Manila and Beyond: Ten Places to Go

Manila skyline from the ferry to Corregidor.
Manila skyline from the ferry to Corregidor.
Lake Taal.
Lake Taal.
The famous MOA globe.
The famous MOA globe. | Source
Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila.
Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila.
Bedroom, Sonya's Garden.
Bedroom, Sonya's Garden. | Source
Manila Cathedral.
Manila Cathedral.
San Augustin Church, Intramuros, Manila.
San Augustin Church, Intramuros, Manila.
Mile Long Barracks, Corregidor.
Mile Long Barracks, Corregidor.
Verde Island Resort near Puerto Galera.
Verde Island Resort near Puerto Galera. | Source
Dampa, Pasay City.
Dampa, Pasay City.
The Makati City skyline from Ninoy Aquino International Airport - Manila's gateway.
The Makati City skyline from Ninoy Aquino International Airport - Manila's gateway.

Overview. Manila is a huge city and its designation is often loosely defined and confused with anything in greater Manila, known as Metro Manila. Administratively, the city of Manila is one of 16 cities that make up the NCR or National Capital Region of the Philippines, one of 17 administrative regions in the country. There are also a total of 80 provinces, 138 cities, and 12 metropolitan areas within the Philippines. Surprisingly, Manila (city) is not the largest city by population. That honor belongs to Quezon City with a population of 2.679 million (2007 census). In comparison Manila (city) has 1.660 million (2007 census). The places described below are within Metro Manila or in adjacent provinces that are within a couple hours drive at most from the NCR. Although this list is not exhaustive it is a good introduction to the historical, cultural, and popular things to see in one of Asia’s largest metropolitan areas.

1. Corregidor. Cavite City, Cavite Province. Corregidor is an island at the mouth of the Bay of Manila, said to be one of the best natural harbors in Asia. It is administered by Cavite City although its location is closer to Bataan Province. Its present name derives from the Spanish word corregir, “to correct”. The origins of this name are various and vague but it could stem from an old customs station to “correct” papers of ships, or from an early penal colony on the island. Corregidor's fame rests mostly with its connection to World War II but its military past dates to Spanish rule in the early 1600s. It was temporarily occupied by the Dutch in 1647 and Chinese pirates also used it as a launch to attack Spanish interests in the Philippines. The British occupied it in 1762 as an anchorage and its position to launch attacks eventually warranted the building of fortifications. Because of its strategic location at the mouth of Manila Bay, the Spanish built a naval and customs base. In 1902 it was taken over by the U.S. military and in 1908 Fort Mills was established on the island. The Topside Barracks, also known as the “Mile Long” Barracks, were the longest military barracks in the world at the time of their occupation. Over 1500 feet in length, it’s easy to overestimate their length with the naked eye which lends credence to the nickname. In a nutshell, the siege of Corregidor commenced in December 1941 when the Japanese invaded Philippines. The joint U.S and Philippine forces held out until April 1942 and the Philippines ran its government, led by Manuel L. Quezon, from the Malinta tunnel roughly during the same time. When Bataan (peninsula), visible from Corregidor, fell to the Japanese, another notorious chapter in history unfolded with the “Death March” of U.S. and Filipino soldiers. General Douglas Mac Arthur uttered his prophetic words “I shall return” in reference to his clandestine departure from Corregidor. However they weren’t actually said until he delivered a speech from the safety of Australia. On May 9, 1942, General Jonathan Wainwright, commander of Allied Forces in the Philippines, surrendered to the Japanese. He was the highest ranking U.S. POW during World War II and was held until the war’s end, liberated from a Japanese prison camp in Manchuria by the Red Army in August 1945. The charter ferry to Corregidor leaves from the terminal on Roxas Boulevard in Manila city located near the Manila Yacht Club and naval base. Reservations are recommended.

