Feature: Insider’s Guide to the Philippines

Welcome to one of Asia’s buzziest capitals.

By Chadner Navarro | Photographs and video by Sonny Thakur

Many travelers who come to the Philippines—a collection of more than 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia, about 2,000 of which are inhabited—pass quickly through the capital, Manila, on their way to dive off the islands of the south, trek into the caves up north, or worship the sun on the beaches of Boracay and Palawan. But there’s a better way to see the country. Manila, with a metro population of about 12.8 million, is a culturally rich city, and its economy is growing at a fast clip. This means infrastructure is improving, which makes exploring easier than ever. One of the best ways to see the Philippines, my home country, for the first time is to start in the capital then hop down to the slightly less visited but no less spectacular Tagaytay and Batangas areas to the south to gape at some of the country’s most beautiful mountains and beaches.

Seeing It All

The larger Metro Manila area is made up of 16 different cities, including Manila itself; Makati, the country’s business hub; and Taguig, known for its dining and nightlife. A trip to the capital means crisscrossing these various enclaves.

Begin your journey south of the Pasig River in the old walled area of Intramuros. In the 16th century during Spanish reign, these walls encompassed all of what was then the city of Manila and protected it from foreign invaders, but over time, the city expanded beyond the walls. Today you can still see vestiges of Europe in Intramuros: cobbled streets, leafy plazas, and Baroque architecture. Fort Santiago (Intramuros, Manila; admission, $1.50*), a 16th-century citadel, is where national hero José Rizal was imprisoned in 1896. Consider joining the families hanging out among the monuments and gardens of nearby Rizal Park before strolling the Manila Bay waterfront promenade.

Bambike (011-632-525-8289; tours, from $12 a person), named for its bikes fashioned out of eco-friendly bamboo, organizes pleasant excursions around Intramuros. It also offers tours to see the highly artistic graffiti that festoons the walls of the Bonifacio Global City (or BGC) neighborhood, in Taguig, southeast of the center of Manila. With lots of hotels, restaurants, and bars opening up, BGC is blossoming, and its striking street art only reinforces its reputation as the face of modern Philippines.

Many people will tell you that Binondo, first established by Chinese immigrants in 1594, is the world’s oldest Chinatown. Whether or not that’s true, it remains the epicenter of Chinese culture in the capital. Wander Carvajal Street, an alleyway lined with shops peddling traditional herbs, and mom-and-pop vendors selling eat-them-as-you-walk tikoy (rice cakes) and hopia (bean paste pastries). Don’t miss one of the area’s busiest passages, Ongpin Street, which you enter through a pagoda arch.

Eating Out

Manila has as dynamic a food scene as any capital in the world. Manam (dinner for two, $30) has eight locations, and all of them serve classic comfort dishes, some spiked with clever twists. You can order the sinigang, a traditional meat or seafood soup loaded with veggies and soured with tamarind. The short-rib version is elevated by adding watermelon to the broth. Adventurous diners can try the balut, or fertilized duck egg.

Philippine celebrity chef JP Anglo runs five beautifully designed outposts of Sarsa (dinner for two, $30), where he updates Filipino and Negrense dishes (Negros is a part of the Philippines). His specialty is inasal—a perfectly grilled chicken that’s charred on the outside and slathered in a flavorful proprietary marinade. Top it off with halo-halo, a dessert of shaved ice with sweet ingredients such as purple yam ice cream or salted caramel flan.

In 2016, Asia’s 50 Best crowned Margarita Forés the continent’s top female chef. She oversees several dining rooms in Manila, and Grace Park (1 Rockwell Dr., Makati; 011-63-2-843-7275; dinner for two, $32) is known for its rustic mix-and-match aesthetic and farm-to-table fare. The menu offers a global selection of food, but dishes such as river prawns drizzled with crab-fat butter perfectly capture the fruits of the Philippine kitchen. For a more casual experience, the Midnight Mercato (25th St. and Seventh Ave., Taguig; 011-63-917-840-1152) in BGC is packed with street-food vendors. Anything being cooked on a skewer (cheese-stuffed hot dog, chunks of pork belly, or chicken intestines) will immediately have you feeling like a local.

Nonstop Shopping

Like many cities in Asia, there are tons of malls all over Manila. SM is a homegrown chain, while Greenbelt (Legazpi St., Makati; 011-63-2-729-2137) in Makati is more upscale and houses international luxury labels such as Hermès. While in Makati, check out Marquina Shoemaker (7635 Guijo St., Makati; 011-63-2-752-0194), a brand trying to resuscitate the local shoemaking industry. Loafers, boots, and oxfords for men and women made with leather from tanneries in the city of Valenzuela, north of Manila, can be bought off the shelves or created bespoke.

