Explore the unexpected and have your own thriller in Manila. Tick off the bucket list with the most fun and surprising things to do in Manila.
Like all big, crazy Asian cities, Manila can be intimidating and a little bewildering for first-timers. Yet once you scratch a little beneath the surface you’ll find tons of fascinating things to do in Manila. There is much to like about this colossal metropolis. From enduring pockets of history, to gleaming futuristic malls and countless enclaves of art and music, it thrives as a true go-getting Asian megacity.
The high-octane frenetic pace is unmistakable amid the gleaming skyscrapers and bumper to bumper slow crawling traffic, while spruced up Manila Bay and Makati can rival any modern metropolis for ostentatious style. Metro Manila is in fact a series of 16 distinct cities which have merged into a single urban sprawl over time, presenting compelling contrasts. The people who inhabit Manila’s mean streets are equally as diverse, having adopted indigenous, Spanish, Chinese and American influences.
While there are quirky, fun and exciting things to do in Metro Manila beyond the obvious highlights, it is also a great jumping off point for day trips from Manila to explore gorgeous, expansive nature, one of the few things the big city lacks itself. This includes beach bumming for the day in Batangas, cruising around the world’s smallest volcano in Tagaytay or adventure at Pagsanjan Falls. Read on for our top 10 Manila experiences that will give you a new vigour for exploring the Philippine capital.
1. Explore the archipelago through Filipino flavours
Eat your heart out as you make your way through the Salcedo Morning Market – home cooks, new restaurateurs and a slew of other culinary enthusiasts gather to present their talents at this cheerful weekend get-together in Makati. Aside from authentic dishes such as pancit palabok, traditional sweets like bibingka and shots of smooth barako coffee, you can dive into Thai, Mexican, Turkish, Chinese, Korean and whatever else takes your fancy. There are stalls serving up attractive artisanal snacks and sweet healthy juices, and it’s arguably the top place to pick up affordable home-cooked veggie and vegan delights.
After many years, Filipino food is having a culinary renaissance in the capital city. Lighter, healthier, but still just as flavourful, modern Filipino cuisine is a treat for the taste buds. Just a few blocks south of the market head to Sentro 1771 and sample delicious bites such as tilapia fillet with coconut milk and spinach, corned beef sinigang, and tofu and green mango salad.
2. Modern mall culture Manila style
Mix n’ mingle at Greenbelt 3 – Manila knows a thing or two about malls. The best example of the capital’s all-in approach to mall culture is Greenbelt 3. It’s an outdoor mall, nightlife destination, foodie and fashionista hangout and a temple of people watching. Greenbelt’s central open-air ring is a fantastic spot to grab a table, order a caffe latte and cake, catch your breath and watch the world go by. Filipinos are never happier than when shopping and scoffing.
3. Colonial nostalgia in Intramuros
Soak up colonial nostalgia in Intramuros – There are so many nooks and crannies to explore in this 400-year-old medieval fort city, you could easily spend a full day and not exhaust its historic treasures. It is Latin for ‘inside the walls’ which is rather apt. You are cocooned inside this graceful city within a city, insulated from the chaotic hullabaloo of modern urban life just moments away. Ride a horse-drawn carriage over the cobbled streets, walk down the aisle at the elaborate San Agustin Church or browse any of the quaint shops like the Manila Collectible for home-grown souvenirs.
Better still, hop on a unique bamboo bicycle for a more extensive guided tour, stopping off at old Hispanic villas which now welcome riders as charming cafes and explore the eerily silent tunnels beneath the ramparts. If you are not quite ready to face the deafening wall of sound and smog beyond the walls, make tracks for the Intramuros Golf Club, a short and quirky 18-hole course right beneath the walls.
4. Do dusk in style
Catch the last light over Manila Bay – the guidebooks will tell you to do this one along the sea wall at Roxas Boulevard or the Baywalk at Mall of Asia, but we can recommend an even better spot for this lingering light show.
Ride up to the Sky Deck Bar at the Bayleaf Hotel for a spectacular 360-degree view of the harbour and Old Manila, not to mention a well-mixed cocktail and tasty tapas bites to nibble on. If impressing your significant other is the mission, then all the stars quite literally align. From here you get the added effect of the sparkling illuminations of the walled city of Intramuros right beneath you and a soundtrack of live music sets the perfect mood.
Over in Makati, the views and slinky vibe of the speakeasy-like Firefly Roofdeck Bar also set hearts pounding. Chill by the open air pool (or take a late night dip) raise your glasses and soak in the awesome urban panorama.
5. Chill out in Manila’s green lung
Amid the urban sprawl, it’s good to find space and quietude to contemplate Manila’s striking contrasts in the expansive green oasis of Rizal Park. You get the best people watching opportunities hear as locals kick back playing chess under shade, practise early morning tai chi or rock out to free live concerts each weekend.
Another option is Quezon Memorial Circle, which offers a mix of health and history attractions. A collection of stalls on the park’s fringes offer all-natural health products and blind massage. Visit the shrine in the centre of the park before taking a free guided walk through the Quezon Ancestral House.
6. Rock out
Make it a live music night – Filipinos are famously musical, and the capital is the best place to get your live music fix. Rockers may like to check out SaGuijo in Makati, or the more classic acts on stage at the 70s Bistro. Bar 1951 draws an eclectic mix to its cosy haunt in Malate, while B-side at the Collective is popular with the young, hipster crowd. Over in Quezon City, rub shoulders with true rock royalty. At Ka Freddie’s Music Bar, genuine Pinoy guitar legend Freddie Aguilar still enthusiastically belts out Filipino and western rock classics for an adoring, up for it crowd.
