Manila is the capital of the Philippines and the nation's center of education, business, and transportation.
Manila has a reputation as a congested, polluted concrete jungle, and is often overlooked as a mere stopover for travelers aiming to reach other Philippine provinces or islands. To an extent this reputation is deserved, but Manila is nevertheless rapidly developing and has its own rich history and experiences to offer. The city is sprawling, bustling, and culturally complicated, with a colorful multi-cultural heritage and varied nightlife.
Manila is distributed into 16 territorial districts, which are all original towns except one, the Port Area District. Each district is distinguished through its history, culture and cuisine.
The eight districts of the City of Manila (not to be confused with Metropolitan Manila) north of the Pasig River are:
- Tondo — The poorest and undeveloped part of Manila
- Binondo — The world's oldest Chinatown thriving before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1571 and the city's original center for business, finance, and wholesale, as well as retail trade ranging from jewelry to aromatic essences. It's famous for its authentic Chinese, mostly Hong Kong cuisine and quaint interesting Chinese shop-houses. Its church is a fascinating fusion of Spanish Baroque & Chinese styles as shown in its pagoda bell tower.
- San Nicolas — shares Divisoria Market (see Tondo) with other co-district is the hub for the adventurous shoppers that may venture for cheap and wholesale bargains.
- Santa Cruz — is on the edge of Chinatown, which is the district of usual frenzied mix of commercial and residential premises. It's where Escoltastarts - the main artery that used to be Manila's old Wall Street and 5th Avenue during the early American Colonial period to the 1960's. Carriedo St.is where a hodge podge of stalls selling locally-made clothes, export overruns, and household items. It is also home to a cultural curio and the second oldest cemetery in the city - the Chinese Cemetery, where the Chinese community's burials were relegated due to restrictions by the colonial Spanish administration. It features palatial mausoleums with hotel-like suites, some with jacuzzis.
- Quiapo — Home to Plaza Miranda, Manila's original answer to Trafalgar Square, and most especially to the Black Nazarene, an enduring Catholic icon brought from Mexico in the early 1600s. It is also a place famous for flowers, herbal remedies, love potions, fortune tellers, religious items, as well as electronic goods (Raon St.) to native handicrafts and tourist curios sold at Quinta Market and under an overhead bridge fondly called by some locals as Ille de Toule a French corruption of Tagalog "Ilalim ng Tulay" meaning in English "Under the Bridge". Old and delightful Art-Nouveau elite houses are now converted to tumbledown slum enclaves sharing space with B-rated movie houses past their grandeur and glory days. The premier and oldest mosque in the city serves as a centerpiece for Manila's small rendition of Arab & Muslim Town, a concept set up by Imelda Marcos to imbibe some sense of cosmopolitanism in the city.
- Sampaloc — the word for tamarind, this University Belt district, an easily identifiable nerve center of the country's major institutions of learning and a hotbed of diploma mills, is where the University of Santo Tomas, Asia's oldest university (founded in 1611), famous not more for its notoriously morally bankrupt and corrupt Dominican Friars during the Spanish colonial days as the inspiration portrayed by the National Hero Jose Rizal in his fiction novels, nor for its movers and shakers alumni, but also for being converted into the biggest concentration camp of international civilians held by the Japanese during WWII. Also, it's where lies the Dangwa Flower Market. It is also the student dorm central of the Philippines where most Filipinos nationwide claim temporary board and lodging in the myriad of apartment houses lining a warren of narrow streets while enrolled in the more than a dozen universities, colleges, and review centers within it, along with service shops such as bookstores, copier & printing (including fake diplomas) shops, thesis and reports mills, and computer rental shops, as well as entertainment joints catering to a student clientèle such as internet and video games, bootleg DVD & software shops, billiard halls, and student-budget sex and related vices safe houses. The imposing San Sebastian Church, inside the campus of a university, is the first and only iron pre-fab church in the Philippines manufactured in Belgium in the mid 1800s.
