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. It’s often seen as gritty and chaotic, especially if you visit the areas of Quiapo and Divisoria.
I often take the tourist sights in Manila for granted because I live here. 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?
NOTE: Given the traffic in the metro, I’ve edited this list from my previous version highlighting the things to do in the Old Manila / Pasay area which are geographically near the airport and some areas in Makati, Taguig & Pasig area, which you can reach by MRT. I’ve also tried to zero in on the unique and fun activities that are distinctly Filipino or representative of the local culture in Manila.
1. Explore 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 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.
Foreign tourists 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. For inquiries, contact Bambike Intramuros. Plaza San Luis Complex, Real St. cor. General Luna St. Intramuros, Manila. Open 9 am to 6 pm. Contact: 5258289. http://bambike.com/
Be sure to stop by the San Agustin Church of Manila, one of four Philippine churches constructed during the Spanish colonial period designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, under the collective title Baroque Churches of the Philippines. It was named a National Historical Landmark by the Philippine government in 1976.
2. Go around Quiapo
Quiapo is referred to as the “Old Downtown of Manila.” It’s home to the Quiapo Church, where the feast of the Black Nazarene is held with millions of people attending annually. Quiapo has also made a name for itself as a place for marketplace for bargain hunting. It can get pretty crowded around Quiapo though, which might be a culture shock for foreign tourists.
For a touch of local culture, you can get your fortune told from traditional fortune-tellers right outside the church. You can also find vendors selling anting-antings (or amulets) which are believed to fight evil spirits. The charms are believed to bring luck to individuals’ lives, from curing all sorts of illnesses to adding financial blessings.
3. Get around by Local Transport
Originally made from U.S. military jeeps left over from World War II, jeepneys or jeeps have become a symbol of Pinoy art and culture. These days, they’re the most popular public utility vehicle, dubbed the “kings of the road.” They’re well-known for their crowded seating and kitsch decorations, usually with colorful airbrush paintings decorating the exteriors. Jeepneys are used everywhere in the Philippines, both in the city and in rural areas.
For a more unique experience aboard a jeepney, check out Jeepney Tours which offers daily city tours aboard an air-conditioned jeepn with a videoke inside (so you can sing your way through traffic). Meanwhile, Gerry’s Jeepney (which has branches in Maginhawa and Pasig) is a jeepney-themed restaurant where diners sit in the iconic jeepney-style booths 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.”
4. Dine like a local
The most famous traditional Filipino dishes that first-timers should try are Adobo (usually chicken or pork cooked in soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic), Sinigang (Filipino soup or stew seasoned with tamarind), Sisig (grilled pork face, ears, brains, snout, cheeks, and chicken liver etc.) and Kare-Kare (Oxtail stew).
Sampaguita (Jasminum sambac) is the national flower of the Philippines. It’s a very sweet smelling tropical flower which vendors usually sell in garlands or necklaces to serve as air fresheners for cars or to hang in religious statues. If you’re in the Intramuros/Manila area, you can pass by Ilustrado restaurant to try their unique version of Sampaguita Ice Cream.
One of the most unique traditional Pinoy dining experiences is the boodle-fight, the military practice of kamayan or eating with your bare hands. Food is usually placed family style on top of a long banana leaf-lined table diners do not sit in chairs, and people stand shoulder to shoulder in a line on both sides of the table in order to attack the food. This type of food serving is usually done for picnic beach settings, fiestas, and special celebrations. Some Filipino restaurants offer this kind of meal.
Seaside Dampa, where you can pick out fresh seafood from a market stall and have them cook it for you are also popular with tourists looking for a different kind of dining experience. The Seaside Dampa in Macapagal is a good option for those based in hotels in the Manila area.
Food parks are all the rage these days in Manila, with many neighborhoods having their own share of hip, al fresco food joints. They’re kind of like hawker centers for the younger crowd where you can enjoy a variety of budget-friendly eats from different stalls, alcoholic drinks and live music.
