Manila City – The Emotional Rollercoaster That Is..

Manila city travel - Manila city skyline
From a distance it almost looks peaceful..

Manila City – The Emotional Roller-coaster That Is..

I would compare the first impressions of Manila city to being physically assaulted by a really friendly homeless person. Once you get to know him he’s great but the first time you bask in his glory you might be in for a spot of culture shock (especially if Manila City is your first Asian city – and no Tokyo doesn’t count!). He’s a bit smelly, more than a bit dirty, sweats a lot, and behind the wheel of a car he’s occasionally terrifying (also everywhere you look there seems to be a stray dog) but he’s also kind of lovable, the more time you spend with him the more he grows on you and then when you finally part ways you somehow overlook all his problems and are just left with a silly grin on your face and too many shoes.

Earlier this year I spent about 5 weeks travelling around the Philippines which included some time in it’s crowded capital city, Manila. With a population of almost 12 million people Manila city holds it’s own against any other major city on earth, even New York or Tokyo, and with a population density of 700 people per Square km, you’d better get used to rubbing shoulders with a few locals. It’s such a sprawling metropolis that the greater city is split up into 4 districts and 17 separate ‘cities’ (areas) which can be a little confusing the first time you’re there.

How to get around Manila city

Manila city - Traffic
Traffic in Manila on a good day..

After a 14 hour bus ride we’d finally almost made our way into Manila city from the open country roads of Luzon. The journey was made all the more memorable by the guy in front of us who spent literally an hour singing Abba songs at a volume that was just a little too loud to be funny. After 14 hours of just awful Dolph Lundgren B grade Action movies (the only thing they played on the bus.. the entire time.. for 14 hours!!) and an air conditioning system that would make an Eskimo shiver, we arrived in Manila city.

Getting around this mad city is actually relatively easy due to the number of Taxi’s floating around which is generally how we travelled about that place since they were pretty inexpensive, and I had about 0% chance of working out the Jeepney system. A few times we braved the humidity and tried to walk to various sites in attempts to bypass the inevitable traffic jams and for a more ‘hands on’ experience, but soon realised that the money we saved on Taxi’s was spent on drinking water instead… I thought Australia was hot! Well the Philippines is proper hot, so be prepared to sweat more than a fat man on a stair-master.

Manila city - Jeepney
The flamboyant local mode of transport: The Jeepney

To all the men out there, suck up that bravado and gung-ho attitude and do NOT hire a suicide machine.. i mean scooter, the roads are about as chaotic as a good game of GTA, and literally hundreds of tourists are killed each year riding scooters in Asia, there are so many other places to travel with a motorbike why not try one of them instead. As a result, generally travel insurers don’t cover motorbike accidents. Manila city is no exception and the roads are far from safe so by default jeepneys, taxi’s or even the famous Filipino Tricycle are better options to get around the city while busses, are the best way to get in and out of Manila city and to access the wider Island of Luzon.

Every time I visit an Asian city i’m amazed that somehow out of the chaos, things seem to work, Ho-chi Minh, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Denpasar; all varying levels of chaos, but Manila city leaves these poor imitations of disorder absolutely dead in their tracks (probably after being hit by one of the many speeding busses . Yet somehow the city seems to inch along and hums with the day to day lives of the people. Every type of vehicle you can imagine seems to have made it’s way onto the road in front of you, and on the rare occasion there’s enough road to actually move forward they howl through smaller gaps in the traffic than you ever thought possible. Cars, busses  trikes and bikes, all miss pedestrians by inches, slam on their brakes for the third dog in 5 minutes to wander across the road then accelerating away fast enough to leave Mark Webber wishing he’d brought a second pair of pants!

Cool Stuff to do in Manila city

Lets start with what seems to be the primary occupation of Manilans.. shopping. Filipino’s love to shop, actually so much so that it’s kind of ridiculous. Manila city has one of the highest MPM ratings in the world (Malls Per Mile – an amazing new statistic I just invented), but seriously there are literally malls everywhere, and not just normal sized malls but super malls like the fabled ‘Mall of Asia’ which is so large they named a continent after it… The sad irony of the Philippines is that even though so many of it’s people are scraping by day to day many of them still shop like they had a mad band of capitalists waving swords behind them. I’d highly recommend venturing into some of the larger Malls in Manila city as they need to be seen to be believed and if you’re in the mood to shop you can pick up some fantastic bargains. Oh yeah, and if shoes are your thing ladies, welcome to heaven, Filipino’s love their shoes like I love cake.

Manila city - Baclaran Market
Baclaran Market is loads of fun!

Another great way to spend a day is by exploring the many markets around Manila city. A favourite of mine, “Baclaran’ is a hub for anything textiles and makes for hours of fun wandering through the lanes and stalls. Just a note on security here, be sure to keep your valuables well secured as tiny hands will inevitably find their way into your pockets if you’re not careful and if you’re a giant white man like me, it’s a little hard to blend in so just be aware that this may happen. Also good luck getting anything at a local price since the starting point of any bartering you do will be around 10 times what it would be if you were a local, but let’s be honest, it’s still pretty cheap and lots of fun.

