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The Filipino capital Manila isn’t the most popular destination among Southeast Asia travelers. Many people will even discourage you from visiting Manila since the city allegedly doesn’t have any interesting sights. In addition to that, there is a supposedly high crime rate.

Manila’s sights and Intramuros

But why this bad image? Before our one-month Philippines trip to Palawan and Boracay we decided to give the city a chance and made a one-day stopover there. Here’s our experience report.


How to get to Manila

Unfortunately, direct flights to Manila are not offered from Germany, you will have to plan with a stopover. Good hubs are Dubai, Istanbul or Hong Kong. From there you can fly directly to the Philippines. From many of the surrounding countries in Southeast Asia you can also reach Manila well, e.g. from Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City etc. A good overview of airlines, prices and times is available at Skyscanner.

If you want to travel to Manila from another location within the Philippines, there are bus and boat connections in addition to domestic flights, with ferries leaving at irregular intervals, e.g. from Caticlan (Boracay) in 17 hours to Manila.

Buses are a good option if you are coming from the north, e.g. from Sagada, Baguio City and a few more. A popular company is Victory Liner. However, it is a bit uncomfortable for newbies, because many bus companies have their own bus terminal. Your hotel will be happy to help you. Otherwise you can find many connections as well as private taxis at 12go.asia.

Accommodation in Manila – our hotel tip

The Red Planet Manila Bay lies, as the name suggests, on the Bay of Manila. The location is fantastic for exploring some sights such as the Rizal Park or Intramuros by foot. The friendly staff and clean rooms speak for the Red Planet. Furthermore, the rooms are equipped with air conditioning, television, free WiFi, a safe and a fridge.

More hotels in other districts of Manila, such as Makati or Quezon City can be found here.


1. Malate

The first impression of the city is a little bit different than a Southeast Asian metropolis you already know and love, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur etc. Almost everybody – taxi drivers, policemen and even older fruit vendors – speak basic or even quite good English and you can communicate without any problems. This is unimaginable in Bangkok for example.

While we’re already comparing, there’s another thing that I noticed: there are sparsely cookshops or street food vendors like we’re used to it in Southeast Asia. If you’re looking for delicious and especially spicy street food, you will be rather disappointed in Manila.

Nevertheless we started our – let’s call it – sightseeing tour in the relatively southern district of Malate, where our hotel was located.

Passing the Rajah Sulayman Park with the Malate Church, we went to the direction of the Manila Bay, where you can find the waterside promenade Manila Baywalk. With good weather, you can enjoy a nice and relaxed walk along the water. But I wouldn’t consider it as a must-see though.

Plaza Rajah Sulayman in the district of Malate in Manila, Philippines
Plaza Rajah Sulayman and Malate Church in Malate
Jeepney in Manila, Philippines
One of the countless Jeepneys of Manila

2. Rizal Park

Further down the waterside promenade along the Roxas Boulevard, we finally arrived at the Rizal Park after 15 minutes of walking. Some locals also call it “Luneta”.

The largest and probably most famous park of Manila has some highlights, e.g. the Rizal Monument, the Kilometre Zero or the giant Relief of the Philippines. Well, they didn’t knock my socks off however. Maybe it was because of the many clouds above the city and on a sunny day you can spend some nice hours here indeed. Many Filipinos like to come to the park and there’s always something going on or to see.

As we were here during the time before Christmas, everything was nicely decorated, people were singing and the atmosphere was just beautiful.

The Rizal Monument in the Rizal Park
The Rizal Monument in the Rizal Park
Relief map of the Philippines in the Rizal Park, Manila
The relief map of the Philippines

More things and sights that you can see in the Rizal Park

  • Chinese and Japanese garden
  • Lapu-Lapu Monument
  • Diorama of Rizal’s Martyrdom
  • Tai Chi classes in the early morning
  • National Museum of the Filipino People
  • Live music and concerts in the evening hours
  • The Orchidarium and the Butterfly Pavilion
  • The Manila Planetarium
  • Manila Ocean Park near the Rizal Park

Conclusion: I think it’s a nice place when you wanna escape the big city and just relax a little bit.

