I kicked off my 5-week tour of The Philippines in the capital city of Manila. The Philippines itself is made up of over 7000 islands, and Manila is situated on the largest island of Luzon. Manila is widely known to be one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and with that comes pollution, overcrowding, and of course the dreaded traffic jams! Which I experienced first hand, sitting in a Grab Car for a journey which was meant to take 30 minutes eventually turned into 1 hour and 30 minutes. Metropolitan Manila, like the Greater London boroughs, is made up of 13 municipalities. The municipalities include Makati, Mandaluyong, San Juan, Las Piñas, Malabon, Navotas, Pasig, Pateros, Parañaque, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Taguig, and Valenzuela.
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I was in Manila for a couple of days before flying to Cebu, but all the major highlights can really be seen in a day. How to spend a day in Manila? Well I focused on visiting the three National Museums of Natural History, Anthropology and Fine Art, in the morning and then took a tour of Intramuros in the afternoon. On my second day, I enjoyed some leisurely time at my hostel, but I did also go to the cinema, which I can highly recommend as the cinemas are far cheaper than in the UK. There are several to choose from in the many Malls in Manila.
- Visa – British Nationals can enter the Philippines without a visa for an initial period of 30 days. However, as I stayed for 5 weeks I got a tourist visa from the Philippine Embassy which allowed me to stay for up to 59 days. For the most up to date information, consult the Philippine Immigration website here.
- Immunisations – some are required, check out my go-to website for up to date information: https://nathnac.net
- Safety – I felt relatively safe whilst I was in Manila, exercise usual caution around looking after valuables and being safe alone or at night.
- Currency – Philippine peso (PHP)
- Language – Filipino is the national language which is the standardized variety of the Tagalog language, as well as English. I also spoke with several Filipinos especially in Cebu who spoke Cebuano. There are 4 indigenous languages (including Tagalog and Cebuano) with around 10 million or more native speakers and a further 8 languages with around 1 to 3 million native speakers. As a general rule though as a tourist – most people can speak English.
I flew from Fukuoka airport to Manila, on a low-cost airline which I found through Sky Scanner. I always use Sky scanner for checking the best prices and deals for flights. I got chatting to another passenger on board the flight who lived in Manila and had been visiting Japan. She was so helpful, she helped me set up my Philippine SIM card which I picked up just at arrivals as I walked through the airport, and then we shared a grab car as my hostel wasn’t far from where she was going. She advised against using taxi’s in Manila and said Grab was far cheaper and more reliable. So I downloaded the app once I was set up with my new SIM card. The Grab Car journey cost around 500 PHP, which is the equivalent to around £8 from the airport to Makati.
I stayed in the Makati City region of Metropolitan Manila, which was a bit of a distance away from the main attractions in the City of Manila, but the accommodation was very reasonably priced. I chose to stay at Z Hostel, the beds were comfy and the complimentary breakfast was good, and there were views over Manila from their rooftop bar.
As I mentioned before, Grab is the way to go if you need a car to get around as they are more reasonably priced and reliable in comparison to taxis. I ended up taking quite a few grabs, as they’re very inexpensive and easy to use especially if you don’t know a particular area. Manila doesn’t have a fantastic public transport system as yet, although this is probably why the traffic jams get so bad as everyone is using cars.
Jeepneys are a form of public transport, they’re small buses, cladded in kitsch colourful decorations – you can’t miss them! Although I was a little apprehensive about riding a jeepney as they are quite an informal mode of transport without scheduled bus times or bus stops, and I was worried I would end up getting a little lost so didn’t experience using the Jeepneys in Manila. But if you wanted to they are super cheap, but they are open at the back so you are exposed to the elements and the heat!
When I reached Manila City from Makati by grab, it was very easy to walk around and see various sights, although I wasn’t quite used to the heat of the Philippines coming from Japan which felt quite mild. I struggled with the hot weather so didn’t end up walking as much as I usually would.
Luckily a friendly tricycle tour driver approached me and offered a tricycle tour of Intramuros. He initially quoted 350 PHP per half an hour and not realising how in-depth and how long it would take I thought this was pretty reasonable. However just over 2 and a half hours later the driver requested 2000 PHP (around £30) which was a lot more than what I had expected to pay, and I felt a little ripped off if I’m honest. Although if there are two of you I would say it’s a great way of seeing the sights but a little pricey for one person. If you wanted to you can also easily explore Intramuros on foot, or sign up to a guided tour online before you arrive.
National Museum of Natural History
This was the first museum I visited in Manila, and it didn’t disappoint, it reminded me of the Natural History Museum in London. Set over six floors in this imposing grand building you’ll find a variety of exhibitions on offer. It is located close to Rizal Park within a complex containing several museums including the National Museum of Anthropology and National Museum of Fine Art.
The Museum of Natural History provides detailed information and artefacts about the natural mangroves, beaches and intertidal zones on the many islands of the Philippines. As well as various types of forests that inhabit the land such as pine forests, rain forests and wetlands. Lastly, you’ll also learn about the bio-diversity of the Philippines, the geology, and how the country is formed. It was a great introduction to the wildlife and scenery I would be seeing later on in my tour of The Philippines.
