3 days in Manila: Things to see, do and eat in the capital of the Philippines
Manila is a city that pulses with creative energy and possibilities.
More than any other Southeast Asian city, Manila is a polarising destination. Detractors will point first to the bad traffic and then segue into how the food is terrible.
As with any generalisation, there is a little truth in the accusation. So, let’s just start the conversation by admitting that yes, Manila is a noisy, chaotic, concrete metropolis with bad traffic. But you only have to scratch lightly beneath the surface to discover a city that fairly pulses with creative energy and possibilities.
The food scene alone is reason enough to book a flight immediately, for these are exciting times to be dining in Manila. At every turn, young Filipino chefs are upending that hoary old chestnut that the local cuisine is little more than adobo and balut. Their cooking is bold and innovative, and a younger and more cashed-up generation of foodies is loving every mouthful.
The contemporary arts scene is first rate whilst the shopping ‒ especially in the High Street range ‒ is bewildering in its range and quality.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the peso ‒ especially against the US and Singapore dollars ‒ stretches a long way so that even a world-class 10-course dinner at one of the city’s hottest tables is shockingly affordable.
Herewith, a rough guide to having a memorable holiday in an unexpectedly fabulous city.
Take your time over breakfast and plan to head out after the morning rush hour to your first destination, Casa Manila. Here in the old walled Spanish fort of Intramuros is the beautifully recreated home of a well-heeled family in the Spanish colonial era. From the patio paved with Chinese granite to the Neo-Gothic family chapel and the grand parlour, every Instagrammable room is dressed to the hilt with ceramics, painted walls, and gilt furnishings. After the tour, drop into the grand San Agustin Church, the oldest standing church in the Philippines, across the road.
To avoid the queues, have either an early or late lunch at Milky Way Cafe. In a city where, like the Peranakans, every family insists it alone cooks the best Filipino dishes, it’s remarkable that everyone calls a truce at this Makati City favourite. The comforting homestyle cuisine is served with brio whether the home-made corned beef, deep fried catfish, salmon sinigang or the crowd-pleasing halo-halo topped with the cafe’s homemade ube ice-cream.
Work off lunch with a trawl through Bonifacio High Street, a one-kilometre long boulevard slash pedestrianised outdoor mall that bristles with boutiques, cafes, family-friendly restaurants, bookshops, electronic gadgets, and swathes of green parks. As retail experiences go, this is one for the books.
Despite the temptations, try not to snack after lunch ‒ though, if you really must, the ice-cream and cakes at Wildflour are to die for ‒ because you have dinner reservations at Gallery by Chele. Spanish chef Chele Gonzalez has tramped up and down the length of the Philippines, vigilantly sourcing and documenting the country’s stunning range of ingredients and cornucopia of herbs and vegetables which he incorporates into his extraordinary Spain-meets-Philippines tasting menu. Think smoked Iberico pork with kamote puree, prawns paired with calamansi butter, and dainty brioche filled with bone marrow and purple corn.
If you’re in Manila on a Saturday, lucky you. Get up early and arrive at the Salcedo Community Market shortly after it opens at 7am just to get a head start on the tourists and locals who flock to the tree-shaded Jaime Velasquez Park for one of the best open-air weekend markets in the Philippines. On offer is a smorgasbord of artisanal produce, fruits and vegetables, and cooked food from the length and breadth of the country: Steamed bundles of cassava suman (glutinous rice-cakes cooked in coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves), vats of fresh dalandan juice and mounds of ensaymadas alongside towering stacks of tinned adobo corned beef and all the smoky lechon you dare not tell your cardiologist about.
Fully sated, get a culture fix at the Menarco Vertical Museum. This unusual venue celebrates contemporary Filipino art by sprinkling its collection through the lobby and 32 floors of the Menarco Tower where Meta has its HQ on the top levels. Co-curated with two of Manila’s leading galleries, Silverlens Gallery and Ateneo Art Gallery, the works are a first-rate mix of video, sculptures, photographs, paintings, prints and collages, their subject matters ranging from autobiographical to social and political commentary. Guided tours are available on Wednesdays and Fridays by appointment, but the public are encouraged to roam freely on Sundays.
