Feature

Manila in 9000 Steps

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A walking tour of Manila reminds us of the true beauty of the country’s neglected capital.

Photography by
Story by
Joseph Pascual
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Manila isn’t exactly the first spot you think of when it comes to tourist destinations in the Philippines, much less the depths of Old Manila. I too have been guilty of telling people that it isn’t worth more time than a half-day trip to Intramuros, or a precursor to our islands. But in the last few years, I have grown to love it. It took finding myself a pair of fresh eyes and a welcoming community for me to see Manila for all its character, history, and layers of culture.

I used to think Manila had no history—that it pales in comparison to other cities I have traveled to. As it turns out, I was just looking in the wrong places.

My memories of Manila go as far back as my childhood, when my parents would take me to Binondo and Divisoria to buy supplies. I never considered this place an area to hang out in; it was a place you came to purchase something then left. Only later did I begin to find the beauty among the streets. I encourage you to look up and find them, should you ever find yourself in the neighborhood. They exist still—remnants of the art deco and art nouveau movements, American colonial buildings, pre-war bahay na bato, and structures of a variety of religions. Each stand as their own silent landmark of a place and time in our history.

Carriedo in view from the Pasig River Ferry
Carriedo in view from the Pasig River Ferry.

My discovery—or rediscovery—of old Manila peaked in 2017 when I became a Maker at HUB: Make Lab, an incubator space for local creative startups founded by the 98B Collaboratory in Escolta. It was the first time I had been to the First United Building, and in it I found the most welcoming and nurturing community: artists, makers, designers, and people from all fields and backgrounds who were passionate about our heritage, culture, and people. Through osmosis and many afternoons and evenings in the HUB, I came to learn about and love Escolta, its neighboring streets, and everyone in it. This scrapbook street of history became my home away from home.

There's all sorts of beauty around us if we’re open to looking, and so much history right beneath our feet.

I began to think of a guide; a way to introduce people, even those who have lived in here their whole lives, to this side of Manila I have come to love so much. I plotted out a walking route of my favorite spots to take the GRID team, and what made it more exciting was that it was their first time at several of our planned stops.

ROUTE MAP VIA GOOGLE MAPS

Most of the places we went to in Manila were all established nearly 500 years ago. Escolta, so-called the Queen of the Streets, is considered one of the oldest streets in Manila. It was the center of business and commerce centuries before Makati. Not many know that the nearby Binondo is also the oldest Chinatown in the world, serving as a center of trade and commerce even before the Spanish colonial period. Quiapo is likewise a unique district of its own, with Plaza Miranda serving as the setting for many turning points in politics, culture, and religion. The area serves to both Catholic and Muslim populations, home to iconic structures like Quiapo Church, as well as the Golden Mosque and Green Mosque.

Our team rendezvoused at the Guadalupe Pasig River Ferry station. We decided to try alternative modes of transportation to beat the traffic, and the results did not disappoint. The trip was a pleasant 45 minutes, calmly breezing west to Escolta station while evading cars and crowded trains. Just a couple minutes’ walk from the station was our first stop: Calvo Building.

Street view of Calvo Building, home to Uno Seafood Wharf Palace.

Built in 1938 by architect Fernando Ocampo, Sr., Calvo stands as one of the remaining beaux-arts structures in Manila. In it, you’ll find a museum filled with portraits from the past, bits and bobs like an eclectic nostalgia shop of the area’s history. We unfortunately missed out on the main exhibits as the museum was closed for the holiday, but we spent a few minutes admiring the display in the lobby.

A few paces down the parallel street, Dasmariñas, sits a staple neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Ying-Ying Tea House. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you step through the doors and see the roast ducks hanging up by the counter, and hear the chaotic bustle and chatter present at all times of the day. We ordered breakfast: traditional Hong Kong style hot milk tea, dim sum, and steamed cuapao buns with condensed milk, which satisfied all four of our hungry bellies for less than P200.

Cuapao buns and dumplings with hot tea at Ying-Ying Tea House.
Interior view of Ying-Ying Tea House
Diners at the ground floor of Ying-Ying Tea House
Fish in a tank at Ying-Ying Tea House

After breakfast, we walked down Dasmariñas street, one of my favorite stretches to pass, yet bittersweet for its numerous silent landmarks. Before we had Makati, this area was the former center of commerce and main business district. As the business center moved, these beautiful remnants of the eras of architecture and history were left to rot, sold off, or handed down to new owners who did not see the importance of preserving them. If you look past the boarded up and blacked out windows, you’ll find beautiful buildings from eras past. I sometimes indulge myself and imagine what they could be; a studio for the arts, a library, a community.

On the corner of Dasmariñas and Burke lies a hidden gem; one not entirely accessible to the public. You’ll likely walk by without noticing it, as the ground floor is all boarded up and exists in a perpetually half-demolished state: what used to be the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in the 1940s. The building was due to be flattened, but the National Historical Commission of the Philippines halted demolition in 2017 in time to save its façade and skeleton. If you find yourself inside, you’ll discover the murals by street artist Auggie Fontanilla on the second-floor walls—which seem to serve as a reminder of its past life as the AmCham.

Art by Auggie Fontalilla inside the old AmCham building.

Sitting right beside the defunct AmCham and at the mouth of Escolta is our next stop: the First United Building (or FUB), where my whole love affair began. The FUB—formerly known as the Perez-Samanillo Building and a remnant of the Art Deco movement—was designed by Andres P. Luna, son of Juan Luna, in 1928.  In it lies the HUB: Make Lab, and a community of people dedicated to ensuring the preservation and promotion of Escolta.

