The capital of the Philippines is Manila, a massive city with a metro area population of more than 14 million; it’s one of the most densely populated cities on Earth.
For most people, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Philippines is probably sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and islands. Given that the country is made up of over 7,000 islands, this is fair! But the image of an island paradise doesn’t quite capture the sprawling metropolis that is Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Where is Manila?
Manila is located in a bay on the western side of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. It is about 1,300 km (810 mi) from the Asian mainland, and it is connected to the even larger Quezon City, which is the most populous city in the Philippines.
The location of Manila is described with a red square in the above political map of the Philippines.
History of Manila
Evidence of human life in the area that is now Manila can be traced back to 3000 BCE in the form of the Agono Petroglyphs. Indigenous peoples have lived in the area for thousands of years and were eventually assimilated by the Malayo-Polynesians who migrated to Luzon and the area of Manila.
Spanish conquistadors arrived in Manila in 1571 and built the fortress of Intramuros, making Manila the capital of the Spanish colony. Over the next two centuries, the city would change occupying powers several times. It was invaded by the Chinese, the Dutch, and captured by the British during the Seven Years’ War but was eventually returned to Spain in 1763.
Manila was surrendered to American forces after the defeat of the Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay during the Spanish American War in 1898. It was then under the administration of the USA for several decades before becoming an independent commonwealth in 1935.
During World War II, the Philippines fell under Japanese occupation, and they were able to achieve independence in 1946. In the subsequent years, reconstruction efforts took place in Manila and across the country. The country’s capital was moved from Manila to nearby Quezon City in 1948, but it was moved back to Manila in 1976.
In recent history, Manila has become a major economic center in the Pacific region. Largely because of its rapid expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, Manila has suffered from pollution problems as well as severe traffic congestion and overcrowding. The government is taking steps in an effort to counteract these things.
What language do they speak in Manila?
Filipino and English are the most-frequently spoken languages in Manila. Filipino is a standardized version of Tagalog and is the official national language of the Philippines.
Is Manila safe?
Petty theft is the most common form of crime in Manila, and visitors should take safety precautions like avoiding unlit areas at night and traveling in groups. The US Department of State hasn’t issued any specific warnings for Manila.
What is Manila known for?
Sometimes called “the Pearl of the Orient,” Manila is known for being a multicultural city with historical buildings and a great food scene.
Features of Manila
Geography and Climate
The city of Manila lies in Manila Bay on the island of Luzon. The bay is a highly valuable natural resource for the city and country, and it is considered one of the best in Asia. The natural harbor serves as a center for commerce and trade.
The city is also bisected by the Pasig River, which connects Laguna de Bay to Manila Bay. The river is 25 km (15.5 mi) long and was a historically important transport route and source of water while Manila was under Spanish control. Industrial development in the region has since contaminated the water, though restoration efforts are underway.
Manila has a tropical savanna climate but almost gets enough rainfall to fall into the tropical monsoon climate category. There are wet and dry seasons in Manila, and the temperatures are typically hot all year due to its proximity to the equator. Humidity levels are also high in Manila, which makes the temperature feel even hotter.
Metropolitan Manila, or the National Capital Region, includes Quezon City and 14 other nearby cities with a total population of over 14 million. This makes it one of the most highly populated metropolitan areas in the world. The city of Manila proper has a 2022 population estimate of 1.6 million. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
Manila was the most populated city in the Philippines for many years, though Quezon city took the number-one spot in 1990. Since 1990, Manila has maintained a population of roughly 1.6 million due to fluctuations in population growth.
During the 19th century, there were high percentages of Spaniards and Chinese in the Manila population. During the 20th century, it became more common for people of any ancestry born in the Philippines to be referred to as “Filipino.”
The two official languages in the Philippines are Filipino and English. Filipino is a standardized version of the Tagalog language and is used as a lingua franca throughout most of the country. English is used frequently in education, business, and the city of Manila.
In terms of religion, Manila is an overwhelmingly Christian city. Over 90% of its citizens identify as Roman Catholics, and this is largely due to the influence of Spanish culture in the city and country. Of the 113 Catholic churches in Manila City limits, 63 are considered major shrines, basilicas, or cathedrals. The oldest established church in the country is the Manila Cathedral.
Manila is a central part of the economy in the Philippines. It’s the home of the country’s largest port and the location of more than 60,000 operating establishments.
Manila Bay is considered the best natural harbor in East Asia, which makes it an ideal location for international shipping activities and adds substantially to the economy of Manila and the Philippines. There are also ferry terminals, a marina, and a fishing port located here. One of the top five global port management companies in the world is headquartered in Manila.
In addition to seeing most of the country’s import and export traffic, Manila’s economy benefits from manufacturing, banking and finance, tourism, retail, legal services, and many other economic activities. One of the most stable manufacturing sectors in Manila is the food-processing industry.
