Manila is for many just a stopover on the way to the many beach destinations or to the north of the Philippines. Here are some suggestions how to make the most of 24 hours in Manila.
Start with a breakfast of your choice, either at the hotel or one of the cafes or bakeries. If you are within walking distance to the LRT1 line, I recommend taking a stroll there while witnessing the daily life of the locals along the way. Kids on their way to school, workers in the shops and repairs, and even the younger kids doing their morning bath outside the house. They are all smiling and wishing you a good morning.
Once you get on the LRT1, take it to Abad Santos, the station closest to the south entrance for the Chinese Cemetery. I seem to have a thing for cemeteries these days. At least the more unusual ones, like the Merry Cemetery in Romania and now also the Chinese Cemetery in Manila.
By the entrance gate, there are several guides you can hire to take you to the best mausoleums, and even inside some of them. They started with 300PHP per person for a little more than an hour, but you can try to bargain.
We decided to just walk around by ourselves and ended up getting a small tour of our own by a local family that were visiting the grandparents and great grandparents, the latter being the ones immigrating to the Philippines from China. The mausoleums near the entrance are the same height, being the newest and most modern. Many of them are decorated almost as apartments, including hot and cold running water, bathrooms and air-condition!
The older ones vary in height, and the richer the deceased were, the higher the houses and monuments were built. It felt like walking through a ghost town, quite literally. Like a deserted version of Wisteria Lane. The calm and quiet atmosphere felt like a very welcome break after walking around the busy streets of Manila.
The mausoleums are very expensive to maintain, so sadly many cannot afford to keep them. Instead, they remove the stone coffins with their loved ones, and cremate them instead.
Walking past some of the graves, I reacted that the names did not seem very Chinese. I heard several different explanations. The most obvious reason is that Chinese married Filipinos, but we were also told that many of the Chinese immigrants changed to Filipino names to blend in and get better social status. Another explanation is that by law 60 % of a business must be owned by a Filipino. However, the Filipino government made an exception for the Chinese entrepreneurs so they could start their own business, but in exchange they had to change their names to at least have the business registered in a Filipino name.
In the back there is a whole street with smaller chambered graves. Getting closer, I realized they were children’s graves. Some of them died in young age, others even the day they were born. Children were not allowed to be buried at the Chinese Cemetery, so they were cremated and their ashes were placed in this row.
We could have walked around for hours, but our hunger told us to get going.
From the Chinese Cemetery we got on a tricycle to Chinatown for lunch. The spot where our driver let us off did not resemble Chinatown at all, but he pointed us in the direction of Ongpin street. Here it was definitely more bustling, with well-known Chinese symbols hanging all over.
We located Mei Sum Tea House and asked the waiter to pick a few different dishes to share. She did well, and we left the restaurant full and satisfied.
Walking down to Intramuros, a walled city area considered as the old town of Manila. The citadel was funded by the Spanish Colonials in 1571, and include Fort Santiago as the main tourist attraction. It is a beautiful area with lots of green space for recreation as well as the historical buildings. This is also where José Rizal imprisoned while awaiting execution in 1896. Don’t know who he is? You should absolutely look him up before you go, but you will also learn about his many achievement through his young age of 35 at the Razal Shrine. To give you a brief summary, he is considered a national hero in the Philippines fighting for freedom from Spain. He was sentenced to death for that reason, but it served as a catalyst for the struggle for Philippine independence and the birth of the Filipino nation. As if that in itself was not enough, he was also an author of novels, poems and comics, and while in exile in Dapitan, he discovered two species of frog and lizard. Among very many other things. I must admit, it felt a bit special to walk around and peak into his cell where he spent his last full day on earth, exactly 120 years ago.
Walking in his footsteps while exiting the fortress, we were happy we could continue to Manila House instead of following the rest of his path…
Entering the impressive Manila House was like stepping back to the colonial time. Room by room you witness the grand wooden furniture and artifacts along with interesting small facts. The dining room had a large dark green velvet cloth hanging above the table. Convenient both as a manual fan and to keep the flies away.
Time flies, and it was time to decide whether to enjoy the sunset in the area we were and go home to change after, or to rush back to dress up before sunset drinks and dinner. We went for the latter option. Missing the sunset was not an option, even though it easily could have ended that way. The first obstacle was the traffic jam. Most people have heard about the terrible traffic conditions in Manila, but so far we had been really lucky. Until now. We had pinned 71 Gramercy as the place to be when day turned to night. Passing Greenbelt it should be an easy drive straight ahead on Makati Avenue. Problem was that as it is one of the main roads, everybody else wanted to be on it as well. Just when I was about to realize we would not make it, the traffic went smooth, and suddenly we were there. Just in time for the second obstacle; 71 Gramercy was closed for renovation! Luckily I had observed another potential rooftop right next door (to be honest I thought it was 71 Gramercy), so we hurried over to City Garden Grand Hotel. The sun was already setting, but we made it just in time to sit down with a cold drink as the sky was painted yellow, red and purple.
Heading back to Greenbelt for a little bit of shopping with a stop in a bar for a drink and some snacks to keep us going a bit longer. Shopping done, more drinks (and snacking dinner) awaited. I have a thing for secret bars when I travel, so we went to try out a few of them, starting with Exit Bar.
Exit Bar is a speakeasy bar located inside the Corinta Plaza. If you enter from the backside, the entrance is through the first exit door in the hall leading to Plaza Café. If you enter through the Plaza Café, the exit door is at the far end of the hall in the back. Walking through that exit door is like entering a time machine. The room is dimly lit, with a cohesive leather sofa along the dark brown paneled walls, accompanied with round tables of imitated marble. The only sources of light are the illuminations behind the bar shelves, and the yellow and black retro lamp, acknowledging both the purpose and time period of these secret bars.
Depending on how long you want to stretch the 24 hours in Manila, try the other secret bars I recommend in Manila.
The two areas Makati and Bonifical are considered the safest. We decided to stay in Makati as it also has a reputation of good nightlife. Gervasia Hotel Makati is a simple but ok budget hotel conveniently situated near the toll way, taking us less than 15 minutes both from and to the airport. At the same time it is within walking distance to the Greenbelt area, and also many of the speakeasy bars in Manila if you are heading for the nightlife. Personally I love just walking around to explore, so if you consider the 30 min walk to the LRT a part of that, it is perfect.