Manila is a sprawling melting pot where you can sample the country’s best offerings, if you know where to look for them. Aside from the usual tourist magnets, there are plenty of offbeat destinations in and around the city to keep you occupied and interested during your stay. If time is not on your side, do check out our Manila in 24 hours guide.
Distinct from the other cities of Asia, Manila is best enjoyed in piecemeal trips. Authentic colonial churches withstand the test of time and are well worth the visit, and the city is at par with the best in Asia in shopping and entertainment. Intramuros and the 150-hectare sprawl around Rizal Park are also essential stops for casual tourists. The local fiestas and fetes are also something to look forward to, and the nightlife in areas like Malate, Pasig, Makati and Libis (within the metro) are an event of their own.
Of course the city has its downsides; as in many third-world countries, poverty is obvious within fifteen minutes from the airport, and the once-beautiful Pasig River has also outlived its best years. If you’re not accustomed to tropical weather, its best to postpone your trip until the months of October to January; the wet-dry climate of the country can be very fickle, humid, and balmy, or otherwise drenching wet. If you’re looking for a laidback experience, the city isn’t for you, but respite is within hours on the outskirts of the metropolis. The traffic problem is moderate compared to other cities, but the pollution is appalling, especially during rush hours; if you have a serious health condition, this relatively congested city can adversely affect your health.
If the weather isn’t a problem for you, anytime is the best time to go to Manila; fiestas of patron Saints are religiously observed around the country, and since each Saint has its own fiesta day, there is something going on in any barangay at any particular time. May is also Flores de Mayo month, and the evening processions of maidens in detailed gowns are a treat for foreigners and locals alike. Consumerism is at its peak during the Christmas season, and you’ll find bargains on practically every shop, but particularly in the infamous Quiapo and Divisoria markets, where many of the pirated (but cheap) buys can be had for a fraction of the cost of their original counterparts.
If you’re not staying with friends or relatives, the first to five-star hotels offer great service at a price, particularly the Manila Hotel located near Baywalk and Rizal Park. There are also plenty of other boarding options which accommodate all budgets: condotels, apartelles, motels, transients, bedspaces, and apartments. Condotels and apartelles are usually decent; just make sure you take a thorough look-see before you rent the place. As for motels, go for the franchised establishments, and with the others, if the terms and the neighborhood don’t feel right, you might as well rent at your own risk.
There’s so much to see and do in Manila! You can sample the city’s bustling nightlife at the upscale Glorietta center in Makati, along bohemian Malate, at Eastwood, Libis, and the resto block on the SM Mall of Asia, a short ride from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The dress code is usually relaxed, and you’ll find the bars and restos packed even on weeknights, as night-shift call center employees tend to gravitate to these areas to wind down or prep up for work. Similar watering holes may also be found along Timog and West Avenue in Quezon City, and at the Ortigas Center in Mandaluyong.
Some things you have to try out during your stay: visit the old stone churches (especially UNESCO San Agustin church in Intramuros), view a stage performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (on Roxas Boulevard); sample Chinese culture and delicacy at Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown; find great bargains on anything at Divisoria (particularly on 168 mall), bulk fabrics at Baclaran, and at Tutuban mall; watch raucous cockfights at the Libertad cockpit in Pasay; view the superb sunset on Manila Bay along Baywalk, on the cultural grounds around San Isidro, or from the chartered ferry SV Carina which takes an hour-long cruise along the bay; the IMAX experience is also available at the SM Mall of Asia for three-dimensional film offerings.
Museums, Parks and Zoos
Manila’s top museums are the National Museum of the Philippines (nationalmuseum.gov.ph), the San Agustin Museum within Intramuros and Museo Pambata (museopambata.org), an interactive children’s museum on Roxas Boulevard. The Nayong Filipino Cultural Park and the Cultural Center (nayonsaclark.com) of the Philippines both showcase the Philippines’ indigenous cultures with musical and dance performances. While green spaces hardly come to mind in a booming metropolis like Manila, plenty of parks, zoos and recreational areas exist in which you can escape from the urban fray. The favorites include Manila Ocean Park, a large oceanarium near the Quirino Grandstand, Rizal Park, a favorite family picnicking spot just south of Intramuros, Paco Park, a cemetery and a National Park set in the Industrial Area, and the small Greenbelt Park in the business district.
Manila has several noteworthy cemeteries that make interesting stops. The Chinese Cemetery, although dating just to the mid-19th century, reflects the longstanding Chinese presence in Manila — since as early as the year 100 — and features the impressive Chong Hock Tong Temple, the city’s oldest Chinese place of worship. The manicured grounds of the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial (abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/ml.php) pays tribute to the American sacrifices of World War I, with 17,206 graves and 36,282 names of missing persons recorded on the tablets of the semicircular memorial. The vast Manila North Cemetery (manila.gov.ph/manilanorthcem.htm) is one of the city’s oldest, housing thousands of local dead as well as roughly 10,000 living residents. Recent decades’ mass urban migration and hard economic times have led to many families moving into their ancestors’ mausoleums or simply squatting in the cemetery grounds.
Some things to remember during your stay: if you’re tempted to take a Kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) tour around the city’s hotspots, make sure that you and the driver are clear on the rate (250 pesos per hour is a good deal); even so, the latter will make excuses and try to increase the fare along the way. Don’t give in – they can be very persistent and even irritating. Also, don’t exchange your currency on the ‘money markets’ such as Santa Cruz; these usually have very appealing (dubious) rates, but the teller will try to scam you by shortchanging the exchange. Hiring cabs from hotels can cost you more than hailing metered ones from the street; insist that the driver turns on the meter before you tell him where to go. It is also normal for you to be frisked, and your belongings searched when entering any major establishment (malls, hotels, even restaurants) – security is a priority in the Philippines, and as discomfiting as it is, get used to it during your stay. Keep your belongings close to yourself in fairly crowded areas (flea markets, railway stations, and even on the sidewalks), and be wary of dubious offers or pleas for help; con men, pickpockets, and snatchers use varied methods of distraction and getaway to their advantage. And you might want to stay away from the city during the wet season (June to November); the traffic and flooded streets can be a gridlock of irate, stranded motorists and commuters.