‘Skip Manila if you can, fly straight to Boracay!’ .. ‘Don’t spend time in Manila, it’s a shithole..’ Warnings like these were what I kept hearing when I told people I was starting my South East Asia trip with a stint in the Philippines.
But coming from Hong Kong, Manila was still the most convenient starting point, and I wanted to head north to the Banaue rice terraces and the Hanging Coffins in Sagada from there. So Manila would definitely be part of my trip to the Philippines. I expected to hate Manila though, to be honest.
I had booked myself into a hostel near Bonifacio Global City, which is the new business district of Manila that is currently still being developed, while there are dozens of brand new condo towers, office high rises, malls and well-manicured little parks already finished, there are more high rises – mainly luxurious condo towers – being built right now. Global City is the place where you find Manila’s upper class and wealthy expat community. It is hard to believe that ten years ago, this very place was a swamp. On my first stroll through the neighborhood I was shocked to see a Lamborghini and a Ferrari car dealership, and more fine eateries and home design shops that I would find in a comparable neighborhood in Berlin. This was definitely not how I had pictured Manila.‘This is supposed to be a third world country’, I kept thinking to myself, and yet this part of town was nicer than most of the downtown areas of major cites I’d visited in the US. I was stunned.
A stark contrast to the modern new-builds was the small neighborhood behind my hostel (which was separated from Global City through a huge golf court) which reminded me a lot of Thailand. Little alleyways were full of plants in front of the houses to bring at least a little green into the concrete jungle that is Manila, cats were lazing around, laundry was drying in the streets, flying vendors were selling snacks and little street food stalls were frying up meat. This neighborhood wasn’t necessarily what I’d call a shithole either, and people were always very friendly when I was passing through. Manila turned out to be quite different than expected.A couple of days later a reader of mine, Carla, offered to show me around town, an offer which I happily accepted. In a city of nearly 12 million people, it can be hard to figure out what the best places to see are, so a local guide is always a plus, especially when it’s such a charming and funny one like Carla.
We started our night at the Corner Tree Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in Makati, which can be described as Manila’s downtown and the financial center of the Philippines. I had heard horror stories about how vegetarian-unfriendly the food was in the Philippines, and had been a bit worried I might not find any good food. But so far, everything I’d eaten was absolutely delicious and vegetarian options were abound. I even found a vegan hole in the wall, complete with green smoothies, near Global City.After dinner, we drove through Makati, and I marveled at high rises and fancy malls, and again: this wasn’t anything like I’d pictured Manila! We stopped at the Greenbelt, a giant outdoor shopping mall with cafes, restaurants and shops. Everything was super fancy, and the restaurants and cafes had a funkier decor than most cafes in Europe. I could see why this mall had won several awards for design.The only place I disliked was Cafe Havana, apparently a popular pick-up place for Western guys to pick up Filipinas. The many single, middle-aged Western men at the outdoor tables who were leering at the young, lightly-dressed Filipinas confirmed this rumor.
The night was still young, and Carla asked me if I wanted to have a drink in a speakeasy bar. A speakeasy in Manila?! This city kept surprising me. Of course I had to see it! When we walked through the doors of the unassuming Space Cafe, I would’ve never known that there was a bar in here, but sure enough, at the back end of the cafe there was an ‘Exit’ door which turned out to be the entrance to a dimly lit speakeasy bar. My favorite part? All the fancy cocktails were around PHP190 – US$4.30!After this pleasant surprise, I was ready for another bar experience, but first I got a surprise that made me even giddier with excitement than $2 cocktails: a Toby’s Estate Coffee Shop! My go-to coffee shop in Brooklyn, which I visit on a regular basis when I am in New York, and you can imagine my surprise to see this Brooklyn hipster hangout in Manila. To be fair though- Toby’s was founded in Australia, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised. But again: not exactly how I pictured Manila.Our next stop was just a few doors down from Toby’s, a chic bar named Hooch that was buzzing with atmosphere and filled with locals and expats alike. Drinks here were a bit more on the pricey side, but the unique cocktail creations were worth the splurge, like this upside down cocktail.So far, I enjoyed Manila way more than I had expected, and I had yet to see the historic part of town, Intramuros, the walled neighborhood established by the Spanish when thy came to the Philippines in 1571. Prior to my arrival, I had come across several raving reviews of Carlos Celtran’s Intramuros walking tour and decided to join it. Lucky for me, Carla had also heard about Carlos and was interested in checking out the tour as well, and so we met again on a sunny Sunday afternoon to get a tour of Intramuros.It turned out that this tour is much more popular than I had anticipated – when we arrived at the meeting port at Fort Santiago, there were about fifty people waiting for Carlos, who is quite a character. Apparently he finished an acting degree but didn’t find work as an actor, and ended up running tours in Manila instead – and trust me, these tours are more like a performance than anything else. He had several props on him, costumes, sweets to keep us entertained, and acted out most of the historical events rather than just telling us about them. The tour was well worth the steep price tag and I learned so much more about Manila’s history (including why the city has become a city that people say visitors to the Philippines should skip) than I would have had I just wandered around Intramuros with my guidebook in hand.
