Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010


It's cosmopolitan and chameleonlike, equal parts cool and kitsch, and animated with an irrepressible vitality that's capable of reinvigorating even the most world-weary among us. Yet for many folk Manila remains a city less traveled, because its myriad attractions are obscured by a flawed p.r. machine. The city's cultural gumbo of Malay, Spanish, American, Chinese and Arabic influences is heady and rich, but takes a while to fully appreciate. As in many developing-world cities, the traffic is stifling, the poverty pervasive and the urban sprawl daunting. But it's the Philippine capital's very elusiveness that gives it the edge over places that readily reveal their spoils. Embrace its beautiful chaos, even for just a day, and you'll be rewarded.

1. Intramuros

The 64-hectare stone citadel, founded by the Spanish in 1571, has withstood wars, natural disasters and successive waves of colonial invaders, and as such stands as a metaphor for Manila itself. Explore it before 10 a.m., while the temperature outside is still bearable, then stop at Ilustrado, tel: (63-2) 527 3674, a colonial-style villa, for a breakfast of buttery ensaymada (savory brioche) and Spanish hot chocolate.

2. Manila Contemporary

The slicing edge of Manila's art scene can be found along Chino Roces Avenue. Manila Contemporary,, consistently hosts world-class exhibitions from the Philippines and beyond. Nearby, Silverlens,, exhibits superb photography, video and installation work.

3. Café Juanita

The food at Café Juanita, tel: (63-2) 632 0357, is as close to Filipino home cooking as you can get, with great takes on pork adobo, angel-hair pasta with aligue (crab fat) sauce and deep-fried asohos (whiting), and laing (taro leaves in coconut milk). The character-steeped décor is a plus.

4. Greenbelt Chapel

You're never far from the Holy Spirit in this predominantly Roman Catholic city, and the spirit is palpable in Greenbelt 3, a luxury shopping complex where commercialism and Christianity make for intriguing bed partners. Its prominent domed church, the Greenbelt Chapel, tel: (63-2) 729 8173, sits like a jewel in the middle of carefully manicured grounds — mass is heard at least three times daily. A stone's throw away is Greenbelt 5, where you can atone for your sins by supporting local design talent; an entire top-floor wing is dedicated to the country's homegrown brands.

5. Dynastic Museums

Manila's conglomerates are owned by powerful clans whose histories are inextricable from that of the city. Two museums, facing off less than a block away from one another, offer insights into how they live and work. The Ayala Museum,, established by the Zóbel de Ayala family that owns most of Makati, includes a showcase of works by family member Fernando Zóbel, a prominent artist in his own right. The Yuchengco Museum,, established by a former U.N. ambassador, includes a gallery dedicated to family history, as well as a bizarre but fascinating collection of portraits of the sweethearts and mistresses of peripatetic Philippine national hero José Rizal (apparently quite the ladies' man).

6. Halo-halo

If you could distill an entire culture into a single beverage, it would have to be a halo-halo. Confounding to some yet irresistible to others, this quintessentially Pinoy drink cum dessert — with a name that literally translates as "jumble-jumble" — is a refreshing concoction of shaved ice and evaporated milk, mixed up with any combination of sweetened beans, candied fruit, nata de coco, leche flan (Filipino crème caramel), ube (purple yam) concentrate and jelly, among other ingredients. Don't forget to top it off with a scoop of ube ice cream.

7. Marikina Shoe Museum

For better or for worse, people will always be fascinated by the footwear of the Philippines' controversial former First Lady, Imelda Marcos. To behold her size-81/2 collection for yourself, visit the Marikina Shoe Museum, tel: (63-2) 430 9735, in the heart of Manila's shoemaking district.

8. The sunset

One of Manila's prime assets is its sunset. Savor it on the swish terrace of the Whitemoon Bar, (63-917) 815 4181, located in Manila Ocean Park, while listening to DJs playing trip-hop and soul music. Or grab a refreshing calamansi juice and stroll along San Miguel by the Bay, a 1.5-km promenade right by the airy Mall of Asia.

9. Binondo

Deliberately within firing range of Intramuros's cannons — testament to the siege mentality of early Spanish settlers — is Binondo, Manila's colorful 400-year-old Chinatown. Purportedly the oldest Chinatown in the world, it teems with jostling pedestrians and itinerant vendors. Foodies should duck inside fabled Chinese-Filipino eatery Ma Mon Luk, tel: (63-2) 733 7596, in nearby Quiapo, for a bowl of Manila's best chicken mami (noodle soup).

10. Music venues

Manila abounds with music but, unless you're after a night of Air Supply covers, you need to be discerning about where you go. Club Dredd,, in Eastwood City, showcases Manila's phenomenal array of indie-rock bands. In Makati, Warehouse 135,, draws local and international DJs of an avant-garde persuasion.