If you like big cities you’ll love MANILA: it’s a high-speed, frenetic place, where you can eat, drink and shop 24 hours a day and where the Filipino heritage of native, Spanish, Chinese and American cultures are at their most mixed up. Like many capital cities, Manila bears little resemblance to the rest of the country – something to remember if this is your first taste of the Philippines. With 12 million residents, much of it is chronically overcrowded, polluted and suffers from appalling traffic jams, yet in between the chaos lie tranquil gate-guarded “subdivisions” that resemble affluent parts of the US. There’s extreme poverty here, with young children cleaning car windows, dancing or just begging for food at every interchange; while in enormous shopping malls thousands of wealthy, middle-class Manileños are as fashionable and hooked up with iPhones as any of their contemporaries in London or New York. And while the older parts of the city remain shabby and run-down, sparkling districts like Makati, Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio are smart and skyscraper-smothered, like any other booming Asian metropolis.
Technically sixteen cities and one municipality make up what is officially known as Metro Manila covering a vast 636 square kilometres. However, you can explore the key sights in and around Intramuros, the city’s only notable historical enclave, Manila Bay and Makati in a few days. Manila also prides itself on the quality of its restaurant scene, nightlife and the ability of its residents to whip up a good time. For many tourists, this will be their enduring memory of the place: fabulous food, funky bars and nightclubs in areas such as Malate and Makati. And don’t forget, Manila is still a great place to pick up bargains, from the latest goods cranked out by Chinese factories to intricate native handicrafts.
Manila started life as a tiny Tagalog settlement called Maynila; after coming under the sway of the Sultanate of Brunei in the fifteenth century the area was converted to Islam. The village fell under Spanish rule in 1571 when Miguel López de Legazpi defeated the local ruler Rajah Sulaiman II and established the colony of Manila. Spanish Augustinian and Franciscan missionaries subsequently established themselves in villages around the city. The Jesuits arrived in 1581 and set up more missions, forming outlying centres of population – embryonic settlements that became the sixteen cities of today. Manila’s central location on the biggest island, Luzon, made it the obvious choice as the colonial capital, and it became the hub from which the Spaniards effected the political, cultural and religious transformation of Philippine society. From 1571 until 1815, while the rest of the country remained economically stagnant, Manila prospered from the galleon trade.
At 7pm on June 3, 1863, a catastrophic earthquake struck and large areas of the city crumbled, burying hundreds in the ruins. The new Manila that grew in its stead was thoroughly modern, with streetcars, steam trains and American-style public architecture, a trend that continued under American rule in the early twentieth century.
Manila suffered again during World War II. The Japanese Imperial Army occupied Manila from 1942 until it was liberated by the US at the Battle of Manila in 1945. The battle lasted 29 days and claimed 1000 American lives, 16,000 Japanese soldiers and some 100,000 Filipinos, many of them civilians killed deliberately by the Japanese or accidentally by crossfire. Once again, Manila was a city in ruins, having undergone relentless shelling from American howitzers and been set alight by retreating Japanese troops. Rebuilding was slow and plagued by corruption and government inertia.
In 1976, realizing that Manila was growing too rapidly for government to be contained in the old Manila area, President Marcos decreed that while the area around Intramuros would remain the capital city, the permanent seat of the national government would be Metro Manila – including new areas such as Makati and Quezon City. It was tacit recognition of the city’s expansion and the problems it was bringing. Imelda Marcos, meanwhile, had been declared governor of Metro Manila in 1975 and was busy exercising her “edifice complex”, building a golden-domed mosque in Quiapo, the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Manila Bay and a number of five-star hotels. Her spending spree was finally ended by the EDSA revolution in 1986.
In the 1990s popular police officer Alfredo Lim won two terms as Manila mayor – his crime-fighting efforts certainly improved security in the city and he was elected a third time in 2007. He immediately and controversially set about undoing much of the work of his predecessor Lito Atienza (mayor 1998–2007), who had spent millions on city beautification projects. Though congestion and pollution remain huge and apparently intractable problems, Lim has presided over a booming economy, managed to remove squatters in Quiapo and has cleaned up the Baywalk area along Roxas Boulevard. Manileños rewarded him with a fourth term as mayor in May 2010, just months before the Manila bus hostage crisis, when a dismissed police officer hijacked a bus of Hong Kong tourists, eventually killing eight of them; the mayor’s handling of the tragedy was highly criticized in the subsequent enquiry.
