“Fly in. Fly out as soon as possible. The capital city isn’t worth spending time in.”
That’s a phrase uttered often about Manila, the 26-plus-million-population, mega city of the Philippines. The island nation is home to some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. There’s Palawan, with its rock karst islands jutting from jewel-tone waters. You could sun yourself at the rough-and-tumble El Nido, after the roosters wake you early in the morning, or climb the Chocolate mountain hills of Bohol, before kayaking through the dense estuaries to the white sand beaches.
Yet, this is one capital city that actually unfairly earns the suggestion of fly-over or fast-transit. You have to know where to go, what to do, how to navigate it (we mentioned that 26 million population, right?)
We've got all the tips for this buzzing, bright, affordable-luxury Asian capital. If you’re headed to the beaches, make sure to leave 48 hours for Manila.
Manila is home to incredible luxury hotels. It’s also home to traffic. If you’re planning on sightseeing, shopping and eating, it’s advisable to stay in the neighborhood of Makati––a district known for high-end retail, big business and pretty parks.
White-glove service, contemporary art, a dreamy, old-world lobby bar and lavish, tropical gardens, it’s an escape in the dead-center of the city.
Boasting the largest private collection of Filipino art in the city and one of the best fine-dining Filipino menus, The Raffles is an exquisite example of the city's luxurious side. Make sure to have a cocktail in the Writers Bar or a drink on the rooftop, and, of course, a nap by the pool.
Featuring a stunning, open design that marries industrial accents with Asian teak and art, this organic, locally focused restaurant is a divine option to start the day––whether you prefer a gluten-free pancake and waffle, or you want to venture into something more Filipino, like their Bistek Tagalog. It’s thinly shaved beef tenderloin with free-range eggs, garlic, brown rice and a small, vinegar-based salad.
Salcedo Saturday Market
Everyone loves a farmer’s market and it’s a short walk to a fabulous one, bursting with color and flavor. It’s an ideal spot for photographers and don’t be surprised if people come and request a photo. Filipinos are known for their friendliness and for mugging for a camera. The market isn’t all produce, either. Save a little room for sipping coconut milkshakes, and give bring a few bucks to purchase souveniers. They sell soaps, jewelry, homewares and jars of condiments here too.
Ayala Museum & Greenbelt Shopping
A short cab or a long walk to Greenbelt will land you at one of the prettiest malls in the country. Lush jungle plants, carefully designed pathways, fountains and bridges wind you through an outdoor mall complex that boasts names like Paul Smith and Prada.
Greenbelt 5 is what you want if you’re looking for independent, boutique Filipino designers.
At Greenbelt 3, you’ll find the entrance to the Ayala Museum, where ancient and modern art pieces tell the many stories of The Philippines, from the nation’s years of war to her more modern face of international commerce.
Intramuros & Rizal Park
Getting to the old city can take a while in traffic from Makati, but it’s an ideal escape from the hustle. Our suggestion is to hire a private car through your hotel, to ensure a luxurious 30 minute or more ride. The Old City is worth the trek, with the stunning, crumbling Citadel Fort Santiago, the gardens of the Plaza Moriones, the Plaza de Armas, with its walls and barracks, and the pink-stone San Agustin Church.
Blackbird at Nielson Tower
Once the first commercial airport for the city, dining in this warm, romantic space––particularly if you can get the tower table by the window––is unforgettable. Succulent roasted lamb. Notes of Southeast Asia in specialty crab dishes and thinly sliced seafood. Curries and pastas and haute desserts. It’s all worth dressing up for and reservations are recommended.
Not too far away, you’ll find this speakeasy with minimal effort. The door sign is shaded and difficult to see without searching. Inside, it’s dark and candlelit. The cocktail list does fine justice to the classics and the bartenders know their way around a Sazerac. Ask them for a twist on your favorite libations and prepare to be impressed.
Grab a fast hotel breakfast and take a hired car just shy of two hours to Wawa Dam for the day. Do not forget your bathing suit and a sturdy pair of sneakers for hiking. If you’re a cyclist, you’ll want to look into arranging a bike ride here too, although the terrain can be taxing.
WaWa Dam is in a gorge of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Marikina River, where hundreds upon hundreds of bright white boulders rest at the base of a crashing wall of water.
The Dam was built in 1909, and it once supplied all of Metro Manila with water. When the Angat Dam was created in 1967, Wawa was abandoned. Today, locals have set up picnic tables and bamboo bridges right at the base. It’s best to pack snacks for this adventure, although a few locals might be selling small snacks.
Give yourself 4 hours to visit Wawa Dam and bring a bikini/towels/sunscreen. While the action is down in the gorge, the walk on the upper river is alternatively peaceful and beautiful.
Fort Bonifacio Global City
The Fort, as it’s affectionately known, is a large, outdoor retail and activity district that has something for everyone. There are plenty of cafes, cocktail bars, al fresco lunch spots and there’s shopping galore. You can also arrange to take a Barre or Pilates class here, and your kids will love the art experiences at the Kiddie Art Kart. Our pick for food? That would be the international ramen legend, Ippudo. They have a restaurant here and it’s as fabulous as the one you may know and love in New York City.
Poblacion / Burgos
During the Vietnam War, when soldiers were allowed shore leave, Burgos was legendary. A strip of neon and mayhem, it offered all sorts of fun––some clean, some tawdry. Today, Burgos and the officially named Poblacion neighborhood is still home to all that neon, a scattering of mild strip bars, and plenty of live music, karaoke, and even cocktails. Check out A Toda Madre for craft mezcal and tequila drinks, Café Curio for rum cocktails and Rock bands, and stop in El Chupacabre for incredible tacos with a dash of Filipino flavor.