Manila is one of Asia's most vibrant cities.
The place draws very mixed feelings from travellers. Some love it, some hate it - especially in comparison to other Southeast Asian cities nearby. I think this has something to do with Manila having a less overtly 'Asian' culture and a more Westernized vibe. (Colonization will do that to a country.) But being Westernized does not make Manila any less an 'authentic' destination.
Manila, and the Philippines in general, is a hodgepodge of cultures and customs that all contribute to the authenticity of the country in general. As we say, the country is a halo-halo! (See #8 for reference.) My advice? Embrace the chaos.
Like most cities, Manila (well, the country in general) is made up of great poverty and great wealth – a symbiosis that adds to Manila’s buzzing energy. Whilst Manila might be built up with skyscrapers and cars, local culture and street cuisine can be found around every corner.
Elusive and impenetrable as the city might seem at first glance - especially due to the low 'walkability' or pedestrianization of most areas - there are plenty of fun, interesting, inexpensive things to do in Manila.
Let the list commence!
For reference, the currency is the Philippine Peso (P or PHP). Approximate rates: $1 = P45; £1 = P70.
1. EAT BALUT (FERMENTED DUCK EGG)
Even though I’d been to the Philippines every year since I was a little girl, I never had the (metaphorical) balls to try balut until last year. And I kind of loved it! I’m not going to go into the ethics of the delicacy because it’s something that is so heavily ingrained into Philippine/Asian culture that it would be pointless for me to do so. I was super grossed out at first, and it won't be for everyone, but it is, at least, an awesome culinary experience.
So what's balut, you ask? Balut is basically – sorry, vegetarians and vegans amongst you, kindly turn a blind eye to what I’m about to share – fermented duck foetus cooked inside its eggshell. The fermentation lengths vary from 12 to 24 days. There's a special way of eating it that involves puncturing the membrane and slurping the "soup" - ask a Filipino to help you with the ritual! You can normally find balut vendors more towards the evening along the street. Sellers usually carry the eggs in a plastic cooler box. Ask any local on the street to point you to somewhere that sells balut. They’ll know! If not, head to a market. Which brings me nicely towards . . .
2. GO TO A FOOD MARKET / TRY FILIPINO STREET FOOD
Local markets are a must-do of any new country, city, or place. Markets are full of life, local cuisine, and local produce. They’re perfect for immersing yourself into the local culture and getting cheap deals. I’d go for a food market – they’re the most interesting, personally. And you can trust that the foods are well-cooked and use quality ingredients (as opposed to shady, one-off street food vendors which can be relatively risky).
Try out fresh bibingka, puto, and suman; have green mango and agoong paste, turon, or banana-Q for breakfast; crack open a fresh coconut and sip on it as you walk around to keep you hydrated. The picture above is of fresh Lumpiang Shanghai (Chinese spring roll) being rolled at Sendrys market in Quezon City, which is made up of fresh salad, sweet ground peanuts, and adobo pork -- so good! Alternatively, snack on a salted egg or have some street barbeque. if you’re feeling adventurous, try out “adidas” (the affectionate term for chicken feet - three talons, geddit?), or isaw (chicken innards twisted onto a stick). Woohoo, innards! Nothing edible gets wasted in this country, FYI.
3. WATCH THE SUNSET OVER MANILA BAY
I’m pretty sure Manila is one of the best cities in the world to watch the sun go down in! Whatever the cause (heat, pollution, you name it), dusk after dusk, Manila's skies are exquisite to look at, usually turning a crazy shade of neon orange or pink. The sunset is gorgeous wherever you're watching from - especially from a rooftop. But where the action’s really at is Manila Bay. Head over there at around 5 (to beat the traffic!) and stroll along the boardwalk for a while, or have a drink and merienda (snack) at the many restaurants lining the waterfront. Take an outdoor table facing out onto the water. There are always a group of camera enthusiasts on the waterfront by the yachts with their tripods lined up and pointed at the sky, ready to record the beautiful colours before the pastel day fades to an indigo night.
