As a city that’s constantly highlighted in the news as one of the “most unsafe cities in the world”, you may wonder why I decided to fly across the globe to explore Manila. Truth be told visiting Manila was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t say I sought Manila out as a bucket list destination, but since it happened to fall in my travel route, I am so happy I got to experience the city!
When most people think of the Philippines, they think of breathtaking islands with crystal clear water. While Manila doesn’t have the beauty of other destinations in the Philippines, this buzzing metropolitan city is packed with culture, delicious cuisine, fabulous shopping, friendly locals, and a thriving nightlife scene. As the capital city of the Philippines, Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world – and it’s still growing and developing!
Traveling anywhere poses risks, however those risks are definitely amplified when traveling to Manila. As I mentioned above, Manila is ranked as one of the most unsafe cities in the world – however, don’t let that statistic scare you away. As long as you’re smart and use precaution, you can have an amazing experience in Manila.
One of the biggest shocks of visiting Manila is the amount of security around the city. Each time we pulled into our hotels, our cars were searched by armed policemen and sniffed by dogs. Following that, we had to walk through X-ray machines and bag scanners (and sniffed again by dogs) every time we walked in and out of the hotel. Aside from our hotels, my bags were searched by armed guards everywhere I went – including the mall and even the local 7-Eleven! While it’s quite intimidating at first, it’s comforting to know security is taken seriously here.
Since we didn’t want to call attention to ourselves as tourists, we left all of our camera equipment in the hotel (hence few photos to share), dressed casually, and simply enjoyed the environment.
HOW TO GET AROUND:
We spent a total of four nights in Manila at the beginning and end of our trip through Asia. Traffic in the city can be quite horrendous, so we decided to stay in the financial district, Makati, both times for walking purposes – as well as safety.
When you travel to Manila, I recommend scheduling a car from the airport in advance with your hotel’s concierge. It’s the easiest and safest way to get to your hotel. Plus if you travel with a lot of luggage, this will guarantee a car that’s big enough! Both of our hotels offered free shuttles around town, so you don’t even need to worry about public transportation once you check in.
While it would be unfair to say all taxis are unsafe, theft and crime are not uncommon in Manila taxis – plus they can be a bit dirty. You can easily get around the city by Uber – but if you want the full Manila experience, hop on a Jeepney to get around town. They’re less expensive than taxis and Ubers, plus it’s such a fun and unique experience! Many of the Jeepneys are covered in colorful graffiti and blast loud music as they drive. Don’t expect a comfy ride, since they are generally cramped and crowded – but that’s what makes it so fun!
WHERE TO STAY:
The Peninsula – The number one hotel I would recommend for your stay would be The Peninsula Manila. It’s recognized as the most luxurious hotel in the city and has quite the history. While it was built in 1976 by former president Ferdinand Marcos and his first lady to impress delegates, disaster struck when an army tank drove straight through the lobby in 2007 during an attempted coup resulting in gunshots, tear gas, and walls crashing down. Aside from the unfortunate incident, the hotel has been beautifully restored and is a peaceful getaway! Plus it has amazing service and an incredible bar.
Shangri-La Makati – During the second part of our trip, we stayed at the Shangri-La Makati. Since it’s a popular business hotel, it was much larger than The Peninsula. With five delicious restaurants, a huge gym and spa, live music every night at the bar downstairs, and afternoon tea service, you really don’t even need to leave the hotel!
Raffles Makati – Another hotel we recommend is the Raffles Hotel in Makati. It’s basically next door to The Peninsula and the Shangri-La, so it offers the same walking score. Plus if you’ve ever stayed at a Raffles Hotel, you know you can’t go wrong!
If you don’t stay in Makati, the Fort is another great option.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Unlike so many other Asian countries, the Philippines are rarely recognized for their cuisine. With Spanish, English, Japanese, and Chinese influences, Filippino food is a cultural melting pot of dishes. A lot of the restaurants are definitely pork-heavy, and you can almost always find fried rice on a menu (yum). Also be prepared to drink a lot of San Miguel beer – delish. Check out some of our favorite spots below:
Greenbelt – For culinary overload, head over to Greenbelt to explore restaurant row. You can find any cuisine you’re craving here, plus it’s so pleasant to sit outside and people watch. We went to Manam Comfort Filipino on our last day for authentic Filipino food and loved it!
BlackBird – From the aviation-themed art deco design to the delicious menu, Blackbird is hands down our favorite spot in Manila – we loved it so much, we went twice! Fun fact: the building was once the first international airport in the country. It’s directly across the street from The Peninsula Hotel too.
Salon de Ning – For a night out, definitely stop by Salon de Ning at the Peninsula Hotel. It’s one of the nicest bars in the city, plus you will always find live music here. The bar is a collection of themed rooms that make up a unique vibe. From a room lined with stilettos and another one Zeppelin-themed, it was gorgeously eclectic and a must-visit spot.
JolliBee – It may seem odd to list a fast food spot as a restaurant recommendation, but trust me, JolliBee is something special. The locals love it, which is no surprise once you take a bite. When you order a hamburger and fries, don’t forget a side of spaghetti too. Just trust me. It’s insanely popular and can be found almost everywhere, so definitely pop by for a quick meal.
Dampa – While it may be a bit smelly and a bit of a dive, be sure to visit one of the local wet markets, known as dampas. You simply pick your own catch of the day and locals will cook it however you like.
Van Gogh Is Bipolar – Though it was at the top of my Manila bucket list, unfortunately we ran out of time before visiting Van Gogh Is Bipolar. Imagine enjoying mood-altering dishes with 12 strangers in a local’s home – if that strikes your fancy, definitely plan to stop by this one of a kind restaurant. Owner, Jetro Rafael, doesn’t accept reservations so be sure to get there early to snag a seat!
Christmas is 120 days long – As someone who LOVES Christmas, I completely respect how Manila starts celebrating Christmas 120 days in advance – or as they said, the start of the “-ber” months (aka September). From the second you land in Manila, you’re greeted with holiday decor, Christmas music, and colorful lights.
Massages are super cheap here – Definitely take advantage of the inexpensive massages in Manila. Both of our hotels had amazing spas, plus many are open 24 hours!
English is a main language – Since almost all locals speak Tagalog and English, we never experienced a language barrier – which made traveling so much easier!
June to November is rainy season, December to May is dry season – Of course we traveled during rainy season so our pool days were rained out, but it was the perfect excuse to spend the day shopping at Greenbelt.
Manila is very affordable – From food to transportation and travel, you’ll spend much less than you typically would in the states.
Manila has some of the best cover bands in the world – Did you know Journey’s lead singer’s replacement was Filipino? Manila is known for their cover bands, so definitely expect fantastic live music every night.
Karaoke bars are everywhere – Literally, everywhere. Considering they have some of the best cover bands in the world, it’s no surprise karaoke is such a hit.
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