View of the Binondo, Manila skyline from Fort Santiago in Intramuros

Should YOU Visit Manila? (What To Know Before You Book)

Philippine beach and nature destinations are legendary, and rightly so. 

But Philippine cities—including the capital, Manila—are rarely on anyone’s bucket list.

Is that a naïve oversight, or is Manila really best avoided?

Manila is not the most exciting city in Asia, but it’s much more than just a gateway to exotic locales. It is worth visiting for a few days if you want to see a complex metropolis with tons of under-the-radar attractions. Manila’s congestion and chaos are pretty intense, but savvy visitors can often avoid the worst of them.

By the way, understand that the city of Manila is just one of many cities in Metro Manila (which is officially called the National Capital Region, or NCR). 

It’s a large region and all the cities blend together, so natives and foreigners both use “Manila” to mean the whole metro area. I’ll do the same.

With that cleared up, we’ll cover the question from a few different angles.

3 things (of many) that make for a great trip

It’s easy to understand why visitors are amazed by warm, clear water and underground rivers and lush jungles.

It’s also easy to understand why a packed mass of concrete doesn’t hold the same appeal.

However, since you’ll probably fly through Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) no matter where you’re going, consider spending at least a few days to explore this singular city. 

It’s affordable for a massive city

The Philippines is an affordable destination on average, but Manila is more expensive than most of the country, and the parts of Manila that are popular with foreigners are on the high end of that.

In my experience, the best bang for your buck is not on ultra-cheap food and dining. Yes, there are decent $30 hotels and $3 meals if you look in the right places, but they’re more plentiful and convenient in smaller Philippine cities (and other Southeast Asian countries).

Instead, I find much better value at upper-mid-tier places. Think $100/night for a business-district hotel that would cost $300/night in the US, or an excellent set meal for roughly the price of an appetizer in an upscale American restaurant.

Very good English is common

It goes without saying that speaking the local language can only improve your trip. 

I absolutely recommend that long-term visitors learn Tagalog, but there are several reasons why Tagalog is hard to learn for foreigners.

Luckily, the Philippines is officially bilingual, and English levels are probably higher in Manila than anywhere else in the country.

If you’re planning a short trip, or just don’t have the motivation to tackle Tagalog, then you’ll be fine without it. 

In casual settings, most Manileños—especially younger ones—tend to speak Taglish. 

That’s basically what it sounds like: a mix of Tagalog and English. It usually involves English words with Tagalog grammar, but locals often switch into and out of straight English, even with one another.

Again, you’re always better off learning the language, but the point is that missing it is less of a problem in Manila than just about anywhere else.

It shows the Philippines at its best and worst

As my plane landed in Manila the first time, I don’t know whether I was more immediately struck by the vast Makati skyline or the extensive slums visible even from the air.

The contrast was so sharp I could nearly feel it.

Luxury developments and slums exist side by side in Manila

However, my point right here isn’t to condemn inequality or to question local governance or anything of the sort.

It’s simply that if you want to understand a country you’re visiting, then it’s critical to see the good and the bad.

To see the skyscrapers…

Uptown BGC is the most recently redeveloped part of Taguig

and the shanties. 

Or better yet, to ask and listen about why they’re there and whose lives they impact and how

Such a massive city is the best place to feel and understand all the pairs of extremes that make up a country.

Two reasons it might be the wrong destination for you

Of course, no place is perfect for every traveler. Metro Manila has some significant challenges that will take you by surprise, especially if it’s your first time in a large developing country. 

These things shouldn’t necessarily deter you, but going in with eyes wide open is the best way to have a good trip despite the issues.

Manila’s bad traffic defies description

Manila perennially tops lists of cities with the worst traffic. The “winner” depends on whose study you look at, but suffice it to say that it can’t really get worse. 

And with the traffic comes pollution. If you’re sensitive to air quality, then that’s something to think twice about.

In brief, too many people share too little space, and traffic rules don’t carry much weight. One rush-hour trip along EDSA will make that clear.

Local transit is a distinctive experience, and jeepneys are an icon of the city. However, the routes aren’t well mapped or easy to figure out, and it’s the polar opposite of a comfy journey. 

A car from Grab (SE Asian competitor to Uber), or even a private driver, is worth every penny.

As a rule of thumb, expect driving to take half or fully as long as walking the same distance. 

So why not just walk, then? 

If the heat is bearable, that’s a terrific choice in certain areas, like BGC, parts of Makati, or the center of Manila proper. But outside tourist and business areas, sidewalks tend to disappear randomly (if they ever existed), and it’s not a great idea to cross the many large intersections with meaningless traffic lights.

An extremely tight budget will go farther elsewhere

As I mentioned above, Manila abounds with good values on mid- to upper-tier amenities. 

But if you’ve got to stretch limited funds a long way, then you’ll have an easier time (and probably more fun) in almost any other part of the country.

That said, you might be able to split the difference.

If you’re very eager to explore Manila and don’t mind a less convenient hotel, then consider one of the more outlying cities of Metro Manila instead of the usual tourist choices of Manila proper, Makati, and Taguig (BGC). Just double-check that transit is available or that Grab costs won’t undermine your savings!

What about safety?

The safety question is surprisingly hard to answer because it means different things to different people.

I believe Manila is safe for tourists who have common sense, are aware of typical scams (like taxi fare gouging and bogus tour guides), and don’t venture into obviously questionable areas. Trouble will find naïve or reckless travelers, but that’s the case worldwide.

That said, I need to reiterate that it’s a complicated question. It deserves a more nuanced answer, which I’ve tried to provide here.

How to make your stay worthwhile

After several extended stays in Metro Manila, I’ve noticed a few things that consistently make for a nice trip.

Plan activities by area

Bouncing between neighborhoods is a pleasure in some cities. Manila is not one of them. 

Due to traffic, it’s wise to plan less than you think you can do, in fewer places than you think you can go.

But, along those lines…

Slow down

Manila runs at a faster pace than most of the country. But compared to New York or Hong Kong, for instance, it’s mellow and easygoing. And in keeping with the previous point, it’s logistically tough to pack a lot into one day.

Cafes open later. People walk more slowly. Schedules carry less weight. Type-A bankers and tech entrepreneurs are very much the exception, not the rule.

You get the picture.

This trait is maddening if you find it hard to take a break, but beautiful if you learn to enjoy it. 

Get to know people

Granted, it’s tough on a brief stay.

But if you visit the Philippines—even the big city—without getting to know anyone, you’ll have missed out on some of the warmest and most hospitable people on the planet.

Sure, that’s a very broad generalization, but there’s a reason it’s such a common one.

A Canadian acquaintance who moved to Manila said it best: “Manila doesn’t give you many reasons to come, but it gives you many reasons to stay.” To me, the people are the first and best reason.

Should you visit Manila?

Traffic’s a nightmare, nature is almost non-existent, and there isn’t too much in the way of old architecture.

Yet for most travelers, it’s still worth visiting.

How so?

It’s also an affordable place that’s famously friendly, almost universally English-speaking, and a transportation hub for almost anywhere you might also want to visit.

It’s worth a little extra planning before you show up, but the reward is a wildly different experience—in good or at least interesting ways—from just about anywhere else on Earth.


  • Erik Bassett

    Erik is an American writer with family ties to the Philippines. After visiting and eventually living in Metro Manila, he launched Manila FYI to help visitors understand, enjoy, and thrive in this fascinating part of the world.

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