Manila is the capital of the Philippines. The City of Manila is one of the oldest cities in the Philippines, serving as the Philippines’ economic, political, social, and cultural center.
In the heart of Manila, you’ll find the historic walled city of Intramuros, a living testament to Manila’s Spanish colonial past, filled with cobblestone streets, and marvel at the old Spanish-era architecture. Beyond that, modern Manila unfolds with high-rise buildings, bustling shopping districts, and modern infrastructure, which mark the city’s progress.
Where is Manila?
Manila is located on the eastern shore of Manila Bay on Luzon, the country’s largest island. Luzon is one of the northernmost islands in the Philippines, situated in the Southeast Asian region.
Manila is approximately 1,300 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong, about 1,000 kilometers east of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, and roughly 2,100 kilometers north of Jakarta in Indonesia.
The city coordinates approximately 14.6 °N latitude and 120.98 °E longitude. Manila is known for its bustling city life and the picturesque sunsets from Manila Bay.
History of Manila
Manila has a rich history that dates back to the pre-colonial era, and it has undergone numerous significant transformations, all of which have helped shape the city into what it is today.
Before Spanish colonization, Manila was inhabited by Tagalog tribes who traded with the Chinese, Indians, and other Southeast Asian peoples. The area was known as “Maynila,” derived from “may nilad,” which refers to a flowering mangrove plant that grew abundantly in the area.
Manila was colonized by Spain in 1571, led by Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi, and it became a crucial center of Spanish political, military, religious, and economic power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The walled city of Intramuros, now a historical monument, was established as the seat of government and the capital during this time. Manila was also the endpoint of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade route, which connected Asia and the Americas for over 250 years.
Later, during the Seven Years’ War, the British temporarily occupied Manila. However, the city was returned to Spain via the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
After Spain’s Spanish-American War defeat, Manila and the rest of the Philippines were handed over to the United States in 1898 through the Treaty of Paris. During this period, Manila underwent significant changes, including introducing public education and improving infrastructure.
Manila suffered greatly during World War II. It was occupied by the Japanese in 1942, and the Battle of Manila in 1945 resulted in a devastating loss of life and significant destruction of the city. It became known as the second most destroyed city in World War II after Warsaw, Poland.
After the war, Manila and the rest of the Philippines gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946. The city embarked on a period of reconstruction and growth, eventually becoming a bustling metropolis known for its diverse culture, vibrant economy, and mix of old and new architecture.
Each of these periods has left indelible marks on Manila, shaping its culture, architecture, and the spirit of its people. The city’s historical landmarks, such as Rizal Park and the historic walled city of Intramuros, tell the story of its rich history. Despite its challenges, Manila continues to thrive as a significant global city.
Features of Manila
In the City of Manila, the old blends with the new, tradition meets modernity, and history mingles with the hustle and bustle of urban life. Its rich historical past, diverse culture, and vibrant street life make Manila a unique and exciting city.
Geography and Climate
Manila sits on a wide, fertile plain with the Pasig River cutting through the middle. The city has a total land area of about 42.88 square kilometers. Because Manila is near the equator, it experiences a tropical climate with only two seasons: wet and dry.
The dry season generally runs from December to May, and high temperatures and low humidity characterize it. The hottest month is usually May, with temperatures frequently exceeding 35 °C (95 °F). The wet season, which lasts from June to November, is characterized by high humidity and frequent rainfall due to monsoons and typhoons. The city’s average annual temperature is around 27 °Celsius (80.6 °F).
Manila is the most densely populated city in the world, with over 26 million people living in the greater metro area. The people of Manila, known as Manileños, are primarily of Filipino ethnicity. Still, the city’s history of trade and colonial influence has led to a diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures.
There is a significant Chinese community and communities of Spanish, American, and Indian descent. English and Filipino are the official languages, but many other languages and dialects can be heard throughout the city due to its cosmopolitan nature.
Manila is the economic hub of the Philippines. The city is a major center for commerce, banking and finance, retailing, transportation, tourism, real estate, new media, traditional media, advertising, legal services, accounting, insurance, theater, fashion, and the arts in the country.
