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How to Explore Manila, Philippines like a Local

How to Explore Manila, the Philippines like a Local: Locals introduce their city.

In today’s MYCITY interview, Melissa from “Illumelation” introduces Manila, the Philippines, where she moved to explore her family’s roots earlier this year. Send me an email when you’d like to present your city.

NAME, Profession

MELISSA LEGARDA ALCANTARA, Magazine Editor & Journalist

Please introduce yourself:

Kumusta! I’m Melissa. I grew up in West London, England, and am now based in Manila, Philippines. I celebrated my 22nd birthday here in Manila for the first time in April!

Melissa At Islas De Gigantes.
Melissa at Islas de Gigantes.

My city:

Manila, Philippines – also known as The Pearl of the Orient.

My favorite place to eat:

Honestly, if you can get home-cooked Filipino food, check that out. But my favorite places to eat are Filipino restaurants. Dampa Bay is a fantastic wet market where you buy fresh seafood and have it cooked there and then at a nearby restaurant. Try eating kamayan style – which means eating your food with your hands (usually from a banana leaf). Nothing tastes as good as eating freshly cooked seafood or meat with your hands. Connects you to the cuisine and flavors on another level!

A typical dish of Manila:

Chicken adobo, Lechon kawali, Kare-Kare, lumpia, sisig… halo-halo! Anything with meat, basically.

*Tip: Find here the most popular dishes of the Philippines.

Filipino Halo-Halo Dessert Inside A Coconut.
Filipino halo-halo dessert inside a coconut.

My favorite bar in Manila:

Rocket Moon in Fort Bonifacio, mostly for their DJ on Wednesdays, plays the best music (aka all my jams), from ‘90s R&B to soft jazz. It’s beautifully decorated, they have a great selection of cocktails, and there are always cool people dancing outside to the awesome music by the open grass (although I’m not one of those said cool people).

What about the Nightlife in Manila?

Manila has a great nightlife, full of energy. There’s always something happening every night of the week. The best way to find out about things is through word of mouth, usually. Be aware of the escort areas, though – personally, I find bars in those areas sketchy, and I don’t feel comfortable chilling there. Some super hipster areas in Makati are great – think DIY bars that sell sake beer and softshell crab barbeque. There’s a good bar called Finders Keepers on Sabio Street next to a club called Black Market, which has pretty cool boiler room vibes. In Fort Bonifacio, the bar Tipple & Slaw has live music with the occasional extended Happy Hour (until 11 pm, what what!), and right next door is Pablo’s, which has DJ sets and Screw Shot challenges (party animals, this one’s for you). Karaoke bars are fun too.

Things to do for free in Manila:

There are plenty of interesting things to do for free in Manila: catch the beautiful sunset by the bay; chat to locals; browse the markets; head to the museum on their free days (usually Sundays); walk around Intramuros, the historical walled citadel of Manila built by the Spanish, and absorb the European feel of the cobblestoned streets and well-preserved architecture.

Manila Skyline At Sunset.
Manila Skyline at sunset.

Keep away of:

Unlicensed taxis, shady alleyways in the middle of nowhere, secluded areas, and known to be a little rough. Also, if you’re eating street food locally, make sure it’s not pag pag – which is a certain type of street food that has been recooked from food found in garbage bags.

Best way to move around in Manila:

I’m going to be honest and say that I usually stick to a car or taxi. But jeepneys and buses are almost ridiculously cheap! Buses are great and super convenient. Tricycles, too. But the traffic is so horrendous that you’d really be better off walking through side roads in pedestrian areas.

Best place for first date in Manila:

I’d say somewhere like Milky Way Café on Pasay Road, near Greenbelt. It’s a really chilled and highly valued restaurant that serves delicious Filipino food. There’s a great ambiance – plus, you can order from the menu of the Spanish restaurant, Cirkulo downstairs, or go upstairs to a Japanese restaurant just in case your date doesn’t fancy Filipino food! There are also some nice places around Rockwell with cute interiors and good food – Grace, for example, or Apartment…

*Tip: Enjoy breathtaking sunsets during the Manila Bay Dinner Cruise that takes you along the shoreline of Manila Bay.

Bananas And Pineapples Hanging In The Manila Market.
Bananas and Pineapples hanging in the Manila market.

Best place to meet locals in Manila:

Clubs and societies, organized trips out of the city, and bars and events.

Best place to relax in Manila:

It’s easy to relax anywhere in Manila as long as you get away from the traffic and the chaos. Find a rooftop or outdoor café to chill at, book yourself into a spa for a massage, head to Manila Bay and watch the boats sail by. I like watching the sun go down at Seaside Boulevard with a San Miguel beer in hand. Ooh, yes. The height of relaxation. I also love browsing at food markets – going early in the morning, grazing on two or three different freshly cooked snacks for breakfast, smelling all the beautiful flowers on sale, just watching people interact. Bliss.

Best spot to watch people in Manila:

My inner voyeur says somewhere local – like a bazaar or a market. Maybe the Greenbelt area.

Filipina Fish Vendor Holding Up Crab.
Filipina fish vendor holding up crab.

Five hot tips for enjoying Manila:

  1. Have an open mind. Things won’t be as you expected them to be. Roll with it and embrace the chaos!
  2. Plan your journeys in advance to avoid peak traffic hours! Or, alternatively, bring a good book to amuse yourself.
  3. Don’t just stick to the shopping malls – get lost in the city, walk the streets, revel in Manila’s energy and explore the different Barangays.
  4. Keep your belongings close to you at all times and don’t be extra flashy.
  5. If Manila starts getting overwhelming, go on a short out-of-town trip to a different place – like Taal Lake in Tagaytay (only an hour away) where you can visit the exquisite Taal Volcano. Once you’re back in Manila you’ll feel refreshed, renewed, and much more ready to revel in the busyness of the city!
Taal Volcano And Lake In Tagaytay.
Taal Volcano and Lake in Tagaytay.

One thing you would like to change about Manila?

The one thing I’d most like to change about Manila is the gross misdivide between poverty and wealth. This societal model is understandably the same in other cities, but basic living is not the same here as in more developed countries. The amount of people living in shanties and slums is monumental. Some of the living conditions, the squalor that children here grow up in, are horrifying. The resilience of the average Filipino continues to astound and move me every single day. Every person on this earth has the right to live decently. I firmly hope and will do whatever I can on my small part to ensure that one day everyone in this city can live safely.

Vicky Sosa

Monday 3rd of August 2015

There are so many sides of the Phillipines! It's great to learn more about it, especially from a local. The food looks yummy and the nightlife sounds fun!

Elena Sonnino

Monday 3rd of August 2015

Such great tips --I have never been to Manila but have always heard great things. Need to bookmark this in case my travels get me there in the coming years.

Carol Perehudoff

Sunday 2nd of August 2015

Manila can be overwhelming, so this is a really good guide for a traveller who wants to enjoy it. I've only been there once, and didn't stay long, but I've heard from other people who agree with you about the sensational nightlife there. There is so much to explore in the Phillipines!

Apshawaya Natalie

Sunday 2nd of August 2015

It's always great to have tips from the locals before you go on a trip. I have never been to Manila, but when I go these are great tips. Thanks for such a comprehensive article and great tips :)

Meanne Anneklien Casica

Sunday 2nd of August 2015

I missed eating filipino food specially fresh seafoods yum. And great tips to dine out too