For travelers, backpackers and province-based tourists, Manila is often just thought of as a stopover between flights on the way to another destination. The big city can be overwhelming with the heavy traffic and crowded streets. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to do except eat out, go shopping in the malls, visit museums or churches. There’s also the gritty and chaotic areas of Quiapo and Divisoria, which have become synonymous with Manila.
I often take the tourist sights in Manila for granted because this is where I live and work. But if I were a first-time tourist in the Philippines, or if I had to take around foreign tourists, balikbayans, expats or province-based friends, what would I do and where would I go? Here are some suggestions of unique and fun activities you can do while in Manila.
1. Ride a Bamboo Bike around Intramuros
Intramuros is the oldest district and historic core in Manila, Philippines. It’s the only district of Manila where old Spanish-era influences are still plentiful. Top tourist spots here include Fort Santiago, a well-maintained park, the Baroque San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Manila Cathedral. Most visitors opt to either walk around Intramuros or ride a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage).
A unique way to go around the historic walled city of Manila is by bamboo bicycle with Bambike Ecotours. The bicycles with bamboo frames are handmade by Gawad Kalinga villagers, a social enterprise in the Philippines. Tourists can cover more ground than if on a walking tour and it provides a more active way to get around compared traveling around by motorized transport.
Foreigners who want the services of a knowledgeable guide and a background on the history of each destination can avail of the Intramuros Experience, a 2.5 hour long tour to visit 10 key sites (P1,200 per person). The price is inclusive of bike & helmet rental, bottled water and entrance fees. Tour schedule: 10:00 am – 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm – 5:30 pm.
The Express Tour is a 1 hour tour where you can choose your own adventure for P600 per person per hour. If you want to explore on your own without a guide, you can simply rent bikes for P200 per Bambike per hour.
2. Dine Inside a Jeepney
Jeepneys are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines and a symbol of art and culture. Locals and tourists usually ride these to get around many places in Manila. But how about dining inside one?
Gerry’s Jeepney is a jeepney-themed restaurant where diners sit in the iconic jeepney-style booths with boodle fight meals ideal for barkadas! The colorful jeeps are decorated with symbols of Pinoy pop culture, making it a fun and quirky dining destination for balikbayans, first-timers and barkadas looking for something new and distinctly “Pinoy.”
- Gerry’s Jeepney Kapitolyo. 73 East Capitol Dr, Pasig, Metro Manila
- Gerry’s Jeepney Maginhawa. 7 Maginhawa, Quezon City
3. Sample Pinoy Street Food
Philippine street food is a wide variety of inexpensive cuisine that you can buy from vendors or peddlers on the streets. Popular Pinoy street food includes fish balls, kwek-kwek, kikiam, adidas, taho, and the infamous balut. One resto that specializes in straightforward street food is Skinita (slang for alley or small street). Pair your street food with San Miguel beer, the most popular mainstream beer in the Philippines.
- Skinita Street Foodz. D Strip. United Street, Kapitolyo, Pasig, Metro Manila
For a more upscale dining experience where you can get street food platters, try Locavore Kitchen & Drinks, which also serves great Filipino comfort food made fun and creative (like Sizzling Sinigang and Oyster Sisig!)
- Locavore Kapitolyo. 10 Brixton St, Pasig, Metro Manila
- Locavore BGC. Forbes Town Center, Burgos Circle, Taguig, Metro Manila
4. Hunt For Street Art
Street art or public art is a big part of urban culture. Unlike art you find in museums, this kind of media staged in the streets, walkways and buildings makes art more accessible to the public. One of the best places to see big scale public art in Manila is Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig, where international and local artists painted large murals on buildings as part of the Art BGC Festival.
READ MORE: Art in the City: Murals in BGC
- DIY walking tours are FREE. For guided tours, go to the Alveo Showroom on Bonifacio High Street, where walking tours will depart daily at 5:30PM.
- Bambike also offers an Art Tour of BGC on Bamboo Bikes for P1,200/head. Reservations required.
“Ang Bakunawa at Minokawa” by Ang Gerilya on Gen. Luna Street corner Anda Street, Intramuros features Philippine mythological creatures. The Bakunawa is a giant sea serpent that swallows the moon causing an eclipse. The Minokawa is a giant bird from the dragon family that swallows the sun.
Other areas to spot interesting street art made by local graffiti artists in Manila include Intramuros, Marikina, UP Diliman and around the Maginhawa area. You can rent bikes on certain Sundays from UP Bike Share to go around the university campus in Diliman or sign up to be a rider for just Php 20 for a 1 week subscription. (ALBUM: Biking x Street Art)
Carabao street art in Maginhawa Street. Carabaos are native water buffaloes used for farming in agricultural provinces. They’re considered the national animal of the Philippines.