Most of Manila’s budget accommodation is in the Manila Bay area, specifically in the enclaves of Ermita and Malate, which also have a high density of cheap restaurants, bars and tourist services. In recent years a number of reasonably priced mid-range hotels have sprung up, as well as several five-star places along Manila Bay, joining the historic Manila Hotel.
In the business district of Makati, there’s some mid-range accommodation in and around P. Burgos Street at the northern end of Makati Avenue, beyond the Mandarin Oriental Manila. This is close to the red-light district, so if you want somewhere else in Makati try the somewhat anaemic but comfortable boutique hotels in Arnaiz Avenue, behind the Greenbelt mall. Most of these hotels are aimed at travelling executives who don’t want to fork out for a five-star, and are an affordable, safe option in a convenient location.
The hotels in Quezon City are almost all around Timog Avenue and Tomas Morato Avenue, close to the nightlife; if you’re planning to catch an early bus from Cubao it might be worth considering staying here. If you have an early flight and a bit more cash to spend there are some convenient and luxurious options close to the airport.
Few visitors to Manila are disappointed by the buoyant, gregarious nature of its bars and clubs. This is a city that rarely sleeps and one that offers a full range of fun, from the offbeat watering holes and gay bars of Malate to the chic wine bars of Makati. Manila also has a thriving live music scene, with dozens of bars hosting very popular and accomplished local bands almost every night. Clubs are especially prone to open, close and change names with frequency, so check before you head out – wph2nite.com is a good place to get the latest information.
Ermita and Malate nightlife is a somewhat confusing mixture of budget restaurants, genuine pubs and a once again flourishing girlie bar scene, with as many Asian (mostly Korean) male patrons as Westerners. Adding to the melee at the intersection of J. Nakpil and Maria Orosa streets is the centre of Manila’s gay club scene. If none of that appeals the Roxas Boulevard end of Remedios Street is full of cheap-and-cheerful places popular with students for their cover bands and drinks. Don’t make the mistake of arriving early because most places don’t even warm up until after 10pm and are still thumping when the sun comes up, with crowds in summer spilling out onto the streets. Friday, as always, is the big night, with many places closed on Sunday.
Makati nightlife has traditionally revolved around office workers spilling out of the nearby banks and skyscrapers, but these days much of middle-class Manila party’s in the bars and clubs here, with plenty of expats and travellers thrown in – it’s generally smarter, safer and more fashionable than Malate. The area around Burgos Street is a bit seedier, though the girlie bar scene here is being driven more by Korean and Japanese KTV-style joints these days, and there are several genuine pubs in between offering cheap beers and snacks.
Quezon City’s entertainment district is focused on Tomas Morato and Timog avenues, which intersect at the roundabout in front of Century Imperial Palace Suites hotel. The area has a growing reputation for quality live music, while for more mainstream nightlife there are plenty of chic bars and franchised hangouts at the southern end of Tomas Morato Avenue, near the junction with Don A. Roces Avenue.
Quezon City in particular has a reputation for live music, especially from up-and-coming bands formed by students from the nearby University of the Philippines who offer an eclectic range of music – from pure Western pop to grunge, reggae and indigenous styles. Many of the venues in the area are dark, sweaty places that open late and don’t close until the last guest leaves. In Makati and Malate too, you’re never far from a club with a live band, especially at weekends. Again, the music covers a range of genres.
Eating in Manila is a real treat; there’s a full range of international and Filipino cuisine on offer, and budget eats available on every street corner and in every mall in the form of vast food courts. Filipinos are big fans of fast-food franchises, with national chains such as Jollibee, Chowking, Mang Inasal (with unlimited rice) and Max’s (for fried chicken) dotted all over the city. You should also pay a visit to one of the ubiquitous Goldilocks (wwww.goldilocks.com.ph) stores, purveyors of the best polvoron (peanut candy) and cakes since 1966.
