Everyone hates Manila? Damn straight! It's a clusterfuck of horribly planned roads, 10 million cars chugging along at an average speed of 7kmph, hordes of beggars and destitutes dragging their cloth sacks around looking for salvageable garbage, tricycles and jeepneys coughing out Etna-sized clouds of soot, broken side-walks, liquid-thick smog, raging heat and generally bad food.
However, spend a little bit more time there and you'll start to see some charm in the turdbath.
Not exaggerating, i've probably been to Manila 15-20 times. I don't take the regular path that most tourists do in catching a connecting flight directly without heading into town. I always find enough to do for at least a few days here and enjoy staying at Pension Natividad where the courtyard offers quiet reflection. The other bonus in staying a bit longer is you don't have to rush around and can take in the sights one by one, skip a couple for next time, sit around reading all day if you fancy and then pop off for a bite to eat. After numerous visits, I managed to find a couple of places worth writing about if you or anyone you know is in the position of being stuck there for a few days.
Malate/Ermita is only worth staying in if you have a few more days, since it's quite a trek from the airport during rush hours (every waking second), and once you're here you will most likely want to go to Intramuros, Chinatown etc. If you are only hanging out a weekend then it's better to stay near Makati since the journey time is short and there are plenty of options for food and refreshments.
Speaking of which, here are some of the best places to eat in Manila:
Where to eat
Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen ($$)
As I was waiting for my Macbook to get fixed I ended up staying in Makati a lot longer than I hoped to. The only positive was that I managed to find an exceptional Indian restaurant, a very decent burger and a competitor to Ramen Nagi as the Philippines best Ramen.
This is most definitely not the faint hearted. Its Fukuoka style. Heavy, Christmas-dinner rich, broth, fatty pork and a delicious egg rounded off a superb bowl of noodles. The place was quite hip looking, up on the 3rd floor of the mall and there were a lot of Japanese people groaning and grunting as they tackled the hot beast.
Most definitely worth a detour if you are craving a bowl of godliness in a country of utterly sub-par food.
Royal India Curry House ($$$)
Curry is about the best thing on earth. I literally crave curry & ramen, and not much else. Manila has a dismal offering of Indian food, largely due to a lack of ex-pats from India living there. However! Fear not! Makati holds the key to a truly, truly divine eating experience.
I walked past this place on my way to eat Ramen one afternoon and noted it down in my phone to read up on later. The Ramen place was actually closed to I headed back and ordered a Chicken Curry (my first go-to in most restaurants) to see if they could at least make that. They could. Absolutely gorgeous, spicy, fragrant, succulent curry that sent me pining for the motherland. I headed back a few days later with a friend and watched as his face lit up with the first spoonful. This is a gem.
8Cuts Burger ($$)
Famous for blending their own signature ratios of beef cuts & fat in-store, this greenbelt fast food place is a cut above the rest when it comes to burgers. Fresh, juicy, well grilled meat, good bun, everything else in its right place. Decent fries, cold San Miguels and cheery servers.
Mei Sum Teahouse ($$)
Been going here for 10+ years ever since it was called MXT. Solid dim sum, good congee, excellent Hong Kong-style noodles done outside in the wok, pretty much everything we ate here on multiple visits was great.
Ramen Nagi ($$)
I must confess the photo could have been better. The reason its a trainwreck is because Ramen Nagi is seriously addictive, and after a month in the Philippines eating uninspired, under-seasoned, over-cooked, fatty, depressing crap I literally dug in before taking out my iPhone. Classic mistake.
Needless to say, Nagi do it right. I have eaten Ramen Nagi in Manila and Taipei and both were on point. Rich, well balanced Tonkotsu Broth, a delicious egg (which was on a side plate) and melt-in-your-mouth Chashu pork. Their spicy broth is actually hot too which adds a different dimension to an already fabulous meal.
Shawarma Snack Center ($)
I'm not kidding when I say a friend of mine and I went here 8 days straight in a row. 8 days! This GEM of a foodspot is in Malate, sitting on a derelict looking sidestreet. Confusion sets in when you walk down the road and find 2 places called Shawarma Snack Center, right opposite each other. One grand, balconied spot full of rich Arabs sucking on shisha pipes, the other a tiny scruffy cafe-style building with the same food for half the price. So, hit up the small one. Ask the waiter to make a Chicken Tikka Roll, with hummus. They will take perfectly marinated Chicken and onions out to the streetside coal grill, turn those puppies until they are tender and juicy, whack hummus all over a fresh pita, throw in the meat and roll it up in a paper wrapping for you to sit down, GENEROUSLY pour on their house made chili and garlic sauces (pictured above), and keep repeating until you see the sad juicy bottom of where a kebab used to be. Then just order another one and repeat the process until you are full.
Once again I didn't take a photo of the food because i'm always too excited to get stuck in.
Where to drink
It was called ABV when we were there a few years ago, rumour has it that it's changed names but not owners. How knows, but back then you had to enter from Lazy Bastard burgers through a fake wall, into a fake elevator and voila! Cocktail heaven.
The drinks were superb, the ambiance perfect for casual drinks and conversation.
places to see
For a slightly different experience, I would recommend taking the monorail to Santa Mesa Heights and spending a day exploring both the Chinese Cemetery and the Northern Cemetery. They couldn't be more different. The Chinese one is ornate with actual houses built so that the relatives can come and drink and party in the presence of their departed one. The opulence is quite staggering when you consider the person in question has long since turned to dirt. The Northern Cemetery on the other hand is poor. Thousands of homeless people live amongst the graves, and its not the safest spot so definitely get a guard to show you around. This is a side of Manila very few tourists get to experience, so it's highly recommended.
Intramuros is famous of course, and is definitely worthy of a poke around combined with a trip a bit further North to Chinatown. The food scene in Chinatown is bustling with great spots to eat, and there are great markets and small lanes to get lost in for an afternoon.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions based on my palate, things change, chefs get fired or replaced, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of MSG and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.