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Travel Guide to Metro Manila: A Mix of Retro and Metro Edit

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Michelle Tobias  • Contributor
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Cover photo by Caryl R. Graphics by Manel Solsoloy.

At a Glance

The charming walled city of Intramuros makes for an unforgettable bamboo bike tour. A string of museums and parks such as the National Museum and Manila Ocean Park are just nearby at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, an hour away by ferry is the picturesque bomb-torn memorial, Corregidor Island.

Overview

The sprawling Metro Manila is home to a dizzying 17 cities and 13 million people. It’s the fourth most populated city in the world, after Tokyo, Jakarta, and Delhi. It’s sweltering in the summer, easily flooded during monsoon season, and the daily traffic can drive first-time visitors crazy. It’s a place where things don’t often come easy, but it never fails to surprise, inspire, and challenge newcomers.


Its top tourist-drawer is the 400-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, Intramuros. For centuries Intramuros used to be “Manila,” the seat of government in the country. Best relished by bamboo bike tour, Intramuros is laid with Spanish churches, ruins, dungeons, artillery houses, and museums. Fort Santiago, Casa Manila Museum, Bahay Tsinoy, and San Agustin Church and Museum are the best sights to explore in the area.


Near Intramuros are two huge parks ideal for families and groups. Rizal Park or Luneta is the largest urban park in Asia, having 30 attractions and recreation areas. Facing Manila Bay, meanwhile, is Manila Ocean Park. Its main attraction is the Oceanarium and its 25m underwater tunnel, where travelers can walk through, gaze up, and watch the underbellies of sharks, stingrays, and other marine animals.


For travelers wanting to dig into Philippine culture and art, the three best destinations to see are the National Museum of the Philippines, Ayala Museum, and Metropolitan Museum. Ayala Museum’s Gold of Ancestors Gallery is a must-see, housing more than a thousand astonishing gold items carved by pre-colonial Filipino goldsmiths. Another area worth the visit is the old elite village of San Miguel, where you can see heritage mansions, including the Presidential Museum and Library at the Malacañang Palace.


From Manila, travelers often head out by an hour’s ferry to the scenic Corregidor Island. Part of Cavite province, this tadpole-shaped island was heavily bombed during World War II, leaving behind haunting yet beautiful ruins, artillery, and bomb craters amidst a lush forest. Celebrated every year, three of Metro Manila’s most highly esteemed events are Aliwan Festival (April or May), Cinemalaya Film Festival (July to August), and the Feast of the Black Nazarene (January), which draws about 10 million devotees.

Sampling the City: 8 fun things to do in Metro Manila

Written by Marty Arnaldo


Travelers often see Manila as a transit city. A city you rest up in for a day before you go to the many beaches, mountains, and seascapes that the country has to offer. The capital city is often overlooked by both foreign and local tourist alike, which shouldn’t be the case. Beneath all the concrete and the smoggy air lies a city filled to the brim with history, culture, and unique experiences. Here are 8 fun things to do in Manila:

1. Get lost in the romantic Intramuros


If only these walls could talk. Get transported back into a bygone era as you go around the walled city of Intramuros. From its cobblestone floors to its 16th-century Filipino-Spanish architecture, Intramuros gives off a mix of romance and nostalgia that only the oldest district in Manila can provide.


Lose yourself in the many historical sites like the San Agustin Church, a beautiful Baroque church also designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and Fort Santiago, the cradle of Manila’s history. Or try the simple joys of the anachronistic fast food joints and convenience stores done in colonial-style architecture. Intramuros has something for everyone.


Must do’s: Take in the history of Intramuros either via a guided Bamboo Bike Tour from the folks at Bambike Ecotours, or go for a theatrical walk with Carlos Celdran’s Walk This Way Tour. There are several unique one-day tours in Intramuros that you can easily book on the website.


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Bamboo bikes in Intramuros. Photo by Hector John Periquin.

2. Take a glimpse of Filipino heritage at the Ayala Museum


This museum is literally worth its weight in gold. Right next to Prada, Hermes, and all the luxury brands that line up in the Greenbelt malls, Ayala Museum is a six-story edifice that is an ode to Philippine history and iconography.


Featuring impressive dioramas, indigenous textiles, rare embroideries, and artworks, the museum provides a peek into Filipinos’ history and culture. One of the highlights of the museum is the Gold of Ancestors exhibit, featuring over 1000 gold objects, the crowning glory of Filipino heritage predating the Spanish times.


Must do’s: Boasting a revolving door of exhibits, concerts, lectures, and events, there’s always something new to see at the Ayala Museum.


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A recreation of the old Galleon ships at the Ayala Museum. Photo by JR Felipe.

3. Bar Hop in Poblacion, Makati


The seedy meets the sophisticated and everything else in between at Poblacion, Makati. The new place to be for a night out with friends, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of hole in the walls and interesting bars. Whether your here to eat, drink, catch the game, or are just in the mood to meet people, Poblacion is the place to be.


There are also a number of backpacker friendly hostels and inns which are the perfect jump-off point to start off your time around Makati.


Must do’s: Putting the Pub in Poblacion, the Poblacion Pub Crawl is the best way to go through the number of bars and restaurants in the red-light district. If you are looking for something a bit racier, head down to Ringside Bar and catch one of the more interesting shows in Makati.


