Few will rank Manila as one of the world’s greatest capital cities to visit, but nobody can say it’s dull. The population is very young, vibrant, and full of life. Eternally smiling and ready to sing, the Filipinos are ready to show you a good time.
I have spent time in Manila twice, close to two decades apart. The first time it was a regular transit stop between north and south, plus a place to get business done. Back then I was backpacking around the country for six weeks in the midst of a year-long trip. The second time I was there to speak at TBEX Asia—a convention for travel bloggers. Then I got to hit up more clubs, eat better food, and get a room with a view at the swanky Sofitel Philippine Plaza hotel. I have to admit that the second time was a lot more fun than the first. Prices are reasonable for food and drinks, but this is a big city where upping your budget a bit can have a big impact on how much you enjoy the place.
There are not a lot of major tourist sites outside of the Spanish colonial fort of Intramuros. Much of the city got leveled by the Japanese during World War II. So why not check out the oddities of this quirky city instead? Just try to avoid rush hours for your sightseeing or you’ll spend as much time in transit as you do at the destination. Or go with the first option below…
Bambike Ecotours of Manila
When you connect with this tour company, you ride on bikes made with bamboo frames in a Filipino village. The resource is abundant and grows quickly, plus this provides jobs for workers in a facility that’s a far cry from metal welding sweatshops or robotic factory floors. Tours include the Intramuros fort area, a street art neighborhood, or the Poblacion neighborhood.
Want a bike like this of your own? The company sells several styles of them for different conditions and even has kids’ bikes for sale. If you forgot your shades, they also have bamboo sunglasses.
Bamboo Organ at Las Piñas
There are a few interesting churches in Manila with a long history, but the music might be the sweetest at this one. When Father Diego Cera wanted to build a fine organ for his Spanish colonial church in the early 1800s, it was a daunting task to get the right materials in a timely manner in this island nation. So instead he turned to the abundant local bamboo and constructed everything except the metal air flow stops out the material.
There were period of degradation over the years and it required regular maintenance to keep it running. In the 1970s a few enthusiasts raised enough money to fully restore it to its glory and today you can hear its music during regular mass or during the Bamboo Organ Festival in February.
The Money Museum of Manila
You can learn a lot about a country’s history through its money and it turns out this is one of the best museums in Manila. Officially known as the The Money Museum of the Central Bank of the Philippines, it spans a time period from early indigenous periods barter trading to the modern day coins and banknotes. There was a lot of turmoil in between though, so you’ve got Chinese traders, Spanish colonial powers, Japanese occupiers, then a few decades of American oversight in the mix. (One 10 peso bill has George Washington’s image on it.)
Admission is free and the museum is air-conditioned, so it’s a nice way to take a break from the noisy streets and cool off for a while. You might even learn something.
APEC Sculpture Garden
If you want to have plenty to talk about on your Manila excursion with someone, this place will give you 20 points of discussion. If you had to create one sculpture that boiled down the essence of your country, what would it look like? That was the challenge for the artists of these 20 nations in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
Russia is symbolized by the brown bear and Papau New Guinea went for the fearsome cassowary bird. Others are more abstract though, like China’s single baby in a fetal position. I’m not sure how to interpret the triangular U.S. one or the sculpture from Brunei pictured above. If you’re attending a convention, this visit is easy: the sculptures are scattered around the grounds there, so you just need to take a walk.
A Cemetery for the Dead AND the Living
It’s not unusual for a cemetery to become a tourist attraction, such as in New Orleans, Paris, or Buenos Aires. In some countries it’s not unusual for the cemetery to be a lively place, especially during a festival like Day of the Dead. The 100-acre Manila North Cemetery in the Philippines has a unique attribute though: a population of 10,000 residents who are alive and well.
Supposedly the trend started with a few caretakers and their families, but then others who didn’t have a regular home started moving in and now it has stores and food carts serving the population. This is not an excursion for the unadventurous, but for cultural anthropologists or urban history buffs, it’s a unique opportunity.
When you’re showered up and ready to explore again, check out the legendary Manila nightlife and have fun.