Sightseeing in Manila

The walled city of Intramuros
Manila is not on many people’s lists for must-see cities of the world, but this densely populated metropolis still has some of the charms that once made it ‘The Pearl of the Orient Seas’. Beyond bumper-to-bumper traffic and an awkward hodgepodge of architecture are some of the most historic monuments and magnificent cultural heritage sites on the continent.

The centuries old churches and edifices are a well-preserved witness to the splendour of the old, glamorous Manila –  splendour that even local Manilenos seem to have forgotten.

Churches and monuments

A good way to start discovering the old Manila is by visiting its churches, monuments and plazas which used to be the centre of many social activities in the old city. The 16th Century San Agustin Church was built inside the walled city of Intramuros. Declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this baroque place of worship features a trompe-l’oeil ceiling and hand-carved 17th Century seats of tropical hardwood molave.

Another stunning example of religious architecture is 18th Century San Sebastian church which is the only steel church in Asia. Its Gothic style is most evident in its pulpit, altars, confessionals and five retablos. It is located in Plaza del Cármen, east of C. M. Recto Street in Quiapo.

Manila Cathedral is more than 400 years old and has been through many restorations after being destroyed by numerous earthquakes. The cathedral, also located within Intramuros, is also home to the cardinal of Manila. And nearby Quiapo Church is frequented by thousands of its devotees during the feast of the Black Nazarene. The much venerated statue of Christ is believed by many to be miraculous.

Monuments also give visitors to Manila a sense of the city’s history, and many of the most important in the whole Philippines are found in Manila. The Jose Rizal, Ninoy Aquino, Cory Aquino and Lapu-Lapu monuments are all located in Luneta Park. The monument of Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal, is a bronze statue with a granite base, which marks the mausoleum where Rizal’s remains are found.

Above the monument stands a 31-metre flagpole, which considered as ‘kilometre zero’ from where the distances to the country’s towns and cities are measured. Ninoy and Cory Aquino’s monuments are located beside each other in Luneta and Lapu-Lapu’s monument stands 40-feet high.

Manila is also a melting pot of different ethnicities and religions, with many Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim temples as testament to this. Khalsa Diwan Indian Temple, the oldest Sikh place of worship in the country, is located in the corner of Pancho Villa and UN Avenue in Paco, Manila. It welcomes all religions and gives free meals in their kitchen. Hari Ram and Saya Aur Devi are Hindu temples located in Paco.

Since so many Chinese people live in Manila, there are also numerous Buddhist and Taoist temples around especially in the Binondo Chinatown area. The Seng Guan or Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas is located in Ongpin Street, while the Taoist temple Kim Guan is located in Adriatico Street. Muslims also have their own quarter of Manila, thus the Masjid Al-Dahab was built in Quiapo. It is the largest mosque in the Philippines and was so named because of its golden dome.

Parks and other quiet spots

Manila was the seat of government during the Spanish era and is home to many historical buildings and plazas where travellers can hang out and relax. First stop is the Luneta Park (or  Rizal Park) located at the northern end of Roxas boulevard facing Manila Bay. It was named after Jose Rizal because he was executed the ruling Spaniards here.

Other parks worth visiting include Nayong Pilipino, Rajah Sulayman Park and Liwasang Bonifacio. The 45-hectare Nayong Pilipino, near Roxas Boulevard, is a miniature version of the Philippines and its culture, displaying replicas of houses from different regions in the country. Rajah Sulayman Park along Roxas boulevard was built in honour of a Muslim king who once ruled a large population in the Tagalog region. The Liwasang Bonifacio was constructed in memory of Andres Bonifacio, leader of the 1896 Philippine Revolution. Many Filipino families frequent these parks during weekends to sit on the grass or benches.

Old Manila sightseeing

The Philippines old high society was kept safe within the strong walls of Intramuros during the Spanish era, and only the affluent were allowed to reside within the district’s fortifications. Today, it remains an area barely influenced by modernisation, where Spanish-era houses and architectural motifs are still evident.

Intramuros used to be the centre of Spanish governance in the Philippines. The Palacio del Gobernador, where the governor general resides, and the Real Audiencia office are found here, as well as Fort Santiago where Jose Rizal was detained. Museums like Casa Manila and Bahay Tsinoy are worth visiting. More on Intramuros.

The present seat of government is located along Pasig River in Manila and on the corner of the J.P. Laurel and Arlegui Streets, in San Miguel. Manila’s City Hall, with its coffin-like shape and imposing clock tower, is situated in Ermita.

Other interesting places for sightseeing in Manila include Escolta, the commercial centre of Manila during its golden years. The communities of Quiapo and Binondo (Chinatown) are a haven for many bargain hunters because many cheap goods are sold here. After shopping, you might want to experience Manila’s nightlife in Malate, a vibrant mix of cheap yet chic bars and restaurants.