Heading to Manila?
Manila has long been a coveted and conquered capital, its central Pacific positioning leaving it open to western colonials, Asian empires and pirates over its colourful history. This is what makes Manila so unique today, a city where the different layers of influence and multiculturalism will capture your imagination. With occupations from Britain, Holland and Spain, plus a large Chinese heritage, Manila is a melting pot of culture, history and identity.
It’s one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Standing in the capital, you will be sharing your square kilometre with over 41,000 people. It continues to be the country’s centre of economy, trade, business and attracts more than a million tourists a year.
One thing, however, that can make Manila intimidating is the lack of a strong tourist infrastructure. It’s quite different to other big Southeast Asian cities a la Bangkok and Saigon, which are overflowing with affordable and comfortable hotels and areas familiar with tourists. While this might appeal to the more experienced traveller it can normally stress out first time visitors.
Luckily for you, I called this city home for six months and know a few things. Below I’ve broken down each area, with the best places to stay, what the area has to offer, and a few insider tips too. My guide will make sure your Manila trip is one to remember.
In this guide:
- Makati- Perfect for Manila first-timers.
- Ermita– Sightseeing and history.
- Malate District– Cheap and local.
- Quezon City– Hipster vibes and lots of students.
- Intramuros– Niche area for history buffs.
- Bonifacio Global City – The nicest area in town.
Where to stay in Manila?
Manila is a large, sprawling urban area made from three concentric layers so choosing a destination can be an overwhelming task.
The best place to stay in Manila is highly dependent on your budget, hobbies and the type of holiday you are looking for.
Map of Manila
Above is a map of the key areas in Manila.
As you can see most of them are in close proximity to the bay, except for Quezon City which is almost like a city of its own in the north.
Most tourists choose to stay in the Makati/Taguig area, which is the most developed part of the city, but other areas have things to offer as well. Let’s break them down.
A city within a city, Makati is the financial district of Manila, and often considered the best area to live in the capital. A hub of culture and entertainment, Makati is home to historical sites like the church of Nuestra Señora de Gracia and Santa Ana Cabaret, commercial developments such as the Ayala Centre and many upscale shopping malls. Its central location between Intamuros and Manila Bay, and near to the quickly developing Taguig, also makes it one of the most convenient places to stay in Manila.
If you are a first-time traveller here, I’d strongly recommend staying in Makati. It’s westernised in many areas and will have all the amenities you need, plus seeing foreigners around these parts is common and expected.
You should stay in Makati if:
- You want a mix of everything (nightlife, street food, western comforts)
- It’s your first time to Manila and you want somewhere safe/accessible
- You want easy access to public transport
- You are on a reasonably tight (but not shoestring) budget
- You love to party, eat and shop!
Where to Stay in Makati
For the Backpacker
Several hostels have been popping up in Makati as tourism has grown in the last few years. This has made the city much more friendly to backpacking and even those on tiny budgets should be able to find something here. I’d recommend staying at ZEN Hostel, it’s not the Ritz but it’s the cheapest in town and has all the basics a backpacker needs. Best rates here.
For The Budget Traveller
Go for Hotel Durban. A night will run you around $30-$40, and it’s nicely located on Makati Avenue, central to most parts of the city and the rooms are great value. There’s also coffee and a restaurant on site for those nights you just want a quiet night in (happens often in Manila!). Best rates here.
For The High Roller
Definitely stay at Raffles! Arguably the best, and unarguably the most well known hotel in Manila. Raffles doesn’t skimp on anything, including price – there’s two pools, a sauna, gym, several bars and restaraunts, massage spa, coffee shop, guest kitchen, even an on-site golf course. It’s also the best located hotel in Manila, right beside the famous Greenbelt Mall where you can find anything you need. If you’re after something lush, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Best rates here.
Insider tip: One of my favourite places in Makati is the Legazpi Market (cnr Legazpi and Rufino street). Lot’s of home made treats are on offer, make a weekend morning of it. Greenbelt mall is always a great place to spend an afternoon, with lots to eat (and shop!). If the skylines and traffic become a little too much visit the Guadalupe Ruins, a collection of 400-year old churches with a lot of history.
