MANILA BUDGET TRAVEL GUIDE (with sample itinerary, expenses and top attractions)

The National Museum of Fine Arts where the Spolarium is kept.

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UNDERSTANDING MANILA

A lot can be said how MANILA was rubbed out of its beauty over the years. Some blame it on political predation and natural disaster, others on uncontrolled population growth and chaotic civic affairs. Whatever the case, the sad truth is that the capital of the Philippines nowadays has been reduced to a “temporary stopover” as far as tourism is concern. Nevertheless, with the immense effort of the national government, the once “Pearl of the Orient” is now slowly opening its shell to again reveal its lost greatness. On the one hand, improvement on public transportation system is given a priority to ease out the traffic crisis in the metro. On the other, rehabilitation on prominent tourist spots are put to first. In fact, just recently, a clean-up drive was conducted in Manila Bay with the help of 5,000 volunteers as a first major step on its continual effort to making its coastline pleasant for recreation and its waters fit for swimming again. These are but small steps in bringing back the heyday of Manila.

Rizal Monument at Rizal park.

While I agree that the megacity has been a picture of congested roads, poorly dispersed informal settlers, and hazy skies – Manila, with its long history of illustriousness, has still a lot to offer. Read on to find out.

QUICK FACTS & TIPS ABOUT MANILA

  1. When it comes to security, Manila is generally safe like most cities around the Philippines. However, petty crimes can happen. Have your wits about you. Always keep an eye on your belongings and avoid wearing flashy jewellery in public. It is helpful to safekeep your valuables especially when going around crowded areas.
  2. Manila is a year-round tourist destination. But be wary when travelling around summer from March through May as heat can be harsh and during rainy season from June to October as heavy downpour is occasionally expected causing knee-level floods in the extreme in areas with poor drainage system. The best time to visit Manila is December to February when the temperature is cool and the chance of rain is slight.
  3. Traffic is still a major problem in Manila. Avoid the rush hours, from 7AM to 10AM and 5PM to 8PM, to keep yourself being stuck on the road for hours.
  4. Some restaurants charge for a service fee. Elsewise, tipping is not mandatory although highly appreciated.
  5. Only exchange money at a licensed money changer which can be found mostly in shopping malls. Although a safer option, money changers in the airport and the bank give off a terrible exchange rate.
  6. Bargaining is acceptable in local shops and public market. But be generous to our small business folks anyway.
The floating “female oblation” sculpture at UP Diliman.

HOW TO GET TO MANILA

By Air

There are 52 airlines from major cities around the world and in the Philippines that serve flight to Manila through the Manila International Airport (or MIA, formerly NAIA). Some of these airlines are:

  • CebuPacific
  • Philippine Airlines
  • Philippines AirAsia
  • SkyJet
  • Airswift
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Emirates
  • Singapore Airlines

The airport is divided into four commercial passenger terminals. Terminal 1 hosts international flights while Terminal 4 serves domestic, and Terminals 2 and 3 cater both. To know the specific airline for each terminal and other details, visit their official website at manila-airport.net.

To get from and to the airport, avail the premium P2P bus – a Department of Transportation initiated service to provide commuters a safe transport from the airport to the major shopping malls (SM, Trinoma, Glorietta, Ayala Mall, Greenbelt, etc.) in Metro Manila. Visit their website to know more of the bus network and schedule: p2pbus.ph.

One of the most photographed sections inside the National Museum of Natural History.

By Land

The best way to get to Manila by land is by taking a bus. Sadly, there is no central bus terminal in the metro. Terminals are spread to 4 destinations – in Cubao, Pasay, Sampaloc and Caloocan, which are operated by private bus lines that serve trips to major provinces in Luzon, particularly Baguio, Baler, Batangas, Clark, Naga, Tuguegarao, and Vigan.

Here are some of the buses that go in and out of Manila:

Andres Bonifacio Shrine, near Luneta Park.

By Sea

These provinces in the Philippines have ferry trips to Manila. For booking inquiries, visit this website: aferry.com.

