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Top Five Things To Do in Manila, Philippines

Top Five Things To Do in Manila, Philippines

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Once upon a time, I used to be a Manileño. Twenty-five-years ago, I came into the world during typhoon season and spent my first two years as a resident of a neighborhood called Sampaloc. Even after I immigrated to the US, I would spend summers in Manila to be raised by my relatives up until I was eleven. As a kid, I remember watching teenage boys congregate in the street to shoot some hoops after rush hour traffic died down and selling bags of ice for a peso each to save enough money for chicheria (Filipino junk food).

Returning to Manila as an adult hit me with a wave of nostalgia for the time when I had once called this city my home. The metropolis has gained a rotten reputation amongst visitors for its harmful pollution, merciless bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the apparent disparity between the rich and poor. Ninoy Aquino International Airport is ranked as one of the world’s worst airports so even upon arrival, you are welcomed by this talked-about unpleasantness. But the city thrives on despite these complaints. Because of its tendency to be overlooked on tourist routes, it has preserved an authenticity most capital cities in Southeast Asia lack. A majority of the citizens of Manila are everyday Filipinos, not expats or elite urbanites, making the probability of meaningful encounters with the locals much higher than that of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. The probability of thrilling discoveries is also increased as you submerge yourself in a place that hasn’t been infiltrated by flocks of tourists. The Philippines is called “The Pearl of the Orient Sea” for a reason – in order to find a treasure, you must be willing to pry open a hard shell first.

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1. See Intramuros during Golden Hour

Intramuros is the oldest district of Manila and also its most famous.  Its name comes from Latin, meaning within the walls. Here, behind a massive fortification of stone is a walled city that is closed off from the bustle of modern-day Manila. This site, also referred to as Old Manila, was once occupied by the Spaniards, the Americans, and even the British for a short period of time before being reclaimed by the native Filipinos. The major attractions include Fort Santiago and its iconic gate, Plaze de Roma and the Manila Cathedral, and Philippines’ oldest stone church, San Agustín. Don’t be on the fence about doing a tour — the tours here are as riveting as the action that took place centuries before. The two tours I recommend are the Walk This Way Tour with political activist, Carlos Celdran, who brings history to life with his passionate performance and the Bambike Bicycle Tour that my friends and I opted for. The Walk This Way Tour is publicized as one of Manila’s top recreational activities and thus, is booked weeks in advance.  They run once per day, but not everyday. Check the schedule here. On the Bambike Tour, you get to ride bicycles made out of recycled bamboo by the folks at Gawad Kalinga, a non-profit dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty in the Philippines. It’s a super amusing way to cover long distances as you get the experience of maneuvering through Manila traffic. These tours run once in the morning from 10:00-12:30 pm and in the afternoon from 3:00-5:30 pm. I suggest going during the afternoon one because Intramuros is more enchanting during golden hour. The Carlos Celdran Tour and Bambike Tour are both 1,200 pesos each. If you prefer to do an express version of the Bambike Tour, it costs 600 PHP for one hour.

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Posing with the canons of yesteryear

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It’s more fun in the Philippines!

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Bamboo bikes look beastly but they’re pretty lightweight!

 2. Learn More about your Fate at Quiapo Church

The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene is known to locals as Quiapo Church. Here, you will witness the folk interpretation of Catholicism at its strongest. Enshrined in the front of the church is the Black Nazarene, a reinterpretation of Jesus Christ as a darker man believed to be miraculous. Outside is Plaza Miranda, a place where the mystics of Manila congregate and will happily reveal your future in exchange for a small fee of 150-300 PHP depending on how well you bargain. Note: they might not speak any English so ask before sitting down. The fortune tellers consult their tarot cards and spew out slightly humorous, sometimes unsettling predictions. Roaming secretly in the crowd are vendors selling herbal potions which they vow will relieve the patient of a number of physical ailments, including those looking to perform illegal abortions.

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The front facade of Quiapo Church

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Getting a not-so good tarot card reading

3. Go Mall Hopping around Metro Manila

Believe it or not but malls and Manila go hand-in-hand. In the Philippines, the mall culture is so prevalent that you’re bound to end up in one during a stay in the city. Even my boyfriend Tim who isn’t impressed by much was dazzled by the immensity of the malls, especially The Mall of Asia which is the 11th largest mall in the world! Locals can recite a listing of malls like Makati Greenbelt or Greenhills Promenade but the most well-known are the SM Malls, the largest chain franchise in the Philippines. Unlike other places in Southeast Asia where malls merely act as refuge from the heat, Manila’s malls are about entertaining their guests. At SM Megamall, the Taiwanese dumpling institution, Din Tai Fung, has set up shop. The chocolate lava xiao long baos are divine and are only served at the Manila branch! At Century City Mall, you can attempt to complete a live escape room challenge with Mystery Manila if you’re brave enough to face their sinister-sounding themed rooms. It might sound counter-intuitive but if you want to immerse yourself in the ongoings of the real Manila, make a beeline for the nearest mall.