- San Miguel — still part of the University Belt hosting some spillover colleges and universities outside of Sampaloc district, it’s where the Malacañan Palace is located, the official executive seat and residence of the sitting Philippine President as well as museum. It is also the birthplace of the famous and namesake San Miguel Beer.
- Santa Mesa — from the Spanish term holy table, this working class district is not so holy anymore as it hosts most of the city's short time love hotels and motels; marks the first shot of the Filipino-American War.
- Port Area — the country's chief seaport consisting of North and South Ports, where wharehouses are arrayed elbow to elbow along docking and refueling stations for all ships, ferries, and cruise liners, and where one can witness the dramatic sunset of Manila Bay.
- Intramuros — taken from the Spanish, intra & muros, literally "within the walls", the History Town of the Philippines and considered as Old Manila itself during Spanish times, just right south of the mouth of the traversing Pasig River. First of all, it is a fortress city used to be surrounded by a moat now transformed into a putting green, and it is where the old Spanish Fort Santiago was headquartered. The fort, converted into a museum, a very historical piece of landmark where almost all the who's who of Philippine colonial resistance - Spanish, American, & Japanese were incarcerated. It used to house a dozen or so churches and congregation mother houses that during clear skies, the skyline was picturesquely lined with cupolas and spires and the morning air was deafening with peeling bells coming from belfries; the finest assembly of colonial architecture, just reduced to ashes with the exception of San Agustin Church during the last World War. Sir Banister Fletcher, a noted architectural historian wrote"Until...years ago the Philippines could offer many well-preserved examples of Spanish architecture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Intramuros, the old walled stronghold of Manila, the capital, which was once a treasure-house of ultramarine Hispanic art, suffered irreparable damage during World War II." Ultramarine Hispanic Art, whatever it was, must have been another lost 8th Wonder of the World which this and future generations have sorely missed. A great plan was under way in the late 70's by Imelda Marcos to reconstruct the old city but since everything else associated with her means opulence and extravagance, it fizzled off. The Manila Cathedral styled as Philippine version of Romanesque-Byzantine Revival, prominently stands within the walls of this district. There is a patch of land east of the walled city informally called Extramuros, the new Civic Center designated by the Americans where the Classical Revival style Post Office Building majestically visible, built on an imposing spot that should have been used for a more important stately building such as the Classic Senate House which holds ground on a spot where it can only be viewed obliquely and less grandly on a passing glance, and by now demoted as the National Art Gallery, The Art-Deco stylish Metropolitan Theater, and the City Hall with its subdued Mughal-Big Ben style clock tower are situated nearby.
- Ermita — one of the two Tourist Districts (another is the Malate district) south of Intramuros, used to be the one and only Red Light District, bars, pubs, cafes, bistros, night clubs, and massage parlors, share equal billing (and rent) with most of the city's overseas job recruitment firms, a cozy set up for mostly Middle Eastern employers to unwind after a day's round of interviewing applicants on a business with pleasure trip. It has a lively and diverse nightlife; also offers numerous coin, art and antique, and souvenir shops. Ermita is also where the American Embassy is located, together with Rizal Park, where the National Hero-Martyr Jose Rizal was executed by firing squad by the Spaniards, now immortalized by his statue-and-obelisk-on-a-pedestal memorial; and also Manila's mini rendition of New York's Central Park, the only biggest lung of the city used as promenade with a dual role as a national mall. The Manila Ocean Park, Manila's answer to Singapore's Sentosa Aquarium is also located in this park complex, as well as the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Artist's Gardens, the Orchidarium, the Open-Air Auditorium hosting the weekly Concert-at-the-Park and foreign film screenings, thePlanetarium, and the Classical Revival style National Museum renamed Museum of the Filipino People building as well as the pathetic looking 1950's style National Library. At the east end of the Park is where used to be Wallace Field where the American-style Mardi Gras festival Manila Carnival was yearly held for 32 years until it was abruptly ended by World War II. Around and nearby is where one can also find the grand Manila Hotel, one of the finest hotels in the Far East even though the exterior looks dusty. And farther down a few blocks south is the Supreme Court building back to back with the equally Greek/Roman Classical styled campus of the Manila branch of the premier state university, the University of the Philippines, which location is the very first campus of the University built around 1900 before it was transferred to Quezon City after World War II.
