Most people visiting the Philippines fly into and out of Manila but spend very little time actually exploring this large, diverse, and thriving metropolis. And while there aren’t an abundance of touristy sites to see, the city is packed with delicious restaurants, lively bars, and world-class shopping. It’s worth spending at least a few days in this bustling city before heading to the other islands for your relaxing beach vacation.
Know Before You Go
- At the time of writing the conversion rate was 53.42 Philippine Pesos (PHP) to $1 USD. So if we say that something costs 250 PHP that’s just under $5 USD.
- Filipinos learn both English and Tagalog in school and you’re unlikely to encounter anyone who doesn’t speak English. If you want to try your hand at Tagalog, “salamat” is “thank you” and “po” is a polite ending to a sentence. So you would say “salamat po” or “nice to meet you po” or “excuse me po”.
- You’ll be referred to as “sir” or “ma’am” by pretty much everyone you meet. It’s a sign of respect and Filipinos are very polite.
- Filipinos LOVE basketball and especially the NBA. If they ask where you’re from it’s easier to say “do you know the Portland Trailblazers?” than “I’m from Oregon”. They definitely know the Blazers but have no idea what Oregon is.
- Manila is the world’s most densely populated city with around 111,000 people per square mile. And the population of the entire Metro Manila area is about 13.5 million. So expect traffic to be horrendous, especially during rush hour!
You’ll find plenty of car taxis around Manila that you can hail at anytime. There are also many “habal-habal” stands if you’d prefer to take a motortaxi. If you want an entertaining but crowded experience, hop in a Jeepney but be sure to holler when you want to get off.
The easiest form of transportation in Manila is Grab. It’s similar to Uber but you can choose to pay the driver in cash or you can connect your credit card and make it a cash-less experience. Keep in mind that you’ll probably wait at least 10 minutes for your driver to arrive and the estimated price does not include any tolls.
Packing for the Philippines
Manila is a metropolitan city and you’ll find plenty name brand stores in the more upscale areas of the city. While some countries in Asia can be quite conservative, the Philippines seem to be free to dress as they please. No need to cover your knees or shoulders anywhere here. However, if you choose to visit a fancy restaurant or nightclub, you’ll likely need to adhere to the dress code. This typically means no shorts, tank tops, or sandals.
As with all large cities, opportunistic crime can be common, especially at night. Women should refrain from walking alone at night and should hold onto their bags as motorbikes can be known to grab them as they drive by. Keep a tight hold on your cell phone as well. Pickpockets are a problem in crowded area as well. Keep extra money and any expensive jewelry locked in your room safe, just in case.
Although the biggest danger in Manila is singing a poor karaoke rendition of My Way.
You are likely accustomed to enjoying four yearly seasons – summer, winter, spring, and fall. The Philippines only has two – wet and dry. Wet season lasts from June until October and dry season is November through May. If you visit during the wet season you can expect to experience the occasional daily torrential downpour.
The temperature year-round is hot, but the hottest months of the year are April and May when temperatures average around 34 °C.
Visa and Passport Requirements
Most countries in the world do not require a visa for a 30-day stay in the Philippines (a few exceptions include India, Iran, Jordan, and a few others). Check your visa requirements here. Be sure to purchase your return flight to your next destination prior to arriving to the airport or you may be denied boarding (as there is no option to exit by land crossing).
Manila is a huge city so deciding where to book your hotel can be challenging. The Makati neighborhood is an up-and-coming area that is full of great restaurants and fantastic shopping. Most of the places that we recommended here are in the Makati area. You may find that you’ll be less excited to check out some of the other areas of the city because traffic is so congested, and Makati offers everything you need within walking distance!
Here are a few of our favorite spots to stay in Makati:
Lub D Philippines Makati offers low-cost private rooms and a co-working space all in the same hip and trendy building. They have nightly activities including game night and a pub crawl for any travelers looking to make some new friends. Rooms are bright and new, the lobby area is a fun space to hang out, and everyone on staff is cheery and helpful.
The Intramuros neighborhood of Manila is also called the “Walled City”. The defensive walls were constructed by the Spanish colonizers in the late 16th century to protect from invasion and it was guarded by Fort Santiago. The area was destroyed by the Battle of Manila in 1945 and in more recent years the government has worked to rebuild and preserve the remaining landmarks. Hire a tricycle driver for 200 PHP/30 minutes for a tour and history lesson of the area.
Highlights of Intramuros beyond Fort Santiago include the San Augustin Church, the Baluarte de San Diego, and the statue of King Philip II of Spain (the namesake of the Philippines).
Just north of Intramuros is a favorite local hangout, Rizal Park. The park is named in honor of José Rizal whose writings helped to inspire the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish before he was executed here. The park is a perfect place to enjoy a leisurely afternoon stroll. A tranquil Chinese Garden is in the park as well.
And south of Intramuros you’ll find Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown. There’s a church that’s worth visiting, delicious restaurants, and some quirky Chinese shops and markets.
