Metro Manila – To Eat, To See, and To Do

– by ChiChai@Empire-

Christopher@Empire and I made a deal that we would travel to our home countries and beyond once I graduated from graduate school. A couple of years later (and with my master’s degree at hand!) that deal came to fruition.

We kicked off the month of March by visiting the Philippines (my motherland) and experienced how each province has its own charm

For this week, we’ve been literally making our way up Vietnam (his motherland.)  We began in Saigon, spent days touring cities of the country’s center, and tomorrow, we travel even more north to Hanoi.

Christopher and I are now halfway in our Asia tour. In other words, I got a lot to catch you up on!  My first stop for you is Metro Manila, the capital region of the Philippines.

Metro Manila often gets a bad rap. The usual complaints include traffic, smog, crowds, and globalization. To be honest, I may have whined about all the above a few times myself. But– through it all– Metro Manila has a special place in my heart.

Christopher enjoying our Manila view

Metro Manila, being the economic hub of the country, is the most influenced by outside nations. You can see it in its all-English advertisements, its massive malls housing brands like H&M and Topshop, and its Starbucks at every corner. However, as globalization maybe a mainstream force into the region, there is a rise from locals to push back and gain ownership of their own crafts. (This was even a finding in my thesis!)  That pride in pinoy craftsmanship and artistry is the Metro Manila I wanted Christopher to experience this trip.

Here are some of the places that I took him to get that right taste of Metro  Manila:

Ermita, Manila

Rizal Park aka Luneta National Park

Rizal Park is one of the largest urban parks of southeast Asia. You can see all ages gathering here!–from little kids playing, young adults of the coast guard running, and elders taking an outdoor ballroom class. Also, this urban park not only serves as a place of leisure, it is also a place of history and revolution.

The name of the park itself is powerful. Jose Rizal is known for using his intellect and literature to inspire the masses to rise against Spanish colonization. His statue stands tall in the park and is guarded all day. Along with revolutionary symbolism, the Declaration of Philippine Independence from the US was signed here and political rallies against the Marcos dictatorship were hosted here as well.

National Museum

The National Museum is free! It is FREE! As part of an initiative to promote Philippine art and history, the museum is free for all! The museum consists of two buildings: one focusing on Philippine art and another specializing in Philippine anthropology. As a Filipina-American who grew up with a Western education, seeing the beautiful artwork that Filipinos have made throughout the centuries helped me feel a sense of belonging and pride. I don’t doubt that this has the same affect on other Fil-Ams visiting the homeland. (Will definitely write a separate blog about this later!)

Yabu: The House of Katsu – Robinson’s Mall

Outside influences in Metro Manila is strongly shown in the food. Yes there are excessive U.S. fast-food restaurants popping up all over the landscape but Filipino-owned specialty restaurants are opening as well. Yabu is one of my favorite examples. Owned by Filipino John Concepcion, Yabu brings the classic Japanese katsu to the Philippines. You can eat  pork katsu or salmon katsu or oyster katsu or more with their specialty in-house made katsu sauce and the sesame that you grind yourself.  Read more here.

Bay City, Pasay

SM By the Bay Amusement Park

Mall of Asia isn’t exactly my favorite place to be… uh…
It is one of the largest malls in the world– architecturally speaking, awesome! But personally, this mall is so big and so full of tourists that I get dizzy in it.

What I do like about “MoA” is that it has an adjacent amusement park along the Manila Bay. It is the one place that you can drink a mango smoothie while riding the tallest ferris wheel in the Philippines. I’ll take the ferris wheel’s sunset view over any mall.

Poblacion, Makati

You can parallel Makati to San Francisco’s Financial District. Skyscrapers and big-time businesses can be found in this Metro Manila city. For millennials, Makati is home to modern and locally-owned bars and “Instagrammable” foodie spots, particularly in the district Poblacion. Or, “Pobs” (my cousin’s friend is trying really hard to make Pobs a thing lol.)

Tambai

by Zomato.com

At a quick glance, Tambai may seem like another sari-sari store along the sidewalk. Come closer and you’ll see that it is more. Still keeping the classic street-food feel, this cozy restaurant sets up small tables and stools for you to enjoy their oh-so-good yakitori. They even serve local beers, Japanese beers, and US beers to pair with your food. And if you want to stuff your belly with more than yakitori, they have other tapas such as kimchi fried rice and soft shell crab.

