Bustling city streets, balmy tropical weather, and a booming metropolis filled with history, culture, food, shopping, and much more. Manila is a city that brings the past and future together, and visiting it is an experience unlike any other. Whether you’re in the area for a quick visit, or planning on staying for several days or longer, you’re going to need a list of things to do in Manila. This list has got you covered.
Manila: Pearl of the Orient
The capital city of the Philippines has a long and somewhat complex history. Also known as the Pearl of the Orient, Manila was the base for a lot of precolonial trade in Luzon, and later the seat of colonial power. From the Spanish to the American to the Japanese occupation, Manila has held a place of importance in the country’s history.
Manila is a bit of a complicated puzzle, especially if you’re not familiar with the city. It’s made the international news for quite a few incidents, and has built up a bit of a reputation. However, there’s good that comes with the bad, and if you’re looking for a rich, one-of-a-kind experience, Manila is the best place to get it.
Densely populated with almost two million residents, the City of Manila is located right on the Manila Bay, facing the West Philippine Sea. This location has made the city famous for its glorious Manila Bay sunsets, but it’s also important because of its strategic location as a port city.
Things to Do In Manila City
Manila continues to be the economic, cultural, and political hub of the Philippines, and it’s no understatement that you can get a little bit of everything in this city. Are you a history lover looking for a glimpse into the country’s rich past? Or a foodie looking for the next place to get a delicious meal? Perhaps you’re a fashionista on the hunt for the next best deal?
Whatever you’re looking for, it’s pretty likely that Manila has it. From amusement park rides, to aquariums, to horse drawn carriage rides, you can bet that the city has it all.
Talk a Walk Along Manila Bay
If you’re trying to figure out the perfect way to start off your trip to Manila, then there’s nothing quite as perfect as taking a walk along the famous Manila Bay. The Manila Baywalk overlooks Manila Bay and runs parallel to Roxas Boulevard. It’s a two-kilometer stretch of promenade that runs from the U.S. Embassy near Rizal Park all the way up to the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
It’s an especially popular spot for enjoying the famous Manila Bay sunset, as it has an uninterrupted view of the Bay’s waters. There’s nothing quite like enjoying the balmy sea breeze and watching the sky turn into a riot of colors to welcome you to Manila.
Check Out Rizal Park
For such an urbanized city, you wouldn’t expect there to be very many green spaces. But if you want a bit of fresh air, Rizal Park— also known as Luneta— is the place to go. Not far from the Baywalk, it’s one of the largest urban parks in Asia.
It’s also got an important role in Philippine history, as this is the area where the Philippines’ National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, was shot and executed. To honor his martyrdom, a monument stands over his remains, marking one of the most iconic spots in the country.
Rizal Park is filled with several green spots where you can sit back and enjoy the tropical weather. It’s also home to Chinese and Japanese gardens, small ponds, and a monument of another Philippine hero, Lapu-lapu. Plus, it’s located quite close to other must-see sites like the National Museum, so easy enough to fit into your itinerary.
History and culture lovers will know that this spot is definitely a must-see. The National Museum of the Philippines houses works of art, natural specimens, and cultural and historical artifacts that are significant to the Philippines’ culture and ecology.
The National Museum is actually a complex composed of four separate museums: the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Planetarium. Each museum takes an in-depth look into their field of specialization, including specimens, artworks, and exhibits that can only be found in the Philippines.
If you want to explore everything that the complex has to offer, you’re going to want to set at least a day aside for your trip. The museums house works by National Artists, including the famed Spoliarium by Juan Luna in the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as cultural artifacts dating thousands of years.
You don’t have to worry too much about the cost, either— the National Museum is free of charge for all visitors, both foreign and domestic.
Manila Ocean Park
An archipelago like the Philippines is home to an incredible array of marine life. You might think that it would be impossible to get up close and personal with these sea creatures in a city as busy and urbanized as Manila, but you’d be wrong.