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Taiwan’s most famous dumpling shop came to SM Megamall

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We escaped our “Escape Room” which was actually set in the entirety of the mall!

 4. Feast on Fresh Seafood in Dampa

Dampa is Manila’s answer to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market and Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market, only a bit more crude and humble. At this wet market, you scan for the finest of Manila’s seafood scene before cooking them any which-way you like at one of the restaurants found alongside the seafood emporium. It is located on Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard in Pasay City near a huge body of water (ie. Manila Bay) so you don’t have to question the freshness of the catch. Besides the popular Maya Maya or Red Snapper, you can also pick up some crabs, mussels, squid, and abalone. There are practically next-to-no tourists. The majority of the guests here are local regulars who all have a favorite paluto restaurant. Paluto literally means “to have someone cook something for you.” My favorites after our day were th  adobong pusit, squid cooked in an adobo-style marinade, and kinilaw, the Philippine take on ceviche using coconut milk and vinegar in lieu of traditional lime juice.

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The vendors here are eager to catch their next sales

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The prices are always fair but don’t be afraid to haggle


5. Take a Bite out of Manila’s Street Food

Foreigners are forewarned to not partake in the street foodways of Manila because of sanitary concerns but I’m a firm believer that great food is found on the streets frequented by those who know best. I go by the rule that if there are a lot of customers crowding by and the food is being cooked fresh, you should be good to go! It was on my bucket list to have my travelmates eat balut aka underdeveloped duck embryo. We were brought to a balut stand by our guides at Bambike certifying it a safe place to eat. My friends were very apprehensive at first, especially being serious animal lovers, but with the guidance of the balut saleswoman, they worked their way to stomaching the challenge. Every person has their own way to eat balut but this is how I do it: crack the top of the shell (whichever end is most hollow), sip the warm broth found inside (this is only found in the masabaw version of balut as opposed to the tuyo version), and then peel the rest of the shell halfway to expose the cooked egg yolk and douse it with vinegar and pinch of salt. In the Philippines, it seems like barbecued offals are the street food of choice. By offals, I mean intestines, liver, and heart! Intestines are called isaw so look for stands advertising this word. The isaw is grilled on the spot and then you have the option of dunking your skewer in either sweet or spicy sauce. I always go for extra marination. Isaw usually costs 10-15 pesos per skewer so it makes it a very affordable snacking option for tourists on the go.

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The friends feeling a bit nauseated by the idea of trying balut

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Filipinos love playful nicknames! Skewered chicken intestines are sometimes called IUDs heh

Honorable mentions:

  • Ever heard of coconut macaroons infused with leche flan? I didn’t think flan could get more decadent until I discovered the baked goods of Custaroonery by Gigi Gaerlan and then my opinion was changed forever.
  • In Manila right now, live escape rooms are all the rage and the offerings they have in the city are incredibly creative. Try Mystery Manila if you want a good spook and for more action and adventure, head to Breakout Philippines.
  • A free water light show happens daily at Rizal Park, also called Luneta Park, right after sundown. Its been nicknamed “Dancing Water” since the fountains legitimately seem to be grooving to the sounds of seventies disco music.
  • Tagaytay is the perfect weekend escape from Manila relished for its location in the highlands of Batangas which provides an ethereal view of Taal Lake and Taal Volcano, the world’s smallest active volcano, accompanied by a gentle breeze.
  • Van Gogh is Bipolar is restaurant aimed at cultivating awareness on mental health by serving up mood-altering inspired dishes (fun fact: the restaurant’s founder is bipolar!)

👉 Writing this piece was a labor of love to a city that is often is misunderstood so I hope it encourages more of you to visit! Any questions you have about accommodations and things to eat? Let me know in the comments below!

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Izzy Pulido is a Bostonian by way of the Philippines who loves to vagabond. At twenty-seven, she's traded in gallivanting around Europe for the 9-to-5 grind... but don't count out the vagabonding! With a new long distance relationship, she's bringing American travel to the forefront. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps.

