A kalesa or horse-driven carriage

Whenever Someone Visits Manila For The First Time, This Is Where I Take Them

I’m talking about balikbayans or foreigners who are visiting the Philippines for the first time (or the first time in a long time). All they usually have is one whole day to spare and they’d like to experience as much Filipino culture and see as many landmarks as possible before flying to Boracay.

So I take them to Old Manila.

A kalesa or horse-driven carriage

For starters, there’s the iconic Luneta National Park, also known as Rizal Park, which is one of the infrastructures you’ll see whenever a Hollywood movie or documentary is filmed in Manila. It’s the equivalent of New York’s Statue of Liberty and Sydney’s Opera House. Around the Rizal Monument, there’s a chess plaza, Orchidarium, open-air auditorium (I used to rehearse there with my fellow Gantimpala Theater actors), and many other monuments to photograph.

UPL Building, Sta. Clara Street

You can walk, take a taxi, or for the full tourist experience, hop on a kalesa ride to the neighboring Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) to see if there’s a play you can watch. If not, there’s always the World Trade Center for food expos, Star City amusement park, or the neighboring parks and Manila Bay strip along Roxas Boulevard.

Roxas Blvd.
Bambike Eco Tours, Real St., Intramuros

A few minutes’ drive will take you to Intramuros, where you can go on a paid walking tour, bike tour (I recommend Bambike Tours), or as I often do, DIY it and just explore the churches and museums on my own. When you’re museum-ed out, you can drive to Mall of Asia for some serious shopping.

The Paper Tole Shop, General Luna St., Intramuros

I’ve taken so many friends and relatives to Old Manila and the itinerary is never the same. It all depends on the interests of the group and how long they can stand walking under the Manila heat. In 2009, I took my Sydney cousins to Fort Santiago, followed by a food trip around Intramuros. Yes, I dared them to eat Filipino street food!

Fort Santiago, a citadel first built by Spanish conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi for the new established city of Manila back in the day

In 2011, I co-hosted AXN’s Sony Lifestyle with Oli Pettigrew, and I took the crew on a tour around Old Manila. Our agenda included a kalesa ride in Fort Santiago, a videoke jeepney ride, and fortune telling in Quiapo.

The pipe organ in Manila Cathedral
The perfect jump shot with my cousin Alan (second from left), and his kids Samuel (third from left) and Thyra (rightmost)

Last month, my Melbourne-based cousin Alan took his family to the Philippines for the first time, and of course an Intramuros tour by Auntie Kate was in the agenda. I took them to see the pipe organ in Manila Cathedral, where the Book Stop Project happened to find its new home. We visited Fort Santiago, and when I could no longer answer their questions about Philippine history (sorry, Professor Ambeth Ocampo!), the Jose Rizal museum provided more accurate answers.

Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant, Plaza San Luis

Lunch was a Filipino buffet for just ₱500 per person at Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant. After exploring the souvenir shops around Plaza San Luis, the heat became unbearable so off to Mall of Asia we went.

The playground in Fort Santiago

My Australian bestie Aprille Love is visiting in January 2017, and we already have a Bambike tour planned. Sometimes I think I should start moonlighting as a tour guide.

What about you, dear readers? When you have a friend or relative visiting your country or city for the first time, where do you take them?

June 4, 2016