5. Food Crawl Through Binondo
“Wok your way” around Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world, established in 1594. Binondo is a well-known cultural and foodie haven in Manila where you can find over 100 + restos from authentic hole-in-the-wall haunts to upscale family-style buffet Chinese dining.
Old Manila Walks offers guided food tours around Binondo. You can also just go around on a DIY photowalk and food tour. My top 5 recommendations in Binondo are:
- Dong Bei Dumplings (kuchay and pork dumplings, deep-fried scallion cakes, tofu Burger, xiao long bao)
- New Po-Heng Lumpia House (lumpia)
- Sincerity Cafe & Restaurant (fried chicken, oyster cake)
- Cafe Mezzanine (Kiampong, stir-fried tofu, wintermelon tea)
- Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli (take-out goodies, crispy mikiron)
READ MORE: Food Trip: Binondo
6. Climb a Wall
There are some beautiful outdoor rock climbing sites all over the Philippines, including Wawa in Montalban, Atimonan in Quezon and Cantabaco and Poog in Cebu. For those who don’t have time to travel to sites outside Manila but still want a fun indoor workout, you can try out the wall climbing facilities in the metro.
Climb Central Manila offers the largest indoor wall climbing gym in the Philippines. The whole place is air-conditioned, very secure with lots of routes for first-timers & more advanced climbers. Several walls have an auto-belay system, so even solo travelers can try climbing. No prior experience is required!
Climb Central is located in The Portal, Mayflower St., Greenfield District, Highway Hills, Mandaluyong City. Operating hours Weekdays – 1 pm to 10 pm. Weekends/Holidays – 10 am to 10 pm. Adult Day Pass for first-timers costs P600 + 1 free equipment set rental (harness and climbing shoes). For groups of 10 or more, there’s a group check in option.
7. Go Stargazing at the Planetarium
The Planetarium at the National Museum of the Philippines recently reopened on March 24, 2017 with upgraded facilities, a new version of its 1975 analog projector & a new digital system developed by a Japanese company. Visitors can enjoy full-dome shows FREE OF CHARGE for all shows from March 24 to April 30. They are currently offering three shows:
- Hayabusa: Home Sweet Home
- A Planet for Goldilocks
- Journey to a Billion Suns
National Planetarium, Padre Burgos Ave Rizal Park Metro Manila Philippines, Rizal Park Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila, Metro Manila
8. Shop for Vintage Bargains
Bargain hunters and shopaholics might want to check out the various weekend markets, bazaars, thrift stores and antique shops around the city. Popular places for shopping include Quiapo, Divisoria, Greenhills, Bangkal, Tiendesitas, Dapitan Arcade & the Salcedo Weekend Market. For vintage furniture, thrifted clothes, vinyl, secondhand books and more, check out Cubao Expo, a small hub of novelty shops, galleries, restaurants and bars.
9. Hang Out at a Food Park
Food parks are all the rage these days in Manila, with many neighborhoods having their own share of hip, al fresco food joints. Enjoy a variety of budget-friendly eats from different stalls, alcoholic drinks and live music at these chill hangouts.
One of the newest in the Pasig area is The Yard Underground, a complex inspired by the London Underground Train System with over 30 stalls. The Yard Underground Pasig. 207 Christian Route, Hill Crest Circle, Oranbo, Pasig
READ MORE: Food Trip Neighborhood Destinations
10. Drink Local Craft beer
The craft beer culture is booming in the Philippines, with lots of small microbreweries around the country producing small batches of craft beer. Many of these use local ingredients specific to different provinces like Sagada black mountain rice (Cerveza Sagada) & Palawan honey (Palaweno Brewery) or feature beer labels with interesting trivia about Philippine culture and destinations (Crazy Carabao).
You can sample some of the best local craft beer & fresh microbrewed beer on tap at BeerHouse in Kapitolyo, Pasig. BeerHouse Kapitolyo. 7 Brixton St, Pasig, 1603 Metro Manila. Drink local!
READ MORE: Craft Beers in the Philippines
WHERE TO STAY IN MANILA: Red Planet Hotels
For travelers looking for a clean and centrally located value hotel, check in to Red Planet Hotels. They currently have 10 hotels in the Philippines, all located in strategic city center locations, close to public transport. Rooms are well-maintained and clean while prices are very competitive especially for their locations. The free high-speed wifi is a bonus for those who need to stay connected.
I was based in Red Planet Ortigas along Shaw Boulevard (walking distance from the Shaw MRT) but they also have other properties in Manila including Amorsolo, Aseana City, Ermita, Makati and Quezon City. You can also find them in Angeles (Pampanga), Cagayan de Oro, Cebu City and Davao City. Properties in development include Binondo, Cubao, Manila Bay, NAIA, North Avenue and Quezon Avenue (all in Manila).
Aside from the Philippines, they also operate hotels in the Indonesia, Thailand, and Japan and plan to continue their expansion across Asia.