The Charm of Old Manila

Manila Travel Blog

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Fort Santiago, surrounded by a moat.

“I walked the streets of San Francisco
I've tried the rides in Disneyland
Dated a million girls in Sydney
Somehow I feel like I don't belong”


- Lyrics from the song Manila by Hotdog (1970’s)



So goes the iconic lyrics of the song which defined Manila Sound of the 70’s.

Old buildings in the cobbled Victoria Street of Intramuros.
The song has become such a karaoke anthem sung by every Filipino everywhere around the globe. This has solidified the Filipino reputation as the world’s avid fanatics of the Karaoke. If the Japanese invented the Karaoke, Filipinos have elevated this into an art form. 


However, Manila is more than just a fun-loving, mic-clutching, all-smiling, rhythmic vibrant city of the East - it is a psychedelic mix of everything and anything sacred and forbidden, naughty and nice, sugar and spice. From the back streets of Quiapo to the posh Ayala Avenue, to dilapidated dormitories of University Belt, the remnants of Smokey Mountain, the city of Manila is crazy, busy, messy. One would either love her or hate her.


Historical treat

The Philippine capital city enjoys a historical pedigree having been under Spanish rule for over three centuries.

Altar boy leans by the antique Mahogany church door.
Spanish architecture is preserved in the hallowed walls of Intramuros. Located in the southern bank of the once mighty Pasig River, this 16th century edifice is referred to as the “walled city” – a self contained fortress that was once the whole of Manila during the early Spanish times. Intramuros is a walk back in time. Carefully preserved and renovated, the Intramuros Administration was created in order to preserve the bygone days of colonization.


Inhere, family and friends gather in the manicured lawns. Under the shade of the acacia, picnic tables laiden with Filipino staples - steamed rice, adobo (a special meat stew with vinegar and toasted garlic), salted eggs with tomatoes, and tropical fruits resemble a typical Filipino fiesta.  Lovers stroll in the romantic feel of the bygone Spanish era. Horse-drawn carriages ply the cobble-paved roads.


Within the vicinity of the walls are grandiose structures that define the profound Spanish influence of the time.

The famous Manila jeepney takes tourists around the historic district of Intramuros
“Casa Manila” showcases Spanish old quarter. The Church of San Agustin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is carefully preserved Baroque architecture. In Manila, as well as the entire archipelago, Churches play a dominant role in daily life. In the Philippines, churches have become the bastion of culture and influence.


The fabled district of Quaipo is where the miraculous Black Nazarene or “Nazareno” highly believed to be miraculous is found. The Nazereno is the life-size dark-coloured sculpture of Jesus in the final scene of Christ’s passion. Every January, hundreds of thousands of devotees congregate in the Basilica grounds and line up the streets to witness the Black Nazarene procession. People from all walks of life - from ordinary working class to high members of society wrestle against each other in the sea of faithful worshippers.


Within the same district is the Basilica de San Sebastian, the only all-steel Gothic church in Asia.

Houses of Spanish architectural influence provide a perfect backdrop to everyday drama.
Built in Belgium and shipped, assembled to its current location, the tiffany blue structure stands proud in this old downtown Manila neighborhood.


A stroll in the park

The Rizal Park (formerly Luneta Park, named in honor of the national hero who was executed in the same location by Spanish infantry in late 1800’s) is in the heart of Manila. The Park plays an important landscape in Philippine history and tourism. The park is home to some of the most historic buildings and events in the country. The grand Manila Hotel built during the early years of American rule provides grand vistas of the harbour and Intramuros.  The breathtaking lobby adorned with capiz shells and deep mahogany wood is reminiscent of the days of grand hotel lobbies. Manila’s Rizal Park was host to record-breaking papal crowd of 5 million people in the mass held by Pope John Paul II during World Youth Day in 1995.  In the Quirino Grandstand, Philippine presidents are sworn to into office. Arguably, the sunset in Manila Bay is one of the world’s best.



A Bargain haven

Manila boasts of some of the largest shopping malls in the world, actually two have made it on the list of the world’s top ten largest malls – Filipinos have re-defined  malling as a way of life, second only to celebrating the town fiesta. Bargain hunters will find haven in Divisoria and Baclaran. Both places are veritable treasure trove of the cheapest and widest assortment of clothing, housewares, and trinkets. Choosy ones can head to Greenhills which is convenient due to location and air-conditioned comforts. Shopping malls like SM Department stores created the Megamall and Mall of Asia (these two being listed in the top ten world’s largest malls) and the Ayala Centre is home to high-end luxury brands and world class hotels.


Manila delicacy

Having been under Spanish, Japanese, and American rules, with centuries-old pre-colonizer ties with China and the Malay Peninsula, Filipino cuisine is a confluence of various cultures celebrating the bounty of the sea and the fertile land of nearby villages. Local delicacies from Typical Filipino food is rice, serve with a viand (hot dish of meat, fish or vegetables). Best way to loosely describe a typical meal is a meat dish swimming in grease. Street food abound and aptly called with slang names, usually pertaining to an existing, more popular references: Adidas for grilled chicken feet; IUD( intra-uterine device) is chicken intestine; Walkman is pork ears. Kwek-kwek’s are deep friend boiled chicken eggs drenched in funny orange-coloured flour coating. Balut is boiled duck egg embryo sold at night by street vendors. Balut eggs are neatly packed in special rattan baskets, covered with layers of cloth to insulate the heat. Cracked open, broth slurped before the meat (yolk, young chick with feathers) is eaten. Balut is an acquired taste an often a subject of dare especially among Western tourists. The balut is not for the faint of heart (or stomach) and has also been featured in reality based shows like Survivor, Truth or Dare, and Fear Factor due to its exotic features.


Getting around

Manila is the very first country in South East Asia to have a Light Rail Transit (LRT). In the early 80’s this behemoth task snaked through Manila’s crowded Rizal Avenue. Today, three lines were added, covering major areas in greater Metropolitan Manila. Rush hour can be very annoying. However, the elevated rail system is still the best option to beat Manila heat and traffic.


Colourful jeepneys dominate Manila roads. Remnants of the World War II Jeep vehicles, the Filipino penchant for creating anything from scratch is evident in these very colourful and practical modes of public transport. Jeepneys ply certain specified routes, as directed by the transport authority. Cleverly written stickers adorn the interior and exterior. Suggestive phrases like “Katas ng Saudi (loosely, “Juice from Saudi”), meaning that the money used to purchase the vehicle came from the patriarch who toiled in the foreign land. Must-know phrases like “bayad po (my fare, when paying the driver), “Para po” (to stop, when the point of destination is reached). Minimum fare for the first 4 km journey is about ten pesos (Dh 1), and gradually adds up.


Travel postscript

I once heard a European visitor said how he would have loved to take home with him one of those dilapidated shanties found in the slums of Manila. He was just amazed how the shanties would stay firm to the ground. As a traveler, this common melancholia is a painful juxtaposition of Filipino way of living – never in this world you will find people who can manage to smile amidst hardship and poverty more than the Filipinos – they are resilient to the storm and can rise up, stay firm and hang on to their faith.


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Fort Santiago, surrounded by a moa…
Fort Santiago, surrounded by a mo…
Old buildings in the cobbled Victo…
Old buildings in the cobbled Vict…
Altar boy leans by the antique Mah…
Altar boy leans by the antique Ma…
The famous Manila jeepney takes to…
The famous Manila jeepney takes t…
Houses of Spanish architectural in…
Houses of Spanish architectural i…
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photo by: Deats