♫♫♫ “Manila, I keep coming back to Manila…” ♫♫♫
This is one iconic song for Filipinos and Manileños specifically, as it expresses their love and longing for their home city.
Manila is known and famous for its blend of fascinating colonial history and the thrilling pace of a modern city. Iconic landmarks include Intramuros, Binondo, Luneta Park and a view of the sunset by the bay. Even Manila’s famed heavy traffic may be an experience you’ll never forget!
Having fallen under the influence of the Spanish, Americans, British and the Japanese, there is just so much details and history to captivate any visitors’ attention.
Time to explore all and more that the Philippines’ capital and second largest city, Manila has to offer!
1. Shopping Malls
If there is one unique quirk that Manila is famous for, it is having malls in its unofficial list of tourist attractions.
Ask any Filipino to tour you around Manila or other cities in the metro. You’ll probably go mall-hopping.
Manila is known for having at least a branch of the most popular super malls in each city of the metro. Then there are community and strip malls, shopping centers, bargain malls and open-air shopping plazas.
So why do Filipinos love malls? Free air-conditioning.
With the country’s hot and humid weather, hanging out in a cool place will always be the perfect pastime.
Also, these malls have made their establishments such convenient places, becoming one-stop shops for their patrons.
And it’s not just about recreational activities such as shopping, eating, watching movies and the likes. You can also accomplish essential errands in any of these malls.
Complete your grocery list, drop by the bank, pay your bills, or even process important government documents, like your passport.
So “dropping by” the mall, in reality, might take the whole day, especially if you’ve got quite a long to-do list.
2. Heavy Traffic
When someone says nothing lasts forever, he probably hasn’t driven along EDSA highway, the main thoroughfare in Metro Manila.
Manila was tagged as the second and fourth-worst in the world when it comes to traffic congestion, for two years in a row. This is the sad reality that Manileños endure every day and one of the worst things Manila is known and famous for.
Inadequate public transport planning and infrastructure, an influx of private cars and ineffective enforcement of traffic laws, now that’s Manila traffic in a nutshell.
A 10 to 15-minute drive may take you almost an hour’s worth (or longer!) of commute in Manila.
Now imagine the carmaggedon every rush hour in the morning and evening, or whenever rains and floods hit the city. Some workers even endure four to six hours of being on the road just to travel back and forth between their homes and their workplace.
People rely on public transport vehicles like buses, jeepneys and utility vehicles for hire to get them to their destinations.
Rapid transit systems like the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and the Manila Metro Metro Rail Transit System (MRT) were also established. However, these were not enough to accommodate all passengers and commuters.
This situation pushes citizens to buy their own cars and add to the already congested roads.
Hollywood actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in one of his personal projects, asked people to describe an EDSA traffic jam in 5 words. They were able to capture it in three poignant lines, ‘A sea of red lights,’ ‘it’s more tiring than work,’ and ‘half of my life, gone’.
3. Old Walled City
Manila is known and famous for its historic walled city, Intramuros. Intramuros was founded in 1571 and was the seat of the then Spanish colony.
Over the 333 years of Spanish occupation, this fortified city hosted the most significal people in the government and enclosed important landmarks and establishments.
This included the Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Church, and Fort Santiago, the main military headquarters until before the war.
However, Intramuros suffered damages due to several earthquakes and getting bombed during World War II. Most of the important buildings have been restored since then. Some still serve as headquarters of several government offices.
Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church are respected places of worship for Catholics and in-demand venues for weddings.
Fort Santiago is now a tourist attraction and even a greater spot for the brave and ghost hunters – given the horrifying history it has witnessed.
Historical walking or biking tours are offered or sometimes via kalesas or horse-drawn carriage rides. And for those who are looking for something more interesting and heart pounding, ghost walk tours around Intramuros are also available!
4. Luneta Park
Luneta Park has to be one of the key historical markers in the country and one of the most famous tourist attractions in Manila.
A monument of Dr. Jose Rizal has been erected here to commemorate the place where he was executed. This is also why this place is also called Rizal Park.
Rizal is honored as the country’s National Hero, because of his significant contributions in pushing the people to fight for freedom from Spanish colonization.
People also consider this park as a place of leisure. Families go there for strolls. Lovers also walk around during their dates. And sometimes, major events or concerts are held nearby.
It is also a place for fitness, where you can see joggers, bikers and even Zumba and Tai Chi sessions held for groups.
But Luneta Park or Rizal Park serves another purpose. Right in front of the monument of Jose Rizal is a marble marker that is called Manila Kilometer Zero.
This is the starting point, or as its name says, kilometer zero, when measuring distances to different cities and provinces of the Philippines.
5. Sunset by the Bay
Breathtaking. Romantic. Relaxing.
These words best describe one of the things Manila is known and famous for: the view of the sunset by Manila Bay.
