Words and Photos by Nathan Allen - Updated May, 2017
It was Known as "The Pearl Of The Orient"? Really?
To be honest, I asked many, many people (locals and foreigners) what they like about Manila, and over and over, I was met with head-scratching and silence. They all told me they would think about it and get back to me.
I'm still waiting.
You see, Manila is a city that people love to hate. Dan Brown mentioned it being the "Gates Of Hell" in one of his novels, but for many travellers coming to the Philippines, Manila is in fact the jumping-off point to many stunning beaches - and paradise must be earned...by surviving Manila. If you have anything less than 2 weeks in the Philippines, I suggest booking your flight out to the islands for a few hours after you land in Manila. That way you have a little room just in case there are delays, but also don't even have to leave the airport - because here's the thing: DON'T LEAVE THE AIRPORT.
Wait...So You DO Have To Leave The Airport? Don't stress.
If you do happen to have an extended layover or job post in Manila, don't worry. I'll help you make the most of it. The city is not everybody's favorite, but if you go about visiting at the right time (and in the right way), you might even find that you enjoy it! Once you get past the gauntlet of traffic and smog, there is plenty of good shopping, dining, and even historical attractions - assuming you know where to look.
Today's Manila - Times Have Changed
The city is far different than what many people imagine. While it still struggles with a massive population and quite a bit of poverty, paradoxically, it is also a bustling modern metropolis with a booming economy. Somebody once told me that the Philippines isn't a poor country, it's actually a rich country full of poor people.
Shiny skyscrapers are being erected at an almost unimaginable rate. Manila boasts (though Filipinos are too modest to use such a word) world-class hotels, shopping, and dining. There is even a very hip, thriving art scene that has developed over the past few years. Some people are shocked to learn this...and a few still think Filipinos all live in slums or in the jungle. WRONG.
As I mentioned in a previous article,
Manila might frustrate foreign travellers who are used to other large cities. Things just move at a different pace here, and just because the city is modern does not mean that it is
efficient. It takes time to adjust to.
However, what makes Manila unique to me is the fact that in a city of 12 million plus, Filipinos in Manila have still managed to preserve a sense of community. To an extent, they still say hi to their neighbors and look out for each other. What other megacity can say the same?
I would also venture to guess that Manila has more smiles per square kilometer than any other large city in the world.
I recently realized that even I have a distant connection to "the Pearl Of The Orient". My great great uncle fought in the battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American war of 1898!
I know this guide to Manila barely scratches the surface, and that there is SO much more to see and explore. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment! One place I'd like to explore more next time is Quezon City, because I really loved it when I briefly visited.
Yes, Manila can certainly test our patience, but I make it a point to try and find the beauty in every place I go. Eventually, I even found it there.
I challenge you to experience Manila through my eyes.
Do you accept the challenge? Let's get started.
When To Arrive - Traffic is a Serious Concern
First of all, do NOT land during 7am-9am or 3pm-7pm during the week. Choose your flight to avoid traffic during these hours. If it has been raining for a day or two before your flight, you may have to take a raft to your hotel (I'm joking, but the threat of flooding is real, and sometimes I seriously wish this was an option!). I met a U.S. citizen who, after a 17 hour flight, arrived at 5pm during the rainy season. He spent 3 hours trying to get a taxi, and then 6 hours riding in one - going only 5km to his hotel! To be fair, there was also substantial construction going on at the time.
Visas / Money Exchange
Upon arrival at the airport (please don't judge the country based on the airport...NAIA is notoriously bad), travellers from many countries are granted a visa-free stay for 21 days. If you insist, it is possible to pay for a visa for up to 59 days. This may take up to an hour or two to process, and should cost around 2,600 pesos (around $55 USD).
I prefer to bring minimal cash with me, because with a U.S. card, I can use the BPI ATM right outside the baggage claim area. I've never had a problem with these machines. If you want
to bring money to exchange, I believe there are 24 hour options there in the airport, thought they might be slightly more pricey than options outside. Might be better to pay more for the
airport service and know you aren’t being short-changed.
Taxi drivers in the Philippines are generally honest and will use the meters, but those around the airport have been known to inflate the price. Try to bargain and ask around as
much as you can. Also make sure you check the bills you hand the driver, because in low light, it is possible for foreigners to accidentally give a 1000 note instead of a
To unseasoned travellers from the west, Manila may appear to be much more dangerous than it really is. There are guards posted with very large guns in front of banks and government offices, but it’s just to intimidate any would-be criminals, and the guards are generally nice as can be. Just be street smart (especially if you are heading to the shady red-light districts of Makati and Ermita) and you should be fine. Better to leave any flashy jewellery in your safety deposit box - just in case.
