu society. There is a also a gold vessel in the shape of half-bird and half-woman, otherwise referred to as the “kimnari” of the Hindu myth. The exhibit- the fruit of an extensive archeological find in Northern Mindanao suggests a pre-colonial culture that was very advanced and comparable to the civilizations of Angkor, Madjapahit and Sri Vijaya empires. Ayala Museum also has finely crafted scale models of the ancient ships that plied the Philippine waters as well as a collection of paintings from legendary Philippine visual artists.
The Metropolitan Museum of Manila on Roxas Boulevard meanwhile is rather surprising. From the outside, it pretty much looks like an unimpressive building, however, it does have pretty well maintained and decidedly international feel in its interiors. Run by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines), you may be able to catch both classical and contemporary art works in its building including original paintings by Felix Resurrecion Hildago and Juan Luna – bastions of Philippine Art during the Spanish Period. There are temporary exhibitions of artists from around the world as well, and at the back, one can take a glimpse of a small park with a cannon hoisted, the same cannon used during the assault of Manila by the invading British Army.
Please check the websites for fees, schedules and information on current exhibitions.
Average time spent – 3 hours
The Most Vibrant yet the Most Underrated in the whole of Asia
Metro Manila is a megacity that never sleeps. Whilst the most happening days are on the weekend, Filipinos and expatriates always find an excuse to go out and trip the light fantastic in its upscale clubs, or share a bottle of ice-cold San Miguel in the many bars that swarm all over the city of about 15 Million people.
The financial hub of Makati is the ground zero for Manila’s most happening places, parties are afoot on pool decks on glittering skyscrapers, or in the many bars of Greenbelt and in any of the top hotels in the district. The atmosphere is decidedly international- and comes as a pleasant surprise to the Western traveler who comes to expect the Philippines is a big hopeless slum. Thursday Nights are the busiest at the popular expat watering hole M Café, with DJs playing a mix of nujazz, broken beat, or house music and the yuppies from the nearby offices chow down fusion cuisines or sip their lychee martinis while sharing travel stories, latest economic news, the latest Manila gossip or eyeing out that cute noob in tight pants. Perfect place to meet people and get invited to heaps of private parties in Manila. Fewer prostitutes too compared with the notorious Café Havana nearby.
Club kids head out to Embassy at the Fort, that decidedly pretentious Philippine attempt at a superclub, while those who sport the LGBT flag sashay their way to Government (which has fallen on ghetto times) off Makati Avenue. Sip your wines at Barcino’s at The Fort – one of the best wine places in metropolis.
Malate used to be a cool bohemian district but slowly degenerated into a hotspot for trashy effeminate men, hookers and wannabe artists/activists, but yeah, each to his own, right? Catch the diminutive servers at The Hobbit House at M.H. Del Pilar – a little peculiar but hey, bring on the kitsch! Walking through Malate is like checking out Manila’s seedy underbelly, so be prepared for prostitutes propositioning you, and there are a lot of them at LA Café (we got our stripper there for one of the stag parties). Too squeamish? Skip Malate altogether. I know I do.
Other centers of nightlife include, Eastwood City in Libis for the younger set, and the many restaurants and bars along Tomas Morato and Timog in Quezon City.
Average time spent in any of the nightspots – Some people go home when dawn breaks
Manila’s Undiscovered Secret
Photo by Merrionsq
With the megacity’s colossal shopping malls- shopping seems to be the lifeblood of the Philippines. Recent surveys say that consumer spending was still up even during the hardest months of the financial crisis. An angry Filipino eats, sings and shops. If you are on the lookout for awesome bargains – head out to Greenhills in San Juan for cultured pearls (Imelda Marcos is a loyal shopper here), cheap but well-made knockoff clothes and well, almost everything under the scorching Philippine sun. For the hardy ones, you may push your way through the throngs of crowds and pray that you don’t get trampled to death in an ensuing stampede – make your way to Divisoria in Manila for handicrafts, yards and yards of cloths, food, and other cheap buys. I remember the saying; “God made the world, and the rest was made by China” holds more than an ounce of truth in these parts.
Greenbelt, Glorietta and Powerplant Mall in Makati play hosts to top international brands – Michael Kors, Givenchy, Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo and a lot more. Meanwhile, SM Malls who cater to the middle class, flexes its consumerist muscles with hulking malls – SM North EDSA. SM Megamall and the Mall of Asia- these malls, are some of the largest in the world with thousands upon thousands of square feet of shopaholic delights!
Average time spent – 3-5 Hours
Eating, eating and more eating
eat eat … eat eat, eat!
People who seemingly live to eat will find Manila a wonderful gastronomic surprise with its spectacular smorgasbord of international cuisines available. From the weekend markets of Salcedo and Legazpi in Makati to the street cuisines available in almost all parts of the teeming metropolis to the haute dining in Manila’s top restaurants, a visitor will never have an excuse to go hungry. You may want to check out our list of the Top 10 Best Places to Eat in Manila. Malay, Greek, French, Turkish, Portuguese, American, Spanish, Italian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese and Indian cuisine are well represented here.
Photo by Uckhet
For those who want to try Filipino street food – never miss out on the Balut – fertilized duck egg, gross looking but very savory – I had to try two. Kwek-kwek- boiled chicken or quail eggs in orange batter and deep fried were kind of strange but scrumptious – a definite must try for adventurous palates. You may try barbecued isaw- chicken intestines, betamax- barbecued pigs blood squares, adidas- chicken feet, or helmet- chicken head – all downed with a cup of sago at gulaman – sugary-sweet drink of sago, vanilla, and caramelized sugar– easily one of my favorites.
You may also check out the Singing Cooks and Waiters on Roxas Boulevard – and yes, everyone sings- from the valet to the waiter serving your food. From the menu to the interiors to the uniforms, everything is predominantly Filipino.
Average time spent – 3 Hours
Health and Wellness
Tired of the same old drag – Thai Massage, Shiatsu and Swedish? Check out the newest star on the health and wellness block – the Hilot – ancient Fillipino art of healing. Although it used to be generally confined in the deepest Philippine rural areas, hilot is fast gaining international attention. It employs chiropractic manipulation for the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal and musculoligamentous ailments or just plainly to relieve stress. I never miss a chance to have one especially when I am out traveling outside of Manila – but you may check out Suriya Spa in Greenbelt as well as the major, legitimate spas in hotels all over Metro Manila to get one.
Average time spent – 1-2 hours
Sights and Sounds of Manila
Photo by Bikoy
Experience one of Asia’s biggest aquarium with a veritable collection of endemic Philippine marine life at the Manila Ocean Park. Ride the ubiquitous Philippine jeepneys, marvel at the steel church of San Sebastian designed by Gustave Eiffel. Take pictures of quirky mausoleums at the Chinese Cemetery (see the mausoleum designed like the Sydney Opera House). Ponder the bravery of the fallen at the American Cemetery where you can see rows upon rows of white crosses amidst a green field. Hear the only bamboo organ in the world play at Las Piñas. Catch the world-renowned Ballet Philippines perform at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
For some, Manila can be quite a handful – but those brave enough to explore it will be rewarded with an experience like no other city in the world. Manila will feel familiar, yet strange; confusing, yet engaging; complicated, but nevertheless beautiful – if one looks hard enough. Like the Philippines, Manila is meant to be explored and those who do will agree with me that it is one of the most exciting cities in the world.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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