A lot of foreign visitors arrive in the Philippines via Manila, spend a night there, and then take another flight the next day, either for Cebu, Palawan, or Boracay, or take the bus going to the north.
No one can really blame them; Manila, like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, or Shanghai, is a bustling and sprawling concrete jungle that does elicit extreme reactions from visitors.
It is important to note, though, that the term “Manila” as understood by visitors actually refers to “Metro Manila” — a region comprising several cities including Quezon City (the former capital), Makati City (the business district), and Parañaque (where the three international airports are). So when you say you’re arriving in Manila, you’re actually arriving in Pasay or Parañaque which is right next to the city of Manila.
For the purposes of this guide, we will be using Manila to refer to Metro Manila as a whole, and will just specify a city if needed. Here’s some Manila solo travel tips for your guidance.
Arriving in Manila
If you’re flying in from another country, you will arrive at NAIA terminals 1, 2, 3, or 4, depending on the airline you choose. Unfortunately, there are no metro lines that connect the airport to different parts of Metro Manila. You have to transit through terminals, if you want to save money.
Important Note: You need to have an onward ticket when you fly to Manila, so make sure to have one to avoid being forced to buy a ticket on the spot, which can get very expensive.
Terminal 1 – From this terminal, you can get on a free shuttle bus that goes to terminal 3, where you can take public transport to your forward destination. Most of the big carriers arrive in this terminal.
Terminal 2 – From this terminal, you also have the option to board the free shuttle bus that travels between terminals. Alight at terminal 3 and take another shuttle bus that goes to Taft Avenue where you can take public transport. Most Philippine Airlines flights take off/arrive here.
Terminal 3 – If you land here, you can take the bus that costs around P20; this takes you to the Taft Avenue bus and metro station. You can take the train or bus from there to your forward destination, whether it’s in the city or another province.
Terminal 4 – This is a small airport that’s usually used by Air Asia. The shuttle buses above passes by here, however, you can also just go out and hail a cab. Make sure he uses the meter!
Alternatively, for all terminals, you can take a cab; use the official airport taxis (yellow). They’re more expensive, but generally safer. A cab from the airport to Makati City can cost around PhP200 to PhP300 depending on the traffic.
You can also take a taxi to the Taft Avenue terminal for around PhP100-150 and get on a public bus or take the train to your accommodation.
Note: In the arrivals area, you will find booths selling SIM cards; there are just two major ones in the Philippines — Smart Telecommunications and Globe. If you’re staying in Makati City, buy the Globe SIM card and ask how to activate the data. You can buy call cards in any 7-11, make sure to ask them to activate it on your phone. SIM cards cost PhP40 (less than US$1) and call cards are PhP100-500.
Where to Stay in Manila
The hostel scene in Metro Manila is relatively new compared to its counterpart cities in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, or others in Southeast Asia. As a solo traveler, you have a handful of choices when it comes to hostels; the most popular ones are in the cities of Makati and Manila.
The price of a dorm bed varies but it is approximately P350 to P700 a night, depending on the establishment, its facilities, the services offered, the ambiance, and the level of service.
Ideally, stay in a hostel that has easy access to the main road, or at least is just a few minutes’ walk from a jeep, bus, or train station. Choose one that is within walking distance from restaurants, carinderias (local eateries), malls, or attractions to save money.
My suggestion? Choose hostels in Makati. The business district is, shall we say, less of a culture shock for those who are traveling to the Philippines for the first time. The nightlife in Makati is also varied.
Things to Do in Metro Manila
Metro Manila is a contradiction. Visitors can see the poverty amidst the glitzy shopping centers, international brands, and towering skyscrapers, and old monuments and churches dot the sprawling urban and concrete landscape.
All of these are mixed together with no plan in mind, like it’s the sort of thing that just happened. However, this chaos can also be beautiful and endearing.
The usual starting destination for visitors is the city of Manila and its nearby attractions. The Intramuros area provides you with a glimpse of what the city was like centuries ago. Some of the streets have maintained their cobblestone material, and you’ll hear the slow plodding of horse-drawn kalesas (carriages) mixed with the honking of cars and screeching of tires.
In this area, you can spend an afternoon getting lost in Fort Santiago, retracing the footsteps of the country’s National Hero (Jose Rizal) before his execution, exploring Casa Manila, and visiting old churches in Manila such as San Agustin Church.
Spend an hour or so taking it easy at Rizal Park, before heading to Manila Bay to catch the iconic sunset of the city.