Intramuros itself was refreshingly different from the skyscrapers, malls and modern office towers in Makati. Old Spanish-colonial houses, historic churches, a stunning cathedral and horse-drawn carriages made me think of Casco Viejo in Panama, which felt similarly remote to the glitzy skyscrapers of Panama City’s New Town.The tour ended with a sample of Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert made of shaved ice and evaporated milk to which various boiled sweet beans (like kidney beans), jello and fruits (jack fruit, tapioca, sweet potato) are added.After the tour, we stayed in Intramuros for some sunset drinks at the Skydeck rooftop bar on top of the Bayleaf Hotel – sadly, the sun didn’t cooperate that evening with rainclouds moving in, but I could see that this would be the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the bay on a sunny day. Carla had yet another surprise in store for me when she took me to The Wholesome Table, an organic restaurant in Global City that looked just as chic as the organic restaurants I’ve visited in the U.S. or elsewhere.We ended my visit to Manila with a visit to another speakeasy bar, this one even better hidden than Exit, a black iron door at the ground floor of what looked like an office building, and inside a small dark bar hidden from the outside world.
I left Manila with a smile on my face, still in disbelief about how different the city was from the image I’d had in my mind before I got there. Good company, excellent vegetarian food and fancy drinks – if those were signs for things to come, I’d have an amazing time in the Philippines.
Where to stay in Manila
Most hostels are located in Makati, which is the downtown part of Manila with several malls, plenty of places to eat, movie theaters and other amenities. Our Melting Pot and Hilik Boutique Hostel (both in the same building) are popular hostels and good places to meet other travelers. There are also some hostels (and high-end hotels) in Bonifacio Global City, the brand new part of town where you find lots of fancy eateries on the High Street, as well as some nicer clubs. I felt very safe there, but it’s quite far from downtown and from Intramuros.
Where to eat in Manila
Some of the places I loved are:
- The Corner Tree Café, 150 Jupiter, Makati (vegetarian restaurant, both Filipino and Western dishes)
- The Wholesome Table, 30th Taguig, Global City (organic restaurant in Bonifacio Global City, good vegetarian options and healthy smoothies)
- Juicesabel, 3800 Kalayaan Avenue, Makati (a small hole-in-the-wall vegan café and detox juice bar near Global City)
- Early Bird Breakfast Club, GF Fort Pointe 2 Building, The Fort Complex, 28th St – there are more branches around the city (fantastic breakfast place (all-day breakfasts) with several branches around the city
- Toby’s Estate (best coffee in Manila, several branches around the city, the one on L.P. Leviste Street in Makati seems to be the largest one)
If you stay in Makati, head to the Greenbelt outdoor mall for a number of restaurants, cafes and bars.
Where to drink in Manila
- The Blind Pig, 227 Salcedo St. Corner Gamboa (a cozy speakeasy with fantastic cocktails – you won’t see much of a sign though, only the black door – knock to be let in)
- Exit, Corinthian Plaza 121 Paseo de Roxas corner Legaspi Street (a speakeasy bar in the back of Space Café)
- Hooch, 125 LP Leviste St Salcedo Village, Makati (fancy cocktail bar, a bit pricier but worth it)
What to do in Manila
There’s not much sightseeing per se to do in Manila; I did a lot of walking around and just took in the city. Intramuros is the most picturesque part of Manila and if you’re interested in learning more about Manila’s history and Filipino culture, I highly recommend taking Carlos Celdran walking tour. He runs it on weekends only, and promises ‘illusions, candy, flowers, and carriage rides‘. I can confirm that all of this is true. Reservation by email essential, price: PHP1,100 (US$25).
I later found out that Manila has quite an art scene, including a contemporary art museum and a photography gallery, both of which I can’t wait to check out when I return to the Philippines. Here are Time Magazine’s Top Ten things to do in Manila.
Other useful information
Note that the four terminals of Ninoy Aquino International Airport are not in one building, but scattered around town. If you fly in internationally and plan to fly to another destination domestically, it’s likely that you’ll be leaving from a different terminal. Look up beforehand which terminal your flight leaves from or you might end up at the wrong terminal. Also leave enough time between flights if you have to change terminals because traffic in Manila is insane.
- The easiest way to get around is by taxi, make sure that the driver turns on his meter.
- There are also jeepneys (shared pick-up trucks) but I couldn’t figure out their routes.
- The MRT (elevated railway) is a good option if you happen to stay near it. The network isn’t great and doesn’t connect all of Metro Manila.
Manila tends to get quite a bad rap, but I never felt unsafe. There are quite a few scammers out to get you, but you’ll be fine if you know their spiel – read up on the common scams, how to avoid being scammed or conned in Manila, and find some more tips on staying safe in Manila here.