#HauteEscapes: 10 Reasons Why Manila Should Be On Your Bucket List
I’m not going to lie. Having a husband who often spends 2 months+ at a stretch away from home on business trips isn’t a walk in the park. But getting to visit him in interesting cities around the world is definitely one of the perks. This time round, it happened to be the busy city of Manila in the Philippines. Which, I must admit, wasn’t a prospect that thrilled me at the start. I’d rather have been walking barefoot along the pristine white beaches of Cebu, lounging around by an infinity pool in Boracay, or taking a glass-bottom boat ride through Palawan like I’d seen some of the travel bloggers do on my Instagram feed. Boy, was I wrong.
Seventeen hours of travel later, my bruised suitcase and I were picked up by a large, good-natured Filipino man in a Hawaiian shirt. From the second my studded gladiator sandals set foot in his car, all I could think was, “Now I know why they call this place Manic Manila!” People, buildings, cars seemed to envelop every single inch of space for miles on end. Skyscrapers loomed over busy shoppers rushing to catch the jeepney home, their designer shopping bags bobbing along beside them. Like most big cities, the atmosphere was electric for reasons you couldn’t quite place your finger on but were excited to discover.
Here are a few lesser-known facts I discovered about Manila during a recent trip that are making me hungry to go back for more. Also, a few reasons why you’ll add this city to the top of your #HauteEscapes list!
1. It is a shopaholic’s delight
Never in the 27 years I’ve been alive and the 13 countries I’ve travelled to have I seen a city that has as many malls or likes to shop as much as Manila does (sorry, New York). There’s something for everyone – whether you like to splash out on designer pieces at Green Belt or Rustan’s, scoop up on-trend pieces from your favourite high street stores at Glorietta, or hunt down a bargain at Landmark. Every single brand you’ve loved and coveted from the US, UK, Asia, and Australia has a presence in Manila – I kid you not.
My favourite shopping destination of the whole trip? Manila’s very own high street brand SM, where I scored some fabulous pieces at great prices. Oh, and for those of you who love your replica designer pieces (we know you’re out there!), Green Hills is the place for you. Hundreds of shops under one roof selling the best designer replicas you ever will see await you. (Don’t forget to ask for the first copies — they keep them hidden in the back!)
2. It’s a great place to stock up on rare beauty products
You know all those amazing Japanese and Korean beauty products your favourite bloggers have been talking about, but you just haven’t been able to get your hands on? Well, this is the place. Head over to the beauty section of Landmark department store to score quirky, cool, and totally legit South-East Asian skincare and makeup brands. My favourites are Korean brands Tony Moly and Etude House and Filipino brand Snoe. Also, be sure to stop by a Muji store if you’re in Manila for some truly amazing Japanese beauty products that will leave you wanting more!
3. Your palette will never be the same again
Like my husband and I say, once you go “Bon Chon” you will never go back! And by that we mean the Korean fried chicken chain in Manila that was our favourite snack – it was absolutely scrumptious! If you haven’t tried the American hot dog restaurant Pink’s Hot Dogs yet, be sure to check out the one in Bonefacio. They’re the most epic hot dogs of all time. Bizu in Makati serves delicious breakfast dishes and is styled like a French Patisserie, macarons and all.
Other memorable meals include traditional Filipino cuisine Crispy Pata (pork knuckles) and Beef Kare Kare (succulent chunks of beef in peanut curry). Another must-try is Bibimbap, a Korean dish made of mixed rice, vegetables, meat, and soy sauce. But for a truly exquisite fine dining experience, don’t leave Manila without eating at Blackbird. The restaurant used to be a former airport control tower but now serves the most beautiful food that will ever pass your lips. Trust me on this one.
4. The nightlife is unlike anything you’ll ever experience
I can’t think of many cities where the local watering hole is a boxing ring featuring fighter midgets (you’re allowed to use this word there – we checked!). Yet somehow, Manila has one. One of my most memorable nights included getting up to referee a fight among two girls at Ringside in Makati, but being asked to don a helmet and boxing gloves and fight one myself (and happily obliging, I might add!).
