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Top 10 hidden gems and things to do in Manila, Philippines

Ah, Manila. The capital of the Philippines, and one of the most exciting destinations for tourists who want a dose of old world culture, adventure, and first world comforts all at once. It boasts of a burgeoning foodie scene, with hip restaurants run by celebrity chefs, food parks hawking “the next big thing” in food, and international franchises opening one after another. There is a significant increase in the number of lifestyle malls and global brands as well, making Manila a top stopover for the fashionable set. There are also more upscale bars and watering holes than there were a decade ago. All in all, Manila, despite the smoke, the traffic, and the trash, is slowly turning into a city much like New York or Singapore, where different cultures, customs, and cuisines collide.

If you are a tourist or a jaded resident who wants to take a breather from all these developments and bask in nostalgia, or would like to do something other than go to the nearest mall and sip overpriced coffee during weekends, head over to any of these gems, and rediscover the charm and glory of old Manila:

Café Ysabel

Long before steak houses with international celebrity chefs at the helm and the hoity-toity restaurants serving tasting menus became the go-to date places of couples, Café Ysabel, housed in a historic old mansion in San Juan, was THE place you take your significant other to for a quiet, romantic dinner. Chef Gene Gonzalez’s restaurant has witnessed hundreds of proposals, anniversaries, and toasts. It has also hosted numerous international dignitaries, foreign presidents, and royalty. Even after decades of entertaining numerous guests, it still stands proud and mighty.

The food remains excellent after all these years. Order the Gambas, the Filleto ala Gino, Seabass with Seafood and Vietnamese Butter, and finish off your meal with a chocolate soufflé ,and you’ll understand why this restaurant is one of Manila’s best-kept secrets. After your meal, ask for a glass of Gene’s Medieval Mead for a truly memorable experience.

National Museum

The National Museum does not get as many visitors as the popular malls do, which is a shame, because it is a treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, and other masterpieces by the country’s most prolific artists.  It operates the National Museum of Fine Arts, National Museum of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, and National Planetarium. Expect to see paintings by Mansansala, Luna, Hidalgo, Edades and his contemporaries, Joya, and a gallery dedicated to the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. Of course, one should not miss the Spoliarium Hall, where Luna’s world famous painting is displayed in all its glory.

The National Museum is now permanently free of charge for all visitors, so really, there’s no reason not to go!

Pinto Art Museum

You’ll have to venture away from the city to get to Pinto Art Museum, but it is definitely worth the trip. Located in nearby Antipolo, the beautiful contemporary art space sits on a 1.2 hectare (2.96 acres) property also known as Silangan Gardens. Feast your eyes on the art galleries housed in open-air Mediterranean-inspired villas surrounded by manicured gardens. The museum is named Pinto, which means door in Filipino, because it aims to be a gateway for modern and contemporary art.

Apart from being the sanctuary of art aficionados who want to get away from the bustling city for a few hours, Pinto Art Museum is also a popular choice for photo shoots, so make sure you dress nicely and bring your trusty camera. Entrance fee is at 200 pesos.

National Library of the Philippines

The library serves as home to the facsimile copies of the famous novels of Jose Rizal, namely, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. It has over 210,000 books and 880,000 manuscripts, all part of the Filipiniana collection, as well as more than 170,000 newspaper issues from publications across the archipelago, some 66,000 theses and dissertations, 104,000 government publications, 3,800 maps, and 53,000 photographs. Valuable items include the Rizaliana pieces, four incunabula, the original manuscript of Lupang Hinirang, and a collection of rare Filipiniana books previously owned by the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas.

Its offices and reading rooms are open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p,m,, Monday to Friday.

Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant

If you want to channel your inner señorita, or if you want a dose of culture and good food in one go, then you should definitely visit Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant. It is located within the walled city of Intramuros, which adds to its old-world appeal. Their paella, roast beef, linguine Alessandro, and turon will surely fill you up.

Adding to its allure are the cultural presentations that take place on special nights, including tinikling (a native dance where dancers hop rhythmically over bamboo poles), a kuratsa, or courtship dance, and a binasuan, where dancers balance glasses on their heads and hands while they dance.

Kamuning Bakery Cafe

Before the cute pastry shops and boulangeries gave you #feedgoals, there was Kamuning Bakery, a panaderia established in the 1930s and which served Filipino breads such as pan de sal, ensaymada, monay, pan de suelo, and other pastries baked in their pugon oven. It underwent a renovation a few years ago, and has since been transformed into Kamuning Bakery Café, where, apart from the old favorites, one can find rice meals, pasta, sandwiches, soups, salads, and hot and cold beverages. Come for the bread, stay for the meals, linger over the conversation. Don’t worry about the prices – everything here is affordable.

Ado’s Panciteria

Located in Pasig, Ado’s Panciteria serves one of the best pancit in the metro. Established in 1952, Ado’s is the favorite after-church destination of Pasig residents. What sets this panciteria apart from others is the generous toppings – chicharon, chicken skin, meat, and vegetables – and huge servings of well-seasoned noodles. A serving of bihon, canton, and lomi (available in special, guisado, sariwa, and sabaw) costs less than a hundred pesos and can feed two hungry people. Apart from the pancit, you should also try their all-day silog meals, as well as their barbecue, crispy pata, and sinful chicharon.

Escolta

Escolta used to be the Wall Street of the Philippines, the center of trading, and essentially the place to be in pre-war Manila. It was ravaged by the war, but there are still historical gems to be found. Marvel at the ruins of what used to the country’s grandest buildings, or see them in all their splendor at the Calvo Museum.

Apart from the scale models of the buildings, it also showcases a collection of bottles, print advertisements, and photos of Manila’s socialites from way back. You can also grab a bite at the Original Savory restaurant, which serves the best Chinese-style fried chicken in the city.

Books from Underground

Bibliophiles looking to add a title or two to their collection need not head to expensive, air-conditioned bookstores. Manila is home to Books from Underground, a bookstore that is found in the middle of a scruffy underpass. It sells secondhand books owned by AJ and Winter, two book lovers who wanted to put up a bookstore with a “soul.” The fun is in the hunt, and if you cannot find the titles you are looking for, simply ask them and they’ll let you know when they find it. Prices go as low as 100 pesos for paperbacks, so your money will go a long way here. It is located at the middle of the Manila City Hall underpass, and is open daily from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m..

Oarhouse Pub Manila

Kick back and down some well-deserved beers at one of Manila’s oldest pubs, Oarhouse Pub Manila. It was built by a retired U.S. Navy pilot in 1977. Its original structure no longer stands, as it moved to J. Bocobo in recent years, but the old world charm is still there. What sets it apart from other pubs in the metro is that everything is chill and laid-back – here, you can enjoy a real conversation with friends without having to shout at one another to be heard. It is also a favorite hangout of photographers and artists, who regularly showcase their artwork on their walls and occasionally host exhibitions. The food is always superb, the beers are cold, and the ambiance is inviting.

There are many ways to explore Manila – apart from Uber and Grab, or taking a cab, one is encouraged to take the jeepney or the buses, so you can fully soak in the experience. Take the tricycle and the padjak just for the heck of it, and you’ll have quite the tale to tell. Explore Manila with an open mind, an adventurous palate, and a strong stomach. Grab a stick or two of fish balls and isaw and a glass of palamig when you get tired. Don’t hesitate to ask the people for directions or to engage them in conversation, as Filipinos are normally very friendly and welcoming. They’ll be more than happy to show you around.

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