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Colorful neon lights at Poblacion, Makati. Photo by Ney Samson.

4. Spend a whole day at the National Museum


The bastion to the arts in the capital city, the National Museum of the Philippines is an expansive and impressive museum complex featuring National Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, and National Planetarium. Tasked with guarding national cultural treasures, the complex houses some of the most important pieces in Philippine culture of heritage.


Out of the many masterpieces by National artists like, Felix Hidalgo, Vicente S. Manansala, and Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera that the Museum showcases, none are more iconic than Juan Luna’s magnum opus the Spoliarium. Literally one of the largest painting in the country in both size and importance, this piece is a definite must see.


Must do’s: The newly opened National Museum of Natural History is a gorgeous six-story building with a stunning art installation dubbed The Tree of Life. A portion of the Berlin Wall can also be found at the Museum of Anthropology.


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The Tree of Life at the Natural History Museum. Photo by Bob Jhon Duron.

5. Walk around Manila’s old Wall Street, Escolta


An ode to old Manila and the center of its revival, Escolta is where every day is throwback Thursday. Lining the scenic streets are monuments of the best in Philippine architecture—from the decade-old El Hogar to the Neo-Classical marvel that is the Don Roman Santos Building.


Besides the many small, artsy coffee shops and restaurants, you can also get some of the best deals on camera equipment at the nearby Hidalgo street. From the state of the art to the film classic, all your camera needs can be found in Hidalgo.


Must do’s: One of the most unique experiences you can have in Manila is the interactive story-driven walk, Manila Who, a three-hour guided, historical narrative experience around the most iconic sites of Escolta. If vintage finds and local creations are more your drift check out the Escolta Museum at Calvo Building and the shops at First United Building.


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One of the architectural marvels in Escolta. Photo by Mr. Binondo.

6. Spot the most iconic churches in Manila


They don’t call Manila the Rome of the east for nothing. Churches are one of the most ubiquitous landmarks you’ll see in Manila. With churches serving as major landmarks in every city, it’s easy to find your own echoey solemn space for a moment of quiet. Several of the oldest and grandest churches call Manila their home.


Manila boasts a few churches that were built more than 400 years ago such as Nuestra Señora de Gracia Church and Binondo Church. Built in1588 by Augustinian Friars, Malate Church is a view to behold from above as its rooftops are in the shape of a cross.


Must do’s: The spectacular gothic San Sebastian Church, the only steel church in Manila, should be top of mind of churches to visit in Manila. One also must not forget to drop by the awe-inspiring Manila Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, which serves as a seat of the Archbishop of Manila.


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Manila Cathedral at night. Photo by Alvin Casitas.

7. Marvel at the old mansions of San Miguel


San Miguel is Manila’s former “it” district, where a veritable who’s who would rub elbows together as they partied in their Gatsby-esque mansions and luxurious gardens. No longer the happening place it was during its heyday, San Miguel offers a nice stroll to appreciate some of its storied manors such as the regal Legarda Ancestral Home and the controversial Laperal Mansions, now known today as the Arlegui guest house.


San Miguel district is, of course, also known for the most notable and important abodes in the Philippines, the Malacañang Palace, the home and office of the President of the Philippines.


Must do’s: Make sure to stop by the Presidential Museum and Library and learn about the stories and heritage of the past presidents who have called Malacañang their home. If all that walking has worked up your appetite then stop by Casa Roces, an Ancestral home turned restaurant that serves good Filipino-Spanish food with a healthy side of history.


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The facade of the Presidential Museum and Library. Photo by JR Felipe.

8. Explore the shoemaking heritage of Marikina


There’s only one place to get your leather fix in Manila and that’s in the Shoe Capital of the Philippines, Marikina. From affordable locally made leather crafts to the finest handcrafted leather shoes the city known for their cleanliness and footwear has got your covered.


If you have the time you can even get your own custom pair done from bespoke cobblers such as Black Wing Shoes, one of the best bang for your buck shoemakers in Marikina. If off the shelf footwear is more your thing head over to Marikina Shoe Trade Fair, for good discounts on quality products.


Must Do’s: If simply buying leather products won’t sate your shoe obsession, head to Marikina Shoe Museum, and see the shoe collection of the first lady Imelda Marcos. You can also check out the Book cum Ethnology Museum and the Marikina Shoe Gallery, home of the biggest pair of shoes in the world.


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Wax shoemakers at the Marikina Shoe Museum. Photo by Alan de Ramos.

Where is Metro Manila

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Manila is located in Luzon in northern Philippines.

How to get to Metro Manila

Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City (+63 2 877 7888; www.miaa.gov.ph) is the primary gateway to Metro Manila. About 2 hours away from Metro Manila, Clark International Airport in Pampanga (+63 45 599 2888; www.dmia.ph) is an alternative airway to NAIA, and caters to countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Dubai, and Qatar.


Taking the taxi is the easiest way to get around the metropolis. But for adventure-seeking visitors, jeepneys, buses, and trains are the way to go. The fastest way to get around is by taking the train, mainly MRT, LRT 1, or LRT 2. The busiest highway called EDSA connects the majority of the cities to each other. In exploring a small area, you can either walk around or simply get on a pedicab, tricycle, or jeepney.


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