3. Intramuros – the slightly different Manila

Surely considered as the most popular and interesting sight of Manila is the old colonial district Intramuros north of the Rizal Park. From there you can reach it within only a few minutes of walking.

The district of Intramuros is completely surrounded by walls (Intramuros = “within the walls”) and is the oldest district of Manila which was used as the administration center of the Spanish. So back in the days, Manila used to be only Intramuros. You can see the Spanish colonial era in the architecture of many buildings.

View at Manila's skyline from Intramuros
View at Manila’s skyline from Intramuros
View at the Manila City Hall from Baluarte de San Francisco de Dilao, Intramuros
View at the Manila City Hall

Of course you can explore Intramuros by foot – if you have enough time left you can definitely do it. But since the area is quite big, it’s clearly more convenient to take a guide who will drive you around in his “Padyak” or “Potpot” (cycle rickshaw), show and explain you the most important sights.

We decided to try this and paid 100 pesos per hour for one person (always try to haggle hard!). When you have a good and friendly guide just as we had, I can totally recommend you this option! The drive with the trishaw was a little adventure and we got much inside knowledge from our guide.

Alternatively, you could take one of the horse-drawn carriages, but in comparison they are damn expensive. If you want you can also do a bike tour with a “Bambike”, a bike made of bamboo. It’s surely an exciting experience and besides you can do some sports.

You should plan about 1-2 hours for all the sights. Basically, one hour would be enough, too but if you wanna have it a little bit more relaxed, you should plan at least 2. We did that as well and this way we were able to stay at each sight for a while and take photos without rushing. It is obvious that you will have much more time when you walk and explore it on your own.

Note: some sights, museums etc. have an additional entrance fee that you have to pay when you wanna enter them. We skipped those and we absolutely didn’t have the feeling that we missed something.

Highlights in Intramuros

  • Fort Santiago
  • Manila Cathedral
  • San Agustín Church
  • Plaza San Luis Complex & Casa Manila
  • Baluarte de San Francisco de Dilao
  • Baluarte de San Diego
  • Revellín de la Puerta Real de Bagumbayan and Japanese prison

Manila Cathedral in Intramuros
The Manila Cathedral
San Agustín Church in Intramuros, Manila
San Agustín Church
The San Agustín Church from inside
The San Agustín Church from inside
Old Spanish architecture and Casa Manila at the Plaza San Luis Complex in Intramuros, Manila
Old Spanish architecture and Casa Manila at the Plaza San Luis Complex (left: Casa Manila)
Tobi in the Casa Manila in Intramuros
Tobi in the Casa Manila

Conclusion: you can definitely do a stopover in Manila I think. But on the other hand, you won’t miss anything if you don’t. Many other travelers say that Manila is a shithole that you should avoid by all means, but I can’t share this opinion. At least not for all districts since there are some really nice places like the Rizal Park, partially Malate or Intramuros, which is a must-see for history fanatics anyway. You can discover both the new and old part of Manila on one of the popular tours, if you have less time.

For sure I can say that it’s not my favorite city in Southeast Asia, but I didn’t regret our stay there at all. Even better than the city itself are the Filipinos that are really kind and likable and because of their good English skills you can meet some nice people and have a lot of fun in the right environment!

Manila: Tours and Tickets

Do you prefer to travel with a guide who knows the area very well? Then we recommend a guided tour with a local. This way you can get to know Manila in a completely different way. GetYourGuide offers a wide selection of exciting tours for Manila.

Have you ever been to Manila and how did you like it? If so, what was your personal highlight? Did we miss something important? Let us know in the comments now!

Marcel

Hi, I'm Marcel! Blogger, author, web & graphic designer and digital nomad. I love traveling in Southeast Asia and exploring wonderful beaches and trying delicious food. My home base is Koh Phangan, Thailand. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.