Tips
The Best Things to Do in Manila Over the Holidays
What to do, where to go, what to buy, and what to eat in the city this Christmas.
IMAGE COURTESY BALLETPHILIPPINES/ SOFITEL/ RUSTANS
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The Town&Country editors give their recommendations for a magical Christmas spent in the city.

Growing up, our grandfather, Lolo Sitong, used to take us around the city to check out the giant sparkling Christmas trees at the lobbies of different hotels. We would eat bibingka and puto bumbong and listen to festive Christmas carols. The past few years that I’ve been back in Manila, I look forward to the annual Christmas concert at the Peninsula Manila. This year’s concert on December 10 features Celeste Legaspi with the UST singers and the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra with guest conductor Ruggero Barbieri. The lobby also features caroling on other evenings from 6:30 pm to 7:15 pm.

While I was away, one of the highlights of my Christmases in New York was the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker.” This year, Ballet Philippines celebrates the holidays with its own Philippine-inspired version choreographed by Edna Vida with Alice Reyes. Restaging the ballet with the costumes and set design by the late National Artist Salvador Bernal from three decades ago, this Nutcracker opens at a Filipino Bahay na Bato during Noche Buena. This weekend at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. For an even more special experience with your children, Ballet Philippines is hosting afternoon tea parties before the show with ballet-shoe painting sessions and a meet and greet with the colorful dancers.

Gingerbread has always been a staple for children all over the world. A life-size gingerbread house stands in the lobby of Makati Shangri-La filled with all sorts of spiced gingerbread and other Christmas treats. The Peninsula Manila also hosted a gingerbread decorating class over the weekend with proceeds benefiting the street children of the Virlanie Foundation.


Nothing says “Happy Holidays!” to me like sitting in the lobby of The Manila Peninsula hotel enjoying a cup of tea or a bowl of halo-halo with my family. From its towering Christmas tree to a life-size gingerbread house, this vast space is transformed into a warm and inviting living room that is filled with an infectious merriment.

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Once I have found my inner Christmas spirit, I plan on multiple strolls through my favorite shops, finding much joy in their elaborate Christmas windows and thoughtful decoration. My must-visits include Rustan’s Makati;  W/17, Mentxaka, Mabolo, and Lanai, all located along Pasong Tamo; +ac632 and Adora in Greenbelt, and Shelter in Shangri- La Plaza. Much time is also spent strolling the corridors of Rockwell Power Plant Mall where I get practically everything I need for my Noche Buena feast at Rustan's Marketplace and Bacchus Epicerie, including a box of Italian panettone that I will enjoy with my mom over coffee for many mornings leading up to Christmas Day.

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When I am ready to refuel I will sit outdoors at Lusso and have a glass of Champagne or sip some rose on Mireio’s terrace at Raffles Makati or perhaps treat myself to some bibingka and puto bumbongsomething I can never get enough of.  In recent years, my favorite place to indulge in these delicacies is at the Manila Polo Club where the rice cakes are made specially, from November through January, by Pia Caluag of Roast in White Plains. 

At least once during the season, I will walk over to the Christmas park outside of Meralco along Ortigas Avenue with my not-so-little children. My younger one will insist on riding the train that circles the area and my eldest child will roll her eyes but will line up and get on the train with her sister. Later, we will spend some time walking around the grounds, enjoying the bright lights and cool weather while saying out loud to one another “I can’t believe it's already been a year….”

Simbang Gabi is my favorite holiday tradition and I try to complete it every year, usually at the Ateneo Law School chapel. This year I want to attend at least one Mass at the Church of Gesu inside the Ateneo de Manila campus, one of the most beautiful churches in the city.

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You can usually expect Power Plant Mall to go all out with its Christmas décor and music, and this year is no exception. While I’m there I will be checking out Presente, a month-long pop-up bazaar by ArteFino showcasing an impressive selection of local brands that are worth supporting.

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‘Tis the season to indulge, and the salted caramel chocolate torte from Dessert du Jour by Mara dela Rama-Poblete is my family's favorite, as is Blue Kitchen’s key lime pie topped with whipped cream. For the holiday classics, we love the puto bumbong and bibingka from Via Mare, and the ensaymadas with queso de bola from Mary Grace or Cunanan’s.

I’m excited to see what Chito Vijandre and Ricky Toledo have planned for their windows at ac+632—it’s always a production. Adjacent to their store in Greenbelt 5 is the Designer’s Holiday Bazaar, another platform for Filipino labels both big and small.

It's also a season for giving back and there are many charities with which one can volunteer their time, such as Kids for Kids and Hands on Manila. Organizations like Happy2Help also sell donation cards, if you're looking for something special to give to someone who already has more than they could need. 

I like to fill my house with a Christmas spread that consists of seasonal specials such as Baked by Vingle's freshly baked ensaymadas that are sinfully filled with salted egg, Pakoy Ventura’s decadent chicken liver pâté, and Rebecca Disini’s Le Café Noisette mirror glaze cake. To complement the treats, I make a trip to Mabolo for their fresh evergreen arrangements.

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Then, I shop for Christmas gifts at the Designer Holidays Bazaar in Greenbelt 5. This year’s bazaar features my favorite local designers Amarie, Ken Samudio, and Pio Pio, whose items benefit the Steps Foundation—perfect for a bit of holiday giving.

