13 Best Things to Do in Manila, the Philippines

Rizal Monument in Rizal Park, Manila, Philippines

simonlong / Getty Images

Most tourists heading to the Philippines tend to skip over Manila, choosing instead to head straight to tropical beach destinations like Palawan, Boracay, or Bohol. However, the sprawling Filipino capital city and surrounding metro area offer a completely different side of the country away from the touristy resorts, and it's an especially popular stop for backpackers traveling throughout Southeast Asia for its affordability and rich culture, expressed in architecture, natural beauty, and delicious cuisine.

01 of 13

Immerse Yourself in Filipino Culture

Ayala Museum in Manila

Ayala Museum

Makati Avenue, Greenbelt Park, corner Dela Rosa Street, Ayala Center, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines

For an overarching introduction to Filipino art, culture, and history, spend a day exploring the Ayala Museum in the Makati Business District. The building includes six stories of exhibits ranging from pre-colonization artifacts to contemporary art, so visitors can really get a grasp of the Philippines in one condensed lesson.

Sixty individual and elaborately designed dioramas give a visual archive of some of the most important milestones throughout Filipino history, dating all the way back to prehistoric times and leading up to the Philippines independence from the U.S. in 1946. Other exhibits focus on the tumultuous years since independence, while entire floors are dedicated to the works from some of the most important Filipino artists.

02 of 13

Dive Under the Sea at the Manila Ocean Park

Small child watching fish in large tank at Manila Ocean Park
Karen Ilagan / Getty Images
666 Behind, Quirino Grandstand, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila, Philippines
Phone +63 2 8567 7777

If Manila is just a pitstop on your way to other beach destinations in the Philippines, you'll see plenty of sea life while snorkeling in the Pacific. But you can get a comprehensive preview at the Manila Ocean Park, which includes a massive Oceanarium of nearly 300 different marine species native to the Philippines and Southeast Asia. At the heart of the aquarium is a giant tunnel that lets visitors walk through the tank for a 220-degree view of the animals around them.

While the Oceanarium is the main attraction at Manila Ocean Park, it's not the only one. Get hands-on with reptiles and insects at the World of Creepy Crawlies exhibit, or visit some feathered friends at the Birdhouse. The Manila Ocean Park is right on the water of Manila Bay and conveniently located at the edge of Rizal Park.

03 of 13

Visit the Birthplace of Manila at Intramuros

Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, Manila, Philippines

Bertrand Gardel / Getty Images

Intramuros, Manila, 1002 Metro Manila, Philippines

Once upon a time, "Manila" referred only to the parts of the city within the walls of Intramuros. This fortified wall dates back to the arrival of Spanish colonizers, who ruled the rest of the Philippines from inside this self-contained world. While many of the bygone structures have been destroyed over the centuries by war and natural disasters, some of the original structures can still be found, like the San Agustin Church, the Governor-General's Palace, and the fearsome Fort Santiago.

Today, the Walled City of Intramuros is now open for tourists. Visitors can explore relics of Spanish rule in the Philippines, including museums like the Bahay Tsinoy, which is dedicated to telling the story of the Filipino-Chinese community.

04 of 13

Enjoy Wide-Open Space at Rizal Park

The Rizal Monument in Rizal Park
simonlong / Getty Images
Rizal Park, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila, Philippines

The massive public park facing Manila Bay called Rizal Park has something for everyone. In a place like Manila—the most densely populated city in the world—finding open space to enjoy isn't easy to come by, but the huge Rizal Park is a welcome exception. The park's namesake—Jose Rizal—is a national hero who helped lead the country toward independence from Spain and was executed, and he's buried underneath the towering obelisk. Every evening, there's a light and sound show at the exact spot he was martyred.

Beside just taking a stroll through the 140-acre park, visitors can also take part in kali martial arts lessons, watch the changing of the guard at the Rizal Monument at noon, or take scenic photos of colorful orchids and butterflies at the Orchidarium.