The old walled city of Intramuros doesn’t have many restaurants, but those it does have are mostly in old colonial buildings and are significantly more atmospheric than anything beyond the walls. For cheap eats, try the stalls (plates from P45) within the walls on the eastern edge of Intramuros or in nearby San Francisco Street, in an area known as Puerta Isabel II.
Almost everyone who dines out in Ermita and Malate does so either in one of the big hotels or in the area around J. Nakpil Street and Remedios Circle, where most of the restaurants are small, intimate and not owned by big corporations. Bear in mind that J. Nakpil is a fickle, faddish area, and restaurants come and go.
Binondo has no fancy restaurants and no bistros or wine bars; people come here for cheap, nourishing Chinese food in one of the area’s countless Chinese restaurants or hole-in-the-wall noodle bars. Binondo and Quiapo also have a number of bakeries that are known in the Philippines for their hopia, a sweet cake-like snack with a soft pastry coating and thick yam paste in the middle. You can load up with Chinese snacks, dried squid and other packed foods at Bee Tin Grocery, 735 Ongpin St (daily 7.30am–7.30pm).
Makati is the best place in the city when it comes to quality and variety of restaurants, with most options in or around the Glorietta or Greenbelt malls, or Burgos Street further north where there are a growing number of Korean and Japanese places. Bonifacio Global City, to the east, is an emerging destination for mostly high-end restaurants.
The malls at Ortigas and Greenhills are chock-full of small restaurants and fast-food outlets, while most of the budget stalls surround St Francis Square Department Store at the back of SM Megamall.
Quezon City is a burgeoning alternative to Makati and the Manila Bay area for restaurants and nightlife. Most of the restaurants are on Tomas Morato Avenue, which runs north and south from the roundabout outside the Century Imperial Palace Suites hotel.
To get to Quezon from the south of the city (from Malate and Makati, for example) you can take the MTR and get off either at Kamuning station or Quezon Avenue station, a journey of about 25 minutes.
When it comes to traditional performing arts – dance and theatre, for example – Manila hosts daily performances at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and a handful of other venues. The Araneta Coliseum in Cubao is the usual venue for large-scale events and concerts. As for films, every mall seems to have half a dozen screens. A good place to check upcoming events and buy tickets in advance is Ticketworld (t02/899-9991, wwww.ticketworld.com.ph) or TicketNet (t02/911-5555, wwww.ticketnet.com.ph).
The Philippines has a rich folk arts heritage, but a scarcity of funds and committed audiences with money to spend on tickets means it’s in danger of being forgotten. Folk dances such as tinikling, which sees participants hopping at increasing speed between heavy bamboo poles which are struck together at shin-height, are seen in cultural performances for tourists, but are only performed occasionally in theatres. The same goes for kundiman, a genre of music that reached its zenith at the beginning of the twentieth century, combining elements of tribal music with contemporary lovelorn lyrics to produce epic songs of love and loss.
Most performances at the following theatres are listed in the Manila English-language daily press, usually the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star. It’s also worth checking listings websites such as wwww.clickthecity.com.
Most shopping malls in Manila house multiplex cinemas that show all the Hollywood and Asian blockbusters in the original languages, including The Podium mall (18 ADB Ave in Ortigas; t02/633-8976), with late-night screenings on Fridays and Saturdays; Greenbelt 3 (t02/729-7777) in Makati and Power Plant Mall, Rockwell Drive, Makati (t02/898-1440). Tickets are usually around P150. In the Malate area, try Robinsons Place in M. Adriatico Street (t02/536-7813). Tickets for Greenbelt and Glorietta cinemas can be reserved online at wwww.sureseats.com for collection at the venue.
A venue for arthouse and independent films is the UP Cine Adarna (t02/981-8500), UPFI Film Center building at Magsaysay and Osmeña avenues to the northeast of Quezon Memorial Circle, but screenings don’t take place every day, so call ahead.
