The capital of the Philippines is a busy mass of energy and industry, and there are many reasons why it deserved its nickname "the Pearl of the Orient".
You can witness colonial sights like Casa Manila or Fort Santiago, or get a taste for how the city has thrived in an independent Philippines at the Museum of the Filipino People. Tuck into a freshly made lumpia wrapper, before heading to watch international music acts at the SM Mall of Asia Concert Grounds, or dance all night long to the rhythms of the city at clubs like Revel or Valkyrie.
Modern Manila is a heady mix of grand colonial churches, hyper-malls, museums, and street life that all combines to create a wonderful vacation destination.
Manila was the capital of the Spanish Philippines for hundreds of years, and became one of the richest cities in the empire. Nowadays, visitors can explore this rich heritage at reconstructed colonial homes like Casa Manila, the ramparts of Fort Santiago, and lavish palaces like Malacañang (now the seat of the national government).
Try lumpia (spring roll wraps) or adobo (chicken or lamb cooked in a rich garlic sauce) at restaurants like Sentro 1771 or Cafe Juanita.
Manila has all of the museums and galleries you could hope for from a national capital, and a few more besides. The largest is the National Museum, closely followed by the Museum of the Filipino People, but you might also head to more offbeat museums like the Museo Pambata (dedicated to children) and the science-oriented Mind Museum.
Art is one of Manila's great passions, and with galleries like the Metropolitan Museum of Manila, the Yuchengco Museum, and contemporary exhibition spaces like 1335Mabini or Artinformal, visitors who share the city's love of painting and sculpture will be spoiled for choice.
Manila has plenty to offer on its own, but there are some superb attractions a few hours away. For instance, you could join tours to the peak of Mount Pinatubo or head to Tagaytay City, with its beautiful volcanic lagoon. You could also head to beaches like Calatagan and Zambales in no time at all.
Thick defensive walls once delimited the entire city of Manila, now a metropolis expanding far beyond containment. These streets hold the only remnants of a complicated past, and history unfolds with a tour of military headquarters Fort Santiago, or of lush colonial residence Casa Manila. Nearby, San Agustín remains the oldest active church in the country. Rizal Park stands at the outskirts of Intramuros, in celebration of the national heroes and the recent independence.
Across Pasig River from Intramuros, this intensely contrasting neighborhood exemplifies the bustling culture of Manila as it is known today. Besides iconic Binondo Church, food is the main attraction. The famous Dong Bei dumpling house draws hungry visitors all day long. The local Cemetery extends northwards from this Chinatown, offering a break from the city amidst lovely Chinese architecture.
Manila was strategically located on this bay for trade and defensive purposes, and today the city's greatest attractions surround its picturesque waters. Rides at Ocean Park and Star City send you soaring over the horizon, while the SM Mall of Asia offers endless shopping opportunities. The Cultural Center of the Philippines always has a local event going on, and is just a few steps from the boats that bear you to Corregidor Island.
Makati is the striking contemporary hub of Manila, and the Philippines' center for business and finance. Its skycrapers are iconic and jaw-dropping, with high-end department stores at their feet. Beneath the cityscape, side streets also hide smaller scale wonders worth a tour. The enjoyable Ayala Triangle Gardens with its cafés lie just behind the Stock Exchange, and the Greenbelt Chapel and Nuestra Señora de Gracia church harken back to earlier times.
A Lake within a Lake... Though Manila is teeming with energy day and night, the Philippines are also full of serene natural wonders. For a change of pace, make the day trip to Taal Lake, a dazzling freshwater crater south of the city. Take a boat to the isolated island at the center and make your way to the top of Taal Volcano on horseback. Light plays with the water that fills the mountaintop crater, as the rest of the lake expands in every direction down below.
The best time to visit Manila is during the country's dry season, which usually runs from around November to April. The city is a magical Christmas destination, and the weather will be ideal for sunbathing or sightseeing, so a festive break is an excellent idea. January is another option, with the added bonus of spectacular festivals like the Feast of the Black Nazarene.
