Surviving Manila: How to explore the crazy capital of The Philippines

We’ve travelled all around the world, to some of the planets largest and busiest cities, but nothing quite prepares you for Manila. The capital of The Philippines is chaotic, overwhelming, intimidating and bigger than you can comprehend. Crossing the city takes hours, the traffic is exhausting, the poverty of the local people is so plain to see. And yet there is something deeply fascinating about it, its so real and so raw. Exploring this city takes a little bit of work, but it rewards you with a look into the side of the Philippines many choose to overlook. With its stunning centuries old cathedrals and ancient city walls, bustling markets and unique transport system, Manila is worth a second look rather than just being a pit stop for those beach paradises! Here our Things to do in Manila guide!

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Transport:

Navigating Manila isn’t the easiest, there is very little in the way of truly organised public transport and using what is available is confusing at best!

The best way to get around is to use GRAB or UBER and make sure you have a local sim with some data. These online taxi services are popular in Manila and always offer competitive prices. If you are going some distance across the city then you really can’t beat them. Bear in mind if you need to get somewhere for a certain time then do set off in good time, Manila traffic is crazy at any time of the day! Try to avoid the taxi’s as they will most certainly overcharge you!

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However if you are up for some adventure and fun then taking a ride on one of the unique vehicles to the Philippines: The Jeepney is a truly authentic experince. These loud and brashly decorated diesel chugging surrogate buses are made from parts of American jeeps left after the war and are only seen over here! They are a little confusing to use so take a short trip and ask a local to help you get on the right one! They are crowded and don’t allow much space, but are a fast and cheap way to get around!

If anything, taking a Jeepney ride should be on your things to do in Manila list as it is such a local Manila thing to do!

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Another option for shorter journeys is to take one of the tricycles, The Filipino answer to a tuk tuk or rickshaw. These are essentially a motorbike with a sidecar built around the entire thing. They might not be the most comfortable or indeed safe ride but they can weave through the traffic and are a popular alternative to taxis for the locals. Again, some could argue for adding it to the things to do in Manila list itself!

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Safety:

Manila is a poverty stricken city with many people living in self built shanty towns and squatting in empty lots. Across South East Asia poverty is of course a huge issue, but we have often found that the poorer the community the more they are open and friendly. However in Manila some extra caution must be exercised as muggings and gun crime are issues in some areas of the city. However we never at any point felt in danger and we explored many places on foot. But do be cautious of showing off your belongings, wandering into bad neighbourhoods and also at night.

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If you are worried about safety in the Philippines then one option to consider is one of the Best vacation packages in Philippines which will help you make the most of your time on these amazing islands!

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Which area to base yourself in:

Manila is a huge city that is actually many cities in one. Those once small cities on the outskirts of the city have merged together to create the mammoth Metro Manila area we find today. So often when you visit the city you might actually find yourself technically staying in another city!

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Most foreign visitors head for the more developed and modern area of Makati. Here you will find great hostels such as Z Hostel where we stayed that offer great views over the city, comfortable rooms as access to a wide range of bars and restaurants within walking distance. Makati feels very different to other areas of Manila and around here it is quite usual to see many other tourists whereas often when exploring the wider city you come across very few. There are plenty of places to eat and drink, nearby malls and a thriving nightlife. On our things to do in Manila list there might not be all that much to do in Makati but its a cool place to stay!

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Things to do in Manila: 

Take in the skyline

Being a huge city made up of a mixture of modern skyscrappers, rundown shanty towns and ancient colonial architecture Manila has one of the most interesting skylines. From the vantage point of the rooftop bar at Z Hostel over in Makati you can take in this impressive city from above from several jaw dropping angles! In actual fact the skyline has to be one of my favourites and high on our things to do in Manila list!

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Visit the ancient walled city of intramuros:

When visiting Manila you can’t help but notice the Spanish names, street signs and city names. Even the country itself was named after King Philip of Spain. Despite the language fading in favour of the English the Americans brought over as well as many other elements of culture the Spanish influence is still very clear to see. One of the most impressive and historic areas of Manila is the ancient walled city and citadel of Intramuros built in 1571. Here the architecture is very much like wandering around a crumbling old Spanish town, you might be forgiven for forgetting what continent you are on! It’s beautiful streets take you back in time to the Manila of old. This must be your number one on your things to do in Manila list!

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Explore the bustling markets

Rather than avoid the chaos of Manila dive right in and embrace it! Heading to one of the many markets around the city is a sure fire way to be dropped right off from the fire into the frying pan. Here both inside and outside markets are a hive of activities, noise, smells, colour and life. You can’t help but be swept away with the energy!

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Visit the centuries old churches and cathedrals

Manila was once the heartland of the Spanish conquest of The Philippines, bringing with them their Catholic religion which is still a major part of life here. The Filipinos are devout and even spending a short amount of time here you can’t fail to notice the crosses hanging around peoples necks, the nuns walking through town and almost every vehicle decorated with the images of Jesus! After visiting many other countries in the region visiting the Churches was high on our things to do in Manila list as it makes the country stand out so much culturally!

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Despite many of the ancient colonial architecture suffering heavy damage during the war many of the churches remain. Some of the highlights include the impressive Manila Cathedral, which was founded in 1571 as has been visited by several Popes over the years. Others include the San Agustin Church, Quiapo Church, San Sebastian Church and Binondo Church.

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Wander through the impressive Rizal Park

This historic park in the centre of the city is an important national monument for the country and is one of the largest urban parks in Asia…as well as being home to the biggest Filipino flag you are ever likely to see! Not only is the park an oasis of greenery within this urban jungle but it is one of the most important historical sites in the country. Named after the national hero Jose Rizal whose execution on the 30th of December 1896 provoked the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain. The monument here contains his enshrined remains and is the centre focal point of the park. Here also occurred the declaration of Philippine independence from the United States on 4th July 1946 as well as many other political rallies and protests over the years.

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Take in the local way of life

Despite being a huge and overwhelming city Manila retains its authenticity and local feel. Whereas other large capital cities have been overtaken by gentrification and unscrupulous modernisation, Manila retains a unique characteristic. Explore any of the network of streets here and you are sure to see a basketball game going on, visit local restaurants and you will be sure to strike up a conversation with some intrigued people. Manila has so much life to offer those willing to explore a little deeper!

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See more from this country:

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.
  • Hi Nic,

    Love that Jeepney! I knew this country was fun, fascinating and a bit different, and thus verified when we laid over at the airport in Manila last May. Cash only at the airport. I thought it was a joke but on arriving, yep, cash only. Yep, this nation is emerging. Hectic place the city is but the beaches look stunning. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Ryan

    • Yeah they are so cool aren’t they. Philippines was a shock to us to be honest, both in good and bad ways!