Binondo is known for being one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns. If you’re staying in Manila, drop by the area for an exciting adventure into the other side of Old Manila that’s sure to please even the most jaded of backpackers.
The Binondo district gets its name from the word “binundok,” referring to its once-mountainous terrain. While admittedly less glitzy than before, Binondo still draws a good number of tourists, attracted by its rough charm. Intrepid travelers in the area can discover great food from humble restaurants and hidden architectural gems. Many of these finds can be found along Ongpin Street, which is now considered as the main stretch of this district.
By land transportation
Simply take the LRT1 and get off at Carriedo Station. Walk northeast, past Sta. Cruz Church and the Carriedo Fountain, to Ongpin Street.
Meanwhile, most jeepney routes that end at Divisoria pass by or through Binondo. Commuters can also ride jeepneys to Sta. Cruz Church, alighting at Carriedo Fountain, which is at one end of Ongpin Street.
With Binondo’s many small, crowded streets, walking is the best way to get around the area. Alternatively, travelers can hail a tricycle (auto rickshaw) or a pedicab (bicycle rickshaw) to get from one point to another.
Binondo may be small compared to the other districts of Manila. However, many attractions are crammed into this small area that a day won’t be enough to explore them all. Most tourists can start at Binondo Church, which features a unique octagonal bell tower. This bell tower was the only part left of the original structure, dating back to the 16th century.
For a taste of daily life, travelers can duck into the Carvajal Street Market. More a hidden alley than a street, this market sells various food items and raw ingredients. It’s also honme to Quik-Snack, a restaurant that’s been open since 1968.
Travelers can also stroll down the stretch of Escolta Street and admire the pre-World War II buildings that line it. One of these is the Calvo Building (built 1938), which houses a small museum filled with vintage goods from Manila’s glorious past. Another is the First United Building (built 1928), which not only houses its own museum. The building is now home to The HUB: Make Lab, a business incubation space for artists and indie entrepreneurs.
Of course, travelers can cap their visit with a shot of the area’s iconic arches on Quintin Paredes Street, at the foot of Jones Bridge. The first smaller arch—the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch—was erected in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the newer, bigger arch was unveiled only in 2015 and is considered the largest in the world.
If there’s one thing that most locals associate with Binondo, it’s good food at even better prices. Hence, one of the most popular things to do in the area is to go on a DIY food trip. Travelers can also join the Binondo Food Wok tour from Old Manila Walks, which includes tasting some of the district’s finest delicacies.
Photography buffs are also in luck, shooting their way around the district. This is especially true for Escolta Street, which is also a popular area for shooting commercials and scenes in period dramas. And for an old-school experience, travelers can hop on a calesa—a traditional horse-drawn carriage—and use it to get around the district.
Binondo is home to many of the oldest, still-operating restaurants in the metropolis. Many of them still serve authentic Filipino-Chinese cuisine. These include the now-ironically named New Toho Food Center, established in 1888 and known for their Toho Beef dish. Then there’s Chuan Kee (1940s), which now has a more upscale spin-off called Café Mezzanine on the second floor. Last but not the least is Sincerity (1956), which is best known for their fried chicken.
But in Binondo, it’s not only the old mainstays that you should try. There are a number of other impressive, relatively newer restaurants in the area. For dumplings, you have an option between Dong Bei Dumplings and Tasty Dumplings. Meanwhile, dimsum lovers should pay a visit to either Wai Ying or Ying Ying restaurants, which are said to be owned by the same family. A stop at Lan Zhou La Mien is also a must—the restaurant offers freshly prepared, hand-pulled noodles.
Of course, any talk of Filipino-Chinese cuisine should include the hopia, a pastry with a sweet filling and a flaky crust. Binondo is home to three of the finest hopia makers in the country; no traveler should leave without tasting these specialties. First is the 100-year-old Eng Bee Tin, which invented the ube (yam) hopia. Then there’s Ho-Land, established in the 1960s, which still makes their monggo (mung bean) hopia the traditional, home-cooked way. Finally, there’s Polland, established in 1968 and popular for their hopia baboy. The hopia’s name is a misnomer, however, for baboy means pig or pork—when the filling is in fact made from kundol (wintermelon).
Admittedly, despite the number of restaurants in the area, nightlife options in the area are quite limited. However, one of the few establishments where you can get a drink is sure to please. This establishment is Fred’s Revolucion, a bar on Escolta Street, which serves up local craft beers alongside great meals.
There are a number of hotels in Binondo that cater mostly to business travelers and budget travelers. Arguably the finest option in the area is Ramada Manila, a four-star hotel located directly across the Binondo Church. Another suitable option is the
Wear comfortable walking shoes and clothes. In some parts of Binondo, sidewalks are virtually non-existent. Hence, great walking shoes are a must for traversing its many small streets.
Visiting in Binondo during Chinese New Year is fun. However, the crowds can get huge during the celebrations; if you can’t stand crowds, visit another day.
Be prepared to rough it out and practice a fair bit of caution when going around.