The Port of Manila is one of the world’s busiest, handling a significant portion of the country’s foreign trade. In addition to the port, Manila also houses the Central Bank of the Philippines, the Philippine Stock Exchange, and many of the country’s largest corporations, making it a vital economic center.
Tourism is also a key sector in Manila, fueled by the city’s historical landmarks, cultural festivals, shopping, and entertainment options. Furthermore, Manila has increasingly become a hub for the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry, contributing significantly to its economy.
Overall, the city plays a central role in the economic health of the Philippines, continually growing and adapting to global economic trends.
Things to Do and Places to See in Manila
Manila offers an abundant array of activities and attractions to explore. Let’s explore some of the city’s most sought-after destinations and popular spots.
1. Explore Intramuros
Intramuros, also known as the “Walled City”, is the oldest district and historic core of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Its name in Latin means “within the walls,” the city is encircled by thick, high walls and moats built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the city from foreign invasions.
Once the grandest in the East Indies, this nearly three-mile-long circuit of massive stone walls fully enclosed a splendid city of churches, palaces, museums, fine courtyards, and stately homes. The district is rich in history and is a testament to the Philippines’ colonial past.
2. Visit Manila Cathedral
The Manila Cathedral was initially a parish church owned and managed by the Diocese of Mexico in 1571 until it became a separate diocese on February 6, 1579, upon the issuance of the papal bull, Illius Fulti Praesido by Pope Gregory XIII.
The Manila Cathedral has had a tumultuous history, destroyed and rebuilt several times since its initial construction. The original cathedral, built in 1581, was made of nipa and bamboo. It was destroyed by a fire in 1583. The cathedral went through several destructions and repairs over the centuries. The eighth and current incarnation of the cathedral was completed in 1958 and was consecrated as a minor basilica in 1981.
3. Stroll around Rizal Park
Rizal Park, also known as Luneta Park, is a historical urban park in the heart of Manila. Some of the main attractions in Rizal Park include the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Planetarium. Rizal Park also hosts a beautiful man-made lake depicting the Philippine archipelago.
Besides being a major tourist attraction, Rizal Park is a favorite leisure spot for locals and tourists who enjoy its beautiful gardens, historical markers and monuments, entertainment shows, a dancing musical fountain show, and more. It’s a popular place for picnics, gatherings, and different forms of recreation.
4. Check out Fort Santiago
Fort Santiago is located in Intramuros, the “Walled City” of Manila. Over the years, the fort has stood witness to the city’s history and is one of Manila’s most important historical sites.
The fort was named after Saint James (Santiago in Spanish), the patron saint of Spain. The fort’s iconic entrance, marked by a large stone gate with a carving of Saint James on a horse, is a famous landmark in its own right. The fort’s design is a testament to Spanish military engineering in the colonial period.
Fort Santiago served as a defense fortress during the Spanish colonial period. It was the site of many Spanish, American, and Japanese battles. Over its many years, it’s been used as a military headquarters, city fortress, and prison.
5. National Museum of Fine Arts
The National Museum of Fine Arts, formerly the National Art Gallery, is a prominent part of the National Museum Complex in Manila. This museum is dedicated to showcasing Filipino art and historical artifacts, highlighting the Philippines’ rich cultural history and artistic talent.
The National Museum of Fine Arts features several galleries distributed across multiple floors, each focusing on a particular era or theme in Filipino art history. The collection encompasses many art forms, including paintings, sculptures, and prints, and features works from the 18th century to the present.
Some of the most famous pieces in the museum include the “Spoliarium” by Juan Luna, one of the most renowned Filipino painters, and “The Parisian Life” by Luna’s contemporary and compatriot, Juan Arellano.
