The Philippine capital mixes the best of Asian and Latino cultures for offbeat fun, creative cuisine and inspired design, writes Belinda Jackson.
The Berjaya Manila's 167 deluxe rooms and suites were refurbished early last year to bring them to four-star standard, with specials from $US53 ($54) (7835 Makati Avenue, Makati City, berjayahotel.com). Pearl Lane's 45 rooms aren't big but it has free Wi-Fi and a rooftop restaurant overlooking the bay, from 2100 pesos (1700 M. Orosa Street, Malate, 523 2000, pearllanehotel.net). Nearby Riviera Mansion has 160 rooms, including triples and rooms with kitchens, from 2500 pesos (1638 A. Mabini Street, Malate, rivieramansion.com). Cherry Blossoms is in the nightlife hub, with 145 rooms, from 1600 pesos (550 Jorge Bocobo Extension, Ermita, 524 7631, cherryblossomshotel.com.ph).
The two new club floors of the Traders Hotel have views to the coast and slick, minimalist rooms, from 5355 pesos (3001 Roxas Boulevard, Pasay City, 523 7011, www.tradershotels.com). The locally owned black-and-white G Hotel has 10 suites with bay views and 40 deluxe rooms, as well as a pool and bar. From $US90 (2090 Roxas Boulevard, Malate, 525 0888, www.g-hotel.com.ph). Discovery Suites Manila is spot-on for business people and bargain shoppers, with fab Greenhills and St Francis Square nearby, 220 suites and a 22nd-floor piano bar, from $US100 (25 ADB Avenue, Ortigas Centre, Pasig City, 719 8888, discoverysuites.com).
Each floor of the Picasso Residences is a different colour, with artworks throughout this Cubist-inspired hotel. From 10,000 pesos, book a month in advance for 30 per cent off (119 L. P. Leviste Street, Salcedo Village, Makati City, 828 4774, picassomakati.com). In the financial district, the New World Hotel is opposite the Greenbelt shopping complex, with 598 rooms, from 5885 pesos (Esperenza Street, Makati City, 811 6888, manila.newworldhotels.com). Though no longer at its peak, the 442-room Mandarin Oriental's facilities are good, with dim sum hot spot Tin Hau Chinese restaurant and a spa that specialises in indigenous treatments dating from the 5th century, from 5500 pesos (Makati Avenue, Makati City, 1800 123 693, toll-free from Australia, mandarinoriental.com).
On Manila's most prestigious intersection, the Makati Shangri-La is a 699-room giant, all lush chandeliers and 6pm checkouts. From 16,320 pesos (corner Ayala and Makati avenues, Makati City, 1800 222 448, toll-free, shangri-la.com). Just opposite, the Peninsula's (pictured) new Salon de Ning is a glamorous 1930s-Shanghai-style nightclub. Its refurbished all-day-dining restaurant has pool views. From 16,000 pesos (Makati Avenue, Makati City, 887 2888, peninsula.com). Overlooking Manila Bay, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza has one of the best global buffets, plus four-night packages from $1320 a person, twin share, return Sydney-to-Manila airfares with Philippine Airlines and transfers included (Viva! Holidays, 13 14 15, or travel agents).
SHOP + PLAY
The dirt-cheap Baclaran street market in Paranaque is rough, ready and Haggle Central, with outdoor stalls selling clothes, bags and sunglasses. Wednesdays are maniacal, owing to a nearby popular church. The streets around Quiapo church are packed with mad apothecary stalls selling amulets and bizarre oils, so it's worth a look for the high weird factor. Under the Bridge in Quiapo has awesome rattan baskets and cool light fittings, as well as beautiful, seriously cheap souvenirs such as shell lamps. The more upmarket Salcedo Community Market (pictured) in Salcedo Street, Makati, is a lush foodie place ideal for adventurous snackers, from 7am-2pm on Saturdays.
