Unknown to many, the Philippines is often considered one of the best places to eat and shop in Southeast Asia.
A former colony of Spain and America, the foreign influence is still felt today – from the somewhat American accents of the educated locals, to the fact that you will find everything from IHOP to Tory Burch (and every brand in-between) in many of the country’s shopping malls.
A mere three hours from Singapore, Manila is a bustling city, dotted with shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. Tourists are spoilt for choice, with every possible international hotel chain tucked away in the city. For the purposes of a quick and convenient weekend getaway though, I would limit my options to the hotels in Makati, the Central Business District of Manila.
Where to Stay
An old reliable in the centre of town, the Mandarin Oriental Manila is a family fave. The rooms are larger than normal, decorated in a simple, classic style and their service is one of the best in town.
One of the newer places to stay in Makati, The Raffles Hotel in Makati is conveniently located across from two of Makati’s larger malls – Glorietta and Greenbelt. Their concierge is also well versed in friendly recommendations and can help hotel guests navigate Manila.
The newest kid on the block is the Holiday Inn. Located right in Glorietta Mall, the popular hotel chain can be a safe bet.
Where to Shop
Makati City and its adjoining Fort Bonifacio development are the Philippines’ main shopping and eating destinations.
In Makati, there are three malls to explore – Greenbelt, Glorietta and The Power Plant Mall in Rockwell. The two former are HUGE (to put it mildly) and you can literally shop your way from breakfast to dinner. Power Plant, while comparatively small, is more of a neighbourhood mall, catering mainly to the affluent and expat population who live in Rockwell, the residential development that surrounds it.
In Glorietta alone, there are three department stores that are well stocked and super affordable — SM Department Store (or Shoemart as it was called way back when it started), Landmark (which has a great bath and body section) and Rustans, whose owners are also the distributors of most of the country’s mid to high-end foreign fashion brands.
Within SM there are two floors of Toy Kingdom alone. In the same store is a Philippine-themed store called Kultura, where you can find the best of Filipino products, from dried mangoes to mother-of-pearl tableware and beautiful Spanish-inspired embroidered placemats and table napkins.
After exploring all the shops within Makati, head to Fort Bonifacio, where the fun and shopping continues! Bonifacio High Street and its surrounds have recently blossomed thanks to the influx of foreign banks and financial institutions that have built their headquarters or call centres in the former military base.
A favourite stop is Fully Booked, a wonderfully large and welcoming bookstore (yes, browsing is allowed!) that is housed in its own building and thrives despite the recent rise in popularity of e-books and free downloads.
The development is also home to Market Market, a lower-end mall that features more Filipino brands and franchises, as well as Metro Gaisano, a department store from the southern part of the Philippines, where you can pick up all your favourite American toiletry brands that aren’t available in Singapore.
Across the street is the Fort’s newest mall and one that Sarah Jessica Parker opened – SM Aura. Within its massive walls is an immense selection of brands from all over the world. Some brands that are found in Aura are not even available yet in Singapore, so spending some serious shopping time here is very much recommended, girl!
For toys for the big boys, head to the next city San Juan (only 20 minutes away) to explore the old but immensely popular Greenhills Mall.
Greenhills is home to all sorts of mobile phones, mobile accessories and everything else electronic! On the second floor of the market, you can outfit your iPhone or Samsung with any kind of cover under the sun. Covers that cost upwards of SGD50 are available for a fraction of the price and available in practically every colour imaginable!
Cross over from the second floor to the adjoining Virra Mall, an old building that became infamous for fake DVDs, but since its refurbishment is now home to two floors of electronics. Computers of all makes and models, video games and specialty toys can be found and fixed here. For obvious reasons, the majority of people found on these floors are male!
Greenhills is also one of the best places to get authentic Chinese food! An old reliable is Gloria Maris Restaurant, which is housed in its own building, right smack bang in the middle of the parking lot. Come at noon for dim sum, but be prepared for a bit of a chaotic experience, as it’s usually full… and a bit noisy!
Where to Eat
For Filipino cuisine, try NamNam in Greenbelt 3 or Lorenzo’s Way and Fely J‘s in Greenbelt 5, the latter two being sister establishments. Filipino food is really a mix of the country’s history – from the Malays, who were the first Filipinos, to the Chinese who ventured and stayed, and to the Spanish, American and the Japanese who colonized the country at some point or another!
If you happen to be in Makati on a Saturday, a little known gem is the outdoor food and organic market called the Salcedo Market, which is set-up every weekend in a parking lot right smack bang in the middle of the business district. Bankers and lawyers, locals and expats, all come in their dressed down weekend wear to buy organic fruits and veg, stock up on ready-to-eat meals and to breakfast on local delicacies, all freshly cooked in front of you!
A restaurant that has never failed to impress foreign friends is El Cirkulo, located just off the Greenbelt area. Owned by a renowned local foodie family, it’s located in a building that houses four restaurants – Tsukiji, one of the top Japanese restos in town, Azuthai, a personal favourite for Thai food, Milky Way, a source of comfort Filipino/American food (try their Halo Halo – the national dessert!) and of course, El Cirkulo itself, which is famous for their tapas, paellas and slow-roasted U.S. beef belly!
Some favourite eats in the Fort Bonifacio area are Wildflour, a lovely little café that started the cronuts craze in Manila, Aracama, which serves Filipino food with a twist (a must is their chocnut ice cream, unless you have a nut allergy!), Stella Wood Fire Bistro for good pizza, and The Goose Station, for a relaxing and deceptively light degustation dinner.
Contrary to popular belief, Manila is a great place to visit with the family. In fact, many of the expats and diplomats call it “Asia’s Best Kept Secret” because while the external publicity may be negative, to those who’ve come to call it home, even on a temporary basis, it’s very difficult to leave!