If you are reading this blog, you might be heading to the Philippines and wondering, is Manila worth visiting? I have been to Manila and several other cities in The Philippines including Iloilo, Balolod and Puerta Princesa, so I feel well placed to answer your questions on this. Most people fly into Manila if they are taking and international flight, and then take internal flights to move on to other destinations such as Palawan or Cebu. I would say that Manila is worth visiting, but as it’s not the nicest city in the Philippines, and has a lot of problems (traffic, poverty, prostitution), it is best to see Manila in 2-3 days and then get out.
Is Manila worth Visiting? Yes but only for 2-3 days!
So, my overall view on Manila is that it is worth visiting, but it’s not the best introduction to the Philippines and so my best advice is that you see Manila in 2-3 days and then fly on to another destination in the Philippines such as Puerto Princesa (Palawan) or Cebu City.
The Cons of Manila
Manila is a massive bustling metropolis which, at times, can feel stressful and claustrophobic. There are con artists and rip off taxi drivers in Manila (which is why I recommend that you download the GRAB app)
Bad Traffic and Busy Public Transport
As Manila is such a big and overpopulated city, the traffic is horrendous, and you certainly don’t want to be stuck in it, so stay as close to Intramuros or Makati as you can to minimise time on public transport. The traffic is so bad, that a 20 minute journey once took me 3 hours by taxi.
If you take the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and the Light Rail Transport (LRT) during rush hour, you will be packed on like sardines. All public transportation in Manila is operating over capacity.
There are also Jeepneys which are little mini buses with two facing bench seats that operate all around the city, but their routes are difficult to navigate without a local. There are two apps which will help you to navigate the Jeepney system in Manila that you should download – Moovit and Sakay.ph. And if you are wondering whether your money will get to the driver or your change will get back to you, it will! There is a system where everyone always passes the money down the Jeepney line!
Some Slum and unsafe Areas in Manila
There are certain parts of Manila such as the slum areas that you will want to avoid – do not go to Tondo or Smokey Mountain as a tourist. Quezon City has a history of being very dangerous, but is slowly improving. However, there is no real reason to go there, so it’s best avoided. Wherever you go in manila, you will be greeted by unsafe dark alleys at night. I personally avoided going out after dark alone in manila, other than in well lit up areas and the Malls of Makati.
Piles of Rubbish
Manila is not the cleanest of cities. It is over populated and the councils are under funded, meaning that rubbish disposal is infrequent or often missed. Expect piles of rubbish due and sometimes also sewerage issues to the limitations on garbage disposal and services being over capacity. Some streets are quite unhygenic and rubbish is accompanied by stray animals or vermin, so steer clear.
Prostitution and Drug Related Crimes
Sadly, prostitution is an issue in Manila and sometimes it can involve girls who look scarily young. Although prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, it is somewhat tolerated in Manila. Avoid taking photos of the Red Light District or massage parlours – the women there do not want to be photographed and certainly do not want to be outed.
It goes without saying that you should avoid taking, selling or being involved in drugs in any way in Manila (and the rest of the Philippines). You don’t want to end up in a crowded Filipino prison or even worth, with a death penalty.
Where are all the Beaches?!
The big downside to Manila is that it lacks the one thing that the Philippines are famous for – beautiful beaches! There are beaches nearby, in fact, if you MUST go to a beach in Manila, your best bet is probably to take a bus and ferry to Masasa (around 3 hours away). BUT I would recommend that you just head out on an internal flight straight to Palawan or Cebu after your 2-3 days of sightseeing in Manila is over. On these islands you will be greeted with high quality beaches and if you are willing to island hop, less crowded pristine beaches with coral reefs too!
But, don’t let this put you off!
Despite these issues, I don’t want it to sound like I am not selling it to you….
Manila is worth a visit because of the amazing museums and also the phenomenal historical centre that will introduce you to The Philippines colonial past….INTRAMUROS!
Although Manila wan’t my favourite destination in The Philippines (in fact, I’ve never met any traveller who says that Manila is their favourite Filipino city!) I don’t regret going, and I would recommend that you see it too.
Is Manila Safe?