- Malate — just right south of Ermita, an equally very colorful hotel district, used to be famous for its mansions where the city's cream of the crop resides and its elite girls convent schools as well as the De La Salle University, which started as an elite boys school now transformed into a learning center of choice for the country's Chinese elite class. It is now more known as the center of bohemian night life in the city and the whole metropolis. Also, the site of the fiercest atrocity done by the Japanese to any civilians at the closing of World War II where whole neighborhoods were forced to assemble in the nearbyRizal Memorial Sports Coliseum to be dealt with mass orgy of rape and massacre. The district has a quaint and handsome Philippine-Baroque style church. The Manila Zoo, Asia's oldest zoo and, together with the title, is probably the most huggard looking, is also here.
- Imelda Marcos' dreamy City by the Bay called the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex or CCP Complex for short, a flat extended open space reclaimed from the bay that resembles Beijing's Tienanmen or Moscow's Red Square lined with coconut palm trees, as Civic Center and breezily tropical as it gets and an inspiration for Singapore's Marina, is bannered by the zen-like and boxy Cultural Center of the Philippines - home for national theatrical performances, co-inaugurated by then Marcos buddy and Governor Ronald Reagan. Designed by Leandro Locsin, King Bolkiah of Brunei and Imelda's favorite architect, in the mold of Oscar Niemeyer and Meis Van Der Rowe, this travertine veneered masterpiece is typical of those "less is more" fancies of the 1960's-70's. Other similar structures in the vicinity designed by him are the Philippine International Convention Center, the National Design Center, a supporting institution for the growth of industrial design arts, the Folk Arts Theater, built specifically to host the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant, and the resortly sharp and still spiffy Philippine Plaza Hotel. Most are now in their not-so-pristinely-intended condition. The two other important landmarks in the complex not designed by him is the said to be haunted Manila Film Center, the venue for the first and only Manila International Film Festival which premiered the film "Gandhi" in 1982, now the repository National Film Archives, and the architecturally intriguing, humble and yet tasteful Coconut Palace now as the Office of the Vice President of the Philippines. The last important structure here is the GSIS Building or the Government Service Insurance System, meant as the social security apparatus of government workers with the Banawe Rice Terraces concept in mind, also architecturally engaging, now temporarily housing the National Senate, the senior legislative arm of the government. Although technically contiguous, this landmark is not part of the district any more and belongs to the city of Pasay.
- Pandacan — district home to many of the country's literary and musical geniuses, originally named after the pandan plant species.
- Paco — a working class district that started out as Little Tokyo during the Spanish era, lies the city's historic but ruined and abandoned Paco Train Station where overhead, Japanese and American planes combated in a dogfight showdown after the Pearl Harbor attacks and the run-up to the invasion of Manila by the Japanese. It's also the location of the mysterious circular cemetery now simply calledPaco Park, the first burial site of the national hero - Jose Rizal, after he was executed by the Spanish, now used as venue for chamber music symphony concerts. Paco Market, another of the city's major wet-dry public market, has one of the most frenzied, colorful, and interesting market scenes in the city with it's boisterous ambulant vendors, busy Chinese owned stalls, and hawker market food. The district specializes in furniture and hardware items.
- Santa Ana— known as Sapa in ancient times, this district is the old capital of Namayan Kingdom which is the precursor of modern Metro Manila and used to be a quiet upmarket residential neighborhood comparable to Chelsea district in London during the American colonial era, but now a blighted working class district with its defunct Santa Ana Hippodrome which used to be one of the finest horse racetracks in Asia. A small museum by the colonial church of Our Lady of the Abandoned or simply Santa Ana Church, shows remnants of a pre-Spanish settlement.
- San Andres Bukid — also known as St. Andrew Fields as its English translation sounds more pleasant to the ear, was previously part of Santa Ana. It is also home to San Andres Market - another major public market, famous for it's variegated fruit stalls and a little bit touristy ambiance.