  • Bacolod
  • Cagayan de Oro
  • Cebu
  • Tagbilaran
  • Zamboanga

HOW TO GET AROUND MANILA

Getting around the key sights of Manila is fairly easy. You take a jeepney for short-distance travel, minimum fare is P8 – and bus, taxi or rail transits for long distance. The historic enclave that spans from Roxas Boulevard to Intramuros can be traipsed on foot if you have the time and stamina for it.

The train at LRT 1 station in EDSA.

Aside from Google Maps, download or visit any of these websites to help you get direction from your place of origin to your desired destination on a jeepney, bus or train:

Things to note:

  • The fastest way to get around is by MRT or LRT which runs through the major destinations in Manila. If you plan on fully utilizing the rail transits, bypass the long queue of getting a ticket by buying the BEEP reloadable card which can be used at all train lines and the BGC bus. The card is available at the train teller booth or at Family Mart.
  • A jeepney ride is a perfect addition to your Manila experience. Note however that jeepneys can become too congested during rush hour so pack a load of patience. To make the jeepney stop, say “para” to the driver and alight to your destination.
  • Avoid taxi cabs that do not use a meter. If you can’t trust a taxi cab, a more reliable alternative are Uber and Grab which offer ride-sharing service through their respective app.

TOP ATTRACTIONS IN MANILA

Here are the best places to visit in Manila for solo, couple or group travelers.

MANILA BAYWALK

Manila Baywalk at night.

The 2-kilometer stretch seaside promenade has made a buzz on the internet lately after its coastline was cleaned up by 5,000 volunteers, which marks the start of its long-term rehabilitation. Known for its sunset, the baywalk is often visited by photo enthusiasts for its great display of colors during the golden hour of the day. Health aficionados who go for an afternoon stroll, bike or jog is also a typical sight in the area.

Manila Yacht club at Manila Bay during the golden hour.

Other points of interest that are a walk away from Manila Baywalk are Rizal Park, Manila Ocean Park, and the US Embassy to the north; Manila Yacht Club, Star City, PICC and Harbour Square (where you can find a variety of cafes and restaurants) to the south, and Malate night bars to the east across the street.

Rating: 3.5/5

RIZAL PARK

Wreath-laying ceremony at Rizal Park.

Known simply by locals as Luneta, Rizal Park which is next to Manila Baywalk, plays a great symbolism to the Filipino people. The park is where installed the statue of Jose Rizal, the national hero whose execution back in 1896 sparked the burning flame of the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish conquistadors.

The dancing fountain with the open-air auditorium at the background.

Rizal Park is recognized as one of the largest urban parks in Asia. Some of the notable sights you can find around are a Japanese garden, a flower clock, an open-air auditorium, a dancing fountain, historical markers, the kilometer-zero marker which stamps the starting point when measuring the distance of any provinces in Luzon, an enormous relief map of the Philippines which cover several acres of land, and the National Museum.

Rating: 3.5/5

A drone shot of the Relief Map at Rizal Park.

NATIONAL MUSEUM

Definitely the most viable place to learn the Philippines, particularly its people, history and culture – the National Museum which is only alongside Rizal Park, consists of four buildings. One building is allotted to Natural History, another is to Fine Arts, one to Anthropology and lastly, to Planetarium. These four buildings are only a stone throw away from each other.

The Spolarium (right side).

Among the most unique and celebrated piece in the National Museum is the Spolarium, a massive painting of Juan Luna which depicts the fate of dead gladiators in a Roman circus. The painting is installed in the Natural History building at its very entrance.

An interactive game inside the National Museum.

The museum is admission free and opens every Tuesday to Sunday, from 10AM to 5PM. On Mondays, all museums are closed for public viewing.

Rating: 4/5

The remains of Lolong, the largest seawater crocodile.

INTRAMUROS

The Manila Cathedral at the very entrance of Intramuros.

The walled city of Intramuros is the oldest district in all of Manila. It was built in 1571 to outlive a series of foreign invasion, world war, and the roaring threats of urbanization.

