Planning a last minute two day stop over in Manila, I was repeatedly told by others not to expect much.
I knew the smaller islands in The Philippines were the biggest draw for visitors. How could they not be?
Powdery, white sand, sparkling turquoise water, say nothing for the beautiful waterfalls, mountains and idyllic beaches.
Having just spent over two weeks traversing the Thai islands, I was interested in seeing the smaller islands in the Philippines, but decided against it on this visit for two reasons: Out of budget and a lacking wifi infrastructure.
Even if I would have visited Cebu or Siagro, I would have needed to work while there. At this point in my trip, I hadn’t yet acquired my TEP device, and data in the Philippines is pretty expensive. After looking into it and trying to budget a bunch of different ways, I decided the timing just wasn’t right for me to actually explore the best of what the Phillipines have to offer.
Instead, I booked a two day layover in Manila as part of flying from Sai Gon to Taipei (cheaper flight, better timings, trusted airline- AirAsia).
With two days in Manila, I started looking up what to do and began digging into the city.
After only a few hours of searching, I began to understand the warnings I’d received to not expect much.
Some bloggers compared it to Bangkok in terms of atrocious traffic, others recalled paying uncomfortably expensive prices for anything that had even the slightest Western affiliation- think: lattes. And, others said they’d consider India a cleaner and safer place to travel than Manila.
Areas of Manila are considered dangerous, so it’s best to pre-plan where you’re going to stay, what you’re going to do and how you’ll get around while there.
Not having been to India, I can’t speak to that assertion, but I can say I too was a bit taken aback by how raw Manila seemed. I spent most of my time in the business district, where my hostel and a few coffee shops I’d looked up, were located, but any time I ventured outside that area, I was met with chaos.
It’s worth noting I also visited during the 2019 elections, so I’d imagine that was a significant contributing factor to the insanity.
Still, though. Stripping away some of the over the top-ness, I understood why people said Manila was the kind of place you laid over, but didn’t really holiday.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time. Despite a serious lack of working wifi and spending hours stuck in traffic in the back of Grab cars, I still enjoyed the one day I spent exploring Manila. After one day out in the city, I opted to spend my other day in Manila trying to get work done from a few cafes.
So, what did I do during my day out?
How to See the Best of Manila in One Day
Manila has a unique combination of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and American heritage. It’s the most densely populated city in the world. Despite its crazy traffic, Manila has enough to offer visitors to easily fill a day of exploring.
I flew into Manila on an overnight flight from Sai Gon, arriving at 5 am. By the time I cleared immigration and made it to my hostel (highly recommend Lub’d in Makati), it was nearing 6:30 am.
I could have paid a bit more to check into my private room early, but opted to hit the ground running with a nap planned for mid-afternoon.
First stop: Toby’s Cafe in Makati for much needed caffeine. Toby’s is run by Aussies, so the flat whites are creamy and delicious.
Next, I walked next door to Wildflour for a leisurely breakfast. Most of the menu is Western, but that’s exactly what I was after following a month in Vietnam. The banana ricotta pancakes were pure heaven.
Around 8:30 am, I called a Grab (the Uber of SE Asia) to take me to old City.
Grab rides in Manila were significantly more expensive than anywhere else in SE Asia I’d been, but still cheaper than what I’d pay for rides of similar length in the US or UK. Think: £3-6 for a ride ranging 20-45 minutes. Not expensive by Western standards, but a lot more than the £0.16 Grab bikes I was hopping on regularly in Vietnam.
Manila’s Old City is also known as Intramuros, the ‘Walled City’. The Spanish began building Intramuros in the 1500s as a political and military base. Within the walls of Intramuros, there were churches, government buildings, and forts- basically all you’d need to get by.
I loved wandering this area, the architecture cued classic Spanish elements, and pastel buildings shrouded with palms made for a serene morning stroll. And, because I arrived before any other sightseers, it was just me and the locals who live or work in the area.
While exploring Intramuros, don’t miss the San Agustin Church. A UNESCO World Heritage Sight, this Spanish Baroque church is thought to be the oldest standing church in all of the Philippines.
Also a popular sight in the area, the Fort Santiago ruins. First a citadel, built by the Spanish, the fort has also been used as military headquarters. The views from the top of the walls are lovely, a sure must-see.
Entering late morning, I called another Grab to take me to Binodo.
I’d planned on strolling through Rizal Park, a lovely place to escape the sounds of Manila’s heavy traffic and checking out the National Museum, housing the nation’s history and artwork, but I was already starting to tire from a missed night of sleep and decided to skip both.
Rizal and the National Museum are next to Intramuros though, so if you’re checking out Intramuros and keen for another activity, you’ll have a few options nearby.
Manila’s Binondo is recognised as the oldest Chinatown in the world, established during the 1500s.
I was a bit disappointed by it- but, that may be because I’m used to the livelier Chinatowns I’ve explored in places like New York, London and Bangkok.
I did find great dumplings in Binodo at Dong Bei, which easily justified the trip over.
At this point, I was pretty much counting down the hours till I could check into my hostel. I called a Grab to take me to another coffee shop near Makati, Poison, and treated myself to one of their doughnuts with a glass of strong cold brew.
Whether you’re lacking sleep like I was or exploring Manila fully rested, I’d imagine you’ll hit a lull mid-afternoon. Despite traversing SE Asia for months, I still felt affected by the heat and high humidity in the Philippines. Cue an afternoon nap to the rescue.
I ended up napping for a bit longer than intended- the beds at the Lub’d hostel in Manila are just so comfortable!
Waking right before sunset, I headed to Lub’d’s rooftop to watch the sun sink behind the city’s rising skyscrapers. You don’t have to be a guest to visit the rooftop restaurant. If you’re in the area, I’d stop by, but be prepared for Western pricing- definitely not your typical hostel fare.
On my second night in Manila, I watched the sun set from the bay walk, which I’d recommend if you only have one night in the city. Although you can’t get too close to the water, it is a beautiful setting and fun to see so many locals out and about.
Opting to take it easy before my designated work day in Manila, I walked to the nearby Hummus Elijah for dinner. I’d planned on trying to find vegetarian Filipino food, but hearing Hummus Elijah did excellent falafel, hummus and tabbouleh, I knew I couldn’t miss it. It’d been so long since I’d had some of my favourite foods.
It was an early night for me, but if you’re the partying type, the Makati district is a good place to stay, and look up rooftops or bars to visit. Even from 8 stories up, I could hear the lively sounds of my neighborhood’s partiers below.
Would I visit Manila again?
It’s the gateway to the smaller islands in The Philippines, so I may very well end up there as part of a connecting flight, but I feel like one day was the right amount of time to see and do the main bits.
Have you ever been to Manila? Do you disagree? Would you recommend visitors stay longer?