WHY GO NOW?
Because most travellers miss Manila in the headlong rush to visit Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. Manila is one of Asia's least-known capitals, but it is one of the most high-spirited and it has a fascinating colonial history. Try to be here for Todos los Santos (All Saints) on 1 November, when families flock to Manila's cemeteries to feast all night and swap spooky ghost stories.
No airline flies direct from the UK to Manila, so you have to change planes. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) flies via Amsterdam from 16 UK airports. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies via Dubai from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester. You can also fly via Singapore, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. Ninoy Aquino airport is 8km south, near the city of Parañaque. A pre-paid taxi from the airport to the city costs from 345-400 Pesos (£3.45-£4), depending on destination, and takes around 40 minutes.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Manila sprawls along the eastern shore of Manila Bay. In the centre, overlooking the Pasig River, is the walled city of Intramuros, divided from the popular entertainment districts of Ermita and Malate by Rizal Park. The main business district, Makati, is south-east on Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue (known locally as Edsa). Manila has two elevated train lines: the LRT (Light Rail Transit) runs north-south, while the MRT (Metro Rail Transit) links the suburbs along Edsa, connecting with both ends of the LRT.
For tourist information, head to Room 106 in the huge Department of Tourism Building (1) in Rizal Park (00 63 2 525 2000; www.tourism. gov.ph); it's open 7am-6pm daily (until 5pm at weekends).
TAKE A RIDE
The main form of transport in downtown Manila is the jeepney, jazzed-up jeeps decorated with a bewildering array of lights, mirrors, horns, hood ornaments and go-faster stripes. Fares start at a mere P4 (4p) and destinations are displayed in the front windscreen. Alternatively, ride the elevated railway for P12 (12p) or take an air-conditioned cab (make sure you insist that the driver uses the meter).
Right in the heart of the business district, the Makati Shangri-La (2) , on the corner of Ayala and Makati Avenues (00 63 2 813 8888; www.shangri-la.com), is widely regarded as the best hotel in Manila. Rooms have real style and rates start at US$150 (£85) for a double, including buffet breakfast. In the old part of town, the Bayview Park Hotel (3) at 1118 Roxas Boulevard in Ermita (00 63 2 526 1555; www.bayviewparkhotel.com) has a delightful rooftop pool and a handy location close to Rizal Park; doubles start at US$84 (£48) with breakfast. Further south in Malate, Bianca's Garden Hotel (4) at 2139 M Adriatico Street (00 63 2 526 0351) is a glorious Spanish-style villa with a pool and patio bar, a gifted cook and traditional Filipino furniture in the rooms; doubles cost from P1600 (£16).
TAKE A VIEW
There are pleasing views over the old Spanish quarter from the walls of Intramuros; a 4.5km walkway runs along the ramparts, starting at Fort Santiago (5), which opens 8am-6pm daily; entry P40 (40p). This was the former headquarters of the Spanish colonial administration and served as a notorious prison during the American and Japanese eras.
TAKE A HIKE
From Fort Santiago (5), walk south-east along General Luna Street past Manila Cathedral (6), which was built in 1951 to replace the bomb-damaged 16th-century cathedral, to San Agustin church (7). Across the road, you can tour a reconstructed Spanish mansion at Casa Manila (8); open 9am-6pm daily except Monday, admission P40 (40p). Leave Intramuros on the same road and stroll through the ornamental gardens of Rizal Park to Roxas Boulevard, for views across Manila Bay. Dotted around the park are the stately administrative buildings of the American colonial government, now housing the National Museum of the Philippines (9), the Department of Tourism (1) and the General Post Office (10) .
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Manila's shopping malls are packed with food stalls serving everything from inihaw na bangus (grilled milkfish, a Filipino speciality) and halo halo (crushed ice with sweet syrup) to stir-fried noodles and Chinese century eggs. The best downtown choice is Robinson's Place (11) on M Adriatico Street in Ermita, open 10am-9pm daily.
Manila offers some of the best retail therapy in Asia. You can find almost anything in the city's super-sized shopping malls, from Armani suits and Nike trainers to iPods and Uzis (seriously). For the ultimate shopping experience, visit SM Megamall (12) on Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue. This air-conditioned cathedral to consumerism is open 10am-9pm daily.
For a flashback to the Spanish colonial era, hit the bars and restaurants of Malate. Well-heeled thirtysomethings gather in Cafe Havana (13) at 1903 M Adriatico Street (00 63 2 521 8097) to sip Cuban rum, puff on Havana cigars and dance to pulsating salsa beats.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Set in a restored Spanish mansion in Intramuros, the exuberant Ilustrado (14) on General Luna Street (00 63 2 527 3674) serves modern interpretations of traditional Filipino food; the house speciality is adobong usa, a rich stew of venison, soy sauce and vinegar. For hearty Spanish fare, try Casa Armas (15) at 573 J Nakpil Street in Malate (00 63 2 523 5763); the chef prepares a legendary paella negra (with saffron rice and squid ink). Imelda Marcos is a periodic visitor.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Philippines has the largest Catholic population in Asia, so there are plenty of choices for church-goers. San Agustin Church (7) in Intramuros is the oldest church in the Philippines and one of the few Spanish-era buildings to survive the American bombardment during the Second World War. Mass takes place daily at 6.30am and 5pm. The attached museum is open 9am-noon and 1-5pm, admission P65 (65p).
OUT TO BRUNCH
Munch on freshly grilled tiger prawns on a pontoon overlooking Manila Bay at Seafood Wharf (16) on South Boulevard (00 63 2 536 3522). Choose your seafood from the ice counter at the front of the restaurant; chefs will cook it up on the spot. It opens at 7am daily, and there's a buffet breakfast every Sunday for P190 (£1.90).
A WALK IN THE PARK
At weekends, thousands of Filipinos promenade through Rizal Park, just south of the old city walls. Dotted around this green expanse are ornamental gardens, a three-dimensional model of the Philippines (17), an open-air chess pavilion (18) and the execution site of the national hero José Rizal (19). Look out for locals practising arnis de mano, the national martial art.
Manila's main cultural offering is the huge National Museum of the Philippines (9) in Rizal Park (00 63 2 527 1215). Housed in the former finance ministry, the museum has some impressive displays on Filipino culture and history, including a life-sized model of the islands' most famous shipwreck, the San Diego. It's open 10am-4pm Wednesday to Sunday and admission is P100 (£1), but free on Thursdays.
WRITE A POSTCARD
The best selection of postcards is at the National Bookstore in the Robinson's Place mall (11) on M Adriatico Street. Scribble home from the peaceful gardens of Fort Santiago (5).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Head north to the enormous Chinese Cemetery (20) on F Huertes St (open 7.30am-7pm daily), where Manila's wealthiest ex-citizens reside in extravagant "houses for the dead" with marble bathrooms, fitted kitchens and crystal chandeliers.