Manila may not be as well-known as Bangkok, KL or Singapore but there’s no doubt the capital of the Philippines is a vibrant metropolis. With fantastic shopping and nightlife, and a treasure trove of Spanish history to discover there are plenty of things to do in Manila to keep you busy.
What’s more, Filipinos are friendly and speak excellent English. With a favourable exchange rate, what’s not to like about Manila? Maybe the only setback is it’s a city fo 11 million people and the traffic can get a touch heavy.
- 15 things to do in Manila
- 1- Ride a jeepney
- 2- Taste halo halo
- 3- Eat in a Jollibee
- 4- Explore Intramuros
- 5- Step back into history at Casa Manila
- 6- Go shopping in a Manila mall
- 7- Rockeoke all night long at Bonifacio Global City
- 8- Visit the Ayala Museum
- 9- Visit Manila Ocean Park
- 10- Have fun at Star City
- 11- Explore the Philippines National Museum
- 12- Enjoy Manila Bay
- 13- Open your mind at the Mind Museum
- 14- Wander around Chinatown
- 15- Taste Local Dishes
- 16- Visit The Dessert Museum
15 things to do in Manila
1- Ride a jeepney
Apart from being the main cause of the city’s traffic congestion Jeepneys are instantly recognisable as a Philippine icon.
Not only are they fun, they are one of the cheapest forms of public transport in the Philippines.
These odd-looking vehicles are a cross between a World War II-era jeep and a bus.
Gaily painted in bright colours, they have open windows, no air-conditioning and are packed with passengers.
2- Taste halo halo
The national dessert halo-halo is a mish-mash of jelly, boiled sweet beans, fruit and shaved ice.
You can order it in any local restaurant but for a special treat, scoop and slurp in luxury in the sumptuous lobby of the Peninsula Hotel (the place to see and be seen in Manila).
3- Eat in a Jollibee
At the other end of the scale is the fast-food chain Jollibee.
The Filipino version of McDonald’s is so popular that there are now Jollibee chains in the USA where many Filipino’s of the fast-food generation now live.
Burgers have extra sweet buns and the spaghetti dish is covered in a sweet sauce.
4- Explore Intramuros
Intramuros is Manila’s oldest district, built during the Spanish Colonial Era it’s home to three of Manila’s most famous tourist landmarks in the Philippines such as Fort Santiago, San Agustin Church and Manila Cathedral.
The oldest Spanish stone fortress in the country, Fort Santiago was the military headquarters of the Spanish, British, American and Japanese regimes.
Now it is a shrine to the country’s national hero Jose Rizal.
Rizal, a martyr of the Philippine revolution, was imprisoned by the Spanish in Fort Santiago.
His cell has been transformed into a museum which holds his last possessions and the Rizal exhibit displays his books, mementos and other memorabilia.
Entry is 75 pesos ($1.80) for adults, 50 pesos ($1.20) for children.
Manila Metropolitan Cathedral
In 1565, the Spanish king made Miguel Lopez de Legazpi the first Governor-General of the Philippines.
Legazpi chose Manila as the capital because of its natural harbour.
Church and state were inseparably linked and elaborate work went into constructing Manila’s cathedral.
The cathedral has 134 stained glass windows, bronze carvings, marble columns and chapels.
The main facade has statues of famous saints sculpted in Roman travertine stone.
About 83% of the country’s population is Roman Catholic and the cathedral is fully operational.
Mass is conducted twice daily on weekdays and five times on Sundays.
In August, the cathedral was the venue for the requiem mass of former president Corazon Aquino.
San Augustin Church and Museum
The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an architectural interpretation of the baroque style by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen.
The museum is a treasure trove of historic relics including 19th-century chandeliers, church artefacts, statues and silver utensils.
The refectory, where the priests dine, is now a mausoleum with Aztec frescoes in the ceiling.
The old stone staircase is made from 44 pieces of Chinese granite imported from Canton in 1780.
The choir loft has a bird’s-eye view of the church’s interior, an 18th-century pipe organ and seats that were hand-carved from Mojave hardwood.
The remains of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and other Spanish conquistadors are buried here.
5- Step back into history at Casa Manila
The facade of Casa Manila (Manila House) was copied from a 1850s house of a wealthy family.
Casa Manila is a colonial lifestyle museum that conveys the opulent lifestyle of 19th-century Filipino gentry.
The three-storey house is furnished with period antiques. The ornately decorated living room held tertulias (soirees) where the young ladies played the piano and sang and bailes (dances).