Hotels and Accommodations
Speaking of the red-light districts, this is where most people choose to stay. It’s not because they are all sex tourists, but because it also happens to be where many hotels, bars, and restaurants are. At best, the taxi will cost only 250 pesos and take 20 minutes to get to either Ermita or Makati. More likely it will be 300-400 pesos and take an hour, though. Makati is probably safer and much less gritty than Ermita. Here are my hotel choices:
MNL Boutique Hostel - This charming, colorful little hostel is tucked away behind A-Venue mall in Makati (tell the driver you want to go to the mall, then walk behind and look for the beautiful mural on the wall). Reasonable rates on both private air-con and also dorm rooms. It’s also a great place to meet fellow travellers from all over the world!
By offering free serve-yourself coffee and a simple breakfast, they do a great job fostering a warm, social atmosphere. The owners can be found popping in from time to time, and their genuine concern for their guests is quite refreshing. MNL is also technically just outside of the noise and chaos of the red-light district, so that is a plus if you ask me as well.
You can book MNL Hostel HERE
Tune Hotel - I love the bright, clean, rooms and modern design here. It is certainly one of the best values I have found while traveling as well. They keep costs low by only charging you for the amenities you need (cable TV, Aircon…etc). Customize your own stay! Technically in the red light district, but tucked away on a side street, and I appreciate that. You can find the local craft beer “Katipunan” in the attached bar here, so do try it!
You can book Tune Hotel HERE
Ermita / Malate
Tune Hotel Ermita - Another branch of Tune Hotel, very similar to the one in Makati. I would prefer to stay in the Makati branch, but if you need to be in the Ermita area for some reason (immigration needs, for example), this is a great place. Also closer to Luneta and Intramuros.
You can book Tune Hotel Ermita HERE
Malate Pensionne - If you’re looking for a slice of old Manila, this nice alternative is close by. I loved the rich, old-world feel that the woodwork gives this hotel. Very close to Remedios Circle as well, where you can find plenty of nice dining options.
You can book Malate Pensionne HERE
Intramuros (near Ermita)
White Knight Hotel - A very nice mid-range hotel right in the heart of historic Intramuros. Tasteful and cozy, with good food and excellent service from the staff. People love it, and I can see why. The hotel is tucked away across the street from St. Agustin church inside a shady courtyard, and occasionally they play (subdued) live music.
You can book White Knight Hotel HERE
A bit further away is Ortigas, and I found that I really enjoyed it up there! Far from the red light districts, it’s a nice area that’s probably more suited for business travellers. Still a nice alternative for all travellers in my opinion, though. There are plenty of good restaurants and a few shopping malls nearby.
The Malayan Plaza Hotel - Sleek. With a small kitchen that makes it suited for short or long stays, I felt very comfortable here. I loved the modern design throughout the hotel. The pool is elevated about half way up the building, and along with the roof deck, has some beautiful views of the Metro Manila skyline. The staff is very warm and helpful, and they also have a quality breakfast buffet. Solid Internet. Better pricing for long term stays. The hotel is very close to SM Megamall as well.
You can book The Malayan Plaza HERE
If you prefer to use Booking.com, click below
The Richmonde - This hotel has homey suites that are also ideal for any length of stay. My room had a small kitchen with a refrigerator. The full-sized bathtub was very much appreciated after a long day out exploring. There is also a nice gym, a beautiful indoor pool, and a generous breakfast buffet. The lobby and common areas are quite luxurious here. Lower rates for long term stays.
You can book The Richmonde HERE
These are my personal recommendations through Agoda, but if you prefer Booking.com, you can use use this link to search for more options.
Where To Eat and Drink
Jollibee - The “McDonalds of the Philippines”, and if you don’t mind fast food, is worth a try. See why it’s loved by millions of Filipinos all over the world! Try Mang Inasal Chicken BBQ or Rufos in Makati if you want to move away from fast food a bit (while still remaining affordable).
Sentro - Upscale Filipino food at Greenbelt 3 mall. I quite enjoyed it!
Northpark - A reasonably priced Chinese restaurant chain in Makati and Quezon City (I’m guessing there are other locations as well). I’ve eaten here many times and recommend it.
El Chupacabra - My absolute favorite place to eat! It's tucked away in Makati. Here you can get “Mexicali” street tacos and enchiladas. It’s got a great patio, and is a fun place to meet friends for food and drinks.
Seattle's Best Coffee - Starbucks is available, but if you want to try something different, this U.S. chain isn't bad. Surprisingly (because it's a coffee shop), I found the best American-style pancakes here also! I'm addicted.
