Manila, a chameleon-like city.
Similar to other developing countries, the traffic here is stiff, people on the street are many and chaos is visible. It’s also a city feared by many, with funky stories circling the globe.
Many people simply don’t know what to do in Manila.
After visiting Manila for the first time, I was actually shocked how much I like it. There were some cool sights to see, history to learn from, places to eat and shop at and some very friendly locals to meet. It’s not for nothing that Manila was once called “The Pearl Of The Orient” before WWII, when it was an elegant metropolis.
Today, Manila is the Philippines’ capital city with around 11 million people living in the greater area, most of them with a strong tie to the European ideals of Catholicism compared to its surrounding Southeast Asian countries.
Manila is where the hustle bustle of a big cosmopolitan city meets the charm of Philippine history through the rich heritage sites that can be found here. Prepare to sweat in the equatorial heat, but don’t let that hold you back from exploring this exotic city. You probably won’t have much trouble getting around as most Filipinos speak very good English thanks to 50 years of rule by the US.
Hope on an Uber or Jeepney, converted U.S. military jeeps left over from WWII now serving as shared taxis and are the main means of public transportation. This little travel guide aims to help you plan to see and do all the important stuff in the city.
Getting Into Manila
Flying into Manila from overseas, you will arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 1. The best way to get from the airport to the hotel is using the wifi inside the terminal to order a Grab Taxi or Uber. Get your first ride free when you sign up to Uber now.
My Uber from the airport to Makati City cost around PHP400, which is about US$8.40. Takes about 30 minutes, all depending how long you sit in traffic.
How Much Time To Spend In Manila
People say one day is enough, with many of them having a bad view of the city, disliking it and wanting to head out as soon as they arrive at the airport. I do not necessarily agree and was rather impressed by Manila and would’ve liked to explore it further.
I recommend 1-3 day in the city to appreciate it fully.
Things To See & Do In Manila
Dive Into Manilas History
Perhaps the most popular historic landmark in the country is Intramuros. Dubbed as the Walled City, Intramuros dates back to the 16th century during the Spanish colonial era. Within the walls of the Intramuros, you can find two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the San Agustin Church and the San Agustin Museum.
Another sight you shouldn’t miss when wandering around the Walled City is the Fort Santiago, the oldest Spanish fortress in the country.
Drop by the Casa Manila, a lifestyle museum in the elegant style of an 1800’s home. Absolutely beautiful and so unexpected to see this in Manila, I couldn’t believe my eyes, felt like I was in southern Spain!
Explore Intramuros while riding a horse-drawn carriage, also called kalesa here. Better yet, book Carlos Celdran’s Walk This Way for a fun-filled guided tour of Intramuros.
If you are looking to explore the slums around Manila, consider the Smokey Mountain Tour, it’s not for the faint-hearted though.
About 2-3 hours outside of Manila, you can visit Mt. Taal, said to be the world’s smallest active volcano where you can take a hike while breathing in the fresh air, a great change from Metro Manilas smog.
How about discovering the old Spanish town of Intramuros on a Bamboo Bike? Take in all the historical sights while riding through the deep heart of Manila for 2.5hrs while meeting some other travellers and chatting to friendly locals.
Street Food & Markets
After your walk through the past, head over to Binondo, believed to be the world’s oldest Chinatown. Fill yourself up with authentic Cantonese and Fujian cuisine or try Filipino street food. Here you can also find a huge variety of fresh fruits in season at low prices.
Speaking of low prices, explore the typical Asian-style market called Divisoria, a haven for inexpensive clothes, shoes, and other crazy nick-nack.
Ideas To End The Day In Manila
Along Roxas Boulevard you can visit Rizal Park also known as Luneta Park. Marvel at the shrine of Jose Rizal, a Philippine national hero at the end of the Spanish colonial period.
Enjoy a picnic day on the grass or try your luck with kite-flying on a windy day.
End the day by taking a walk along Roxas Boulevard and gaze at the sunset in Manila Bay, said to be the best sunset in Asia!
Shopping In Manila
With the country’s tropical weather and oh-so-often scorching heat, Filipinos surely need a cool place to take shelter upon. Even in the city, you can escape from the high temperature once you enter a mall. Mind you, Manila has so many of them with around 16 supermalls and dozens more of smaller, community and lifestyle malls.
And these shopping empires got it all for you from grocery stores, fast food and restaurants, clothing stores, gyms, cinemas, and entertainment centers including skating rinks, bowling alleys, arcade games, and so much more. Some malls even have a chapel inside.
The 5 biggest shopping malls in Manila are:
- Mall of Asia with its Olympic-sized skating rink
- Mega Mall which has 12 different movie theaters you can choose from
- Glorietta in the posh Makati, the central business district in Manila
- Greenbelt which is famed for its upscale and lavish amenities
- TriNoma which is known for its unique reverse waterfall, multi-leveled terraces and color-changing façade
Where To Stay In Manila
I stayed at Y2 Residence in Makati as I travelled with some friends so we could easily share the cost of renting an apartment which was perfect. The location of Y2 Residence was perfect as you can walk around Makati and to the nearby shopping malls as well as quickly get an Uber to ride to other attractions around town.
I felt very safe walking around Makati but there are reports from travellers of being pickpocketed, tricked at ATMs and whatnot, so please keep safe and exercise some caution. Ask the hotel staff if you don’t know the area and where it’s safe to go.
Additionally, the apartment was very comfortable, beautifully designed and had amazing views from the big glass windows across the city. There is wifi in all rooms, a fitness gym and spa offering massage treatments as well as a pool on the rooftop which again has some incredible city views!
Downstairs you can find Pink Panda restaurant serving up a breakfast buffet and a varied food menu throughout the day. A studio apartment starts from US$69 per night.
If you are after a clean and beautiful budget place to stay, choose Z Hostel in Makati. Private rooms starting from US$40 or sleep in a 6-bed dorm from US$12. A quirky wooden interior, roofdeck bar with city views, nice staff and reasonable prices make Z Hostel a great choice as a budget accommodation in Manila.
Where To Eat In Manila
While I wasn’t impressed by Filippino food in general, Manila probably had the best food on offer out of all the places I went to.
Try the famous Halo-Halo, a shaved ice dessert made with evaporated milk and various fruits and lumpia, Filipino-style spring rolls. Kare Kare is a Filipino stew traditionally made with oxtail and a heavy peanut sauce, but can be found with other meat too.
If you are after some Mexican-style food, El Chupacabra is one of the hottest street food hangout places in Makati. Also, check out Museum Café (M Café) situated on the ground floor at Greenbelt Mall, serving modern Asian fusion cuisine with a touch of Filippino of course.