Manila Travel Guide 

Manila Travel Guide 

Let’s just get this out the way. Manila is crowded. And hot. And polluted. And there are malls. A lot of them. But the way we see it, that’s a small price to pay for the enormous payout. The “Pearl of the Orient Seas” sobriquet is fitting, since the shelled mollusc doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside an iridescent gem awaits to be discovered—if you’re willing to exert some effort to pry it open to get at it. This Asian megapolis is not for the faint of heart, so if exploring the world’s most densely populated city scares you, it’s probably not your place. From war to natural disaster, Manila’s been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times in its history, some say more than even Troy. These misfortunes have only served to strengthen the joie de vivre and spirituality of its people. Manila exudes immense energy and creativity. Manileño culture, food and language is a tasty hodgepodge of Chinese, Malay, Arabic, Spanish and American influences. Considered one of the most gay-friendly countries in Asia, the Filipino people are overwhelmingly pro-gay in their attitudes. Manila has irrefutable gay creds. True fact: the queer subculture has its own secret slang language called ‘Swardspeak’ that’s been around since the 1970s and one of its gorgeous citizens, John Raspado, nabbed the Mr Gay World title in 2017.

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The best hotels in Manila

Manila is the kind of city from which you will likely need a respite and no place offers a better break than Raffles Makati. Located in a 30-story skyscraper, Raffles offers on-call butlers, a palm-fringed pool and gleaming wooden floors. No less than 1,000 pieces of commissioned artwork are on display, most of them made by local artists. If you like to take gambles in life, the City Of Dreams – Nüwa Manila is a luxury resort and casino complex all in one. At the other end of the spectrum is La Casita Mercedes in the up and coming Poblacion neighbourhood. Set in a wonderfully restored colonial house from 1930 with just seven guest rooms, the B&B is furnished with Art Deco furniture and four-poster beds. Bright and airy, this is a great spot for couples, those who prefer peace and quiet and knickknack lovers. With 34 rooms set across five houses with leafy lawns in between, the Henry Hotel feels more like an intimate compound than a regular hotel. With an art gallery, furniture boutique, lush gardens, a restaurant and a pool all on site, you could easily spend a day without having the leave. We love a budget option that offers style and for that, the Element Boutique Hotel is second to none. Franco-Filipino runs, the 14-room hotel is a smart synthesis of East and West. The brushed concrete building is softened with hip furniture, crawling ivy, artwork and happy guests sipping rosé.

Photo: Tu Tu Words

Photo: Tu Tu Words

Manila | Photo: Luca Bucken

Manila | Photo: Luca Bucken

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Recommended hotels in Manila
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Photo: Carlo Delantar

Photo: Carlo Delantar

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Hang on a spider web viewing platform at Masungi Georeserve and take in the dramatic views

Things to do in Manila

The historic Intramuros district is a must see in any Manila travel guide and we love the bamboo bike tours run by Bambike Ecotours. Led by so-called “Bambassadors,” you and a small group cycle around historic sites on a handmade bamboo bike. The 1.5-hour sunset tour is a great option since the temps are cooler and everything looks even more beautiful at dusk. Only 1.5 hours from Manila, the Masungi Georeserve conservation area lets you take in the country’s lush rainforest and spiked limestone rock formations from hiking trails, suspension bridges and a spider web-inspired viewing platform. Hang there and take in the dramatic views. Let’s face it, even for the most adventurous foodies, foraging in a foreign city can be intimidating. That’s where the Binondo Food Wok with Ivan Man Dy comes in. The local food expert will take you to Chinatown’s back alleys, carts and food stalls you would never find by yourself. Oh, and of all the great things to do in Manila, Anthony Bourdain chose this guy to give him the ins and outs of Filipino food, so he’s the real deal. Spain has Picasso’s Guernica, France has the Mona Lisa and the Philippines has Juan Luna’s Spoliarium at the National Museum. The massive cultural treasure greets visitors upon entry at the country’s finest museum. The subject matter is not exactly upbeat–dying gladiators getting stripped of their weapons by Roman oppressors after entertaining them at the cost of their very lives. But no matter, the painting won the top gold medal at Madrid’s 1884 Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes, the lovely upshot being that Spain’s colony was better at art than it was. If you need a pick-me-up after all that gladiator death, pop into the Dessert Museum, which has eight rooms, each dedicated to a different dessert. A must for sugar- and Instagram junkies. Entry to the confectionary wonderland is via a sprinkle slide. Another IG-geared venue is the Upside Down Museum with everyday rooms, cars, offices and objects flipped on their heads. The settings make for optical illusions that make your brain itch. In case your creativity escapes you in trying to come up with cool poses, a photo marshal can offer some suggestions. The former Filipina First Lady Imelda Marcos will always be known for her notoriously copious shoe collection purchased through ill-gotten gains at the expense of her own people. The existence of a museum that displays hundreds of pairs of shoes from her collection is, therefore, a fascinating way to gain insight into the reign of the Iron Butterfly (as well as designer ’70s shoes by Ferragamo, Charles Jourdan and Givenchy). The inspiration behind the Marikina Shoe Museum was to take this notorious chapter of history and turn it into something beautiful. The museum also pays homage to Marikina, the shoe capital of the Philippines.