Forget cheesy versions of “My Way” and “Yesterday”, Filipino KTV joints offer the latest hits for your crooning enjoyment (or embarrassment); think Green Day and Beyonce. A good place to start is Music Match, with great facilities, choice of songs and cheap snacks and booze. It has three branches; 3/F Forum Building, 270 Tomas Morato Ave (at Scout Limbaga), Quezon City (t02/927-8531); Ortigas Home Depot, Julia Vargas Ave, Pasig City (t02/470-2745) and Unit no. M1M2, Hobbies of Asia, 8 Macapagal Ave, Pasay City (t02/556-1295). Rates start at around P400 for up to 3 hour (you get your own room), with packages including drinks and food starting at P1500.
The combination of intense heat and dense traffic means many Manileños forsake the pleasures of the outdoors at weekends for the computer-controlled climate of their local mall – there can be few cities that have as many malls per head of population as this one. Note that the developers rarely pay as much attention to the surrounding roads as they do to their precious real estate, which means that traffic is especially gridlocked in these areas. Despite the growth of malls there are still plenty of earthy markets in Manila where you can buy food, antiques and gifts at rock-bottom prices, as well as some decent bookshops and fashion boutiques. One trendy local brand to look out for is Bench (wwww.benchtm.com), which sells Ben Chan’s men’s and women’s lines in stores all over the city.
The best general bookshop in Manila is Powerbooks (wwww.powerbooks.com.ph), which has seven branches around the city including those at Glorietta 3 and Greenbelt 4 in Makati, and Level 4 Manila Midtown, Robinsons Place, Ermita. There are branches of National Bookstore, the country’s major bookshop chain, in Quezon City (Quezon Ave), Fort Bonifacio, Ermita and Malate – at Harrison Plaza and Robinsons Galleria – but as ever their stock is limited to contemporary thrillers, literary classics and New York Times bestsellers, with much of what’s on offer stocked specifically for students. The bookshop with the best literary section in town is Solidaridad Bookshop, 531 Padre Faura St, Ermita. It’s owned by the novelist F. Sionil José and, apart from stocking his own excellent novels, has a small selection of highbrow fiction and lots of material on the Philippines.
The first stop for tourists looking for indigenous gifts and handicrafts is usually Balikbayan Handicrafts (wwww.balikbayanhandicrafts.com). They sell a mind-boggling array of souvenirs, knick-knacks, home decorations, reproduction native-style carvings and jewellery, plus some larger items, such as tribal chairs, drums and musical instruments; staff can arrange to ship your purchases if requested. The biggest of their outlets is the cavernous Pasay branch along Macapagal Avenue, just south of the cultural centre (t02/831-0044), with the other at 1010 Arnaiz Ave (Pasay Rd) in Makati (t02/893-0775), both open daily 10am–7pm. Teosoro’s 1325 A. Mabini St, Ermita (t02/524-3936, wwww.tesoros.ph) is another handicraft chain selling woven tablecloths, fabrics, barongs and reproduction tribal crafts such as bulol. Not as big as Balikbayan, but more convenient to budget hotels in Ermita. The other main branch is at 1016 Arnaiz Ave (Pasay Rd), Makati (t02/887-6285). There are tourist shops all over the place selling reproduction tribal art, especially bulol (sometimes spelt bulul) – depictions of rice gods, worshipped by northern tribespeople because they are said to keep evil spirits from the home and bless farmers with a good harvest. Genuine bulol are made from narra wood and are dark and stained from the soot of tribal fires and from blood poured over them during sacrifices. Opposite San Agustin Church in Intramuros is the Silahis Center, a complex of small art and tribal shops selling everything from bulol and oil paintings to native basketware and jewellery.
Taking a taxi from one of Manila’s opulent malls to a more traditional market district such as Quiapo or Divisoria is like going from New York to Guatemala in thirty minutes – the difference between the two worlds is shocking. Needless to say, prices in Manila’s markets are a lot cheaper than the malls.