7. Manila’s coolest shopping
Hunt for vintage knick knacks and curios at Cubao Expo. You’ll be rewarded with rows of original retailers selling everything from cigars and surf fins to classic watches and fine jewellery. If eccentric art and even more bizarre characters is your thing, ‘Cubao X’ is the place to hang out.
This is the undisputed haven for all things offbeat and unconventional. You’ll meet a colourful band of local Quezon City hipsters who meet and mingle in the quirky boutiques biding their time before the poetry bars, arthouse bistros and board game cafes throw open their doors.
After shopping in Manila, stay for the welcoming vibe that arrives after dark in Cubao. Among the best watering holes is Fred’s Revolucion, Cubao’s self-styled ‘revolutionary café.’ The eclectic interior is plastered floor to ceiling with images of Che Guevara, Lenin, Mao and a host of whimsical vintage art, old books, movie posters and more.
It’s vibrant eye candy to go along with the cold beer and hushed avant-garde chatter among a loyal following of artists, self-styled philosophers and dreamers, alongside a steady stream of curious travellers.
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8. A mourning stroll among the dead in the Chinese Cemetery
Spend any time in manic Manila and will be undoubtedly be confronted with some of the weird and wonderful quirks of modern life. Yet every other Filipino eccentricity probably pales in comparison when compared to a visit to the famed Chinese Cemetery. Many of the city’s wealthy Chinese community quite literally live at death’s door – and in some indulgent style too.
Passing over into the afterlife seems to be only a mild inconvenience as the ‘tombs’ dotted throughout the cemetery are in fact fully functioning luxury homes complete with fully fitted kitchens, plush sofas, air con and bathrooms with luxury fittings. They even feature bedrooms for relatives to stay close (and even live permanently) to the dearly departed. It’s no surprise it has been dubbed the ‘Beverly Hills of the Dead.’
It is an odd mix of million dollar homes serving as swish mausoleums in a dizzying variety of styles. While the passing of a loved one is usually a solemn affair with little flamboyance, it seems even in death everyone wants to ‘keep up with the Joneses.’ Some of the homes/tombs are truly over the top resembling mini Chinese temples, while others have elaborate Art Deco or Mediterranean style villa designs.
It is in fact a fully functioning community with all the mod cons of any average upscale suburb such as electricity, running water and even a local restaurant serving (living) residents. It’s definitely one of the Manila attractions and tours experiences where a guide with knowhow can really bring it ‘alive’ with colourful stories and myths. While it may seem to be a morbid-curiosity tour, it is actually great fun for all.
9. Fight off zombies in the Escape Room
From one spooky adventure to another. The latest craze sweeping Metro Manila involves encounters with creepy clowns, zombies and haunted hotels – what could possibly go wrong? At Breakout Manila there are yet more fun things to do in Manila, where you are locked in a room for 45 minutes with your escape only guaranteed after solving a series of interactive riddles, through teamwork, creativity, and communication. It’s definitely an amusing, yet spine tingling activity to enjoy with a group of best buddies. There are plot twists and heart-in-mouth scares along the way before you get the final puzzle solved to make your escape.
There are several different locations across the city including BGC and Greenbelt, offering more than a dozen themed creepy experiences suitable for 4-6 persons. The hi-tech visuals and eerie music create a believable scenario of impending doom.
10. Find the perfect beat after dark
As a rapidly developing mix of east and west, Manila constantly lives life as a city on the edge, and this intense restless energy is best evidenced in Southeast Asia’s most colourful bar and club scene. There are a million and one things to do in Manila at night, with vibrant pockets of neon-lit hedonism dotted across the metro area. You’ll get your kicks whatever you seek, whether a night of crazy karaoke, schmoozing with the stylish set in Makati’s glitzy nightspots or mixing with hipsters in Quezon City’s arthouse cafes.
For big ticket clubbing in slinky surroundings, head to Makati, while the city’s evolving gay scene revolves around the Malate district. Almost everywhere it doesn’t even start warming up until well after 10pm so hard core party animals will find things to do in Manila nightlife until sun up, especially at weekends. Valkyrie nightclub is among Manila’s hottest club experiences right now, cramming in up to 2,000 ravers nightly. We like Blackmarket in Makati for its underground vibe and eclectic DJ sets.
The adjoining Finders Keepers functions as the club’s cultured chill-out lounge for smooth cocktails in a speakeasy style. In fact speakeasy bar hopping is definitely a thing in Manila. There are some truly slinky ‘secret’ bars across town for a classier night out. Check out Makati’s Blind Pig, the venue that started the speakeasy craze, Prohibition Liquor Lounge and LIT Manila in Bonifacio Global City.
In conclusion – revel in the Manila’s big city vibe
There is no doubt Manila is one of the brashest, most intense city in Asia, and if you adore the pulse of big city life, Manila will satisfy every one of your cravings. In Manila people eat, drink, schmooze and shop 24 hours a day and revel in the nonstop hum of life moving at a million miles an hour.
You should too at least if here for a whirlwind weekend of fun and frolics. It’s a place to go with the flow and simply accept the manic congestion and noise, yet throughout the chaos the city’s eccentricities and quirky contrasts shine through. It takes some planning but there are hugely fascinating, fun things to do in Manila that just wouldn’t be the same in any other mega city.
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Ray Montgomery is a seasoned travel copywriter and journalist based for more than a dozen years in Southeast Asia. Ray’s big passions are eating, tweeting and constantly seeking the next perfect ocean sunset.