There’s so much to see and do in bustling Manila. Where does a first-time visitor begin? Well, history’s always a good place to start. 

POSTED BY PINKY

We’re pretty lucky to live in a city that’s rich in history yet one that’s modern and cosmopolitan at the same time. Sure, we aren’t the only city in the world that can make that claim.

But to put things in perspective, our country’s been through a lot, specially in the last 75 years. From World War II to the martial law years to the endless jockeying for power that came after in the name of “love of country”.

The region’s first truly international melting pot, once dubbed as the “Pearl of the Orient” (due primarily to its role in the Manila Galleon Trade from 1565 to 1815), the Philippines was the nation looked up to by its Asian neighbours. Until the 1970s.

Pre-WWII downtown Manila

Since then, it’s been an uphill battle trying to bring our country back to its former glory. But we’re getting there.

Admittedly, many parts of the metro are still works in progress. Yet I find it a pity that many skip our capital altogether to go straight to our beaches, beautiful they may be.

So here’s where I usually take visiting family and friends to learn as much as they can about our history in just a day or two.

Manila or Manila?

There’s the city of Manila, our capital. Then there is the much larger metropolitan or Metro Manila, which the city of Manila is a part of. Just as the City of London is part of Greater London.

A small detail that perhaps we locals take for granted. But when we urge people to visit Manila, we usually mean the much larger Metro Manila.

And though our nation’s capital is far from being the richest, the biggest or the prettiest in the metro, it is the oldest. Which makes it an historical goldmine.

Malacañang Palace along the Pasig River

Malacañang Palace, the official Presidential residence, is located here. And so is the old walled city of Intramuros.

Where to Stay

I encourage visitors to use the city of Makati as their base. The closer you are to the main commercial and business district, the better. Not only because its central location allows for easier access to other cities in the metro, but also because it’s downright the most pleasant area to stay in.

Makati Central Business District

And right smack in the middle of Makati is a place where you can run through our history in the most efficient yet interesting way possible.

Ayala Museum’s Diorama Experience 

Here we walk through 60 intricately-made dioramas that serve as a visual narration of our nation’s history.

These dioramas provide great background information for some of the sites and stories you’ll soon encounter. So it’s best to do this a day prior to your visit to the actual sites.

But if you’ve only got a day to do both the diorama and the sites, get there as soon as they open at 9am to get a head start. Allot at least an hour for your visit. A bit more if you wish to see the other interesting exhibits in the museum.

You can eat at the museum’s M Café or at one of the many other options nearby.

But if you plan to do everything in a day, I suggest leaving the Ayala Museum by 11am, then head straight to Manila’s old walled city and have lunch there instead.

Intramuros

Built by the Spaniards in 1571, within these walls lies Manila’s oldest neighbourhood and the city’s historic center.

The Ateneo de Manila in Intramuros, 1923

Once beautiful, Intramuros and the city of Manila certainly paid a dear price for the city’s liberation from the Japanese. Relentless bombardment by U.S. forces in the 1945 Battle of Manila lasted one month.

The result? A bloodbath of unbelievable proportions. Primarily of Filipino civilian lives, with local civilian death toll higher than Hiroshima’s.

The second most devastated Allied capital of World War II, Intramuros was levelled to the ground. And with it a huge part of our cultural heritage that can never be replaced.

Intramuros obliterated save for San Agustin Church

Structures have since been rebuilt or restored within the walled city, so let’s zero in on a few. How many of them you get to cover depends largely on how much time you decide to spend in each one. 

Fort Santiago and Rizal Museum 

If you were to see just one place in Intramuros, this is it. The fort is set against the historic Pasig River, which has seen better days. But genuine efforts to clean it up have been under way in the last 20 years, and results are visible.

Walk in the footsteps of our national hero, Dr Jose Rizal, who was imprisoned here prior to his execution by firing squad in what is now Rizal Park or Luneta.

Main gate of Fort Santiago: Then and Now

Charged with sedition by the Spanish colonial government, Rizal’s writings awakened in the Filipino the desire to be free and to restore his dignity.

The Philippines eventually gained its independence from Spain in 1898.

Take a 30-minute guided tour on a kalesa, caruaje (carriage) or a motorised tramcar around Intramuros.