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Simbang Gabi is an annual tradition for me and my friends. The nine-day novena held at 4:30 a.m. from December 16 to 24 at Jesus the Divine Healer Parish in Tahanan Village in Paranaque is always special, where mass goers gather after the dawn celebrations at the church’s garden to hangout and eat complimentary holiday breakfast spreads that are different every day.

December is also officially the month we eat in careless abandon (we make up for our sins come January) with all the parties with family and friends. For potlucks, we’re ordering grazing boards from Aperitif and jams and pates from Grace Home Manila. We love making cocktails and we usually find the best selection of mixers, garnishes, and other flavor or infusion essentials from Rustan’s Supermarket.


I think last minute shopping is best done at Power Plant Mall in Rockwell, where I conveniently find everything for everyone on my list and where I also shop for new holiday clothes without walking for miles. I’m excited for the new wing of the mall to open this month, where some exciting new shops are set to be unveiled such as Nespresso (its coffee tools and accessories are perfect gifts!) and Sephora (according to an industry source). Another no-fail favorite, Beauty Bar, has plenty of beauty gift items for ladies of all ages—lip balms and masks for young nieces, the Balm and Smashbox for girl friends, and Retinol skincare for aunts.

For those planning a holiday staycation with family, my top picks are Sofitel Manila for New Year weekend and The Raffles Makati or Fairmont Makati for Christmas. Both Raffles and Fairmont Makati have wonderful holiday offerings, from Christmas and New Year's Eve Masses and special dinners to other special holiday treats when you book a suite from December 15 to January 31.

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The Christmas season for my family consists of many traditions—from coming together to assemble tamales in our family’s ancestral house in Pampanga to taking one big family photo on the steps of the same house on Christmas morning.

This year, I plan on dropping by the Christmas market at The Grove by Rockwell on December 16-17. One of the participating booths is Biohogs, the same distributor that provides our family with organically raised pigs for the cochinillo we have during special occasions. Indulging in delicacies should be as guilt-free as possible.

For me, it wouldn’t be the holidays without gaining a few pounds in the process of indulging. Spiral at Sofitel will be serving all the dishes expected of a traditional holiday feast: Christmas ham, turkey with stuffing, roast sucking pig, and more. Pair the meal with a glass of wine and end it with sweets from Spiral’s Chocolaterie and Creamery.


I’ve already started gathering presents for my loved ones and friends and if I don’t find what I need from Rustan’s or the mall, it’s always a joy to discover and support local businesses. I’ve found no-fail, unique gifts from brands such as Sip, which promotes the use of steel straws, and beautifully handcrafted leather goods from Katré. For wrapping paper, I love the natural patterns of the paper at Aranàz but this year, I’ve opted for no-frills craft paper, twine ribbons, and printed cards made from recycled materials.

Last-minute holiday shopping is one accidental tradition I uphold. Fortunately, there are a couple of Christmas markets that pop-up across the city during the season. This year, the organizers of ArteFino are staging Presente, a month-long holiday pop-up featuring a selection of Filipino artisans which will be full of unique trinkets and novelty items. Not only will the pop-up put the spotlight on Filipino artisans, its proceeds will also benefit the HearteFino Development Program.

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One thing I always look forward to is seeing how the city’s top department stores have decorated their windows for the holidays. So, I make it a point to visit Rustan’s, Adora, and Univers while undertaking the task of finding the perfect Christmas candle. To tick off the last few things on my holiday shopping list, there’s always Things That Matter. Headed by Rags2Riches, Things That Matter is a social marketplace that gives sustainable brands a platform to showcase their products. You can either order online or visit their brick and mortar shop at UP Town Center.

When it comes to dessert, Estrel’s Caramel Cake is a mainstay on our Christmas table. To satisfy my family’s chocolate craving, however, I will be picking up Love & Butter: Provisions & Fine Treats’ 'Cacao Nibs with 65% Dark Chocolate' cookies and classic, no-fail brownies from Eric Kayser.

Christmas is a time of feasting for my family and as much as possible we try to meet up around the city with all the extended relatives. One of our favorite dining spots is the High Street Cafe at Shangri-La at the Fort. With nine different stations, a spacious dining hall, and a wonderful array of wines and spirits, none of us leave unsatisfied.

Another of my favorite BGC haunts is Art Bar, where I purchase high-quality art tools, such as cold press watercolor paper, professional grade watercolor pans, and comprehensive art books.

Another all-time favorite is dining around Alabang Town Center. The Christmas season is the perfect time to meet up with family and friends during the weekends because of its annual Fire in the Sky fireworks display. 

When I’m at home, I try to keep an eye out for the best series to binge. The year has been kind to Margaret Atwood, with the television adaptions of A Handmaids Tale on Hulu and Alias Grace on Netflix. There is also no shortage of top-notch Stephen King adaptions with Gerald’s Game and 1922. Both show on Netflix.

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The Metro Manila Film Festival will showcase a few gems this season, including the anticipated musical Ang Larawan directed by Loy Arcenas.

And lastly, I just can’t imagine my Christmas without wonderful sweets. I’m quite obsessed with the salted peanut butter cookies and guava bars from Classic Confections. These are always the first to go on our dessert trays!

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