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Most explorations of the Philippines start in the capital Manila, on the main island of Luzon. The country’s oldest city, the chaotic, crowded, sprawling megapolis is actually made up of many cities that have grown beyond their borders and melded together. In many ways Manila is the quintessential Asian city, often compared to Bangkok with its bustling markets, monumental shopping malls, shiny skyscrapers, and gritty neighbourhoods. Only in place of glittering Buddhist temples and gleaming chedis, Manila boasts handsome Spanish architecture, stone forts and Catholic churches.
The oldest part of Manila is the walled city of Intramuros, where you can get a taste of the country’s Spanish colonial history. This is the area to visit on Catholic Saints Days and fiestas, which are enthusiastically celebrated by the Philippines’ predominantly Catholic population. The first Spanish settlers arrived from Mexico in 1565 and the Philippines would remain a Spanish colony for another 300 years. Constructed by the Spanish rulers in the late 16th century, Intramuros contains splendid old churches, convents and schools, administrative buildings, and private residences. Highlights include the country’s oldest church, San Augustin, Manila Cathedral and Fort Santiago. The fort’s imposing walls are particularly impressive, especially when you consider they’ve remained intact despite centuries of invasions and occupations, including bombardment by the Americans during the Second World War.Read more
After the Spanish Empire came the First Philippine Republic, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, followed by a period of American rule, except for a short Japanese occupation, and finally the Philippines’ Independence, which followed World War II and the Treaty of Manila. This is worth noting because you’ll feel influences from each of these periods as you explore Manila, from the world’s oldest Chinatown at Binondo and a colourful albeit seedy quarter called Malate, to grubby Ermita with its grungy markets and go-go bars, and the modern commercial centre of Makati City, which has soaring skyscrapers, broad boulevards and colossal malls like Makati Avenue, and feels very American.
Manila is also a departure point for travel around the rest of Luzon, home to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ifugao rice terraces, Mount Pinatubo and Taal Volcano. From Luzon, travllers can take ferries to the main cities of other island groups. Mindoro is the closest, a quintessential paradise, with laidback, low-rise resorts of beach hut-style accommodation, fringed by seemingly never-ending sandy beaches, and an interior of thick jungle forest that’s home to indigenous tribes. Mindoro is also famous for superb diving on Apo Reef.