A local’s guide: The best things to do in Manila
When you are planning a trip to the Philippines, people will advise you to skip Manila. Manila for many travelers is a necessary layover or a quick stop before their next trip, but it’s a city that offers so much more. It’s full of rich culture, diverse cuisine, historical landmarks and unique activities. This guide will help you to fall in love and get close and personal with this often underrated and misunderstood city. Without further ado, here are the best things to do in Manila:
1. Ride a jeepney
Dubbed as “The king of the road”, the iconic jeepney is a symbol of Filipino culture and art. They were originally made from the remains of U.S. military jeeps during World War II. Jeepneys will stop anywhere and anytime a passenger wishes to get on or off the vehicle. They are also marked with their destinations displayed on the windshield and sometimes written on each side of the vehicle. The two rows of bench seats face each other with a passenger capacity of 7-10 people per bench. Even if the seats are fully taken up, another passenger can always be accommodated, you have to squeeze in to create another small space. The fares are passed from one passenger to another until it gets to the driver.
Local tip: Always carry coins or small change. If you are passing your own fare you should say “Bayad po” (My payment) and tell your destination; if you are passing someone’s fare you should say “Bayad daw” means you are passing the payment.
2. Sunset in Manila Bay
Sunset views are amazing, romantic, relaxing and awe-inspiring, and in Manila you can expect to be blessed with one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world. The best place to see the sunset in Manila, is Manila Bay. It’s an idyllic location and there is something inherently powerful and inspiring about this fiery spectacle.
3. Explore Intramuros
The “walled city”, known as Intramuros, is an iconic landmark of the Spanish regime in the Philippines. Built in 1571, it was once the seat of power for the Spanish Crown, in this distant colony. As you explore Intramuros, with its cobblestone streets, ancestral buildings, and horse-drawn carriages (known as “calesa”), you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time.
Local tip: The Intramuros tour wouldn’t be complete without paying a visit (75-pesos entrance fee) to Fort Santiago. It has served various purposes throughout the years – a Spanish fortress, US Army headquarters during the American occupation and as a prison when it was captured by the Japanese during WW2. You will get to know the country’s national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal who was jailed and executed for his anti-Spanish sentiments.
4. Food crawl in Binondo
Nestled less than a kilometer from Intramuros, Binondo is known for having the “oldest Chinatown in the world” (established in 1594 as a settlement for Catholic Chinese), a haven for authentic Chinese cuisine and the birthplace of the first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz.
Local tip: How about trying Soup#5? It is an aphrodisiac, increases the metabolism, improves energy and warms up your body. It has two main ingredients: the bull’s testicles and penis. Yes, you read that right!
5. Chinese Cemetery
Expect an intriguing and off the beaten path cemetery. It is the second oldest in the Philippines after La Loma Cemetery and in my opinion it’s a next-level cemetery. It has an array of burial plots from grand and elaborate mausoleums to humbler dwellings. Dubbed as the ‘Beverly Hills of the Dead’ it’s lavish and stunning architecture is worth checking out. Definitely bizarre, amazing and worth your time.
Local tip: Getting here is quite easy, you can take a jeepney (direction – Monumento) and tell the driver to drop you off at the Manila Chinese Cemetery.
6. Go bargain hunting
If you are into shopping and want to fill your backpack with clothes, shoes, bags and the like, you should not miss Divisoria. There are malls and hundreds of stalls covering the streets, all filled with surprisingly cheap finds. The whole place is draped with big colored umbrellas and within the narrow alleys you’ll find an array of fruits, materials, and people everywhere. The prices are already cheap but test your bargaining skills and see if you can get a lower price.
Local tip: If you want to avoid the crowds, go on a weekday and avoid peak season (December) when the streets are busiest. Always be mindful of your things.
7. National Museum
Manila is filled with impressive museums, all with beautiful exhibits – so visiting one is a must. Head to Luneta Park, where there are three museums to check out: The National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of Anthropology and National Museum of Fine Arts.
Local tip: The museums are open from 10am to 5pm with 430pm cut off. Admission is FREE!
