Now that I’ve been able to get the whole Manila envelope pun out of the way by means of the title, I invite you to read on about what to see and do in the Philippine capital if you’ve only got limited time.
Manila is a sprawling metropolis characteristic of many rapidly-growing Asian cities – filled with chaotic traffic, ramshackle development and increasingly Westernized modernization in the form of glitzy shopping malls that could rival anything back home (I’m talking about you, Mall of Asia). One could rightly argue that such things are reasons why a person wouldn’t want to visit. But at the heart of it all – just a few blocks off of Manila Bay in fact – is a relatively peaceful enclave that lends character to an otherwise indistinct urban conglomeration. It’s called Intramuros, and for those with limited time, it should be at the top of your trip itinerary
Meaning ‘inside the walls’ this is the historic center of Manila – one that was home to its colonial past, and the site of some of the most dreadful devastation the country suffered during World War II (an estimated 100K died during the ‘liberation’ of the city). In fact, most of it was leveled by the intense fighting, and what exists today are mostly reconstructions. Regardless of the exact age, the overall effect is one that gives an appropriate nod to the past and the juxtaposition with the modern development on the outside is a welcome contrast.
What to See
Fort Santiago – overlooking the Pasig River – is the top draw for visitors to Intramuros. This was once the stronghold for the Spanish, Americans and Japanese as they took turns as acting overlords. Today you can admire the mossy bastions of the fort’s walls and crumbling buildings, with intermittent peeks at the darkened dungeons that sit below. It doesn’t have the gravitas of other former fortresses around the world, but is worth at least an hour’s exploration.
Just down the road is another worthy destination – the Casa Manila museum and its surrounding complex. The museum was closed the day I visited, but the network of stone courtyards, flowery passageways, small cafés and shops were right out of colonial times, and if you get the sense that you’re waiting on line on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean you can be forgiven for the comparison.
Just south of the Intramuros is Rizal Park – the Philippines’ answer to the National Mall in Washington D.C. – complete with their own obelisk. Around the open expanse of lawns and fountains are small alcoves with themed gardens accessible for nominal fees. For some relaxation amid the noisy chaos of the city, I’d recommend the Japanese gardens. For some tacky but fun photo opportunities in a Jeepney (the ubiquitous highly-artistic stretched-Jeep public transport option) or rickshaw, I’d recommend the Orchidarium, though you won’t find more than a few examples of its namesake.
Bear in mind that being located within the tropics, any visit to Manila is likely to be a hot one. I’d say you’d be baking in the sun, but with the humidity its more likely you’ll feel sauteed. That said, take in lots of liquids (available at one of the many 7-11s) and don’t be afraid to duck into air conditioned shops to cool down and perhaps pump a few pesos into the local economy.
There is a decidedly third-world feel in many places, and while you need not be overly concerned with safety during the day, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of your surroundings and belongings. That said, I found the Filipinos to be a friendly and engaging people and encourage you to find that out for yourself. All in all, one day is sufficient to see what needs to be seen, and if you have more time and care anything about military history, sites such as Corregidor and the military cemeteries will be worth your while.
With so many amazing places to see and visit in Southeast Asia, I would be hard pressed to recommend going out of your way to include Manila. Far more appealing is the resort island of Boracay not far to the south. But if your travels bring you through the Philippine capital, you might as well make the most of it, and a visit to Intramuros and Rizal Park will likely leave you feeling satisfied – without having to push the envelope.