Ermita is popular with tourists due to the National Rizal Park that lies at the heart of it. You’ll notice it’s also noticeably more laid back than the likes of Makati.
There are a great number of restaurants and bars in the area, particularly local ones, and one of Manila’s more well-known shopping malls, Robinson’s Place. Check out Adriatico Street, by day it’s a busy shopping district filled with shops and sidewalk cafes, by night it’s a filled with vibrant bars and restaurants.
Previously Manila’s equivalent of Capitol Hill, with many important government buildings, Ermita is now more common for middle class families to live in. The government units have long moved out, and the buildings were subsequently turned into exhibition spaces, along with the National Museum and the Museum of the Filipino People.
Aside from the National Park and institutions there is a large scale oceanarium and the Museo Pambata, where children are encouraged to interact with exhibitions.
You should stay in Ermita if:
- You want something reasonably modern but outside Makati or Taguig
- Want a mix of culture and nightlife
- Want to be away from the main tourist crowds
- Want to sightsee a lot
Where to Stay in Ermita
For the Backpacker
In & Out guesthouse is a decent bargain at around $10 a night. Newly renovated in 2017, this guesthouse is popular with students and travellers on a budget. You’ll find all the basic amenities you need including a private entrance, television and a locker. Best rates here.
For The Budget Traveller
Stay at Red Planet. It’s a solid three star hotel with bargain rates, within walking distance to Rizal Park and Manila Bay. Lots of places to eat within a ten minute walk radius as well. For those looking for privacy and comfort on a budget, you can’t go wrong. Best rates here.
For The High Roller
The Luneta Hotel has been on Ermita’s Kalaw Avenue since 1919 and is one of the few French Renaissance buildings left in the city. The hotel was relaunched in 2014, after years of abandonment, with a unique blend of French, Spanish and Filipino architecture. It’s not luxury in the traditional sense, but it’s definitely beautiful and will allow you to experience a taste of the old Philippines with its rustic charm and nostalgic WWII history. It was good enough Eisenhower to stay in! Best rates here.
Insider tip: Take time out at Paco Park and visit the chapel to pay your respects to national hero Jose Rizal, sometime you’ll find a local market there. Visit the popular historic Catholic church, simply called the Ermita Church, dating back to 1571. Keep your kids happy at the Museo Pambata, it aims to teach children through interactive experiences and exhibits including a climbing wall, a herb garden and human body maze.
The Malate District is the closest you will get to a taste of real Filipino life. It’s not always pretty, you will see some poverty but you will also meet friendly locals, eat authentic food and be among much fewer tourists.
There is a large mall in the area and plenty of bars and restaurants around. Many thrifty inhabitants have converted their front rooms and porches into shops, kiosks or food stalls and will be happy to sell you a local delicacy out their front window. You’ll also find, blended into the Filipino community, a large amount of Arabic, Korean and Chinese residents with their own shops, restaurants and culture. Within the Malate district is also the unofficial red light district of Manila so you will find plenty of night bars that cater to that audience (if that’s what you’re after).
Most people prefer not to stay in Malate, but it’s still a worthwhile area to visit and see another side of Manila. This is one of the riskier areas but since the new presidency, it has become much safer to walk around in although we still advise to not walk alone in areas you’re unfamilar with, or at night-time.
You should stay in the Malate District if:
- You’re on a tight budget
- You want to be near the red light district
- You don’t mind a more rugged part of the city
- You want to experience a different side of Manila
Where to Stay in the Malate District
For the Backpacker
Stay at the CozyDito Hostel. It’s an exceptionally well run backpackers (the family kind), breakfast is free and it’s cheap as it gets. It’s also about 500m from the nearest LRT station. The shoestring backpacker will feel right at home. Best rates here.
For The Budget Traveller
Stay at RedDoorz. It’s a three star hotel and rooms, which start around $25, are exceptionally furnished for something at this price point. There’s even room service and a gym for those wanting a little more than just a basic hostel. Right by the LRT so you’re well connected to the rest of the city. One of the best value accommodations in the area. Best rates here.
For the High Roller
If you’re after something lavish, you’ll be at home at the AG New World Hotel at Manila Bay. Not cheap, but you won’t get better views of Manila’s sprawling city landscape. Within the hotel you’ll find three restaurants, casino, spa, swimming pool, gym, sauna, and meeting rooms for any business needs. You’ll also be within a few minutes of Manila’s most famous landmarks. Manila Bay luxury at its finest. Best rates here.
