The Philippines’ capital Manila is one of Southeast Asia's biggest cities, but most tourists are content to ignore it, reserving only a few hours' stopover before proceeding to other Philippine tourist hotspots like Boracay and Bohol.
The list below explains what they're missing out on: an assortment of sites that lay out the rich tapestry of Philippine culture, expressed in architecture, natural beauty, and cuisine.
(Read about getting around Manila, Philippines to make sense of your transport options.)
Visit Intramuros, the Birthplace of Manila
Once upon a time, "Manila" referred only to the parts of the city within Intramuros' walls. Inside Intramuros, the Spanish colonial presence in Manila ruled the rest of the Philippines from a self-contained world that included seven churches (among them the San Agustin Church, still standing today), 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. (Try our self-guided walking tour of Intramuros.)
Getting There: Ride the LRT-1 (Yellow Line) to Central Terminal station; walk to the Manila City Hall pedestrian underpass that crosses Padre de Burgos Street and leads to the Victoria Street entrance into Intramuros.
Take Martial Arts Classes at Rizal Park
The massive public park facing Manila Bay – Rizal Park – has something for everyone. A light-and-sound show reenacting the death of the Filipino national hero (and park namesake) Jose Rizal, weekend kali martial arts lessons at Agrifina Circle, and one of Manila’s rare wide-open spaces, free for everyone to enjoy.
Rizal himself is buried here, under the Rizal Monument obelisk. The Monument has a ceremonial guard of Marines; tourists often come to watch the changing of the guard at 12 noon.
On the western end of Rizal Park, you'll find a few interesting attractions clustered around the Quirino Grandstand complex, including the massive Manila Ocean Park aquarium and the Museo Pambata (Children's Museum).
Getting There: To get to Rizal Park, ride the LRT-1 (Yellow Line) to United Nations Station then walk the rest of the way.
Hear the Echoes of War at Corregidor Island
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; the Battle of Corregidor killed countless U.S. army grunts before the American side surrendered.
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 Douglas MacArthur before his retreat to Australia.
Getting There: Sun Cruises offers a whole-day tour of Corregidor that starts at 6 a.m. at the Esplanade Seaside Terminal and ends by 4 p.m., inclusive of speedboat ride to and from Manila.
Cast a Spotlight on History at Manila's Public Museums
Three American-era government buildings near Rizal Park were converted into museums showcasing Philippine culture and history.
The former Finance Building is now the Museum of the Filipino People: its hallways now display ethnographic relics from the Philippines' many local 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 Philippines' National Museum, where priceless artwork by famous Filipino artists stand alongside images of Catholic saints rescued from the Philippines' many old churches.
Getting There: Take a taxi to get here, or ride the LRT-1 (Yellow Line) to United Nations Avenue Station, then walk the rest of the way.
Visit Southeast Asia's Oldest Chinatown, Binondo
The district of Binondo was founded as a home for Spanish-era Manila’s Christianized Chinese population. Today, its hodge-podge of skyscrapers and ancient shophouses nonetheless remains the cultural center of Manila's "Chinoys".
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 Filipino-Chinese 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. Read our Philippines food safari experience for a first-hand account of a Binondo foodie visit.
Getting There: Take a taxi to get here, or ride the LRT-1 (Yellow Line) to Carriedo Station, then walk the rest of the way.
Watch a Manila Bay Sunset
Don't leave Manila without witnessing one of its spectacular sunsets over Manila Bay. You can see it fine from the Baywalk on Roxas Boulevard overlooking the sea, or you can see it right on Manila Bay itself, on a Manila Bay dinner cruise.
From the sheltered open-air upper deck of the ferry, guests can watch the sunset happen, and see the twinkling lights of the Manila skyline as the night settles in. Onboard dinner and entertainment complete the Manila Bay cruise experience.
Two services have the Manila Bay cruise business between themselves: Prestige Cruises and the cruise ferry "M/V Spirit of Manila," run by Corregidor ferry provider Sun Cruises. Both services leave from the Esplanade Seaside terminal, near the Mall of Asia complex.
Getting There: Take the taxi to Roxas Boulevard or the Mall of Asia complex.
Browse and Buy from Manila's Weekend Markets
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.
Further north, the massive Sidcor weekend market holds stalls selling everything from fresh meat to saplings to regional food specialties. Sidcor is as busy as the Makati markets are neighborly, but its food court is the best place to sample freshly made Filipino delicacies like lechon kawali, kaldereta and the incredibly unique egg dish, balut.
Getting There: Ride the MRT-3 (Blue Line) to Ayala Station, then walk to the respective weekend markets in Makati; or ride the same line to Quezon Avenue Station to get to Sidcor.
See Manila’s Futuristic Side at Bonifacio Global City
"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.
Getting There: Take the taxi, or ride the MRT-3 (Blue Line) to Ayala Station . Walk to the McKinley Exchange Corporate Center to ride the bus headed to BGC. Updated bus routes can be found at the BGC app.
Go Antique Shopping at Cubao X
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: Grey Market Vintage, UVLA and My Breathing Space, among others. 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.
Getting There: Take the taxi, or ride the MRT-3 (Blue Line) to Araneta-Cubao Station where you can walk to Cubao X.
Cool down at Tagaytay and Taal Lake
Manila's heat can be intolerable between March and July (more on weather in the Philippines); 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 to the lip of the lake and negotiate a trip with one of the many touts waiting for travelers.
Taal is only sleeping, though – check with authorities to make sure it isn't restive before making your way there.
Getting There: Ride the LRT-1 (Yellow Line), then disembark at Gil Puyat station (Google Maps). Walk to the DLTB Bus Station below it, then ride its bus headed to Nasugbu, Balayan or Lemery, all of which stop by Tagaytay. Bus fare to Tagaytay costs PHP 80 (about $1.50), with the commute taking two to three hours.
Get Some Retail Therapy at Metro Manila’s Malls
You could spend your whole Manila vacation just relaxing in any of the metropolis' sprawling malls. And by sprawling, we mean you’ll find the largest shopping malls in the world.
SM City North EDSA is located in Quezon City north of Makati. Its 4.3 million sqm floor area includes everything: an IMAX theater, a skygarden linking the mall's major building components, a bowling alley, and hundreds of tenants selling practically everything on earth.
Located on the other end of the EDSA highway, sister property Mall of Asia overlooks Manila Bay, its air-conditioned interiors and upscale shops offering sweet relief from the unrelenting heat outside.
Looking for budget shopping options? Go instead to Greenhills Shopping Center, where you’ll find a massive bazaar selling local carvings, delicacies, knockoffs and South Sea pearls.
Getting There: First-time Manila visitors prefer taking the taxi to Greenhills and Mall of Asia. SM City North EDSA is easily accessible by MRT-3 (Blue Line); stop at the North Avenue Station, then cross through the Trinoma Mall to SM City.
Put on the Red Light at Poblacion’s Dining & Drink Scene
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 – its go-go bars, hostels, watering holes and restaurants 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: Wantusawa Oyster Bar serves fresh oysters from Aklan and other Asian-influenced seafood dishes; A'Toda Madre serves top-shelf tequilas and mixtos; and Dulo combines an Asian-style restaurant/bar with an atelier for Filipino artists.
Getting There: Poblacion is most easily accessible by taxi.