Manila is a colossal metropolis that sprawls for miles around.
It’s a vast yet dense microcosm of almost every facet of the Philippines, yet also feels almost like a country unto itself. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are plenty of reasons that Manila is well worth visiting.
But when we foreigners refer to “Manila,” what exactly does that mean?
The difference between Manila & Metro Manila
The city of Manila is inside Metro Manila, but they are not the same thing. Manila is just one of 17 cities that formally make up Metro Manila, which is officially called the National Capital Region (NCR). Several adjacent areas are technically outside the NCR, but share enough resources and commutes to feel connected.
If you’ve strolled around Tokyo or Hong Kong or Paris or Manhattanv, then you’re acquainted with dense urban environments.
But the (arguably) endearing chaos of Manila’s side streets also makes it hard to tell exactly where you are! I suspect that’s why most first-time visitors are awestruck at the density of Metro Manila—all the more so if it’s their first visit to a major city in a developing country.
However, several main attractions, the districts most popular with visitors, and nearly all multinational corporations are actually in distinct cities that few foreigners have heard of. Some of these places have some surprising reasons to visit, too.
How many cities are in Metro Manila?
It’s generally said that there are 17 cities in the NCR. Strictly speaking, there are actually 16 cities and one municipality.
Here are all of them, from most to least populated (as of writing).
Quezon City, not Manila, is the largest city in the Metro Manila.
It dwarfs all others in terms of land area, and with nearly 3 million residents, Quezon City (or QC as it’s commonly called) is also home to nearly a quarter of the metro population.
There are few tourist attractions in QC, but it holds to everything from national government offices to major sports venues to the country’s most prestigious universities.
If you’re in greater Manila for longer than a typical vacation, you’ll likely find yourself here at some point—if only to get some much-needed space and nature toward the northeastern limits of the city.
In brief, it’s chock-full of virtually everything but tourist hotspots and skyscrapers.
City of Manila
The City of Manila packs nearly 2 million people into just over 16 square miles—the densest city in the world.
It’s hard to describe what that sort of density feels like, but for reference, that’s two-thirds again as dense as Manhattan and well over twice as dense as Paris.
Manila proper is most notably home to the Intramuros historic district, Chinatown in Binondo, and some excellent parks and museums.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if City might have more government buildings, but Manila is indeed the capital of the Philippines, where you can see the Supreme Court and Presidential Palace (although the legislature meets elsewhere).
This city’s an oddity on the map, with two completely separated areas.
One, just north of the City of Manila, is an extremely dense and relatively old residential and commercial area.
The other forms the northernmost area of the NCR, and is not a place you’ll likely see unless visiting local family or friends.
Moving southeast, you’ll almost certainly visit Taguig to see Bonifacio Global City. Most often called BGC, it’s one of the nicest spots in the entire country, and almost certainly the most expensive.
Taguig actually extends all the way to Laguna Lake, but foreigners are usually drawn to BGC and its very pleasant High Street promenade/shopping street. Nightlife is a big draw, too.
BGC is particularly popular with long-term visitors, business travelers, and Western expats. It looks and feels remarkably like an American downtown—and actually quite a lot nicer than most.
Outside BGC, the Venice Grand Canal Mall is a local Instagram favorite, albeit in a Paris Las Vegas sort of way, so I hesitate to recommend it.
Pasig is where you’ll find (part of) the Ortigas Center, which is another of the city’s largest and newest business districts. It’s an increasingly busy entertainment area, too, especially for nightlife.
Foreigners are likeliest to see Parañaque if they visit its gigantic casino/hotel complexes, like Solaire and City of Dreams.
One of the airport’s runways extends into Parañaque’s city limits, so you may technically enter this city anyhow, albeit not in a very interesting way!
Valenzuela is another part of the northern edge of the NCR, lying to the west of the outer part of Caloocan. And like Caloocan, few foreigners are drawn here, although you might pass through on the road from Manila to somewhere like Angeles/Clark or Baguio.
