I have lived in Manila all my life and find myself feeling nostalgic even for the days that have come before me — the glory days of Old Manila, all different points in time, depending on who you ask.
As a shopaholic high schooler hanging out in Malate, trying on exotic accessories at Firma (temporarily closed while its current address Greenbelt undergoes a renovation) and itsy-bitsy bikinis at, well, Itsie-Bitsie, I would wish I was old enough to sip on martinis at the Ed Calma-designed Acquario Liquid Lounge.
Or even much earlier, all the way across Jones Bridge in the old downtown district of Binondo, when Escolta was the capital’s financial district for three centuries since 1594. People would dress up and get coiffed up to shop at Berg’s Department Store, see a film at Lyric or Capitol Theatre, and finish it off with ice cream at Clarke’s, Escolta Ice Cream Parlor, or Botica Boie.
The grownups say the last time that Manila was cool was Malate in the ‘80s, wistful of the cafe society scene of Cafe Adriatico (still standing on Remedios Circle and restored almost like the original after a blaze) and the bohemian circles that congregated at the club/art gallery Penguin Cafe. I was there when Penguin gave it another shot as The Bar@1951 until it had to close. I was there when the last of the pride scene packed up and left Nakpil Street for the north. Dressed to the nines in all white, we sang in unison to Kylie Minogue’s All The Lovers and said our goodbyes to the old Bed. (Now I sound like those grownups!)
But a new wave comes, and I am optimistic — excited — to be of age now, during the revival of Old Manila’s creative and cultural scene.
The National Museum of Natural History has opened its doors, while the National Museum of the Philippines and Museum of Contemporary Art and Design Manila are in close proximity. Never before has exploring Old Manila been so inviting — and Insta-worthy. But where do you get refreshments after? What else is there to see to make the most out of your “excursion?”
Some of the landmarks still stand, frozen in time: La Solidaridad Book Shop owned and operated by National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose; the go-to Aristocrat is still open for 24 hours and so is Shawarma Snack Center. My favorite place for a drink this side of town remains to be the community pub Oarhouse; the late Anthony Bourdain’s, too.
I won’t deny that my side of town smells funny in some parts. Walkable sidewalks are rare. Like most cities where tourists are drawn to, this is not a place where you can leave your valuables unattended.
You will get glimpses of its former glory, but not without a whiff of its decay. Only here are an authentic heritage ambiance and charm that townships and other up-and-coming gentrified neighborhoods can only attempt to fabricate. And unlike the glittering modern lifestyle complexes in the central business districts, you don’t have to pay up for your every move and spend to have fun. I’ve tried it myself: sorbetes along Manila Bay and front row seats in the Rajah Soliman Plaza to one of the most majestic sunsets in the world. The damage? P10 for the sorbetes.
Without further adieu, my list:
Millenials and Gen Z-ers like art, and taking photographs of it and posting about it is one way that they consume and understand the medium. (The attendance and social media presence of Art Fair Philippines is proof.) Calle Wright sets itself apart in that it is an alternative art space that allows the experience of art without a commercial infrastructure.
Built on Silverlens’ Isa Lorenzo’s late aunt’s two-story 1956 house, it is transformed into a playground for artists. Original details like its grills, flooring, and jalousies are maintained by architect Ae Pastrana, and the artists exhibiting make full use of the space as installations are mounted on unexpected areas like the perimeter of the house, or the bathroom or the garage — nothing like immaculate gallery walls.
1890 Vasquez Street, Malate, Manila. Open Friday to Sunday, from noon to 7 p.m. @calle.wright on Instagram, callewright.com.
LATITUDE BEAN BAR
Natalie and Michelle Ong are two millennial Manileños like myself, jaded by the lack of hangout options in our ‘hood — so they built it. On the street between Calle Wright and bustling Taft Avenue is their specialty cafe Latitude Bean Bar, still on soft opening with a growing menu of pastries and sandwiches and shelves decorated with vintage cameras. The coffee is good, and they will soon expand with cocktails and craft beers. Latitude is inside a new three-story property that also houses a co-working space on the second floor. The remaining floors will make way for a co-living space. Perhaps a rooftop bar, too?