National Museum of Anthropology
The Second museum I visited, and just opposite the Museum of Natural History, was the National Museum of Anthropology, which showcases the diverse cultures, customs and history of the Filipino People. Objects and artefacts on display include items such as basket weaving, embroidery and fashion, religion and cultural traditions. As well as various types of weapons, musical instruments, tools and fine crafts. Again another excellent introduction to the diverse and varied cultural traditions of the Filipino people.
National Museum of Fine Art
Also set within the same area as the two previous Museums, the National Museum of Fine Art, houses several Filipino signature works of art, by artists such as Juan Luna.
Baluarte de San Diego
First on my tricycle tour of Intramuros was The Baluarte de San Diego, the oldest fort in Manila, also considered a National Treasure in The Philippines. The first stone fort was commissioned by Governor-General Santiago De Vera (1584-1590). As the country developed and became more wealthy, especially in Manila the need for better defence and a watchtower grew. Over the years fortifications and repairs have taken place, replacing wooden components with stone structures. Manila has had many influencers over the years, including the Spanish, British and Americans, which has meant changes and adaptations. World War II also had a significant impact on the structure which became an important site during the war. Finally, in 1979, the Baluarte San Diego was restored by the Intramuros Administration.
This is the main ceremonial gate to Intramuros which was used by the Governor-General for state occasions. The original gate was destroyed during the British Invasion of 1762 but was later rebuilt in 1780. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the area was also used as prison cells and barracks. The gate and surrounding structure were damaged again during this war but later restored in the sixties and eighties.
Also known as the Intendencia, was a colonial building in Manila which housed several government offices over the years. Much like many other parts of Intramuros Aduana suffered damage and destruction, first during an earthquake in 1863, which later led to its demolition in 1872. The building was later reconstructed a few years afterwards but then suffered further damages during World War II. Ultimately it was ravaged by a terrible fire and now lays in ruins, although restoration work is taking place.
The grand Casa Manila is a copy of an original house built in the 1850’s in the Chinese district of Binondo. The Casa Manila we see today was built from 1981-83, and is now a lifestyle museum, depicting domestic life of the upper class living in Manila during this period. The walls of the ground floor are made of adobe or volcanic tuff which was the main building material used in the colony between the 16th and late 19th century. With the upper floors being made of wood, overhanging and extending outward above the ground floor. Inside, Casa Manila is fully furnished with local and imported antique furniture items, ceramics and artwork.
Known as The Mother of all Churches, Cathedrals and Basilicas of the Philippines, Manila Cathedral is the very first cathedral in The Philippines. There have been 8 versions of the Manila Cathedral constructed over the years between 1581 and present day. The reason for so many reconstructions has been due to either war, fires, typhoons and earthquakes. Today the Cathedral holds weekly mass and also conducts wedding ceremonies. For more information please visit the official website here.
One of the most famous sites in the Intramuros area in Manila. It was originally built using timber, however, after an almost successful attempt at invasion by the Chinese pirate Lin Feng in 1574, the Spanish rebuilt the fort in stone. The fort we see today is made from volcanic tuff (adobe) and was built between 1589 – 1592. The building also served as headquarters for the many foreign powers who have invaded The Philippines, including the Spanish, British, American and Japanese. In 1951 Fort Santiago became a National Monument, and later in 2014 a National Cultural Treasure.
Within Fort Santiago you’ll also find the Rizal Shrine, formerly a military barracks, it has been partially reconstructed and now holds an exhibition dedicated to Jose Rizal. Rizal was a doctor and instrumental revolutionist against the Spanish Occupation. Rizal is considered a national hero in The Philippines. I recommend visiting here, as Rizal played a huge role in Filipino history, it was great to have a better understanding about him and what he did for his country.
Baluarte De Dilao
This was another stop on the tricycle tour of Intramuros, and the Baluarte De Dilao shows the canons which would have been in place when it was operational. The Baluarte was originally built in 1592, as part of the original fortifications of Intramuros. Like the rest of the Intramuros complex, it too suffered several incidents of destructions during the British attack in 1762 and the Battle of Manila in 1945, each time receiving restoration works soon after.
San Augustin Church
Built in 1571, this is the oldest church in the Philippines, it is also known as the Church of Saint Paul. The building has been plagued by fire, destruction during war and looting over the centuries, however, has stood the test of time, and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994.
Plazuela de Santa Isabel
Here you’ll find a large outdoor space, containing Memorare Manila 1945, a memorial dedicated the innocent victims of war. In particular to the thousands of victims who could not be buried or given a tombstone. The memorial serves as a remembrance to the lives of the 100,000 men women and children killed during the liberation of Manila in 1945.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my insightful cultural tour around Manila for the day. As I mentioned before you can easily just spend a day here, but you can take your time over a few days and venture out to visit some of the other municipalities if you wish. Although, Manila is a very busy overcrowded city, totally different to the chilled vibes and beach life on the other islands. I would rather spend my time exploring the other islands personally. If you have any questions or queries please do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.
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