Go on a walking tour
See the city through the eyes of a local. Join Ivan Man Dy (+63 917 329 1622, www.oldmanilawalks.com) on one of his themed jaunts across the old districts of Manila. Take the San Miguel tour and marvel at the colonial-era mansions, a prefabricated all-steel Catholic Church built in 1891, and the grounds of the presidential palace. It ends with snacks at La Cocina de Tita Moning (The Kitchen of Aunt Moning; 315 San Rafael St, San Miguel; +63 2 734 2141, www.lacocinadetitamoning.com), a 1930s ancestral house outfitted with pre-war furniture, cutlery and china, which also serves Spanish/Filipino dishes based on heirloom recipes.
Eat like the Spanish
Colonisation does have advantages: when the Spanish decamped, they left behind an authentic culinary culture. Casino Español de Manila (855 TM Kalaw St, Ermita; +63 2 524 5508, www.casinoespanoldemanila.com) has been around since 1844 and is still a members-only club. One-time-only guests are allowed to dine in for an additional 15 per cent charge. Sit in the charming courtyard while you wait for your order of callos a la Andaluza (stew of ox tripe), and lengua de estofado (sautéed ox tongue). A scruffier option, Ambos Mundos (759 Florentino Torres St, Sta Cruz; +63 2 734 1160) has been open since 1888 and true to its name, serves the best of both worlds: Spanish food tweaked for the Filipino palate. For something more chi-chi, drive to The Fort, where you can find a row of trendy bars and restaurants. Barcino (#101 Forbeswood Heights, Rizal Dr; +63 2 900 0726, www.barcino.com.ph) is run by two Spanish wine importers who have the breezy, boozy tapas lifestyle down pat.
Next to Bangkok, Manila is one of the cheapest places in the region to get quality beauty treatments. Try the 75-minute hilot (PHP1,000/S$30) – an indigenous massage style using virgin coconut oil – at The Spa at Rockwell (Power Plant Mall, Rockwell Center, Makati; +63 2 659 6421, www.thespa.com.ph), and come early to enjoy the jacuzzi, steam room and sauna facilities. Just a few streets away, for PHP665 (S$20) you can enjoy the best hot-oil treatment in town at the quirkily named Be Beautiful For Him salon (8485 Kalayaan Ave, Makati; +63 2 895 7305). It’s been around since the ’60s and is one of the best-kept secrets among Manila society gals; the joke is that ‘Him’ refers to Jesus Christ, not a male lover. Apart from screamingly cheap services, the salon’s uniformed ladies, who look perfectly cast beside the retro bubble-shaped hair steamers, also sell home-made local snacks you won’t taste anywhere else.
Sing your heart out
When a country elects an ex-movie star to the presidential pulpit, you know it’s a land of natural performers. Watch local talents rock it out at Café Saguijo (7612 Guijo St, San Antonio Village, Makati; +63 2 897 8629, www.saguijo.com). Manila’s comedy bars are another thing altogether. At the pioneering Library Comedy Bar (1739 Maria Orosa St, Malate; +63 2 522 2484, www.thelibrary.com.ph), those brave enough to go on stage are first roasted by a sassy female impersonator until they break down, to the delight of the audience.
Shop like a local
Squeeze in with the crowds at 168 Shopping Mall (Sta Elena St, Binondo, Manila; www.168shoppingmall. com) for dirt-cheap clothes, bags, shoes, accessories and furnishings imported from China. The crowd may prove daunting, but if Imelda Marcos shopped here, so can you. For local designer steals, hotfoot it over to Greenbelt Mall (Ayala Center, Makati; +63 2 757 4853, www.ayalaland.com.ph). Gents: contact Viktor Jeans (2/L Greenbelt 5; www.viktordenimrepublik.blogspot.com) for bespoke denim jeans and jackets ‘that can get you laid’. Ladies: head out to find Kate Torralba (+63 917 500 1229, www.katetorralba.com), who’ll make you a custom-made dress with matching bag.
Hang loose in the ’burbs
Escape Manila and head out to Pasay City. Set your weary head down at the private bed-and-breakfast of the Aldana couple (2680 FB Harrison, Pasay City; + 63 2 551 2396), 20 minutes away from the airport and located in a sprawling tree-lined compound.
Their neighbours include A-11 Gallery (#A-11 2680 FB Harrison; +63 2 832 9972), selling limited-edition furniture originally meant for export to Europe, Avellana Art Gallery (#A-19 2680 FB Harrison; +63 2 833 8357) for modern and contemporary artworks, and Atelier Jojie Lloren (+63 2 556 4725, by appointment only), the soft-spoken Paris-trained couturier who is also Project Runway Philippines’ Tim Gunn.
Butch Aldana, the man of the house, is a member of world-music band Pinikpikan and runs the newly relocated Penguin Café (
9815 Kamagong St, San Antonio Village, Makati; +63 917 858 3009 1951 M. Adriatico St, Malate; +63 917 8583009) institution among Manila’s arty/boho circles, the mere mention of Penguin will make any Filipino artist dewy-eyed as he/she reminisces about the good old days.
This story first appeared as 'Hidden Treasures: Manila' (Aug 2010).