What to Expect When Traveling to Manila for the First Time

A few weeks ago, I travelled back to my other home, the Philippines, for a holiday.  Sounds strange when you put it into words- I went home for a holiday.  It was nice to be home after over a year of missing it. It felt good to see my friends and family again and to just be in the familiar hustle and bustle of my hometown, Manila.


Manila, by Alan Christopher Luna
Manila, by Allan Christopher Luna


It was doubly special because my parents in law have decided to join me and my husband on our holiday.  As this was their first time to visit, Andrew and I made sure to let them know ahead of time what to expect when traveling to Manila. For anyone coming to Manila for the first time, setting expectations can help them feel more comfortable and allow them to make the most out of their trip to the other side of the globe.



1. What’s Manila like?

Big, busy, booming. Metro Manila has several cities within it. Our family home is somewhere north of the metro in a place called Quezon City, but I lived centrally in Makati/The Fort for many years before moving to the UK. Makati and the Fort are the business districts and tend to have more expat presence throughout the years,  which is why it has various restaurants and shops that cater to a more international market. In the year that I was away, The Fort ramped up the construction of new hotels and restaurants, and you’ll be able to find everything from Chinese dim sum to german beers. The nightlife is thriving and it has a cosmopolitan Hongkong vibe to it. While we didn’t get to visit them, neighbouring cities like Quezon City, Mandaluyong, Pasig, Paranaque, etc. is also seeing a lot of construction of commercial spaces, residential buildings, and major roads.


Photo by Emmanuelle Santos Naldoza
What’s Manila like? If you were expecting huts in a giant rice field, you were gravely mistaken. Photo by Emmanuelle Santos Naldoza

2. Where Should I Stay in Manila?

I would personally recommend staying in Makati or the Fort as it is very central and is closer to lots of restaurants and shops. Hotel prices in the Philippines are quite expensive due to strong tourism, but the Airbnb market is especially competitive in the business districts like Makati, The Fort, Ortigas, Alabang. You will be able to find a comfortable and beautiful flat for short term rental at a prime location that wouldn’t require you to get in a vehicle to explore the area.



3. How Do I Travel in Manila?

by alan christopher luna
At 5PM, the roads become blocked with bumper to bumper of cars. Makes for a great picture but you dont want to be caught in there! Photo by Alan Christopher Luna


Speaking of vehicles… travelling in the Philippines can be a bit of a nightmare. While it is easy and cheap to get ferried around in a comfortable Uber/Grabcar, you have to put some planning into your trips. Public transport is a bit outdated, and during rush hour it is not for the faint-hearted. Even locals agree that on a bad day, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. I would suggest planning your travels to avoid being on the road from 7-10AM and 4-8pm.


4. What to Do in Manila

If you are from the UK too, just think of the expensive services that you can’t do here and look it up in Manila. Chances are you’ll find that they are a fraction of the price. Go to a dentist, get pampered in a salon, watch a movie in a premium cinema, try your luck at a casino,  learn to trapeze, shoot some guns, eat your weight in exotic tropical fruits, get bottle service in a nightclub, eat in restaurants every meal of the day if you want to. The prices can range from dirt cheap to extortionate, but most services are competitive in price and are really good. (My personal favourite – you can get an amazing 1-hour full body massage and manicure from the comfort of your own flat for less than £10! ) Filipinos know how to live and are very celebratory in nature. We love a good party or treat. People in the city, particularly its young and vibrant demographic, are all about having fun and indulging as often as possible.


Manila’s nightlife and foodie scene are thriving because of its young and vibrant population. 


Despite being few, there are also some historic and cultural sights that will give you a deeper knowledge of the Philippines’ history and culture- the Ayala museum, Chinatown, and Intramuros are my personal favourites. For the outdoor types, the outskirts of Manila offer some interesting hikes and views. The closest beach is about 4 hours away on a good day. For the party animals and nocturnal social beings – there’s something happening every night. You just need to know where to look and who to ask! (If you’re headed that way, let me know so I can ask my friends what’s going on when you’re there!) 🙂


Manila Chinatown, the oldest chinatown in the world. Photo by Emmanuelle Santos Naldoza
Manila Chinatown, the oldest chinatown in the world. Photo by Emmanuelle Santos Naldoza


5. Poverty and Security

Sadly, while the expats and middle and upper classes are enjoying a new age of modern cosmopolitan living, it cannot be denied that a large population still lives in poverty. This, however, does not hinder these classes from living all in one place, so you may find that a few turns of your cab can take you from the richest parts of town to some gritty and less-fortunate neighbourhoods.


Photo by chris stebbings
Some parts of Manila are rougher than others, but you’ll be surprised to find the most lovely and gentle people in its small shanties. Photo by Chris Stebbings


For some foreigners, this may come as a shock and as something of a tragedy. This is how we’ve lived for a long time, and most (not all) Filipinos have learned to deal with these differences with kindness and humility. Metro Manila, like any other city, has a dark and dangerous side- but it can’t be assumed because of an area’s social status. In fact, some of these poorest areas will have the most charismatic people in them. As with all other unfamiliar places – just be street smart. Don’t flash your wealth, don’t leave your belongings lying around, don’t get shitfaced without a trusted friend, etc. Don’t deny yourself the experience of interacting with Filipinos and getting to know their local spots. Just be with someone you trust and of course – be vigilant.  


Also, should you want to help, do not give money. Offer to give food, school supplies, or find a local charity. This is the safest way to guarantee that the money is well-spent. 


6. Do Filipinos speak good English?

It’s not fair to generalise, especially because Metro Manila has such a diverse population with people from all walks of life. However, as someone who has lived there all her life, I can say that most people in cities like Manila, Cebu, or Davao have a much more westernised lifestyle and can speak and understand English more than their rural counterparts.


by alan christopher luna
Side street vendor. Photo by Alan Christopher Luna


Simple side street vendors could confidently strike up a conversation with a foreigner about Manny Pacquiao, even if they struggle to sometimes find the words. Apart from English being the language of instruction in schools in the city, most of us were raised to understand that being able to communicate well in English as fluently as we speak in Tagalog would open opportunities for us in our careers. So don’t be afraid to ask for directions or to strike up a conversation with the locals – more often than not, they will happily oblige. 



7. What are Filipinos like?

I may be biased, but ask others and they’ll tend to agree – Filipinos are the nicest, kindest, most generous people you will ever meet. “Kain tayo!” or “Let’s eat!” is a greeting, not just an invitation. “Pasalubong” or giving gifts whenever coming back from anywhere is not a burden- it is something that brings the giver joy and pride. People are relaxed, and can often be seen smiling. Sometimes, this can be seen as a detriment – as we can be seen as too relaxed when viewed by someone used to efficiency and a fast pace of living. We’re also quite emotional – which means that while we are easy to please we are easy to offend, yet oddly most of us are quick to forgive. My only advice when dealing with Filipino people – smile. Smile when you’re complaining, and smile even more when you’re pleased. We Filipinos appreciate kindness, warmth, and a good old pat on the back – and will return it tenfold. 



I miss Manila everyday. It is a crazy city, but no one can deny that it is thriving. It is a city that’s full of ambition and optimism. If you’re headed there, embrace the buzz and enjoy yourself. 


Are you going to Manila? Leave your comments or questions below and I’ll try my best to respond asap! 


Special thanks to all the amazing folks who contributed their photos for this post! To check out more of their stuff, click on the photos above. 









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