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Tondo, Manila | © Travel Oriented / Flickr
Tondo, Manila | © Travel Oriented / Flickr

10 Things to Know Before Going to Manila

Picture of Esther de la Cruz
Updated: 25 January 2017
Manila is one of the most berated capitals in all of Southeast Asia. Yet there’s a hardcore group of travelers that truly loves the Philippine city, and for reasons you might not expect. Before coming to Manila, it helps to get some context. Here are 10 things everyone should know before heading to the capital.

It’s really several cities in one

And each one has its own personality. While some are artsy and cool (Quezon City), others are sleek and stylish (Bonifacio Global City and Makati), or even historic (Chinatown and Intramuros) – there are a few that are just plain dangerous. Be careful not to put yourself in harm’s way by venturing into unsafe areas. Knowing Manila is a bunch of cities, though, lets you choose which one suits you most.

Intramuros is the original Manila

Intramuros courtyard |© Jocelyn Kelly / Flickr

Intramuros courtyard |© Jocelyn Kelly / Flickr

The walled city of Intramuros was the original heart of Philippine civilization. In the Spanish colonial era, the country’s top universities, political buildings, religious orders, and influential families were all located within the district. However, the city, its walls, and its structures were badly damaged by Japanese and American troops at the end of the Second World War. Manila rebuilt itself outside the walls of Intramuros, but its stories still echo.

Poverty and wealth grow side by side

Scenes of poverty in Manila can be quite jarring, both for first-time visitors and seasoned travelers. What’s more unsettling for some is that futuristic shopping districts and wealthy neighborhoods sit shoulder-to-shoulder with squalid slums. The inequality of Manila’s rich and poor is not something most travelers can easily prepare for. The fact that the Filipinos meet their circumstances with cheerfulness is of some help.

Filipinos love their malls

You’ve never seen malls quite the way the Philippines does them. Often designed as open-air, strolling spaces, Manila’s shopping centers are ideal for people-watching. They also roll a lot of different activities into one address. Bars, seafood markets, churches, ice-skating rinks and karaoke dens are just a few of the options you may find in a Manila mall.

There’s a strong art scene

Maybe it’s the Spanish influence, possibly made even more liberal by the American era, or perhaps it’s just the island vibe, but the Philippines is a hotbed of simmering creativity and this comes through especially strong in its arts and culture. In Manila, you’ll find dedicated musicians, poets, rappers, songwriters, performance artists, ballerinas, choirs, authors and filmmakers in numbers rarely found in the rest of the region. Of course, this makes for some fantastic opportunities for live music and entertainment.

Traffic can be horrendous

Filipino jeepney|© Steven Munder / Flickr

Filipino jeepney | © Steven Munder / Flickr

There’s just no way around it: Manila’s traffic can be a drag at times, especially during rush hour. Don’t even bother taking the rail lines. The best you can do is stay near the places you came to see, avoid peak hours, give yourself plenty of time, and try to not let it get to you.

Filipino food is having a renaissance

Gone are the days when Filipinos believed themselves the culinary underdogs of Southeast Asia. Today, a crop of contemporary Filipino restaurants, led by enthusiastic, patriotic young chefs, are making waves all over the capital. Visit Your Local, XO 46 Heritage Bistro, Sentro 1771, and Kabila Filipino Bistro to get a taste of this delicious new trend.

There are some amazing tours

Ivan Man Dy’s Big Binondo Food Wok and Carlos Celdran’s Walk This Way are just two examples of immersive tours that Manila is opening to curious travelers. Tours of Smokey Mountain, Corregidor Island and Chinatown hold more power than ever to surprise and delight.

There’s some serious shopping here

Between Makati’s huge commercial centers, Fort Bonifacio’s open-air malls, and the countless cool community and flea markets springing up across the city, the temptation to shop your heart out can be quite compelling in the Philippine capital. Stay strong. Or give in, it’s up to you.

Old Manila is still magic

Manila Bay | © Ree Dexter / Flickr

Manila Bay | © Ree Dexter / Flickr

Despite the destruction, the polluted air, and the rundown streets, there’s still something about Manila that endears itself to anyone who stops long enough to look and listen. Take a walk along Manila Bay one cool evening, inspect the Fine Art collection in the National Museum of the Philippines, or listen to a live band into the wee hours of the morning. You’ll soon realize Manila is keeping its promise alive.