Mall of Asia has skating rinks and a huge SM (the Philippines's own success story, the Shoe Mart department store), while upmarket malls include Glorietta, SM EDSA and Shangri-La Plaza. For luxury brands, see also department stores Landmark and Rustans. The chic Greenbelt shopping complex has five sections, with Greenbelt 5 given over to local designers such as Arnel Papa jewellery and Guapo shoes. At Greenhills, join the brand-hunting locals for gorgeously cheap, locally harvested pearls for just a few dollars (Ortigas Avenue, San Juan). Bargain-basement 168 and Divisoria malls are where designers go to haggle for wholesale textiles and costume jewellery; the fakes are dicey (Santa Elena Street, Binondo).
Karaoke fiends beware: word is four in five Filipinos can sing. Put them to the test on stage at Manila institution The Library, which mixes campy live music and karaoke (1739 Maria Orosa Street, Malate, thelibrary.com.ph). saGuijo encourages indie and rock musicians (7612 Guijo Street, San Antonio Village, Makati, saguijo.com). Blokes should make for Heckle & Jeckle for bands on Wednesday and Friday nights (Villa Building, Jupiter Street, Makati, heckleandjeckle.org), or Handlebar, home of the Mad Dog Motorcycle Club, rock'n'roll and Aussie barbecues if you're feeling homesick (Barangay Bel-Air, Makati, handlebar.com.ph).
Encore superclub is said to be Manila's top spot and heats up from midnight; it's jammed with celeb and expat clubbers, so dress up. Its less pretentious neighbour Establishment is a sleek, gay-friendly bar with fabulous service, generous cocktails and patrons who love to dance. Both are in the Fort Bonifacio complex. Encore's owners are also responsible for smokin' Republiq in Resorts World Manila, while the new kid on the block is glam-central LAX the Nightclub in Mall of Asia (both in Pasay City). For the indie scene, try Capone's Bar at Fraser Place Hotel, Makati.
SEE + DO
The revered life-sized Black Nazarene is a 400-year-old carving of Jesus carrying the cross, housed at Quiapo Church and paraded through jammed streets on its feast day, January 9, and Good Friday. Eighty per cent of the Coconut Palace is made of coconut wood, built in 1978 by then-president Ferdinand Marcos in an exercise of ostentatious Philippinisation. It's built in the traditional salakot style (100 pesos an adult, closed Mondays). The 400-year-old Fort Santiago is the gem of the Intramuros district, a picturesque reminder of Manila's occasionally grim heritage (75 pesos an adult, open daily).
The Ayala Museum is a must-visit for its display of pre-colonial (16th-century) gold, from funereal masks to diadems, reflecting the Philippines's relationship with the rest of south-east Asia and its ongoing love of beauty (Greenbelt complex, Makati Avenue, Makati City, 350 pesos an adult, closed on Mondays). The UNESCO-listed, baroque San Agustin Church (pictured) in Intramuros was built in 1587 and is called the "miracle church" because it was the last building standing in Intramuros when US troops liberated the Philippines from the Japanese in 1945. The Museum of the Filipino People is the city's largest museum, set in Rizal Park, Manila's heritage centre — a drawcard for those into ethnography, the arts and natural sciences (free).
Breathe in the scent of the Philippines's beautiful sampaguitas, pretty white flowers in the jasmine family, which grow around Intramuros, the original site of early Manila before the Spanish invasion in 1571. (It was subsequently attacked by Dutch, English, Chinese and Japanese soldiers and pirates.) Pick up a free map of the walled city from the information centre at the entrance of Fort Santiago, after fending off the karitela (horse-drawn cart) touts. Otherwise, stretch your legs on the two-kilometre Manila Baywalk along Roxas Boulevard; make time to pause for snacking and drinks, especially come sunset.
