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Manila: The Sassy Mama City Guide

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Manila, capital of the Philippines, is situated on Luzon Island, one of 7107 islands that make up this beautiful archipelago. Although an Asian city at heart, it has succumbed to its Spanish and American colonial roots. English is widely spoken and Western dress predominates; over 90 per cent of Filipinos are Christian, and over 80 per cent are Roman Catholic, making it the only Christian country in Asia.

Metro Manila, with its population of 12 million is not for the faint of heart! But despite the gridlock, pollution, heat and humidity, it is also a world of smiles bright enough to light up the darkest avenues and take away the despair brought on by the chaotic traffic.

2Describe Manila in 3 words.
Trying to describe Manila is rather like trying to pick up jello with chopsticks! Life in my beloved city of birth can be completely thrilling, stimulating, and also incredibly unpredictable.

Best hotel in Manila when travelling with kids?
The 699-room Makati Shangri-La offers spacious and beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites, each with views of Makati’s famous avenues and the city beyond. The hotel has four international restaurants and private lounges that are known throughout the Philippines for their quality and service. It is walking distance from cinemas, shopping malls and trendy bars and restaurants, making it a prime location for business and family travellers from around the world.

Your favourite place to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner? Why?
Brunch at Sala Bistro because they serve the best eggs in town! Come Sunday, they bring out their special egg menu which3. Sala Bistro can be paired with dessert and with an option to include some bubbly. It’s a fantastic way to celebrate the last day of the weekend before returning to the rat race the next day!

Colin Mackay is one of the most popular chefs in Manila, and People’s Palace, his Thai-inspired restaurant gets rave reviews. The prawn and pomelo salad is my absolute favourite, along with the crispy fish and green mango salad. Perfect for that lunch stopover whilst shopping in Greenbelt. Desserts here are so delicious that even when I’ve eaten more than my fair share… it’s hard to say NO, especially to the cardamom infused panacotta and the pandan sago with coconut cream!

I had dinner at Masseto with my girlfriends on my last visit to Manila and there’s definitely a foodie buzz around town about this great new restaurant. Named after an Italian wine, it’s a fine dining restaurant and bar with an extensive wine list set in an elegant and spacious interior.

Alternatively, for authentic local cuisine, Abe is my favourite Filipino restaurant in Manila. The restaurant serves traditional food, mostly from the Capampangan region. At Abe, you can feel that food is prepared and served with a great deal of pride, while its casual concept and design provides the ideal setting for friends and family who wish to dine comfortably without much fuss. Signature Dishes include Lamb Adobo with Popped Garlic and Gising Gising.

4. Ocean ParkWhat is your favourite thing to do with your kids in Manila?
Located behind the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta Park, Manila’s Ocean Park is one of the city’s most popular family attractions. The oceanarium covers an area of 8,000 square metres and is fun, entertaining and educational for kids and adults of all ages. Among its most popular features are the 25 metre underwater acrylic tunnel that allows visitors to view ocean life first-hand; the Musical Fountain Show and the Fish Spa. Open 365 days a year, including holidays, this is one of Manila’s must-see attractions with kids.

Kid friendly museum?
I love taking my children to see the diorama windows at The Ayala Museum. When I was growing up, my mother used to be a volunteer docent guide there, and one of my fondest memories was of her recounting the colourful history of the Philippines, while I gazed in awe at of the museum’s figurines5. Ayala Museum and miniature landscapes. The Dioramas, carved by artisans and depicting major events in Philippine history have been a prominent attraction of the museum since their completion in 1973.

Best place for outdoor activities?
A 40 minute car ride out of Manila takes you to Nuvali, a paradise for outdoorsy types. Experience bird watching, wakeboarding, running, educational tours, play Frisbee or beach volleyball in one of the safest and most versatile outdoor locations around Manila. Nuvali offers off-road biking and 50km of running trails with scenic views of Mount Makiling, Laguna Bay and the Tagaytay Ridge. Four-cross and pump bike tracks are also available to bike enthusiasts along with 10 hectares of football, baseball, volleyball courts and a wonderful wildlife and bird sanctuary.

Favourite time of year in Manila, why and what do you love to do?
Manila is typically tropical; hot and muggy all the year round. Generally speaking, the dry season (January to June) is the best time to be in the city, with December to May being the absolute best months. Of course I love coming home for the Christmas holidays too despite the gridlocked traffic! And because the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, this is by far the most festive time of the year.

6. Spa Mandarin OrientalFavourite spa?
The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental
.They have created a sky-high oasis of calm 18 floors up, bathed in therapeutic lighting, filled with soft music and decorated in rich silk and natural teak. I absolutely love this spa. It offers instant relaxation in the middle of the crowds and heavy traffic of Makati.

I get my hair done at….
Emphasis Salon, Rockwell (+63(2)4030117). Reputed for its senior stylists and dependable staff.

I get my manicure pedicure at….
There’s nothing like ending a hectic afternoon with an indulgent mani-pedi. The highly trained therapists at The Nail Spa wait on you hand and foot as they clean, buff, massage, and nurse your digits to perfection.