Makarti has a booming nightlife with some of the best bars in Manila city. It also has to be mentioned that there’s a bar called ‘The Hobbit House’’ which has made it’s name by hiring only little people for it’s staff and holding regular ‘Dwarf Throwing Contests’. Initially I wasn’t too sure about how I felt in regards to taking advantage of vertically challenged people’s ‘virtues’ but on the other hand how many more opportunities in life would I get to throw a dwarf? Sold.

One of the most amazing things about the Philippines are the historic Latin style buildings still left over from the Spanish period of colonisation, in particular the many beautiful old churches that are scattered across the islands. Manila city has some fantastic examples of these old style churches with the San Augustin and San Sebastian Churches being my two favourite examples in Manila city (both are now world heritage sites). The San Augustin Church is actually the oldest standing structure in the Philippines having been constructed in 1607, as sadly most of the amazing old architecture was destroyed by bombs and shells during world war 2.

Manila city - San Sebastian church
San Sebastian church Interior
Manila city - Agustin church
Agustin Church

My final thoughts on Manila City

For a country that has so many social problems the people of the Philippines are some of the friendliest in the world. The local people I met on my tour of the country were happy and welcoming, especially outside of the cities in the smaller towns and villages. It was hard to walk down the street without a small entourage tagging behind and if I accepted every offer of a meal I would still be on a treadmill trying to run it off. Even though the majority of the locals in Manila city live below the poverty line they’re more than happy to share what little they have with you, which is as wonderful as it is sad to see and a lesson I will take with me always. Given how poor the population are, there are some issues that foreigners do need to watch, just be careful with money as theft is a real problem especially in some areas of Manila city and also take the normal precautions you would at home when out at night or when you’re wandering about alone.

Manila city - Slums
Millions still live in slums..

Unfortunately the grinding poverty that afflicts the country is all too common and apparent in Manila city, with slums and shanty towns quite visible from the major roads and highways across the city. The corruption is also quite staggering and stretches all the way from top politicians to the local police (during the time I was in Manila city the Chief Justice was on trial for corruption! Not even joking..)

The crowded capital of the Philippines, a country Internationally known for it’s flamboyant approach to life, holds it’s own against any other major Asian city. Crowds, markets, shopping, people, but also poverty and slums, Manila city has them all in droves. You will be delighted, amazed, frustrated, excited, annoyed, perplexed and ultimately I was left smiling about the chaotic experience of Manila city, but also slightly saddened by some of the things I saw during my time there. At the end of the day I have no doubt that I’ll be back, there is so much more of this amazing country to see and it’s hard to come to the Philippines without visiting the capital. My parting advice is to experience the chaotic ride that is Manila city for yourself and make up your own mind, it’s more than worth it.

About Author


Hi, I'm Pete, an ex-cubical slave and corporate love monkey currently writing my way around the world. My background is in branding, digital marketing, media and I'm probably about a level 10 at moustaches.


  1. Your observations on Manila are spot on. Despite the grime and pollution though, I rather like Manila. Once you get past all that shocking stuff, it’s easy to see its attraction. Have you been out to the islands yet? I haven’t delved that far into your site yet, but I promise I will be back.

    1. Hey Carrie! Yeh There’s so much to love in the Philippines. I have been out and explored around the country a bit, always room for more though! We did Bohol, a big chunk of Luzon, Panay and Guimaras while there.

  2. Frances

    Hi, I’m a friend of your mum’s from Hong Kong days & (known you since you were born!!). My husband, Peter & I lived in Manila for nearly two years in the late 90’s and can so relate to all you say in this blog. – Also brought back a few memories!! We enjoyed our time there and met some lovely people.

    1. Frances! Of course, I remember you both!! Wow small world right? 🙂 Thanks for the comment, actually I’ll be in the UK next year, around April or May, would be fantastic to see you guys!?

  3. Great post about the city. I’m more of a nature girl but a few days in a city like Manila can still be fun – just because of the sensory stimulation. My husband has been and sings its praises for the friendliness of the locals.

    1. Yes the Filipino people are fantastic. They love a good time and Manila really does reflect that, but you’re right it can be a bit of a sensory overload too! haha

  4. Great and funny take on Manila my friend! I too was just in the Philippines and Manila a couple of months ago and I couldn’t say it better myself. A gridlocked, sweltering shit hole that some how has an endearing grime and pace. Filipinos love for malls can only be second to the Latinos(with whom they share similar roots). I found out that another big reason Filipinos love the mall is that it’s a respite from the extreme heat and humidity, for which the majority of people have no Aircon to escape.

    1. That’s very true about the air-con.. I found myself gravitating towards just hanging out in the malls to get out of the heat for a time!

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  6. Jay

    Been in Manila several times (coming from/to the province). The first impression is that it is a giant village with poverty, huge crowds, hustle and bustle and is completely eclectic. It’s busier and meaner than the province too. My last day I almost got caught up in an airport shooting that happened there and left casualties! I felt better in the province.

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