Manila is like a prism. Shine the light through the city in different ways, and you will see something you had not noticed before.
It's a city of extreme contrasts, and great irony. The high-rise buildings, modern shopping malls, active restaurant and nightlife scene, and luxurious residential villages of Makati, the main business and commercial center… they can easily give the illusion that you are in any modern Western city. Yet the squatter areas next door, where makeshift housing structures barely provide shelter to the many families spilling out onto the streets, makes you ponder how a country can be so rich and yet so poor.
A glimpse into the city's history will explain why the Philippines is best described as a "Latin country in the middle of Asia", but with strong doses of the USA thrown into the mix. This unique melting-spot spirit has infused the people with a special warmth – not only do the majority welcome you to their city speaking English, but they do so with an incredibly warm smile on their face.
When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in 1571, Manila was a small Muslim village. Soon conquered by Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, its inhabitants became Christianized, and the original walled city became known as "Intramuros", the seat of Spanish power for the next 300 years.
In 1898, the treaty of Paris sold the Philippines from the Spanish to the United States and this American Colonial Period saw extraordinary change in the city. Most notable was its revamped central core, created by the same designer as Washington D.C. Intramuros' southern parts became areas of art deco and neoclassic structures, with wide roads and parks.
When WWII broke out Manila faced transition once again, but this time one which destroyed much evidence of the city's colorful history. The battle between Allied forces and the occupying Japanese military would leave Manila the second most destroyed city during WWII, following Warsaw. More than 120,000 people were killed and in a country where 90 percent of the people are Catholic, only one Church was left standing in the original walled city.
During the Reconstruction efforts of the 1950's, the city grew to include more nearby areas, and business and residential hubs moved away from their riverside origins. Today, Metro Manila is not a city but a series of cities home to 9.5 million inhabitants spread over 5 municipalities: the political, economic, social, cultural, and educational center of the Philippines.
Manila is intriguing because to understand it and like it, you have to peel back the layers. Exploring the tourist areas of Intramuros and Malate will give you glimpses into its spirit, but other less visited areas such as Quiapo and Chinatown offer their own insights.
Get to know the Filipino people however, and discover what truly makes the country special. They are fun loving, friendly, eager to please and simply put, they love to eat, sing, pray and dance!
Tourists used to come to Manila just as a jump off point to visit the country' 7,100 islands, but slowly this is changing. The city is very liveable and there are new things popping up to do everyday, especially if you are the kind of traveler who likes to ask around and explore the unseen.
Manila has survived a rough childhood and adolescence but is maturing quickly and with a unique spirit. It has just hasn't yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up!
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