A sprawling capital which is home to almost 13 million people, Manila can be more than a little overwhelming for first-time visitors. But once you find your bearings, you’ll discover a buzzing, vibrant city which has a great bar scene (three of its bars were nominated in 2019’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars awards), some of the region’s best museums and quite possibly one of the warmest welcomes in the world. Here is our guide to Manila.
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Equally historic is Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown. It was founded in 1594 by the Spanish, who decided to set aside a hilly slab of Manila (hence the name, derived from the Tagalog word binondoc, meaning mountainous) for Chinese immigrants who’d converted to Catholicism. It’s colourful, chaotic and crowded – horse-drawn carriages share the road with over-stuffed jeepneys (kitschly decorated, jeep-shaped buses you’ll see throughout Manila) and shopkeepers’ wares spill into the road. The temples and the Chinese restaurants are the main attractions, along with the rust-red Binondo Church, otherwise known as the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz. This baroque-style church was founded in the late sixteenth century by Dominican priests.
For a cheap and cheerful night out, head to nearby Poblacion. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s also the red light district – there are some great bars here, including Joe's Brew, founded by Joey Viray, a Filipino who studied beer production at the University of California.
Although Manila’s street food offerings might not rival Hong Kong’s or Bangkok’s there’s still plenty of delicious grub to chow down on. The Makati neighbourhood has some of the best restaurants, including many founded by chefs putting innovative twists on traditional cuisine. This includes Sarsa Kitchen + Bar, famous for its rich signature sauces. And then there’s Jollibee, the Philippines-founded fast food chain on course for global domination (its first UK-based branch opened in London last year). Jolibee is famous for its burgers, but there are plenty of local dishes on the menu, including halo halo – a dessert made with crushed ice and sweetened beans. Other Manila specialities include buko pie (a coconut-filled pastry) and kinilaw (a ceviche-like dish).
A quick note – don’t be surprised to find heavy security outside most of Manila’s top hotels. As a rule, most four and five-star hotels have security guards and X-ray machines at the entrance.
Top image: Gardens and skyscrapers at Greenbelt Park, Manila, The Philippines © Jon Bilous/Shutterstock