One Day in Manila

One Day in Manila

Manila streets one day

Ah, Manila. You’re a sprawling mess with a swanky reputation. If I may be so bold, I’ll even call that reputation well-deserved. From the armada of armed security guards (some for, say, diners or hotels) to the overwhelming poverty oozing from every street corner, Manila may not make the best impression.

But I’ll concede that I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I would entreat you to spend a least a day there, if not two.

Yeah. Two’s gonna be enough.

First impressions of the Philippines

We (my friend and I) landed at 4AM. Now 4AM is not a time you’d expect to see live music in an empty airport. Yet there we were: listening to a security guard flirt with a newly-landed flight attendant while our passports got stamped, and wondering whence came the music.

4 filipinas, one drummer, one guitarist. More hyped than they ought to have been, and taking donations for a good cause.

Did they do it every night, we asked? Yes. Yes they did.

manila skyline, one day

Wary from my Vietnam experience (which was a midday landing, mind you), I eyed the taxi queue skeptically. We got ourselves a ticket, however, and the guy loaded us in and assuaged our anxious demeanor with perfect English and recommendations for the city.

OK, so he didn’t use the meter. Foiled again! But we were only overcharged by roughly one USD. That’s a massive improvement over Vietnam.

It was in the hotel we realized how good everyone’s English was, and how accommodating people were there. Seriously: people will help you, BS with you, and rib you a little with leery smile while firing off the best English in Asia.

What was there not to like?

What can you even do in Manila?

Metro Manila, as the city proper is often referred to, is decidedly less robust with attractions than similar SE Asian capitals. There aren’t as many temples as Bangkok or any architectural wonders like in Kuala Lumpur.

Fort Santiago gate, one day in manila

Yet; there’s plenty to do there. A day in Manila wouldn’t be complete without a rowdy night to top it off, and luckily this city has the party scene on lock. So lace up your trainers, don your shades and sunscreen, and get ready to scurry until the sun fades into the haze and the San Miguel flows like the Pasig.


Daytime Manila thrums and throbs with activity on literally every street. You can witness this for yourself by taking a cab and getting intimate with some of the world’s worst traffic – seriously, it never stops no matter what time of day or night, and every side street seems to be equally gridlocked.

Take it as part of the local experience and people-watch from your vehicle – if you’re wise, you’ll have downloaded the app Grab, which fixes a price before you ever get into the car (basically Filipino Uber).


For those unawares, the Spanish once administered their massive empire from their capital seat on the Philippine archipelago – namely, Manila. As such, they left behind the whole of a walled mini-city in metro Manila. It goes by the name of Intramuros.

Intramuros streets, Manila

The most famous site among many is Fort Santiago. From it stretch a maze of ramparts that give you a bird’s eye on the many churches, the Pasig River, the Fort itself, and the rest of Intramuros. This is a good place to start so you can get yourself the lay of the land. Don’t miss the (sealed) dungeons and cannonades.

On a plumb line away from Santiago lays Manila Cathedral. It’s one of the Philippines most important churches and it’s easy to see why – the rising facades are grandiose enough to make you forget completely about the dingy city outside Intramuros’s walls. Head inside and you’re likely to observe a mass (in English) like we did.

Manila Cathedral, one day in Manila

There’s also a series of pull-up bars in the courtyard if you want to get some reps in.

The next stop (if you began at Fort Santiago) ought to be San Agustin Church. Though not quite as immaculate as Manila’s eponymous cathedral, it’s baroque flare makes it quite the attraction in its own right.

San Agustin Church

You can buy souvenirs inside and ice cream on the street corner, but entrance (unlike Manila Cathedral) is not free.

You can opt into an intramuros tour with a rickshaw driver, but in my opinion there’s not much reason unless you’re dead-set on the historical nuances of the place. Bikes are available for rent if you want to cover more ground and DIY, and the main attractions mostly span a single walking street.

Rizal Park

Situated conveniently adjacent to intramuros, Rizal Park will allow you to laze away the walking miles you accrued at Intramuros.

Once you exit from the opposite side of Intramuros it’ll be quite a feat to miss the park.

Rizal in Manila

I’m not one to recommend a simple urban park without specific reason. Sure, they’re mostly relaxing as manicured natural affairs, but parks need significance to warrant special visits.

Rizal is historically significant in Filipino history. I say that because it is not the history of the Spanish or American colonists which presides here. Instead, Rizal represents the spirit of Filipino independence and the long road to such an end.

Jose Rizal, the park’s namesake, was a Filipino patriot who agitated vehemently against the Spanish incursion. As such, the spaniards thought it prudent to publicly execute him. In the park.