There are a lot of viewpoints within Manila and even hotels capitalized on this scenic view. But there’s just something cathartic in sitting by the bay walk, looking over the water and seeing the play of colors as the sun sets.
You’ll be in the company of families, groups of friends, and also, lovers. Some also go by their lonesome, preferring to have their ‘me time’.
Quite a lot of people, but there’s more than enough space for everyone.
6. Binondo, the Oldest Chinatown in the World
The district of Binondo is one of the must-visit places Manila is known and famous for.
Founded in the 1590s across the river from Intramuros, it is considered as the first and oldest Chinatown in the world!
This was first established by the Spanish colonizers as a settlement for the Chinese. Anyone who either converted their religion to Catholicism or married native Filipinos were welcomed to live and make a living here.
It was then called the “Wall Street of the Philippines” and initially the center of business and finance in Manila. It housed the first buildings of commercial banks (some of which are still operating until now), insurance companies and even the city’s first skyscrapers.
However, many of these establishments took the hit during the Second World War, pushing businesses to rebuild and move into the newer CBDs (central business district), such as Makati City.
While it’s not the main financial hub now, it has rebuilt itself to be a place of gastronomic pleasures – focusing on the Chinese cuisine in Manila!
Now, the Binondo food crawl has become such a trendy tourist experience that is a must-try while in Manila!
Foreigners and even Filipinos endure walking and traipsing along the streets and side alleys of Binondo to sample the best Chinese food and delicacies the locals there can offer.
Cheap finds and the biggest bargains – you will surely find it while in Manila! Just drop by Divisoria, conveniently located in Binondo!
Divi, as the locals would fondly call it, has several commercial centers teeming with bazaars and flea market-like stalls. Even the outside streets are littered with small business vendors.
Divisoria has such a wide variety of goods available – school supplies, toys, clothes, textile, food, furniture, Christmas decors, practically anything can be found there.
The wares are sold at amazingly cheaper prices than their usual retail value and you can still haggle for a better bargain.
One important tip. The area has been made cleaner and safer in recent years. But it would still be good practice to secure your valuables and not bring much while braving the swarm of people shopping in Divisoria.
Manila is known to be a place of worship for different faiths through the district of Quiapo. There are at least two prominent Catholic churches in the area.
Visit the UNESCO listed site, San Sebastian Church, which is Asia’s only all-steel church.
And of course, the devotee-besieged Quiapo Church or Basilica of the Black Nazarene. Every Friday, devotees of the Nazareno flock to the church to attend the mass or say their novenas.
Quiapo is also home to the largest Muslim mosque in the Metro, the Masjid Al-Dahab or the Golden Mosque.
It is also a great place to shop for bargains. Just like Divisoria, flea markets and sidewalk vendors fill the vicinity.
But what makes Quiapo distinct? Its shopping streets. Here you can find alleys that specifically cater to a certain type of product.
Looking for photo and camera shops? Hidalgo and its side streets would be the best place for you. If you are shopping for electronics Raon or now Gonzalo Puyat Street should be your destination.
There are alleys for sports and music equipment, charms and amulets, garments, ukay ukay or thrift stores for second-hand clothes, even pirated DVDs, CDs and VCDs.
9. Feast of the Black Nazarene
This has to be the most famous feast day in Manila. Every 9th of January, the streets of Manila, or specifically the 6.5-kilometer route between Rizal Park to the Quiapo Church, will be filled with swarms of people.
And when I say filled, that means literally having the streets packed with people almost on top of each other.
Reports claim that as many as 10 million people join this annual procession. Here, normal citizens and even popular celebrities or personalities come together to proclaim their devotion.
Their goal: to reach and personally touch the life-sized statue of the Black Nazarene, or the image of Jesus carved on a mesquite wood. Many believe that the statue is miraculous, helping heal sicknesses and grant wishes.
10. University Belt
When you say Manila, there is one unofficial district that is truly legendary: The University Belt!
It is an area that spans several districts in the city and is the general location for about 27 universities, colleges, vocational schools and review centers. An interesting fact about U-Belt, there are about 9 schools that are more than 100 years old!
The oldest of them all is about 400 years old and that is The Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas. Established in 1611, UST is the oldest existing university in Asia and the largest Catholic university in the world in a single campus.
During the academic year, hordes of students reaching up to thousands in numbers congregate in this area. But if you are not a student, the U-Belt is still worth a visit!
Gorge on yummy food choices, in student budget prices! Crazy about books? An affordable and eclectic range of second-hand books can also be availed here. School supplies and vintage goodies are also being sold in the area.
12. Dampa by the Seaside
Manila is famous for this absolute must-try seafood dining experience for any foreigner or balikbayan (returning Filipino).
It is not the cleanest nor the most convenient type of meal, but eating at any Dampa restaurant, you can be assured of a truly memorable seafood feast!