Also, even though you're probably keen to avoid shopping malls (I know I usually am), one of the best views of the sunset is from SM Mall of Asia. If you're going to go to a mall, it may as well be one with a view! The view from SM Mall of Asia (or "MOA") is beautiful and gives you great photo opps - especially with the ferris wheel all lit up in the background. Go to the top floor where the balconies of restaurants are and have an early dinner - Filipino food, perhaps - or an evening tipple whilst watching the skies change colour. There's usually music and laughter floating upwards from the boardwalk (Seaside Boulevard), too. I promise the sunset will make you forget about the hideous traffic for a while. Taking a moment to view the sunset everyday after work makes me feel recalibrated and grateful.
4. EAT FRESH SEAFOOD AT DAMPA BAY
If you’re not allergic to seafood, you absolutely need to hit up a dampa spot and do the dampa experience. It’s the perfect thing to do after watching the sunset at Manila Bay. In essence, the dampa experience entails going to a wet fish market and buying fresh seafood – crabs, prawns, shrimps, mussels, fish, lobsters, etcetera – at an extremely reasonable price. You then take it to a nearby restaurant beside the market and have it cooked right there and then according to a style of your choice on the restaurant menu. SO GOOD. SO CHEAP. SO WORTH IT. Check out my experience here. I recommend the salted egg crab (drool). Do it!
5. TAKE A TOUR AT INTRAMUROS (OLD MANILA)
Intramuros is well known as the historical and cultural hub of Manila. Whatever your thoughts on Manila are, whether they’re positive or negative, a tour of Intramuros will really clear things up for you, and explain why Manila is the way it is (after more than three colonizations!). It's best to go early in the morning, when it's not so humid.
I really recommend the Carlos Celdran Walking Tour. Carlos Celdran is a tour personality here in the Philippines who is slightly mad. Or his persona is, at least. Celdran won’t be to everyone’s tastes – his tour website alone says, “This is performance art in the guise of a walking tour.” Celdran’s tour is very theatrical, wildly controversial, undeniably funny, and he'll (metaphorically) slap you in the face with the brutal truth about melting-pot Manila and all its colonizers. You'll also have a horse-and-carriage ride interlude. At the end of the day, the tour is extremely entertaining (although I do give apologies in advance to anyone from the countries that once colonised Manila - especially Americans!). Overall, the experience is well organised and worth the money/knowledge. Plus, you get a free halo-halo at the end! (See #8.)
6. RIDE A TRICYCLE / JEEPNEY
You can’t come to Manila and stay fettered up in Uber cars and cabs the whole time. Jump into a tricycle and experience Manila traffic the five-wheeler way! If you need to go a little further than a tricycle can offer for you, do as the locals do and hop onto a Jeepney. They’re fairly convenient if you’re not in a rush. Jeepney ceilings are super low – to all you 5’8ers and above; you’re gonna need to watch your head! – and they can get packed at busy times, but otherwise, they’re extremely cheap (P8 per ride), give you an insight into the way locals travel, and offer a fun chance to chat to people on their way to work in the city.
Better yet, if you have the time, take a jeepney tour! They’re not too expensive and last about 5 hours long. Pros of a jeepney tour include: inclusive beverages, shelter from potential rain, covers more ground, on-board karaoke machine! (Cons include the on-board karaoke machine, depending on your personality type and/or tolerance of strangers warbling in your ears for several hours). Fun stuff!
7. HAVE A MASSAGE
Travelling is stressful. Manila traffic is stressful. Take a load off and get a massage. There are some insanely cheap, insanely GOOD masseuses here (known as masahistas). For as cheap as P200 in some places, you can get an excellent hour-long hilot massage. Hilot is a Filipino style of massage that similar to Swedish/Thai massage.
Manila also has express spas where you can drop in for a cheap massage at any time. (YAY.) There are also very skilled masseuses who can massage you at your own hotel room or home and bring their own massage tables and equipment. This would probably cost a little more, around the P500 region, depending on where you are. Remember to treat your masseuses nicely, please. And always tip!