Another must-visit is the Movie Stars café at Manila Bay, where trained performers dress in costume and perform movie-themed dance acts and musicals every 30 minutes while you eat. A favourite informal national pass time is Karaoke, so grab your friends, head down to Center Stage, and prepare to belt out a few tunes for an authentic Filipino experience.
On a tamer note, if you want to enjoy the stunning Manila skyline by night, head on over to Skye Lounge in Bonefacio for great cocktails, chilled music, and an even better view. Oh, and if you’re hungry at the end of a long night out, The Bowery caters to people who work all hours of the day and night at call centres, and is open 24×7.
San Augustine Church in Intramuros
5. It is rich in culture and heritage
Don’t let Manila’s modern façade of glass office buildings and shopping malls fool you. Thirty short minutes away from Manila’s busy financial centres of Makati and Bonefacio lies Intramuros (meaning “within the walls” in Spanish) – a treasure trove of beautiful old churches and forts. Book a historic walking tour of Intramuros with Ivan Man Dy or explore on your own via horse carriage or tricycle. Be sure to check out the San Augustine Church, Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, and the Intramuros flea market. Another great visit are the Chinese and American cemeteries that will take your breath away. Or if you need a break from shopping, pop into the Ayala Museum in Makati for a shot of culture on the go. For an in-city day trip, be sure to check out the Villa Escudero – ride through a waterfall on a canoe, eat at a restaurant at the foot of the waterfall, and experience rural Filipino hospitality.
6. It is well-planned and well-connected
And by this I mean that it is accessible for tourists to get around to different parts of the city with ease. I’ve been to cities where transport isn’t efficient or is very expensive, so getting from once place to another is a nightmare. In Manila, however, in order to transport their population of 1.6 billion around everyday, one is spoiled for choice with taxis, Uber, trams, buses, trains, tricycles and my favourite of all – jeepneys. Jeepneys are an iconic piece of Filpino culture – they are old Military jeeps left over from WWI which are now used like buses and seat up to 23 people at a time. They are usually very crowded (with people sometimes hanging off them like local Indian trains) and warm, as most of them don’t have air conditioning. Their main patrons are locals as opposed to tourists, but I wouldn’t be opposed to trying one for a fun, organic Filipino experience and to see how the locals live and travel.
7. It is a great base to tour the rest of the country from
Conveniently positioned, you can get to the city of Cebu and the islands of El Nido and Boracay via a short 1-1.5hr flight from Manila. You can also go on a number of fun day trips close to Manila, like a trek/donkey ride up to the active Taal volcano in Tagaytay, or a visit to the beautiful Corregidor Island for a historic walk of the memorials and relics left over from WW2, a trip to the Zoobic Safari to see the animals, or go zip-lining or go diving at Eagle Point Resort at Batangas.
8. It is safe for women
Planning a girls trip? This is the place to go! All the men I met on my trip – from taxi drivers to security guards to policemen and random passersby on the street — are either very polite, helpful and smiley, or so involved in their own lives that they barely even know you’re there. The Filipinos are very respectful of women, so you won’t be exposed to creepy stares, lewd remarks or worry about getting home safe after a night out – always a win in my book!
9. The sunsets are breathtaking
Take a taxi to Mall Of Asia – once you’ve gotten over how vast it actually is, head down to the Manila Bay promenade, lodge yourself into any tiny gap you can find between people, and enjoy the most beautiful, picturesque sunset you ever will see. Then walk along the promenade and enjoy the live music, street food and rides for a lovely, relaxing end to the day.
10. It’s your birthday? Don’t spend your money!
The best thing about Manila is that 9 out of 10 restaurants will treat you to an entire meal on your birthday if you show them your ID. Also, birthday burgers are a thing here instead of cake – I’m down with that!