Though it may seem to be experiencing a rebirth with the efforts of the new administration, especially regarding tourism, don’t count Manila out just yet compared to places like Makati, Bonifacio Global City, Ortigas Center, Alabang and even Eastwood.
What Manila does have that these shiny places don’t is history—more than 400 years of it. Take Binondo, for example. The Ramada Hotel opened in the world’s second oldest Chinatown. If you don’t know where to begin exploring, just contact Old Manila Walks tour and know more of the district’s culinary delights and cultural highlights.
Another good example of Manila’s revival is Divisoria. Shopping here is no longer difficult with shopping malls like 168, Tutuban Center and 999, complete with parking, air conditioning and food courts, and prices remain the lowest anywhere in the metro. In fact there are now hotels in Divisoria where you can take a much-needed nap or even stay overnight to make it ahead of the crowd, like De La Chambre Hotel at the back of the Lucky Chinatown Mall or Orion Hotel inside Tutuban Center. Better yet, traffic in the area already improved by leaps and bounds because of the efforts of Manila’s popular mayor to rid the area of illegal vendors, “cutting-trip” jeepneys and illegally parked vehicles.
But nowhere is Manila’s struggle to survive more evident than in Intramuros. To draw in more visitors, some major attractions underwent a makeover. The Manila Cathedral opened recently after two years of refurbishment. The result? A brighter interior to see clearly its glorious architectural details, a flat screen TV that replaced hymnals, and side chapels renovated to accommodate events like baptisms. Overall, it does feel more inviting to come inside and talk to God. But before you leave, do check out the cathedral-themed souvenirs for sale at the entrance.
Or you can visit the Rizal Shrine inside Fort Santiago. The ground floor focuses on the trial and execution of Dr. Jose Rizal. The room where he was held prisoner was recreated, including the trial room, and a reproduced photo of his execution put on one side of the wall. An interesting artifact, a piece of the national hero’s spine where the bullet passed through, was also preserved inside an elaborate glass urn.
The exhibit continues on the second floor, particularly on his life as an exile in Dapitan like his personal belongings, ophthalmologists’ instruments and—surprises of surprises—even several cigarette brands named after him! Overall the makeover helps visitors’ learning experience fun and memorable.
Aside from Manila Cathedral, the only other church inside Intramuros is the San Agustin Church. The city’s oldest standing structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site, its museum also underwent renovation. The most visible is the new exhibit hall, formerly the church’s sacristy, where some of the church’s more valuable artifacts can be seen.
To be found as well are elaborately embroidered priests’ vestments and old carved drawers from Mexico where the vestments were stored, and be amazed by an ivory carving collection of local craftsmen who fused their Asian background with West and Catholic Church traditions to create this exquisite collection.
The Intramuros makeover is not limited to just historical attractions though. There are souvenir shops like Island Souvenir in front of Fort Santiago, and the Manila Collectible Company, with food-related gifts like vinegar made from honey from Lipa, Batangas, plus local games and toys for kids.
But the most interesting, undoubtedly, is the Bambike, a hand-crafted bamboo bike made by craftsmen from Gawad Kalinga. Try them out around the courtyard behind the store for free, or you can join Bambike founder Bryan McClelland as he takes visitors around Intramuros on these bamboo bikes.
If you go hungry touring Intramuros, try the Ristorante delle Mitre across San Agustin Church, a favorite hangout whose menu features specialties and favorites of bishops and cardinals all over the country. Highly recommended is Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s sweet and delicate Silvanas (cashew meringue with butter cream filling) that just dissolve once you bite into them.
But please do try the Sky Deck View Bar atop the Bayleaf Intramuros Hotel. This former office building was converted into a training school/hotel by the Lyceum of the Philippines University. The top floor has an open air bar with a 360-degree view of Manila’s skyline. In case it rains, just move to the 9 SPOONS restaurant a floor below that offers the same view, except that you are safely indoors.
But this is merely the beginning for Manila and the famed Intramuros. A number of new attractions are in the works, such as a new museum on what used to be San Ignacio Church that will showcase the Intramuros Administration’s collection of religious-themed art works.
So with all these developments, who can say that Manila is losing out?
Text and photos by Anson Yu