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Manila is the somewhat daunting capital and pulsating hub of the Philippines. Situated on the east coast of Luzon Island, it was founded on the site of a Muslim settlement in 1571. The city's major tourist attraction is the old Spanish walled city known as Intramuros, where visitors can see some marvellous historic buildings.
It was once known as the Pearl of the Orient and was an important centre for South East Asia. Suffering some of World War II's most destructive urban battles, much of old Manila disappeared in the conflict. Today, expansive parks, congested traffic and modern high-rises make up a city that has risen from the ashes to become the archipelago's cultural and political centre.
Tourists will encounter a truly enchanting destination and should pause to appreciate Manila Bay's sunsets. A combination of clouds and humid conditions make them unforgettable. Most visitors use Manila as a springboard to explore the country's islands and provinces, with flights generally landing at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Select airlines from particular locations do fly into Cebu and Aklan.
Intramuros is one of the oldest parts of Manila. Located on the southern bank of the Pasig River, the walled Spanish enclave is a feast of historic buildings and churches, many of which are being or have been restored. Tourists enjoy several parks, restaurants and galleries in the attractive district, along with learning about its intriguing past as a site of political imprisonment and execution. Today, it's a lush park full of pigeons and flowering trees, where visitors ride along the promenade in horse-drawn carriages. History lovers should stop at the beautifully restored colonial residences in the Barrio San Luis too, which is filled with street artists and food stalls amid a festive atmosphere.
Rizal Park is named for the Philippine writer, philosopher and anti-colonialist Dr Jose Rizal, whose execution in 1896 sparked the Philippine Revolution. The country held its Declaration of Philippine Independence from American rule in the park in 1946, remaining a symbol of national pride and independence. It's also one of the largest parks in Southeast Asia, and features a chess plaza, a skating rink, a children's playground, an aquarium, a planetarium and many ornamental gardens. Visitors will also find some museums and a miniature Philippine archipelago. A sound and light exhibit of Dr Jose Rizal's martyrdom is displayed after sunset. Sundays involve a free concert in the open-air auditorium.
San Agustin is Manila's oldest church and stands within Intramuros. Completed in 1607, it has survived the ravages of time and successive invasions. In fact, it was the only public building left standing after a terrible earthquake in 1863. The church has a Baroque pulpit, an 18th-century pipe organ and an intricately-carved door. It's one of four churches in the Philippines to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is also a National Historical Landmark with notable Filipinos buried in the crypt. Visitors will find a monastery alongside boasting religious art, with the Sacristy housing a collection of richly embroidered vestments.
The National Museum and Art Gallery of the Philippines showcases the cultural, natural and historical heritage of the islands. The large and comprehensive institution categorises its exhibits in five divisions, namely art, botany, zoology, geology and anthropology. Visitors will find the archipelago's oldest human remains in the museum's collection, as well as the remains of the San Diego Spanish galleon, which sank in Philippine waters in 1600. The institution is clean, well-kept and has good facilities, with photography permitted but not with flash. It remains a deeply interesting museum that is a worthwhile stop for travellers of all ages.
The Malacanang Palace is the seat of government and official residence of the Philippines head of state. Situated on the north bank of the Pasig River, the villa has been a noble residence since the 1800s, when it was built for a Spanish aristocrat. Today, visitors will instead find a museum, featuring national treasures, historical artefacts and mementos from each Filipino ruler, including the notorious dictators Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. The building itself is attractive and the rooms are furnished beautifully, with visitors enjoying great views over the river from some of the windows.
Located near the Makati commercial centre, the American Cemetery is a quiet oasis in bustling Manila. The hillside burial ground contains thousands of white marble crosses, marking the graves of those who died in battle. The circular memorial contains names of soldiers who went missing in action, as well as mosaics depicting battle scenes from the Second World War. They will also find a small chapel. Travellers who are interested in military history should note that the cemetery has the world's largest number of American military dead from World War II. Staff is always on duty during opening hours, and will give tours, answer questions and escort visitors to particular places of poignancy.
