I’ll start off by saying Manila is not for the faint hearted – it is crazy, cluttered, dirty, congested and a constantly evolving city. These are the things that make Manila, Manila. You need to accept it for what it is, adapt and enjoy it. What else would you expect from the largest city of a developing nation? Travellers tend to skip Manila and head straight to the beaches (see my guides on – Boracay, El Nido, Cebu) but I assure you, this place is one not to be missed.
I want to make this as least biased as possible (being part Filipino myself and fluent in the language) but that’s going to be tough because I absolutely love this city. I’ve spent my entire life going back and forth between Manila, Melbourne, & Mum’s home island -Samar, to put it simply – its home. My family and some of my closest friends reside here, in which I have created an abundance of amazing memories in this metropolis. Clearly, my experiences of Manila are going to be totally different to yours but I want to share my love for this city with you in the hopes that you’ll come to love it too, hence this guide.
Disclaimer – I’d like to apologise now for the mass information (that’ll be of great use to you) I’ve provided on Manila. My other guides wont be as intense, its just that I know Manila like I know my current home city of Melbourne and am so passionate about the culture of the Philippines.
BACKGROUND ON CITY
Manila, the bustling capital city of The Philippines is one of the most densely populated cities on the planet; the fourth most populated to be exact. It may seem like your typical congested tropical city – compared to the likes of KL, Bangkok and Jakarta but it has a charm like no other. This city is heavily influenced by Spanish, American and the Asian culture making it one exotic capital to explore, especially for food! It has been divided and conquered by many, first the Spaniards in the 1500s, the Japanese during WWII and the Brits & Americans in between, to which the country would finally gain independence from the USA in 1945.
Today Manila is rapidly excelling to become an Asian super power, through the rising Philippine economy and keen interest from foreign investors, its cityscape is constantly changing. The recent boom of the “hipster” culture has also uniquely impacted this urban jungle – You’ll find an aspiring streetwear scene, diversified art exhibits, edgy nightlife offerings and a heaven for avid foodies.
The people who call this city home are likely to be the most hospitable people you will ever come across; this is something the Filipino’s are extremely proud of and it’ll guarantee you a unique Asian experience.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU SPEND HERE & WHEN TO GO?
Late November-March is very comfortable weather wise. It is said that Filipinos celebrate Christmas longer than any other nationality so beware of the crowds and chaos that overcomes this city in December, but boy is Christmas here fun!
April-June are the summer months and perfect for beach getaways, it gets almost unbearably hot in Manila during this period of the year so make use of the pumping A/C in one of the cities many mega-malls.
WHERE TO STAY?
Manila is a mega city, there are 18 cities within what is called Metro Manila, you want to stay in the following 3;
Makati – The hive of all things food, shopping, nightlife, hotels and business. This is where Manila comes to life.
Bonifacio Global City (Taguig) – A newly developed city rapidly growing to succeed Makati in being the countries new CBD. Personally, the atmosphere isn’t true to what Manila is – BGC is very Singapore. Extremely clean and Western friendly on the other hand.
Bay City (Pasay/Paranaque) – The Philippines’ answer to Macau. Casinos, casinos, casinos. James Packer (Crown) and Mr Nobu (Nobu Hotel) himself have set up shop here.
Is it safe? Yes and no. Like any major city there are areas you should avoid, at the end of the day, just be street smart – don’t put your valuables in your back pocket, don’t stumble around the streets drunk late at night and most importantly respect the locals. I’ve been to Manila countless times and not once have I felt unsafe or been robbed.
New World Makati
My personal favourite (doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I get discounted rooms…) – this 5 Star hotel oozes nothing but class and fine Filipino hospitality, perfectly located opposite the countries most exclusive Mall, Greenbelt, you’ll be sure to have an expensively great time in Manila.
Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila
A: CCP Complex Roxas Blvd Brgy. 76, Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines
P: (+63 2) 551 5555
The creme de la creme of 5 Star hotels in Manila, this property will entice all your senses, the nationally acclaimed spa and lagoon says enough about this resort like hotel amongst a concrete jungle.
Traveler’s cannot get enough of this plush 5 Star Hotel in Makati’s CBD, the Trip Advisor reviews say it all. All its comforts and amenities are sharply created to make you feel well at home amongst the big smoke of Manila.
Be sure to say “hello” to my best friend Jaj – Manager.
The Picasso Boutique Serviced Residences
A:119 L.P. Leviste St, Salcedo Village, Makati City, Philippines
P: (+63 2) 828.4774
Design conscious? This ones for you. Located in the charismatic neighbourhood of Salcedo Village this unique accommodation offering will be a sight for the sore eye.
