Things to do in Manila – Experiences from A Westerner

Things to do in Manila

We never know where we end up in life.  Sometimes you wander into a bar looking for a drink. Sometimes you stumble into a country on the other side of the world. The two events are different, but not unrelated. I grew up in Europe (Slovakia, to be more precise), lived most of my adult life in the United States, and, last year, married a Filipina.  That’s not a trajectory that I could have predicted when I threw rocks into ditches as a 9-year old in Slovakia.

I’ve visited the Philippines a few times now as a westernized adult, and it is quite an interesting place.  It is marketed as a tropical paradise to those with money, a view that is reinforced by looking at its 7,000 islands and marveling at the natural splendor. It has also been marked in the American consciousness as a piece of tropical hell, due to its important role in World War II’s Pacific Asian Theatre, as well as being the site of Francis Ford Coppola’s mad masterpiece Apocalypse Now. Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is neither paradise nor tropical hell: it’s a dense, huge metropolis with a proud and friendly populace.  And so this piece brings me to my overall impression of Manila and general observations.

Things to do in Manila (and general observations of a Westerner)

How to Get There

Before you rush off to visit some of the places I will mention below, you will obviously first need some form of transport to get there.  Yes, you could try the buses, or the crowded metro, or try navigating the insanity that is Manila traffic in rush hour, but I’d advise you try something else: a jeepney.  If you are wondering whether the name jeepney suggests that this vehicle is a cross of a jeep and something else, then you would be right! In my opinion, a jeepney is a cross between a small bus and a jeep.

They are pretty crowded, so don’t expect luxury arrangements, but their exteriors are very colorful and, dare I say it, artistic, and they’re also cheap to use.  You will see them everywhere, and they are pretty hard to miss, especially at night, because some entrepreneurial proprietors have added LED lighting to their jeepneys, so sometimes you will see a nice display of lights as you travel down the road.

What To Do


The Spanish owned the Philippines for nearly 400 hundred years, and created Intramuros (Spanish for inside or within the walls) as a place of administrative power.  It used to have churches, universities, historic buildings, and it was kind of glorious.  But then the Japanese Imperial Army came here during the last days of WWII in the Battle of Manila to defend their position and proceeded to destroy most of Intramuros.  Some of it has since been restored, but much of it is lost.

Some of the things to see while you are walking around Intramuros include San Agustin Church, Plaza De Roma (which contains a statue of Spain’s King Carlos IV), and Casa Manila, which will show you what a well-off family used to live like back in the 19th century.

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago, Philippines
Entrance to Fort Santiago

However, what does remain contains plenty of historical meaning.  Fort Santiago, the fort used so brazenly by the Japanese Army, still stands proud at the edge of Pasig River, which, admittedly, is not exactly the cleanest body of water in the world.  Its most impressive feature is the ornate main entrance gate, and one of the few parts of the fort that has been decently restored.

More so than even WWII, the fort is most famous for being the jail of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal.  Inside the fort is a museum (Rizal Shrine is the official name) devoted to Rizal’s life, and it only costs less than $2 USD.  Rizal was an intellectual activist who advocated separation from Spain and independence for the Philippines, and he was jailed and murdered for it by the Spanish.  Of course, there is much more to the story than that, and Rizal did lead a short but adventurous life.  He was an avid traveler, came from a relatively wealthy family, and wrote a terrific travelogue of his travels through Europe, which we bought at the museum for only a few dollars.

Manila Cathedral

Manila Cathedral, Philippines
Soaring ceilings of the Manila Cathedral

In the tradition of grand European churches, the Manila Cathedral contains soaring ceilings, impressive stonework, a beautiful altar, and tremendous history.  It’s over 400 years old and though the cathedral was technically destroyed in WWII during the Battle of Manila, it was completely rebuilt on the same piece of land, and blessed by the Catholic Church.  Pope Francis visited the cathedral in 2015.