If you want to pick up an artisan souvenir, such as a traditional barong (a shirt woven from pineapple fibers), or something fun, like a refrigerator magnet of a jeepney (a name for the colorful minibuses you’ll find all over the Philippines), you can shop at one of the many locations of Kultura Filipino. But for a unique retail experience, there’s nothing like the compact neighborhood of Divisoria (Claro M. Recto Ave., Manila). Between the outdoor market and indoor stores, you can buy almost anything here—apples, swimming-pool accessories, plastic watches. Even if you don’t need any of these items, bring some cash; you can use the pesos to pick up a streetside snack like taho, silken tofu soaked in a sugary syrup, or cheddar-cheese ice cream stuffed into a sandwich roll.

Nature’s Hideaways

For all that it offers, Manila is still a crowded metropolis that can sometimes overwhelm even the most experienced traveler. More-peaceful retreats are within just a couple hours’ drive. Tour operator Uncharted Philippines (702-738-1467; Taal day tours, $180 a person) can sneak you out of Manila to the drastically smaller city of Tagaytay. It’s only 40 miles south and feels a world away. Tagaytay is known for Taal Volcano, which, remarkably, is on an island (Volcano Island) within another island (Luzon)—kind of a Russian nesting doll of islands. Active travelers can take a boat to the volcano and then hike up to the rim of the crater for unforgettable vistas.

Afterward, reward yourself at Antonio’s (Purok 138, Barangay Neogan, Tagaytay; 011-63-917-899-2866; dinner for two, $100), chef Tonyboy Escalante’s fine-dining showpiece inside a mansion, where he serves a global menu of classics, from Filipino lechón (pig skin) to spaghetti tossed with bottarga. Before you leave Tagaytay, pop into Rowena’s (Emilio Aguanaldo Hwy., Hill Crest Plaza, Tagaytay; 011-63-46-860-2481; tarts, $1), a shop that sells buko (coconut) tarts.

For time by the water, head to the province of Batangas, another 40 miles south from Tagaytay. The area is full of beaches, most known only to Filipinos. To make the most of a short getaway, do an island-hopping excursion. You can go for it on your own, or Uncharted Philippines can organize an itinerary (from $200 a person, two-person minimum) of spellbinding stops: Anilao for snorkeling; Fortune Island, where you’ll find ruins of Greek-revival columns; and Isla Verde’s white-sand beach­—all truly unforgettable.

RCI® affiliated resorts in the Philippines include:
Astoria Plaza Suites 7773

A soaring 35-story tower with a gym, spa, and pool in Manila’s bustling Pasig City. 15 J. Escriva Dr., Ortigas Business District, Pasig City
Member Review: “Staff are friendly, the rooms are big, the food is great, and it’s a great value for the money.”

Astoria Plaza Suites—3 Nights SD67

Shares amenities with Astoria Plaza Suites. 15 J. Escriva Dr., Ortigas Business District, Pasig City
Member Review: “Rooms are big and clean, and a shuttle will bring you to the stories.”

Astoria Plaza Suites—4 Nights SE67

Shares amenities with Astoria Plaza Suites. 15 J. Escriva Dr., Ortigas Business District, Pasig City
Member Review: “It’s a great place at the heart of the city.”

One Tagaytay Place C384

Relaxation rules at this modern Tagaytay hotel, with its comfy rooms and separate pools for adults and kids. 445 Calamba Rd., Tagaytay City
Member Review: “Easy to commute to all the must-see places, and service with a smile.”

RCI® Tip

Want more ideas for what to see and do during your vacation? RCI® Travel Guided Vacations** offers a range of itineraries in the Philippines that can be tailored to what you’re most interested in. Visit RCITravelGuidedVacations.com for more information.

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in the Philippines include:
The Henry Hotel Manila

A midcentury residential compound that was transformed into a 34-room hotel minutes from the airport. You could spend hours at the shaded pool. 2680 Compound, F.B. Harrison Street, Pasay; 011-63-2-5807-8888; thehenryhotel.com; doubles from $80 a night

Sonya’s Garden

Surrounded by fragrant flowers on the outskirts of Tagaytay, this bed-and-breakfast has embroidered linens, hand-painted furniture, and a spa popular with locals. Barangay Buck Estate, Alfonso, Cavite; 011-63-917-533-5140; sonyasgarden.com; doubles from $120 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **RCI Travel Guided Vacations is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 7720 N. Dobson Rd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Fall 2019