Trains fascinate many travelers. They hold a certain romance — think The Orient Express, or even Harry Potter. Plus, they offer good value for budget travelers. The Philippines’ railway system hardly rivals that Japan or even fellow ASEAN countries like Thailand and Vietnam, where thousands of tourists take days-long sleeper trains every year. However, Manila does have one heavy railway: the Philippine National Railways Northbound-Southbound Line. This is the last remaining line of the 1,100 km of railroad that the Philippine National Railways controlled at its zenith. To get a taste of the golden age of train travel, check out these 9 spots via PNR Northbound-Southbound line.
To follow this travel guide, start at Tutuban Station, the northernmost terminal of the line and Philippine National Railways’ fanciest existing station. The train runs every half hour, so you can get off, look around, and head back to the station in time to catch another train to your next destination. You should have time to see at least two destinations in one day. Be careful if you’re heading for destinations past Alabang; only one train reaches the end of the line every day, leaving Tutuban at 7:11 AM.
The whole ride takes 2 hours and 40 minutes. See the latest schedules from Philippine National Railways here. The fares are zone-based, with the price starting at 15 pesos and going up by 5 pesos every 7 km for an air-conditioned car. An “ordinary” car starts at 12 pesos and goes up 4 pesos every 7 km. You can view a fare chart here.
Dangwa Flower Market at Laong-Laan Station
Two stops and roughly 10 minutes from Tutuban, you’ll arrive at Laong-Laan Station. Laong-Laan is conveniently close to Dangwa Bulaklakan, the biggest and most famous flower market in Manila. Most of the 50+ vendors here are open 24/7, ensuring that Manila’s spurned husbands can buy their wives apology presents at any time of day. Buy your travel partner a rose or a lily for a few pesos. It’ll serve as a much-needed air fresher if your notoriously crowded PNR car gets too packed as you continue south.
Last Classic Philippine National Railways Station at Paco Station
If you’ve ever traveled via rail in Europe, the United States, or even India, you’ve probably marveled at the gorgeous, opulent architecture that railway companies used to lavish on their train stations. In its 19th-century heyday, Philippine National Railways had plenty of these, but most of them have since been abandoned and demolished. Luckily, train fans can still check out one classic station on the Northbound-Southbound line.
Get off at Paco, the sixth stop from Tutuban, and cross Quirino Avenue. The towering, vaguely Greek building you see in front of you is the old Paco Station, which had its 100th birthday in 2015. The station was partially demolished to make way for a shopping mall in 1996, but the project ran out of money just in time to save the gorgeous facade. If you’re impressed, write to Philippine National Railways and the Department of Transportation and Communications to let them know you think the building should be preserved — they’ve been hemming and hawing about buckling down to the project since 2015.
Manila Zoo at San Andres Station
San Andres Station, the seventh stop from Tutuban, is located conveniently close to the Manila Zoological and Botanical Garden, a popular spot that has been making childhood memories since 1959. In fact, the site of the zoo was chosen in part because of its proximity to the PNR stop. The most famous resident of the zoo is a beloved Asian elephant named Mali. If you can tear yourself away from the antics of the animals, don’t forget to wander through the botanical garden, which includes thousands of native and foreign plant species.
Manila American Cemetery at Bicutan Station
You’re getting a little farther from Manila proper now — by the twelfth stop, you’ve crossed two city borders, bringing you to the town of Taguig. Nichols Station is close to Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, a frequently visited site among American tourists, especially those with family ties to the military. Believe it or not, no cemetery in the world contains more graves of US soldiers killed in WWII. Even if you don’t have ties to WWII, a walk through this quiet, cleanly-designed cemetery can be the perfect antidote to the Manila rush or the Philippine National Railways crush.
Salvador Laurel Museum at Pacita Main Gate Station
This rarely-visited but fascinating museum is dedicated to Salvador Laurel, who served as vice president under Cory Aquino from 1986 to 1992. It’s about 3 miles from Pacita Main Gate, the 19th stop after Tutuban, so hail a metered taxi if you’re not up to walking that far in the tropical heat. The museum is located in Laurel Hills, a picturesque complex owned by the Laurel family. If you watch Filipino dramas, you might recognize some parts of the Hills — it’s a popular filming location. Members of the family still live on the complex, and they’re happy to give you a tour of the museum and extensive grounds with prior notice via telephone or their Facebook. (If you arrange a tour, be sure to let them know you’re going by Philippine National Railways so that they know they might have to wait a while.)
Plaza Rizal at Biñan Station
The town of Biñan, whose main station is 21 stops from Tutuban, has a unique connection to the Filipino folk hero Jose Rizal. According to Rizal’s memoirs, he started his formal education in Biñan at the home of a local tutor. Naturally, the town dedicated their main square to Rizal at the height of his hero-worship in the early 20th century. The square, which features a monumental statue of Rizal as a centerpiece, has a festival-like atmosphere reminiscent of the famous plazas in Spain and Latin America. Go ahead and buy a balloon from one of the cheerful vendors and admire Dr. Rizal for a while.
Enchanted Kingdom at Santa Rosa Station
The Philippines’ answer to Disneyland is just a half-hour walk from Santa Rosa Station, the twenty-second stop from Tutuban. Enchanted Kingdom is surprisingly world-class for what it might been as a Disney knockoff. The park’s clean, well-designed boulevards lead to rides more extreme than what you could find at a genuine Disney, including high-speed roller coasters, a towering Ferris wheel, and even a classic log flume. For 600 pesos (300 for kids), it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon.
St. Polycarp Church at Cabuyao Station
Cabuyao, the twenty-third stop from Tutuban, is just a hop and a skip from one of the oldest, prettiest churches in Laguna: St. Polycarp Parish. St. Polycarp was established in 1771 and still has its original Spanish stone facade, albeit with a renovated interior. Though you’re unlikely to see St. Polycarp in any guidebook, it’s definitely worth a visit, if only for a few quiet moments in the church’s pretty, tree-shaded grounds. There’s also an interesting monastery across the street that dates from the early 20th century.
Rizal Shrine at Calamba Station
Mamatid is the twenty-fifth and final stop on the Southbound route. Because of the general volatility of Philippine National Railways, the train doesn’t always run to this terminus; ask a railway worker ahead of time if you’re heading here. When the station is open, it’s a great way to get to the Rizal Shrine, one of the most popular field-trip destinations in Metro Manila. The centerpiece of the complex is a faithful reconstruction of Rizal’s childhood home, which houses artifacts from his life. Across the street, there’s a massive sculpture of Rizal that towers over the town, just as his legacy towers over the Philippines.