Philippines’ capital is a juxtaposition of mall mania, rich-poor divide, Spanish heritage and spirited fiestas.
Consider the capital Manila as a pulsating vortex for everything that defines Filipinos: mall mania, rich-poor divide, Spanish heritage and spirited fiestas. Also in this northern metro area of 12 million people you will find some of the country’s top restaurants and most sophisticated arts and entertainment. The gleaming skyscrapers of international investment banks in upscale Makati share this massive metropolitan area with slums along creeks that drain through the flattish urban core into Manila Bay.
Highlights of the capital include Intramuros, the old Spanish citadel, the shopper-mad SM Mall of Asia and a review of political history at Rizal Park. Children get their own museum, Museo Pambata, and a hands-on marine experience at Manila Ocean Park. Nocturnal visitors may prefer Malate for its varied, sometimes naughty and often very late nightlife. Accommodation options are plentiful, from backpacker hostels to five-star towers run by multinational chains.
Many Filipinos from the central and southern islands move into Manila to find work and escape poverty. Sadly, not all of them succeed, which has given rise to a large beggar community, as well as slums so jaw-dropping that they've become a tourist attraction in their own right.
Manila is a year-round destination, but rain is least likely from December through April, which coincides with some of the city's most festive months.
Singaporean nationals can visit any part of the Philippines visa-free for 30 days.
The peso (P) is the monetary unit and there are 100 centavos to one peso. Currency exchange kiosks at the airport and at major banks accept Singapore currency. ATMs are open 24 hours and international credit cards are widely accepted.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport lies 7km (4 miles) from the city centre. Metered taxis queue up at the airport, with airport staffers forming lines of passengers and making notes on where they plan to go to cut down on cheating by drivers. Though most drivers are reliable, airport taxis are notorious for asking passengers to pay a higher-than-normal fixed rate. Taxis take about 30 minutes and charge P200-250 to reach most parts of Manila. Most Manila hotels offer free or inexpensive shuttles. Look for people at the curb holding up signs with the names of hotels.
Air-conditioned buses ply major thoroughfares, while Manila's elevated rail system consists of two Light Rail Transit lines and the Metro Rail Transit line covering a total of 31 stations.
White and yellow taxis cluster at hotels, shopping malls and tourist landmarks, or can be flagged down at curbsides. Fares range from P100 for a short hop around Ermita to P300 or more for a cross-town journey from one suburb to another.
Manila is safer than it feels to many travellers. Despite slums, beggars and shady-looking people hanging around abandoned buildings, passers-by can avoid crime by keeping valuables hidden and avoiding long conversation with strangers who may be scam artists. Sanitation is questionable anywhere in the Philippines, so appoach street food with caution, and stick with restaurants if you want to be extra-safe. For medical assistance, visit the Medical Center Manila (tel: (632) 523 8131) on Taft Avenue.
|How are you?||Kumustá kayó?|
|Fine, thanks||Mabúti namán, salámat|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Mawaláng gálang nga pô!|
|What's your name?||Anó ang inyóng pangálan?|
|My name is…||…ang pangálan ko|
|Nice to meet you||Ikinagágalák kong makilála kayó|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||Nasa Facebook/Twitter ka ba?|
|Where’s an internet café?||Saán may ínternet café?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Saán akó makákabilí ng tíket?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Saán ang estasyón ng bus/tren?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||Isáng óne-way/round-trip tíket sa…|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||Méron ba kayóng kuwárto pára sa isá/dalawá?|
|When's check out?||Kailán ang check-out?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||Pwéde ba kayóng magrékomendá ng magandáng réstorán/bar?|
|A table for two, please||Mésa pára sa isá/dalawá, please|
|A menu, please||Menú, please|
|The bill, please||Ang bill, please|
|Where's the toilet?||Saán ang CR?|
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Malate is one of Manila’s chief culture, food and entertainment areas. Bars range from British-style pubs and Latin clubs to hostess bars. The district’s Nakpil and Orosa streets are home to a variety of drag shows, plus dance clubs for all persuasions. Many spots are open 24 hours. Boutique hotels are scattered among the eats and drinks venues. For something a little more sophisticated, you can find swankier nightclubs, such as Club Enigma and Studio 69 on the Roxas Boulevard edge of Malate.
Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum)
The Museo Pambata offers entertainment to children of all ages. Themed rooms and hands-on displays include a tunnel maze through the body, a simulated rainforest and a trip into the past. Children will also find a make-believe shopping experience and a chance to explore future careers through art.
Rich in political history, Rizal Park contains a memorial to Jose Rizal, a national hero who died for championing independence from Spain. Behind the monument is a series of plaques inscribed with Rizal’s poem My Last Farewell. A marble slab marks the spot where Rizal met his martyr’s death by firing squad. Here you can see the Lights and Sounds of Rizal (Wed–Sun, 8pm), a 30-minute, open-air audio-visual presentation on the great man’s final days. You can also take a relaxing stroll through the park’s Chinese Garden, Planetarium, Japanese Garden, and Orchidarium.