Las Pinas neighbours Manila on Luzon Island, and is a popular stop among visitors to the Philippines. Housed in the charming San Jose Church, the unique sound of its bamboo organ continues to draw international organists to the city's annual Organ Festival. Travellers can also visit the Sarao Jeepney Factory, where they can view these iconic vehicles being assembled. Indeed, these gaudy, public buses have come to represent Philippine art and culture. Las Pinas is celebrated for being both clean and eco-conscious, with visitors finding some fantastic guesthouses and restaurants in the village.
Tagaytay is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the Philippines. Located just south of Manila, the town's most famous attraction is the Taal Volcano. It sits on an island in a lake, with another lake in the vast crater. Filipinos regard Tagaytay as their summer capital, with many of them heading there to escape Manila's challenging seasonal heat. The area provides many recreational opportunities, top hotels and restaurants. Travellers can also visit the 'Palace in the Sky'; an unfinished complex originally built for former president Marcos. Instead, it serves as a park, viewing point and flower arm. Golfing, diving, horse riding, snorkelling and ziplining are among the activities on offer.
Subic Bay is located on the site of a former United States Naval base. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 buried the area in ash, and it has since been transformed into a buzzing eco-tourism and commercial hub. Dense forests cover most of the area, which is enclosed by a security fence. Visitors will find forest trails and unspoiled beaches, and can explore shipwrecks and coral reefs in the bay's dive sites. They can also enjoy sports facilities and duty-free shopping centres. Subic Bay's attractions include Ocean Adventure, which is an open-sea marine park where tourists can scuba dive and swim with dolphins; Pamulaklakin Forest; and the wildlife-rich Zoobic Safari Forest Adventure Park.
Binondo is the world's oldest Chinatown, and remains one of its largest, most authentic and culturally intriguing. The Spanish established it at the end of the 16th century, when they gave tax-free land outside Manila to Catholic Chinese immigrants, along with self-governance. The immigrants were mostly from China's Fujian Province, and soon established a bustling community. Today, Binondo is among Manila's most vibrant areas, where visitors can shop for a range of goods and exotic cuisine. Foodies should definitely stop at the enclave's converted movie theatres, now housing traditional Chinese restaurants.
Manila has hot, humid weather all year round and the city's proximity to the equator ensures that the temperature range is small, rarely dropping below 68°F (20°C) and seldom rising above 100°F (38°C). It is a little cooler between November and February. The hottest month is May, when the temperature averages 83ºF (28ºC). The rainy season is between June and October, although some precipitation is possible throughout the year. The driest period is between December and May.
The rainy season tends to involve short, heavy downpours, punctuated by plenty of sunshine. Some travellers insist that a visit during the rainy season is ideal as it's cheaper and less crowded, and the downpours are refreshing. Typhoons can hit the city between June and September and can sometimes cause flooding. The hot weather and humidity is pleasantly tempered by sea breezes for much of the year.
Manila suffers from high levels of air pollution and smog is very common. The most popular time to visit is between January and May, when it is at its driest. That said, it is essentially a year-round travel destination. Tourists should be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen whatever time of year they visit.
Tourists will find an enticing range of shops, restaurants, art galleries and performing venues in Manila, which is easily among the region's most buzzing capitals. History buffs should certainly visit the National Museum, where they'll find exhibitions of sunken treasure dating back to 1600, as well as the Ayala Museum, covering the history of the Philippines. They'll also enjoy exploring the ruins in Intramuros. Located on the Pasig Rivers south bank, it was founded in 1571 and was originally the capital of the Spanish East Indies.
Travellers will see many ornate churches across the largely Catholic city. A prime example is the San Agustin Church which dates back to 1606; surviving wars, earthquakes and invasions. Manila also has one of the largest Chinatowns in the world where visitors dine on delicious cuisine and purchase exotic goods. The Malacanang Palace, which is the residence of the Head of State, is well worth a visit too, while the peaceful American Cemetery and Memorial honours those who died during WWII.
Shaped like a tadpole, this small island is a memorial and open-air museum commemorating the Filipino and American troops' victory against Japanese forces. Corregidor is also the largest of several islands at the entrance to Manila Bay, lying off the tip of the Bataan Peninsula. Its strategic position made it a good location for the last stand against the Japanese in the Pacific War, and its land remains littered with the detritus of battle. Travellers can arrange guided tours through the Corregidor Visitor's Information Centre, or through tour operators in Manila. Attractions include the Pacific War Memorial, the Japanese Garden of Peace, the Filipino Heroes Memorial and the Malinta Tunnel.
