Going to the Philippines? Many travellers forego the capital for its lush islands, but it’s an opportunity wasted if you know where to look.

Meet Mei, a Filipino repat who’s lived in Cambodia and Bangladesh, but now calls Manila home. Here she shares her top tips on life in the intoxicating, chaotic and wholeheartedly charming city.

Manila

Manila for foodies

Firstly let’s talk about food. We Filipinos love food! Restaurants, cafes, carinderias [food stalls with seating]… you name it, we have it.

A great place is a neighborhood called Kapitolyo with its cosy restos and cafes. A place called Cafe Juanita has been featured on TV quite a bit for its fabulous Filipino and Asian food.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian The Good Seed cafe is super popular too. It also offers a gluten free, keto and vegan delivery service and comes with its own vegan grocery.

I also love going to a chain called Mesa for its Filipino food with a modern twist. My favorite dish there is tawilis fish with mango.

For coffee I like Bo’s Coffee which works a lot with social enterprises. The coffee is sourced from local farmers and even the lounge seats come from local weaving communities.

Mesa restaurant Manila

Photo: Mesa Filipino Moderne

Mesa restaurant food, Manila

Photo: Mesa Filipino Moderne

Shopping

For groceries, we tend to shop at hypermarkets, such as SM. However Rustan’s department store has a wider selection of imported goods so perhaps better for expats searching for foreign foods.

For clothes and home items, I’d recommend Shangri-La Plaza because it’s less crowded.

Shangri-La Plaza, Manila

Shangri-La Plaza, Ortigas Center, Mandaluyong. Photo: M. Velas-Suarin

Gifts and souvenirs

For Filipino souvenirs most malls have ‘Filipiniana’ sections. A mall called Tiendesitas offers a decent selection of locally-made products.

Quiapo’s ‘ilalim ng tulay’ [under the bridge’] or Dapitan Arcade in Quezon City are cheaper, but they’re not for the faint-hearted! The ‘ilalim ng tulay’ market really is under a bridge. There’s no air conditioning and they get really hot. If you want to experience it, ask a Filipino friend to go with you and let them do the haggling.

Inabel blankets and cloths make great gifts. Inabel is a handwoven textile created by artisans of the northern provinces of the Philippines using age-old traditional weaving techniques. It’s best to go to Ilocos, the region where they are handwoven, which is about an hour’s flight from Manila or a fabulous eight hour road trip. Otherwise Balay ti Abel is a great place to buy online.

I also love Nito baskets which you can find in the malls. They’re handmade by the Mangyan people, one of our indigenous communities.

Nito baskets, Philippines

Nito baskets at the Mangyan Heritage Center, Calapan, Oriental Mindoro. Photo: M. Velas-Suarin

Day trips and weekends away

Within Manila, I’d recommend the Intramuros [The Walled City] and nearby Fort Santiago.

Another must is Manila Bay – watching the sunset from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, or a taking a stroll along Roxas Boulevard or CCP Complex.

To the north east of Manila, Quezon City (QC) is also a good bet. I’d especially recommend the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman with its parks, trees, and shaded bike lanes. The nearby Maginhawa area offers some fabulous little restaurants and cafes too.

About 30 minutes from Quezon City is Marikina City, popular for its shoe artisans and riverside restaurants. Although not on the riverside, but just as lovely is a place called Rustic Mornings by Isabelo, a wonderful brunch spot.

Rustic Mornings by Isabelo, Marikina

Photo: Rustic Mornings by Isabelo

To escape the chaos of Manila, I love going to an area called Tagaytay, which is about two to three hours drive from the city. I especially love Nurture Wellness Village & Spa.

Nurture Wellness Village, Tagaytay

Photo: Nurture Wellness Village

Taal Volcano, also known as ‘the volcano within a volcano’, is found here. While it’s actually located in Batangas province, the best views and happenings are in Tagaytay City in Cavite province. Avoid going there on a public holiday though – the traffic can be torturous.

For culture, the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo City is wonderful, not just for its artworks, but also its vast, meticulously landscaped gardens and Mediterranean-inspired buildings.

Pinto Art Museum, Manila

Photo: Pinto Art Museum

Antipolo is also home to many wonderful restaurants such as Crescent Moon Cafe, where its famous ceramic and pottery works are for sale. You need to reserve well in advance, because all ingredients are prepared based on expected numbers so nothing goes to waste.

While a day trip is feasible, if you did fancy staying overnight in Antipolo, I’d recommend Seven Suites Hotel Observatory. They have a cozy rooftop veranda with great views, as well as an in house astronomer and a huge telescope for star gazing.

Pros and Cons of Manila life

Manila is very cosmopolitan, and I guess very expat friendly. We speak English and on the whole we’re friendly and willing to help.

As for the downside, I’d say the traffic, traffic, traffic! I’d advice expats to live near their work place.

Filipino lifestyle

I reckon Filipinos are among the happiest and most optimistic people in the world. We love to party, sing, and dance. Christmas here begins in September!

We’re also very family oriented; we belong in close-knit networks.

In the workplace, we’re hardworking and typically form ‘barkadas’ [close peer groups], meaning we work well in teams.

Manila

Etiquette tips

My advice to expats? Just be sensible and smart and you’ll adjust easily. Of course, because of the traffic problem, you need a lot of patience.

Expats may also want to avoid being too upfront here in the Philippines. Filipinos, like many Asians, tend to avoid direct talks or confrontations. With western colleagues I can be candid and not fear so much about offending. In the Philippines, you need to choose your words more carefully.

Like a lot places, perhaps it’s also best avoid talking about religion or politics. Most Filipinos are devout Catholics and might be seem little sensitive in comparison to other countries.

Oh and finally, while it’s OK to take supermarket trolleys up to your apartment, you need to return them. Some people, (and some expats…sorry!) leave them in hallways. Come on, manners people!

But with all its flavors, quirks, and challenges, I’m sure you’ll love my country. Welcome and mabuhay!

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