Insider Tip: EDM fans will love Club ZZYZX which plays popular music from Korea, Japan and the Philippines or the much-loved karaoke bar FAB which also offers comedy nights, low-priced drinks and friendly staff.
If you are looking for a trendy up and coming areas then Quezon City is for you. Filled with the city’s top universities, local fashion boutiques and hipsterish vibes, this area is home to some of the most youthful and creative communities in Manila. Home to Maginhawa street, internationally known as foodie heaven you’ll find everything from high-end bistros to food trucks. In Quezon you’ll find second-hand bookstores, board game cafes, vinyl stores and tattoo parlours, you’ll never be bored! For those looking for a less hipster experience, you can visit The Quezon Memorial Circle, a national park and shrine which contains a mausoleum containing the remains of President Quezon and his wife.
You should stay in Quezon City if:
- You LOVE food!
- You are a fan of second-hand clothing, vinyl and bookshops
- You’re looking for creative inspiration
- You want to experience more of a local student/young adult vibe of the city
- You don’t mind being far out of the main centres of Makati/Taguig
Where to Stay in Quezon City
For the Backpacker
Try Kamuning Hostel. Centrally located, and all dormitories are fitted with seating areas, air conditioning, some rooms even offer a patio! Their staff are super helpful and all speak English. Shouldn’t be much more than ten dollars a night. Best rates here.
For The Budget Traveller
Stay at the OYO 115 Northridge Mansions. Rooms start at around $25 and all are well furnished with both a television and private bathroom. It’s not really close to any major landmarks or malls, but it’s got a few local eateries in the vicinity, and is only a short Grab or Uber away from the rest of Quezon City. Perfect for those wanting comfort but trying to keep the budget low. Best rates here.
For the High Roller
Just a five-minute walk from North Avenue MRT station and Ninoy Aquino Parks, Seda Vertis North is one of the top hotels in the area. For a five star hotel prices are very reasonable, and definitely worth it for the central location, outdoor terrace and impeccably furnished rooms. Also comes with a gym, pool, sauna, poolside bar, onsite restaurants and room service – all the frills you’d expect from a top end hotel. Best rates here.
Insider Tip: Romulo Cafe offers traditional Filipino comfort food from family recipes and a large selection of vegetarian dishes. Fans of Korean food make sure you check out Kko Kko, a modern Korean chicken house that uses traditional recipes that came from Grace Lee and her mother. Two interesting things you may want to try from the menu are the Snow Chicken Cheese and Galbi Jim Dosirak!
From the literal Latin translation of ‘inside the walls’, Intramuros is a walled city built by the Spanish in the 16th century. Less than a square kilometre, this area within the modern Manila is known as the historic centre and the oldest district Intramuros allows visitors to take an easier pace to life in a sometimes chaotic city. Let a horse-drawn cart take you through the mini-city’s numerous gates and witness their Spanish-style colonial homes, city squares and historic churches.
History lovers make sure you visit the Ford Santiago and Manila Cathedral, both of which were destroyed and rebuilt after an 1863 earthquake. Drastic changes may have happened to Intramuros still has remnants of American rule, the Japanese occupation and the detainment of Jose Rizal (A Filipino nationalist who was executed for his rebellion against the Spanish).
The highlight of this little slice of history is the San Agustin Church, one of the oldest buildings in the city that has survived all the disasters and conquests and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You should stay in Intramuros if:
- You’re a history nerd
- You want to enjoy a quieter Manila
- You’re a culture vulture
- You don’t mind being away from the busier areas of the city
Where to Stay in Intramuros
Intramuros doesn’t have a huge selection of accommodation options as it’s not a popular place to stay (most people simply visit for the day). However, there are a few:
For The Budget Traveller
Try White Knight Intramuros for a budget option, will cost around $50 but you’ll be right by the famous Plaza San Luis Complex. This hotel gives guests easy access to a number of nearby historical attractions and boasts tastefully furnished rooms with modern amenities. This hotel blends a friendly atmosphere with quality accommodation, all for a reasonable price. Best rates here.