Megamalls haven’t completely taken over Manila. Cubao-X (Cubao Expo) is a hub of independent retailers on General. Romulo Avenue in Quezon City (a short walk from Cubao MRT station), with numerous indie clothing stores, creative furniture stores, art galleries and thrift shops. Similarly in Makati, some of Manila’s coolest designers have established the Collective (7274 Malugay St, San Antonio).
If bricks could talk, those at the Manila Film Center would have a sinister story to tell. Back in the 1970s, Imelda Marcos wanted to stage an annual film festival that would rival Cannes and put Manila on the international cultural map. But the centre she commissioned for the purpose was jerry-built and a floor collapsed in 1981, allegedly burying workers under rubble and killing many. No one knows exactly how many (some claim around 170), because most were poor labourers from the provinces and records were not kept of their names. Police were told to throw a cordon round the building so the press couldn’t get to it, and work continued round the clock. The centre was completed in 1982, some say with dead workers still entombed inside, in time for the opening night of the Manila International Film Festival. Imelda celebrated by walking onto the stage to greet the audience in a black and emerald green terno (a formal gown) thick with layer upon layer of peacock feathers that were shipped specially from India.
The centre staged just one more film festival – some say it was haunted and Imelda herself had it exorcized – and it soon had to make ends meet by showing soft-porn (bomba) films for the masses. It was briefly rehabilitated in the late 1980s when it was used as a centre for experimental film-making, but after an earthquake hit Manila in 1990 it was abandoned. In 2001 it was partially renovated and now hosts transvestite song and dance extravaganzas organized by Amazing Philippine Theater (t02/834-8870), especially popular with Korean tourists.
Manila’s transport system can be intimidating for first-time visitors, so the Wow Manila Hop On Hop Off Bus (t02/631-1045, wmanilahoponhopoff.com; 1-day pass P700; 2-day pass P900) can be a good idea; their minivans connect all the major sights starting at Glorietta mall in Makati and include the Cultural Center, SM Mall of Asia and Intramuros. Buses depart the Ayala car park (in between the Intercontinental Hotel and SM Makati) at 9am, 11am, 1pm & 3pm, taking 2 hours 30 minutes to complete the loop. Note that heavy traffic will affect these vans the same as other forms of road transport, and that if you have a group taking taxis will probably be cheaper.
The areas of Luzon around Manila encompass some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations – as well as a number of undeveloped provinces that few visitors take the time to see. The island of Corregidor, out in Manila Bay, is easily accessed by ferry from the capital. Littered with thought-provoking museums and monuments to World War II, its inviting hotel makes for a tranquil overnight break from the city.
South of Manila the real highlight is stunning Lake Taal and its volcano, best approached from the heights, restaurants and refreshing breezes of Tagaytay. On the 12th January 2020 the Taal Volcano on Luzon island erupted. Residents have been evacuated and Manila airport is currently closed. You can find the latest UK government advice on travel to the region here.
Along the coast Anilao offers outstanding scuba diving, while south of Laguna de Bay, the nation’s largest lake, Los Baños is best known for its delicious buko pie, hot springs and mountain pools. Further around the lake are the churning waters of the Pagsanjan Falls, where you can take a thrilling (and wet) canoe ride downriver across a series of rapids.
North of Manila you can enter northern Luzon on fast roads via historic Malolos, where the Revolutionary Congress was convened in 1898, and the town of Obando, scene of the intriguing festival known as the Obando Fertility Rites. For a little more adventure and scintillating views, climb the lush slopes of Mount Pinatubo or Mount Arayat. Bataan province, the peninsula northwest of Manila, is far more isolated and was the site of fierce fighting during World War II, commemorated by the Shrine of Valor atop Mount Samat. Come this way and it’s a straight shot north to Subic Bay, once a major US navy base and now being developed into a series of relaxed beaches and adventure parks.
