The Philippines is known for its beautiful beaches, delicious fruit, and fascinating cultural history. Comprising 7641 islands, it is also one of the world’s largest archipelagos. The nation has an abundance of shopping malls, cultural landmarks, and natural beauties. In short, it is a treasure trove of adventure, beauty, and intrigue.
In the same way that the Philippines is a collection of separate islands, its capital city, Manila, comprises 12 cities and 5 municipalities. Together, they form Metro Manila, a place filled with a range of architectural, cultural, and natural sights. From modern-style skyscrapers to Spanish colonial-style buildings, Manila is an architecture admirer’s dream.
Architecture & History
For more on the Philippines’s rich history, check out the National Museum of the Philippines. This establishment focuses on the educational, scientific, and cultural history of the nation. It houses documents, artworks, artefacts and even specimens native to the country. There are over 10 branches of the National Museum located in all the nation’s regions. With this in mind, there’s absolutely no excuse not to stop by one!
The Philippines is one of the only Southeast Asian countries where Catholicism is the dominant religion. Therefore, understanding the culture and history of the nation is impossible without acknowledging Catholicism’s influence.
You can do this by checking out Quiapo Church in Manila City. This church is one of the most notable churches in Filipino Catholic culture. It was built in the late 1580s, initially as a hut formed from bamboo and palm-fronds. However, in 1603, a spontaneous fire burned it down. Afterwards, a stone edifice replaced the original structure. The fire of 1603 was only one of many that would occur later on down the line.
The current building is a 1933 replacement of another structure destroyed by an earlier fire. The church is home to the Black Nazarene, a 17th-century life-sized wooden statue of Jesus. Naturally, this is one of the country’s most revered religious and cultural icons. Many devotees visit it every day in the hopes that it will heal and cure them.
Intramuros is Manila’s oldest walled neighbourhood. The place, whose name is Latin for “inside the walls”, dates back to the 16th century. During this time, the city was the administrative centre of Spanish colonial rule. Wars, conflict, and time have ravaged its walls, churches, and castles to ruins – but the area exudes a quaint, historical depth. It’s the perfect place for any history fan to stop by. Here, you can visit the Rizal Shrine, a museum dedicated to the Filipino freedom fighter and national hero José Rizal. Alternatively, stop by Rizal Park, Rizal’s death-place, to learn more about both this man and the history he was a part of.
It’s also worth visiting the many other historical landmarks in the area, which stand as a testament to Manila’s cultural history. If history fascinates you, visit San Agustin Church and Museum, Casa Manila Museum, or Fort Santiago. If you also want to understand the significance and centrality of Catholicism to Filipino culture and history, stop by Manila Cathedral.
Manila’s Binondo: The World’s Oldest Chinatown
Binondo, the “Chinatown” district of Manila, is the world’s oldest Chinatown. Under American occupation, it was also the country’s centre of commerce. Many of the area’s buildings and establishments were destroyed after World War II – with companies instead moving to Makati, a region that became the financial capital of the Philippines. Centuries after its establishment, Binondo remains a bustling, diverse place, home to many of Manila’s Chinese and Chinese mestizo (of Chinese-Filipino descent) families.
The area has a dark history. Spanish Governor-General Luis Pérez Dasmariñas first created it in 1854. Originally, he intended the area to be a settlement for Chinese immigrants – with the intention of converting them to Catholicism. If they didn’t obey, he would threaten them with execution. As a result, Governor-General Pérez Dasmariñas played a major role in the massacre of 24, 000 Chinese after they revolted in 1603.
Despite its bloody history, Binondo today is a lively and exciting place to visit. Along Caravajal Street, you’ll find a plethora of vendors selling fruits and Chinese treats. You’ll also see Chinese groceries, Snack houses and Noodle Houses, alongside the occasional wet market. If you’re interested in purchasing or trying fresh seafood and exotic food, visit the bustling Arranque Market. If you’re a foodie, or a fan of Chinese cuisine, it’s definitely worth taking a food walking tour around Binondo.