Follow the leader
Manila's best-known guide is Carlos Celdran, a one-man tourism powerhouse beloved for his outrageous walking tours of Intramuros (900 pesos, celdrantours.blogspot.com). Old Manila Walks does set and customised walks through Chinatown, the old Presidential neighbourhood, through cemeteries and along the bay. Its half-day Halo-Halo walk combines the best of the city (711 3823, oldmanilawalks.com). Jeepney Tours has a great Spa and Shopping Spree tour in which you spa away your aches and pains from overenthusiastic bargaining, while fanging around town in a jeepney kitted out with a videoke machine (4000 pesos including spa treatment, book 15 days in advance, 994 6636, jeepneytours.com).
EAT + DRINK
You know you want to drink smooth alamid coffee, which has passed through the digestive tract of a native cat, produced locally and served at the groovy Travel Cafe (Mall of Asia, Greenbelt 5). For something less visceral, the home-grown Figaro cafe chain churns out delicious barako coffee, grown only in the Philippines (in most malls); the beans are also sold in take-home packs. For Pinoy home cooking and a small band to serenade you, head to cheery Bistro Remedios and order the tiny, crispy, deep-fried crabs (1911 M. Adriatico Street, Remedios Circle, Malate).
Snacking is effortless at the Legazpi Sunday Market, where vendors prepare traditional Pinoy food and desserts, from cuttlefish lollipops to caribou milk ice-cream and handmade cheeses (7am-2pm on Sundays, Makati). Keep refuelled for shopping with tart yet sugar-coated dried mango chips from any lolly bar and instead of McPigging, go local with a Jollibee Yum burger, from 58 pesos; just look for the omnipresent bumblebee. The fast food of the Philippines is adobo, marinated chicken or pork served with garlic rice. Find it at holes-in-the-wall and every buffet in town.
Order the tamarind iced tea and the Palawan cashew and herb-crusted sole fillet at the gorgeous sustainable foods restaurant Le Bistro Vert (Fraser Place, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, Makati, lebistro.ph). La Cocina de Tita Moning, set in a gorgeously restored house, serves heirloom recipes such as whole baked lapu-lapu (local fish) or slow-roasted pork (lechon) with candied camote (sweet potato), (315 San Rafael Street, San Miguel, lacocinadetitamoning.com). The Goose Station sounds like "degustation", giving a hint as to what chef duo Robert and Sunshine Pengson serve. Take the time for the deeply involved set menu (2500 pesos a person, W Tower, 1117 39th Street, Bonifacio Global City, thegoosestation.ph).
By the glass
Museum Cafe is a sleek bar that looks on to the Greenbelt complex's lush gardens and is beloved by gaggles of girl groups for the cocktails and buff waiters (until 3am on weekends, at the entrance to the Ayala Museum, Makati Avenue, Makati). Hobbit House is proudly run by "the smallest waiters in the world", who serve more than 150 kinds of beer and cider and are happy to pull sultry poses for the camera (1212 M. H. del Pilar, Ermita). The long, white lounges and beanbags on the grass by the ocean are hot property at sunset at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza's Sunset Bar, which is great for groups or a romantic tete-a-tete.
Manila's traffic is horrific, truly horrific. Unless you really like taxi drivers, avoid jumping in a cab from 8-9.30am and 4-6pm on weekdays. Sunday mornings, however, are a breeze.
Philippine Airlines flies directly from Sydney to Manila five times a week in a new Boeing 777. Return economy fares from $1046 a person (low season, January 28 to March 31). (02) 9279 2020, philippineairlines.com.
Taxis are cheap and most drivers speak good English. Locals travel on groovy painted jeepneys (think stretch jeeps) for a song.
Visa and currency
Australian tourists don't need a visa to enter the Philippines for visits of 21 days or fewer. The Philippines uses the peso; $1=43 pesos.
The Philippines' country code is +63 and 02 for Manila landlines. To call Manila from abroad, add +632 to the numbers listed.
Philippines Tourism, (02) 9279 3380, philippinetourism.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Philippines Tourism, Sofitel Philippine Plaza and Philippine Airlines.