In the winter of 2015, my wife and I were traveling on an international tour of the Broadway musical version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. We made a few stops in Europe and then crisscrossed Asia for almost eight months. In all my years of traveling, I never imagined I would be fortunate enough to visit so many incredible places.
One of the most interesting locales we visited was the capital of the Philippines, the City of Manila. It is not only the most populous city in the country with almost 14 million residents, but it is also one of the fastest-growing cities in Southeast Asia.
I won’t lie. The throngs of people and the crawling traffic can be stressful, but you will be rewarded once you arrive at your destination. I have fond memories of our trip, but with a full schedule of performances, we weren’t able to do it all. Plus, in the six years since my visit, the city has added even more to see, do, and taste.
Here, with the help of a dear friend that has lived in the city for decades, is a list of 7 interesting things to see and do in (and near) Manila, Philippines.
#7: Manila Ocean Park
Where can you go to meet and greet Humboldt penguins, sea lions, and jellyfish all on the same day? Manila Ocean Park. The park is a huge complex with animals from both land and sea, live performances, and rides.
For around USD$20 you can don a special diving helmet that allows you to breathe underwater while surrounded by thousands of fish and friendly rays and sharks. Fondly called “dancing sea fairies,” the Jellies Exhibit boasts a multimedia experience of lights and music as you admire the mysterious, graceful creatures.
Be sure to leave time to visit the Trails to Antarctica experience. This is the only penguin habitat in the country. You’ll learn about the frigid continent of Antarctica and have the rare opportunity to feed the Humboldt Penguins (for a small extra charge.)
The Jeepney is, by far, the most popular form of transportation in Manila. Cheap, taxi-like vehicles have been employed in the city for decades. Originally repurposed from abandoned World War II US military jeeps and used primarily for public transport, their name is a portmanteau of Jeep and Jitney.
Throughout the years, the Jeepney has metamorphosized with improvements in mechanics and adaptations of different vehicle makes and models. The government has also enacted rules and regulations for the operation of the low-fare, high-excitement rides. Some even come equipped with seat belts and doors! Electric Jeepneys are on the horizon.
Even if you don’t dare to ride in one, you must admire the design and decoration. Owners use stickers, spray paint, and whatever else their imagination comes up with to make certain their Jeepney stands out. You’re sure to see celebrity caricatures, elaborate illustrations, cartoons, religious figures, or abstract art surrounding the vehicle.
An average trip will set you back around 9 pesos (US$0.18). Jeepneys usually don’t stick to any sort of schedule. Instead, they leave when they’re full, stop at designated locations (but might also stop to grab a new passenger), and are certain to be packed. Bring your sense of adventure and your patience.
#5: Island of Corregidor
If you don’t mind a little jump across the bay, located 30 miles from Manila proper you’ll find Corregidor Island. Corregidor Island was pivotal towards the end of World War II as forces battled to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control. In April 1942, the Battle of the Philippines saw the Japanese Imperial Army attack Manila and force US General Douglas MacArthur and his troops to retreat to Bataan. Corregidor remained as the last US-controlled island in the region. In May 1943, the island was lost to the Japanese as US and Filipino troops were forced to surrender. The island was taken back in February 1945.
Today, the island serves as a memorial to the soldiers who died defending it. The remains of buildings destroyed in the war have been left untouched as a poignant reminder. The Pacific War Memorial was built by the US Government in 1968 and, on May 5th at exactly 12 noon, sunlight shines on the circular altar within to mark the surrender of the troops there. The Philippines dedicated the Filipino Heroes Memorial in 1992 and Japan constructed a Garden of Peace with a praying area, shrines, and memorabilia exhibits.
There are several hotel options on the island. If you want to really explore the history of the area, an overnight stay is recommended as the only way to reach the island is a 3-hour trip via ferry.
#4: Intramuros / Old Walled City
Translated from Latin, Intramuros means “within the walls.” Home to Fort Santiago and the ornate Manila Cathedral, Intramuros stands as a reminder of its time as a political and military stronghold of Spain.
Ride a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) through the gates and explore Plaza de Roma, City Hall, and Plaza Santo Tomas. You’ll note some Chinese influences among the distinct Spanish architecture. Like Corregidor, some buildings that were destroyed in the war have been left unaltered as memorials. Book a tour that takes you walking atop the city walls.
