Manila is the central travel hub of the Philippines, with most bus and plane routes of the North forcing you to spend hours waiting in this metropolis while in transit.
Unlike other big Asian cities, Manila doesn’t have much to offer in terms of sightseeing. Most the city was destroyed during the WWII and it can fell, at time, that people gave up trying to make it better. Even famous sights mentioned in all of the guidebooks can feel subpart at best. So, how do you make most of your time in the city and best spend those countless hours? To truly enjoy what Manila has to offer, simply lower your expectations. It will do wonders!
For backpackers, the place to stay is Malate & Ermita, which are located right between each other and seem to merge effortlessly together. While even some big luxurious hotels call this area their home, do not be fooled: this is a neighborhood filled with girlie bars, persistent street sellers and panhandling children who will not think twice before latching onto you. The area is dirty, with pungent urine and garbage as olfactory notes.
Two obvious sights to check-out come to mind when thinking of visiting the area: the Manila Bay and the Intramuros. Has most hotels and guesthouses are within two blocks of the water, the Bay is easily accessible. While the guidebooks describe the Bay as having “dreamy sunsets and sweeping panoramas of the South China Sea”, do not be fooled. While it is a Bay, it is not pretty, nor charming. This is not Hong Kong or Puerto Vallarta – there are no boardwalks here and the only sights are polluted water studded with tankers.
The Intramuros, Manila’s top tourist attraction, are unfortunately not much better. While it was built in 1570 by the colonial Spaniards, and while mostly still standing, this city will disappoint anyone who has ever visited a walled city – Quebec City, old San Juan, the citadel of Hué – or anyone who has ever seen colonial architecture at its finest. There are some pretty churches, such as San Augustin, and walking the wall itself can be interesting, but this is not sightseeing at its best. More interesting within the walls is walking the smaller streets, to take-in how the locals live and to feels like a celebrity by having dozens of children following you in awe, hoping to be captured eternally on your camera.
Other major sights include the Chinese Cemetery, a sight very unique to Manila and perhaps more worth the detour than any other sight. Built to honour the dead and to display the economical status of the surviving relatives, these “tombs” are more like homes, with washrooms, sinks, air conditioning, multiple floors and some even go as far as to have vending machine and pools. Interestingly enough, the dead are often living better than the living, and some people have been catching on to this, squatting in unvisited graves.
But really, truly, the best way to spend your time in Manila is eating juicy mangoes purchased from the market and the infamous lechon, or whole-roasted pig. Tender meat is served with crispy skin and sweet gravy, rice and a tangy tamarind soup. It is, by far, the best dish of the Philippines.
If you are in transit, here are some tips to make things easier:
- Most bus arrive during the night, or at an ungodly time in the morning. Most bus depart at night. Unless you are a champion at sleeping on Filipino buses, this means that you’ll be tired and will want a room when you arrive in the city. It’s a good idea to reserve your room, but watch out as certain guesthouses (such as Friendly’s) sometimes do not honour these reservations and leave you room-less and in the street at 4 in the morning. Conveniently, Malate Pensionne across the road never seemed to be out of a room, but don’t expect any cheap rooms to be left at that time.
- Even at 4 in the morning, Malate and Ermita will be buzzing with life, with bars still going strong and restaurants still serving food.
- If you booked a room upon arrival, you can leave your luggage with the reception and freely explore the city during the day until your departure.
- Bus terminals tend to move around – allow time for the taxi driver to get lost on the way to the terminal.
- Never believe what your guidebook says about bus frequency, trip duration or cost.
- Do not expect any of the bus terminals or rest stops along the way to have any sort of good food. Purchase snacks for the trip ahead, unless you love Filipino sweets or organ stews.
- With all things considered, you’ll probably end up in Manila on more than one occasion. Use transit time to visit the city instead of setting days aside for it. Otherwise, you might find yourself with nothing to do while in transit…