Lunch at Barbara’s Restaurant in Plaza San Luis next door offers an atmosphere that is evocative of old-world colonial charm.
The daily buffet (around $10) is great value.
6- Go shopping in a Manila mall
The mega-malls in the Philippines are as good as any shops in Bangkok, KL or Singapore and the local fashion scene sizzles.
Filipino designers have a European flair at designing gorgeous shoes and clothes, minus the hefty price tags.
The top shopping malls in Manila are:
- Mall of Asia (it has an Olympic-sized skating rink!)
- Mega Mall (best for going to the movies after shopping)
- TriNoma (see the reverse waterfall)
Level two at Greenbelt 5, in the Ayala Center in Makati City, is the place to shop for local fashions from fashions designers such as Kate Torralba, who is famous for brightly coloured dresses, and Randy Ortiz.
As an example, during recent end-of-season sales, I bought two Randy Ortiz blouses that would normally have cost 3500 pesos ($80) each for half the price.
When you’re all shopped out head for M Cafe at Greenbelt 3, especially on Thursdays when guest DJs spin out funky tunes.
7- Rockeoke all night long at Bonifacio Global City
Let loose your inner rock star and take to the stage at Magnet at The Fort.
Rockeoke is Karaoke on steroids where you sing with a live band backing you up.
There is no shortage of volunteers from fun-loving Filipinos who grew up around a culture that loves singing.
Also popular and more hip is the Establishment, where Manila’s beautiful people congregate till the wee hours.
Spanish tapas and Chocnut Martinis are all the rage.
Dress to impress.
8- Visit the Ayala Museum
The rich history of the Philippines is chronicled in wooden dioramas carved by Philippine artisans.
There is a seven-minute film on how the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was toppled in 1986 and there are works by Philippine artists such as Juan Luna (1857-1899) and Fernando Zobel (1924-1984).
The boat gallery showcases boat miniatures that contributed to the development of Philippine maritime trade. Admission is 425 ($10) for adults and 300 ($7) for children.
9- Visit Manila Ocean Park
Hanging out in Manila’s Oceanarium is a great way to relax and see marine life.
Manila Ocean Park has an impressive 25m glass tunnel, which you can walk through and gaze up at sharks, stingrays and fish swimming above and beside you.
If you’re travelling with kids, join an educational tour to learn about the marine biodiversity of the ocean.
10- Have fun at Star City
Fans of theme parks will love visiting this one as Star City is the most popular amusement parks in the Philippines.
Get your thrills on adrenaline rush rides like Vikings, Jungle Splash and Frisbee but there are also plenty of more sedate activities for family fun.
If you’re visiting with little ones, head for the Dragon Express or the Magic Forest. There’s also the highest Ferris Wheel in the Philippine’s (60m) to ride around and enjoy the views.
11- Explore the Philippines National Museum
The National Museum is a good place to save for a rainy day and the best thing about it is it’s free to enter.
12- Enjoy Manila Bay
Take a walk along Manila Bay and watch the sunset from one of the platforms.
One of the most popular spots is opposite the Mall of Asia.
Another way to enjoy the bay is to go on a cruise.
13- Open your mind at the Mind Museum
The Mind Museum is a unique science museum perfect for families travelling with kids.
There are interactive workshops and displays to teach you about everything from wildlife to astronomy.
14- Wander around Chinatown
Manila’s Chinatown is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world.
Known as Binondo, it’s an atmospheric district packed with shops, eateries and local businesses.
Soak up the vibrant atmosphere in this part of Manila that is buzzing with activity all day long and stop to try local treats such as Chinese/Filipino baked goods, dumplings, noodle soup and dim sum.
The main difference between this Chinatown and other Asian cities is there’s a Filipino flavour in a lot of the food.
15- Taste Local Dishes
The cuisine of the Philippines is an interesting mix of Asian and European cuisines, which makes tasting local food quite an adventure.
If you like sweet and spicy food, you’ll love Filipino cuisine so head to a local restaurant or cafe and taste lumpia, tortia and adobo.
Try grilled ensaymadas, which is a flaky Spanish pastry adapted into a sweet brioche bun baked with butter and topped with cheese and sugar.
Mary Grace is a chain store where you can order this sweet treat in different variations, including chocolate and banana topping.
16- Visit The Dessert Museum
A museum dedicated to desserts is bound to be a photographer’s or Instagrammers delight.
Manila’s Dessert Museum has interactive displays that allow you to eat your way through the exhibits as you fill your Instagram feed with colourful snapshots.
You might find yourself taking a selfie in front of a cotton candy tree or wandering through a forest of candy canes.