Bambike Ecotours

Bambike Ecotours

Dessert Museum

Dessert Museum

Upside Down Museum

Upside Down Museum

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Recommended experiences in Manila
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Things to see in Manila

If you’re wondering what to see in Manila, sightseeing starts with Poblacion, the city’s hippest, trendiest neighbourhood. Once a grimy area, the creative community descended, began renovating the old buildings and the arts began blooming here. Galleries replaced gogo bars and massage parlours gave way to venues for live music and poetry readings and brothels shuttered for coffee joints and exciting restaurants to open up. Poblacion jokingly referred to as ‘Williamsburgos’ after Brooklyn’s hipster hood, is now an eclectic hub for culture, nightlife and food. While strolling through a cemetery might not be your ideal vacation activity, it’s a big mistake to miss the Chinese Cemetery. Imagine a tidy residential community of villas with working kitchens, A/C, fine rugs and crystal chandeliers that’s actually a tomb and then you get the picture. Yes, Manila’s richest Chinese residents are interred in mausoleums that might actually be nicer than your house. The early 1800s were lean times in Manila, so when a Spanish priest needed an organ for his church, he improvised. Procuring metal for all the pipes wasn’t going to happen so they went with bamboo instead. It took six years to craft the Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas, which is now a national treasure. Go take a tour and hear a short organ concert to take in its unique sound. Manila Baywalk is a stretch of the seaside promenade where residents come to play, meander, work out, eat and party. Come for the sunset and then wander to one of the open-air restaurants or music venues. The Museum of Contemporary Art and Design is set on the campus of an art college and operates as both a contemporary art museum and a gallery space. It produces top-notch exhibitions through its collaborations with local and international artists and curators. To explore the country’s photography and video work, the installations at Silverlens are always powerful enough to give you a new perspective on whatever the subject matter is.

Poblacion | Photo: Alfonso Ereve

Poblacion | Photo: Alfonso Ereve

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Pick out a live fish at one of the wet market stalls and then walk a few feet and have it cooked up at a nearby restaurant

Where to eat in Manila

Holy, Street Food. There’s so much it’s hard to know what to try. Most people will probably instruct you to begin with the de facto national drink called halo-halo. Is it a dessert or is it a drink? Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Just take a sip of this alluring mixture of shaved ice, evaporated milk, sweet beans, candied fruit, spongy sago, gelatinous jelly, flan, coconut julienne and purple yam ice cream. The word “halo-halo” means “mixed-mixed” so there you have it. It takes a certain bipolar genius to not only name his restaurant Van Gogh is Bipolar but to create an entire ecosystem for food that is wholly original, unexpected, and mood-altering because it’s so good. The space is a chaotic jumble of curiosities and artwork and the dishes are named after famous bipolar people. Set in a former airport terminal and control tower, Blackbird offers an elevated dining experience. The bar and lounge was built in what was once the check-in area, an oval grill room occupies the onetime passenger terminal, with a private room now housed in the control tower. The al fresco bar and dining space? You guessed it. Built on what was once the tarmac. The original Art Deco design is still present everywhere and the menu, given this was once an international airport, is global fusion. It’s also a lovely place to take afternoon tea or Sunday brunch. Café Juanita is decorated with the same over-the-top kitsch you might expect of grandma’s kitchen with home cooking to match. This is the place to try the classic Filipino dishes such as pork adobo, laing (taro leaves cooked with pork belly, coconut milk, and chili peppers) and kare kare, a meat stew. The Sunday buffet is a gift to humanity. Three casual eateries in Manila have earned themselves Michelin stars. Try the roast duck or crispy suckling pig at Kams Roast. Tim Ho Wan is a dim sum joint lauded for its pork buns and steamed shrimp dumplings. And Tsuta Ramen is the first ever ramen establishment to earn a star. A fun outing for eating is to the Seaside Market on Macapagal Boulevard aka the ‘Seafood Dampa.’ Pick out a live fish at one of the wet market stalls and then walk a few feet and have it cooked up at a nearby restaurant. Ten minutes later, you’re eating it. Legazpi Sunday Market is the city’s largest food market and a popular Sunday morning hangout. It’s known for homemade local and organic food as well as fun shopping. Try the sticky cake (suman) and barbequed meat on a stick (sate). Arrive early to beat the heat and the crowds.