5. Sample Filipino Street Food
Aside from traditional dishes, another great way to experience Manila is through its street food, a wide variety of inexpensive cuisine that you can buy from vendors or peddlers on the streets. The most popular Pinoy street food includes fish balls, kwek-kwek, kikiam, adidas, taho, sorbetes (ice cream), and the infamous balut (duck embryo).
For foreigners who want a taste of “clean” Filipino street food, check out the Manila Hotel’s offering at Bar Bites, which gives five-star treatment to humble street food served with various sawsawsan (dips). Unique offerings include Deep fried halo-halo (wrapping the typical halo-halo filling in lumpia wrapper like turon), homemade fish balls, specialty ice scramble, and The Manila Hotel daiquiri, which uses the hotel’s own brand of premium lambanog.
Halo-halo is one of the most popular Filipino desserts with mixtures of shaved ice and evaporated milk added various ingredients, including boiled sweet beans, coconut, sago, gulaman (agar jelly), tubers and fruits.
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 has branches in Kapitolyo. 10 Brixton St, Pasig, Metro Manila and BGC. Forbes Town Center, Burgos Circle, Taguig, Metro Manila.
6. 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 around BGC 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.
You can also spot lots of interesting street art made by local graffiti artists in Manila around the Intramuros area.
7. 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
8. Visit museums
If you’re into history and culture, there are a lot of museums around Manila that you can visit including The National Museum, Casa Manila, San Agustin Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Bahay Tsinoy, Ayala Museum, Yuchengco Museum and Bahay Tsinoy. One of the newest ones in Manila is the National Museum of Natural History in Rizal Park, which offers a compelling and comprehensive view of the country’s rich biodiversity. This is hosted inside the building formerly occupied by the Department of Tourism within Rizal Park near the Agrifina Circle.
The Tree of Life, the centerpiece at the @natmuseumph of Natural History courtyard. A structure inspired the double helix DNA representing the flora and fauna of our country. More photos and preview of the museum from my latest post at #ironwulfenroute (link from the bio) #nationalmuseumofnaturalhistory #travel #manila #architecture #museum #design #interiors #nmnh
The Planetarium at the National Museum of the Philippines reopened last March 2017 with upgraded facilities, a new version of its 1975 analog projector & a new digital system developed by a Japanese company. They offer three shows: Hayabusa: Home Sweet Home, A Planet for Goldilocks & Journey to a Billion Suns.
9. Go bargain-hunting
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 Escolta Weekend Marke or secondhand thrift shops called Ukay-ukay (where you literally have to dig through piles of clothes) are popular around Manila.
If you’re really into shopping, you can visit the SM Mall of Asia or MOA, a shopping complex in the Bay City, Pasay area. This is currently the 4th largest shopping mall in the Philippines and 11th in the world. At the back of MOA, you can find the MOA Eye, a 55 meter (180 feet) tall ferris wheel that offers a 360 degree view of the SM Mall of Asia and surrounding areas of Pasay City.
10. Sample the local beer / Nightlife in Poblacion
The most popular mainstream / commercial beers in the Philippines, available in most restaurants and bars everywhere include San Miguel Pale Pilsen, San Miguel Light and Red Horse. You can find these almost anywhere in the country. They’re often paired with pulutan (bar chow) favorites like sisig, crispy pata, chicharon or chicken skin.
But aside from the commercial beers, 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).
READ MORE: Craft Beers in the Philippines
There are many places in the metro where you can enjoy a fresh pint of local handcrafted beer including: The Bottle Shop by Global Beer Exchange in Fort and Magallanes (widest selection of international and local craft beers), The Perfect Pint, Joe’s Brew, The Brewery at the Palace, Spektral Beer Lounge in Makati and Beerhouse in Pasig, to name a few.
READ MORE: 6 Craft Beer Spots in Manila
For those who want something distinctly Filipino with a modern flair, Alamat Filipino Pub + Deli in Poblacion specializes in reinvented Pinoy street food paired with local craft beer and Pinoy cocktails. The bar, which is decorated with a artistic mural featuring creatures from Philippine folklore and mythology, serves traditional Filipino food like Kare-Kare and Tokwa’t Baboy in skewers and a wide range of artisanal sausages including sisig, bopis, dinuguan and adobo and salted egg sausages.