A guide to Metro Manila: Top 10 things to do for first-timers

Experience Manila like the locals do with our Archipelago guide to top 10 things to do in the city, from watching the best live music to going on a romantic sunset bay cruise

by Amanda Lago

If it’s your first time in Manila, the task of exploring the sometimes-chaotic metropolis can be daunting, but that shouldn’t keep you holed out in your hotel or totally giving the city a miss. Here's our ultimate Manila to-do list for first-timers:

1. Eat like a local

Perhaps the quickest way to immerse yourself in Filipino culture is to eat like a Filipino. After all, it’s been said that the ultimate Filipino greeting is not “Kamusta?” (how are you?) but “Kain na!” (let’s eat). You can find classic Filipino dishes like sinigang (sour tamarind broth), kare-kare (peanut stew with ox tripe), and adobo (meat stewed in vinegar) at pretty much any restaurant that calls itself Filipino - from the big restaurant chains like Max's, to the more upscale joints like Romulo Café.

You could also try as many Filipino dishes as you can take at Kamayan, the Filipino section of Dad’s World Buffet, or see how Pinoys combine their two greatest loves, singing and food, at the Singing Cooks and Waiters.

Max’s restaurant is open daily and has branches in most major commercial establishments all over the Metro.

Romulo Cafe is open daily from 11am to 3pm, and 6pm to 11pm has branches in Jupiter Street in Makati and on Scout Tuazon Street near Tomas Morato in Quezon City.

Kamayan can be found at Dad’s World Buffet along EDSA in Greenhills, on Padre Faura cor. Adriatico in Ermita, along West Avenue in Quezon City, in SM Megamall in Mandaluyong, and in Glorietta 3 in Ayala, Makati.

Singing Cooks and Waiters can be found along Roxas Boulevard near the corner of Gil Puyat (Buendia) Avenue in Makati.

For a guide to the Philippines' top 13 restaurants, click here.

2 Intramuros

Fort Santiago. Photo by Anson Yu

The seat of power during the Spanish colonization, this historical walled city definitely has a lot of stories to tell. Filled with museums, plazas, churches, and ruins, an entire day here might not be enough. Within the walls, you’ve got Fort Santiago, the citadel where national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution in 1896 (his footsteps from his cell to the execution site have been mapped out on the floor for people to retrace). You can also find two important Filipino churches: the Manila Cathedral, and the San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Intramuros. And don't miss Casa Manila, a recreation of an upper-class home in the Spanish era.

Rent out a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) for about P350 for (US$7) for two people for half an hour, but remember to haggle and establish the price with the driver before you start the ride. You can find a whole line of calesas waiting outside the entrance to Fort Santiago. Better yet, take an aimless stroll along the walls and let your feet lead the way, or join a walking tour — try Carlos Celdran’s Walk this Way or Old Manila Walks.

Fort Santiago is open daily from 8am to 6pm, with a regular entrance fee of P75 and a discounted fee of P50 for students and children.The Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church are open to the public, with masses celebrated daily. Casa Manila on General Luna corner Real Streets is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 9am to 6pm with a regular entrance fee of P75 and a discounted fee of P50 for students and children. For more information on Intramuros, drop by the Intramuros Visitor’s Center inside Fort Santiago (5F Palacio del Gobernador, General Luna corner Andres Soriano streets), or give them a call at +632 527 2961.

3 Live bands

19 East. Photo by Dane Soriano

Filipinos love to sing (yes, karaoke is a national pastime), so catching a live band or two is another must-do for a true Filipino immersion. All over the metro there are live music spots that cater to every musical preference. If you’re into the indie and alternative scene, you could check out SaGuijo in San Antonio Village in Makati. For jazz or blues, head to 1951 (the former Penguin cafe) in Malate in the heart of Manila, or head to 19 East in Sucat, Paranaque, about 45 minutes south of Makati for a who’s who in the Filipino music scene.

Want to take the live band experience to the next level? Unabashedly grab the mic and unleash your inner rockstar in true Pinoy fashion at open mic night. Head to Plantation in Legaspi Village in Makati every Tuesday, Craft in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig every Wednesday, or 121 Grill on Pasong Tamo, Makati every Friday.

4 Ayala Museum, Makati, and the National Museum, Manila

Photo courtesy of the Ayala Museum

Get to know precolonial Philippines through the gold, ceramic, and indigenous textile exhibitions at Ayala Museum in Makati. See some of the finest Filipino art (including Juan Luna’s massive masterpiece, the Spoliarium) at the National Museum's National Art Gallery, or see more archaeological treasures like ancient burial jars and maritime vessels at the Museum of the Filipino People.

The Museum of the Filipino People. Photo by Ferdz Decena

You could also join Xiao Time, a walking and talking history walk at the National Museum, led by historian and De La Salle University professor Xiao Chua. Rates are P350 for pre-registered participants, and P400 for walk-ins including snacks. Call John Ray Ramos at +6920 222 8889 to inquire or reserve, or visit the Proyekto Facebook page.

Ayala Museum  is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 9am to 6 pm. Basic admission is at P150 for Filipino and foreign residents, P75 for resident students and senior citizens, P350 for non-residents, and P250 for non-resident students and senior citizens. The National Art Gallery and the Museum of the Filipino People are open from Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10 am to 5 pm. Entrance fees are at P50 for students, P120 for senior citizens, and P150 for adults. Admission is free on Sundays. For more information, call the museum education division at Tel +632 527 0278.