Photo: Eiliv Sonas Aceron

Photo: Eiliv Sonas Aceron

Shopping in Manila

Manila is regarded as one of the best shopping destinations in Asia. The Manila Collectible Co. specializes in handmade textiles and objects crafted by the country’s indigenous people. It’s part museum, part boutique, part classroom and part workshop, teaching visitors about the heritage of crafts and giving them a chance to buy something unique. HUB Make Lab is an incubation space for makers who sell everything from art, foods, indie and upcycled clothing and repurposed antiques. The high-end gallery shop Maria Closa deals in nothing less than exquisite antiques, artefacts, furniture, and fine art from the Philippines. She specializes in bululs, the ceremonial wooden sculptures of rice gods believed to augur good harvests. For serious collectors only. Doesn’t matter if malls aren’t your thing, the Mall of Asia is one of the top 10 largest malls in the world so you gotta go just to see what that means for a mall to cover 400,000 square meters and attract 200,000 people a day. It’s got an ice rink, IMAX theatre, amusement park rides, eateries, and shops. On the other end of the spectrum is Cubao Expo, a funked out bazaar of quirky vintage items and playful knickknacks where you can go rummaging. Home to Manila’s underground scene, you can shop for vinyl and then grab a drink at  Fred’s Revolucion, which calls itself a ‘home for sincere drinkers.’ Hoodwink sells menacing menswear/androgynous wear. The small shop celebrates the rebel who likes to take chances when he gets dressed. Hence, a gay Manila guide must include it. Brands they carry include A.P.C., Kitsuné Tee, Lazy Oaf, Comme des Garçons, Eytys and Men’s Society. For the man with more mainstream tastes, locally grown guys wear chain Bench excels in sporty beachwear, hoodies and T’s. For the lovers of home design, LRI Design Plaza is an exciting mashup of art galleries and furniture showrooms.

John Raspado, Mr Gay World 2017

John Raspado, Mr Gay World 2017

Mall of Asia | Photo: Mike Gonzalez

Mall of Asia | Photo: Mike Gonzalez

Photo: Ic Gellidon

Photo: Ic Gellidon

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Manila is emerging as one of Asia’s most happening capitals for nightlife and there’s no shortage of gay nightlife in the city

Manila nightlife

Not so long ago a Manila gay scene guide would have focused on one neighbourhood for gay nightlife, Malate, a gayborhood that got mostly overrun by gentrification. The Manila gay scene is, therefore, more diffuse, spread around town and of course, disrupted by the technology that allows guys to meet up outside of the usual gay haunts. That said, Manila is emerging as one of Asia’s most happening capitals and there’s no a shortage of gay nightlife in the city. A Manila gay scene guide will start with Nectar, considered by many to be Manila’s top LGBTQ nightclub. The modern club has go-go dancers in lieu of drag Queens and DJ-driven beats. O Bar’s drag show is bawdy and ostentatious and fun. Che’lu is an Old G amongst the gay clubs, the last to survive in the gay area of Matate. It’s not always thumping but it deserves a shout out for its staying power.

CNN named the Bank Bar “One of the Most Intriguing Speakeasies in the World” and we couldn’t agree more. You have to walk into a 7-11 and through its storeroom to enter the drinking den! A roving martini trolley rolls by the speciality cocktails so you don’t even have to travel all the way to the bar to order one if you don’t feel like it. We are obsessed with the ‘Utter Club,’ made with London Dry Gin Lemon-Pistachio Meringue, Trinidadian Angostura Bitters and Pistachio Salt. The Curator is another highly acclaimed spot, serving exciting and inventive caffeinated coffee cocktails.

The Curator Coffee & Cocktails

The Curator Coffee & Cocktails

The Curator Coffee & Cocktails

The Curator Coffee & Cocktails

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