Jonathan Evans takes us on a tour to Manila where heritage buildings juxtapose with cuttingedge skyscrapers.

Words by Jonathan Evans

Where does Manila begin, and where does it ever end? Even if you’re arriving from a massive city like Jakarta, you’ll be bowled over by the scale of this, one of the world’s most populous urban centres.

Manila is just one of the capital’s constituent cities, which have clustered together over recent decades to form a far bigger metropolitan area – aka Metro Manila, a city of almost 13 million people which covers a mind-boggling 620km2. Once you’ve made it outside Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the key to unlocking the essence of this megacity – a task made no easier by its legendary traffic – is to take it slowly and explore one area at a time.

From NAIA, a convenient starting point is the barangay (neighbourhood) of Alabang, once agricultural land, which now offers plentiful boutique hotels, restaurants and retail comforts for the jet-lagged first-time traveller. But for a deeper dive into Manila, take the Skyway to Makati, where parks, malls, museums, upscale eateries and bars are laid out on a pedestrian-friendly scale. Here, bang in the centre of Metro Manila, this financial centre more closely resembles a series of interlocking villages, each with its own distinct ambience. From the green lungs of Salcedo Saturday Market at Jaime C Velasquez Park and Ayala Triangle Gardens – the site of the former airport – to the eco-friendly Greenbelt Mall and innovative Ayala Museum, Makati’s public spaces are among Manila’s most popular. Adding to its allure, the revitalised commercial hub Poblacion is now the hippest ’hood in town, packed with on-trend bars and eateries, while neighbouring Rockwell is a stylish retail and residential area for city slickers – equivalent to, say, Jakarta’s Pondok Indah or Kemang.

For a city with such a deep-rooted history – Manila was already a noted trading post in the 1300s – the modernity of the city centre, with its Americanised streetscapes, can seem surprising. Yet only a short cab ride west of Makati lies Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, which dates back to the 1590s and is known as a treasure trove of sarap (’delicious’) foodie finds. Just across the Pasig River, the heritage enclave of Intramuros is an unmissable attraction, with its immaculately restored tableau of the Spanish era immortalised in cobblestoned streets and ecclesiastical landmarks such as the UNESCO designated Church of San Agustin (1607), the oldest church in this devoutly religious country.

Between Binondo and Intramuros, Escolta Street was the city’s most fashionable thoroughfare during the American occupation of the early 1900s. Though its buildings have faded somewhat, a number of architectural exemplars of the Beaux Arts, Art Deco and Neoclassical styles remain – now populated by future forward tenants such as a hip market of artisan wares at the First United Building, which was the country’s tallest edifice on completion in 1928. By now, you’ll be getting a feel for this city where old and new often lie not just in close proximity, but even in the same building and where, thanks to the local gift for reinvention and friendly customer service, you can enjoy an intimate atmosphere even within its most built-up zones.

Lying adjacent to Manila Bay, the hospitality shines at The Manila Hotel (1909), an elegant throwback to wartime days with a storied history; while just east of the seafront promenade of Manila Baywalk and Roxas Boulevard is Rizal Park, one of Asia’s largest civic spaces, commemorating nationalist hero José Rizal. A short drive south is the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), whose flagship Tanghalang Pambansa structure (1969), home to several arts venues, is one of the city’s more striking landmarks with its brutalist architecture. The bayside area to the south, in Pasay City, is dominated by huge modern developments such as the integrated resorts City of Dreams and Resorts World Bayshore. SM Mall of Asia, one of Asia’s largest retail complexes, also houses an IMAX theatre, convention centre, amusement park and performance venue.

That same juxtaposition of old and new is evident even in Manila’s most recently developed districts. Travelling southeast across the dense urban sprawl, Fort Bonifacio within Taguig City was once a military base for both the US and Philippine armies, before being renamed after the ‘Father of the Philippine Revolution’ against Spain, Andrés Bonifacio. Now this cosmopolitan area gleams with the promise of the new Manila. Bonifacio High Street’s landscaped retail hubs, upscale condos and futuristic offices rank among the country’s most desirable real estate; the swanky Grand Hyatt Manila is the tallest building in the Philippines.

The bright lights and skyscrapers of this CBD have only existed since the mid-1990s. Yet even this monument to modernity is steeped in nostalgia, with its sprawling tributes to Philippine soldiers and statesmen at Heroes’ Cemetery and the fallen US heroes of the Second World War at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial. If these sobering spots reflect on the city’s turbulent past, then their surrounds hold ample proof that the ever-evolving city and its skyrocketing population are entering a new era at an impressive pace.

Jakarta to Philippine

FrequencyCodeshare route with Philippine Airlines flies seven times a week

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From Colours August 2019


5 Senses – Sight

The jeepney is an inescapable symbol of Manila. Brightly coloured, and frequently packed, these repurposed vehicles – originally army jeeps left over from the Second World War – operate like public buses, plying popular routes for a minimal fee Buy a replica jeepney at Souvenir IslandmGeneral Merchandise. souvenirislandph