City Guide to Manila, Philippines

Author: | Last Updated: 29 Jun 2019

Pearl of the Orient. Brightest gem of the southern Luzon. Presenting Manila, the biggest of 2,000 islands that make up the Philippine archipelago. Home to a population just shy of 2 million, this cultural, social, political and economical hub was founded in 1571 by Spanish conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi. This country’s intriguing Spanish roots are not the only thing that makes the city worth visiting however. Abundant nightlife, architectural beauties, luxury hotels, exotic delicacies, bewilderingly gorgeous cemeteries (yes you read that right), state-of-the-art museums, art galleries and simmering volcanic craters make Manila one of South-East Asia’s fastest growing tourism spots.

Best time of the year to visit Manila

Manila is protected from most extreme weather conditions by the Sierra Madre hills to the east and the mountains of the Bataan Peninsula to its west. That being said, the occasional cyclone has been known to give the city a run for its money during the wetter seasons. Dry season occurs from November to April with the hottest months spanning March to April. Temperatures soar to 97F during this period. The monsoon season follows, from May to October. Thunderstorms and flashfloods are commonplace in the months of July, August and September, so do be wary. This is also the point of low season. Cheap accommodation, shopping experiences and tours are on the cards should you decide to brave the fierce onslaught of rain during this period. If you’re planning in advance, the best months to visit would be from January to April when weather is generally cooler with less rainfall.

Intramuros

Entering Manila’s arguably most historical area – the Intramuros (Walled City), is akin to entering a nostalgic portal of the distant past. Host to an entire entourage of remarkable ruins, few who visit understand the turbulent past behind this façade of peace. In 1575, a gang of vicious pirates led by the infamous 16th century pirate lord Limahong arrived on the shores of the Southern Luzon (Manila as we know today). A tremendous tug-of-war ensued, and after devastating amounts of bloodshed, the Spanish emerged victorious. This little fiasco prompted the immediate construction of the Intramuros.

Today, the Walled City houses an assortment of historical structures as well as a multitude of boutique hotels, fancy eateries, eye-opening museums and flamboyant shops. The Intramuros is in fact so huge that covering everything in a day by foot is extremely exhausting. An alternative would be to hop onto a rickshaws or horse-drawn carriage for a well-worth hour’s tour around this historical wonder.

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago is perched on the remains of a once Tagalog stronghold, now reduced to mere ashes. Located at the mouth of Intramuros, this historical marvel has such a rich history that its courtyard is dotted with quirky information boards detailing unending stories of old. Built in 1571, the fort has had its fair share of multi-national inhabitants. Occupied by the British in the 18th century, surrendered to the Americans as a military installation in the 19th and eventually utilized by the Japanese as a torture chamber in the 20th… one can only imagine the events this stolid stronghold has witnessed.

Deeper into the fortress lies the humbling Rizal Shrine in memory of national hero Jose Rizal – who led the fight for independence from the Spanish late into the 19th century. Should you be of adventurous character, the ascend of the fortress’ walls facing the Pasig River is an opportunity you’d be remiss not to undertake. Upon completion, you’ll be rewarded with a sweeping bird’s-eye-view of the bustling city of Manila.

Manila Cathedral

The Manila Cathedral, officially referred to as the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica, is widely known as the largest Roman Catholic church in the Philippines. History has not been kind to this Intramuros wonder however, given the overwhelming 8 rebuilds it has required through the years. At the entrance of the cathedral stands a beautiful sculptured statue of Charles IV in robed glory. Sparrows can be seen teetering dangerously over the edge of the clear reflective waters surrounding this benevolent statue. Two large clock faces, one on the cathedral tower to the left, and the other on the cathedral hall to the right peer down as a multitude of churchgoers and tourists throng through the courtyard of this magnificent structure. Upon entering the church, one will immediately be drawn to the spotless marbled flooring and the marvelous stained glass windows – from which beams of sunlight tumble through. Should you sweep your eyes across the interior, you will also notice the intricately carved statues of saints long gone lining the sides of this lovely chapel.

