Manila, Philippines – A quick how to survive guide

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Intramuros Entrance Manila
Entrance to Intramuros, Manila's old town

Introduction

Manila, the chaotic semi-developed capital of the Philippines. The traffic here is almost as bad as Jakarta!

Moving around is hard but food and drink are cheap (although not compared to the rest of the Philippines). You can tick off all the sights within a couple days and there is a bit party scene if that’s your thing.

Manila has the honour of being the most densely populated city in the world1 so don’t expect too much breathing room.

How to get to Manila

Manila has plenty of direct flights from countries including the United States, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and more.

Manila airport taxi – NAIA International Terminal 3

The taxi options from the airport are: Coupon taxi, Grab (Uber equivalent), Metered taxi and ‘tout’ taxi.

If it’s not peak hour and you want the cheapest option – just take a Grab.

I arrived at 6pm and learnt that all the lines hardly move until about 8.30pm. This is due to the traffic in the city making it unappealing to go to the airport unless a taxi already has a drop off.

Taxi’s will often try and take you the long way so using the Grab app or having a phone with internet and maps on it can be useful. Make sure they take the Skyway if you are headed to Makati.

The ‘tout’ taxi

There will be guys out the front of the airport wearing official-ish looking uniforms with the usual call of ‘taxi sir?’. They will then take you across a couple roads to a nearby waiting taxi and spring a fare of 1000-1500 Pesos on you. If you arrive in peak hour this may be the only way to get a cab but most of the time saved not waiting at the airport will be spent in traffic.

The coupon taxi

These are fixed fare e.g. 440 pesos to Makati. This is more expensive than Grab or metered taxi, unless it is peak hour in which case the metered taxis can exceed this due to time spent in traffic. The line will move slower if the taxi drivers think they can earn more on a metered trip as they won’t pick up from the coupon line.

Grab

The local Uber equivalent, except unlike Uber everyone pays the driver in cash. There is a Grab stall just outside the airport across the first road and to the left so you don’t need internet access to call one. This is usually the cheapest option say 250-450 pesos to Makati depending on traffic.

Metered taxi

White and yellow have different flag falls and per km rates. Turn right when you get out of the airport, don’t cross any roads and you will find the line. These are a bit more than the Grab but less than the coupon (except in peak hour), say 300-500 pesos to Makati depending on traffic. You can tell if white or yellow will work out more expensive by which has a shorter line.

Taxi hack

This hack won’t get you a taxi quicker but it will make the time pass easier. There is a Belmont Hotel not far from the airport with a rooftop poolside bar and a concierge. Head up to level 4 of the airport then take the Skybridge across to the Belmont. While away your waiting time over a couple beers and ask the concierge nicely to call either a Grab or a Taxi here.

Where to stay in Manila – Manila hotels

Makati. This is the main tourist area so it is relatively controlled and safer than some of the other parts of the city. It has plenty of bars, hotels, malls and is fairly developed compared to other areas.

I stayed at the City Garden Hotel Makati for about USD$55 per night. It has a pool and a bar on the roof and is walking distance to many bars and clubs.

I also ended up invited to a Christmas party at the Lokal Hostel. People of all different nationalities were hanging out here having a good time, some who had been living there for a while. There was an artist in residence so the place wasn’t short on interesting artwork. Note that the hostel is on Makati’s red light district/street.

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What to do in Manila

Intramuros – Manila Old Town

Intramuros is the city’s old town. Unfortunately heritage protection didn’t kick in for some time so it isn’t entirely made up of historic architecture. Still it is surrounded by some serious old walls and holds a number of buildings that are several hundred years old.

You can get a trike or a horse-drawn cart to take you on a tour or just do it on foot.

San Agustin Church

Inside San Agustin Church during a wedding, Intramuros Manila

San Agustin Church is a functioning historic church and a museum covering the history of Catholicism in the country. It is located within Intramuros.

Many weddings are held here so you may not be able to enter the church part but if the museum is open you can check out the church from the upstairs. The museum entry fee is 100 pesos for one adult if I recall correctly.

You can get some tapas across the road from the car park at the
Ristorante Delle Mitre.

Binondo – Manila Chinatown

Established in 1594 and apparently the oldest Chinatown in the world. Find freshly made dumplings or just wander through to get the ambience of an enclave of Chinese-Pinoys.

Chinatown is about twenty minutes walk to Intramuros.

Where to eat and drink – Manila bars and restaurants

Odd Seoul

Kimchi Sour at the Odd Seoul, Makati, Manila

A Korean speak easy in downtown Makati.

This place is hiding behind a sign-less door within Gaja Korean Kitchen.

Was pretty quiet when I visited due to holidays but I was told it gets busy.

Signature cocktail is a Kimchi Sour which should give anyone enough reason to visit. Very hip.

Pura Vida Reggae Bar

A Costa Rican reggae bar with a roster of regular DJs. This place was pumping when I visited with folk from all over the world getting down. We made it through to closing time which was 3am.

Cafe Cubana

Cafe Cubana is a perfect spot to watch the crazy world go by. It is located on P Burgos street which is infamous as Manila’s red light district/street. If you enjoy a spot of people watching then come here to see all sorts. The food wasn’t half bad either.

Handlebar Bar and Restaurant

Handlebar is a biker bar. I didn’t visit but was reliably informed it is the best place to get a steak in Manila. The beef is imported from New Zealand.

Ristorante Delle Mitre

Ristorante Delle Mitre makes the list as it is a convenient place to grab some tapas after walking around Intramuros and visiting San Agustin church. I also have a soft spot for another restaurant called the Mitre Tavern so I had to check it out.

Dong Bei Dumplings

A hole in the wall dumpling place in Chinatown. Fourteen freshly made pork and chive dumplings for 200 pesos.

Woman making dumplings at Dong Bei, Binindo, Manila
Woman making dumplings at Dong Bei, Binindo, Manila

Gaja Korean Kitchen

Decent Korean food and of course shochu. I ate a lovely Korean soup here. Half way through my meal I also discovered the Odd Seoul, after some people entered the restaurant then headed straight through a nondescript door.

Manila Map

This map shows the hotel, bars and restaurants in Makati. If you zoom out Intramuros, Chinatown, San Agustin church and the international airport are shown.

What type of people are here – Manila demographic

Manila is made up of Filipinos. Makati has travelers from all over the world including surprisingly quite a few West Africans, and a few too many older western gentleman ‘looking for a wife’.

References

  1. http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/manila-population/ (opens in new tab)