For The High Roller
Bayleaf Intramuros Hotel is the only boutique hotel in Intramuros. From their modern and tasteful hotel rooms to the all-day dining panoramic restaurant on the 9th floor and the roof deck alfresco lounge- you might find yourself a little attached by the time you leave. It’s amazing value as well as being walking distance to all the local tourist attractions. Best rates here.
Insider Tip: Casa Manila is a fully-furnished home turned museum that shows how Filipinos lived during the colonial area, it’s worth it just to check out the unique toilet setup. Opposite Casa Manila is the San Agustin Church which houses the San Agustin Museum, a two floor museum filled with art, sculpture and furniture.
Bonifacio Global City
Another up-and-coming business district in Manila, Bonaficio Global City offers something rare for Manila: green spaces! This is an organised haven of wealth and celebrities in a sometimes (or often) chaotic Manila.
With full hedges and trees lining the sidewalks, you could forget you were in the concrete city if it wasn’t for the towering skylines. As you’d expect from a buzzing, modern development, Bonaficio offers upmarket hotels, a mix of traditional and modern restaurants, art galleries and high ticket boutiques.
You’ll also be spoiled with the coolest rooftop bars, a lively nightclub scene and all the best designer brand’s boutiques. BGC is also a very walkable area (except maybe for the heat) that’s fun to explore on foot. You can find public art everywhere from powerful murals to artsy graffiti on the high street walls. It’s a highly developed part of Manila that could rival anywhere else in Asia, and a popular place for those tourists who have a little extra cash to spend.
You should stay in Bonifacio Global City if:
- You want to stay in the nicest part of the city
- You want some retail therapy
- You’re a foodie
- You’re not on a very tight budget
Where to Stay in Bonifacio Global City
For the Budget Traveller
ZEN Rooms at Avida 34th is probably the best value in the area. It’s about a 10 minute walk to Bonifacio High Street. The rooms are basic but stylish, perfect for those wanting to stay in the nicest part of Manila without splurging on a bed. $40 should get a room if you’re lucky (book early, it fills up often). Best rates here.
For the High Roller
Grand Hyatt Manila is popular for both business and leisure and is ideally situated near the centre of Bonaficio Global City. This hotel has all your favourite luxuries – sauna, spa, heated pool, gym, poolside bar, indoor bar, coffee shop, plus free breakfast every morning. As for the rooms, they’re grand and spacious, like they should be. If you need something lush you’ll be just fine here – it’s one of the top hotels in the city. Best rates here.
Insider Tip: Dine at The Red Piano, on the outside it looks like a romantic little restaurant until you discover a hidden door at the back which unlocks a little lounge bar with a piano that allows customers to sing along with the pianist. Grab drinks in Manila’s best speakeasy, Nomu, and enjoy a cocktail (we recommend the Ducky Punch which comes in a rubber duck filled punch bowl). Also, try to avoid coming to and from The Fort during peak hours, the traffic is brutal.
How to Get Around Manila
Getting around Manila is fairly simple due to an accessible variety of transportation options. The modes of transportation in Manila include taxi, jeepney, Uber and GrabTaxi apps, Light Rail Transit and Metro Rail Transit.
Walking around Manila at night is often discouraged, but is usually fine during the day.
Taxi, Uber and Grab
Try to use an MGE taxi (unmissable with their white and green colours) rather than the regular taxis who, despite being metered and air-conditioned, can be known for overcharging customers. Usually they’re okay, but as a foreigner you might be considered an easier target.
Uber is very popular in Manila, as is the GrabTaxi app for getting a trusted taxi driver to your door. However there is a PHP 70 booking fee. Both I’d recommend.
These old customised jeeps are the most popular and affordable means of transportation in the Philippines. These kitschy decorated vehicles are crowded and loud but an authentic taste of life in Manila. Many locals catch jeepneys every day. For you once will probably be enough, but it’s definitely worth it for the experience.
The most important thing when taking jeepneys is to know your route. You will likely need to ask locals which jeepney to take. Don’t be afraid, Filipinos are incredibly friendly and will be sure to help you. Wait at a jeepney stop or terminal, or if there aren’t any there, you’ll need to find the stop where you can flag them down. The jeepneys will usually have their respective routes marked on their side or on their windshields; keep a note of which roads you need to get to. Whilst some jeepneys may have the same end stop, they don’t always take the same roads to get there.