Coming onto Rizal, Manila one day

Thus its title was spawned; with his death, Rizal helped to herald the Philippine revolution against the Spanish crown. Roughly 50 years later, true Filipino independence from the United States was declared from a pulpit in Rizal. Political rallies are held there to this day.

More than just a park, indeed. Check out the monument and marvel at the 100+ species of trees which thrive in the tropical shimmer.

Pay to Play

National Museum of the Philippines: At a whopping 150 pesos (USD 3), this bastion of Filipino history isn’t likely to set you back much. It is, however, quite a large museum, and is likely to eat up quite a bit of your time.

If you have but one day I suggest choosing between the museum, a uniquely Filipino affair, and the following suggestion.

Manila Ocean Park: Manila Ocean Park has an advantage over a handful of its aquatic counterparts: you get to interact with the creatures (such as sharks and sea lions).

Pasig river and manila skyline

While there’s nothing that you can’t find at aquariums around the world here, Manila Ocean Park is one of the better (and cheaper) aquariums in Asia. It also has the advantage of proximity to Rizal park, and can round-off (or begin) a day in this area.


Are you ready for the fun part? Because this is the fun part.

If you’ve been doing it right then you’ll have already pre-gamed your way into a fine buzz and will be rounding off a surprisingly un-bad San Miguel beer with some Jollibees or McDonalds fried chicken and spaghetti (it’s a thing).

Pork Sisig
Pork Sisig – find a way to work this into your diet

Manila nightlife doesn’t exist as fully on a single street like Bangkok’s Kao San or Vietnam’s Bui Vien. However, the good bars and clubs are proximal and mostly within walking distance of each other. Though it’s popping more thoroughly on the weekends, Manila never really sleeps.

Manila is easy to do in a day/night because the usual tourist itinerary is packed into one rectangle of the city. The bars are no exception and many are directly south of Rizal park.

Bars (Ermita Neighborhood)

Toshie’s Bar and Restaurant – Toshie’s is the closest good bar to Rizal Park and offers good food and ambiance to boot. It’s a great place to start the evening but not to finish.

Oarhouse Pub of Manila – It’s not the perfect bar, but they have food and homemade draft beer on tap. Cozy and no-frills. The advantage of Oarhouse is the street that leads up to it – many bars along dot the avenues leading her from Roxas ave. but are not on the map. You’d do well to head there, try the beer, and make your way down the road if nothing is going on inside.

Statues in Intramuros
How you’ll look after a night out in Manila

L.A. Cafe – A WARNING TO GUYS: After carousing for a good stretch, we wandered into this sizable bar. Having little foreknowledge, we were rather astounded by the amount of female clientele in comparison to other bars in the area. Live music, cheap drinks – seemed like a great place.

L.A. Cafe, however, is what’s known as a freelancer bar. The girls aren’t there to find romance, but to find clients (maybe they can coexist??). Observe if you wish, but any sustained eye contact and you’ll have to affirm or deny your intentions in the place once the girls wander over to you.

Many bars in Manila are replete with ‘working girls’, but this seemed to be the granddaddy of them all. Enter at the risk of your integrity (preferably sober) and be ready to bail.

On the ground floor of one of Ermita’s malls is a Denny’s. Needless to say we took a drinking hiatus to grab some pancakes, and you should too. Denny’s is a rare and precious sight in Asia. The also serve beer and are open 24/7.

Denny's in Manila

Makati, which is Manila’s more upscale neighborhood, also sports an array of savvy bars and clubs, but isn’t treated in this guide for the sake of proximity and a 1-day itinerary. If you’re still awake late and bored, head over there to spruce it up.


I didn’t personally party at any clubs in Manila, but according to many a site the clubbing scene in this city as good as you’ll find in Asia, right on up there with Seoul or Tokyo.

Clubs like Exclusiv in Ermita (where the bars mentioned above are all located) often have a swankier scene and that’s especially true as the night runs later and later. If you want to find high-quality clubs with a normal local crowd you’d best head to Makati. Hostelworld has a guide to some of the best.

A Fun, Thriving Capital

I wouldn’t think of jumping on the bandwagon of disdain for Manila. It’s good ol’ grungy fun if you can get into the vibe of the city and take what may come your way. Just be prepared to witness a great deal of poverty and become privy to much heckling for money and etc., and do not pay the street children unless you want a gang of them surrounding you and groping for your wallet.

One day in Manila - a usual street view

Be savvy and lock up your belongings somewhere safe in your hotel or keep them somewhere unreachable, like in a money-belt, on your person. This is one of the few places I didn’t end up having anything stolen from me, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much.

If nothing else, Manila is going to make your trip to other islands that much better. Going from a stroll among urban decay to frollicking on Earth’s greatest beaches/islands really makes you appreciate the latter. Many, though, will find a way to appreciate both in different ways.

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