Most people think of Manila as just a layover city to hop on to the other islands of the Philippines. It’s dirty, too chaotic, they say. There’s not much to see and you’d be stuck in traffic half the day, many will tell you. I’d be a hypocrite if I tell you otherwise, because quite frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of this city either. Most would suggest skipping it. And the truth is, I would suggest the same thing too– if you’re on a time constraint. But, if you do have the luxury of time and the hunger to see every little corner in the world, then by all means, you might as well explore Manila. It is, after all the capital of the Philippines, and if there’s one place to really understand the contemporary culture of the country, this is it.
With so much history and different colonizers, Philippines itself has become a melting pot of diversity. While others call it a lack of originality and culture, others see it as a uniqueness– like a birth of a new culture. From Spanish forts to Chinese hole-in-the-wall restaurants to westernized buildings and architecture, Manila may possibly impress you– if you know where to go!
Using this little guide, hopefully you’ll get to avoid wasting hours in your hotel room (or traffic) and instead, find places that are actually worth your time. Let’s say you have three days in Manila. This gives you enough time to establish whether you love it or hate it. A little less than that doesn’t really give the city justice, and a little more than that, I feel like you might just completely hate it like I do. So in order to avoid that, let’s stick to the city’s most notable and some lesser known things to do. Welcome to my least favorite city in the world!
Day One: Just A Little Culture
I say just a little, because there’s really not much in Manila. That’s why Manila’s vintage walled city– Intramuros, is definitely worth the stroll. Dating back to the Spanish colonial era, Intramuros houses historical buildings, churches, museums, and forts. Don’t miss Fort Santiago and explore its walls and ruins. A notable UNESCO Heritage Site, San Agustin Church, known for its baroque style, is also worth a visit. I loved the San Diego Baluarte and the view up there is quite stunning too where you can see the contrast of the old Manila vs the new Manila lingering in the background. Pretty much, Intramuros is a great opportunity to get a glimpse of the Philippines’ history AND it’s also an amazing spot for instagrammable shots. Think vintage stone wall backgrounds for your ootd shot. (READ: 5 Instagrammable Spots In Intramuros)
*The National Museum is a short jeep ride away from Intramuros. It’s quite a neat museum that showcases the best of Filipino arts, from paintings to sculptures.
Insider Tip: Somewhere along the streets of Intramuros hides a basketball court decorated in colorful graffiti. Though the street art depicts more of a modern world, it’s still pretty impressive.
Just a jeep ride away from Intramuros, you’ll find the world’s oldest Chinatown in the world and the perfect lunch stop– Binondo. As per usual Manila standards, it’s traffic af during the day. But that shouldn’t stop you, because some of the best Chinese eats is found here. Most of the restaurants are small family owned business specializing in their own special family recipes. Of course the best ones are hidden neighborhood restaurants away from other establishments. My favorite is Dong Bei Dumplings where they serve freshly made ones right in front of you. Their xia long bao or soup dumplings are kind of addicting. Don’t expect a well-decorated Chinese restaurant though. When I said neighborhood restaurants, I meant hole-in-the-walls that doesn’t look like they prioritize sanitation but the food is unbelievably good. Wai Ying fast food in Benavidez st. also serves inexpensive dimsum. And if you’re feeling a little adventurous, try Cafe Mezzanine’s soup number 5. Think cow balls in tasty soup. I personally haven’t tried it, but I’m just not a big fan of balls for meals.
If you’re already in the area, you might as well hit up Divisoria for shopping. Divisoria is probably the most significant local shopping center, because people buy stuff here by the bunch. It’s practically the national whole sale market because even people from other islands journey their way here for their goods, usually store owners and business moguls in the provinces. Expect a packed, cramped, extremely crowded place. Divisoria is pretty notorious for robbers so don’t dress up, don’t flash expensive items, and most especially, go with a local if you could to avoid getting ripped off by the vendors.
*If you prefer a shopping market that’s more low key than Divisoria but is still local af, head over to Baclaran. They don’t have as big of a selection as Divisoria, but it’s definitely taking your local travel style to a T. It’s also close to our evening destination, which is…
If shopping is the least of your concern, don’t trip, I got chu. You can head over to Manila Bay and people-watch instead while waiting to catch the sunset. Manila Bay sunset isn’t as dramatic as the ones is saw elsewhere but they’re glorious enough to take your breath away. The best spot to see this is along the bay walk in Mall of Asia. I know, I know, it’s a mall… but seriously, you’ll come across a lot of them here and many significant spots are actually located within the mall area. But here in the bay walk, it’s lined with bars and restaurants so after a nice sunset sesh, you can head over to one of these places for dinner and drinks too. Restaurant bars or “restobars” are the typical local social gathering spots in the city. Buckets or towers of beer paired with pulutan (bar chows) and live music is the local’s preference of a night out.
