As one of the oldest settlements in the Philippines—an important node in the Spanish galleon trade for centuries, and a former American colony in the Pacific—Manila boasts plenty of history and culture in its streets that not even the bombs of World War II could wipe out.
Formerly limited to the walled city of Intramuros, the greater Manila area has grown into a sprawling 246-square-mile metropolis that rivals Chicago in size; a worthy destination in any Philippines itinerary.
Where is Manila?
Manila is located on the west coast of the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Its name, confusingly, refers to two different political entities: the City of Manila founded by Spanish conquistadores in 1571, and Metro Manila that groups the City of Manila with fifteen other surrounding cities and one attached municipality. These component cities include:
- Makati: site of the Philippines' main central business district, and a burgeoning budget travel destination in its own right
- Quezon City: north of the City of Manila, home to the Philippines’ top universities and location of provincial bus terminals for buses headed to northern destinations like the Banaue Rice Terraces
- Pasay City: shares historic Roxas Boulevard with the city of Manila; includes the Ninoy Aquino International Airport; the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a theater for the performing arts; and the SM Mall of Asia, a sprawling shopping mall overlooking Manila Bay
Best Time to Visit Manila
To see Manila at its best—when the weather is least rainy or hot, when the floods that accompany the monsoon season are nowhere to be seen, and traffic is at its most manageable—visit the city between January and March, when the “amihan” season still brings relatively cool winds from the north.
Manila is at its least congested during Holy Week leading up to Easter—but most establishments will be closed during Good Friday. There aren’t any major fiestas in Manila worth seeing at this time, though Holy Week Parade takes place in Intramuros at this time of year, so try to work that into your schedule.
Try to avoid Manila during typhoon season from June to November. Traffic will be worse than usual because of flooded streets, and with both classes and business in full swing during those months, getting around the city will be a complete nightmare if you’re not used to it.
Getting into Manila
The main air gateway to the Philippines’ capital is Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA: MNL, ICAO: RPLL). Its location in the aforementioned Pasay City puts it close to Makati’s skyscrapers and the City of Manila’s scenic sights.
Unfortunately, Manila’s ever-present traffic congestion makes NAIA a challenge to get into and out from. A newfangled point-to-point bus service, Ube Express (ubeexpress.com) uses buses to connect travelers to other points around the metropolis.
Otherwise, travelers can use taxis (either from the taxi queue or via the taxi-booking app Grab) or private cars.
An alternative airport for Manila travel exists: Clark International Airport (IATA: CRK, ICAO: RPLC) sits on a former U.S. Air Force base north of Metro Manila. Both NAIA and Clark Airport are served by budget airlines that can take you all around the Philippines and the rest of the region.
Getting Around Metro Manila
Manila's challenging transport scenario is of a piece with transportation in the rest of the Philippines; a fragmented travel system makes getting from point A to point B a struggle if you're not familiar with the lay of the land.
Taxis are the easiest, if most expensive, way to get around. Manila's commuter train system gets large numbers of people around faster, assuming your point of origin and destination are both relatively close to train stations. Ask a local for the best way to get to your destination by bus, or even better, by jeepney, that iconic Filipino mini-bus.
Renting a car is perfectly possible—after all, Filipinos drive on the right side of the road, same as Americans—but its horrendous traffic makes Manila one of the worst places in the world to drive in.
Things to Do and See in Metro Manila
Most of Metro Manila's most picturesque tourist areas are within the City of Manila's boundaries: Intramuros, Rizal Park and Binondo are two of the City of Manila's most popular attractions.
Yet travelers shouldn't neglect the entirety of Metro Manila, a large conurbation that offers some of the world's biggest malls, some surprising dining destinations, and a few out-of-the-way tourist attractions that deserve travelers' attention.
We've put Manila's most interesting in a single list here: Top Things to Do in Manila. The list includes some of the capital’s most delicious food destinations, great places to shop, even the Asian equivalent of Arlington Cemetery, built to honor the American and Allied casualties of World War II in the Pacific.
Shopping in Manila
The greater Manila metropolis holds some of the world's biggest malls... but also a few more rustic market experiences, too. Shoppers with a taste for the biggest and best can take the MRT train that connects to some of the metro's largest shopping centers, including from SM North EDSA in the north to Ayala Center in the south.
Wandering a little off the beaten track, travelers can visit one of Makati's weekend markets (Salcedo and Legazpi villages offer some organic, artisanal goodies worth taking home), or the more chaotic Divisoria market experience.
Where to Stay in Manila
A key rule of thumb: stay close to your preferred place of business/pleasure when finding a place to stay in Manila. Travelers with business in Makati, for instance, shouldn't book a hotel along Manila Bay, not unless they have a thing for being stuck in traffic for a good hour or so.
There's no need to worry—you'll find a hotel that suits any budget, wherever in Metro Manila you decide to spend the night.
Your choices include some modern hotels in the new Bonifacio Global City financial district; and one of the most historic hotels in Southeast Asia (where General McArthur loved to shack up with his mistress).