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Under Spanish rule, Manila was known as 'The Pearl of the Orient', the jewel of Spain's empire in the Pacific. Early tourists, like the 19th-century traveller Fedor Jagor, described it as a splendid, fortified city of wide, cobbled streets and regal townhouses. Sadly, little remains of that splendid city today.

Manila was colonised by the Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571. Its broad sweep of fertile lands made it more attractive than Cebu, which had been the capital. King Philip II of Spain conferred on the city the illustrious title Isigne y Siempre Leal Ciudad (Distinguished and Ever Loyal City), but the city continued to be called by its pre-Hispanic name of Maynilad (presumed to be from may, meaning 'there is', and nilad, a mangrove plant that grew in abundance on the banks of the Pasig River), which was later corrupted to Manila.

From the late 19th century onwards, Manila was actually something approaching a Paris of Asia. It was a thriving trading centre, its multicultural mix providing a good entry point into China and other emerging lands. In 1905, Daniel Burnham, the master planner of Chicago, was hired to produce a master plan for the city. His grand vision included Roxas Blvd, which even today, under its somewhat shabby patina, echoes Lake Shore Dr in Chicago. Intramuros and the surrounding districts were busy with business and entertainment and the streets were lined with grand structures, many reflecting the best of Art Deco design.

WWII changed everything. Many claim the city has never recovered. The month-long Battle for Manila between the Japanese and the Americans resulted in the town's destruction, with over 150,000 locals killed (by comparison, the atomic attack on Hiroshima killed upwards of 140,000).

Rebuilding was sporadic, and the city was never able to reclaim either its regional importance or its sense of self. Present-day Metro Manila is a conglomeration of 17 cities and municipalities unified by Marcos' decree in 1976. Many locals complain about the scattered character of Manila; it's true that the various districts feel disunified and there is no sense of a whole.