Things to Do and Places to See in Manila
1. Visit Intramuros
Intramuros is a Latin word meaning “inside the walls,” and it’s an apt name for the walled-in historical area of Manila. The walls were constructed by the Spanish Imperial Government in the 16th century to protect from foreign invaders, and they still give the site a distinctly European feeling today.
There are a variety of architectural attractions within the walls of Intramuros, and so taking a tour or walking around is a good way to see all there is to see. Walking tours, bamboo bicycle tours, and self-guided tours are popular options for experiencing the old center of Manila.
2. San Agustín Church
The San Agustín Church is unique because it is the oldest church in the Philippines. It’s also an impressive example of Baroque architecture, with an ornate interior featuring oil paintings and a crucifix from the 16th century.
One of the reasons this is the oldest church in the Philippines is that almost the entire Intramuros region was destroyed during the second world war. There were eight churches in the area that were destroyed during the bombardment, but San Agustín managed to remain standing. The church has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, and it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
3. Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown
There are plenty of things to do in Manila, but a visit to Binondo isn’t like any of the others. This is Manila’s Chinatown, and it is known as the oldest Chinatown in the world, founded in in 1594. The area was first set up as a settlement by the Spanish governor of the time for Chinese immigrants that had converted to Catholicism, and it was across the river from the Spanish residents in Intramuros.
Herbal stores, vendors of all sorts, colorful buildings, and a lively scene bordering on chaos are some of what you can expect in Binondo. The favorite activity of many who visit Binondo, however, is enjoying the food. Whether you’re looking for Chinese food or the special Filipino-Chinese fusion, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Some must-try dishes are dim sum, lumpiang, mami, and hopia.
4. Rizal Park
This is one of the oldest urban parks in the Philippines, and it plays an important role in the city. To really get a feel for the city of Manila, a visit to Rizal Park is almost required. It’s adjacent to Intramuros, so visiting both sites is easily achievable in a day.
Not only is the park a beautiful place to relax and catch a break from the asphalt of Manila, but it has also played an important part in the city’s history. The name Rizal comes from José Rizal, a Filipino patriot who was executed in the area of the park. The Rizal Monument is dedicated to him and houses his remains at the focal point of the park.
The park is also where the Philippine declaration of independence from the United States took place in 1946. Several political demonstrations and rallies have taken place here over the years, and it is the site of presidential inaugurations.
5. National Museum Complex
Museum lovers, rejoice. The National Museum Complex in Manila is home to four different museums, each offering something special. For art aficionados, the Museum of Fine Arts contains works by Filipino and international artists. There’s also the Museum of Natural History, in which you’ll be able to marvel at the full skeleton of the world’s largest crocodile to live in captivity, Lolong.
The National Planetarium is also part of this museum complex, and it has impressive representations of the solar system as well as an ethnoastronomy exhibition. Finally, the National Museum Complex also includes the Museum of Anthropology, which tells the story of the unique cultural heritage of Filipinos.
6. Divisoria Market
Shopping enthusiasts and anyone looking for a unique experience could thoroughly enjoy the Divisoria Market in Tondo. Haggling over prices is normal here, as there are many knock-off items, but it’s possible to get some pretty great prices. A visit to the market will be busy and probably not very relaxing, but it can make a great way to experience daily life in the city.
If the experience sounds too daunting, it’s possible to hire a guide to take you on a tour of the market.
7. Yexel’s Toy Museum
For something completely different than your average tourist activity and that’s not entirely related to the Philippines, consider visiting Yexel’s Toy Museum. The four-story building houses tens of thousands of collectible toys and more than a thousand life-sized action figures and cartoon characters (picture iron man suits and storm trooper gear).
8. Manila Ocean Park
The Manila Ocean Park is a world-class oceanarium that is very popular among visitors to the city. It’s possible to see a wide variety of ocean animals up close here, and there’s even a hotel located on the premises of the park. Some of the highlights at the Manila Ocean Park are a shark and stingray viewing area, Humbolt penguins, and a curved, underwater walkway tunnel.
There are about 14,000 sea creatures living in the park, and it consists of 3,000 cubic meters (106,000 cubic feet) of seawater, which comes from Manila Bay and has been filtered to better host the sea life.
9. Manila Baywalk
Much of Manila is busy, there can be lots of traffic, and it can get very hot. Fortunately, you’re never too far from the water while in Manila, and an excellent way to take advantage of this is to spend time at the Manila Baywalk. It’s a waterside promenade that stretches for two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the US Embassy near Rizal Park to the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Live music, street performers, and food vendors make the walk entertaining, and views of the sunset over Manila Bay from here can be mesmerizing.
10. Fort Santiago
Another historically significant site located in Manila’s Intramuros is Fort Santiago, a citadel constructed by Miguel López de Legazpi, a Spanish governor and explorer. The site is important to Filipino history because of its prisons, where many lives were lost, and because Filipino folk hero José Rizal was imprisoned here before his execution.
Visitors to the fort can see where Rizal was imprisoned, as well as a shrine dedicated to his life and work. The fort sustained heavy damages during World War II while it was occupied by the Japanese, and restoration efforts began in 1953.