In defence of Manila: A backpacker’s fresh view on the city

With its terrible traffic, creaking infrastructure noise and pollution, it’s not difficult to understand why many travellers avoid Manila. However, keen backpacker Zoe Stephens argues that with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind, there is a lot to see and enjoy in the metropolis…


Manila was recently voted by backpackers as ‘the worst place in South-east Asia’. However, do people really know what there is to do and see there? With the people of Manila being voted as some of the most friendly and hospitable in Southeast Asia, what went wrong?

The international airport and great transfer links to areas such as Cebu and Puerto Princesa mean that Manila is often the first port of call for many travellers longing for the white sands and blue-green seas.

Travellers may decide to stop off here for a couple of nights to check out what the capital city has to offer — many instantly disappointed at the high-rise structures, poor infrastructure and crowded streets still being rebuilt after the destruction of World War II.

The white sands many have been dreaming of are nowhere in sight, but instead, the city is watched over closely by the mountains of the Bataan Peninsula, making for a rather claustrophobic feel upon arrival.

It’s not hard to see why backpacker’s feel negatively towards the city, but in order to experience what Manila has to offer, those pictures of paradise need to be put to the back of the mind, and the city life embraced.

Explore history of Manila

One of the most surprising delights to be found in Manila is the national museum, located just a few minutes walk away from the city centre. Museums and history may not be for everyone, but if reading a load of information and looking at prehistoric artefacts isn’t your thing, that’s no problem here.

Unlike the rest of the city, the museum is incredibly well developed with its planned walk through with lots of interactive activities to do on the way. You get information thrown at you, more than having to do any reading yourself, and it’s a great way to get to know and understand the history and culture of this beautiful country. The museum is free and even offers to keep hold of your backpacks, so if you only have a few hours in Manila this is a definite top choice.

If culture is your thing, make sure to check out one of the most historically important landmarks: Fort Santiago. Built by the Spanish in the 1500s, it is a fortress part of the walled structure in Manila called Intramuros. Here you can visit interesting places such as dungeons where prisoners were kept. Rizal Park & Shrine hold a monument for national hero Jose Rizal whose execution sparked a revolution against Spain, and also the site where independence from the US was declared in 1946.

And don’t miss the stunning Palace. This summer house is to famous attractions such as the Heroes Hall and the Rizal Ceremonial Hall, and it is also the residence and workplace of the President of the Philippines.

The Philippines is the fifth largest Catholic country in the world, and Manila doesn’t disappoint when it comes to cathedrals and churches.

Make sure to add Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church to your list, as well as St Joseph Parish Church where you can see the Las Pinas organ made entirely out of bamboo.

Learn to love the Jeepney

Something unique to the Philippines is the infamous ‘Jeepney’. These bus/ automobiles can be found throughout the country, but only in Manila will you find such a dense and interesting variety; no two looking the same, and each with their own characteristics. You can ride in one of these to get to see around town or use it to go from A to B. They’re incredibly cheap and good fun to try to get in and out of, especially if you’re fully kitted out in your backpacks.

If you find yourself charmed by the Jeepney, you can even take a trip to the Jeepney museum near the centre. Here you can view some of the oldest and most interesting Jeepneys about town, and even see some being built/repaired.

If you want to take a trip out of the city centre and into the mountains, in just a short journey you can head up to Manila’s ‘Palace in the Sky’ and enjoy views of Taal Lake and Taal volcano, far from the hustle and bustle down in the city.

If you find yourself longing for some more nature, there’s plenty of other sights that will get you out of the city such as Manila Bay, Hidden Valley, Greenbelt Park, and Manila ocean park. You can also take a trip directly to Taal volcano and lake to get a closer look. To help you make the most of these outdoor activities it is best to book in a full day excursion.

Enjoy the nightlife

You won’t find any full-moon parties around, but if a night out or some drinks is what you’re looking for, Manila certainly won’t disappoint. Filipinos absolutely love singing and music, so much so that it is difficult to walk around at night without stumbling across something musical.

Make sure to try a night at ‘Videoke’, Filipino style karaoke.

If singing yourself isn’t your cup of tea, head down to the nearest market square where more often than not, there will be a stage set up with live music. You can still shop for clothes, or sit at one of the tables and enjoy some local Filipino and drinks. Since it is a public space, you’re getting live music for free — and it’s usually at least half-decent.

If you’re in Manila for a limited time and want to make sure you get the most from your stay, there are many tour packages that take you to the most popular destinations.

You can also find lots of information and free tours at youth hostels. If hostels aren’t your thing and you’d rather a bit more freedom and privacy, AirBnB has some of the best accommodation on offer in the Philippines and Manila.

Like everywhere you go, it is often the people and the experiences that really make the time you spend there special.

With the right research and an open-mind, Manila can be much more than just a stopover city — and you’ll wish you had more time to spend there before you hit the beaches.