Twenty reasons to visit Manila

1 Sunsets on Manila Bay

Manila is one of remarkably few cities in Asia that looks out to the west over the sea. Throw in one of the few plus sides of the Filipino capital's pollution problem — the smoggy clouds send light and colour bouncing all over the place — and you've got a recipe for utterly spectacular sunsets.

2 The Coconut Palace

This tremendously gaudy monument to the excess of Ferdinand Marcos's corrupt regime — and his shoe-loving wife Imelda's penchant for showing off — is now the vice-president's home and office. It was built using natural materials — including lots of coconuts — and intended as a guesthouse for Pope John Paul II. But the pontiff refused to stay there because it was too ostentatious, so D-List celebs such as George Hamilton were invited instead. Tours of this jaw-dropping monstrosity have to be booked at least a week in advance through the Office of the Vice-President (+63 2 832 6791, extension 119).

3 Jeepneys

They're cramped, they're gaudy and they're often belching fumes but the jeepneys are an integral part of Manila's character. These elongated, privately owned jeeps are painted in every colour the driver can get hold of and are adorned with religious or political slogans. The routes can be tricky to work out — you might not end up where you want to go — but hopping aboard one is the best way to get talking to the locals and dip into real life.

4 Karaoke

If the jeepneys hint at an exuberance that's far detached from the more familiar Asian reserve, then the presence of a karaoke bar on every corner will confirm it. Bursting into song at any opportunity appears to be a widespread Filipino trait and, frankly, fighting it is futile. Go on in, pick up the microphone and get belting — the most popular song choices of the week are often listed on the walls.

5 Carlos Celdran


Far and away the city's most popular guide, Carlos Celdran hosts theatrical tours around historic Intramuros that bring the often-tragic history of Manila to life. The "performance" goes through the Spanish, American, Japanese and postwar eras, throws in chaotic cross-town pedicab races and sets the emotional compass swinging from horror to laughter.

6 San Agustin Church

One of the few buildings to survive World War II's destruction of Intramuros, this is the oldest church in the Philippines. It dates from the 16th century, has bags of baroque flourish and numerous richly decorated shrines. You would struggle to find anywhere else quite like it in Asia and its exhibitions about the Spanish religious orders that founded the modern Philippines are engrossing.

7 Mall-hopping

If there's one thing the good people of Manila like more than karaoke, it's shopping malls. And should you be so inclined, there are plenty of bargains to be had. The gargantuan Mall of Asia is one of the biggest shopping centres in the world — the IMAX theatre and Olympic-size ice skating rink fit with plenty of room still to spare. But if it's international luxury designer labels you're after, the Greenbelt malls in Makati's Ayala Centre are where you'll find them at very attractive prices.

8 Intramuros

Adding to the Latin American- banana-republic-transported-to-Asia vibe is Intramuros, the historic heart of Manila. The area was turned into a fortified city within a city under Spanish rule and the Iberian influence on much of the architecture is immediately obvious. The walls are not always in the greatest state of repair but Fort Santiago at the far end is holding on. Its gardens, views over the river and cannon-laden bastions evoke the city's rich history.

9 A very odd golf course

Between Intramuros and Rizal Park lies one of the world's more absurd golf courses. Built into the former moat around the walled city, the Club Intramuros Golf Course offers the chance to mishit drives into the walls while traffic roars to the other side. Other hazards to avoid include a shrine tucked inside a grotto to the side of the fairway and the ambling families trying to cross the road.

10 Rizal Park

Rizal Park is the great meeting place of the Philippines. Anyone vaguely famous gets a tribute statue here eventually and it's the default venue for big open-air concerts and political demonstrations. The Chinese Garden, Japanese Garden and National Museum are within its confines and worth a look but the real joy is in the people-watching. Rizal Park swarms with picnickers, kite-flyers, joggers and smooching couples.