6. Walk along Manila Baywalk
Manila Baywalk is a seaside promenade along the shores of Manila Bay in Manila. The Baywalk is known for its scenic views, especially at sunset when the sun dips below the horizon of Manila Bay. It’s a popular place for locals and tourists to stroll, jog, or relax. The palm-lined walkway provides a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
In addition to its recreational uses, the Baywalk is also a place of historical significance. It was along the shores of Manila Bay where the Battle of Manila Bay took place during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
7. University of Santo Tomas
Founded on April 28, 1611, by the third Archbishop of Manila, Miguel de Benavides, the largest Catholic university in the world in terms of enrollment.
The university is run by the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominican Order. UST is known for its programs in arts and letters, commerce, education, engineering, law, the health professions, sciences, theology, and philosophy.
8. Experience Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown
Manila’s Chinatown was established in 1594 by the Spaniards as a settlement for Catholic Chinese, and it has become a bustling center of commerce and culture. Binondo is especially well-known for its culinary offerings.
The area is home to many eateries, from street food stalls to upscale restaurants, where visitors can enjoy authentic Chinese and Filipino-Chinese cuisine. Some popular food destinations include Eng Bee Tin, known for its hopia (a type of pastry), and the numerous panciterias (noodle shops) serving dishes like Pancit Canton and Lomi.
9. Visit the San Agustin Church
San Agustin Church, officially known as the Immaculate Conception Parish Church of San Agustin, is a Roman Catholic church inside the historic walled city of Intramuros in Manila. It’s one of the oldest churches in the country and is a significant symbol of the long history of Catholicism in the Philippines.
San Agustin Church is a remarkable example of the “Earthquake Baroque” style. This architectural style is characterized by its robust and fortress-like structure, designed to withstand the many earthquakes in the country. The church also features an intricately carved wooden door, a beautiful trompe-l’oeil ceiling, and a magnificent trompe-l’oeil mural.
10. Cultural Center of the Philippines
The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) is the premier showcase of arts and culture in the Philippines. It’s located along the scenic Manila Bay area. Established in 1969, the CCP was created to promote and preserve Filipino arts and culture and foster an appreciation of other cultures worldwide.
The CCP is a hub for Philippine artistic expression, hosting various cultural performances, art exhibitions, film screenings, literary workshops, and more. It also hosts the annual Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, the Pasinaya Festival, and the Virgin Labfest, a laboratory festival of new plays.
11. Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene
The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, also known as Quiapo Church, is a prominent Roman Catholic basilica located in the district of Quiapo. The basilica is named after its most famous relic, the Black Nazarene, a dark statue of Jesus Christ believed to have miraculous powers.
The original statue of the Black Nazarene was brought to the Philippines from Mexico by the first group of Augustinian Recollect friars in 1606. The statue is carved from dark wood and depicts Jesus bearing the cross. It is enshrined in the church’s main altar and is brought out for processions on certain occasions.
12. Visit Manila Ocean Park
Manila Ocean Park is a marine-themed park and oceanarium behind the Quirino Grandstand in Luneta. It’s a major tourist attraction and educational facility popular among locals and tourists.
The park opened in March 2008, and it’s the country’s first world-class marine theme park and a premiere educational facility. It features an integrated urban resort facility with marine-themed attractions, a boutique mall, and a hotel.
One of the main attractions is the Oceanarium, home to thousands of marine creatures from around 270 species, all indigenous to the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The Oceanarium provides a unique experience for visitors as they observe life underwater.
13. Take a ferry ride on the Pasig River
The Pasig River Ferry Service operates along the Pasig River, which winds through the heart of Metro Manila, Philippines. The river ferry can be an excellent way to avoid the city’s infamous traffic while getting a unique perspective on the city.
The ferry boats are generally comfortable, with air-conditioning and seating similar to what you’d find on a bus. The larger boats even have space for bicycles, making it a potential option for commuters looking to combine biking and boating for their journey.
The Pasig River offers a varied perspective on Manila. You’ll pass by a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial areas and get to see parts of the city that you wouldn’t usually see from the road.
14. Visit the Mind Museum
The Mind Museum is a world-class science museum in the Philippines, located at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, Metro Manila. The museum opened in 2012 and has since become a popular destination for science enthusiasts of all ages.