Once on the jeep you’ll need to pay. Usually a jeepney fare is 10 pesos or less, so make sure you have small change before you get on. It’s very frowned upon to try and pay such a small fare with a 50 or 100 peso note, especially as the driver has to count the change out while driving.
It’s also common courtesy to assist in passing payments and change down down the line of passengers, to and from the driver. So if the person next to you takes your money, don’t fret! They’ll continue to pass it down until it reaches the driver, and your change (if any) will come back the same way.
Jeepneys are often filled with as many passengers as possible so don’t expect leg room, try and be considerate of those around you and don’t spread yourself out or put an item on the seat beside you. Try sit as close to the entrance as possible so it’s easier to get on and off and you can avoid the task of passing money along (if that scares you).
When you reach your destination yell “Para po”, or bang the roof of the jeep, if you’re confident. Both of these signal the driver to stop. Be careful as jeepneys often stop in the middle of the road and cause traffic obstructions, so get on and off quickly. Some jeepneys have a string hanging from the roof, which is connected to a small light bulb and will signal the driver to stop.
Bus, Light Rail Transit (LRT), and Metro Rail Transit (MRT)
The bus and metro system are probably the next cheapest option for getting around the city, especially long distances.
The rail system is efficient but crowded, but it’s still the fastest way to get around the city. There are three rail systems and one heavy train line. The light rain services commuters from as far north as Quezon City to as far south as Pasay City.
You’ll find the LRT-1 line the busiest, especially around rush hour. The 13-mile, 20-station line appears as yellow on the maps and runs through most of Manila, taking you to most of the city’s popular destinations. The 10-mile, 13-station MRT-3 line appears as blue on maps and runs down the crowded Epifanio de los Santos and connects Quezon City to other cities like Makati and Pasay. MRT-3 line can be used to reach all the big malls like the Trinoma Mall and the SM Megamall.
Unlike most modern rail systems, Manila does not have a direct rail connection to the airport. If you want to reach Ninoy Aquino International Airport, get off at the Taft Station or the Pasay Station and get an airport loop bus. Otherwise, you can simply taxi.
You can buy single-use tickets or a stored-value card called a BEEP, these can be bought at ticket machines or at manned ticket counters across the city. Depending on the destination a train ticket cost between 12 and 28 pesos (between 26 and 60 US cents). Most of the employees speak English and are happy to help you. Like any other city’s transport system it’s best to avoid it during rush hours (0700 to 0900, and 1700 to 2100).
Getting a Sim Card
Definitely get a SIM card when you land in Manila. There are counters at the airport which sell them but will be more expensive there than in the city. If you don’t have the time at the airport, then street sellers are everywhere. Most roadside shops and mini markets will be delighted to sell you a SIM, just look out for TNT, Globe and Smart advertisement banners. I generally recommend using Globe, but SMART is usually popular with tourists. Phone shops are commonplace in shopping malls and employees usually speak English.
You can get a SIM card for around 20-40 PHP.
Safety Tips for Manila
Manila has a reputation for being dangerous but most areas don’t pose any more threat than any other big city. Walking around at night is discouraged, always take taxis, especially as they’re affordable enough. Don’t walk down any dark alleyways or unlit streets, much like you would in any unknown urban area.
Pickpocketing is rampant on the MRT/LRT and in the major nightclub district and they will specifically target foreigners. There have been stories of people drugging tourists’ drinks or food, especially when drunk, and then robbing them. Be wary of any overly friendly stranger joining you at a bar or at your restaurant table and keep an eye on your drinks.
Kalesa (two-wheeled horse-drawn carts) drivers are notorious for overcharging tourists so make sure you agree to a price-per-person beforehand. If you want to take a taxi, make sure the driver has put the meter on. Most taxi drivers are honest, but there are many stories of foreigners being overcharged. Stick to the ranks and watch out for rigged taxi meters (they are rare but not non-existent).
Overall Manila poses the same dangers as any major city in the developing world. Be vigilant but don’t let it stop you from enjoying yourself!