Most travelers from North America will arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), which has good connections to all major American cities. When you arrive, the cheapest route into town is via the special Express Bus Service, which costs ₱300. If you choose to take a taxi, expect to pay around ₱700, and try to negotiate a fare before you leave the airport.
There are a number of car rental outlets at Manila Airport, including branches of Avis and TransAvia. If you are driving into the city, it's around eight miles to Intramuros (the center of town). Take the R-1 coastal road and it should lead you directly into the city.
If you are coming from provincial cities elsewhere in Luzon, Manila is well connected by bus, but every company will have its own drop-off point, so check the arrangements before you travel. Manila is a sprawling city, and it is not advisable to be dropped off in a distant suburb.
Those who need to be close to the sights in Intramuros could go for the comfortable Bayleaf Hotel, which has a rooftop restaurant. Other city center highlights include the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, Raffles Makati (which is very handy for the main business district), and Nobu Hotel, which has a huge on-site pool. Budget travelers could also have a look at Z Hostel in Makati, which is a modern, well-located but cheaper accommodation provider.
Intramuros - literally "inside the walls", Intramuros is Manila's historical heart. Here you'll find almost all of the colonial-era attractions like the city ramparts, the church of San Agustín, Manila's splendid cathedral, and Casa Manila, a recreated colonial home.
Ermita - famous for its nightlife and restaurants, Ermita is where most tourists gravitate to at the end of a day of sightseeing, and with good reason. Ermita has plenty of family attractions like the Ocean Park Aquarium and the Museo Pambata, while eateries like Kamayan are a wonderful place to sample Filipino delicacies.
Sampaloc - home to most of Manila's higher education institutions, Sampaloc has a student vibe about it, but is also famous for its stunning Dangwa Flower Market. It's a good place to party and relax, while the many lechon (roasted pig) restaurants are excellent places to fill up at the end of the day.
Manila is criss-crossed by three rail lines (colored yellow, purple, and orange), which provide good coverage of the major neighborhoods. Basic fares on the yellow and purple lines are ₱22 (for four stops), while the orange line is cheaper at ₱10. A good idea is to pick up a prepaid ticket with enough charge on it to cover your vacation travel, and you can do so at all major stations. Buses are also available and charge ₱10 for the cheapest fares.
There are a number of different types of taxi in Manila. The most fun is definitely a "calesa", which is a horse-drawn carriage; these only operate in the center of town. Calesas cost around ₱70 for an hour, so they aren't a budget option. Other than that, standard taxis are fairly cheap. Rates are metered (or should be) and start with a ₱40 flag drop, then ₱3.50 for every 300 meters, with a ₱3.50 charge for every two minutes of waiting time.
If you want to venture out of the city, renting a car in Manila is a must, and it shouldn't be hard thanks to local branches of Avis and Budget as well as local companies like Avalon. Expect a vehicle to cost about ₱300 per day. Inner city driving can be stressful thanks to chaotic traffic and driving, but rural highways are easy to use and make it much easier to get to sights like Tagaytay.
If you are looking for vintage clothing and designer gear from local talents, check out the Collective, a design community on Malugay Street. If you just want to wander endlessly from shop to shop, visiting SM Megamall - the fourth largest mall in the world - is essential. At the other end of the scale, diving into Ukay Ukay, mammoth used-clothes stores where you can rummage for anything from cheap finds to designer sunglasses.
The best places to shop for groceries in the Philippine capital are supermarkets like Rustan's, Puregold, and Walter Mart. Expect a gallon of milk to cost around ₱280 and 12 eggs to come to about ₱70.
If you want to try Filipino dishes, superb dining options include Sentro 1771, Kabila, and Wooden Spoon. However, there are also world-class Chinese restaurants like Tim Ho Wan, great Indian eateries like New Bombay, and European options like Caruso Ristorante Italiano. Manila has a massive range of dining options thanks to its multicultural nature, and gourmet food fans can dine very well for very little money. Expect high-quality meals to cost as little as ₱500.