DAY 2: Modern Day Manila
How do you picture Manila? If you say dirty and impoverished, well, it’s still true. But Manila has a side that Anthony Bourdain didn’t really show. Manila is modernized and westernized af, and if you’re coming here to only focus on its local aspect, you’re missing out. Don’t shun Manila’s contemporary lifestyle because it just might amaze you. Don’t forget that this modern side is a huge chunk of of today’s local culture.
Okay, I may be speaking highly of Manila in this post, but it’s still Manila, so there’s still not a lot to do. So on your second morning, I would suggest going to brunch instead. Now Filipino food may not be my favorite, but Filipino breakfast is my favorite kind of breakfast in the world. But that’s not what you’re having today. Because if you’re gonna be heading out of the city later on anyway, you’ll find them everywhere else. For brunch in the city, you’re gonna spoil yourself a little with a more modern day meal. Head over to Wildflour at BGC/Fort for a menu that is t only healthy, but they’re downright tasty too. It’s a tad bit pricier, but hey, that’s what it’s like to live in modern day Manila. There are also plenty of other restaurants around BGC so you’ll never run out of options.
Insider Tip: If you happen to be in Manila on a Sunday, don’t miss Salcedo Morning Market in Makati for a huge selection of food! It’s right by the business district of Makati and although it’s the weekend, you can still sight see or perhaps marvel over the skyscrapers of the city.
What’s a normal day like in modern day Manila? Don’t hate me, but I’m going to suggest a couple more malls. It is a great place to people-watch after all. In places like Greenbelt and even The Fort strip, you’ll witness the middle class and upperclass people of Manila running errands or simply just burning time with friends. If you’re a freak like me who enjoys making unnecessary observations about anything and everything, these places would not bore you because they’re also filled with coffee shops, restaurants, and of course, bars. You prefer wine? Head over to Barcino for a good selection.
This afternoon is also a great time to run your female errands. For instance, skin and body care services are extremely cheap here so whatever mall you may be in, you’ll find lots of salon and dermatology clinics that offers affordable services. Facial? $5. Hair cut? $5.50. Mani and pedi? $8. Brazilian wax etc? $15. Do it while you’re here!
Did I tell you Manila has a crackin’ nightlife? Possibly the best in Southeast Asia, Manila’s music scene is definitely stepping its game up. Black Market is known for their underground parties while the clubs and bars at the Fort area are also poppin’. The Palace Pool Club can be chill or wild depending what day or time you go, but don’t forget to suit up in your bikinis. If you feel like a quiet night with a classy glass of cocktail, go to one of the city’s speakeasy bars. Finders Keepers next to Black Market and The Blind Pig in Makati are known for their amazing cocktails! The Blind Pig would even make you a personalized one.
DAY THREE: Deuces, Manila
Your flight isn’t until tomorrow, but by now, you might be over Manila already. That’s why I’m suggesting you to get out of there even on your last day there. Why? Because Manila’s close proximity to other gems plays a big role on why Manila is still kinda cool. (READ: 15 Day Trips To Take Near Manila)
So on your third day, I’m making two suggestions for you for a short out of town trip. You could either a.) Go to Tagaytay, my current location, to enjoy the cool breeze like most tourists do. Or b.) Go on a nearby waterfall adventure in Tanay, Rizal.
Tagaytay is frequently visited on the weekends because of its close proximity to the city and because of its cooler weather. Manila weather is so gross so it’s understandable that people come to Tagaytay for the breeze and eat hot Bulalo soup. The view of the world’s smallest active volcano isn’t half bad either so it’s quite a treat to eat infront of it. However, if you want to hike it, just make sure you get there early enough. Tagaytay is two hours away from the city and you can get here by taking a bus in Coastal bus terminal or Pasay. (READ: Hiking The World’s Smallest Active Volcano)
If you go on the other direction, you can go to Rizal’s famous waterfalls instead. If you go on a good day where no one is around, you’ll catch the waterfall’s turquoise beauty. Daranak Falls is big and obnoxious, while Batlag Falls is the lesser known yet magical one. They’re only a short 20-minute hike away from each other so it’s possible to see both of them. I had a blast swimming around by myself here. The fact that it’s easy to get to is also very comforting to know. Just take a van in Star Mall EDSA and once you reach the market in Tanay, find a tricycle that will take you to Daranak Falls.
Now if you really must stay in Manila, then by all means, feel free to roam around in the city. City Of Dreams is a nice casino if you’re tired of the endless malls of the city. The Mind Museum in BGC is a great place to get stuck in during the day. Greenhills on the other hand is another shopping mall where you can find everything from cute outfits to replica purses to cheap gadgets.
Manila is definitely no Bangkok, nor is it even close to Singapore’s first world luxury. But if you give it a chance, the cosmopolitan state of mind Manila will bring you is unlike any other. It’s old school, yet it’s modern. It’s chaotic and it’s raw. It’s a beautiful contrast, and if you can appreciate that, then you might just love Manila.
Have you explored Manila? What are your recommendations? And what’s your favorite thing about the city? Let’s talk.
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