Manila: A Beginner's Guide for Tourists

The City of Manila is the capital of the Philippines. Two million people call it home or consider it as their place of work. Not only does it hold the title for the most densely populated city in the Philippines, but it is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. There are plenty of attractions in Manila to capture the attention of anyone.

manila hotels
Image Source: Skyscraper City
With its 38.55 sq.km. land area, Manila is part of the National Capital Region (NCR) in Luzon, sharing it with 15 other cities that make up the greater metropolitan region such as Quezon City, the former capital, and Makati, the nation’s financial center. As a whole, these cities are known as Metro Manila. 

Manila's reputation on the global stage is generally not viewed positively as it typically makes world news headlines for crime, corruption, or calamities. In the book Inferno, author Dan Brown refers to Manila as the "Gates of Hell."

Although the horrendous traffic has the potential to consume your entire vacation and the city has its fair share of undesirables, Manila can still delight the open-minded adventurer with an experience that is unique to the Philippines.

WHAT TO EAT

Manila has a lot of food options from street food to the priciest restaurants serving local and international cuisines. Many consider eating the national sport of the Philippines. In the actual city, most Manila restaurants can be found in Chinatown, Ermita, Malate, and Quiapo, especially inside the Manila shopping malls. If you're looking for something more upscale or international, Quezon City, Bonifacio Global City, and Makati are home to countless hot spots. 

manila restaurants
Image Source: Apron and Sneakers
Do you need to tip? Some restaurants may automatically charge 10% to your bill, while others leave the decision up to you. Others are less discreet and leave a box for you to put your tip or indicate that there is no service charge on your bill. 

If you want to eat as locals do, here are some examples of typical Filipino cuisine:

WHERE TO STAY

The metropolis is home to countless Manila hotels that can suit any need or any budget. There is a limited presence of international hotel brands in the Philippines. However, that is quickly changing as many international chains see an opportunity to invest in the country. 

cheap manila hotels
Image Source: Trip Advisor / Hotel H2O
Foreign travellers should exercise caution when selecting accommodation in Manila as quality and customer service may leave much to be desired, particularly when hotels are not accountable to the standards of a global brand. It is strongly advised to study independent review sites such as Trip Advisor or Agoda and look at photographs taken by actual travellers, especially when considering cheap hotels in Manila. 

If you're travelling on a budget, Manila is home to two Philippine budget hotel brands: Go Hotels and Red Planet Hotels. Both chains offer simple accommodations in Manila and small rooms, but with modern comforts such as white sheeting, flat screen televisions, free internet, air conditioning, and rain showers. For those looking for a different experience, here are some other recommendations:

Manila Airport Hotels
Manila Budget Hotels
Manila Luxury Hotels
Manila Boutique Hotels

WHERE TO PLAY

Binondo (Chinatown): Binondo is believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world. It is where the Binondo Church built in the 16th century is located to serve the Chinese converts to Catholicism.

Chinese Cemetery: It is the second oldest cemetery in the country and was established in the 1850s because the Spanish rulers back then disallowed the burial of the Chinese in Spanish cemeteries. Air-conditioned mausoleums that are bigger than most apartments can be found there.

Escolta: Before Makati (the nation’s business district), Escolta was the address for business and social status. It is now a shadow of its former self although some of the old buildings built pre-World Wars can still be seen.

manila cathedral
Image Source: Wikimedia
Intramuros: The famed wall city is a popular Manila attraction and the city's oldest district built in the 16th century by the Spanish colonizers. Inside are historic places like the Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Church, and Fort Santiago.

Luneta Park: Luneta Park is another popular attraction in Manila that is most famous for its Rizal monument which stands as the most recognizable symbol of the Philippines internationally.

Malacanang Palace: The Palace is the official residence of the country’s president which dates back to the 1800s. Visitors can take a tour of the Presidential Museum & Library.

Malate Church: The baroque-style church that holds the image of Our Lady of Remedies, patron saint of women in childbirth, that was brought from Spain in 1624.

Manila City Hall: The seat of government for the city where its mayor holds office as well as some of its departments.

Manila Ocean Park: The country’s premier marine theme park and aquarium.

Manila Hotel: The country’s oldest five-star hotel which played a vital role during World War II serving as General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. During its heyday, dignitaries and celebrities including US presidents and the Beatles have stayed there.

Metropolitan Museum of Manila: The Met Museum holds permanent and temporary exhibits on Philippine arts and culture.

Museo Pambata: The country’s first hands-on museum for children to stimulate their learning.

Quiapo Church: The baroque church that is home to the Black Nazarene believed to be miraculous. The statue is paraded every January 9th within its district creating the largest procession in the country.

The Golden Mosque: Within the same Quiapo district is the largest mosque in Metro Manila. It was built by the former First Lady Imelda Marcos in 1976 for the aborted visit of the late Libyan president, Muammar al-Gaddafi. (So 2012)

The Money Museum: A haven for numismatists showcasing the Philippine Central Bank’s collection of currencies.

The National Museum: The country’s official repository of its art, culture and history. It houses the world-famous painting by Juan Luna, Spoliarium (1884).

United Evangelical Church of the Philippines: The largest Chinese Christian church in the country and the third oldest Chinese church. 

SHOPPING IN MANILA

Manila offers a range of shopping experiences from one of the largest shopping malls in Asia to quaint street markets. 

manila malls
Image Source: Hola Philippines
When shopping in Manila, there are plenty of malls to spend your hard earned cash including places that cater to the luxury traveller such as SM Aura and Bonifacio High Street. For those in search of something less refined, there are several quaint shops to be found in Chinatown and Divisoria.

GETTING AROUND MANILA

For foreign travellers arriving in the Philippines, the initial sight of Manila traffic may lead to shock and horror. Getting around Manila might seem like an even more daunting feat. 

manila transportation
Image Source: Live Share Travel
However, Metro Manila actually offers much choice for traveling around the city with some options more familiar to foreign travelers than others. Transportation in Manila includes the Jeepney, FX, MRT/LRT, taxi, bus, tricycle, and pedicab. Our Guide to Metro Manila Transportation explains the various modes of transport.

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