5 Go on a Manila Bay dinner cruise

The Manila Bay sunset. Photo by Erik Liongoren

The Manila Bay sunset can be seen from many different points in Manila, but the best seat in the house is probably on a boat on the bay itself. Sun Cruises holds daily 1.5 hour rides for P550 per person including dinner from Monday to Thursday and P650 per person including a dinner buffet on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

For more information, call Tel +632 834 6857 to 58 or +632 831 8140.

6 Chill out at the Peninsula Manila hotel's The Lobby

The Manila Pen lobby. Photo courtesy of the Peninsula Manila

A favourite photo op for tourists, thanks to its eye-catching fountain on the corner of Makati Avenue, the Manila Pen has become something of a symbol for the metro’s central business district. Its lobby is no less distinct - picture tropical luxury with its giant tapestries, two grand staircases and a massive sun sculpture by national artist Napoleon Abueva hanging from a four-storey high ceiling. The Lobby is a great place to people watch, to see and be seen. During the holidays when the Lobby is all dressed up, it's a fun and romantic place to soak in the festive atmosphere. Order coffee, ice cream, the Filipino iced dessert halo-halo or in fact anything on the menu of the hotel's other restaurants. Turn up the swank and try the lobby’s afternoon tea buffet, available from 2:30pm to 5:30pm daily. The buffet offers a changing selection with buttered crumpets, scones, and tea sandwiches as the mainstay, and a variety of teas and infusions. To make you feel even fancier, a classic flute and guitar duo plays during this time. The buffet costs P1,350 for adults, P2,130 with a glass of champagne, and P800 for kids, while the afternoon tea set is at P990 per set, or P1,770 with champagne.

The Manila Peninsula, Ayala cor. Makati Ave, tel +632 887 2888

7 Go on a Binondo food trip

Binondo. Photo by Cheche Mambong

Believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world, Binondo is a great way to experience the distinct culture of the Filipino-Chinese community – one of the most significant ethnic groups in the country. With restaurants that date to as far back as the 50s, a Binondo food tour is a great way to get into Manila’s culinary heritage. Must-try Binondo restaurants include Wai Ying on Benavidez st., Sincerity Café on Yuchengco, and the Original SaLido on Ongpin.

Wai Ying. Photo by Cheche Mambong

Another iconic Binondo restaurant, the Original Savory restaurant was razed by a fire in April, but one can still try their classic fried chicken in tthe restaurant's Bel-Air, Makati branch.

Old Manila Walks offers a Binondo food walking tour.

8 Malacañang Palace

The museum at Malacanang. Photo by Oggie Ramos

Get a glimpse of Malacañang Palace, the Philippine President’s residence and office, by driving along Jose P. Laurel Street in Manila, or from a boat on the Pasig River. Better yet, tourists can visit the Presidential Museum and Library, housed in the oldest part of the palace. Displaying memorabilia from past Philippine presidencies, the museum is open from Monday to Friday, 9 am to 12 pm, and 1 pm to 3 pm.

Tickets are at P50 for adults and P30 for students and seniors. Those who would like to go must fill out a reservation form at least seven working days before the preferred date of the tour. Foreign nationals must attach photocopies of their passports' main page to the forms. Presidential Museum and Library, Kalayaan Hall, Jose P. Laurel Street, Malacañang, tel +632 784 4286. Click for a virtual tour.

9 Luneta Park

The Rizal Monument at Luneta. Photo by Ferdz Decena

What was once the execution site for Filipino martyrs, including national hero Jose Rizal, Luneta, also known as Rizal Park, is a 140-acre park, one of the rare green lungs in the city. Start your tour of this park at the Rizal monument, then get to know the hero more through a diorama that tells the story of his martyrdom, right on the spot where he was executed. Enjoy free music and dance performances at the open-air auditiorium with Concert at the Park every Sunday at 5:30 pm. Watch the central lagoon’s dancing fountain show in the evenings, challenge your brain at the Chess Plaza, or stroll through the Japanese style gardens. Or else, just take a leisurely walk in the park, making sure to avoid the scorching heat at midday.

Rizal Park, Roxas Boulevard, Ermita, tel +632 302 7079

10 Shop ’til you drop at a mall

Landmark department store

Okay, so malls aren’t exactly a cultural hotspot, but in the Philippines, “malling” ranks high on the list of the average local’s favourite hobbies, so think of it as engaging yourself in the local custom. It's also a nice break from the heat outside. And goods in the Philippines are a lot cheaper than most countries. If you can handle huge shopping centers, head to Mall of Asia near the bay in Pasay city, or Megamall along EDSA in Mandaluyong. For local and international designer brands, check out Rustan's which also has a well-stocked grocery store, including organic food products and items from the UK's Waitrose food store, local souvenir shop, and restaurants. At the Ayala Center in Makati, you can find malls like Glorietta and upmarket Greenbelt, housing most local and international designer brands, located alongside mid-range department stores like Landmark and SM Makati. Rockwell's Powerplant Mall, a high-end shopping area, is great if you're big on convenience. It has valet parking, clean car service, local and international designer shops, grocery store, restaurants, and cinemas.

For vintage shopping, click here.

For the best Christmas bazaars in 2015, click here. 

Ok, this is not shopping, but we'd like to squeeze in one activity— a spa treatment. One of the best places for a reflexology massage in the city is the Olympia Spa, right next door to the Manila Peninsula Hotel. Book in advance as the spa is popular. You can of course get posh spas at one of Makati City's five-star hotels for the luxury treatment. If you plan to head to Boracay island, don't miss Mandala Spa.

How to get around

The convenient way to get around Metro Manila is by taxi, using Uber Manila. Plan your day to avoid the rush hours.

Published September 2015. Updated with additional reporting December 2015