One of the critical features of the Mind Museum is its interactive exhibits. Unlike traditional museums, where shows are typically for viewing only, the Mind Museum encourages visitors to interact with the displays. This interactive approach to learning makes the museum a favorite among children, but it’s also engaging for adults.
15. Explore the Mall of Asia
Opened in 2006, the Mall of Asia complex covers a gross floor area of more than 400,000 square meters and is one of the biggest malls in the world.
It features many retail shops, from high-end international brands to local boutiques. The mall is divided into several sections, including the Main Mall, the Entertainment Mall, and the South and North Parking Buildings, all interconnected by walkways.
In addition to the numerous retail shops, the mall houses a variety of dining options, from fast food to fine dining, cinemas, a bowling center, and an IMAX theater. The Entertainment Mall, a two-story open-air complex facing Manila Bay, is home to most dining outlets and entertainment facilities.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best time to visit Manila?
The best time to visit Manila is during the dry season, from December to May. The weather during these months is warm and sunny, making it ideal for sightseeing and outdoor activities.
Is it safe to visit Manila?
Like any major city, safety can depend on the area and time of day. Manila is generally relatively safe for tourists, but it’s always important to take standard precautions. Avoid displaying expensive items, be cautious in crowded places to prevent pickpocketing, and stay vigilant, especially at night.
What is traditional food and cuisine like in Manila?
Manila’s cuisine combines various influences, including Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and American, reflecting the country’s rich history. Traditional dishes often feature rice, meat, seafood, and local vegetables. Adobo, Sinigang, and Lechon are among the famous Filipino dishes you can find in Manila.
What’s a must-try dish/food in Manila?
One must-try dish in Manila is Adobo, often considered the national dish of the Philippines. It is a savory stew from pork or chicken marinated in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, and spices. Another dish to try is Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert with crushed ice, evaporated milk, and various ingredients like sweet beans, jellies, and fruits.
What souvenirs can I bring home from Manila?
Popular souvenirs from Manila include local handicrafts such as woven items, wood-carved artifacts, pearl jewelry, and locally made clothing. You could also bring home local snacks and sweets, like dried mangoes or Philippine coffee.
Which languages are spoken and understood in Manila?
The official languages in Manila are Filipino and English. Most locals are bilingual and can speak both languages fluently. Some older generations may also speak Spanish due to the country’s colonial history.
How can I get around in Manila?
Manila has various transportation options, including the Light Rail Transit (LRT), jeepneys, tricycles, taxis, and ride-hailing services like Grab. Be aware that traffic can be heavy, especially during rush hours.
Is it expensive to visit Manila?
Compared to many Western countries and other major Asian cities, Manila is relatively affordable. Costs for accommodations, dining, and attractions can vary, with options to suit different budgets.
Which currencies are accepted in Manila?
The official currency of the Philippines is the Philippine Peso (PHP). It’s advisable to carry some local currencies for smaller establishments that may not accept credit cards.
Is Manila a good city to live in?
Living in Manila can be a unique experience, with its vibrant culture, food, and people. However, like any city, it has its challenges, such as traffic congestion, pollution, and high living costs in certain areas.
Is it safe to drink tap water in Manila?
Drinking bottled or purified water in Manila is generally recommended, as tap water quality can vary.
Which cultural customs should I be aware of when visiting Manila?
Filipinos highly value respect for elders. When greeting older people, a traditional Filipino custom is to take the elder’s hand and press it against one’s forehead, a gesture known as “mano.” Filipinos are also generally reserved and modest, so it’s essential to dress appropriately, especially when visiting religious or cultural sites.
Manila is a vibrant city with a rich history and a blend of cultures, giving it a unique character. From its historical landmarks, such as Intramuros and Fort Santiago, to its modern shopping centers and dynamic street life, there is something for everyone.
While the city has its challenges, the warmth and hospitality of its people make it a welcoming destination. The affordable travel options, diverse food experiences, and intriguing history make Manila well worth a visit. Despite the urban hustle and bustle, Manila maintains a charm that continues to captivate its visitors, making it a memorable destination in the heart of Southeast Asia.