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Hello Foreign Friends, This is Manila – [Your Ultimate Manila Travel Guide]


Your Ultimate Manila Travel Guide

Everyone I know hates Manila. Even us Manileños hate Manila so much that we tell our friends from other countries the bad side of the capital.

If someone asks us what they can do in the metro, we will probably answer, “There’s nothing to do in Manila. Go somewhere else!” I’m not sure if we are too proud of our beaches and mountains, or we dread the city so much we suggest to everyone to skip it in their itinerary.

When I started traveling, I promised to change my perspective about the places I would visit, including Manila of course. I used to love to hate this city, but I’m now starting to appreciate it. If people would ask me about Manila, I would say now, “You could spend more than a couple of days to appreciate the city. Let this Manila Travel Guide help you.

We have old churches, the oldest Chinatown in the world, museums, big malls, amazing skyline, 5-star hotels, and budget hostels.  But to set your expectations, traffic is terrible and our train system sucks!”

Fair enough, right?

Check Rate and Availablity of Hotels in Manila

Manila Travel Guide
Photo Credit to Earl Lasangue – Manila Travel Guide

So let’s talk about Metro Manila or simply Manila. The capital city of the Philippines is home to over 12 million people, making it the 9th most populous metropolitan in Asia. From the moment you book your flight to the Philippines, you will probably ask yourself, “How long to stay in Manila?

As someone living here for 26 years, I would say  3-5 days is enough-depends on what you want to see and do.

I have to admit though that, even though I grew up in this city, I have visited only a few spots. If you have limited time, I will be glad to welcome you to Metro Manila and introduce its beauty and the beast. This is what is Manila like.

Let’s travel back to the past to understand the Manila of today. Once, this city was called the Paris of Asia. During the Spanish occupation, it was known as the jewel of Spain’s empire in the Pacific. It was described as a splendid city. The Philippines was under the rule of Spain for more than 300 years.

When the Spanish-American war officially ended, The US and the Spain government signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. Spain agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million.

Manila Travel Guide
The University of Sto. Tomas is the oldest University in Asia. Photo Credit to Sheena Lucio

The original colonial Manila was designed by the American architect who designed Chicago & Washington DC, Daniel Burnham. Imagine how beautiful Manila was before it was heavily damaged during World War II.

You can expect Manila as a combination of Chicago and Washington DC. The Chicago part of Manila is the Manila Bay area and the wide boulevards of Quezon City are the Washington DC.

So, how does the city look like today? If you want to have that “First-world” feel, visit Manila’s three Major Central Business Districts (CBDs) namely Makati, Ortigas, and Bonifacio Global City.

Makati CBD, which spans 150 hectares, is only 3 km away from Ortigas, which spans 100 hectares. They are connected by the metropolitan highway called EDSA.

Today, Bonifacio Global City is changing the face of Manila really fast. The 500-hectare former army base, just a few kilometers away from Makati and Ortigas, is Making the skyline of the Metro more impressive.

And we are talking about high story buildings here. Now, imagine, if these three CBDs were adjacent to one another, Metro Manila would be like a midtown Manhattan.

Manila Travel Guide
Ayala, Makati Photo Credit to Christopher Guer – Manila Travel Guide

How about the other side of Manila? If you are looking to stay in the “old district” of Manila, go to Ermita and Malate. To this day, they are branded as the tourist belt of the city. Probably because of its proximity to some historical tourist attractions in the city like Rizal Park, National Museum, and Intramuros.

But in my observation, this part of the city which was once a vibrant part of Manila is slowly dying and a big part of this area is dilapidated. But, I have heard of some projects aiming to revive this part of the city.

Manila Travel Guide
Poverty is a usual scene in the street of Manila Photo Credit to Doce Buan Forbes

So, what’s pulling up the “old district”? Something to look forward to is the Bagong Nayong Pilipino in Pasay City. A 1,000-hectare reclamation site by the bay is Manila’s equivalent of Macau.

Today, there are big hotels and casinos situated in the area. Construction of other establishments is ongoing. This, I hope, will extend gentrification to the old district of Manila.

There is poverty in most areas of the Capital. It’s a usual scene in the city, but surprisingly, despite the fact that the Philippines is still a third world country, 4 out of the 11 biggest malls in the world can be found in Metro Manila. And did you know that SM City North EDSA in Quezon City is the third-largest shopping mall and the largest solar-powered mall in the world?

