Manila: the Heart of the Philippines
by Cecilia Yee.
More often than not, visitors to the Philippines are there to relax on the stunning white beaches or explore the jungles and rice fields. Due to the limited direct flights from Hong Kong to many of the regional airports, it's common to have to fly via Manila - so the next time you're in transit, why not consider a stopover to check out what this lively city has to offer?
This buzzing capital city is the pulsating heart of Philippines life and the centre of government, business, arts and culture, sports, cuisine and shopping. Many people say that Manila is everything that is both right and wrong with the Philippines today, with a vibrant culture and heritage offset by traffic jams and poor air quality. But for all its problems, Manila is the Philippines' most important city and without visiting it, no traveller can truly say they understand the country.
What To See
For a glimpse of the Philippines' fascinating past as a Spanish colony, head to Intramuros, Manila's oldest district which dates back to the 16th century.
The past 20 years has seen a great deal of restoration of this historic area, with surrounding walls reinforced, cobbles re-laid in the streets, heritage buildings renovated and new buildings erected that are faithful to the original colonial style.
To learn more about Manila's culture and religious influence, I highly recommend joining a walking tour around the old walled city led by tour guide and renowned expert, Carlos Celdran. Offering "performance art in the guise of a walking tour", this unique experience will ensure that you learn plenty about Manila in a highly entertaining way.
Where To Stay
Base yourself in Makati - Manila's central business district, which is synonymous with success, commerce and comfort. This district abounds with swank apartments, five-star hotels, fine restaurants, smart boutiques and big businesses, and is the neighbourhood where the Philippines' movers and shakers live, work and play.
The Fairmont Hotel is strategically located in Makati, within walking distance to the Greenbelt complex - a high-end development of shops, restaurants and entertainment. Rooms are spacious, tastefully decorated, and come equipped with amenities including a large desk and complimentary Internet access - perfect for business travellers. The Fairmont's personalised turndown service is something to look forward to, with nightly treats like chocolates and macarons left to help you on your way to sweet dreams.
Food & Drink
Stylish restaurants have been popping up all over Manila over the past few years, and in particular around Makati and the Fort districts. For a taste of authentic Filipino food created from fresh seasonal ingredients, check out Aracama. However, my personal favourite is Chef J. Luis Gonzales' modern Spanish restaurant, Vask.
Having worked for some of Spain's best restaurants, including the renowned El Celler de Can Roca, Mugaritz and Arzak, Chef Gonzales brought his authentic tapas and pintxos to Manila where he has gained considerable acclaim. Another option is BlackBird Makati, a hip aviation-themed restaurant and lounge serving a selection of contemporary European cuisine with a touch of Asian flavour.
If you're looking for classy sundowners, then you can't beat Manila's rooftop bars. Popular spots include 71 Gramercy and Skye Lounge at Bonifacio Global City, both of which offer fantastic views across the city towards the airport. Pull up a seat, sip on a cocktail and watch the planes taking off and landing.
If you're looking for something a little livelier, Manila has no shortage of clubs for a night of dancing with friends. Valkyrie at The Palace is the hottest club in town, attracting well heeled Filipinos and expats. Packed at the weekends when crowds gather to enjoy guest DJs, the club's high ceilings ensure that the dance floor doesn't get too claustrophobic. City of Dreams Manila also has a number of cool clubs frequented by Manila's A-list, including a branch of Pangaea, a name you may recognise from its Singapore and New York outposts.
It's impossible to run out of shopping options in Manila, as the city seems to have a mall on every corner! For chic boutiques, check out Makati district's Greenbelt or Rockwell PowerPlant. Meanwhile, for a great mix of high-end and high street fashion, Bonifacio High Street and SM Aura at The Fort are your best bet.
If you have a few days to spare, consider taking a side trip to Tagaytay.
Famous for the Taal Volcano, whose ridge is the crater's edge and whose lake is the caldera of the volcano, the region has developed into a popular getaway for Manila residents due to its relative proximity to the city, cooler climate and improved air quality.