A sprawling capital which is home to almost 13 million people, Manila can be more than a little overwhelming for first-time visitors. But once you find your bearings, you’ll discover a buzzing, vibrant city which has a great bar scene (three of its bars were nominated in 2019’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars awards), some of the region’s best museums and quite possibly one of the warmest welcomes in the world. Here is our guide to Manila.
Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is part of a huge urban area known as Metropolitan Manila. Its position on the banks of the Pasig River has been both a blessing and a curse; it was a prosperous walled Muslim settlement funded by customs duties imposed on passing ships when Spanish conquistadors sailed into town in 1521. The Spanish destroyed the settlement and replaced it with the walled fortress of Intramuros, which became the capital of the Spaniards’ new colony. Spanish rule came to an end with 1898’s Spanish American war, when the Spanish surrendered to American forces. The US encouraged the county’s quest for independence, which it achieved (following a period of Japanese occupation during WWII), in 1946. Large parts of the city had been destroyed during the war, and a huge reconstruction effort (funded largely by US aid) transformed it into the world’s most densely-populated city.
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Manila’s museums are some of the best in Asia. Start with a wander around the Ayala Museum, famous for its collections of gold artefacts – more specifically, 1,000 items dating back to the sixteenth century. The National Museum, which has been free to visit since 2016, has collections dedicated to archaeology, ethnography and natural history, along with –slightly randomly – one of the largest collections of endemic plant species. For a history fix, head to the Intramuros district (meaning “within walls” in Spanish). This fortified city was founded by the Spanish in 1571 and its layout, with neat plazas, cannon-topped walls and thick stone archways, is a world away from the rest of Manila.
Equally historic is Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown. It was founded in 1594 by the Spanish, who decided to set aside a hilly slab of Manila (hence the name, derived from the Tagalog word binondoc, meaning mountainous) for Chinese immigrants who’d converted to Catholicism. It’s colourful, chaotic and crowded – horse-drawn carriages share the road with over-stuffed jeepneys (kitschly decorated, jeep-shaped buses you’ll see throughout Manila) and shopkeepers’ wares spill into the road. The temples and the Chinese restaurants are the main attractions, along with the rust-red Binondo Church, otherwise known as the Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz. This baroque-style church was founded in the late sixteenth century by Dominican priests.
The city’s bar scene is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in Asia. This year's Asia’s 50 Best Bar Awards featured three Manila watering holes: The Curator, which specialises in both cocktails and coffee, OTO bar and the speakeasy-style Back Room. These three aside, another of Manila’s best bars is the Peninsula hotel’s Salon de Ning, where head bartender Rico Deang whips up cocktails which pay tribute to his homeland.
For a cheap and cheerful night out, head to nearby Poblacion. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s also the red light district – there are some great bars here, including Joe's Brew, founded by Joey Viray, a Filipino who studied beer production at the University of California.
Although Manila’s street food offerings might not rival Hong Kong’s or Bangkok’s there’s still plenty of delicious grub to chow down on. The Makati neighbourhood has some of the best restaurants, including many founded by chefs putting innovative twists on traditional cuisine. This includes Sarsa Kitchen + Bar, famous for its rich signature sauces. And then there’s Jollibee, the Philippines-founded fast food chain on course for global domination (its first UK-based branch opened in London last year). Jolibee is famous for its burgers, but there are plenty of local dishes on the menu, including halo halo – a dessert made with crushed ice and sweetened beans. Other Manila specialities include buko pie (a coconut-filled pastry) and kinilaw (a ceviche-like dish).
Manila’s best hotels are in Makati, which is Manila’s central business district. This is where you’ll find the Peninsula Manila, a palatial, five-star property famed for its fantastic customer service. Guests are whisked away to a dedicated check-in room (complete with bar) on arrival, and the lush gardens make it easy to forget you’re in the heart of one of Asia’s largest cities. Other great bases include Intramuros, which has a number of independent, family-friendly hotels like the Bayview Park Hotel Manila. There’s also Quezon City, which is part of the larger Metro Manila area and a popular backpacker area with a great range of accommodation, from the budget-friendly BGC Hostel and Dorm to the Royale Parc Inn & Suites.
A quick note – don’t be surprised to find heavy security outside most of Manila’s top hotels. As a rule, most four and five-star hotels have security guards and X-ray machines at the entrance.
Filipinos love to shop, which explains the abundance of sprawling, sleek malls which have sprung up in recent years. One of the largest is the Greenbelt - a temple to retail which has its own church, theatre and cinema. Beautifully landscaped parks between the separate buildings (it’s divided into five individual malls) provide welcome opportunities to rest weary feet. For something more traditional, head to Silahis Arts & Artifacts in Intramuros. Part-museum, part-shop, this is where to come for locally-made souvenirs, such as ceramics, paintings and sculptures.
Top image: Gardens and skyscrapers at Greenbelt Park, Manila, The Philippines © Jon Bilous/Shutterstock
Tamara is a former snowboard instructor who's been a freelance travel writer for 12 years. She loves snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking and scuba diving, and the regions she knows best are Asia, America and Africa. Europe-wise she knows Germany and France very well. In normal times she does two or three trips a month. Follow her on Twitter