Metropolitan Museum of Manila
The Metropolitan Museum of Manila features a collection of pre-Hispanic gold artefacts, as well as gold and pottery showpieces dating back to the eighth century. Moving up the timeline to the Spanish colonial years, paintings by the country's best known artist Juan Luna await in another gallery. The museum offers regular talks on photography, cartography and the secrets of the artists themselves.
An old Spanish city that has bounced back from the scourges of war, Intramuros is a triangular district full of restored historic buildings buzzing with cafés, bars and handicraft stores. The Spanish built 18 churches, chapels, convents, schools and palaces for the governor-general. The key landmark for travellers is Fort Santiago (daily 8am–6pm). Visitors to the lavishly landscaped fort can climb on an old wall to see the grayish Pasig River and a stone chamber, a poignant reminder of where the Japanese jailed hundreds of Allied soldiers until they starved to death.
Manila Ocean Park
Highlights of the Manila Ocean Park include fish-viewing, a pool for handling marine life and an Antarctica exhibit – right along tropical Manila Bay. Daily shows star seals, rays and a talking cartoon penguin. Those who want to linger can try the adjacent Liquid Pool & Lounge (tel: 632 567 4321 ext. 101) or stay at the bayside Hotel H2O (tel: 632 238 6100).
Filipinos thrive on mall culture. They buy, gawk, eat and hang out in shopping centres. Some malls have cinemas or sports arenas and they range from cheap and shady to glittery and exclusive.
Start the day in central Manila at Divisoria, a cluster of flea markets where working people look for fruit, handicrafts and hardware from a thousand stalls. Bargain at will with the vendors and beware of getting ripped off. Next, take a taxi down to the slightly more upmarket SM Mall of Asia. If you want a break from the endless shops, go bowling or scope out the SM Science Discovery Center. Grab some lunch in the food aisles which are home to just about every restaurant chain in the Philippines.
Finish the day in the swanky malls of Makati. The Makati Greenbelt Mall features ornate, high-ceilinged corridors and ample parking. Each of its five sections has a unique theme. The first is mainly smaller shops with a focus on electronics. Other sections are dedicated to dining and world fashion brands. Greenbelt 3 offers a selection of upmarket coffee shops. Greenbelt’s cross-town rival, Glorietta Mall is worth a whirl-through for its giant atrium that sometimes hosts concerts and trade shows for shoppers. Finish the day with a film at one of Glorietta’s six cinemas.
Divisoria, SM Mall of Asia, Makati Greenbelt Mall, Glorietta Mall.
First stop on a cultural tour of Manila is Rizal Park, where you can explore a key element of Philippine history – its independence from Spain. See the place where independence advocate Jose Rizal, the park’s namesake, was executed. Then taxi over to Intramuros to discover the Spanish legacy, still much loved by locals despite the conquest and colonisation that it represents. The Catholic churches are icons of Spain’s past, as is the country’s dominant religion. Also take a trip to Fort Santiago for a glimpse of World War II history. Across from the fort and the Pasig River lies Chinatown, another clue to what makes Filipinos culturally unique.
Have lunch at a branch of the ubiquitous fried chicken restaurant chain Jollibee’s for a taste of modern glam fast-food culture, then stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Manila on Roxas Boulevard to enjoy works of art by the best known Filipino artists. Next head to the nearby Malate district to browse the Solidaridad Book Shop for fiction or non-fiction titles by Filipino authors.
Culture takes on new forms after dark. Try dinner at Casa Armas, a Spanish/Filipino-style restaurant on Malate’s Nakpil Street (tel: 632 523 5763), which serves marinated sardines with garlic, garlic shrimp with olives and an unusual crab dish. For drinks in a clean, relaxed but still typically local place, wind down at any of three bars at the Solaire Resort and Casino (tel: 632 888 8888) in Pagcor Entertainment City.
Rizal Park, Intramuros, Fort Santiago, Chinatown, Metropolitan Museum of Manila, Solidaridad Book Shop, Casa Armas, Solaire Resort and Casino.
It may be a cliché to say the Filipinos love children but the sheer amount of child-friendly venues and activities in the capital certainly testify to that.
Start early at the Museo Pambata (Children’s Museum) on Roxas Boulevard. Kids will enjoy the virtual rainforest, the maze of the human body and the make-believe shopping adventure. The land of pretend segues into the next stop, a quick taxi ride to the SM Mall of Asia. On the mall’s first to fourth floors you’ll find Cosmic Kidz, a spacious and varied play area that charges 250 pesos per child per hour. There are things to do for toddlers as well as pre-schoolers keen on early education.
Grab a kids-friendly lunch – even if it’s just some colourful Filipino fast food – in the mall, then venture to the Ark Avilon Zoo, an interactive indoor zoo in Ortigas where children can meet rare species such as the Borneo orangutan and Palawan bearcat. Alternatively, head to the Manila Ocean Park in Luneta, where children and their parents can check out marine life, touch the gentler specimens and catch one of the daily shows where professional trainers interact with ocean creatures.
Museo Pambata, SM Mall of Asia, Ark Avilon Zoo, Manila Ocean Park.