Manila has deservingly become a popular tourist attraction in the last couple of decades. It’s chaotic yet spiritual, dirty yet divine, metropolitan yet slum-ridden… There’s a lot to see and do within the capital’s 17 square miles and you might miss out on some not-so-known but spectacular places this city has to offer if you follow the typical Manila travel guides. But don’t worry- that’s why I’m writing this article. To show you some of the best-hidden gems in Manila that you should definitely consider visiting if you’re looking for a different experience away from the tourist crowds!
The Manila Central Post Office
Most people vacationing wouldn’t consider a post office as one of the top places to see, but the Manila Central Post Office sure is worth mentioning. The building has a beautiful neo-classical architecture both inside and is one of the most prominent buildings in the capital. This old architectural masterpiece is still standing even today, graciously passing the test of time and being a real gem hidden between the new, modern buildings in the area.
San Sebastian Church
Today, most tourists visit St. Augustine, the most popular church in town and decide to skip on San Sebastian. However, this green cathedral that features neo-gothic architecture with murals of Carmelite saints is certainly worth visiting. Behind the twin spires at the entrance of the cathedral that can be seen from miles away, you can still see traces of the church’s rough history. San Sebastian originally had a wooden structure that was destroyed during the Chinese uprising and rebuilt in brick several times after a series of devastating earthquakes. The church got its final form in 1891, but if you look closely, you can still see the traces of some of the previous “incarnations” both inside and outside. Finally, if you need another reason to visit, San Sebastian is the only steel building in the Philippines (probably to make sure that the building’s rough history doesn’t repeat itself ).
Puerta Real Gardens
The Philippines has a unique culturally diverse population with heavy influences of Spanish and Japanese cultures. The result of this unique cultural mix is the Puerta Real Gardens. Rising like an oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis, Puerta Real is a place where locals come to get some peace. In the past, the gardens were a part of a military fort, but today it’s one of the most peaceful places in Manila. Puerta Real offers serene beauty beside stone paved walkways and fountains. You can even take a short climb to the top of the fort and get a spectacular view of the Makati, Manila’s central business hub.
The National Museum of the Philippines looks after a myriad of national museums, including the Archaeological Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Anthropological Museum, and many others. However, these museums don’t get nearly as many visitors as some of Manila’s popular shopping malls. In some of these museums, you can see amazing classical and contemporary pieces of art and learn a lot about the history of the Philippines. The best part? All of the national museums in Manila were all made permanently free to the public, so you can visit all of them without hurting your travel budget. My personal favorite is…
National Museum Of Anthropology
Formerly known as the Museum of the Filipino People, this museum is arguably the best place to learn about the country’s culture and the people that inhabit it, including religion, traditions, ethnic wear, etc. The museum displays a lot of interesting exhibits, including some very old ceramic and pottery artifacts and replicas that will give you a glimpse into life in the Philippines throughout the years.
Talking about museums and hidden gems in Manila, I simply can’t miss mentioning…
The Metropolitan Museum
If you made it till here, you get the drill. Most tourists don’t visit Manila because of its museums, even though some of them are rather fascinating. Opened in 1976, the goal of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was to introduce Filipinos to contemporary visual art from throughout the world. Today, you can also find a lot of interesting contemporary art by local artists but also see a few very rare collections, including pre-Hispanic golden decorations, old pottery items, as well as rare religion-themed artworks.
Escolta and Calvo Museum
Escolta was once one of the most important financial districts of the city where fortunes were made and lost. Unfortunately, most of the neighborhood was destroyed during WWII, but you can still find some interesting, historical gems around. One of them is the Calvo Museum which shows scale models of what the Escolta financial district looked like when it was hailed as the Wall Street of the Philippines. Here, you can also find rare collections of old print advertisements and old photographs. If you want to get a glimpse of Manila’s glory years before the war, you should definitely explore this area.