After a well-deserved siesta back at the hotel, it’s time to dip once more into Manila’s burgeoning food scene, this time at Metiz, ranked 48 in this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Here, in a low-ceilinged, mood-lit restaurant, head chef Stephan Duhesme parlays his Filipino and French heritage into a modern, experimental Filipino menu that folds together small-scale organic produce, fermented vegetables and fruit, and the flavours of Colombia, Japan and Scandinavia. To whit, grilled pig’s cheek glazed with fermented jackfruit and paired with wild pepper eat, calamansi and chilli; and seared tofu seasoned with fermented pineapple and a smoked mushroom bagoong, the latter a sensational vegan take on the classic shrimp paste. The phrase ‘taste bomb’ springs to mind.
A 30-minute drive from Manila (an hour if you get caught in rush hour), Antipolo ‒ a town cherished by Filipino Catholics for its pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary ‒ is your first stop of the day, though it’s contemporary Filipino art, rather than holy goals, that bring you here. The Pinto Art Museum was set up in 2010 by the neurologist and art lover Dr Joven Cuanang who ran out of space in his bedroom to store his thousand-plus art pieces. The collection dates back to the 1980s when he mentored and sheltered 15 young artists (most now major names in the art world) on the grounds of his home, and what a collection it is. Spread over 2.5 hectares of wild jungle and gardens, the seven galleries contain a treasure trove of Filipino art, their story-telling so vivid and arresting that ArtNet anointed Pinto as one of the 25 most Instagrammed museums in the world.
Recover from the intense cultural fix with lunch at Grace Park, the jewel in the culinary empire of Margarita Fores, Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2016. The MO here is Italian but infused with Filipino ingredients. And so, spaghetti is tossed with creamy baby crab fat, Parmigiano Reggiano is gently grated over cassava cakes, organic chicken is roasted with carabao butter and garlic from Ilocos, and juicy grilled lamb is lifted with a jam of batuan fruit. All while being stared down by a perfectly roasted baby lechon on the side table. With cooking this original, if in the middle of lunch you find yourself plotting to come back for dinner, who could blame you?
After lunch, you will have just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, a serene homage ‒ clad in white stone and immaculately green lawns ‒ to the American and Filipino military dead of World War II.
And just when you thought you couldn’t eat another bite, it’s time for your reservation at Helm by Josh Boutwood. Located in the corner of the newly opened The Shops at Ayala Triangle Gardens (so new, the smell of varnish still hangs in the air and most of the luxury mall’s shops aren’t even open yet), this tiny 24-seater is a culinary playground for the Filipino-English chef. The tasting menu is unapologetically modern in its sweep of international flavours and ingredients beginning with fjord trout seasoned with juniper and tamari, a buckwheat tart of raw beef, and mussels infused with lemongrass and chilli, and ending with seared stripling and sunchoke, and burnt dark and white chocolates paired doused with coffee.
Ignore all your well-meaning friends and relatives who turn their noses up at the very idea of Manila as a holiday destination. They know nothing. The key is find an insider (see Fixer below) who will curate the perfect itinerary for you.
The other top tip is not to arrive in Manila on a Friday afternoon. Not unless you enjoy gridlocked traffic getting out of the airport.
WHERE TO STAY
All the tentpole luxury hotels are in Manila including the classic Peninsula and newly minted Shangri-La Peninsula, whilst the beloved Mandarin Oriental is due to reopen this year. But if that’s too much glitz for you, then it’s all about the Ascott in Bonifacio Global City (www.discoverasr.com) which features luxurious rooms at surprisingly affordable rates, a wonderful breakfast buffet and a terrific location that’s close to all the major sites and malls.
Unless you have a hankering for the crowded, noisy and dusty Jeepneys that locals use to get around, spring for a private chauffeur and car. They cost between S$8 and S$10 an hour excluding tolls, parking and petrol. Have a local fixer (see below) arrange everything for you, including booking the super reliable Rodolfo Bravo, Jr (WhatsApp +63 956 039 8683) for the driving.
Jose Suarez knows everybody in Manila and as a result, doors open whether museums for private tours or reservations at the hottest restaurants in town. Tell him when your travel dates and what you want to see, do and eat, and he’ll set it all up for you. In a city as sprawling and chaotic as Manila, he’s a fixer who will transform your experience of the city. jvbsuarez [at] eatpublicrelations.com ()