Manila was my least favorite part of our honeymoon, but instead of lambasting its horrendous traffic, stifling pollution, and blatant class stratification, I’ll focus on the positive aspects and hope that you do a better job than I did when planning a trip to this metropolis.

Manila is the capital of the Philippines and is situated on the eastern shore of Manila Bay. It is the most densely populated city in the world, and is one of sixteen cities that make up the region of Metro Manila. In 1571, Mexican conquistadors founded present-day Manila. The city thus became the center of Spanish trade in Asia, earning its nickname “Pearl of the Orient”. The city underwent Chinese revolts, pirate attacks, earthquakes, numerous invasion attempts, and British occupation. Most of Manila was flattened by aerial bombardment by the U.S. Air Force near the end of World War II, so very little remains of Manila’s prewar and colonial architecture, which is a shame.

For anyone interested in Filipino history, a visit to Intramuros is a must. Intramuros, or “within the walls,” is the oldest district in Manila and was walled to defend the city from foreign invasion. It is the only district of Manila where you can find old Spanish-era influences. A museum dedicated to national hero Jose Rizal is located in Intramuros, as the site is where he was actually detained during his final days. The museum showcases artifacts that prove how extraordinary Rizal was — he was a political leader, an author, an artist, a poet, and more.

The Japanese would imprison Filipinos in these dungeons, which would then flood with water from Manila Bay
Fortunately, some prisoners escaped by swimming away under the cover of those floating plants
Statue of Rizal in his final holding cell on the day of his execution
You can follow Rizal’s last footsteps to his execution

Manila is extremely humid, especially in the summer, so we constantly took refuge in underground walkways, shopping malls, and museums. My favorite museum is the Ayala Museum, which is located in the district of Makati. The six-story museum houses contemporary art and archaeological exhibits, but the best part is the diorama exhibit, which narrates Philippine history through 60 beautifully handcrafted dioramas. We borrowed a pair of headphones and took a fascinating audio tour of the museum. This was easily my favorite few hours in Manila.

These audio guides were worth every peso!
Lapu Lapu resists the Spanish in the 16th century
Revolutionary leader Bonifacio encourages Filipinos to tear up the papers that identified them as servants to the Spanish crown
Rizal’s execution

It always saddens me when American tourists who visit the Philippines bypass places like Manila and Quezon City and go straight to Palawan and Boracay, reducing an entire country to snorkeling and postcard-perfect beaches. It’s similar to those who travel to Thailand just for Phuket or the Phi Phi Islands. I don’t blame them, as my preferred regions of the Philippines are also less built-up and quite touristy (e.g., Banaue and Davao). However, Manila is an interesting city that I hope will eventually gain the respect it deserves.

That’s it for the Philippines. Anyong haseyo, Seoul!


Tips for future travelers:

  1. Avoid driving (and being driven) at all costs. You haven’t seen traffic until you’ve seen Manila traffic. Stay at a hotel within walking distance to most of your sites.
  2. If you have time, take a day-trip to Tagaytay, just south of Manila. Per recommendation, my grandparents’ driver took us on a detour on our way to Manila so we could view Lake Taal from the city of Tagaytay. Lake Taal is a freshwater lake that fills a massive volcanic caldera formed after a series of eruptions. The lake was once part of the South China Sea, but the eruptions filled in the entrance, isolating it from the ocean. One very lucky Starbucks in Tagaytay just so happens to offer one of the best views of Lake Taal, so we ordered an ensamada and ube cheesecake and took in the scenery.
  3. Travel with my parents. Back in 2011, they took me to Manila and we had a perfectly good time. We went to Intramuros, the Ayala Museum, and even the same shopping malls, so I’ll have to figure out what they did differently to make the experience so much more pleasant.
View of Lake Taal from a Starbucks in Tagaytay