Las Piñas is another locals-only area. Certain routes to southern destinations like Tagaytay might skirt its edges, but besides personal connections, there is not much that would draw visitors.
Makati is the main central business district of Metro Manila. It has scores of major corporate headquarters, the main location of the national stock exchange, some of the biggest and nicest malls, and a lot of high-end restaurants and nightlife.
Makati, much like the BGC district of Taguig, is a huge draw for foreigners on longer stays. As of late, the Poblacion area of Makati has become one of the hippest neighborhoods in Metro Manila, making it a bit of an attraction in its own right.
Muntinlupa is a smaller city at the southeasternmost edge of the NCR, along the shore of Laguna Lake.
You probably won’t come here except to stop en route to Tagaytay or Batangas. That said, it’s an increasingly lively area with a lot of recent development for office space and regional transportation—especially in the Alabang district.
Marikina lies east of Quezon City and makes up the northeastern corner of the NCR.
It’s best known as the center of the nation’s shoe industry, but some tourists make the slightly long trip to see the ludicrous shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. As you may know, she’s the widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and is infamous for an ill-gotten fortune that facilitated legendary shoe-hoarding.
Just south of Manila proper is Pasay, home of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the gargantuan Mall of Asia, some major financial and administrative centers, and a handful of cultural and events venues.
It’s a convenient area if you’re spending just a night or two on your way through NAIA, but the mall is by far the main draw for locals and visitors alike.
Mandaluyong holds part of the expansive Ortigas Center business district, as well as the headquarters of a few well-known institutions in its business district.
There are a couple of enormous malls that draw visitors, although you’re likely to stay in Makati, just across the river to the south.
The city of Malabon is rarely of interest to visitors. However, its namesake food, pancit Malabon, is a classic Filipino noodle dish that’s well worth trying.
Pancit Malabon is ubiquitous around and even beyond the NCR, but you might as well try it in its birthplace if the trek isn’t too inconvenient.
Navotas is known as a major fishing port. We’re talking a commercial fishing hub, not a peaceful fishing village like one might picture, so travelers seldom venture up this way.
San Juan is a tiny but dense area sandwiched between Mandaluyong and the much bigger Quezon City. It has some pleasant heritage houses that tourists may enjoy, despite being a little out of the way.
However, San Juan’s biggest attraction by far is the Greenhills Shopping Center. It’s a famous bargain-hunting spot, wildly popular among locals and perhaps interesting to visitors looking for a deal on a yes-totally-100%-authentic (wink wink) luxury purse…
Finally, we come to Pateros. It’s a tiny patch on the map—well under one square mile—but denser than all NCR cities except Manila proper.
Technically, it’s not a city but a municipality, and a special type of municipality at that. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is, nor why a foreigner would need to know, but now you’ve got one more factoid for trivia night…
It’s supposedly well known for balut production. So, if you’re a die-hard fan(?!?) of that distinctive food, then it might be of slight interest.
Is Antipolo part of Metro Manila? Is Cavite or Rizal?
They might feel like it, but officially, no. Antipolo, Cavite, and Rizal are outside of Metro Manila.
Antipolo is the first city east of the NCR, and it marks the beginning of Rizal Province. It’s a very popular spot for locals to hike and enjoy (slightly) cooler mountain air. Antipolo is also one of the most popular pilgrimage spots for devout Filipino Catholics.
Cavite Province (and Cavite City inside it, of course) is also outside the NCR. Toward the southern border of Cavite Province is the city of Tagaytay, which is a terrific getaway if you’re spending long enough in Manila to need a change of scenery. The view of Taal Lake can be stunning, and the relatively cool, fresh air is a welcome change.
All The Cities Of Metro Manila
There you have it: the 17 cities, or really 16 cities plus a municipality, that officially make up Metro Manila.
All of Metro Manila—that is, the National Capital Region—is a huge, dense area teeming with things to explore. Getting around can be slow, so you’ll want to budget ample time to travel within the larger NCR cities, let alone between them!