A: 5660 Don Pedro Street, Makati City, Philippines
P: (+63 2) 856 0851 | (+63) 917 889 8531
The first and largest luxury hostel in Metro Manila conveniently located in Makati. Fully equipped with a cafe that specialises in local cuisine and a renowned rooftop bar frequented by locals.
Bahay Kubo Hostel
A: 1717 Maria Orosa Street, Malate, Manila, Philippines
P: (+63 2) 243-75-37
Want a more traditionally unique approach? Look no further. Furnished and decorated with classic Filipino flair this property is HostelWorld’s #1 rated hostel in Manila. Be weary of its location as it is smack bang in the middle of Manila’s former red light district.
Book your next Airbnb here with discount (new users only) – www.airbnb.com.au/c/lsmart55
Look for apartments/properties in the following neighbourhoods;
Makati – Ayala Centre, Salcedo Village & Rockwell (personal favourite)
Taguig – Bonifacio Global City
WHAT TO DO?
A: Intramuros, Manila, Metro Manila.
This beautiful walled (former) city that translates to “within the walls” in Spanish is located within Manila itself, it is the oldest district in the city and is also regarded as the city’s historic core. Intramuros was the seat of government during the Spanish Empire in the 1500’s and was also captured by the Japanese during WWII. This is THE place to get your history fix in Manila and is also one of my favourite places to get lost in.
- Lose yourself through its Spanish influenced streets.
- Walk its walls.
- Hire a Kalesa (“horse chariot” in English) to experience how the locals did it all those years ago. P300 for 30mins is a good price – animal cruelty though…
- Visit Fort Santiago (A:Santa Clara St, Manila) a Museum dedicated to the national hero of the Philippines Jose Rizal and the district’s historic past.
- Pay a professional tour guide to inform you of the amazing history of the Philippines. You’ll find them lurking around the main entry points and at Fort Santiago.
- Have a coffee and dessert break at Ilustrado(A:744 General Luna St, Manila) a converted colonial-style villa. Their buttery ensymada is not to be missed.
- Marvel at the San AugustinChurch’s incredible ceiling (A:General Luna St, Manila)
http://www.smokeytours.com/slum-tour – direct link to book your tour.
Volunteer your time, open your eyes and be guided through one of the biggest slums in Manila – “Smokey Mountain“. This is a life changing experience and really allows you to witness the untold stories of Manila’s underprivileged. This company educates, empowers and trains local people from impoverished backgrounds to run the tours, it is totally safe and 100% of the proceeds are donated to CREST, a local NGO that assists local communities in need throughout the country.
To get a deeper understanding of what to expect, read this blog entry by Just One Way Ticket – http://www.justonewayticket.com/2014/05/11/smokey-mountain-a-walk-through-the-slums-of-manila-philippines/
WHERE TO EAT?
Word of advice – for the BEST Filipino dining experience, try and schmooze your way into a local’s house, this is where all the magic happens.
A: The Forum, Federacion, BGC, Taguig, Metro Manila
P: (+63 2) 866 0912
Filipino food that is true, simple, tasty and never fails to hit the spot time. Given the seal of approval by local Filipinos, you know you’ll be doing the cuisine right. Must try – the artery clogging crispy pata, the unofficial national dish adobo and sisig (crispy pig ears, sooo good). These dishes may not sound appealing but take my word on it, or ask the waiter…
A: G/F Greenbelt 5, Ayala Centre, Makati City, Metro Manila | 263 Tomas Morato Ave, Quezon City, Metro Manila.
It is said that there is no better Filipino food than your own mothers (providing you have a Filipina mum) but here at Mesa they come pretty damn close. Their Kare-Kare is one of my all time favourites, be sure to ask for bagoong (ba-go-ong) on the side.
A: Seaside Macapagal, Libertad, Pasay City, Metro Manila
Seafood heaven! A personal favourite, Dampa is somewhat a market where you can personally select your seafood fresh out of the sea and have it cooked your way by any of the restaurants that scale its lane-ways. My suggestions; fresh prawn or crab in garlic chili butter, seafood sinigang and grilled fish with calamansi and soy sauce to taste.
A: 25th St & 7th Ave (in front of The Forum) Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila.
Open till 3am on Friday & Saturday nights this popular night market houses every Pinoy dish under the sun. Be sure to try – leche flan, taro cake, BBQ pork sticks, isaw and the famous halo-halo. Tip for the food conscious – ask for your meal cooked fresh.