There are a few people outside the cathedral who will try to sell you a few trinkets, but it’s not terribly busy otherwise.  Be careful when crossing the street, because

Bonifacio Global City

As you drive around Manila, you will see modern high-rise condos sitting right next to shanty towns, and you will see this more than once.  The high priest of modern Manila is called Bonifacio Global City, which is a gleaming, glass and steel luxury landscape with soaring office towers, gourmet restaurants, perfectly manicured grass, and a bevy of upscale malls overflowing with people.

It is a lovely place, full of bustling office workers (and many expats), youthful energy, and cleanliness, which is not something you see anywhere else in Manila.  It’s where Ruby used to work, and where many of her former co-workers and friends still work.  One of the places we like to visit there is Fully Booked, a nice bookstore with a great variety of books, magazines, and manga. Oh the Japanese culture is still alive within Ruby. She always says it’s because she’s Asian and grew up with it, so she just tells me to shut up and live with it as she giggles to herself as she reads her comic books.

SM Aura

The most impressive mall in Manila, in my opinion, is not the famous MOA (Mall of Asia), but SM Aura.  SM Aura is an indoor mall, and it is an impressive behemoth.  Not only a mall, it also boasts luxury residences, a chapel, and a garden roof.

One thing I love about Philippine malls: the quality of food is surprisingly high, at least when compared to the quality of food that is found in Western malls in the US and Europe.  SM Aura has great variety (Chinese, Japanese, Singaporean, Filipino, American, British, Italian), though I found this to be a fact in several of the malls in Manila.  You can always expect unexpected culinary pleasures, whether it’s Singaporean chicken (Hainanese chicken), Korean BBQ, or the incredible boba or bubble teas (our favorite purveyor of boba teas is Chatime, which, to our delight, we also found in Vancouver).

Beyond the food, the mall is almost ridiculously clean, it’s bright, and makes for fun walking looking at all the different stores, and finding personal favorites like Uniqlo (well, it’s more like Ruby’s favorite).

What to Eat

Lechon in Cavite, Philippines
Delicious Lechon

If you’re craving meat, look no further than lechon, pretty much the national dish of the Philippines, which is a delicious roasted pork with the crispiest pork skin you will ever find.  Lechon road-side stands as well as restaurants that serve it are all over the place, so you will not be able to avoid it! There are even street vendors who only sell that crispy pork skin, and they will also have crispy chicken skin also.  You get a small bag with the skin pieces, and it’s pretty much like eating candy.  Meat candy.

Continuing the meat theme, you could try lumpia, which is ground beef and vegetables wrapped in a thin pastry wrapper.  It’s crunchy, sometimes spicy, and it makes for a great appetizer.  Or entree, if you’re into that kind of thing.  Sisig is another popular dish, which is made from a pig’s head and liver.  Sounds appetizing, I know, but it’s worth a try.  If you’re into sour soups (I am not, but plenty of people are), try sinigang, which gets its sourness from tamarind.  To fight the sourness, you will see chunks of pork and veggies thrown in the soup, so there is plenty for you to chew on even while slurping the sour broth.

For dessert, there is no better choice than halo-halo.  The name means mixed together, so that will give you an idea of what’s going on here.  The ingredients are shaved ice, evaporated milk, which gives it a sweet and cold base, and then you throw in various sweet jellies, beans, and fruits your heart desires.  For hot days (which are pretty much every day in the Philippines), it will cool you down and give you a nice energy boost.  In my opinion, it’s better than ice cream.  Yes, I said it!

Why Come Here?

Manila is a lively city with two faces, one of extreme wealth congregated in the Business District, and also of poverty, which is scattered around the town pretty much everywhere you look.  It is dense, sweaty, loud, and has some of the worst traffic in the world.  However, it’s also a town with excellent gambling (if you like that type of stuff), great variety of food, friendly people, and interesting things to do.  The famous Philippine islands are a must visit, but if you have a couple of days to spare, then Manila is definitely a good place to visit.

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