Karen's Kitchen - This quaint dessert and tea shop is an experience in and of itself. Karen is a charmer, and she makes a mean red velvet cake...as well as mouth watering sticky toffee pudding!
Cafe Andare Nightmarket / Foodtrucks - If you’re visiting on the weekend, there is a great night market in front of Glorietta mall and the Hard Rock Cafe. Here you can find live music, plenty of great food options, and if she’s still there, a woman who sells American craft Ale and beer at a very good price! It’s very hard to find in the Philippines, and if you do find it, it’s usually expensive. I hope she is still there!
There is also a similar night market in Makati very close to MNL Hostel. It's next to A-Venue, and there are plenty of great food options there as well.
B-Side @ The Collective (Makati) - This is a great place to go for Sunday night Reggae. Also a very creative art space with a diverse and welcoming crowd.
URBN @ The Fort - For those who would like to experience Manila’s dance clubs and thriving nightlife. The Fort is also a high-end shopping destination, similar to Greenbelt. It’s a bit further northeast, though.
Chihuahua Mexican Grill - There is a location in greenbelt, but the one in Makati has salsa dancing on Saturday nights, and it's a lot of fun. Last I checked, they had a small selection of American craft beer as well!
Global Beer Exchange - All things in moderation, but speaking of craft beer, there is a place in Makati near Magallanes station called Global Beer Exchange. First of all, definitely try the local San Miguel Pilsen first, because from a beer connoisseur's perspective, it's by far the best the country has to offer.
The irony is that in many parts of the Philippines, Pilsen is considered the "low class" option behind San Miguel Light (beer snobs would refer to this as "piss water") and super strong Red Horse (this is for getting the job done, taste is secondary).
However, if you really want to experience some of the unique and hoppy American ale and beer, Global Beer Exchange is the place. Of course, they have beer from many other countries as well, but I am particularly proud of the craft beer scene that has developed in the U.S. over the past 20 years. It is just starting to take off overseas, but be prepared to pay a hefty price for it. Anyhow, this place has a great atmosphere and friendly staff.
*Update - The Filipino craft beer scene has EXPLODED in the 3 years since I wrote this article. Now there are breweries all over the country, and there are even plenty of "American style" Filipino ales. See below...
Joe's Brew in Poblacion
"Fish Rider Pale Ale" is my absolute favorite from Joe's brew, and Joe is an awesome guy. He can often be found drinking right in the bar with his customers, and he might even give you a tour of the upstairs brewery if you're lucky!
Also check out Beerhouse in Kapitolyo. This place is a testament to just how far Filipino craft beer has come...that's all they serve here, and from many, many breweries...including their own! It's nice how supportive the craft beer scene seems to be be in the Philippines.
The Bar@1951 (Malate) - A friend brought me to this little bar/club one night, and I totally fell in love with it. They have a funky, creative space with classic soul music performed live! Truly a hidden gem if you ask me.
Rockeoke @ Bowler Restopub - It is claimed that karaoke was invented in the Philippines, not Japan. These days it's all about videoke, and to say that
Filipinos love videoke is putting it mildly. It's is a practically a religion here. Monday-night Rockeoke takes it to a new level by incorporating a full
live band into the mix. Find it in the ground floor of the Paseo Parkview Towers in
Salcedo Village, Makati. Usually starts at 9pm and goes through 2-3 sets, depending on how many people attend. It's a blast!
Let’s face it, Manila is basically just one giant shopping mall.
I have never seen so many malls in my life, and navigating between them can be dizzying. Each mall often has 3 separate numbered sections, which then connect to other malls with multiple numbered sections as well.
They talk about how you can see the Great Wall of China from space, but sometimes I wonder if you can see the malls of Manila from space as well!
If you’re a backpacker on a budget and are sleeping without air-con, do like so many locals do - spend a few hours cooling off at the mall!
From Makati, you can be boring and take a taxi to Ayala Center and the other malls, or you can be adventurous and take a jeepney - the “king of the Filipino road”! Just ask the drivers or people on the street which one to hop in. It’s a straight shot all the way down, so it’s hard to get lost. If you decide to walk the 1.5km or so, you can check out beautiful Ayala triangle on the way. It’s a nice park lined with plenty of shops and restaurants.
The high end shopping and restaurants can be found at Greenbelt mall. Note: As for the food, just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s good. I have found that when something is more expensive in the Philippines, it is rarely worth the extra cost. I say do your research or stick to chains you are already familiar with (and know you like).
Also take note of the giant chapel in the middle of Greenbelt mall! It truly is a testament to how spirituality is woven into the fabric of daily life here.
Landmark Mall is just across the road from Greenbelt, which can only be accessed by an overhead walkway. It is a much more affordable (and crowded) alternative to Greenbelt.
