Few cities inspire such polar opinions as Manila: You either love it or you hate it, or you love-hate it—but you will never have a neutral opinion of it. An urban sprawl with 12 million inhabitants, Metro Manila can be bewildering to first-timers: rich and poor; densely packed in some places and sprawling in others, towering high-rises dwarfing shanties that spill over estuaries. So-called pocket parks afford some sanity (and lush greenery) among the heat, the smog, the cacophony of urban noises, and the riots of color, while the people’s sincere, incomparable friendliness and legendary Filipino hospitality exude from everywhere.

According to Chinese Ming Dynasty accounts from 1373, the settlement on present-day Manila Bay at the mouth of the Pasig River was a bustling trade port, the capital of an empire composed of several kingdoms from as early as the 10th century. Arab, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Japanese, and Chinese traders all rubbed elbows with the locals, exchanging gold, porcelain, fabrics, and spices. Its strategic location was not lost on the Spanish conquistadores in their quest for a viable spice route, and in 1571, the fortified district of Manila called Intramuros (“within the walls”) became the capital of the Spanish East Indies—an area that eventually covered the present-day Philippines, Guam and the Mariana Islands, Micronesia, Taiwan, Sabah, and parts of Indonesia.

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