Allot at least 1-1/2 hours for your visit. Add another half-hour or so if taking the kalesa or tram tour.

If there’s time: The Manila Cathedral 

So close to Fort Santiago, make a quick stop in this recently-restored Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.

Newly-restored Manila Cathedral

Reinforced structurally to withstand major earthquakes, many of its features have also been modernised. Now you see a much brighter, shinier cathedral. And everything sounds better, too.

Honoured to have been involved in its restoration work, my family’s firm (my day job) was part of an all-Filipino team tasked to prepare the Cathedral for future generations.

Allot at least 20 minutes to have a look at the main church and the chapels.

San Agustin Church and Museum

A 5-minute walk from Manila Cathedral (10 from Fort Santiago) is this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A Baroque church under the care of the Augustinian Order, its most striking feature for me is the fantastic trompe l’oeil details on the ceiling and walls.

I can only imagine how much more impressive it must have been during the British occupation of 1762 (part of their Seven Years’ War against the French coalition), which resulted in the British forces looting the church.

Trompe l’oeil on ceiling and walls of San Agustin Church

The adjacent monastery holds the museum. And I have to tell you, the exhibits are pretty extensive. So do take the time to go through them.

Don’t miss the art collection on the upper level and, of course, the garden. Named after Spanish friar and botanist Fr Manuel Blanco, who wrote the seminal work on Philippine flora, “Flora de Filipinas”, the garden now serves mainly as a venue for wedding receptions.

Allot at least 1-1/2 hours here.

If there’s time: Casa Manila

Directly across San Agustin Church is this beautiful copy of an actual 1850s bahay na bato or house made of stone.

My personal favourite: Casa Manila / Photo by Philippine Primer (link below)

This museum shows what life was like for a fairly affluent family in Manila during the Spanish colonial period.

That it’s merely a copy of a house from that era doesn’t matter one bit. I can sit there all day imagining what life must have been like for the occupants.

Oh wait. I have done that. And wrote about these imaginings, too, in a paper for scriptwriting class. In 1988. Oh my.

Allot at least 1 hour for your visit. More if you’re cooking up a story.

Where to Eat 

Located in the same complex as Casa Manila across San Agustin Church, Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant is known for traditional Filipino food. If you aren’t quite sure what to order, then their buffet menu is a safe bet.

If Barbara’s is full or if you’re willing to try stuff on the menu, Ilustrado’s à la carte offering is another option. It’s located along the same street as Barbara’s on Calle General Luna.

Cap your Day

What better way to end your day than to watch the famous sunset along Manila Bay?

Then head over to the original branch of The Aristocrat Restaurant along Roxas Boulevard for dinner.

Try their classic chicken barbecue and java rice. For generations of overseas Filipinos who grew up enjoying this, no visit back home is truly complete without a trip to Aristocrat. They’ve got other branches in the metro as well, but there’s nothing like the original.

There’s So Much More!

Oh, we’re definitely not done yet.

If you have more time, there’s Luneta or Rizal Park, the National Museum, Chinatown, the Central Bank Museum, San Sebastián Church. Still quite a bit to choose from, depending on your interests.

A short day trip outside Metro Manila perhaps? Corregidor Island (by ferry from Manila Bay) and Tagaytay (for lovely views of Taal Lake and Volcano) are easy enough to do.

For souvenir shopping, Balikbayan Handicrafts, Tesoro’s, and Kultura are pretty reliable in terms of quality. All three have stores in Makati, so there’s no need to venture far if that’s where you’re staying. But if bargain shopping for pearl jewellery floats your boat, Greenhills is the place.

The range of dining options in Metro Manila is mind-blowing, to say the least. From fast food to casual dining to international gourmet cuisines. There’s always a new place opening somewhere to vie for the appetites of fickle Manileños. We Pinoys do love our food!

But most of all, we are a fun-loving, welcoming people. Even in a big metropolis like Manila.

So yes, we’ve barely scratched the surface here. 

Now the question is: are you ready for Manila?


PHOTO CREDITS: 

Makati by Night

Ayala Museum Diorama

Kalesa Tour

Casa Manila 

Manila Bay Sunset