Perhaps the most recognizable landmark in Intramuros is the Manila Cathedral. Originally built in 1571, the church has undergone numerous renovations and restorations as it has been damaged by war and earthquakes over the years.
With over 85% of the Phillippines following the Catholic faith, Manila has been the site of three apostolic visits including the most recent by Pope Francis in January 2015.
I was able to not only see Pope Francis’ plane make its approach to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), but I also saw him in his Popemobile as his motorcade drove past my hotel.
#3: Taal Volcano
Imagine a lake on an island in the middle of a lake on another island that is a volcano in the middle of the ocean. Tricky, right? Well, you don’t need to imagine it because it exists. Taal Volcano is part of the Pacific Ring of fire and sits 100 kilometers away from the capital. Yes, this is a list about Manila, but no trip to the Philippines would be complete without an attempt to see this natural wonder.
I say “attempt” because Taal is an active volcano. Note: I did not know this before venturing to see it! The volcano DID erupt spectacularly in January 2020 for the first time in 43 years.
To reach Main Crater Lake, you must drive to Tagaytay, take a boat to Volcano Island, and then be led up the steep mountainside on a donkey. The views from the edge of the crater, once you get past the vendors hawking cold drinks and tchotchkes, are breathtaking. For a small fee, you may take a turn at whacking golf balls into the lake. (I don’t recommend it. After all, that’s littering!)
Be sure to dress for the trip, wear a hat and sunscreen, and bring plenty of water. Don’t forget your camera and thank the donkey for carrying you all the way up and down the crater!
Note: Following the recent eruption, Taal volcano is closed. You can still spend a day in Tagatay and enjoy views of the volcano and the city from Peoples Park in the Sky.
#2: Filipino Street Food
If you’ve traveled to any major Asian city, you know street food is a serious business. Manila is no different. From sweet to savory, from fruity to the familiar, there is bound to be something for everyone. Most dishes are available at any street food location.
As an appetizer, start with Kwek kwek or Tokneneng. Kwek kwek is a quail egg that’s been hard-boiled, coated with a tempura-like batter, and deep-fried. Similarly, Tokneneng is essentially the same, but using chicken eggs. For the main course, enjoy the Spanish influence with a meat and veggie-filled empanada. Choose from chicken, pork, or beef and sink your teeth into the crispy, doughy shell.
Perhaps you’re looking for something a little more exotic? If so, try Bulaklak or Isaw. No matter which you choose, you’re going to be chowing down on fried or grilled pork innards. Isaw (also available in chicken) is cleaned, boiled, skewered, and grilled intestines. Bulaklak is the folds of tissue that connect the small intestine to the abdominal wall. That’s some deep-fried deliciousness!
Finally, for dessert, treat yourself to Turon. An iconic street food, thin slices of saba bananas are rolled up in a spring roll wrapper, dusted with brown sugar, and deep-fried. Notice a trend? If you prefer a dessert that’s not fried, try Halo-Halo. It’s simply shaved ice, milk, and a variety of fruits and sometimes vegetables.
Worried your stomach can’t handle it. You may be right. Listen to your instincts and be as adventurous as you dare! When in doubt, you can opt to chase your meal with a San Miguel Pale Pilsner; the oldest and most popular brew in the country.
Last, but certainly not least, we have Balut. If you have a weak stomach, then stop reading here. Balut is a delicacy that has been a staple of Filipino food culture for over 200 years. I’ll just be honest: Balut is a fertilized duck egg. As in, it’s a duck that’s been developing for almost 3 weeks. What does that mean in terms of duck gestation? It means the little critter has a beak and feathers.
In case you’re wondering, yes, I ate that. You start by warming the egg in boiling water, but not long enough to cook it completely. Then, you take a spoon and crack the top of the shell open and remove it. Next, sip out the broth and get ready. Finally, there’s the yolk and the duck. Many liken the yolk to a creamy pudding, The duck, on the other hand, is far from creamy.
Some say Balut can cure a hangover. Some swear it’s a magical aphrodisiac. I don’t know if either of those is true, but I can at least check it off my list of cool/gross achievements.
The beauty and adventure of a trip to the Philippines cannot be contained in a singular, must-do list. The opportunities for adventure – historical, gastronomical, and otherwise – in Manila alone, would take weeks to experience. No matter how you choose to spend your time in the city known as “The Pearl of the Orient,” make a plan, take lots of photos, and stay safe.