Glorietta mall is connected to Landmark, and is somewhere in the middle (in terms of cost).
If you want to repair or find a great deal on electronics (or need to get an iPhone unlocked), head to Greenhills in San Juan (near Ortigas). I actually enjoyed the Greenhills area quite a bit, and might consider staying near there on my next visit.
Cubao X (Expo)
Further north is Cubao X, which offers a hip assortment of everything from vinyl records to retro toys. A great place for the local art scene and live music as well!
If you really are feeling adventurous, you can head to the chaotic bargain-heaven of Divisoria, a giant street market north of Intramuros. There is also similar shopping about a kilometer
away near Quiapo Church. You can take the LRT1 and LRT2 trains to get up to this area, and that is an adventure in and of itself. Try not to do this anywhere near rush
hour, and as also goes for the markets, always be mindful of your pockets and bags just in case. I’ve ridden many times and never had a problem, but I do pay attention - just in
Things To Do
My absolute favorite thing to see in Manila is Intramuros, a 600 year-old walled city that the Spanish built. It is still rich with history, and home to some beautiful old cobblestone streets and churches.
St. Agustin Church - A 440 year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, where I eventually learned that the famous explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s tomb can be found. If you’re
looking directly at the alter from the back of the church, his tomb is in the room just to the left of the altar. The church doesn't look like much from the outside, but my jaw dropped when
I walked in.
St. Agustin Museum - Don’t forget to visit the incredible museum attached to the church! I didn’t expect much, but was thoroughly surprised by how much there was to see and experience there. You feel like you’re touring a medieval castle, and in a way, you are. Well worth the entry fee.
Walking Tour with Carlos Celdran - I haven't had the chance to take this tour yet, but the people have spoken. From what I've gathered, it's incredibly informative, and wildly entertaining. Carlos does not hold back, so bring your thick-skin and sense of humor. The tour is heavy on historical information about Intramuros and Manila, and light on actual walking, so don't worry about any strenuous activity. Not exactly cheap, but almost everybody agrees that this tour is worth it.
Bamboo Bike Eco-Tour - What an idea! I
haven't taken this tour either, but again, I hear great things. These unique bamboo bikes are crafted by the good folks at "Gawad Kalinga" which means to "give care" in
Filipino, and is a poverty alleviation and nation-building movement. This tour combines three things I love - biking, conservation, AND community empowerment!
Luneta (Rizal Park)
Nearby to Intramuros is Rizal Park, or Luneta. Here you can visit the monument of the man many Filipinos consider to be the national hero - Dr. Jose
Rizal. After dark, the park cools off and the water fountains put on a colorful show. You can ride a horse drawn carriage, or Kalesa here. You may be able to ride one
all the way to Intramuros as well, but I’m not positive about that.
Binondo is also worth exploring. It’s supposedly the oldest Chinatown in the world. In fact, Binondo Church was founded in 1596 to serve the Chinese converts to Christianity. Keep in mind that Intramuros, Luneta, Divisoria, and Binondo are all relatively close to each other, and could possibly all be explored in one long day. It is wise to group things together by proximity, because as mentioned earlier, you can lose a LOT of time just getting from point A to point B.
Sunset on Roxas Blvd.
If you are staying in Ermita or Malate, don’t forget to wander over and take a stroll down Roxas Blvd. during the famous Manila Bay sunset! These shots were actually
taken from Mandaluyong, though. Mall of Asia is another good place to witness a nice Manila Bay sunset.
Pinto Art Museum - Antipolo
I haven’t been yet, but people rave about the the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo. An impressive collection of Philippine art that even non-artsy people seem to be able to
appreciate. It’s a bit far, so probably only good for those who have an extended stay in Manila. Antipolo is another place I want to explore, so the museum is a good excuse to check
Finally, if you’re looking for a nice shady place to relax (and try some adventurous eating), explore the tree-lined University of the Philippines - Diliman campus, which is also known for it’s famous isaw (chicken intestines)! Be sure to ride the unique "ikot" jeepney with the yellow roof, as these iconic vehicles have been around since the very early days of the campus. "Toki" is, of course, the reverse route:) This visit is only advised if you have a long stay, as the campus is quite far.
Anything I missed? What makes Manila unique, and what do you like about it? Please comment and let me know! Also don’t forget to “like” this page and ALSO the "I Dreamed Of This" FB page further below, so that you can follow along as I explore the beauty of the Philippines!
*Update - Kapitolyo, in Pasig, has really blown up with bars and restaurants lately. There are 2 huge food parks that I know of maybe more...you can check my Kapitolyo blog for more info!
- Nathan Allen
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