Manila is the capital of the Philippines, and home to a whopping 1.78 million people. And that’s just in the city! The Manila metro area has a population of 13.7 million. Nearly half of the city’s population lives in “informal dwellings,” including slums and even cemeteries. The city sometimes gets a bad rap, due to its many challenges (rapid population growth sanitation, traffic, air pollution and poverty). But there are many amazing things about Manila, too, most notably its hospitable people and vibrant culture.
Of course traveling is different than living, and when it comes to visiting I found many people weren’t thrilled about Manila. Some people told me it was a massive garbage dump. Some people told me it was super dangerous and I would die. Some asked me why on earth I’d choose to go there. Despite all this commentary, I loved it. The city is full of life and full of incredibly friendly and helpful people (many of whom speak English, which always makes things a bit easier). And it’s massiveness only means there is much to explore.
Interesting, Less-Touristy Things To Do
Lots of foreign visitors spend their time in Makati, the more upscale business district. While I enjoyed Makati it was hardly the highlight of the city. I found the best experiences wandering around on foot, hopping on and off of Jeepneys and getting lost (not just a turn of speech – literally lost) in the markets. There are many tourist sights people enjoy, of course, from Intramuros, to Rizal Park, to the National Museums (which are FREE!), to the many beautiful historic churches. But those lists are available everywhere, so here are a few more unique ways to make the most of the madness that is Manila.
See The World’s Largest Pair of Shoes in Marikina, The “Shoe Capital of the Philippines”
I love all things world’s largest, so the “world’s largest pair of shoes” were definitely on my list. Located in a suburb not that far outside Manila, I set off on public transit. A ferry ride, several Jeepneys, some walking and nearly 3 hours later I arrived. The entire city is built around shoes , and Marikina is dubbed the “Shoe City.” The city includes a shoe museum, aptly-named Shoe Street, actual shoes for sale, shoe repair shops and of course, the World’s Largest Shoes. The pair is strangely located inside a store inside a mall…which requires walking a few more miles or hopping aboard [another] Jeepney.
Visit The North Cemetery
Manila’s North Cemetery is massive. So big, in fact, it could contain an entire city. And it does. Over 10,000 people live in the cemetery, having built their homes in family mausoleums or quite simply sleeping on gravestones. There are crypts converted to shops and restaurants. Laundry hanging on rows of graves. The smells of food cooking, laughter, and children playing. Sadly, the cemetery is a better choice for some than a slum; it’s safer and quieter. Residents make money cleaning graves and helping with other cemetery-related activities, or operating the previously-mentioned businesses.
I took local transit there and wandered around alone and didn’t feel terribly unsafe, although a police officer did approach me and tell me to “be very careful” and “do not take out any valuables.” He also asked me not to take photos, so I put my camera away after that.
Ride The Jeepneys
What’s more iconic of the Philippines than a Jeepney? These imposing, metal cars are Willy Jeeps left over from the United States during WW2. At some point, people started turning them into public transit vehicles and decorating them with wild colors and extremely creative names. They ply every, and I mean every, street in the city, with riders jumping on and off at each corner (and you know sometimes while moving).
A lot of other travelers seemed shocked when I told them I’d been getting around on the Jeepneys rather than Grab, deeming them too confusing. They ARE confusing and intimidating at first, I admit. I also admit that at first I just started boarding them at random if they seemed to be heading in the correct direction. *Note: This is NOT a recommended method to try. But once you figure them out (there are even apps to help) riding is kinda fun and you can jump off if you see something of interest. There is also a standard fare based on distance, which I now forget since I’m writing this several months later, but once you know this fare you can always be prepared with change and not stress about how much to pay and/or if you are been swindled. People onboard were super-nice, too, and helped me with the change/fare issues when they arose.
Wander Around On Foot
After a few days spending hours on Jeepneys to go just a few miles (that traffic issue I mentioned), I decided it would be much easier and faster to go shorter distances on foot. Many people told me I would surely die if I did this, but good news — I didn’t! My wanders led me to some unplanned parts of Manila, and allowed me to see all sorts of areas of the diverse city. It also led me to meet some very nice people, some of whom chatted with me for hours, invited me in for breakfast, and even “interviewed me for a magazine” (questionable).
Try “Halo Halo” (And Not Just The Restaurant One)
If you’ve been to the Philippines, you know “halo halo” is the signature desert. Made of ice, condensed milk, and myriad other toppings (ube, sweet beans, gelatin, etc.). It’s delicious and cheap. You can get a nice looking halo halo at many of the chain restaurants around town (Mang Inasal and Chowking, for example). Or you can get a much cheaper, much more authentic, and much less sanitary version from any of the street vendors. I tried – and enjoyed – both many times.
Get Lost In The Divisoria Market
The Divosora Market and surrounding areas are massive and bustling. You can buy anything and everything you need (especially clothing and “textiles”)…if you have the patience to browse for it. I spent an unexpected 1/2 day here, becoming sucked in further and further and repeatedly getting lost. It was so intense I had to go into the mall (which mall? I have no idea) and sit on the floor and rest for a while before I felt energetic enough to go back out and continue. I also consumed like 5 of the vile kool aid/tang type fake juices, which to be clear seemed delicious in my market-frenzied and highly-dehydrated stage.
While we’re on the subject of markets I also recommend checking out the massive Quiapo Market …just maybe not both in the same day.
Grab Groceries (Or Snacks) At The Guadalupe Public Market
The Guadalupe neighborhood is a transportation hub and a massive market all in one. There are countless markets across Manila, of course, and this certainly isn’t the biggest, but of the ones I saw it was my favorite. I can’t say why exactly, maybe because I ate a delicious ube pastry there the moment I first arrived, maybe because they had lots of fresh fruit, maybe because there were no other tourists. Less than 2 miles from Makati (it is walkable, for any aggressive/ambitious walkers), the Guadalupe Public Market (here’s the address) is full of foods, fruits, juices, and goods, and the whole area has an authenticity to it.