Books from Underground
Located in the tunnel of the Lagusnilad underpass in the University Belt, Books from Underground is an interesting second-hand bookstore that’s home to hundreds of books that stretch all the way to the ceiling of this small, hidden passage. Looking at it from far away, I never would have guessed that this muggy underground pass hides such a gem. The bookstore was created by two book lovers who wanted to give Manila a bookstore with “a soul” that won’t be located in a fancy neighborhood or in an expensive lounge bar. I think they did a great job. Talking about books, another place you might not find in most Manila tourist guides is…
National Library of the Philippines
With over 210,000 books, 170,000 old newspapers, 880,000 manuscripts, and more than 4,000 maps, this library is without competition the largest one in the Philippines. However, this isn’t the most impressive thing about the National Library of the Philippines. The library is also home to some very valuable items. Some of these items include the documents of five presidents of the Philippines, the original manuscript of Lupang Hinirang, original copies of some of José Rizal’s most interesting writings, as well as a rare collection of Filippiniana books owned by Compañía General de Tabacos de Filipinas.
Salcedo Community Market
When it comes to trying new types of food in Manila, most tourists head to Maginhawa Street but the locals’ favorite is the Salcedo Community Market. There’s certainly a good reason for this! The Salcedo Market hosts over 50 different street food stalls every Saturday where you can try local delicacies from different parts of the Philippines. Some of the things you have to try while visiting the Salcedo Market include longaniza (A Philippine version of the chorizo sausage), ube (a delicious purple yam), suman (coconut milk and rice wrapped in banana leaves), etc. A lot of locals visit the market and it gets quite busy in the afternoon. If you want to explore the market in a more peaceful atmosphere, try visiting around 9 o’clock in the morning.
Talking about food, another place I strongly suggest you visit is…
If you’re looking for the best pancit in Metro Manila, look no further. Opened in 1952, Ado’s Panciteria is one of the oldest restaurants in Manila. Despite its success and almost iconic status among locals, the prices still remained accessible for everyone. At Ado’s Panciteria, you can have a serving of bihont, lomi, and canton for less than one hundred pesos. Or to put it simply, you can feed two starving people for less than $2! Some other things that you should also try if you visit are the crispy pata, the silog meal, the sinful chicharron, and of course- the finger-licking-good barbecue.
Sip & Gogh
If you’re wondering what the name of this place means, don’t think too much. It’s exactly as it sounds. Visitors get a sip of alcohol and after drinking, they paint (trying to be Van Gogh). Sip & Gogh is the first “paint & drink” establishment in the Philippines and a place most tourists still don’t know about. You can have an open session, bring your own booze or if you fancy, even have a date-night special. It’s one of the most unusual places in Manila and one you should definitely visit if you’re looking for quirky things to do in the capital.
Lilac Street, Marikina
Marikina is a district historically famous for some of Manila’s shoemaking stores. However, today this part of the city is becoming more famous for its food scene. The whole street is filled with independent food stalls but some of the most famous ones are the Breakfast Brothers and the Kebab others. You’ll absolutely love Lilac Street if you’re a meat lover. Here, you can find some of the most delicious ribs, Caribbean wings, and of course the locals’ favorite- Cargo rise.
Reducto De San Pedro
El Reducto de San Pedro is a historical building that seems to have been forgotten by everyone. The Spanish authorities built this pentagonal stone building next to the walls of Intramuros and used it as an ammunition bunker for years. Unfortunately, the building isn’t open for visitors today but you can still admire the interesting architecture from outside. If you like visiting old, forgotten places while traveling, a quick visit to Reducto de San Pedro is highly recommendable.
Useful resources for traveling to Manila
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For the best tours in the Phillippines, I always recommend Intrepid. I have taken a few of their tours in Spain and it was truly an amazing experience! You can save 15% on all of their tours by using this link.
For the best deals on bus and train rides from and to Manila, get some good deals by using Bookaway.
Did you ever visit Manila? If yes, did you get the chance to check out some of these hidden gems in Manila? Maybe you think I didn’t mention some places that are worth mentioning? Let me know in the comments!
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