Exploring Manila: 5 Must-Have Experiences for an Authentic Multicultural Adventure

Manila is an endlessly fascinating melting pot of diverse foreign and local cultures, proudly preserving the landmarks and contributions of its many invaders and rulers. Travelers who dismiss Manila over scenic island destinations are blissfully unaware of the city’s enthralling diversity, home to both cosmopolitan and cultural wonders.

The city is a treasure trove of stunning architecture depicting Manilla’s vibrant history with varying styles of construction. History buffs can explore Spanish-era citadels, walled city quarters, Baroque-style churches, and 16th-century palaces. The local culture is an eclectic blend of American, Chinese, Filipino and Spanish heritage, which combine to enrich Manila with intriguing diversity.

The culinary scene is vibrant and mouth-watering. Everywhere the eye turns, one finds street hawkers and roadside establishments selling sumptuous ethnic delicacies and multicultural Asian cuisine. Read on to explore some must-have experiences to fully immerse yourself in the razzle-dazzle of Manila.

1.    A Carriage Ride through Intramuros

Travelers eager to connect with the soul of Manila must venture out to its oldest, most historic quarter: the Intramuros. Before the 20th-century urban development transformed the city into a concrete jungle, the confines of Manila were limited to Intramuros.

This 16th-century walled city allows cultural enthusiasts to transport themselves to a bygone era, and be enthralled by the city’s fascinating heritage. The 16th and 17th-century walls of Intramuros will engulf you with their old-world charm, introducing a peculiar grid system that governed the old city’s construction and road systems.

The old city quarters are home to some of the most breathtaking remnants of Manilla’s colonial architecture, including churches, palaces and sprawling courtyards constructed under the rule of the Spanish East Indies. This antiquated segment of the city is drenched in a peculiar European nostalgia, much like innumerable other colonial settlements in Asia.

Intramuros is home to the Puerta de Isabel II gate, the Plaza de Roma housing the magnificent statue of King Carlos IV, and the recently renovated Ayuntamiento. A horse-drawn carriage is the best way to explore the old city quarters without tiring yourself.

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2.    Retail Therapy at the SM Mall of Asia

One can hardly have a fulfilling vacation without indulging in the extravagance of shopping till you drop. Manila is home to incredible retail experiences involving artisanal crafts, indigenous art, locally grown fabrics, and luxury brands. The SM Mall of Asia is the best spot to shop them all.

The SM Mall, also known as the MoA, is one of the largest shopping malls in the Philippines, featuring endless entertainment and recreational outlets and a spectacular food village. You can explore an infinite variety of items, including clothing, home goods, street fashion labels, traditional Filipino craft and high-end luxury brands.

Families with children must visit this mall to delight their little ones with incredible entertainment and leisure facilities. The SM Mall offers multiple cinemas, museums, an ice-skating rink and an amusement park. It’s wise to check out the mall’s social calendar as its open-air concert venues are popular for hosting celebrated musicians and singers, including Black Pink.

The Food Village is a delightful cornucopia of multicultural cuisines and aromatic flavors, offering an abundant variety that will leave you spoilt for choice. Once you’re done shopping, head over to the Bay Amusement Park for an exhilarating evening.

It’s natural for travelers to feel guilty about shopping while exploring foreign destinations when they should be prioritizing experiences over commodities. If you plan diligently and thoughtfully, you can enjoy the best of both. For instance, travelers visiting Manilla can explore emerging airlines like Cathay Pacific to enjoy competitive rates and save up on airfare without cramping their comfort.

Renting Airbnbs and local vacation rentals instead of luxury hotels is another meaningful way to save up and spend on indulgent guilty pleasures.

3.    Nature Retreat at the La Mesa Watershed Reservation

La Mesa Watershed Reservation is a scenic abode of tranquility that offers a much-needed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Manila. Dubbed the “green lungs of Manila”, this picturesque destination is home to fascinating biodiversity, verdant rainforest patches and breathtaking nature trails.

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La Mesa is the largest remaining stretch of rainforest in the rapidly growing metropolis, and it houses a  dam and reservoir, which serve as Manila’s primary water source. Nature lovers can explore an abundance of picturesque hiking and biking trails throughout the 6,570-acre nature reserve, a remarkable setting to admire the rich biodiversity of the Philippines.

It is advisable to hire a local guide to help you navigate the walking trails and enrich your experiences with rare wildlife and bird spotting. Bird watchers and nature photographers flock to La Mesa to capture astounding shots of rare birds, such as kingfishers, moorhens, robins, ospreys and wagtails. 

4.    Historical Musings at Casa Manila

History buffs and cultural enthusiasts have much to explore and learn at the Casa Manila, a state-run museum that offers awe-inspiring artifacts, memorabilia and well-preserved structures to revisit Manila’s historic heritage and colonial past.

Nestled in the vibrant quarters of Barrio San Luis, the Casa Manila is a regal remnant of Spanish architectural influence, constructed by Imelda Marcos in 1980. Designed with wood and stone, this museum is a replica of the 1850 San Nicolas House, depicting captivating exhibitions of colonial-era furniture, Filipino art, antiques and more.

This three-storey museum divides its collection across several rooms, and each room has a peculiar name, such as Cocina, Comedor and Despacho. Each room will introduce you to a different era with engaging displays of furniture, architectural remnants and artifacts.

5.    Touring the Grounds of the Malacañang Palace

The Malacañang Palace is the city’s official presidential palace and an important administrative and heritage site in Manila’s treasure trove of colonial architecture. However, this landmark first emerged on the travel circuit in a hilariously bizarre incident. In 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th President of the Philippines, refused to move into the presidential palace because he suspected paranormal activity inside the premises.

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Duterte’s suspicions were cemented by his own paranormal experiences at the palace and also supported by the experiential accounts of former presidents and their children. Duterte and family members of several former presidents and administrative staff made international headlines with their bone-chilling of seeing moving pictures and encountering the ghosts of former presidents, a presidential valet and even an American chaplain named Father Brown.

Aside from its spooky paranormal history, the Malacañang Palace is a stunning remnant of Spanish colonial architecture with its symmetrical archways, sprawling hallways and well-maintained grounds. It was constructed in 1750 for Don Luís Rocha and later served as the summer home for foreign rulers before becoming the official residence of the Philippine president.

Final Thoughts

All travelers have unique expectations and desires for their journey; while some seek life-changing experiences, others want luxury retail and cosmopolitan adventures. Manila is a city that offers the best of everything, from metropolitan wonders and hip nightlife to cultural musings and historical heritage. It all boils down to understanding your inner traveler’s desires and obliging them by setting priorities.


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