The island of Palawan stretches from Luzon towards Malaysia. A must for nature lovers, it's thickly forested and accented by coves, lagoons and limestone cliffs. Puerto Princesa is the primary gateway to the island, sporting hiking trails, spelunking opportunities and an underground river near Sabang. The small, lively beach town of El Nido is Palawan's most popular destination and is geared towards island hopping. From El Nido, travellers can choose to take a boat to the neighbouring island of Busuanga and the town of Coron. They will find fewer niceties than on Palawan's main island, but can explore the island's gorgeous aquamarine lakes and experience some of the best scuba diving in the region. The area is archaeologically significant too, with palaeolithic remains from 22,000 years ago discovered on the island.
The northern reaches of Luzon Island draw travellers craving adventure and an authentic taste of traditional Filipino culture. Lush, mountainous terrain characterises the region, though much is lacking by way of infrastructure. Banaue is one of the most popular tourist stops, with villagers still living according to age-old tribal traditions. Constructed about 3000 years ago, the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Banaue Rice Terraces starts from the base of the Cordillera Mountains and extends upwards for thousands of feet. Nature lovers can also enjoy nearby waterfalls, natural pools and scenic hiking trails. Caving and hiking are among the area's draw cards near the local town Sagada, though its main attractions are ancient burial caves with remarkable hanging coffins perched on limestone outcrops.
Villa Escudero is an old colonial plantation owned by the eponymous family. Located just south of San Pablo on Luzon Island, the property spans three municipalities in two provinces. It went on to become hugely profitable and featured the Philippines' first hydroelectric power plant. For their part, the Escuderos became pivotal to the battle for Filipino independence, as their wealth and resources allowed them to aid many independence fighters by way of shelter and supplies. The family's fortune also financed the construction of beautiful colonial-style Filipino haciendas. An on-site museum houses the Escudero family's fascinating collection of antiques and natural finds, collecting thanks to their wide variety of interests.
UNESCO-listed Vigan is said to be Asia's best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town. Visitors will encounter cobblestone streets and buildings fusing Spanish-Colonial architecture with Filipino and Oriental designs. Its list of attractions include the hugely impressive Baroque-style St Paul's Cathedral, a horse-drawn-carriage ride through the cobbled streets and the chance to spend a night in one of the grand colonial houses in the city's Mestizo district. Many of the streets are lined with shops selling clothes, trinkets and souvenirs. January is the best time to visit, as the annual Fiesta celebrations bring parties, beauty contests and a carnivalesque atmosphere to the streets.
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is located in the province of Palawan, and lies about 36 miles (58km) north of Puerto Princesa. Regarded as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, the underground river sees a significant number of tourists who can choose from many tour operators. The well-maintained National Park is part limestone karst mountain landscape, and the famed river follows a five mile (8km) course through a large cave complex that ultimately merges with the South China Sea. Visitors will enjoy a guided boat ride through the cave complex, which includes fascinating rock formations and a lively bat population.
Located in the western Visayas, the tiny, butterfly-shaped island of Boracay is a major hotspot for international sun-lovers. Its powder-white, palm-studded beach is said to glow at night. Visitors will appreciate the island's unspoilt beauty, along with its hotels, restaurants and nightlife. They can also enjoy an array of water sports, such as cliff diving, kiteboarding, snorkelling, windsurfing and scuba diving. Boracay has rightly won multiple awards and deserves its place among the world's top beach resort destinations. The best time to visit is during the Amihan season between October and May, when there is little to no rain and the island's main tourist area is calm and sheltered.
Located on the island of Mindoro, Puerto Galera began as a refuge for Spanish traders in the 16th century. Today, it consists of several towns and beach resorts, which together form one of the country's largest urban areas. Puerto Galera is one of the most sought-after scuba diving locations in the world. Travellers will find many sites within 10 minutes of the three main beaches, where they can explore wrecks, deep trenches and vibrantly colourful reefs. Sabang and White Beach offer an active nightlife, while visitors who want a less-crowded experience should head to one of the island's smaller coves or beaches.
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