San Augustin Church

During your time in Intramuros, you’ll also encounter an early 17th century Baroquian-styled church. Dubbed Manila’s ‘oldest’ cathedral, the San Augustin Church has also laid testament to all manner of natural disasters and war. The most recent events of 1945 saw the Japanese housing hundreds of hostages behind the walls of this sacred ground. Sadly, a majority of hostages were massacred despite the best efforts of the Filipino and American forces combined. The San Augustin Church was also the only survivor during this time amongst 6 other historical churches.

Upon entering this sacred shelter, craning of one’s neck to the awe-inspiring view of the majestic trompe l’oeil ceilings should be an immediate priority. The interior is decked with grand chandeliers overhead, while its pristine white walls emit auras of reverence and peace. Beautiful wedding ceremonies are especially common here, so be sure to keep a look out!

San Augustin Museum

Unfortunately for the good people of Manila City, the fate of the church did not extend to the former monastery adjacent to it. Today, the remains of this once mighty monastery have been cleared to make way for the San Augustin museum. With vast collections of religious artifacts and relics stored in this historically-abundant site, a visit inside should not be passed up … though be warned its uniqueness and originality will set you back an hour and a half at least!

All manner of paintings, crucifixes, altars and wooden statues have also been congregated here by churches throughout the country in an offering of sacred respect. Should you be interested in the historical contexts of Catholic faith in the city how past colonial rules shaped it, this is truly a place to check out!

Taal Volcano

After some time, the all too familiar historically-rich tale of violent and bitter strife can get a little suffocating. A wonderful solution lies in one of nature’s greatest creations, the Taal volcano. Barely 2 hours’ drive south of the city, the transcending beauty of this active crater in the middle of a pristine lake is bound to capture your imagination the minute you lay your eyes upon it. Upon arriving at the coastal town of Talisay, you will observe the crater in full splendor – kind of resembling a perfect little egg holder, slightly chipped off at the edges, but otherwise stout and sturdy. Should you decide to scale this gorgeous landmass, rest assured in knowing that the panoramic view at the top is nothing short of spectacular. The 20-minute boat ride across is exhilarating to say the least, though the likelihood of staying dry is slim to none. A warm greeting from puppies, goats, birds and horses at the shore will set the tone for an incredible adventure ahead. Horses are available for rent should you wish to avoid undertaking the journey on foot.

National Museum of Fine Arts

On to the Arts, Manila is a city filled to its brim with eclectic museums and stunning art galleries. An outright unmissable museum would be the Museum of Fine Art. This neoclassical building was initially constructed in 1921 to house the National Library of the Philippines, and it was not till 1998 that its conversion into the Philippine’s finest art museum began. Despite its name, one does not need to be an art connoisseur to enjoy the intricacies and delight of this museum. The Museum of Fine Art features paintings and sculptures from renown Filipino artists of the 19th and 20th century, and it is easy to observe their longings of independence from the Spanish during this period. Deeper into the museum, visitors will rest their eyes on a multiple-award winning painting from 1884. The painting depicts lifeless gladiators being whisked away from the scenes of a circus. Art pieces like these make a visit to this incredible museum an absolute treat.

Manila Street-Food

As with every South-East Asian city, an abundance of local cuisine waits to be uncovered. Starting with the meaty delicacies, one will be forgiven for shying away from the infamous national dish – Balut. The delicacy consists of a marinated day-old duck still fresh in its shell. Those who have braved this dish though are often taken aback by its pleasant ‘chicken-like’ taste. On to more pleasant experiences however, the roast pork found in Manila has been touted by numerous tourists as the best in the world. From barbequed pork skewers to crispy pork rind, it is without a doubt that pork lovers will find solace in the city of Manila. Moving on to flavorful deserts, we arrive at the Halo Halo. Consisting sweetened beans, evaporated milk, fruits and ice cream, this mouth-watering treat is bound to have you begging for more. Topping this brief foodie list off, we have the ensaymada, a deliciously simple sweet cheese-filled pastry from the Spanish era that tickles the taste buds and allures the mind. The greatest beauty of it all? These exotic dishes can easily be grabbed off street food-stalls anywhere in Manila City, anytime in the day!

City: Manila

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