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05 of 13

Hear the Echoes of War at Corregidor Island

Corregidor Island, Philippines

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Corregidor Island, Cavite City, Philippines

Once a heavily-armed fortress guarding the entrance of the bay, Corregidor Island served as Manila's final line of defense during the Japanese invasion of World War II. The Battle of Corregidor killed countless U.S. and allied Filipino soldiers before General Douglas MacArthur surrendered to the Japanese and famously promised, "I shall return."

A number of memorials stand on Corregidor, standing among the ruins of the American settlement that stood on the island between 1900 and 1941. American-era fortifications and gun batteries can be reached by tourist buses traveling on winding concrete roads. Most tours culminate in a visit to the Malinta Tunnel, an underground shelter that housed General MacArthur before his retreat to Australia.

06 of 13

Cast a Spotlight on History at Manila's Public Museums

Religious art display at the National Museum, Manila, Philippines

Tripsavvy / Mike Aquino

Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila, Philippines
Phone +63 2 8527 1215

Three American-era government buildings near Rizal Park were converted into museums showcasing Philippine culture and history. Similar to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the Philippines is the umbrella organization that includes a number of public museums in Manila.

The former Finance Building is now the National Museum of Anthropology, and its hallways now display ethnographic relics from the Philippines' many Indigenous cultures. Rescued relics from the wreck of the Manila galleon "San Diego" can be seen on the museum's second floor.

The former Agriculture Building was transformed into the Museum of Natural History, where the Philippines’ rich biodiversity sits on display around a giant lobby centerpiece sculpted to resemble DNA.

The former Senate Building now serves as the National Museum of Fine Arts, where priceless artwork by famous Filipino artists stand alongside images of Catholic saints rescued from the Philippines' many old churches.

07 of 13

Visit Southeast Asia's Oldest Chinatown

Friendship arch at entrance to Binondo, Manila, Philippines

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Binondo, Manila, 1006 Metro Manila, Philippines

The district of Binondo was founded as a home for Manila’s Christianized Chinese population during the era of Spanish colonization. Today, the hodge-podge of skyscrapers and ancient shophouses nonetheless remains the cultural center of Manila's "Chinoys," the Tagalog expression for the Chinese-Filipinos.

Binondo Church represents the paradox of Chinese culture in the Philippines—a Catholic Church with distinct Chinese influences, the Binondo Church caters to the spiritual needs of local Catholics.

Walk deeper into Binondo's narrow streets to experience awesome food and culture, where you can experience the unique noodle stylings of Masuki, feng shui tips at Sunrise, and the Chinese-inspired sweets and pastries of Eng Bee Tin, among others.

08 of 13

Watch a Manila Bay Sunset

Calesa (horse-drawn cart) in Manila, Philippines

Carlo Zamora / EyeEm / Getty Images

Baywalk, Ermita, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Don't leave Manila without witnessing one of its spectacular sunsets over Manila Bay. The best place to see it is along the Manila Baywalk, a beachfront promenade that's over a mile long and is one of the most popular places in the city for grabbing a drink, eating with a view, or just taking a scenic stroll. The Baywalk is lined with bars, cafes, and restaurants with outdoor seating, oftentimes with live music or other activities in the evenings.

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09 of 13

Browse and Buy from Manila's Weekend Markets

Shopping at Salcedo Weekend Market, Philippines

Tripsavvy / Mike Aquino

Even the biggest city in the Philippines craves for fresh-from-the-market goods; Manila's weekend markets serve that hefty demand. On weekends, tourists hit Makati’s Salcedo Village Market (open on Saturdays) and the Legazpi Village Market (open on Sundays) to buy homemade fish paste, the rice sweets called suman, and handmade crafts.

The most well-known market in Manila, however, is Divisoria Market. There are many high-end shopping malls around Manila, but Divisoria Market is the place to go for bargain deals and haggling. The huge marketplace is more like a small neighborhood, so plan to spend some time walking through the stalls and taking a gander at all of the local goods.