2. Dampa Fresh Seafood Market. Pasay City, Metro Manila.This is a culinary and cultural experience unique to this part of the world. Many of the fish markets are outdoor markets where you can walk through, choose your fish, or any other seafood for that matter, while it’s still swimming, and have them fry it up in the adjacent sit-down restaurants. Whether you like fish or not it‘s fun to walk through the stalls and see the fish that you can have on your plate within an hour or so, depending upon how long the lines are. Part of the fun is the vendors hawk their product very affectionately and try to entice and encourage you to buy their catch. The attention you get is flattering. There are a number of dampa in and around Manila and they are popular places to eat fresh fish of course. This one, on Magapagal Avenue in Pasay City, is close to the water and has an interesting assortment of fruit stands in front.

3. Intramuros. Manila (city). Manila’s “Walled City” was known as intramuros “within the walls” during its Spanish colonial halcyon and was initially built in the 16th century. Intramuros is Manila’s half-baked answer to those who want to explore its history. Although much of this old Spanish colonial fortress was destroyed during World War II its restoration is underperforming and a chaotic lesson in how not to reconstruct a fort faithful to its glorious past. Still, it’s worth a visit if not to escape the glitz of Makati or the urban jungle of Manila city. There are some very interesting sights within Intramuros of which the Church of San Augustin is the most outstanding not for its size but its history. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this church is the oldest original colonial structure in the Philippines having been built in 1607. Most of the other great churches of the country have been repeatedly flattened by the high-magnitude earthquakes that shake the Philippines, but this one has an odd defiance to nature’s violence. Built in a mix of colonial and baroque styles, the interior is arguably more impressive than the exterior. Fort Santiago was part of the intramuros and still retains some of its historical character. Dating to 1571 the Spanish fort was built on the ruins of Rajah Suleiman palace grounds after his defeat by the conquistadors. The fort was a center for the spice trade for well over 300 years and the western anchor for the Spanish Galleons between Philippines and Acapulco, Mexico. The Manila Cathedral, the mother church of the city, is also within the walls. The original cathedral was built in 1581 but it has been damaged by earthquakes many times since. The present structure, the sixth to be built, dates to 1958 and has neo-gothic elements.

4. LakeTaal. Batangas Province. A volcano within a lake within a volcano. A lake within a volcano within a lake. Simply put, it’s a caldera, or a huge collapsed crater, with both lakes and volcanic craters and an easy day trip from Manila roughly an hour south of the city at 31 miles distant. Its high crater rim that looks down about a thousand feet into the lake offers beautiful vistas although at times marred by overdevelopment. In general the area, a couple thousand feet above sea level, offers relieving breezes to the otherwise blistering tropical sun and the area’s country home and vacation potential has taken off. Lake Taal is Philippines’ third largest and its famous Volcano Island is largely responsible for the high sulfur content of the otherwise freshwater lake which was formed over successive eruptions occurring between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago with the latest eruption occurring in 1977. Taal Volcano is one of Philippines’ most active with 34 eruptions recorded since 1572. It wasn’t until fairly recent that the lake was closed off from the sea. Until the 18th century Lake Taal was an arm of the Balayan Bay but volcanic eruptions closed it off which mostly accounts for its interesting collection of endemic fish including a freshwater sea snake and freshwater sardines. These species adapted to the water’s desalination over time and even included bull sharks until they were killed off by locals in the 1930s. There are good views of the lake from the Taal Vista Hotel and at various points around the northern rim.

5. Makati. Makati City, Metro Manila is similar to Tokyo’s Ginza. It is lively and upbeat with steel and glass skyscrapers that showcase Philippines’ economic development while at the same time contrasting with the widespread poverty that plagues the country. It is in Makati where you’ll find five star hotels, bars, clubs, shopping malls, the Hard Rock Café alongside the banks that make it Metro Manila’s financial hub and includes the Philippine Stock Exchange. A number of foreign embassies are located here as well so is it any wonder that Makati is not the country’s capital instead of neighboring Manila. No surprises here but it also has the country’s tallest building, the PBComTower at 850 feet. If the heat is too much, duck into the Peninsula Hotel for some shopping or lounge in its opulent lobby.