First United Building's art deco sigil.
First United Building's iconic art deco staircase.
All in the details: The First United Building's art deco influences are reflected in its interiors.


In a stroke of luck, we bumped into the building’s current owners—and The HUB’s number one supporters—Robert and Lorraine Sylianteng, who invited us to join them as they toured guests around. They took us to the “6th floor,” a viewing deck that treats its guests to a beautiful panoramic scene over all of old Manila, and is occasionally used for exhibitions and only accessible via stairs from the 5th floor. Afterwards we took a gander through the First United Coworking Space, situated behind the building’s huge iconic windows.

The First CoWorking Space inside the First United Building overlooks heritage spots in Old Manila
The view from First CoWorking Space. FUB’s massive windows give view to its neighboring heritage spots: Regina Building, Don Roman Santos Building, and the Sta. Cruz Church.

Breaking off from the tour, we visited the First United Community Museum in the mezzanine, which contains the history of the First United Building and its past lives and iterations, such as the famous Berg’s department store and First United Bank.

If you look past the boarded up and blacked-out windows, you’ll find beautiful buildings from eras past.

Moving out and past Carriedo fountain, we made our way down what is, to me, one of the most colorful streets in Manila: Ongpin Street. You’ll see for yourself that it’s nearly impossible to stand still on the sidewalks of Ongpin, and the constant flow of life you must follow or fight against. At peak hours, the colors, sounds, and smells come together in a tumultuous yet cinematic scene, unique to itself and its surrounding bends. Sections of it wouldn’t be out of place in a Chinese film noir or as a backdrop to a cyberpunk movie.

Prudence Mansion as seen from Ongpin Street
The iconic entrance to Ongpin Street Chinatown
A fruit vendor walking along Ongpin Street
Various establishments line Ongpin Street


We passed jewelry shops selling everything from jade colored beads to geodes and gold Buddha’s. It’s impossible miss the fresh fruit smells from the ubiquitous fruit stands, iconic fried siopao and its landmark unending line of people, and Estero fast food. We stopped at Lan Zhou La Mien for lunch, a little noodle house with arguably the best hand cut noodles around. I almost miss it whenever I walk past, if not for the window out front where you can watch the noodles come to life through masterful pulling and cutting.

Afterwards, we circled back through the Chinese embrocation shops and continued towards Quiapo to hit one of the most iconic squares in Manila: Plaza Miranda. The site of the annual feast of the Black Nazarene, you’ll also find a perpetual hodgepodge of religious and superstitious paraphernalia, from dried palay to catholic statues and anting-antings. Each seller yells out their signature call to try and pull you in, all creating one continuous buzz of movement. I like to think this is how plazas used to sound hundreds of years ago all over the world: serving as a meeting point and melting pot of all things.  

Among various eccentric services offered, the square is also one of the most known spots for a tarot card reading. I decided today felt right to get my cards read by the infamous manghuhula’s for the first time, which made for an interesting experience.

Quiapo Church facade renovation
Tarot card reading in front of Quiapo Church
The famed Quiapo Church is also one of the most iconic spots in the country to get your cards read.
I like to think this is how plazas used to sound hundreds of years ago all over the world: serving as a meeting point and melting pot of all things.

We made our way down the underpass beneath Quezon boulevard towards our last destination. On the end of Barbosa street sits Bahay Nakpil-Bautista, our final stop and one of great importance to me, as this is also my ancestral home.

The house as it stands today was built in 1914, and was where Katipuneros met in secret during the Spanish-Filipino revolution. It was home to national heroes Ariston Bautista and his wife Perona Nakpil, as well as Julio Nakpil and Gregoria De Jesus—my great-grandparents.

You may know Gregoria by one of her two nicknames; Lakambini and Aling Oriang. She was the founder and co-head of the women’s chapter of the Katipunan, and this had always given me strength and pride as a young woman myself. It was seeing this house so well taken care of and turned into a museum that first showed me the importance of preserving these structures. With everything in its place, the house feels alive—and ready to continue to share its story with generations to come. Again, we had to settle for the exhibits on the lower floor, as the upper floors were closed for the holiday.

Philippine flags hang from the windows at Bahay Nakpil-Bautista on Barbosa Street

Our route today ended back where it all began for me: at the HUB. Currently reincarnated as an incubator space, HUB also serves its secret function as a respite and meeting ground for everyone. Here, it is nature to nurture and collaborate with each other.

We sat at The Den coffee shop and recollected the day. Our journey covered more than 9,000 steps from morning ‘til mid–noon, making our way through the old, the preserved, and the re-purposed. Ending here, I felt like we tied back to where I began several years ago.

Inside the creative space in The HUB: Make lab in First United Building
A local bazaar inside The HUB: Make lab in First United Building
More than a simple pit stop, The Den is a vibrant melting pot of people, art, culture, and coffee.
I used to think Manila had no history—that it pales in comparison to other cities I have traveled to. As it turns out, I was just looking in the wrong places.

I was once apathetic to our city, like so many people are today. I never imagined I would fall in love with an area that  so many seem to be ashamed of. It is in my hopes that you curious souls reading will follow suit and walk the route, hopefully discovering new things and giving your own meaning and memory to each place. There’s all sorts of beauty around us if we’re open to looking, and so much history right beneath our feet.

Through openness and willingness to explore, I hope we all discover it. I hope when we do all find it, we’ll want to take better care and keep its stories alive and thriving.

The ever-bustling streets of Carriedo