The Fun-sized Traveller on an electric chariot inside Casa Manila.

Few of the common stops when doing a walking tour around Intramuros are the Manila Cathedral, Bahay Tsinoy (entrance fee is P100, opens every Tuesday to Sunday from 1PM-5PM), Casa Manila (entrance fee is P75, opens every Tuesday to Sunday from 9AM to 6PM), Silahis (a souvenir shop), Baluarte de San Diego (opens daily from 8AM to 5:00PM), and San Agustin church.

Rating: 4/5

FORT SANTIAGO

The main gate of Fort Santiago.

A citadel built during the Spanish invasion in the Philippines, Fort Santiago is an important historical site as it is where Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero, was imprisoned and tortured along with other Filipinos. Nowadays, the fortress is transformed into a park which showcases some of Rizal’s memorabilia.

Fort Santiago opens daily from 8AM to 6PM. Entrance fee is P75.

Rating: 3.5/5

BINONDO (MANILA CHINATOWN)

The gate of Chinatown.

Established in 1594 for early Chinese settlers in the Philippines who converted to Catholicism, Manila Chinatown is the supposed first Chinatown in the world. At present, the place is a bustling food market which offers authentic Filipino-Chinese dishes.

The fountain outside Chinatown.

Opposite to the gate of Chinatown is Binondo church, also known as Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz and Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish, which was founded in 1596 to serve the Chinese converts.

Rating: 3/5

Binondo Church.

VENICE GRAND CANAL MALL

If you want a taste of Venice in Manila, head to Venice Grand Canal mall, a shopping mall located at Mckinley Hill in Taguig city which offers a romantic canal cruise experience on a classic Italian-inspired gondolas for P500. The mall opens daily from 10AM to 10PM.

Rating: 3.5/5

TOP THINGS TO DO IN MANILA

Here are top things to do and activities that are worth a try in Manila. All of these make for a good layover itinerary.

VENTURE OUT INTO THE NATIONAL MUSEUM

This has been my favorite past time in going around Manila, there’s a lot to check out in the National Museum and it’s for free! Spend an hour for each of the four buildings to atleast get its vibe. I tell you, it will be worth it. Plus, there’s plenty of instagrammable sections you could not miss.

A globe inside Natural History to represent the earth’s biosphere.

GO ON A GASTRONOMIC HUNT

Whether the local beer or the street food, Manila is a sprawling display of cheap, authentic Filipino favorites. Try balut, isaw, kwek-kwek, adidas (or chicken feet), halu-halo and fish balls for street food; and San Miguel or Redhorse for the local beer.

Fish balls, hotdogs and lumpia – some of the known street foods in Manila.

WANDER AROUND THE HISTORIC DISTRICTS OF MANILA

Witness the old Manila, that stretches from Intramuros to Roxas Boulevard, come alive as you wander around its historic districts whether on a bike, a kalesa, an electric chariot or even on foot. However you do it, a heritage tour is something you cannot fail to experience.


A kalesa at the street in between Fort Santiago and Manila Cathedral.

Very important: Be wary of dishonest kalesa drivers that offer tours on the street. With my experience, I was offered a solo tour for P50 for a 5-minute ride at Manila Baywalk. The tour was short but as we reached the other end of the promenade, the driver changed the price to P850. He told me it was what he said at first which clearly was not. My story is just one, and there are tons of awful stories you can find in the net about this modus operandi. My piece of advice when riding a kalesa is to write down your agreed price and validate it with the driver before going on for the tour to avoid any unnecessary argument as you finish later.

ENJOY THE SUNSET IN MANILA BAYWALK

Manila Baywalk is simply one of the best locations for sunset viewing in the Philippines, and if you are passionate about photography, you would be happy to know of the countless subjects you can possibly capture: yacht, birds, the coastline, palm trees, people, kalesa, the skyline, and the list goes on.

Sunset at Manila Baywalk.

If you don’t feel safe staying at the baywalk at this hour, the promenade at the Mall of Asia and in Harbour Square are also good alternatives to watch the sunset, as they are on the same side.