Therefore, never criticize the purchasing power of the Filipinos. Henry Sy, the richest man in the Philippines, would never build the biggest malls in the world if nobody was buying. In addition, Metro Manila has just been declared the city with the most number of shopping malls per capita in the world.

Manila Travel Guide
Mall of Asia – One of the biggest malls in the world. Photo Credit to Migo Thirdy – Manila Travel Guide

I once read that the culture of the Philippines as a whole is different from the rest of Asia, specifically in the South-East. I will help you understand why.

The Philippines is where the US and Europe meet in Asia that’s why our culture is a bit different.

Let’s talk about food as a good example. I have been to almost all major cities in Southeast Asia where people love spicy food. However, Spanish and Americans changed our eating habit. Admit it or not, the Philippines is a class-conscious society, where quality could economize for those who couldn’t afford.

Majority of Filipinos adopted the Spanish culture “Your worth is measured by the price of what you’re eating,” so most dining tables in Filipino homes usually have two or more viands per meal.

Meat would always be one of the choices. And a lot of Filipinos dine in a fancy restaurant. The more expensive the food, the higher the status is–or so they feel.

American brought to us fast-food culture and this separates us from other Asian countries. While it’s expensive in the different parts of Asia, it’s a different story here in the Philippines.

Fast-food chains are everywhere. Most of the middle-class eat at these quick-service restaurants during lunch break. Try to visit Makati at lunchtime and you will see how jam-packed all the fast food stores are.

Manila Travel Guide
A perfect photo to describe the other side of Manila – Busy, colorful, crowded, old and growing. Photo Credit to Mark Lester Mandigal

The small food stall or carinderia in the local language, which is equivalent to those patronized by budget travelers in Bangkok, is patronized by the lower-class.  Try to visit neighborhoods near the public market, close to jeepney stations and factories.

If you love American and Spanish food, it would be easy to love Filipino food. Some of my favorites are Kare-Kare, Adobo, Sinigang, Lechon, Crispy Pata, Chicken Inasal, Arroz Caldo, Laing, Fish Kinilaw, Halo-Halo and Leche Flan. Make sure you try these the next time you visit Manila.

Manila Itinerary: Where to Stay and What to do in Manila.

Where to Stay in Manila?

Majority would agree that Makati City is still the best place to stay in Manila because of many factors: modernity, organization, wide array of budget and luxury hotels/hostels, proximity to the airport, big malls for shopping experience, vibrant nightlife, wide selection of restaurants, and proximity to other major areas like BGC, Ortigas, Pasay and Manila.

Manila Travel Guide
Rockwell Center Makati – Photo Credit to Jr Rivac Oreto

Check out some Apartment in Pasay here too!

What to do in Manila?

Here are some of my recommendations on what to do in the city.

Manila Cathedral photo credit to Mark Jay Dizon Santiago
  • Visit Century Old Churches
    • San Agustin Church
    • Manila Cathedral
    • Quiapo Church
  • Walk around the Park
    • Rizal Park
    • Paco Park
    • Manila Ocean Park
  • Explore the oldest Chinatown in The world located at Binondo, Manila
  • See what’s inside the wall of Intramuros
  • Travel back in time, entrance to our National Museum is free!
  • Manila is Shopping Haven
    • Visit Divisoria for budget shopping  
    • Visit Greenhills for class A products
    • Visit Greenbelt for luxury and branded items
smokey mountain
Inside Smokey Mountain – Manila’s Largest dumpsite. – Manila Travel Guide

Manila is not your ordinary city and it’s not the most beautiful city that you can find in Asia. For a first-timer, one will find it a bit annoying. Cars, jeepneys, and motorcycles are everywhere which keep the city moving and cause a gateway-to-hell-like traffic situation. But in the coming years, once all the major road constructions are over, things might get better.

Despite everything negative about our city, I hope our people could change your impression of Manila. Majority speak English and our hospitality is incomparable.

Our city is unique in every single way. It’s a mysterious city that grows on you and before you feel it, Manila will become like a long lost friend that you enjoy having with.

If you think this Manila Travel Guide is helpful, don’t forget to share it with your friends!

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