Manila’s Art & Culture
Being a metropolitan, diverse city, a wide range of talented artists, lively neighborhoods, and elegant institutions populate Manila. If works of high art and exquisite performances are more your style, you shouldn’t miss a night out at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in Manila City. The Cultural Centre is the nation’s national institution for the performing arts.
A vast complex spread over 150 hectares, Filipino architect Leandro Locsin designed it in 1966. It is Manila’s go-to venue for the performing arts – including elegant ballets, classical music, and theatre. It’s also the site of many local and international productions and festivals – so it’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in the Filipino culture and arts scene.
Nightlife in Manila
For a fun, lively night out, check out the old downtown neighborhood, Poblacion. Once an underground haunt with a bad reputation, the area reinvented itself in the early 2000s. Gradually, the variety of travellers, creatives, and students dotting its streets transformed it into a lively cultural hub. In Poblacion, there’s lots to do – from hidden bars and pubs to cool cafes and unique restaurants taking you on a culinary journey.
ABKD is a restaurant and bar in Poblacion. Named after the old name of the Tagalog alphabet, it serves modern Filipino dishes and meals. Examples of these include silog (meat with egg and garlic rice) and a brioche-like dessert called ensaymada. By day, it is a tasty restaurant, and by night, a sophisticated bar, serving beer, wine, and cocktails.
Just a floor higher, you’ll find a bar called Ñ. It is the perfect place to try new things – such as Filipino-inspired cocktails. Choose from a list of exotic combinations such as the Poblasioned, made with bourbon, a reduction syrup made with local Red Horse beer, Islay Mist, and bitters.
If that’s not your style, perhaps you’ll enjoy the Manila Gold – comprising dark and white rum, mango, coconut milk, mint leaves and bitters. It’s a drink that’s perfectly suited to the country’s tropical weather, and its fruity infusion pays homage to the nation’s delicious fresh produce.
In the Philippines, malls are a popular and enjoyable place to spend the day. Since the nation is home to three of the world’s ten largest malls, this comes as no surprise. A trip to the Philippines just wouldn’t be complete without spending at least one afternoon wandering around its beautiful, vast malls, indulging in shopping, leisure, and entertainment.
SM Mall of Asia
The SM Mall of Asia is one of the nation’s – and the world’s – largest malls. Located near the beautiful Manila Bay, the mall boasts top-tier facilities, and a wide variety of shops with a great combination of both local and worldwide brands. Among its facilities are world-class movie theatres, a selection of restaurants, fine dining, and fast-food stops, and even the country’s first Olympic-sized ice rink.
After a morning spent shopping till you drop, you can enjoy a relaxing drink – and the sunset – by Manila Bay.
Greenbelt, located in Makati City, is a mall made with luxury in mind. Its wide range of restaurants, featuring top chefs and seasoned restaurateurs, as well as globally renowned and nationally famous luxury fashion brands and designers. At the centre of its five wings lies a gorgeous oasis. It includes an aquamarine lagoon, garden pockets, and even a koi pond. In addition, there’s a church – another testament to the nation’s Catholic majority – and several Filipino sculptures. With its brilliant mixture of high-end luxury and natural glory, Greenbelt is the perfect fusion of tropical beauty and modern extravagance.
Beyond Manila: Day Trips
Manila has a lot to offer. But chances are, if you’re visiting the Philippines, it isn’t just to see malls, statues, and museums. After all, there are thousands of other islands to explore. With this in mind, here are a few day trips you can take to areas outside Manila, in order to take advantage of the Philippines’ natural glory.
Banaue Rice Terraces
You’ve probably seen the Banaue Rice Terraces before. They take center stage in tourism ads, usually forming the backdrop in souvenir pictures. The 1995 UNESCO World Heritage List have even included them – such is the extent of their beauty and fame worldwide. Locally, the terraces are known as Hagdan-Hagdan Palayan, and are a source of pride for both the local Ifugaos and for Filipinos elsewhere.