A: 25th street, RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, BGC, Taguig, Metro Manila
P: (+63 2) 801 2770
“Global cuisine with Japanese inflections whilst paying respect to the ingredients” are the food values this unique restaurant has on offer for its patrons. For an experience – skip the a la carte menu and book a seat at the chef’s table (reservations are essential).
President Grand Palace
A: 746-750 Ongpin Street, Binondo, Manila, Metro Manila
P: (+63 2) 244 5886
I find myself coming back here without fail each time I visit Manila, overrun by local Chinese/Filipino families (so you know its going to be great) – this authentic Chinese restaurant is a foodies dream! Dishing out your Chinese favourites, frog legs, pigeon, lobster and everything in between you’ll be sure to roll out of this institution.
A: Joya Tower, 28 Plaza Drive, Rockwell Center, Makati, Metro Manila
P: (+63 2) 823 6468
For the best Spanish food in the city, head here. This Catalonian influenced restaurant would have Dali & Gaudi salivating.
A: 2277 Chino Roces Ave, Pasong Tamo Corner Amorsolo Street, Legazpi Village, Makati, Metro Manila.
Whether you’re craving that quality sashimi grade tuna fix or okonomiyaki drenched in sauce, Little Tokyo is your answer. This hidden gem located in Makati’s CBD is home to 14 quaint establishments all run by their respective owners and devoted to giving its customers the finest Japanese meals & hospitality.
A: 6752 Ayala Avenue corner Makati Avenue, Makati City, Philippines
P: (+63 2) 750 1555
Highly regarded as one of the best fine dining experiences in this city, Sala aims to dish out nothing but the best to it’s diners. Specializing in Modern European cuisine, this restaurant is perfect for a fancy night out with close friends or a treat to that special someone. Reservations are recommended.
Salcedo Saturday Community Market
A: Jamie C, Velsaquez Park, Makati City, Metro Manila
Hours: Every Saturday from 7am-2pm
What better way to start your Saturday morning (fresh or hung) than an awesome community market? Originally created to allow residents of Salcedo Village to get to know each other, it is now a popular spot for all Filipinos to enjoy organic, quality food and conversation.
The Wholesome Table
A: 30th St. Corner 7th Ave, Bonifacio High Street Central, Taguig, Metro Manila | GF Infinity Tower, H.V. Dela Costa corner Leviste St, Salcedo Village, Makati, Metro Manila
Organic, honest, healthy, tasty, wholesome food. This cafe is the first of its kind to hit Manila and man is it good! A personal favourite. Be sure to get around their amazing juices.
Harlan + Holden
A: The Glass House beside Power Plant Mall, Rockwell, Makati, Metro Manila
Need to aesthetically please your eyes and feed that mouth at the same time? This brand new hot-spot will accomplish just that.
Wildflour Cafe & Bakery
A: Ground floor, Net Lima building, 26th St, BGC, Taguig, Metro Manila | L.P. Leviste Street, Makati, Metro Manila
For fine coffee and pastries on the run.
Dean & Deluca
A: Ground Floor Edades Tower, Rockwell Center, 18 Amorsolo Dr, Makati
A trip to Manila is never complete without an incredible brunch at Dean & Deluca, this upmarket cafe located in Rockwell, Makati is one of my all time favourites. I recommend ordering the chia bowl, the loaded croissant with egg, cheese and ham and for a drink sink your mouth into Silicon Valley’s favourite, the Bulletproof Coffee.
Late Night Cravings
A: Ground Floor, Crossroads Building, 32nd Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Metro Manila
My absolute favourite place for a 4am feed after a big night out. You name it, I’ve drunkenly done it here. From dancing on their tables to “Super Bass” to singing along with the waiters. You MUST order “Tapa De Morning” a Filipino favourite, thank me later.
A: Black Market, La Fuerza, Makati City, Metro Manila
Hours: Tue-Sat 11am untill 2am
Sizzling inside a converted shipping container, this little number is owned and run by a lovely Mexican woman who whips up some mean tacos.
WHERE TO DRINK?
A: Ground Floor, RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center, 26th and 25th Street, Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Metro Manila
T: (+63) 917 857 0852
Walk into the 7/11, look for a doorman standing next to a bunch of random grocery items and there you are. This up-market speakeasy whips up some of the best concoctions in Manila, ensure to make a reservation and dress well.
Finders Keepers MNL
A: Warehouse 5, La Fuerza Plaza, Chino Roces Avenue Corner Sabio Street, San Lorenzo, Makati City, Metro Manila
Keep your eyes peeled for a rusty walled entrance, this popular warehouse-esque bar frequented by hip locals pumps on a Wed/Fri/Sat night playing raver friendly tunes. Pop in every other night for a craft cocktail and slightly more alternative bangers.