Cubao Expo is the hipster area of Manila. It is just a few blocks in size and has boutiques, antique shops, record stores, restaurants, and bars. It gets really busy at night with trendy locals vying for the outdoor tables to sip their craft beers and socialize. Get there around 7:00pm if you want some time to peruse the shops but expect a long drive in heavy traffic from the Makati neighborhood.
The area surrounding the Quezon City Memorial Circle is another great area for eating and drinking. You’ll find jazz bars, comedy shows, and karaoke bars in the South Triangle area. The Memorial Circle is also just a nice area to stretch your legs a bit.
The Makati neighborhood is the best place in the city to stay. It is up-and-coming but you can still find hotels, restaurants, and shopping to fit any budget. Most of our recommendations here are concentrated in the Makati neighborhood.
Fort Bonifacio Global City is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood located southeast of Makati. The streets are lined with trees, there are security guards sprinkled throughout, and it’s filled with restaurants and high-end shops.
Smokey Tours offers several interesting tours of Manila including a cemetary tour (where some locals have chosen to take up residence), a slum tour, a market tour, and a bicycle tour. The guides are very knowledgeable and will provide you with plenty of information about the areas you’ll be visiting.
Manila has quite the nightlife scene and you’ll find plenty of late-night bars no matter what neighborhood you find yourself in.
- Nightclub – Valkyrie is a popular nightclub with both locals and expats. The dance floor is small but it’s full of people having a great time. Expect to be held to a dress code and to pay a cover charge.
- Karaoke – Center Stage has a few locations, including one in Makati. There is an hourly rate for a room but it is consumable (meaning that you must spend generally around 1,000 PHP/hour on food and drinks). You’ll get a huge selection of songs and can belt them out in the privacy of your own room.
- Rooftop Views – Antidote is on the top floor of the I’m Hotel in the Makati neighborhood. Not only do they offer spectacular views of the city but also have lit-up aquariums filled with jellyfish as a backdrop for the bar. They have funky cocktails that aren’t expensive as you might expect (most cost around 390 PHP) and it’s the perfect spot to watch sunset.
- Live Music – Strumm’s is a fun venue for an older crowd (30’s, 40’s, and 50’s). They have lively bands and a great vibe. Expect to pay a cover but it’s consumable. Another great option for live music is Hobbit House, a quirky, hobbit-themed bar near Rizal Park.
- Cocktails – If you’re in the mood for a fancy cocktail then you’re in luck! A slew of speakeasy-style bars have opened up in Manila serving well-crafted adult libations. The Blind Pig has been around the longest and pioneered the Manila cocktail scene. Alcohol by Volume (ABV) is the most popular at the moment, and Hooch is a go-to hangout for expats.
- Sports Bar – There are several lively sports bars in the Makati neighborhood. Check out H&J Sports Bar and Restaurant or Howzat Sports Bar if you’re looking to catch an NBA game or soccer match.
The SM Mall of Asia is located right on the Manila Bay and is the 12th largest shopping mall in the world. This massive complex isn’t just reserved for shops and restaurants. It also boasts the first ever IMAX theater in the country, an Olympic-sized ice skating rink, a concert grounds, and an amusement park featuring 17 rides. You’ll need a full day to explore this behemoth mall!
Ayala Center is a large shopping mall complex located in the Makati neighborhood that contains several different malls (3 of which are outlined below). You can find anything and everything you could ever want in this complex. However the price point of the malls are quite different so you may want to concentrate your time in a specific one depending on your budget.
- Greenbelt Mall – This mammoth mall contains 5 sections – Greenbelt 1 through Greenbelt 5 that all have different offerings. Greenbelt 5 is the most posh of the 5 with stores such as Kate Spade, Rolex, and Seven for all Mankind. Greenbelt 3 has mid-priced shops such as American Eagle, Asics, and Diesel.
- SM Makati – Located directly across the street from Greenbelt Mall but with less expensive stores including Forever 21 and H&M.
- Glorietta – Also located next to SM and Greenbelt mall but this one has plenty of local Filipino brands like Folded and Hung on the bottom floor.
Power Plant Mall is located at the center of Rockwell Center, a fully contained “city within a city” built on 15-acres of land previously occupied by a thermal power plant. It consists of condominium towers, office buildings, restaurants, and, of course, the mall. The area has limited entrances so if you’re on foot it can be difficult to figure out how to get there. The shops are high-end and there are quite a few good dining options on the basement level including Wooden Spoon (described above).
Bonifacio High Street is an open-air shopping area in Bonifacio Global City (Fort BGC ). There are plenty of shops and restaurants to suit all tastes and it’s a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee in the sunshine while watching other happy shoppers wander by.
We can’t wait to go back to Manila and explore more of the hip neighborhoods. Have you been? Do you have a favorite hidden gem?
Want more info? Check out our favorite travel guides and books about the Philippines!
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