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The capital of the Philippines, Manila is that classic steaming Asian metropolis, with more people packed in per square mile than any other city on earth, yet an openness and friendliness of the people that's hardly found anywhere else. Systematically destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout its turbulent history, Manila is now looking forward as it spruces itself up and welcomes you to visit.

I was quite surprised at how well developed and westernised Manila was, with freeways and a skyline to rival Bangkok. We stayed for two nights at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, on the shores of Manila Bay, an eighties construction with one of the best pools in the city, and great views across the water. The historic centre of Intramuros was nearby, and the modern trendy districts of Green Belt and Makati.

Manila skyline

The Manila skyline as seen from the airport, which is conveniently located just to the south of the city centre. That said, Manila has a number of centres, with very strict city limits to each. Manila proper has a population of around 1.6 million, whereas the whole metro area extending through Quezon City is more like 12 million.

Manila is highly urbanised, and as a result there are very few resort-style hotels, the Sofitel Philippine Plaza being one exception. This was the view from our hotel room across the lagoon pool to Manila Bay.

Sofitel Philippine Plaza pool

Cathedral of Manila

The Cathedral of Manila is in the historic centre of Intramuros, and like the city itself it has had its fair share of being rebuilt. The current incarnation dates from the 1950s, and stands on pleasant Plaza Roma.

Also on Plaza Roma is the somewhat more austere Palacio del Gobernador, its name a reminder of the Philippines' Spanish colonial past.

Palacio del Gobernador

Fort Santiago gate

At the northern tip of Intramuros is Fort Santiago, established by the conquistadors at the beginning of Spanish colonial ambitions in the Philippines. Indeed the country itself was named by the Spaniards in honour of King Philip II of Spain. Today the fort serves as a museum.

We travelled around Intramuros on a traditional calesa, the Philippine horse and cart.

Traditional calesa

Fort Santiago ruins

Much of Fort Santiago now stands in ruins amongst the encroaching jungle. Interesting to explore, if on a small scale.

This old building still bears the scars of past battles, with bullet holes peppering the walls. The only other place I have seen old bullet holes in buildings is in Beirut.

Bullet holes in Intramuros


At the end of the 19th century, discontent with Spanish rule was strong, and Jose Rizal was one of the leading opponents. He was imprisoned in Fort Santiago prior to his execution, and the path he walked on that day in 1896 is now marked by gold footsteps. He is the national hero of the Philippines.

In Rizal Park on the site of Jose Rizal's execution there is a diorama depicting the last stages of his life in the hands of the Spaniards. Less than two years later the Philippines gained independence from Spain during the Spanish-American war, only to be rapidly colonised by the Americans for nearly 50 further years.

Martyrdom of Rizal

Walls of Intramuros

Intramuros still has large and mostly intact city walls, bigger than those of York but not quite on the same scale as Xi'an. The old city is fringed with parkland.

Rizal Monument is one of the symbols of the Philippines, to the extent that it appears on car number plates. It was completed in 1913 and also serves as his final resting place.

Rizal Monument

La Madre Filipina

Nearby is La Madre Filipina, a striking statue which I've been unable to find a satisfactory explanation for. Presumably the mother represents the country herself, and the grieving man all the sorrow and trouble that she has endured.

A traditional Filipino home in Rizal Park - just for the tourists really.

Traditional house in Rizal Park

Heads in Rizal Park

Busts of various historical figures of the Philippines. Whereas in Glasgow the statues may be adorned with traffic cones, one of these chaps has already had a pudding bowl placed on his bonce.

Lapu Lapu is the name of the figure represented in the Sentinel of Freedom. He was one of the first Filipino natives to resist colonial rule, and lead the local forces in the battle of Mactan which resulted in the death of the Portuguese explorer Magellan.

Lapu Lapu


The Jeepney is certainly one of the most well known symbols of the Philippines, originally based on Jeeps left over by the Americans after the war, they are heavily recycled, modified and often colourfully decorated. They follow regular routes like buses and you just have to jump on the back and pay your 8 pesos.

Another icon of the Philippines, Jollibee is one of my favourites, with that cheerful bee logo and tasty fast food, Filipino style.


Manila Bay

Back at the hotel, the view across Manila Bay as the sun went down was spectacular, and highlighted distant islands that I hadn't been able to see during the day.

The Sofitel Philippine Plaza was an excellent choice of accommodation, only around 60 per night for five stars in the heart of Manila.

Sofitel Philippine Plaza


Parts of Manila and the surrounding metro districts have recently been well spruced up, with Bonifacio High Street no exception, a collection of modern shopping and dining outlets.

Makati City hosts some of metro Manila's most stylish bars and restaurants, along with the Green Belt areas nearby.


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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2013