11 Manila Hotel

Manila's only true grand hotel drips with history. It was US General Douglas MacArthur's home for six years and a browse through the archive room shows everyone from Rocky Marciano to Michael Jackson pressing the flesh here. The dark wood and tumbling chandeliers keep the vintage colonial vibe but the rooms have been tastefully modernised. More importantly, the Manila Hotel feels like the hub of the action — there's always some kind of celebration, fireworks display or ceremony going on.

12 Adobo

Discounting the claims of the sickly and garish halo-halo desserts, the true Filipino national dish is adobo. There's no correct way of doing it but the differences in interpretation are partly why it's so tempting to order one every meal. As a general rule it's pork or chicken in a garlicky vinegar and soy sauce but you won't find two that taste the same. Sentro 1771, on the third level of Greenbelt 3, is a great place to try an inventive version of it in stylish surroundings.

13 Hobbit House

As gimmicks go, you would have to try hard to beat a Tolkien-themed bar and restaurant staffed and managed by "little people". It might sound crass, and it's unquestionably a tourist trap, but it's actually one of Manila's best places for a drink. This is largely because it has a consistently good line-up of live music. It's the sort of place you visit out of tick-box curiosity and stay in because it's rather enjoyable.

14 Hotel H2O

If you prefer your hotels on the quirky side, the H2O is one great oddity. The Ocean Park complex's inward-facing rooms have aquariums instead of windows. If you prefer your walls with clownfish swimming up and down them, this is perfect. Otherwise, get an outward-facing room so you can open the curtains to view sea lions performing for a packed arena. As for the sound and light show in the evening, you're pretty much a part of it.

15 Ayala Museum

Inside the Ayala Centre is easily the best museum in the Philippines. The Ayala Museum's displays of gold and Filipino art are good but the star attractions are the 60 dioramas that tell the story of the country's convoluted history. They go from prehistoric hunters, then through Chinese and Islamic influences to postwar independence. Then video presentations take over for the modern history and the horrors of the Marcos regime. The marriage of presentation and content is just right.

16 Pagsanjan

Another very popular day trip out of Manila heads to the Pagsanjan River. The canoe rides through the rapids from the Magdapio Falls are the big calling card, although they have almost become too popular for their own good. Expect a tourist-trap feel and a high hassle factor. That said, it is a beautiful spot and is one Vietnam War-film junkies should recognise. Many of the key scenes of Apocalypse Now were filmed here.

17 Corregidor

This island guarding the entrance to Manila Bay is best known for its World War II history. This was the last hold-out of US troops in 1942 and General MacArthur's headquarters is among the most popular sights. Others include the barracks, gun batteries and tunnels but even for those with no interest in military history, the gorgeous views are worth the boat trip.

18 Taal Lake

An easy day trip to the south of Manila, Taal Lake is a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano. That's less confusing when you arrive. From the top of the ridge of the Taal Volcano, you descend to the lake where locals use their fishing boats to ferry visitors to the island. The island — itself a highly tempestuous volcano — is home to an hour-long walking trail that takes you to another crater rim. From there, the views down to the interior lake are stunning. Touts will try to sell a ride on a knackered, scrawny horse but you're best to resist their offers and tackle the track on your own. It starts at the top-left corner of the concrete basketball court.

19 Hilot massage

The traditional Filipino form of massage has spread around the world in recent years but it's best experienced in the homeland. Hilot means healer in Filipino and practitioners insist there's a lot more to it than a generic deep-tissue massage — intuitive healing is the much-parroted term. Most of the spas in Manila's five-star hotels offer hilot.

20 American Cemetery and Memorial

Maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, this giant and utterly sobering cemetery is the largest of its kind in the world. Covering 62 hectares, 17,202 who died during World War II are buried here, while the names of 36,285 whose bodies were never found are etched on the memorial walls. It's a peaceful sea of crosses and Jewish stars that sweeps in circles on the manicured grass, and it should bring a lump to any throat.

The writer was a guest of the Philippine Tourism Promotions Board.