Manila is not as well-known as Bangkok, KL or Singapore. The capital of the Philippines is a vibrant metropolis of shopping and nightlife, and a treasure trove of Spanish history. Most Filipinos are friendly and speak excellent English. And the exchange rate is enormously favourable.
Here are 10 things to do in Manila.
1-Ride in a jeepney
Apart from being the main cause of the city’s traffic congestion Jeepneys are instantly recognisable as a Philippine icon. And they are one of the cheapest forms of public transport.
These odd-looking vehicles are a cross between a World War II-era jeep and a bus. Gaily painted with bright colours, they have open windows, no air-conditioning and are packed with passengers.
2-Taste halo halo and Jollibee
The national dessert halo-halo is a mish mash of jelly, boiled sweet beans, fruit and shaved ice. You can order it in any local restaurant. But for a special treat, scoop and slurp in luxury in the sumptuous lobby of the Peninsula Hotel.
It’s the place to see and be seen. At the other end of the scale is the fast food chain Jollibee.
The Filipino version of McDonalds is so popular that there are now Jollibee chains in the USA where many Filipino’s of the fast-food generation now live.
Burgers have extra sweet buns and the spaghetti dish is covered in sweet sauce.
3-Visit Manila Metropolitan Cathedral
In 1565, the Spanish king made Miguel Lopez de Legazpi the first Governor-General of the Philippines. Legazpi chose Manila as the capital because of its natural harbour.
Church and state were inseparably linked. And elaborate work went into constructing Manila’s cathedral.
The cathedral has 134 stained glass windows, bronze carvings, marble columns and chapels. The main facade has statues of famous saints sculpted in Roman travertine stone. About 83% of the country’s population is Roman Catholic and the cathedral is fully operational.
Mass in conducted twice daily on weekdays and five times on Sundays. In August, the cathedral was the venue for the requiem mass of former president Corazon Aquino.
4-Hunt for treasures at San Augustin Church and Museum
The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an architectural interpretation of the baroque style by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen.
The museum is a treasure trove of historic relics including 19th-century chandeliers, church artefacts, statues and silver utensils.
The refectory, where the priests dine, is now a mausoleum with Aztec frescoes in the ceiling.
The old stone staircase is made from 44 pieces of Chinese granite imported from Canton in 1780.
The choir loft has a bird’s-eye view of the churches interior, an 18th-century pipe organ and seats that were hand-carved from molave hardwood. The remains of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and other Spanish conquistadors are buried here.
5-Tour Fort Santiago
The oldest Spanish stone fortress in the country, Fort Santiago was the military headquarters of the Spanish, British, American and Japanese regimes.
Now it is a shrine to the country’s national hero Jose Rizal. Rizal, a martyr of the Philippine revolution, was imprisoned by the Spanish in Fort Santiago. His cell has been transformed into a museum which holds his last possessions.
The Rizal exhibit displays his books, mementos and other memorabilia. Entry is 75 pesos ($1.80) for adults, 50 pesos ($1.20) for children.
6-Step back into history at Casa Manila
The facade of Casa Manila (Manila House) was copied from a 1850s house of a wealthy family.
Casa Manila is a colonial lifestyle museum that conveys the opulent lifestyle of 19th-century Filipino gentry.
The three-storey house is furnished with period antiques. The ornately decorated living room held tertulias (soirees) where the young ladies played piano and sang and bailes (dances).
Lunch at Barbara’s Restaurant in Plaza San Luis next door offers and atmosphere that is evocative of old-world colonial charm. The daily buffet (around $10) is great value.
7-Confessions of a shopaholic
The mega-malls in the Philippines are as good as any in Bangkok, KL or Singapore. And the local fashion scene sizzles.
Filipino designers have a European flair at designing gorgeous shoes and clothes, minus the hefty price tags.
Level two at Greenbelt 5, in the Ayala Center in Makati City, is the place to shop for local fashions from fashions designers such as Kate Torralba, who is famous for brightly coloured dresses, and Randy Ortiz.
As an example, during recent end-of-season sales I bought two Randy Ortiz blouses that would normally have cost 3500 pesos ($80) each for half the price.
When you’re all shopped out head for M Cafe at Greenbelt 3, especially on Thursdays when guest DJs spin out funky tunes.
8-Rockeoke all night long at Bonifacio Global City
Let loose your inner rock star and take to the stage at Magnet at The Fort. Rockeoke is Karaoke on steroids where you sing with a live band backing you up.
There is no shortage of volunteers from fun-loving Filipinos who grew up around a culture that loves singing.
Also popular and more hip is the Establishment, where Manila’s beautiful people congregate till the wee hours. Spanish tapas and Chocnut Martinis are all the rage. Dress to impress.
9-Clean your feet in a fish spa
The Philippines has some of the best diving spots in the world. Manila Park Oceanarium offers a glimpse of the archipelago’s underwater world in its tanks, aquariums and under-water glass tunnel.
You can dip your feet in the Fish Spa and let the Doctor Fish nibble away the dead skin. Entry to Manila Park Oceanarium is 400 pesos ($10) for adults, 350 pesos ($8.50) for children, the Fish Spa costs 120 pesos ($3).
10-Visit the Ayala Museum
The rich history of the Philippines is chronicled in wooden dioramas carved by Philippine artisans.
There is a seven-minute film on how the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1986. And there are works by Philippine artists such as Juan Luna (1857-1899) and Fernando Zobel (1924-1984).
The boat gallery showcases boat miniatures that contributed to the development of Philippine maritime trade. Admission is 425 ($10) for adults and 300 ($7) for children.
Christina Pfeiffer travelled as a guest of Philippine Airlines and Philippine Tourism.