We approached our trip to Manila with a degree of trepidation, knowing that it can be a city that poses some challenges for visiting tourists. Many travellers either skip over the city all together by flying to Cebu or Kalibo, or choose to head straight from the airport onto another flight to the islands and beaches. We decided though that it would be a shame not to spend at least one day in Manila seeing what the city had to offer.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a lot to do on the outskirts of Manila if you have a little more time – such as hiking Mount Pinatubo. What you’ll generally find though is that tour prices online are very high for these sorts of trips and it can be easier to try and arrange them through a hostel when you arrive.
If you just want to see the city you can see absolutely loads in just one day in Manila. We were out from about 10am to 6pm and that was plenty of time to see all the main attractions we had on our list. Be aware though that it takes a shockingly long time to get anywhere in Manila, the traffic is amongst the worst we’ve ever seen and seems to be more or less constant. Journeys of around 10km took us anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and a half travelling with uber. Despite the traffic this is still the easiest and cheapest way to get around the city – and is also supposed to be a lot safer than flagging down regular taxis.
Getting to Manila
It’s easy and cheap to get to Manila from most major south East Asian airports. We flew with Cebu Pacific – the main Philippine airline – from Hong Kong to Manila airport, and they’re also well served by Air Asia.
Once you arrive you’ll need to find your way into the city centre. Most people stay in Makati (more on this below), and it’s around a 10km journey from the airport. The best way to get there is to arrange a transfer with your hostel, but if you can’t organise this, which we couldn’t, then there are a couple of types of regular taxi you can choose from. Uber is not allowed to operate airport pick ups although they can drop you off – there are grab cars available I believe.
Yellow Taxis (Our Recommendation)
These can be found if you head out of arrivals and turn right. They are official Taxis and as you queue up you’ll give your details to the desk and they’ll let the driver know where you’re going and also take down the car details. These and the receipt you get before the journey mean you can easily report any problems. The cost was 250PHP (including a tip).
White / Coupon Taxis
These seem to work by agreeing a set price which is usually a little higher than a yellow taxi but means you’re not relying on a meter to be honest. We read some horror stories about these so opted for the yellow taxis.
There are also plenty of touts around who will haggle with you for a set price journey. Again these are probably not the best idea although some people obviously do use them.
Accommodation in Manila
All of our research suggested the best place to stay in Manila was Makati – the central business district and most modern region of the city. There are many choices of accommodation here, from luxury hotels to budget hostels and everything in between.
Overall the area felt safe, clean and welcoming to tourists. It’s a reasonable distance from the city’s historic attractions especially given how bad the traffic is, but it’s a small price to pay to stay somewhere that’s known to be pretty safe and it’s still a fine location for spending just one day in Manila.
Hostels are fairly pricy compared to other cities – we paid 1652PHP / £25 per night for a private room at Makati Junction. The staff are super friendly and the hostel has great facilities. I think it’s supposed to be a party hostel but it was pretty quiet when we were there. It may be worth asking if you can get a room away from the road though, as there’s a lot of activity outside and we found our room pretty noisy.
Morning: Exploring Binondo Chinatown
Our first stop on our one day in Manila was to spend some time exploring Binondo – one of the oldest China Towns in the world. Filipino culture and food has been heavily influenced by the Chinese and it’s by far the best place to enjoy some great street food.
We highly recommend Tralulu’s Food Tour where locals will guide you around the area and take you to 4 food stations where you’ll sample delicious local cuisine. There’s a full blog about it here but for only 950 PHP / £15 per person it’s great value and less than half the price of any other similar tours that we saw.
Binondo isn’t necessarily the safest area to wander round solo so experiencing it with a local is a great way to see an area of Manila that’s a little off the beaten track.
We wandered the streets of Binondo eating all the food until about 2.30pm, when we headed over to Intramuros for some independent exploration.
Afternoon: History In Intramuros
Intramuros is the most tourist friendly area of central Manila, although still a little sketchy, and hosts most of the city’s historical attractions. If you’re going to visit anywhere when spending one day in Manila this is the place to go.
Whilst we would have preferred to do a tour, the team at the hostel and our local guides said we’d be fine walking around Intramuros alone if we kept our wits about us so we decided to give it a go. Turns out it was pretty much fine, a little dodgy perhaps but we didn’t have any problems and I’d do it again if we went back to Manila.
There’s loads to see in Intramuros and you need at least 2-3 hours to do is justice. It was a walled city built by the Spanish and has been well preserved, with some beautiful churches, attractive colonial streets and the famous fort Santiago. The top things to do in Intramuros on your day in Manila should be…
The old Spanish colonial citadel, renowned for its functions as a prison and defence fortress.
Originally built in the 16th century but destroyed by fire many times over the years, the current building was finished in 1958.
San Agustin Church:
Another very old stone church, this one containing an interesting museum on Spanish history in the area.
Plaza de Roma:
The central square of Intramuros where the cathedral is found and a great spot to take in the surrounding architecture.
Built to ward off attacks by the Chinese, amongst others, these solid stone walls surround the city and you can walk along them for some great views.
Thoughts on Our One Day In Manila
I’ve written more extensively about the positives and negatives we found while travelling the Philippines, but overall I’d say the one day we had in Manila was great. Our food tour was exceptional and it was fascinating to find out more about what it’s like as a young person living in Manila with the county undergoing so many changes.
The city is a huge sprawl and you’ll see everything from abject poverty to displays of wealth, which is of course true of many cities but somehow seems a little more pronounced here. Manila is vibrant, crowded and busy, and overall reminded us far more of Latin American cities we’ve visited like Lima and La Paz than South East Asian cities.
Be sure to take advice on which areas to avoid, as slums are widespread in many regions and they’re not somewhere you’d accidentally want to wander through. Exercise precautions like not wearing jewellery, ensuring that valuables aren’t visible and don’t wander around with your mobile in hand and you should be fine.
Obviously there is a degree of risk, but on the whole we didn’t feel like we were in danger at any point. I’d say it was similar to cities we’ve visited like Rio, Cairo and La Paz, where you can expect to receive some attention as a tourist and should stick to tourist areas and keep your wits about you.