10 of 13

See Manila’s Futuristic Side at Bonifacio Global City

Nighttime view of BGC, Philippines

Joseph Oropel / Getty Images

Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines

Bonifacio Global City, or just"BGC," feels almost foreign to Manila: a parklike business area with almost as many museums and open-air shopping districts as office buildings. Bars and restaurants can be found almost everywhere throughout BGC, but most of them are located along Bonifacio High Street, a main-street-style shopping district housing some of the world's finest retail and dining brands. High-end hotels also dominate the BGC skyline—the Shangri-La at the Fort is but one example.

A patriotic detour (for U.S. citizens anyway) can be found at the Philippines' counterpart to Arlington Cemetery nearby: the 152-acre Manila American Cemetery holds the graves of 17,202 American and allied servicemen.

11 of 13

Go Antique Shopping at Cubao X

Kitschy vintage collectibles at UVLA, Cubao X, Manila

Tripsavvy / Mike Aquino

Araneta Center, General Araneta Avenue, J3C4+QGX, Cubao, Quezon City, 1109 Metro Manila, Philippines
Phone +63 2 8911 1959

Formerly a shoe emporium called Marikina Shoe Expo, its takeover by creative types spurred its transformation into the cutting-edge Cubao X, where the cross-pollination of vintage stores and indie artists produce a uniquely Filipino brand of retro magic.

You can find old-school toys, movie merch, and handmade Filipino souvenirs in Cubao X’s vintage shops, such as Grey Market Vintage and My Breathing Space. Studio Soup sells zines from the Philippines and across Asia. Vinyl collectors can browse collections curated by Gold Digger and Vinyl Dump. Ateliers like Kendo Creative sell artisanal stickers, enamel pins, bags, and maps created by up-and-coming artists.

Foodies can also dig into Cubao X’s restaurant and bar scene, ably held up by Bellini’s for Italian food, Fred’s Revolucion for craft beers and Filipino food, and Habanero Kitchen Bar for adventurous world cuisine.

Traveling with kids? A detour next to Bellini’s leads out to an interactive art museum, Art in Island, where you can pose for selfies against fantastic backdrops.

12 of 13

Cool down at Tagaytay and Taal Lake

Viewdeck overlooking Taal Lake in Tagaytay, Philippines

Luca Tettoni / robertharding / Getty Images

Tagaytay, Cavite, Philippines

Manila's heat can be intolerable between March and July, and Manila residents and tourists escape the heat at Tagaytay, located 34 miles south of Manila at a higher elevation overlooking the Taal Lake and volcano.

The laid-back town is home to a number of mountain resorts and hotels boasting excellent vantage points for viewing Taal Volcano. If you want to visit the volcano itself, that can be arranged, too: you'll need to take a "jeepney"—the ubiquitous and quirky public transportation around Manila— to the lip of the lake and negotiate a trip with one of the many touts waiting for travelers.

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13 of 13

Drink and Dine in Poblacion’s Hipster Scene

A’Toda Madre Tequila Bar, Poblacion, Philippines

Tripsavvy / Mike Aquino

Poblacion, Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines

Immediately north of the hyper-modern Ayala business district in Makati, the proudly bohemian Poblacion district keeps it real for hipsters and backpackers. Called “WilliamsBurgos” by locals (a portmanteau of the area’s Burgos Street with Brooklyn's Williamsburg), Poblacion mixes the seedy with the cutting-edge thanks to go-go bars, hostels, watering holes, and restaurants that show a more experimental and authentic side of Manila.

The food and drink scene in Poblacion seems to change from month to month, but a few names stand out. For example, Wantusawa Oyster Bar provides fresh oysters from Aklan and other Asian-influenced seafood dishes and A'Toda Madre serves top-shelf tequilas and mixtos.

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13 Best Things to Do in Manila, the Philippines