The tadpole-shaped island of CORREGIDOR, less than 5km long and 3km wide at its broadest point, is a living museum to the horrors of war. Lying 40km southwest of Manila, it was originally used by the Spanish as a customs post. In 1942 it was defended bravely by an ill-equipped US and Filipino contingent under continual bombardment from Japanese guns and aircraft. Some 900 Japanese and 800 American and Filipino troops died in the fighting; when the Americans retook the island in 1945, virtually the entire Japanese garrison of over 6000 men was annihilated. Little wonder Corregidor is said to be haunted. The island was abandoned after the war, and was gradually reclaimed by thick jungle vegetation – it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the Corregidor Foundation began its transformation into a national shrine.
Most visits to Corregidor are by guided tour; the only way to wander around on your own is to stay the night. Perhaps understandably, the tours tend to focus on the heroism, bravery and sacrifice of the men who fought here, rather than the grisly nature of the fighting itself, but it is still a moving experience – Japanese tourists also come here in numbers to pay their respects to the dead of both sides.
Tours begin near the ferry dock, with the statue of General Douglas MacArthur, who was reluctantly spirited away from the island before its capitulation. His famous words, “I shall return,” adorn the statue’s base, though he actually made the pronouncement in Darwin, Australia. From here tours take in all the main sights on the island, including the Filipino Heroes Monument, commemorating Philippine struggles from the Battle of Mactan in 1521 to the EDSA Revolution of 1986, and the Japanese Garden of Peace, where the Japanese were buried in 1945. Overgrown and lost, it was discovered in the 1980s, when the remains were cremated and brought back to Japan. A statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin (or “Kannon” in Japanese) watches over the site. At some point you’ll reach the Malinta Tunnel, a 253-metre-long chamber and connected network of damp underground bunkers where MacArthur (and President Manuel Quezon) set up temporary headquarters. Access is through an optional light-and-sound show that dramatizes the events of 1942 and is well worth the extra P150.
Elsewhere you’ll see the ruined concrete shells of the once vast barracks that dotted the island, and the remains of various gun batteries, peppered with bullet and shell holes. You can also visit the Pacific War Memorial and its small museum containing weapons, old photos and uniforms that were left behind. Finally, clamber the 57 steps to the top of the old Spanish Lighthouse at the island’s highest point (191m), for stupendous views across to Bataan and Mount Mariveles.
Away from the reminders of one of the war’s most horrific battles, Corregidor is unspoiled, peaceful and a great break from the city: you can walk marked trails that meander through the hilly interior (look out for the monkeys and monitor lizards), rent a mountain bike or circle the island in a bangka and do some fishing.
Most travellers zip through the provinces north of Manila – Pampanga, Bulacan and Bataan – to the justly famed attractions of northern Luzon, but there are a few reasons to break the journey. Malolos has some historic distractions, while Mount Pintatubo and Mount Arayat provide energetic hikes and gasp-inducing scenery. Bataan is a surprisingly wild province, with some excellent beaches and World War II monuments, while Subic Bay is turning into an appealing beach, dive and outdoor activity centre. Buses connect all the main attractions with Manila, though fast ferries are much quicker to Bataan – if they are running.
With 85 percent of it covered in mountainous jungle, the Bataan peninsula is one of the most rugged places in the country. The province, forming the western side of Manila Bay, will always be associated with one of the bloodiest episodes of World War II. For four months in 1942, 65,000 Filipinos and 15,000 Americans – “the battling bastards of Bataan” – held out here against the superior arms and equipment of the Japanese. After their surrender in April 1942, the Filipino and American soldiers, weakened by months of deprivation, were forced to walk to detention camps in Tarlac province. About 10,000 men died along the way.
A poignant memorial to those that died, the “Dambana ng Kagitingan” or Shrine of Valor (daily 8am–5pm; P20) occupies the summit of Mount Samat (564m), a little inland from the provincial capital Balanga. The shrine has a chapel and a small museum of weapons captured from the Japanese, but the centrepiece is a 92-metre crucifix (P10) with a lift inside that takes you to a gallery at the top with views across the peninsula and, on a clear day, to Manila. Jeepneys ply the mountain highway between Balanga and Bagac, passing Mount Samat, but unless you find someone to give you a lift, it’s a 7km walk (1hr) from the nearest stop to the shrine. Hiring a van from Balanga should cost around P1000.