6. Manila American Military Cemetery and Memorial (Fort Bonifacio). Taguig City, Metro Manila.This is the final resting place of 17,206 soldiers killed in the Pacific Theater, most of them Americans. Of the graves 3,744 are unknown soldiers. Covering 152 acres or 0.62 km square, the neatly lined rows of marble crosses against an emerald green lawn is a stark reminder of the War's toll. It remains the largest cemetery in the Pacific for U.S. military killed in World War II. The cemetery is located on the old Fort Bonifacio now in Taguig City east of Manila. Prior to this, from 1902 until 1949, it was a U.S. Military garrison known as Fort William McKinley. After it was turned over to the Philippines it was made into the Philippines army’s headquarters beginning in 1957. Other than the cemetery grounds the fort was converted for commercial development and remains the centerpiece of the Bonifacio Global City.

7. Puerto Galera. Oriental Mindoro Province. It might be stretch to call this a day trip but for those who can make the connections or take a flight it’s close enough. Puerto Galera is located about three and a half hours south of Manila by car. There are also services such as Sikat that run trips out of Manila, specifically from the City State Tower Hotel that will get you there and back in a day. The main tourist draws are the beaches that attract snorkelers and scuba divers. The coral reefs in the area are listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list and are among the most diverse anywhere in the world. Unfortunately this has brought in an influx of tourists and over-development is becoming a problem.

8. SM Mall of Asia, (MOA). Pasay City, Metro Manila. You can’t say you’ve been to Philippines and not have gone shopping. This activity is one of the cultural experiences of this country where good deals can be found by bargaining or searching and playing one vendor off against another. Well, this might not be the case for MOA, or the Mall of Asia, which is as much amusement park as it is mall but you should experience it if not for a blast of well-deserved air conditioning. Sitting almost sterilely along a new highway away from the congestion of Manila, MOA seems somewhat out of place. Don’t be too critical of its branded image which lists it as the third largest mall in the world. It is located in Pasay City, Metro Manila, just south of Manila (city). Opened in 2006 MOA sees 200,000 shoppers per day (imagine cleaning the bathrooms?!), and is 4.2 million square feet. Go in and browse the shops, some familiar such as Starbucks and GAP, and others very unique to the Philippines such as an Olympic-sized figure skating rink. Not enough for you? Try the SM City North EDSA Mall opened in 2008, the largest mall in the country and second largest in the world. This one is almost 5 million square feet and is located in Quezon City and is owned and operated by the same company, SM Prime Holdings. If you want a paradise for haggling try Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan City.

9. Rizal Park. Manila (city). Not quite Manila’s answer to Central Park, Rizal Park is more like a Filipino version of the National Mall because of the shrines dedicated to its historical figures but it also includes less politically motivated spaces such as a Japanese Garden. Overlooking Manila Bay off the well-beaten Roxas Boulevard, the park dates to the 18th century and Spanish rule. The area was set up as a buffer adjacent to the intramuros and was originally known as Luneta, because of its half-moon shape. It was here that the Spanish executed Jose Rizal in 1896 making him a national martyr against the backdrop of the Philippine Revolution. The Republic of the Philippines was also declared from this park in 1946 ending 400 years of colonial rule by the Spanish and later the United States. The park is also ground zero for measuring distances in Philippines and contains the zero kilometer marker from which distances to other cities in the country are measured. If you are pressed for time see, at least, the bronze and granite Rizal Monument for which the park is named. It is the nation’s shrine of sorts and visiting dignitaries often lay wreaths at its base.

10. Sonya’s Garden. Cavite Province. Kick back and relax but don’t make any noise at this one-of-a–kind retreat near Tagaytay in Alfonso, Cavite Province, south of sweltering Manila where the motto is to refine “the art of doing nothing”. Located virtually in the middle of nowhere this resort is like relaxation on steroids. You can’t help noticing there are no televisions in the room let alone phones or radios. Massage therapists will come to your room if you don’t feel like walking to the hotel’s spa. The food is also very good and the surroundings are similar to an old colonial plantation turned into a zen-like Shangri la. Sonya’s Garden began as a private retreat and then opened up to friends. Word of mouth caught up with the place and more people were invited to come and enjoy. Finally it caved into the pressure of widespread acclaim and turned into a bed and breakfast. It has a great spa, gift shop, and restaurant and caters to weddings as well.

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