1851 Pilar Hidalgo Lim St. corner Remedios St., Malate. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. @latitudebeanbar on Instagram.
Blocleaf is located on the ground floor of budget traveler-friendly Hop Inn Hotel but it’s easy to forget that. Decorated with wooden blocks and indoor plants — its name an amalgamation of these main elements — it has the look and feel of a Tokyo neighborhood café while serving Filipino specialty coffee with Kalsada Coffee’s beans. The bespoke wooden tables and chairs are designed by co-owners Reymart Cerin and Vince Africa, who both run design group Public School Manila, in partnership with Fabricca Manila, both headquartered in First United Building, Escolta.
1850 M.H. Del Pilar St., Malate, Manila City. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. @blocleafcafe on Instagram.
SALO FOOD PARK
Located across a Malate food institution, Spanish restaurant Casa Armas, Amy Besa’s Filipino private dining room Purple Yam, and the time machine of a cafe inside The Adriatico Arms Hotel, Salo Food Park contrasts its surroundings — renovated container trucks and all — with a diversity of offerings like Goto Monster’s goto, Sugba’s ngohiong (a Cebuano veggie wrap you may have seen on Netflix’s “Street Food”), and a variety of fruit drink stands. It boldly stakes to claim, as the graffiti on its walls say, that “Malate is the future.”
562 Julio Nakpil St., Malate, Manila. Open daily from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. @saloparkmnl on Instagram and Facebook.
PLAZA SAN LUIS COMPLEX
I am of the opinion that Filipinos born and bred in Manila must reconnect with their heritage at least once in their lifetime, do the touristy thing, and visit Intramuros. Plaza San Luis Complex is an old-meets-new complex and a great starting point for your touring needs. It has the tourist-attracting advantage of being on General Luna Street, one of the few remaining cobblestone streets of Intramuros, located across San Agustin Church. Bambike’s Bryan Mclelland opened up a new way to see The Walled City from his Bambike Eco Tours space, which will also open an outpost of Batala Bar soon. There’s also heritage restaurant Barbara’s, the museum Casa Manila, and creative space and art hub Puesto, which offers refreshments like halo-halo and iced coffee while you peruse souvenirs like stickers and trinkets by independent local crafters. You can then head to historic Fort Santiago, the new Museo de Intramuros (on view at the former San Ignacio Church are exhibitions by Ged Merino and Diokno Pasilan until the 31st), and end your tour at Punta Real Gardens (the site of Intramuros Open Cinema) or The Walls for a sunset view of Old Manila. General Luna St. corner Real St., Intramuros, Manila. Check @intramurosph on Instagram for Intramuros events.
FIRST UNITED BUILDING
Old Manila is in no way dead — haven’t you seen Quiapo or Divisoria? But it’s not exactly top of mind for young people to hang out until the past few years, when we began seeking unique experiences in our own city and flocked to nearby Ongpin Street for its authentic Chinese cuisine and hole-in-the-wall experience. In 2016, Binondo became more than a “food trip” destination or a market for the lowest wholesale prices. Escolta became the hub that would decentralize the city’s creative community, starting from this 90-year-old Art Deco building.
Artist-run initiative 98B Collaboratory is at the forefront of this renaissance. They organize Escolta Block Party, but there’s so much more to Escolta than this (super fun!) quarterly shindig. Inside are alternative retail incubation space Hub, industrial coffee shop The Den and Cubao X’s Fred’s Revolucion, barbershop Folk 1006, First Coworking Community on the fifth floor, and creative businesses like branding agency Public School Manila and architecture firm One/Zero — exposed Art Deco bones and all.
413 Escolta St. Binondo, Manila. @firstunitedbldg1928 on Instragram and First United Building on Facebook.