The three shops I can’t live without are:
Silk Cocoon
combines indigenous fibres and hand-woven fabrics with a modern luxurious twist. Based in silk, they often 7. Silk Cocoonincorporate natural fibres like Abaca (a type of hemp), piña (pineapple fibre) and metallic threads to create a unique elegant line of women’s Filipiniana wear, such as dresses, tunics, obi wraps and shuffle shawls.

Firma’s home accessory collection has grown from a few decorative native shell tassels to a much larger and wider range that now includes floor, table and wall lamps, ceiling decorations and beautiful home accessories.

The three-story Balikbayan Handicraft building is hard to miss. Balikbayan, from ‘balik’ (return) and ‘bayan’ (homeland) is a term for visiting or returning Filipinos residing abroad. The store carries a whole array of goodies such as hand-carved wooden home accessories, fine fabrics, delicate mother-of-pearl pillboxes, ethnic coasters, colourful tapestries/table runners, capiz shell lamps, wrought iron wine racks, ceramic-bordered mirrors and even furniture sets. All products are designed by local artisans using indigenous raw materials. It’s a wonderful place to select special presents for friends and family.

Who I have on my Manila speed dial…
My Mum, my Titas (aunts) and best girlfriends!

8. La CreperieBest place for sweet treats?
For the best crêpes and tea in the Philippines, head to La Crêperie. One of the co-founders is a true Francophile and a lover of good food and it shows in every little touch, from the decor to the versatile menu which includes unique crêpe combinations such as “Apple Crisp a la Mode”, “Double Chocolate Fudge Brownie”, and “Strawberry Mango Jubilee”, as well as a selection of classic French savoury specialities such as “Coq au Vin” and “Blanquette de Boeuf”.

An unforgettable moment?
Living through the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA Revolution of 1986). This was a series of demonstrations in the Philippines that culminated in the ousting of President Ferdinand Marcos and the restoration of the country’s democracy. Soldiers were shooting in our residential area in Makati, and we had to evacuate to safer ground. Because of the chaos, the international airport was closed and my father was stuck in Tokyo on business, unable to fly back home and be with us. Supplies were running low at home and supermarkets were closed. Embassies were making plans to evacuate families back to their respective countries, and we ended up missing school for a whole two weeks (although we didn’t mind that part!).

Can’t live without…
I always buy a clutch from Aranáz purses when I am back home in Manila. I love the rich Filipino heritage, evident in 9. Aranaz Pursetheir choice of materials such as mother of pearl, coconut shell and wood beads with sparkling crystals, stones, luxurious fabrics and leather. Their creations have a unique artisan-like feel with pleasantly surprising details that make them ultra-special and unique.

Don’t miss…
The American War Cemetery, located at Fort Bonifacio. With a total of 17,206 graves, it is the largest cemetery in the Pacific for U.S. personnel killed during World War II, and also holds war dead from the Philippines and other allied nations. As a lover of history, this memorial is one of the most incredible places I have ever experienced. ??The thousands of graves instantly remind you of the great sacrifices made by American and Filipino troops who fought bravely, side by side, during WWII. ??The cemetery has a stunning array of open-air halls with beautiful mosaic works depicting each battle, which you can walk through and contemplate. The names of the fallen heroes are listed on each of these walls and it is impossible not to be moved and overwhelmed with admiration for those who died fighting to free the country from Japanese oppression.

Corregidor Island is a tadpole-shaped rock island, the largest of 5 islands between the historical Bataan and Cavite shores. Corregidor served as the major bastion of resistance for the Philippines’ Allies during WWII. General Douglas MacArthur also used it as headquarters during the war and it was renamed ‘Fort Mills’ by the Americans, but today, it is referred to simply as ‘Corregidor, the Rock’. It’s absolutely worth a visit and considered one of the important historic and touristic sites in the country.

What advice would you give families visiting Manila?
Hire a full time driver during your stay in Manila, especially if you are planning to visit many sights. The traffic is quite challenging and the roads can be tricky. Even though a jeepney or tricycle ride can be a lot of fun, having your own car and driver will be much more reliable and efficient.

Adults should check out…
Carlos Celdran’s ‘Livin’ la Vida Imelda Tour’
. This is an entertaining and fascinating insight into ‘the world that Imelda Marcos built’. His tour is quite theatrical, with a delicious mix of history, gossip and social commentary. The three-hour walking tour covers a part of the Philippine capital known locally as the CCP Complex.

Tell us one thing about Manila we don’t know…
Manila was the site of the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. After falling to the Empire of Japan on January 2, 1942, it was recaptured by joint American and Filipino troops in February to March 1945, who chose to shell the city repeatedly to drive out the Japanese. By the time the Japanese left the city, it was in complete ruins, becoming the second most destroyed Allied capital city during the war after Warsaw in Poland.




author2Christine Amour-Levar is a self-described “work-in-progress” Mum, Wife, Freelance Writer, Editor, and Marketing Consultant. She is the Author of The Smart Girl’s Handbook to Being MUMMYLICIOUS – a motivational and practical guide to getting your body (and your GROOVE) back post pregnancy. For more information please visit:



Join the conversation

  • I’ve never been to Manila and your story inspires me to include this on my list. I’ll also visit those best places you cited. Great blog you have here.

  • Kate Farr

    Hi Lucy!

    We’re glad you enjoyed the Manila City Guide – we’re also inspired to visit after reading all Christine’s fab insider info!

    Thanks for reading!

    Kate F.

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