MALOLOS, capital of Bulacan province, is known for its impressive Barasoain Church, on Paseo del Congreso. The current structure dates back to the 1880s; it was in this church that the Revolutionary Congress convened in 1898. The church houses the Ecclesiastical Museum (which displays religious relics such as a bone fragment of San Vicente Ferrer encased in glass, and antique prayer cards), and a light-and-sound presentation depicting events leading to the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War. Aguinaldo made his headquarters at the nearby Malolos Cathedral, aka the Basilica Minore de Immaculada Concepcion. In between the two churches on Paseo del Congreso is the Casa Real, a gorgeous Spanish house built in 1580, and the site of the Imprenta Nacional, the printing press of the 1896 Constitution. It’s now a small museum, with displays of priceless sixteenth-century Spanish religious artefacts and various incendiary pamphlets published by the revolutionaries. The helpful provincial tourist office is in the Capitol Building (www.bulacan.gov.ph).
The provinces to the south of Manila – Cavite, Laguna and Batangas – are prime day-trip territory, easy to get to and rich in attractions. The star is Lake Taal, a mesmerizing volcanic lake with its own mini volcanic island in the centre, but there are plenty of less visited natural wonders that provide a break from the city; you can ride down the river to the Pagsanjan Falls, soak in the Laguna hot springs or clamber up forested Mount Makiling for scintillating views. Divers should check out Anilao for the best reef action near the capital.
The region also serves up a healthy dose of history. The romantic houses where national heroes Emilio Aguinaldo and José Rizal were born have been preserved as museums, Paete has retained its woodworking heritage and Taal itself is one of the most beautiful colonial towns in the Philippines. Lastly, many Manileños come here just to eat; buko pie is an especially prized treat made in Laguna.
Getting around the area is straightforward by bus, though you’ll save a lot of time with a car. The easiest places to reach by public transport are the attractions to the south of Laguna de Bay, though Batangas City and Tagaytay are also well served by buses.
Some 140km south of Manila, the resort of ANILAO (the name refers both to the village and the 13km peninsula beyond it) is primarily a diving destination, popular with city folk at weekends, when the area can get a little busy. During the week it’s much more peaceful and you can often negotiate a discount on your accommodation. The best time for diving is March through June; there’s little point in coming just for the beach.
To reach Anilao by public transport, take a bus to Batangas City and then a jeepney west to Mabini or the wharf at Anilao village, then continue by tricycle along the coastal road to your resort. Most accommodation is on the road beyond the wharf at Anilao, along the west coast of the Calumpan peninsula.
The country’s third largest lake, awe-inspiring LAKE TAAL sits in a caldera below Tagaytay, formed by huge eruptions between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago. The active Taal Volcano, which is responsible for the lake’s sulphuric content, lies in the centre of the lake, on Volcano Island. The volcano erupted in 1965 without causing major damage, but when it blew its top in 1754, thousands died and the town of Taal was destroyed; it was rebuilt in a new location on safer ground an hour by road from Tagaytay to the southwest of the lake. Before 1754 the lake was actually part of Balayan Bay, but the eruption sealed it from the sea, eventually leading to its waters becoming non-saline.
The departure point for trips across the lake to the volcano is the small town of TALISAY on the lake’s northern shore, some 4km southeast of Tagaytay; this is a much more typical Filipino settlement, with a bustling market, fishermen doubling as tourist guides and nary a fast-food chain in sight. You can arrange a bangka and a guide at the waterfront market in town. (Taal Lake Yacht Club is a dependable choice). Hiring a bangka to take you out to the island will cost around P1500 if you arrange it independently, plus another P700 or so for a guide to take you up to the volcano. You can ride a horse up to the top for an additional P850 – most tourists do this because of the heat. If you’re staying the night by the lake, your hotel can arrange all this for you, with food and refreshments included, typically for P2000–3000.
With an early start, you can climb to either the new crater or the old crater (which has 2km-wide Crater Lake inside it) and be back in Talisay in time for lunch (the old crater takes around thirty minutes depending on fitness level). There isn’t much shade on the volcano, so don’t go without sunblock, a good hat and plenty of water. On the island itself is a basic restaurant, vendors selling overpriced drinks and a small information office where you must pay an entry fee of P50.