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  1. Megan Indoe

    29 January

    First of all, I really like how you do the graphics on your site. It must take a lot of time and attention to detail. Did you study graphic design or take a course? We are intrigued by the Philippines, we almost went about 2 years ago but we had to cancel our trip due to the natural disaster that happened. We plan to go back and we will definitely check out your recommendations! Those bamboo bikes looks really cool! Thanks for sharing

    • Izzy Pulido

      30 January

      Awwww thanks so much Megan. Yea, I used to be in the graphic design business so I always try to incorporate my own pieces in my blog post. I really appreciate the compliments 🙂 Awwww, you never got to go back to the Philippines? Unpredictable weather is always a shortcoming of the country but when you do make it out there again, let me know and I’ll send my best tips for you! 🙂

  2. Manang Joni

    30 January

    Izzy this is by far my favorite post. I am so proud to share the same surname 🙂 next time i comr back i will do the touristy stuff!!

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      Awww I’m so happy that you liked this post and thank you for being a frequent visitor to this site! It makes me feel sooo good to know that my family is always behind every project I do 🙂

  3. Wendy

    30 January

    Hi Izzy, it’s nice of you to blog about Manila. I love Intramuros! Since I am a Filipina, I don’t take the paid tour but Carlos Celdran is very informative and witty so it’s highly recommended to foreigners. Malls aren’t my thing though but you’re right. All the entertainment happen there. It has been years since I’d been to Dampa in Parañaque (where the original Dampa is). There’s Dampa now at Macapagal and Pasig. Which branch did you got to?

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      Awww I love how many Filipino bloggers I’m getting to know! Love to see a community of writers with Filino roots 🙂 Yes, I had to go on a tour since I was with my friends from abroad so they could really see the value of our history and they really loved it! They went to research more about Jose Rizal when they went home 😛 I went to the Dampa in Macapagal. Haven’t been to the others yet but I’ll have to ask my aunt and uncle about it.

  4. Jackie

    31 January

    These look cool! Haha I’m from Manila but I’ve only been to Intramuros once or twice, and I’ve never seen those bikes before! I love introducing balot to the foreigners, they really freak out hahaha. I’ve always been tempted to go have my fortune told..just scary though! Not sure I’d like what I’m going to hear! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      The bikes company just started within the last year or so I think! And getting foreigners to eat balut is literally the most hilarious thing I’ve witnessed! Yea, my tarot card reading was rather ominous soooo definitely not looking for a repeat session 😛

  5. Eric

    31 January

    Great post on the fun city of Manila. I visited Manila and Tagaytay a few years ago to see my gf who was studying English there. I had a wonderful time – I loved how smiley and friendly everyone was, the jeepneys, the food, the history (I did the Intramuros tour as well), and Tagaytay was an exceptional place to tour and relax away from the city. I’d definitely like to go back to the Philippines to see more. Thanks for sharing!

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      I love hearing that people have visited the Philippines and not just the islands and hearing compliments about the people as well warms my heart 🙂 Glad you enjoyed your time there and definitely make a trip back!

  6. Laura

    31 January

    Love this post! I really want to visit the Philippines someday and your post makes it look so inviting and wonderful! Thanks for sharing this!

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      You’re so close by (assuming you’re still in Seoul!) Have you booked your Seol Nal vacation yet?

  7. Nathan Anderson

    1 February

    Great guide! I’ve been to Manila twice now and haven’t done ANY of these. I’m hoping to go back in October, I’ll try and do a few then! The Walk this Way tour and Dampa sound super interesting, and I always love a good seafood meal.

    The place I lived in Korea, Pohang, had a great seafood market with a similar theme. We’d go and pick out our fish or octopus, then take it to an on-site restaurant and order side dishes to go along with it. Such a great way to enjoy the food 😀

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      You’ve been twice and never done ANY of these? Dudeeeeee you’re missing out! Walk This Way is something you cannot miss out on especially if you’re a history buff like me! Plus Filipinos are the best entertainers (no bias on my part :P) so I’m sure you’ll get your money’s worth. You’ll always find great seafood all around the Philippines no matter what. I really think that Dampa pales in comparison the seafood markets of Korea just because the variety is so different. I also LOVE octopus in South Korea! Have you tried ‘sannakji’ yet?

  8. Stephanie Hedger

    1 February

    Awesome, Izzy! We have been to the Philippines before, but spent our entire time on Palawan. We soon found that the country just had so much more to offer so we plan on definitely making a trip back in the near future. We have always heard to skip the capital, so it is really nice to hear the point of view someone who has spent so much time there. Still don’t think I will be trying balut anytime soon, though haha!

    • Izzy Pulido

      4 February

      I just went to Palawan for the first time this trip and I completely understand how you’d never want to leave. Its absolutely surreal! But you should honestly make the time to explore the rest of the country! There are great heritage sites (Vigan, Banaue), awesome postcard cities (Baguio), beautiful waterfalls (Laguna), mystical mountainsides (Sagada). I mean you could make your own bucket list for the country! And don’t bypass Manila — the traffic sucks but you could blog while you’re stuck in a car 😛

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