Philippines · Things to do in Manila · Travel Guide

Things to Do in Manila: What to See on a Stopover

You land in the Philippines and have time to kill in Manila before hitting the islands. What do you do?

Here’s what we’ll cover today:

  • Setting up your local sim card and ride-sharing apps
  • Seeing some of Manila’s cultural and historical sights
  • Experiencing Filipino bargain shopping
  • Blending in and staying safe

Getting Out of the Airport

When you arrive at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) and make your way through customs, you’ll step out into a warm blanket of tropical humidity.

From there, your options are to take an airport taxi or book a Grab.

Side note: if you’re traveling light and only have a backpack, you can try Angkas—a motorcycle taxi service. Follow the link for a short article on what it is and how to use it.

If you want to get set up with either Grab or Angkas, a local sim card will help. (NAIA’s free wifi tends to cut out as soon as you leave the building.)

Getting Set Up with a Sim Card

At the airport, you can get a free Smart or Globe sim card. Then you can buy credit or “load” (usually sold at airport stalls in 500 peso cards). Once you have your load, you can subscribe to a data package.

I started using Smart because their free sim card comes with a bit of consumable data. Once that is used up, I usually go with one of the following packages by texting one of the codes below to 9999. The number in the code equals its cost in pesos.

CodeDays
Data
Call & Text
allout30
2300MB plus 100MB/day for Facebook
unlimited texts to all networks; 30 min of calls to Smart/TNT/Sun
gigasurf70
71GB plus 300MB/day for YouTube
1000 texts to Smart/TNT/Sun
allout9971GB plus 100MB/day for Facebookunlimited texts to all networks; 100 min of calls to Smart/TNT/Sun
gigasurf299302GB plus 1GB/day for YouTubeN/A
gigaplus499304GB plus 1GB/day for YouTubeunlimited texts to all networks; unlimited calls to Smart/TNT/Sun

I prefer Smart because they offer more data at better value and tend to have better speeds. However, their coverage isn’t quite as good as Globe. Check Globe’s prepaid promos here.

Mobile Phone Networks in the Philippines

Regardless of the provider you choose, you will quickly learn that data in the Philippines is alright but it’s not super fast and not always super reliable.

Globe and Smart are the largest networks in the Philippines. Next are TNT and Sun, which—as you can see from the packages above—are connected to Smart.

If you have friends to visit in Manila and want to be able to call them, you should find out which network they are using.

Things to do in Manila on a One—Day Stopover

First stop: Baclaran

Why Baclaran? It’s near the airport and a great induction to the crazy that is Manila.

If you haven’t sorted out Grab or Angkas, count on an airport taxi to Baclaran costing somewhere around 100-200 pesos. (It’s roughly 4km from NAIA Terminal 1 and 7km from Terminal 3.)

For things to explore in this part of town, check out an earlier post on the Baclaran experience.

Next stop: Intramuros

Hop on the LRT at Baclaran Station and ride to United Nations Avenue (14 minutes, leaves every 5 minutes, costs 20 pesos).

This will drop you off right at the corner of Rizal Park, where you can check out a massive map of the Philippines laid out in a something like a big pond, plus several historical monuments, and the National History Museum.

From Rizal Park, you can head north to Intramuros (10-15 minute walk).

A few sights to see in Intramuros, within walking distance of Rizal Park are:

Sights to see in Intramuros

By the way, Intramuros is also where you will find the Bureau of Immigration. For those who want to extend their stay in the Philippines beyond 30 days, here’s how you can blend a drab visa renewal with some colorful exploration.

San Agustin Church
Manila Cathedral

Who is José Rizal?

In Intramuros, José Rizal is the man of the hour. But who is he?

In short, Rizal was a physician, Filipino nationalist, and writer who lived during the Spanish colonial era. He was executed in what is now Rizal Park for inciting rebellion. Today, he is remembered as one of the first martyrs and heroes of the Philippine Revolution.

Final stop: Chinatown

If you have the time and energy to continue your exploration of Manila, cross the bridge and head into Chinatown for food and other Chinese things.

When you’re ready to leave Intramuros, head to LRT Central Station or catch a bus at Plaza Lawton. If you’re leaving from Chinatown, you might be closer to LRT Carriedo Station.

If you’re tired of walking or simply want to have this quintessential Filipino experience, you can jump on any jeepney with the names of these places hanging in its window.

Optional: Divisoria

If you’re the kind of tireless traveler who can keep wandering all day, you can venture from Chinatown into Manila’s notorious Divisoria Market.

Think of it as Baclaran’s big brother. You can find literally everything here, and at the lowest prices. 

Things to Keep in Mind in Manila

Getting Around Manila Takes Time

Transport in Manila is not excellent. The MRT and LRT lines only cover certain areas and there is always traffic—whether motor vehicle or moving people.

You can use Grab (Southeast Asia’s Uber) but may find that there are sometimes no available drivers, and at other times your phone will have no signal or data.

Pro Tip: Try Angkas (Uber on two wheels). Download the app on your phone and call a motorcycle rider to pick you up and take you to your destination. Cheaper and generally faster than Grab because you can weave through traffic.

Then there’s public transportation but navigating this complex network of tricycles, jeepneys, and busses is a feat entirely of its own and one I still struggle with at times.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, roads are crowded with cars, bikes, buses, and jeeps. The metro is often crowded with people.

Ultimately, you’ll want to arrange a place to stay that is close to the sights you want to see and where you need to be the next day.

Personal Safety and Blending in

People often ask me if I think Manila is safe. Personally, I have no reason to believe it is not. The worst confrontation I had in eight years here was having my phone snatched out of my pocket while getting on a crowded bus.

Since then, I’ve learned to keep a closer eye on my belongings. But at the end of the day, I’ve found Filipinos to be friendly, welcoming, and decidedly non-confrontational.

Ultimately, I would say that simply not standing out goes a long way in making you a non-target for opportunist crime in any circumstances.

So, in closing, here are a few quick tips for personal safety and blending in when exploring Manila’s crazy side. I’m talking specifically about being in markets like Baclaran and Divosria, or on crowded public transport.

  • Keep your bag and valuables close, ideally in front of you.
  • Avoid keeping valuables in your pockets.
  • Don’t wear flashy, expensive jewelry or accessories such as watches.
  • Dress simply and practically. In general, when wandering Manila, it’s best to try and not flaunt yourself as a rich foreigner or naive tourist.
  • To get local prices, ask how much something costs in Tagalog by saying “Magkano ‘to?” or “Magkano po ito?” to be polite.
  • You can always be polite—and blend in—by adding “po” when addressing Filipinos: “Hello po”, “Thank you po”, “OK po.”, “Ang mahal naman po.” (It’s too expensive po).

Pro Tip: It’s “poh”, not “poe”.

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