EXPERIENCE THE NIGHTLIFE

Manila is overwhelmingly vibrant at night. Go for a drink or karaoke with friends. The best bars can be found in Makati (on its red light district) and Bonifacio Global City in Taguig (go to The Fort or The Palace if you are into hip and trendy bars).

Mall of Asia at night. The mall is recognized as the 4th largest shopping mall in the world.

MANILA SAMPLE ITINERARY

Below sample itinerary is ideal for a layover or full-day trip whether solo or traveling in a group. It assumes a party of one and will set back a budget of P1,140+, which only covers transportation, food and entrance fee and does not include expenses for accommodation, souvenir and other incidentals.

Things to note for this itinerary:

  • During my trip, I mainly used LRT 1 in getting around the tourist destinations on the sample itinerary, because it’s more practical than taking a jeepney or bus.
  • To get to LRT 1 station from Manila airport, take the MyBus outside the arrival hall in terminal 2. Get off at EDSA LRT 1 Station near McDonald’s (It’s the last stop of the bus). Fare is P25. Climb up to the skywalk to get to the entrance of the LRT. If you want to go to Binondo, stop at Carriedo station; to Rizal Park, National Museum and Manila Baywalk, stop at UN Avenue station; and to Intramuros, stop at Central Terminal station. Each destination is about 5 to 10-minute walk from its respective station. Fare ranges from P15 to P30.
  • When going on a layover trip, leave your baggage at Luggage&More at the ground floor of Manila Airport Terminal 3. Storage rate for small baggage is P150 for 3 hours, P300 per day; for large baggage is P200 for 3 hours, P350 per day. Operating hours is from 4:00AM to 11:00PM
ActivityScheduleBudget
Binondo Church08:00AMP30
Manila Chinatown08:30AM
Intramuros Tour9:30AMP30
Fort SantiagoP75
Manila Cathedral
San Agustin Church and MuseumP200
Casa ManilaP75
Lunch12:00PMP200
National Museum Tour01:00PMP30
Natural History
Fine Arts
Anthropology
Planetarium
Rizal Park Tour05:00PM
Relief Map
Japanese Garden
Chinese Garden
Kilometer Zero
Rizal Monument
Manila Baywalk (sunset)06:30PM
Dinner at Harbour Square07:30PMP200
To the airport09:00PMP300

You may extend the itinerary for 2 to 3 days by adding up a trip to Venice Grand Canal mall, or a day in Manila Ocean Park and Star City, or try out the street foods and go for a night out in the clubs of Makati and BGC.

The kilometer zero in front of Rizal Monument at Rizal Park.

WHERE TO STAY IN MANILA

Manila has a wide array of accommodations. If you want the cheap ones, head out to Malate and Ermita (which are also a walk away to Roxas Boulevard and other historic sites in the metro). If you want a more backpacker vibe and a close proximity to some of the best night clubs, fancy restaurants and top-notch shopping malls, go to Makati.

Here are few of the recommended accommodations within Ermita, Malate and Makati:

Ermita (less than 10-minute walk away from Rizal Park, Manila Bay and National Museum)

Malate

Makati

Walkway to the wildlife exhibit area at the National Museum of Natural History.

USEFUL PHRASES

Like in any parts of the Philippines, the locals can speak English in Manila. However, here are some good phrases that might prove useful when you find yourself endearing with them.

English to Tagalog (the most prevalent language among the locals in Manila)
Thank you – Salamat
Good morning – Magandang umaga
Good afternoon – Magandang hapon
Good evening – Magandang gabi
How much is… – Magkano ang…
Where is… – Saan ang…

Figures of whaleshark and manta ray at the Marine Life exhibit area at the National Museum of Natural History.

BE A RESPONSIBLE TRAVELER

EXTEND YOUR TRIP

Venture out to other top destinations in Luzon, which can be reached by bus for a few hours only.

Or, go to Visayas and visit these fascinating islands:

Or, go to the surfing capital of the Philippines – Siargao! Budget Travel Guide here.

Or visit other countries in Asia:

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