To discover the heady charms of the sultry Philippine capital, you'll need to navigate the chaos of mototaxi rides and a relentless nightlife scene—and eat a lot of garlic rice
Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Francisco Guerrero
DAY ONE | You wake in your suite at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, the fat pillows of your contemporary state bed reflected in the burnished ceiling piece like dollops of whipped cream. You root a passion fruit out of the bowl on your coffee table and crack it open on a wraparound porch overlooking Manila Bay. Between you and the water stands the Coconut Palace, a tawny terraced confection commissioned by Imelda Marcos for the 1981 visit of Pope John Paul II. The pope refused to stay there because he felt it was too ostentatious. You wonder what he would say about your hotel room.
The Philippines’ rapacious former first lady—she who turned shoe shopping into a crime against humanity—was hardly the first larger-than-life figure in Manila’s history. So to find out more, you hail a cab to Intramuros, the walled historic district a few miles north of the Sofitel.
Your first stop is San Agustin Church, a pastel-peach Spanish-era cathedral with carved wooden doors, riotous frescoes and stalactites of chandeliers. In the cool of the interior, you wander in awe for a bit—then you step out and head farther north, into the oldest Chinatown in the world, Binondo, which dates back to the 1590s. After weaving through the fish-scented bedlam of Ongpin Street, beneath garlands of Chinese lanterns, you come upon Lord Stow’s Bakery, where you spend a pittance on a clutch of flaky egg tarts. Next, you find yourself in Tasty Dumplings, a hole-in-the-wall joint that, contrary to its name, is best known for breaded pork cutlets served over noodles. You order a plate and make short work of it.
Sated, you hop into a pedicab-mototaxi hybrid—a motorized bike with a covered sidecar—and join the throng of dusty sedans and wildly decorated jeepney buses reenacting Ben-Hur around the Plaza Lorenzo Ruiz. You direct your driver to Casa Manila, a re-creation of a Filipino home from the Spanish colonial era. You’ve arranged to meet a guide from White Knight Tours, which specializes in Segway sightseeing excursions—however, after the excitement of your sidecar ride, you opt to take the tour on foot.
Your guide, Adam, begins by leading you to San Diego Gardens, the centerpiece of which is Baluarte de San Diego, a 16th-century fortification that’s been ravaged by a combination of natural disasters and military skirmishes. You wander over the cobblestones, peering into cannons and oubliettes along the way. Throughout your tour, Adam points out the various calamities that have befallen the structures here: this one, earthquake; that one, artillery shell. It’s a poignant and strangely beautiful place, and it says a lot about the resilience of the people who, in many instances, have rebuilt these destroyed monuments from scratch.
Your last stop is Fort Santiago, a grassy ruin surrounded by imposing stone walls, where you are serenaded, inexplicably, by a bossa nova recording. This is where José Rizal—a national hero and polymath who championed Philippine independence— was imprisoned before his execution by the Spanish in 1896. His former cell now contains a Disney-esque mannequin, seated at a desk, that can be viewed only via a mirror on the other side of a barred door. The effect is that of encountering Rizal’s ghost—disconcerting enough for you to almost hear the whispers of fallen regimes.
For dinner, you have plans to visit a different sort of fort: Bonifacio Global City, a decommissioned military post that was converted to shops, condos and restaurants in the mid-2000s. Abé, a restaurant that specializes in cuisine from the Pampanga province, is packed, but you’ve managed to book a seat. You order a platter of saucy lamb adobo with popped garlic that falls apart into a side of fragrant garlic rice (which is rapidly becoming a favorite of yours), along with a dish of gising gising, or chopped green beans and hot chilies simmered in coconut milk.
The gising gising—which means “wake up, wake up” in Tagalog—does its job nicely, and soon you’re off to the blue-tiled Rocket Room for a mojito made with apple rum, berries and lychee. Here, as at Abé, the tables are teeming with stylish locals wearing Pucci prints, short shorts and military jackets. A DJ spins mixes of obscure ’90s rap songs. You stake out a spot near the outdoor bar, under the skyscrapers, and befriend a local photographer and his beautiful Filipino-Japanese companions, who seem to hug each other a lot in the way of Gap ads.
After a while, your companions inform you that they’re headed for URBN, a brand-new nightclub dominated by an elongated wooden table à la Hogwarts. Would you care to join them for some dancing over a bottle of vodka? Why, yes. Yes, you would. Would you like to dance on the extremely large table with them? Well, no, actually, that wouldn’t be … Yes. Yes, you would.