8. HAVE A HALO-HALO
You can't come to Manila - or the Philippines, really - without trying a halo-halo. Halo-halo, which means literally 'mix-mix' or 'jumble-jumble' in English, is a sweet and popular dessert that is a great representation of Filipino culture in general, since it’s a hodgepodge of ingredients like ube (purple yam) ice cream, jelly, shaved coconut meat, fruit, sweet beans, pinipig (crunchy nuts) sweetcorn, leche flan, and shaved ice. You can get halo-halo almost anywhere, cheaply from street vendors or fast food franchises such as Chowking - but where I really love getting halo-halo from is at Filipino restaurants, since they use the best quality ingredients, and usually freeze the ice with condensed milk. Yum.
The best places to get halo-halo from in Manila for me are: Milky Way Café (Pasay Road/Rockwell); Razon's (chain); Kabigting's (Quezon City). If budget is a problem, then head to Chowking!
9. VISIT THE SLUMS (OR DO A WALKING/CYCLING SLUM TOUR)
I'm not into the idea of poverty porn, but to see and experience the true living situation of most of Manila's population, I'd suggest that you take a walk through the city slums during the daytime (although be careful about it, and use common sense). The way that some people live in the Philippines is quite shocking. Shocking because thousands, hundreds of thousands of people here in the city slums, don’t have access to basic living conditions.
I’ve seen families with young children and babies who sleep in cardboard boxes under motorway bridges and bathe in polluted pools of water that have leaked out from a local river. Coffins on the street with money collection cups beside them. Kids washing their faces from dirty puddles in the road shared with trash and rats. It’s deeply saddening. The slum tours particularly are not for the faint-hearted. But it's an eye-opening look into the terrible living standards of millions of people around the world, and will instigate in you a deep sense of gratitude for everything you have, and motivate a desire to do something to help. Every little helps.
10. EXPERIENCE MANILA NIGHTLIFE (AND KARAOKE/KTV!)
Hibernating from the heat of the day is allowed! You don't have to spend it outside, out and about all the time. Sometimes you’ll have a days where you literally just want to stay swaddled in an air-conned room or shopping mall, and that’s totally fine. Just make sure you don’t miss out on the nightlife in Manila, which is awesome, and which can be very, very cheap! (A bucket of eight San Miguel beers for P200, anyone?)
There’s a place to suit all types in Manila. Whether you drink or not, prefer a bar or a late-night eatery, the city is your oyster. The best recommendations are via word of mouth. If you’re looking to bar-hop on foot, then start in well-known areas (although be warned in advance, you might get creeped out by dodgy-looking Western tourists with suspiciously jailbait-looking escorts in the red light district). Good places to start with bar-hopping and clubbing include Fort Bonfacio (Bonfacio Global City), Greenbelt, and downtown Makati.
Also, as you may well know, Filipinos love to sing. Most average Joes in the Philippines are really good singers! Think about how many dozens of Filipino finalists there have been on shows like The Voice, American Idol, Asia’s Got Talent. Consider hitting up a karaoke bar or KTV and get down with the musical culture! It's hilarious, fun, cheap, and you'll make new mates. Singing one song at a bar costs 5 pesos max., and hiring your own karaoke room is from 300 pesos per hour. Sold!
P. S. Remember to Be Respectful and Open-Minded
As with any destination, as long as you go in with an open mind, a positive outlook, and no ego, then you'll have an absolute blast. Also, remember that as long as you are respectful and courteous, you will be treated the same way in return. Politeness and smiles are everything.
Like most places, I think that Manila is best enjoyed if you know a local who can take you around, namely because everything is so spread out and the best places are known via word of mouth. Sometimes it can be a bit of a culture shock, too. But even if you don’t know anyone, that’s OK! Filipinos are one of the friendliest, most welcoming cultures in the world. You'll find plenty of buddies in no time at all.
If you have any questions or need recommendations about things to do in Manila, feel free to leave a comment below or tweet me!
Have you ever been to Manila? How did you find the city?
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.