A lot of scammers are in this area though (Intramuros and Fort Santiago), so make sure to read the Common Scams in Manila section below!
If you’re interested in museums, drop by the Mind Museum (perfect for kids) in Taguig, the Ayala Museum in Makati, and the National Museum in Manila.
Shopaholics would also enjoy the many malls and shopping centers in the metro. If you want to go shopping for branded items or bargains, head to Greenhills Shopping Center (Mandaluyong City) to find discounted items from appliances to gadgets to footwear to apparel to toys.
The Greenbelt complex in Makati is a great place to hang out in and buy international and local branded clothes, shoes, and other similar items. The area has several restaurants that cater to different palates, from fast food and local cuisine to international dishes.
I suggest going to SM Mall of Asia in Pasay City; it’s right by the coast, and the sunsets there can be amazing (plus, it’s reportedly one of the biggest malls in Asia!).
For other things to do in Manila, like visiting Quiapo Church (highly recommended!), check out my post on what to do in Manila in one day.
How to Go Around Manila
Ride the jeepneys to experience local life. The fare for short distances is PhP8, for longer trips, it can cost up to PhP20. There are three metro stations — MRT 1, MRT 3, and LRT. Those connect you to different parts of the city and the ticket may cost up to around PhP28 depending on the distance.
In some areas, you can also ride tricycles (these look like smaller version of Thailand’s tuktuk) to cover short distances, a ride costs around P15 to P20 depending on the distance. Make sure to ask the driver first before getting on.
Common Scams in Manila
Scams are generally common in major cities around the world. There’s the “Grand Palace is closed” scam in Bangkok, the bracelet scam in Paris, and the gem scam in India.
In Manila, there is a scam that’s even trickier and dangerous. Called the Ativan Gang scam, it has been going on for years but has never been stopped. I have a separate blog post on the scams in Manila, but let me summarize it here.
Ativan Gang Scam. This usually happens in the city of Manila, specifically in Intramuros, Rizal Park, and nearby areas. Two women will approach you, a solo traveler, and strike up a friendly and even intelligent conversation.
A trip out of town may or may not be mentioned, but you’ll be invited to meet “family” members which may consist of brother, grandparents, and little kids. They will drug you at some point, and when you wake up, all your valuables are gone.
How to avoid the Ativan Gang Scam: Even if you think it’s just lovely that you’re getting the precious local interaction, raise your BS meter when the aforementioned locals are insistent that you go with them.
Don’t accept opened bottles of drinks, and never leave your drink unattended. Take selfies or “groufies” with them, and if you have data, send the pics to a friend. Make sure they see you do that but don’t let them stop you! Here’s a detailed story from a victim, with photos of the scammers.
Other common scams in Manila include being ripped off by a taxi driver (insist on using the meter!), getting ripped off by money changers (make sure to be the last one to count your money), or getting taken in by a sob story (everyone has a sad tale it seems. Sympathize, cry with them, but don’t give money).
Manila Solo Travel Tips
Safety is a common concern of travelers that go in and out of Metro Manila. However, it is possible to go around the city on your own, as long as you remain vigilant.
Avoid displaying expensive jewelry or gadgets whenever you are walking around, as you might catch the attention of pickpockets and snatchers. Avoid walking in dark alleys and streets, and always walk as if you know where you’re going. If you have to check your Google Maps, never just take your phone out on the street; go inside a restaurant or 7-11 and do it there.
Put your day bag in front of you, as sneaky pickpockets may rip a hole or open your bag unnoticed. Keep your money and cards safe as well by placing them in different parts of your bag, in your jacket, clothes, or in your belt bag.
Better yet, leave important stuff like passports, cash, and credit cards in your hostel locker room. You can also ask the hostel staff to keep them for you. If you choose to put it in the locker, make sure to use a sturdy padlock.
A lot of hostels in Makati also organize group tours (usually free); join them for safety. Befriend roommates as well so you can explore together. The Ativan Gang, for example, usually targets solo travelers.
Regarding Philippine cuisine, food in Manila is commonly pork, beef, or chicken. It can be hard to be vegetarian, much less vegan. That said, there are vegetarian restaurants in Manila, you just have to exert some effort to go to them.
Despite its reputation, Manila has a distinct charm that will draw you in, if you let it. Be a savvy traveler and you will have the time of your life in the Philippine capital.
Have you been to Manila? What was your impression of it?