Located in the Cordillera mountain ranges in the island of Luzon, the Banaue Rice Terraces consist of staircase-like rice paddies, built 2000 years ago. Both the construction and preservation of the rice terraces are part of the sacred tradition of the locals living there, known as Ifugaos.
This tradition has been passed down to generations of Ifugaos orally, and has included rituals such as evoking spirits to protect and guard the paddies. The Ifugaos disclose that their ancestors built the rice terraces by hand – and that preserving them is part of a larger expression of the harmony between nature and humans. These stone and mud rice terraces have been central to the survival of the Ifugao people since the pre-colonial Philippines. They act as a web of irrigation systems, harvesting water from the mountaintops, and sustaining the local farming communities.
The best way to reach the Banaue Rice Terraces from Manila is by bus. There are two buses that go directly to Banaue: Coda Lines and Ohayami Trans. Be prepared, though – the total journey takes at least 9 hours.
Also in North Luzon, located in the Mountain Province around 415km from Manila, Sagada is the perfect place to unwind. The area is famous for its mysterious, looming hanging coffins – a historical relic. These coffins are now a tourist attraction, and a testament to 2000 years of Igorot burial traditions.
The region is, however, also home to tranquil, gorgeous mountain valleys, rice terraces, and cliffs spearing a sea of clouds. In particular, it contains beautiful, rushing waterfalls – a refreshing change from the bustle of city life in Manila.
The best time to visit Sagada is during the wet season (November to February), where temperatures drop as low as 4 degrees Celsius. During this season, it’s also the harvest seasons for fresh produce – so you can enjoy the most delectable fruits at this time of the year.
In addition, you can partake in traditional Filipino culture by engaging in harvest season festivals. These include the Begnas Festival, a sacred thanksgiving tradition that occurs 3-4 times a year, giving thanks for rice. There’s also Panag-etag, a festival that’s native to Sagada. This tradition comprises ceremonies, parades, holy mass, and rituals, organized by locals to preserve their ancient culture and encourage ecotourism. It occurs every year from January 30 to February 2.
The total travel time from Manila is about 11-13 hours by bus. Though the journey is long, the end destination is – undoubtedly – worth it.
Baguio City has been nicknamed the “Summer Capital” of the Philippines. This is likely due to its reputation as the coldest city – with its temperatures ranging from 15-23 degrees Celsius on average, rarely above that even during the warmer months. Its cooler climate offers a refreshing change from Manila’s tropical summer heat.
But Baguio offers more than just chilly weather. On account of its climate, it is also home to beautiful flora that thrive in its colder environment – plants that you wouldn’t see elsewhere in the country. The area’s lush vegetation and colourful flowers make for a dreamlike visit – it’s no wonder, then, that it’s also been given the nickname “City of Pines”.
Some iconic, unmissable locations include Burnham Park, Camp John Hay, and the Baguio Cathedral. Going for a bike ride in the cool weather is another equally enjoyable experience. You can even visit a local farm and go strawberry-picking – getting a taste of the delectable national produce, freshly picked.
Locals claim that the town got its name from a green flowering plant, called “bag-iw” that grew there. Under the American occupation, Americans pronounced this as “bag-ee-yow” – a term that eventually came to refer to the town as a whole.
Unless you have a car, the best way to get to Baguio City from Manila is to travel by bus. The trip is usually about five and a half hours – and you get to enjoy some beautiful sights from the window along the way.
Manila is filled to the brim with activities, sights, and experiences – enough to please any traveller.
And it’s only one of thousands of islands. The Philippines, as a nation, is teeming with beauty, uniqueness, and adventure. From the hub of Poblacion in Makati, to the sophisticated arts in the Cultural Center of the Philippines, to the centuries-old rice terraces of Banaue – there is nothing the nation can’t offer you.