Be a tourist in your own country
Summer is coming, but that doesn’t mean everyone will get the opportunity to travel. Whether it’s for budgetary or work concerns or lingering COVID apprehension, leaving the city may not be an option for many. And while Metro Manila is a veritable megacity with no shortage of activities, after two years of pandemic life, looking for fresh things to do can be a challenge. Downtown Manila (or what one might call Old Manila) has been somewhat overlooked over the years. It’s often overshadowed by bright lights, towering skyscrapers and the comparatively sterile environments of BGC, Makati and Quezon City, but there’s arguably no place in the metro that has more character and is as historically enriching as Manila.
So, travel without really travelling and explore our historic downtown from Binondo to Malate. In this article we outline an ideal day in Old Manila for both newbies or even locals looking to rediscover their own city.
Start the day off in the world’s oldest Chinatown. You have a full day ahead, sustenance is essential. Head to Wai Ying for a filling Cantonese breakfast: beef noodle soup or century egg congee with an assortment of dimsum (some of the best in the city) will surely hit the spot. Now thoroughly satiated, walk through historic Ongpin and Binondo’s famous arches (apparently the world’s biggest) to Escolta street, once a society capital in the fifties and still maintaining its neo-classical and art deco architecture. Today, there are co-working spaces, a Marxist themed bar called Fred’s Revolution, and a daily thrift bazaar boasting all kinds of Filipiniana memorabilia. Have an Americano at the Den, a contemporary coffee shop tucked away in the First United building.
From Binondo, take a pedicab or taxi to old-world Intramuros, the famous walled city once considered by the Spanish as the entire city of Manila. Walk through Intramuros’ signature cobblestone streets into Fort Santiago, a fortress from the 1500s located at the bank of the Pasig River. It is still well-maintained with beautifully manicured lawns, shrines to Jose Rizal, World War II galleries, old dungeons, and more. It is an ideal escape from the urban chaos of Manila. Nearby is the ornate Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church Museum. A popular mode of transport: Bamboo bikes.
End your Intramuros excursion at the Bayview Hotel rooftop where you get an aerial view of the walled city, the Intramuros golf course (famous for its night golf) and the surrounding areas of Old Manila.
1PM, Luneta Park AKA Rizal Park
All that walking and you’ve built up a bit of an appetite. Proceed to pier and restaurant Harbor View for lunch, where you can have very fresh seafood and grilled Pinoy favorites as the sea breeze gently wafts past you. The popular establishment has pleasant views of the US Embassy and Manila Bay. After lunch, cross the road and take a stroll through Rizal Park (or “Luneta” as it is still widely known). A vast expanse of open lawns, Japanese and Chinese gardens, paved walks, and monuments dedicated to Filipino heroes (most notably, the famous Rizal Monument), Rizal Park is an atmospheric and impressively clean park and an ideal place for an afternoon walk. If it gets too hot, seek refuge in the lobby of the regal Manila Hotel, where everyone from the Beatles to JFK to Hemingway have spent time.
Visit the Solidaridad bookshop, a quaint but celebrated store established in 1964 by literary giant F Sionil Jose. The bookstore is tidy and well maintained and has an impressive selection of books from classic Filipiniana reads to more modern and global books with subjects ranging from Japanese literary criticism to commentaries on fascism. If you still have room, walk a few blocks to Shawarma Snack Center’s flagship branch on Salas street, where legit biryanis and other traditional and delicious Arabic fare is available, 24 hours a day. Finish the day off with happy hour at a landmark Malate pub called Oarhouse, also once a hub for artists, bohemians and political dissidents. The late great Anthony Bourdain even visited and featured the bar when he came to Manila a few years ago.
While a day in Old Manila sounds like a full day as it is, there are so many other places to see and visit. Our other notable mentions include: National Museum, Manila Aquarium, Aristocrat Restaurant, Quiapo Church and Market, Dakota Cabin Bar, Manila Koreatown and Fo Guan Shan Mabuhay Temple.
Words Art Vandelay
Art Daniella Sison