Wild Poppy

What’s great about a night out at Pobs is that the bars and foodie spots are walking distance from one another. After meeting up with my cousin Niqui and her friends for a late-night Tambai dinner, we headed to our next stop to get more drinks: Wild Poppy.

Wild Poppy is in a cluster of other well-decorated bars/restaurants. The reason why we chose Wild Poppy is for its chiller vibe and its balcony’s fresh-ambiance. Here we were able to enjoy juicy cocktails (my “Thai-Me-Up” tasted so healthy!) while listening to their jazzy music selection.

For more food and drink suggestions, check out this CNN Philippines Poblacion, Makati food guide here

Caloocan / Home!

For a Philippines blog post with things to eat, you’ll see that I didn’t add any Filipino restaurants. I know, I know. What’s wrong with me? Well! I strongly believe that the best pinoy food one can get is home-cooked. For me, that means the best Filipino food in Metro Manila is from my family’s home in Caloocan, all served up by my Tito Nonoy.

My family and friends made sure we ordered sisig at any place that offered it because sisig is Christopher’s favorite. However, his favorite sisig out of all of the sisig he tried was from Tito Nonoy. Like I said, nothing beats a home-cooked meal.

I love our hundred-year-old house. Supposedly our house is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. You can still tell that it was originally a nipa hut. Up until I was in high school, the roof still had some of its original palm leaves embedded into it. But, because of its traditional Filipino appeal, my family forced Chris and I to take impromptu harana-like photos in the balcony *roll eyes*

Recommendations not featured:

Although we didn’t get to visit all of my favorite Metro Manila spots, I still want to provide more in this guide for you! Here are some:

  • Pino, classic Pinoy dishes with vegetarian and vegan options. When I went here, my friends and I had both the vegetarian and meat sisig to compare the two. I would order both again.
  • Mang Larry’s Isawan stand at UP Diliman. My friends who attended UPD say that Mang Larry’s is the place to get isaw (gizzard.) As unappetizing as that sounds (and looks) you have to try it for its authentic cooking of a street-food classic.

  • Shop:
    • Common Room, an arts&crafts and local-made shop. A lot of my favorite local artists’ and brands’ products can be found here. You can get a hand-lettering kit curated by the artist Abbey Sy,  a children’s book illustrated by the watercolorist and tattooist Wiji (who happened to do majority of my tattoos!), and buy Vela Manila accessories which intertwine traditionally woven fabrics with leather goods.
  • To Do/ See:
    • La Mesa Nature Reserve, a nature reserve that’s great for a nature stroll or bike ride. Upon seeing its lushness, you’ll have a hard time believing that this rainforest patch exists in Metro Manila. You can  also sign up your group of homies to plant more trees here. You can check out my tree-planting experience here.
  • Intramuros, Manila
    • To Do/ See:
      • Walk this Way Tour by Carlos Celdran, a theatrical and historical tour in Manila’s oldest district: Intramuros. This is probably the most honest tour you can get in regards to Philippines’ colonial history and how that history affects Philippines’ aspirations today.

  • Bambike Eco Tour, rent a bike and either join a tour group or tour on your own in Intramuros
  • To Eat:
    • Barbara’s, Spanish-Filipino dishes with traditional entertainment. The last time I went there, a few elders were dressed in barongs and serenaded each table. Also, it is conveniently next door to San Agustin Church– another historical must-see
  • Escolta, Manila
    • To Do/ See:
      • The Hub Make Lab. Imagine a flea market set-up but with booths of arts, crafts, and apparel. The Hub is the bottom floor of Escolta’s First United Building which is home to several artist studios. You can shop and also drink at either the cafe or bar. They also host night markets on Saturdays in which the artists studios have open houses and live musicians perform throughout the evening. Learn more here.

I hope you find this list helpful for your own Metro Manila adventure! If you do find yourself in Metro Manila, do not be discouraged from its excessive amount of malls and traffic. Despite the influx of  McDonald’s and Forever21’s and smog, a new generation is rising to take Manila back through its crafts. You just need to seek it.

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