A: 38th St. Uptown, 11th Ave, Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines
Another personal favourite and a bar I frequent, Yes Please would have to be one of the best dive bars I have come across globally. Incredible food, great service (kudos Byron – Manager) and even better tunes. Be sure to check it out!
En Route Distillery
A: Tomas Morato, Sacred Heart, Quezon City
A VERY local hot spot in Quezon City, you wont find any Westerners here (except for when I’m sinking San Miguel beers here with my cousins). This lively bar is a great place to meet young locals who speak broken English…
12 Monkeys Music Hall & Pub
A: Century City Mall, Kalayaan Ave, Makati City, Metro Manila
With live music and the occasional open mic session, you’ll wind up with no voice, a heavy hang over and reak of cigarettes. But hey! These are the nights we won’t forget.
WHERE TO DANCE?
I’m an avid night goer so word of advice – be sure to do some FB research on the following discotheques to ensure the club night/event is right for you. We all have different nightlife tastes and there is nothing worse than rolling into a club with music you hate.
A: Black Market, La Fuerza, Makati City, Metro Manila
P: (+63) 917 829 4162 | (+63 2) 403 5019
The dopest club in town – Discover the best Hip Hop/RnB/Tech/live acts here on the weekly (Wednesday nights are the go). The likes of Mos Def & Shiba San have tore this place apart. Its masses that flock here are amongst Manilas freshest.
One of the most luxurious clubs in the Metro, Revel oozes nothing but class to boot. Its the place to be and be seen, if you want to be a wanker for the night that is.
A: 7274 Malugay St, San Antonio Village, Makati City, Metro Manila
THE place to be on a Sunday if you’re into Dance Hall/Reggae, drop it low, work your quads and get ready to sweat. B-SIDE is like nothing else in Manila, you’ll bump into some of the coolest cats in town here and is one of my top picks. Tip – dress as if you would to a hip hop dance class.
The Palace Pool Club
Vegas vibes baby! Two massive pools + summer tunes + vodka by the bottle = the perfect spot for a boozy Sunday session. Hire a cabana and private dressing room with your squad for the ultimate experience.
XX XX (20/20)
Soothing the ears of Deep House/Techno fans Wednesday-Saturday XX XX is home to the best house music in the Philippines.
A: Central Bus. Dist. Makati City, 7840 Makati Ave, Makati, Metro Manila
If you’ve ever been to Berghain in Berlin or Revolver in Melbourne, Time is a mini version of the two. Banging techno and slightly odd crowd – roll in at 6am for a very good time.
WHERE TO SHOP?
A: SM Aura Premier, McKinley Pkwy, Taguig, Metro Manila
Curated lifestyle apparel for those with great taste.
A: Ground Floor, East Tower One Rockwell, Makati City, Metro Manila
The Philippines’ answer to Dover Street Market – Stocking brands such as Comme Des Garcon, Y3 & Jill Sanders to name a few.
A: 2nd Floor Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati
Think Net-A-Porter/Mr Porter in a physical store. Don’t forget to claim your tax back on that Givenchy bag or Saint Laurent tux purchase.
Felipe and Sons
A: Mezzanine A, LPL Mansions San Agustin St., Salcedo, Salcedo Village, Makati, Metro Manila
A mans heaven and a personal favourite – A place to wind down, relax, be groomed and tailored (yep, you can get a bespoke suit made here too) while sipping scotch all inside this “barberdashery”.
A:9639 Kamagong St, Makati, Metro Manila
Great coffee and hard to find labels all under one roof. This store is all about defining beach culture.
A: Ayala Center, San Lorenzo, Makati, Philippines
The pride and joy of the Philippine mall-scene. Relax in the centres large oasis garden circled by local/international alfresco dining options, window shop your way through high end luxury flagships or simply abuse Starbucks as a meeting point.
Power Plant Mall
A: 28 Plaza Dr, Makati, Metro Manila
Personal favourite mall to shop at, this centre houses the largest Zara store in the country and is also home to some great European labels. If you’re oddly obsessed with gourmet supermarkets like I am be sure to check out Rustan’s Fresh for a bag of crispy kale chips and coconut water.
A: McKinley Pkwy, Taguig, Metro Manila
One of the newest malls in town, this easy to navigate complex will leave your wallet empty. Its never busy here so enjoy not snaking your way through the crowds.
A: Corner. Ayala Avenue, Courtyard Dr, Makati, Metro Manila
The Harrods (not quite but close enough) of Manila.
