Alvarez Park Cafe in Valenzuela

The rainy season and the high fuel prices are among the disincentives for a long drive at this time of the year. The good news is you can still see new places and sink your teeth on local specialties by looking inward in Metro Manila’s hidden gems beyond the traffic gridlock and urban blight.

In 2018, the metropolis was featured in a 48-hour travelogue by London-based newspaper Independent and was named by The World Post as among the 10 Fastest-Emerging Global Cities. While the accolade raised countless eyebrows, it makes you think that Europeans perhaps saw something that we often take for granted.

Discover, or rediscover, the megacity and its rich historical and culinary heritage so you can explore its hidden nooks and crannies on bicycle or motorcycle, so you can freely navigate the narrow roads and park easily.

Pit Stop 1: Valenzuela. Formerly a town of Bulacan, this northern city has managed to retain part of its rural feel despite industrialization. Tagalag, an interior barangay dotted by seafood restaurants and fishing villages, gives urbanites an out-of-town feel and gustatory feasts.

A dining place which stands out is Alvarez Park Café, seafood restaurant, floating bar, fishing ground, and a mini-green park with lots of open spaces rolled into one. A recent addition is The Fisherman’s Point, a nautical-themed floating gourmet restaurant which can also serve fine dining on special occasions.

You can catch freshwater fishes, while watersports lovers can paddle a kayak or pedal a boat in the vast fishpond. It also has an islet which has a recreation house for small events, private picnics or simply lazing around.

Tagalag also has a panoramic riverwalk park for promenaders, bikers, and motorcycle riders to enjoy the cool breeze and enticing street food and drinks.

Another dining haunt is the food street along Fatima Avenue, which has an assortment of short orders, finger food, and beverages. Situated near the National Shrine of the Our Lady of Fatima and the Museo ng Valenzuela in Marulas, diners can say a little prayer and get a glimpse of the city’s checkered past.

Pan De Americana in Marikina

Pit Stop 2: Marikina. The country’s shoe capital has more than footwear and leather products to offer to unsuspecting guests. This quaint city is slowly getting into the metro’s culinary tourism scene which is anchored on a heritage walking tour which revolves around the shoe industry.

Cafe Kapitan is an iconic dining haunt situated inside the Kapitan Moy House, the residence of Don Laureano Guevara, the founder and father of the town’s shoe business. The repurposed 1900s building, which serves a special events place and de facto cultural center, offers traditional delicacies, such as everlasting, a local version of embudito, and wak na toy, a modified rendition of menudo.

Another must-try is Pan De Americana, an artsy fast-casual restaurant in Concepcion which is an Instagrammable eye candy with its assorted bric-a-brac design which transports you several decades back. It began as a bakery serving high-quality wheat bread, and has grown to serve signature Marikina specialties and regional favorites from all over the country.

The riverine city has lots of local brand food parks, coffee shops, and bars sprinkled around the old town center and periphery.

Bayleaf Hotel in Intramuros

Pit Stop 3: Manila. The national capital boasts of being the archipelago’s hub of culinary heritage dating back to centuries. Binondo, regarded as the world’s oldest Chinatown, is the top-of-mind for food trips which even celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited when he came to the Philippines.

But apart from this popular dining district, a fast-emerging destination is Ugbo St. in Tondo, a decades-old street food place which has taken the working man’s staple to a new level. Thanks to former Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso who frequents the place, the narrow road can now be considered the counterpart of Asia’s nocturnal dine-out place for inexpensive meals.

The area formed part of the ancient Manila Bay’s Bangkusay channel which figured in the battles between the Spanish conquistadors and native defenders in the 1500s.

Not to be missed is Intramuros, which gives you the inimitable Old World charm in a special historic district which embraces the pre-Spanish to post-World War II periods.

A stalwart in its culinary scene is Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant tucked within a 19th-century recreated complex across San Agustin Church. The resto takes pride in its Filipino-Spanish themed buffet and evening cultural shows, museum of assorted bric-a-brac, and the feeling of being transported back in time.

Elsewhere within the walls are the episcopal-inspired Ristorante Delle Mitre, the Belfry Café, right under the massive bell tower of the Manila Cathedral, and Spoons of Bayleaf Hotel which overlooks the Intramuros golf course.

With more than a dozen more cities, you can unravel NCR’s hidden gems through driving, biking, and taking a bite of its history.