Manila Ocean Park is the first world-class marine theme park in the Philippines. Its Oceanarium is home to 14,000 marine creatures from almost 300 species, and all of them indigenous to the Philippines and Southeast Asia. It has a famous walkthrough divided into seven sections that allows you to walk glass paths through the aquariums.
It also has an educational activity area so that both kids and adults can get closer to the animals under supervision. If you want a little more fun, you can head on outside to enjoy the sea lion show in the Ocean Park’s seaside theater. You can also build more appreciation for feathery and scaly friends at the Birdhouse and the World of Creepy Crawlies, respectively.
No visit to Manila is complete without dropping by Intramuros. Also known as the famous walled city, Intramuros is a centuries-old historic district that’s currently under the management of the Intramuros Administration.
The area is significant not just for the dozens of examples of historical architecture, but also for its political and historical significance as the former seat of government for Spanish colonial powers. Intramuros was made into a UNESCO World Heritage Site after it survived the bombing of Manila.
Although Intramuros suffered greatly during the Second World War, its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its historical significance has resulted in its continued preservation.
The best way to experience Intramuros is, of course, by walking its streets. You can also opt to take a kalesa or horse-drawn carriage tour around the area. While there are parts of Intramuros that have been lost to history, much of it has been preserved for you and future visitors to enjoy.
San Agustin Church
Nestled within the walls of Intramuros is the famed San Agustin Church. Only one of four Philippine churches to be designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Agustin Church is also the oldest stone Church in the Philippines.
You can visit the church to have a look at a great example of Spanish Baroque architecture. Attached to the church is the San Agustin Museum, which houses religious artifacts and art.
A tour around the area will also give you a bit of insight into the San Agustin Church’s somewhat tragic past: While it was one of the few structures in Intramuros to survive the bombing during World War II, it was also used as a concentration camp by Japanese occupiers. Reading the plaques posted around the church will give you a sobering insight into the many citizens of Manila who had to live through those times.
A tour around Intramuros will inevitably bring you to one of the most significant historical sites in Manila: Fort Santiago. Built in 1593 by Spanish navigator and the first governor of the newly-instated colony Miguel López de Legazpi, it’s possibly the most important citadel in the country.
Not only does Fort Santiago stand as a reminder of Manila’s role during the Spanish occupation, it also owes its historical significance to the many national heroes who were imprisoned in its walls. These heroes include Dr. Jose Rizal, who lived out his last days in the Fort before being taken to Luneta to be executed.
If you’re interested in learning more about Rizal’s journey, Fort Santiago is also home to the Rizal Shrine, a museum dedicated to his life. You can take a look at reconstructions of where he slept, ate, and lived out his last days. Visitors can even follow his final footsteps, symbolized by bronze footprints embedded into the ground.
Branching Out Into Metro Manila
And if you’ve sampled all of what the City of Manila has to offer— a gargantuan task in itself— then you can simply hop on over to a neighboring city. Manila is often a shorthand term used for Metro Manila.
Also known as the National Capital Region, Metro Manila is a sprawling metropolitan area composed of 16 cities and one municipality. The fixed urban population of Metro Manila is estimated to be around 12 to 13 million, but can swell during the daytime to 15 million due to workers and students coming in from neighboring areas.
Metro Manila is pretty much where everything happens. What you can’t find in the City of Manila, you’ll probably find in the rest of the Metro. While there’s plenty to do in the City of Manila itself, your experience simply isn’t complete without exploring the surrounding cities.
James Gonzales is a Filipino-American travel enthusiast and writer currently based in the Philippines. After living and working in New York for 10 years, James decided he wanted to see more of the world and leave the city behind. In the course of saving up for what would become an epic trip across Asia, he wrote about previous traveling experiences for various travel websites and publications based in the Lower East Side.
James focused on journeying through the Philippines in the hopes of understanding his roots, and began Daydreaming in Paradise to share his thoughts and experiences. He’s always looking for like-minded travelers to trade stories and swap tips with, and he hopes you’ll join him on his journey.