If you want to spend more time on the water, make for the Taal Lake Yacht Club (about 1km east of Talisay; t043/773-0192, wwww.sailing.org.ph/tlyc/), where you can rent sailboats (Toppers from P1200/day) and kayaks (P750/day).
On the 12th January 2020 the Taal Volcano on Luzon island erupted. Residents have been evacuated and Manila airport is currently closed. You can find the latest UK government advice on travel to the region here.
Serving as the capital of Laguna province from 1688 to 1858, the town of PAGSANJAN lies 101km from Manila and is home to a few old wooden houses, an unusually ornamental stone gate – or Puerta Real – and a pretty Romanesque church. The gate sits on the road to Santa Cruz (Rizal St) and was completed in 1880, while Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, dating from 1690 but remodelled in the nineteenth century, is at the end of Rizal Street. The town’s main claim to fame these days is as the staging point for the dazzling Pagsanjan Falls, chosen by Francis Ford Coppola as the location for the final scenes in Apocalypse Now in 1975. Most tourists come not for the Hollywood nostalgia value, however, but to take one of the popular bangka trips down the fourteen rapids of the Bombongan River. The rapids are at their most thrilling in the wet season; during the dry season the ride is more sedate. You don’t need to be especially daring to do the trip, though you will get wet, so bring a change of clothes. All ticket sales are supervised by the local tourism office in the municipal building (daily 8am–5pm; t049/808-3544) in the centre of town, opposite the church; ignore touts who try and sell tickets on the street. Most visitors pay P1000 for the ride; boats leave from the bridge behind the building.
It usually takes around 45 minutes to shoot 5.38km through the dramatic gorge; when you get closer to the actual 30m-high falls, you can ride a bamboo raft (balsa) to go directly below the cascade into the cavern known as Devil’s Cave, another thirty minutes or so (this is an additional P250 per head).
The town of TAAL, 130km south of Manila and a further 10km south of the lake, is one of the best preserved colonial enclaves in the Philippines and one of the few places you can get a real sense of its Spanish past. Founded in 1572 by Augustinians, it was moved to this location (and away from the deadly Taal volcano) in 1755 and today boasts a superb collection of endearingly weathered Spanish colonial architecture and bahay na bató-style homes, as well as one of the finest basilicas in Luzon.
Taal’s compact centre is easy to explore on foot, but if it’s too hot you can easily hire a tricycle to whisk you around (P100–120 depending on how many sights and hours you take). On the northern side of the plaza lies the elegantly weathered bulk of the Basilica of St Martin de Tours, said to be the biggest church in Southeast Asia, its facade visibly cracked, peeling and studded with clumps of weeds. The present church, built in 1856, has a magnificent interior and is often jam-packed for masses throughout the day. Taal is a major pilgrimage site thanks to an aged pinewood image of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady of Caysasay (only 20cm high). The statue is said to have been fished out of the Pansipit River in 1603; it was lost then found again in a freshwater spring. The Chapel of Caysasay, located on the banks of the river on the edge of town, is a beautiful coral-hewn chapel where the image is transferred from its shrine in the basilica every Thursday and returned on Saturday afternoon. The ruined Twin Wishing Wells of Santa Lucia, a short walk from the chapel, are still reputed to have miraculous healing powers. Locals will point you in the right direction.
Several of the town’s Spanish-era buildings are open to the public. The Leon Apacible Historic Landmark along M.N. Agoncillo Street is the ancestral home of Leon Apacible (1861–1901), lawyer and Filipino revolutionary. It has the best-preserved interior in town, and although remodelled several times, the wide, highly buffed narra floorboards, as well as the wide sweeping staircase (with its curved balustrade) are still original. The sliding doors and oriel windows betray American Art Deco influence while the transom filigree, featuring swirling chrysanthemums is Chinese style.
Top image: Manila city, Philippines. Aerial view with National Museum © Tupungato/Shutterstock