Exhibiting the influences of Spanish and American colonization and the proximity of the cultures of China and Malaysia, Manila, known since the early 20th century as the “Pearl of the Orient,” is one of the most unique capital cities on Earth. This balmy metropolis has an estimated greater urban population of over 20,000,000. While it may not be on many travelers’ maps, it certainly should be.
Settlement of the area that is now Manila goes back tens of thousands of years, and its earliest inhabitants may have predated homo sapiens. Over millennia, groups from the various archipelagoes and island groups of Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as China, jockeyed for control of the area. The first known written existence of settlement near Manila comes from 900 AD, when it was ruled by the Kingdom of Luzon, followed by occupations by rulers from Brunei, Indonesia, and a collection of Muslim Rajahs.
In 1570, a Spanish expedition attacked and subjugated the city, then ruled by Rajah Suleyman, and it quickly became the Spanish Empire’s main Asian outpost. A large Chinese revolt was only the first of many such uprisings in the Spanish colonial Philippines, through which indigenous inhabitants hoped to restore the traditional order. The diverse makeup of Manila and the wider island of Luzon, however, made it difficult for these forces to unite against Spanish rule.
What may have once been an obstacle to peace in Manila, however, is now one of its greatest assets. The diversity of the city’s religions, rulers, and people contributes to an electrifying architectural mix, including several striking 15th-century Catholic cathedrals. The next ingredient in Manila’s singular mixture of cultures came with the Spanish-American War in 1898, when U.S. forces defeated first Spain and then the local movement for a republic.
The Americans made their mark on Manila with the urban planning of Daniel Burnham, famous for the mythic and magnificent Chicago World’s Fair. During this time, Manila also saw rapid development. The Philippines, while consistently seeking independence, supported the United States over the years and through World War II, when Manila was leveled by Japanese bombardment and invasion. After the war, the country finally gained its independence.
Newly independent and proudly Filipino, Manila made huge strides, not only to reconstruct, but also to usher in a period of spectacular growth, prosperity, and beauty. Now, the city is a bustling melting pot of its diverse ethnic and colonial influences, with Spanish Catholic cathedrals and the old walled Intramuros district, a congested and vibrant Chinatown, American-influenced nightclubs and drag shows, monuments to heroes of the independence movement, outdoor markets and air-conditioned shopping malls, and expansive shantytowns. Amid the ever-expanding, notoriously dense urban mass, patrolled by the city’s distinctive “jeepneys” (colorful taxis with a look inspired by U.S. Army jeeps), Manila maintains a reputation as one of the academic and medical capitals of East Asia.
Outside the city, the island of Luzon offers a feast for adventurers. There are few better places to begin and end the journey than in chaotic, gargantuan Manila, still the Pearl of the Orient.