A: 7274 Malugay St, San Antonio Village, Makati City, Metro Manila
If you’re longing for a co-op that appreciates modern art, underground music, up-coming designers, street eats and intellectual conversation you’ve come to the right place. (B-SIDE is located here)
A: 3 General Romulo Avenue, Cubao, Quezon City, 1109 Metro Manila
After unique finds? This hipster swap-meet like complex is your answer. Find local street wear labels and awesome exhibits in its gallery spaces.
A: Claro M. Recto Avenue, Divisoria, Manila
This bazaar institution sells everything from A to Z. If you aren’t up for spending too much on souvenirs for your colleagues, head here, you’ll thank me later. Cheap as chips. Beware of pick pockets, and don’t flash your peso bills around.
A long time favourite for locals wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city life, Tagaytay offers fresh alpine air, amazing crater & volcanic views, unique dining experiences and is an all round great day out.
- Treat yourself and dine at the beautiful Antonio’s Restaurant
- A cheaper alternative to Antonio’s, check out their sister Restaurant Balay Dako
- Have dessert at Sonya’s or Bag of Beans
- Check out the view sipping on your matcha latte at Starbucks Tagaytay (A: Purok 162 Tagaytay – Calamba Rd, Tagaytay, Cavite, Philippines)
- Stroll up the picturesque Caleruega Estate to its colossal church at the peak
- Pop in to Amira’s Buco Tart Haus for some traditional Philippine sweets
- Have dinner at one of Tagaytay’s many bulalo (delectable beef soup served with rice and vegetables) houses at the Mahogany Market (A: Mahogany Ave, Tagaytay, Cavite, Philippines).
Tip – Try visit on a weekday when all the Mon-Fri workers are slaving away and arrange a hire car or driver.
Strap yourself in for an incredible journey to one of the countries most active volcanos which last erupted in 1991, being the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. Fun fact, my mother together with the US military had to evacuate the area during its eruption.
I suggest a guided tour through this naturally changing landscape, enjoy a two hour hike to the amazing crater lake, stand in awe of its beauty, go 4×4 driving and try some local delicacies. Book here – http://www.trekkingpinatubo.com/
HOW TO GET AROUND?
UBER. UBER. UBER. or GRAB CAR. Grab a nice discount on your first Uber trip using this code – uberlindsaysmart
I’d consider myself a Manila local and have no issues using their horrid public transport system (I actually hate it but I can deal) although at the end of the day, there is nothing more comfortable than being privately driven around with the A/C blasting your face.
However, you never really went to the Philippines if you didn’t hop on a jeepney. Might be best to find a local to show you how to use these colourful modes of transport.
- If you feel like you’re in a sketchy area, place your valuables in your front pockets. Simple.
- Don’t flash your cash around.
- Tip your waiter/bar tender/driver 10%.
- The Philippines is a very religious (predominately Catholic) country, refrain from vulgar language and keep off the topic of religion if you’re opposed to it.
- When visiting not so Western friendly spots (like markets) bring toilet paper with you. I’ve warned you.
- Regular cabs WILL over charge tourists, use Uber to save yourself the hassle.
- Beware of lady boys, they can be very deceiving. Or don’t beware, if thats what you’re into…
- Buy a local sim card, their cheap and will most definitely come in handy. Globe and Smart are the most reliable networks.
- Use the language when you can (see next sub-heading).
- Shop till you drop.
- Eat till you vomit.
Filipinos get a kick out of tourists using the language so do so when you can. Luckily enough for non-tagalog speakers, English is an official language of the Philippines.
If you speak Spanish you may be able to pick up on some Tagalog as majority of the dialect is derived from the Spanish language. More of my wise advise – Aussies & Brits, roll your “R’s” it’ll make communicating with locals a whole lot easier. You should hear my fake Filipino accent, its cringe worthy but needed.
Hello – Kamusta (Ka-mu-sta)
Thank you – Salamat (Sa-la-mat)
Sorry – Pasensya (pa-sen-sya)
Delicious – Masarap (ma-sa-rap)
I love you – Mahal kita (ma-hal kita)
How much is this? – Magkano ito? (Mag-ka-ano e-to)
Take care – Ingat (ing-at)
Me – Ako (a-koh)
You – Ikaw (e-kaw)
Don’t worry – Bahala na (ba-hala na)
UBER or GRAB CAR.
Stay clear of regular cabs and private cars offered to you at the Airport (they are over priced). If your hotel can organise a transfer go for it.
Oh yeah… Manila Airport is probably the worst major airport you will ever come across. Period.