Manila is safe provided that you have your wits about you and avoid certain areas and any dark alleys alone at night. Don’t have your money on display as there is a lot of poverty in Manila which sadly results in some pickpocketing. Remember, avoid the slum areas like Tondo or Smokey Mountain and avoid Quezon City as a tourist.
As I’ve mentioned, I recommend that you download the GRAB app for your taxis, which works like Uber – this means that you will know exactly where you are going and how much you will pay. It means you are less likely to get done over by the rip off taxi drivers.
Take an unlocked mobile phone and get yourself a Filipino SIM so that you have access to data and regular contact with friends or relatives back home.
If you are looking for some reassurance, I flew to Manila on my own as a 36 year old woman and spent 3 full days there and went to a conference. Then I flew on to Palawan. During my time in Manila and in the 3 full weeks that I was travelling around the Philippines, nothing bad happened to me. It was all an extremely positive experience.
If you would like to read more about solo travel in Philippines then you can read this blog here.
Where to stay in Manila
If you are on a budget, stay at Z Hostel in Makati. It’s excellent value for a bed in a shared dorm and includes a great breakfast. It’s a high end hostel with lockers and dressing gowns available. It’s based in the modern area of Manila which is very safe. When I stayed there it was Halloween and they had a ‘Stranger Things’ themed party!
If you have more to spend, and particularly if you have a conference anywhere in or near to Stay City, stay at Hotel Radiance in Manila Bay. It has free WIFI and a great terrace.
The Pros of Manila
Despite these issues, Manila is an exciting city with lots to do and happy people. I definitely don’t regret my stop off in Manila, and I am not against returning.
Manila is a Fun and Happy city
Let me tell you this – I really had FUN in Manila!
The people are always up for a good time and you will find live music in many bars and clubs around the city. What I loved about it is that the British and America ROCK scene is alive and well in Manila. I was meeting lots of fans of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Green Day, which pleased me greatly!
On my first day I bumped into a Zombie run taking place along Manila Bay – it was quite clear from this moment that these Filipinos really know how to have fun!
One of the craziest and most fun things I have ever done in my entire life is to share a Karaoke Jeepney with a load of travel bloggers – we sang our way around Manila!
Amazing Food – Don’t miss Jolibee!
Manila has some absolutely fantastic restaurants with an offering of Filipino and international food options. I loved the Adobo (meat or chicken dish in a barbeque style sauce) and Banana Cue (sweet bananas on sticks fried in caramelised sugar.
But, one thing that you cannot miss in Manila is fast food at JOLIBEE!
Jolibee is a fast food place in the Philippines that offers the most interesting menu combination of sweet and savory that I have ever experienced! Some of the highlights are Chickenjoy, Jolly Spaghetti, and Yumburgers.
Dammit, why can you not get a Chickenjoy in the UK?!?!
English is Widely Spoken
The good news is that English is widely spoken in Manila and all of the Philippines. But why, you might ask, is it not Spanish due to its Spanish colonial routes? The answer is – The Americans!
Yes, Filipino and English are the Philippines’ two official languages. Filipino is a native language based on Tagalog; English has official status due to the Philippines being a US colony between 1898 and 1946. As the Americans came after the Spanish, the English language remained.
So the good news is that you won’t have any language barriers here in the Philippines as a native English speaker.
It’s a Great Springboard for connecting Flights
I’ve mentioned that Manila is usually used as a stepping stone to other Philippines islands. Ninoy Aquino International Airport is a great hub for international flights. I flew from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur and then direct from Kuala Lumpur to Manila (just another 4 hours from KL). After 5 nights in Manila (3 exploring and 2 were a conference) I then flew to Puerto Princesa in Palawan. This is why Manila is such a good stop off point – it has connecting internal flights to most main cities in the Philippines including Puerto Princesa, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod. Take a flight with Air Asia or Cebu Pacific from Manila and it’s likely that whatever island destination you choose to continue your travels, you won’t be disappointed.
Things to do in Manila
Now, it’s time for me to really promote the hell out of Manila, so that the negativity I have mentioned fades into the distance!
Despite Manila not being the best city in the Philippines, in my opinion, it certainly has a lot going for it. Manila has some amazing places to explore – in particular Rizal Park, Intramuros and Makati. It is also home to some fantastic museums such as the Museum of Anthropology and the National Museum of Fine Arts.