First, you must choose a dampa-style restaurant by the Seaside Macapagal or Roxas Boulevard. A staff member will then bring you to the wet market.
Then it’s time for you to feast your eyes, (pro tip from a local: and cover your noses), as you stroll along stalls bearing wonderful spreads of freshly caught seafood! Buy all seafood you are craving for then bring back your bounty to the restaurant.
You will be then asked how you want your food to be prepared. It can be stewed, grilled, steamed, buttered and many more options!
And the best part? Eating! Let go of everything, use your hands and focus on your scrumptious meal from the sea!
12. Buffets and Eat-All-You-Can Restaurants
One of the things Manila is known for is having lots of hotels that welcome and care for visitors and balikbayans. And the best thing about staying in them, hotel buffets!
You will surely find one that best suit your taste, whether it is a breakfast buffet, a lunch buffet or a dinner buffet or even an all-day buffet. There are even those that offer never-ending seafood or all-meat dishes!
Hotels can be found one-upping each other in presenting the best deals and the most amount of world-class food choices.
These “unli” or unlimited eating experiences are not just limited to hotels. Walk around or take a drive in the city, or practically anywhere in the metro and you will easily spot Eat-All-You-Can restaurants.
13. Manila City Hall
If there’s one thing that Manila should be known and famous for, it has to be the city’s iconic City Hall.
This structure in the center of Ermita holds the office of the Manila City Mayor as well as the chambers of the Manila City Council.
What makes it truly iconic? The clocktower!
This hexagonal tower with red-faced clocks stands to almost 100 feet in elevation and is considered the largest clock tower in the Philippines.
The City Hall was built in 1939 during the American occupation. However, the building was ravaged during the Battle of Manila and had to be restored.
Aside from the clock tower, it would also take an aerial look to see what made the City Hall famous, or rather, infamous!
If viewed from the top, the whole structure of the Manila City Hall seems to be shaped like a coffin. Urban legends say that it was shaped as such to honor those who have lost their lives during the Battle of Manila.
However, accounts say that it was based on the shield of the Knights of Templar, a Catholic military order. But because the City Hall was built on a narrow piece of land the shield shape got slimmer. In turn, it ended up looking like a coffin.
14. Pasig River
While it is not really a tourist attraction in Manila, a significant part of the city is the Pasig River.
Despite carrying the same name as another city (Pasig City), this body of water bisects several municipalities in the National Capital Region, including Manila.
It connects directly to several tributaries or rivers, along with two freshwater lakes one of which is Manila Bay. Pasig River also directly flows into the Port of Manila, which is significant for the metro’s maritime trade and travel.
Malacañang Palace, the official residence and workplace of the Philippine president in Manila, is also located on the bank of the river.
In the colonial period, the Pasig River was used as a transportation gateway. Now, certain smaller watercraft can still travel on some sections of the water. However, it has earned its famous reputation for being a polluted waterway.
Informal settlers have made the river banks their home, while factories irresponsibly dumped their wastes there.
This resulted in the river being declared biologically dead back in the ’90s.
Numerous efforts to clean and rehabilitate Pasig River has been enacted. While progress may be slow, cleaner water and banks have been emerging through the years.
Unfortunately, the river recently made waves in the global scene and put Manila or the Philippines directly on the news. A certain study was made that out of 1,000 rivers in the world, Pasig River was the top contributor of plastic waste into the ocean.
15. Iconic Landmarks from the 1900s
Here’s one cool fact!
It was said that during the American occupation period, an American urban planner named Daniel Burnham, initially planned to build Manila following the style of Washington DC.
Hence, the birth of buildings including the Manila Central Post Office or Post Office Building, the National Museum Complex, the National Library and more, with the Rizal Park in its apex.
Their columnar edifices and grand staircases exhibit the neoclassical architectural style patterned after the United States capitol.
Unfortunately, accounts say Burnham’s plan for Manila was never fully realized. Then Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon was said to have another plan: to establish a grander and bigger capital in another city, now called Quezon City.
Many of these buildings suffered destruction during the Battle of Manila during World War II. But in time, they were rebuilt and restored to their renowned elegance.
The Metropolitan Theater was declared as a National Historical Landmark and a National Cultural Treasure in 2010. Then in 2018, the Manila Post Office Building was declared as an Important Cultural Property.
They will always be a testament to the city’s past and their lasting significance historically, culturally and artistically.
Beaches, or sometimes, the boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, might be the first things people think of when asked about the Philippines.
But the urban landscape of the City of Manila has its own unexpected charm, giving its visitors a glimpse of the past while looking forward to the future.
Add to that the famed warm hospitality Filipinos will shower upon you. Truly an experience one will never forget!
Ever been to Manila? Let us know and comment if there’s more that should be added to the list!