8. Gastronomic Filipino food
Filipinos generally eat five times a day: three complete meals and two snacks. Philippine cuisine is a mixture of various influences such as Mexican, Spanish, English, Chinese and Japanese which makes the food very intriguing and unique. Manila has many ‘food crawl’ options, from malls to streets, you name it they got it.
Local tip: Carefully choose and be mindful when eating street foods and always bring your own trusted water. Ask the staff in your hostel for their tips on where to go.
9. Churches, Churches, Churches
Being a dominantly Catholic country in Asia, churches in the Philippines are the product of the colonial Spanish influence with hundreds of years’ worth of stories. The breathtaking and grandeur of the churches here in Manila reflect the country’s rich heritage. Whether you’re a regular churchgoer or you simply want to explore the city’s religious heritage, these places of worship are worth a visit.
Local tip: Entrance is free. Always dress modestly, no sexy attire!
10. Volunteer in Las Piñas and Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area
Known as the “Last frontier of Metro Manila”, it is a nature reserve situated south of Manila Bay and open to the public. The area offers flying visitors an important resting and refuelling stop, as migratory birds use the East Asian-Australasian Migratory Flyway. This nature reserve was declared a critical habitat in 2007, making it a protected sanctuary for migratory birds. You can make a difference and take part in protecting LPPCHEA by participating in scheduled clean-up drives as well as tree-planting programs.
Local tip: Take part in helping the conservation of this place by calling the Conservation and Development Division: Local number (02) 435-2509.
11. Filipino Karaoke
Filipinos love karaoke so much that most households have their own karaoke players and it’s a big part of their lives. You don’t need any talent to sing, anyone can do karaoke: kids, kids at heart, adults, seniors, broken hearted, hobbyists etc. If you have the guts to sing then go for it! Look for the big signs saying “KTV” – KTV refers to Karaoke Television, where the karaoke player is connected to the TV. Manila has plenty of KTV and KTV bars in every street especially in the malls and singing with groups is a lot of fun!
Local tip: Malate and Makati are the best places to test your Karaoke skills, there are many KTV bars here.
12. Grab a local beer in Makati
Makati is known as the leading financial and central business district in the Philippines, but it is also the best place for nightlife. If you are looking to spice up your nights, Makati’s buzzing nightlife is something you should check out.
Local tip: Poblacion is the heart of Makati for unforgettable nightlife and an amazing food crawl.
13. LGBTQ nightlife
The LGBTQ community are almost universally accepted in the Philippines and it’s regarded as one of the most gay-friendly countries not only in Asia but also in the whole world. Manila offers a variety of LGBTQ friendly dance clubs and bars with the state-of-the-art light and sound, male models, comedians and very entertaining drag shows. Even if you are straight, you should check out these amazing clubs.
Local tip: LGBT establishments in Manila play a vital role in preserving gay culture and offering a sanctuary to everyone not just for LGBT. O-Bar and Nectar are two of the well-known gay nightclubs in Manila, filled with A-list gays and international DJ-driven party goers.
14. Black Nazarene
Every year on January 9, the annual feast day, millions of people (approximately 15 million) gather round, forming a sea of devotees, all celebrating the Feast of the Black Nazarene – an image of the fallen Jesus Christ with a cross on his back. Devotees believed that it grants wishes and has miraculous powers. The image is then moved from Quirino Grandstand to Quiapo Church via a slow procession that may take up to 20 hours.
Local tip: Because of the huge number of devotees, it is best to find an elevated place where you can witness the procession.
15. Hostels in Manila
After exploring Manila, the best place to stay is in a hostel (obviously!). Hostels in Manila are top-notch and budget-friendly with a perfect blend of modern design and entertainment. You may have so much fun in the hostel that you forget to explore Manila! Check out Lub D’s super sleek dorms, featured above, oh and their roof terrace, top chef and mixologists (whaaaat!). Explore the awesome Manila hostels and find the perfect base for you!
Once you’re done with all Manila has to offer, check out this Ultimate Guide to Backpacking The Philippines.
About the author:
Rafael Loreto is a Manila-based freelance travel journalist and photographer and currently exploring and expanding his horizons through the lens of his camera and teaching people about the best in budget travel without compromising its quality. Follow his adventures on his blog rarelygohome.com and Rafael’s Instagram.