While Manila may be known for having an unbearable traffic situation, that doesn’t stop travelers (whether first-timers or not) from exploring what the city has to offer. That’s because of the amazing tours, strong art scenes, shopping destinations, and food trips that can only be best experienced within the Philippines’ capital city.
Fort Santiago serves as one of the most important and prominent historical sites in Manila. Being a part of the walled city of Intramuros, this citadel has been witness to lives lost during the Spanish colonial era. The country’s national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, spent his last days here before he was executed. Today, this historical landmark takes pride in its preserved legacies such as the memorabilia of Rizal, and has areas serving as ideal locations for strolls and picnics. Within Intramuros, there are also various attractions visited via a walking tour or while riding on a calesa (a horse-drawn calash.)
Located within the walled City of Intramuros, the San Agustin Church is considered the oldest church in the Philippines and the first church built in Luzon – built between 1587 and 1606. After Intramuros was destroyed during World War II, the San Agustin Church remained intact. The present structure is the third erected on the site. Originally made of wood and palm, it was later replaced by stones. In 1993, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is among the very few Baroque churches across the Philippines.
Binondo, or popularly known as Manila’s Chinatown, is the oldest Chinatown in the world. Set on a hilly landscape, Binondo’s name was coined from the Tagalog word ‘binondoc’ which means mountainous when translated in English. While the site was originally created for Chinese immigrants who converted into Catholics, it has become one of the most-visited communities for the busy shopping streets of Escolta, and for being the center of authentic Chinese food such as Peking duck, century eggs, dumplings and other delights being served in numerous restaurants.
Just a jeepney ride from Quiapo is a frugal shopper’s candy store, Divisoria. Though too hectic for some, Divisoria is one big playground for bargaining pros. Things here are the cheapest in the Metro (you’ll get them at an even lower price the more you purchase and the better you haggle). Exploring the many streets of Divisoria will lead you to anything and everything, from affordable fabric to houseware and decor. Walk aimlessly around the streets of Soler, Tabora, Juan Luna, and Ilaya, keeping an eye out for the best bargains and deals. For a more organized shopping experience, venture into the 168 Mall, 999 Mall, and Tutuban Shopping Center for trendy RTW finds.
The SM Mall of Asia (SM MOA) is the fourth largest mall in the country. Overlooking the Manila Bay, the establishment has an outdoor walkway where shoppers can get a full view of the sunset and, in some instances, pyro spectacular shows. This sprawling mall has four buildings: the Main Mall, Entertainment Mall, and the South and North Parking Buildings— interconnected via walkways. In addition to famous branded shops and food establishments, it has the first IMAX theater in the country, an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, concert grounds, an amusement park, the SMX Convention Center, and the Mall of Asia Arena.
The Quiapo area is known to be a very busy place because it’s usually packed with devotees and parishioners of the Black Nazarene, which can be found inside Quiapo Church. The church also serves as the site of one of the country’s biggest cultural events each year – the Feast of the Black Nazarene. During this annual event, millions of devotees and parishioners head over to join the procession and aim to kiss or touch the statue as they believe doing so would lead to their intentions being granted. For first-time travelers in Manila, it’s always a must to visit the Quiapo Church and satisfy their curiosity.
If you’d want to see proof of how Manila was considered ‘at its finest‘ during the Marcos Era, head over to The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Complex, which houses performance theaters, movie centers, art galleries, and other venues that serve as witnesses to the beauty of Philippine arts. There are six performance venues where one may catch a performance of the Ballet Philippines or the Philippine Madrigal Singers, for instance. For budding indie movie directors, dancers, and opera singers, they always look forward to showcasing their talents at the CCP Complex.
Located at the heart of the Makati Central Business District in Manila, the Ayala Museum has been known as one of the best venues where you’ll find contemporary art and be inspired by the country’s history. It has a heritage library, and a collection of archeological artefacts, trade ceramics, and textiles among others. While the Ayala Museum houses permanent dioramas, it regularly updates its current exhibitions and programs so every time one pays a visit, it’s surely a different art experience.
Next to the Ayala Museum, you’ll find the Greenbelt Mall – which isn’t a typical shopping mall found within Manila. It consists of five upscale malls. Greenbelt 1 and Greenbelt 2 mostly feature fast food shops and restaurants, as well as branded shops. You’ll find high-end boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, and Gucci within Greenbelt 4 and Greenbelt 5. Meanwhile, Greenbelt 3 features the cinemas and different international brands. Apart from the shopping areas, what sets this mall apart is its lush green park and garden setting that gives one a different dining experience.
Rizal Park, formerly known as Luneta Park, has become more than a historical landmark in honor of the country’s national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. It has become a favorite leisure spot among families and it also serves as venue for events with its open-air auditorium. Within this iconic park with over 60 hectares of open lawns and ornamental gardens, one may also find artworks, Chess Plaza, dancing magical fountains, and statues of other Philippine heroes. It’s also a favorite strolling place of locals during late afternoon or early evening because of its relaxing ambience.
Within the vicinity of Rizal Park, one shouldn’t also miss the National Museum of Fine Arts – an art museum home to paintings and masterpieces of famous artists such as Juan Luna and Guillermo Tolentino. Every artwork found in this neoclassical building (formerly named as the National Art Gallery) tells stories relative to the Filipino culture. Apart from the artworks of Juan Luna and other famous artists in the 20th century, you’ll also find modern and contemporary works such as sculptures and art prints in the 21st century.
Another unmissable attraction is this marine themed park which has become among the family-friendly destinations in the Philippines, showcasing thousands of marine animals in their various attractions. One of its main attractions is the Oceanarium – the biggest public aquarium in the country where one can enjoy bi-level shark and stingray viewing facilities. Animal interactions are also encouraged in their Sharks and Ray Dry Encounter as well as their Sea Lion Show. And, for those who’d want relaxation, the Jellies exhibit is a must-see and experience the Fish Spa!
Star City is the leading amusement park situated in Manila which is perfect for family and group bonding activities. The amusement park is known for having a variety of rides – ranging from kid-friendly to extreme ones at affordable rates. With a total of 35,000 square meters of area, a day won’t be enough to enjoy all rides and visit their attractions such as Snow World, Pirate Adventure, and haunted-theme attraction Gabi ng Lagim (Night of Terror). And because of their unique attractions, expect that the amusement park is crowded during peak season and holidays.
Of course, who wouldn’t want to be able to see where the President of the country lives? For decades, Malacañang Palace has been the official residence of the President of the Philippines. While the palace itself is off-limits to the public, there are reservations for tours inside the premises for those who are curious to see beyond the facade of Malacañang Palace. Tourists may visit Casa Roces (a house-turned-restaurant), the National Shrine of St. Michael and the Archangels, and the Presidential Museum and Library – which houses accurate executive records that dates back to the 1900’s.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to miss the best views in the Metro! At Manila’s Baywalk situated along Roxas Boulevard, tourists and onlookers get the chance to witness the most spectacular view of the sunset. Apart from being a favorite place for jogging and strolling, this two-kilometer stretch has also become a popular venue for art performances and for moments when one just wants to sit along the pavement and observe fellow onlookers. Within the area, you will find a multitude of colors – coming from the brightly-colored lamps, lights coming from the open-air cafes and restaurants, and from cars passing by.