Intramuros, the old Colonial centre of Manila, is a pleasure to experience by horse and cart. If your budget can’t stretch to this it is wonderful to explore by bike or on foot. Bambike do fantastic bike tours of Intramuros.
You should stop by at the following main sights in the Old Town of Manila…
The Cathedral in Manila is one of the oldest and most important churches in The Philippines. It was built in the Colonial period (1581) but has been threatened by fire and earthquakes over the years and so several rounds of restoration have taken place. This resulted in numerous architectural styles – a Neo-Romanesque facade, imposing bell towers, and beautiful stained glass windows depicting religious scenes.
Rizal Monument and Rizal Park
It’s customary to have your photo taken in front of the Rizal monument and they say that you haven’t been to Manila until you can show this picture! The monument is dedicated to the country’s national hero Rizal, who was a Filipino polymath, nationalist, and advocate for reforms during the Spanish colonial period (late 19th century). Take some time to explore the park grounds too, while you are there.
Church of San Agustin
San Augustin is one of the oldest Stone Churches in the Philippines. It is worth visiting because of its extensive Museum of religious art and statues and beautiful courtyard. It was the only one among seven churches in Intramuros to survive a bombing by combined American and Filipino ground forces in May 1945.
Intramuros walls and Fort Santiago
Make sure that you spend time exploring the old ruins of Intramuros and Fort Santiago. You will instantly feel like you have been transported back to 16th Century Manila.
Casa Manila Museum
While you are in Intramuros, make a stop off at Casa Manila museum where you will see how the old Colonial houses were furnished and what life would have been like back in the 16th Century. This living museum is open from 9am-6pm Tuesday to Sundays (closed on Monday).
Makiti is the modern district of Manila. Visiting this part of the city the day after Intramuros will leave you very confused due to the massive contrast between these districts! Makati is full of luxury hotels, jazzy bars and high end shopping malls. While you are there, check out Greenbelt Mall and Century City Mall.
If time allows, you might want to head North over the river to Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown, which is actually the oldest Chinatown in the world. Head to photograph the Chinese arch and explore Divisoria Public Market, before indulging in some glorious dim sum. You might also want to have a look at the Bindondo Church (formerly the Minor Basilica and National Shrine of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz). Before the war it was considered to be one of the country’s most beautiful Churches, with its 5 story Octagonal bell tower.
What to Pack for Manila
Here’s a brief run down of what to pack for Manila…
- Passport and travel documents
- Cash (USD and Filipino Pesos)
- One pair of Jeans and a pair of leggings or cycling shorts.
- Lightweight tops such as tunics and shirts/blouses that are comfortable in the heat.
- Shorts and T-Shirts.
- Comfortable walking trousers (or cotton/linen pants).
- Shawl or cardigan (women will need to cover up and look respectable in the Churches – no boobs on display!)
- One comfortable sun dress.
- One set of nice pants and top or dress for evening wear – you many want to party in Manila!
- Dress shoes or comfortable flats.
- Baseball cap or sun hat (mine is reversible)
- Sun cream and after sun – I recommend Ambre Solaire factor 30 which is great value.
- Comfortable walking boots or trainers – Karrimor Weatherlite are an excellent option.
- Walking socks and underwear
- Shell jacket or lightweight rain jacket
- Bug spray with DEET
- Lonely Planet Philippines – I love to read mine at night or during connecting flights
However, when you pack for Manila, you are likely to be packing for the Philippines islands too, because no doubt you will go on to visit several of them. So in this case, you can add swimming costume (or bikini or swim shorts for men), sarong, flip-flops, beach bag and aqua shoes. If you have snorkelling gear, you can bring it, but it takes a lot of room up in your packing and it’s easy to rent this equipment all over the Philippines and so it may be more convenient to leave this behind.
Where to go next?
After you have spent 3 days exploring Manila, you are ready to explore the islands of the Philippines, and what a pleasure this will be – a true tropical paradise. So, where next? Here are my top choices of places to fly on to…
- Puerto Princesa – Palawan is one of the top island destinations in the world.
- Cebu – A digital nomad paradise and a popular place to visit for whale shark swimming.
- Iloilo – A historical city with very interesting architecture and churches.
- Bacolod – Home to the famous MassKara festival and some phenomenal desserts and sweet pastries.