QUICK SUMMARY- BEST AREAS IN MANILA FOR EXPATS
City Overview- Manila
To help clarify some confusion for you, understand that “Manila” is used to describe the Greater Metropolitan Area and the city itself. Metro Manila is made up of 16 separate cities: the City of Manila, Quezon City, Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Malabon, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Parañaque, Pasay, Pasig, San Juan, Taguig, and Valenzuela.
Two rapid transit systems connect the cities: the Manila Light Rail Transit System (LRTA) and the Manila Metro Rail Transit System (MRTC).
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QUICK TIPS- PHILIPPINES
Show a mandatory departure ticket. You cannot enter the Philippines on a one-way ticket if you only have a tourist visa or visa on arrival. You will need a flight ticket with a date leaving the country before your visa expires. Save money by showing immigration you have a cheap onward travel ticket for just $14.
Get help with your visa. The Philippines visa process can get complicated. The rules and regulations change frequently. Avoid the hassle of dealing with the immigration bureaucracy by speaking with a Philippines Visa Specialist.
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In addition to the rails, there are a confusing number of buses, commuter buses, and jeepneys (old traditional Filipino public transportation) routes to all the different areas. Given the condition of public transit, most people will take Grab (the Uber of SE Asia), which will usually run between $3 to $5 per trip, depending on traffic.
As mentioned previously, my suggestion for FIRE Nomads and people retiring in the Philippines is to use a driver. Having a personal chauffeur is one of the affordable luxuries of living in the Philippines that isn’t available to you in other countries.
For less than $400 per month, you have someone who will drive you to the gym, market, or restaurant, drop you off at the door, park the car, wait for you to text them, then come pick you up at the drop-off point.
No trying to hail a taxi in the rain. No waiting for an Uber or Grab driver to accept your trip. No waiting in line for a bus or metro. I consider having a personal chauffeur one of the significant perks of retiring in Manila.
Metro Manila Neighborhood Overview:
When relocating to Manila, one of an expat’s most pivotal decisions is choosing the right neighborhood. Finding the perfect place will depend on your lifestyle.
Do you want to be in the heart of the city’s activities?
Do you like crowds and nightlife?
Do you prefer quiet suburbs?
Do you have a car?
Do you need a nearby hospital?
How many hours can you waste stuck in traffic?
Each of Manila’s neighborhoods has distinct characteristics. These factors span from safety, accessibility to public transportation, nightlife, and the cost of living to proximity to universities and dining establishments and how much traffic you can tolerate
Metro Manila’s best neighborhoods for expats can be narrowed down to:
- Makati City- the crowded heart of the CBD (Central Business District) with plenty of nightlife, diverse dining options, and more shopping malls than parks
- BGC (Bonifacio Global City)- lifestyle design in a pedestrian-friendly, flood-free urban development. You can live, work, eat, shop, and workout all within walking distance.
- Pasig City- a prime real estate location between Makati and BGC. Get the benefits of both sites at a lower cost.
- Quezon City- the largest city in Metro Manila. QC is further from the action that appeals to retirees and expats with family.
Comparing Upper-Class City Center Makati vs. New Development Lifestyle Center Bonifacio Global City
Most expats gravitate to the two neighborhoods of Makati and Bonifacio Global City (colloquially known as Fort Bonifacio, BGC, or The Fort). I’ve spent most of my time living in Manila in these two trendy areas. They are the most expensive in Manila; some may argue that they are overpriced, but to me, they are the best and most convenient neighborhoods in Manila for FIRE Nomads and expats.
Makati Central Business District (CBD)– With the concentration of visitors and tourists, Makati gives off a “let it loose” weekend vibe every day of the week.
Makati is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde district. It is both gritty and polished, family-friendly and X-rated. Home to 40% of the country’s top multinational and local companies, Makati is the financial hub of the country. With the best jobs and the best-paid employees living here, the neighborhood is the epicenter of more upscale restaurants, shopping, attractions, and high-end residences than anywhere else in Manila.
Makati- Glitz and Glam
Mixed in with the luxury residence high rises with amazing rooftop views and the posh areas of Bel-air Village are some of the most delicious restaurants in Asia. Toyo Eatery (ranked #42 Best Restaurant in Asia) and Metiz (#48) are less than a mile from Dasmariñas village.
The Salcedo or Legazpi Markets are weekly shopping events catering to people looking for fresh organic produce and well-made local crafts in an upscale outdoor farmers market vibe. The street food stalls here are one of the few places in the Philippines where I eat any and all the foods without hesitation. You can also shop for organic Filipino coffees for home brewing, locally made ginger ales, high-end versions of traditional Filipino foods, and locally made bamboo or leather handiworks.
Ultra-luxury brands Gucci, Prada, and Balenciaga headline the walkways of the mecca of shopping: Greenbelt Shopping Center. Even if shopping isn’t on your agenda, this mall offers fascinating people-watching and your pick of international dining while chilling on landscaped green lawns complete with koi fish ponds.
Makati- Grit and Grim
Poshiness in the super swanky areas starkly contrasts the other areas of Makati, mainly the garish and rowdy red-light district, which serves as the main vice area of Manila. While not as brazen, in-your-face, or numerous as the girl-bar strip on Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, alcohol, prostitution, and other vices remain prevalent in the Makati red light district.
Businesses have stepped up to gentrify the area, so mixed in with “extra service” massage parlors, midget boxing, and girlie bars are several secretly amazing restaurants (we review 2 of them in Part 2 of this guide) and a few trendy Millennial speakeasy bars and nightclubs.
The vibrant nightlife and the strange diversity of the area keep me coming back here. Even if I am not in the mood for a crazy party, just people-watching and taking in the craziness of the area is an enjoyable night out.
Bonifacio Global City- A plush and modern oasis of calm in the chaos of Manila.
Fort Bonifacio, BCG, or The Fort is where I’ve spent most of my time in Manila. After checking out a few different neighborhoods, I can easily see why this area is growing wildly. Dubbed “the next financial district,” BGC is quickly becoming the go-to address for companies looking to build or move their corporate or regional headquarters. Already, the Philippine Stock Exchange (PSE), Coca-Cola Philippines, and Proctor and Gamble have set up shop here.
As with Makati, where the well-paying companies are, people follow. BGC is home to expat executives, upper-class locals, Filipino celebrities, and others who want to live in the new prestige neighborhood. I can’t blame them. While I appreciate and enjoy the chaos of Makati, especially on weekends, BGC offers two things that most of Manila sorely lacks: space and order.
The management of this area is by a private consortium run by corporations motivated to make and keep the area a symbol of a contemporary urban lifestyle community, where wealthy families can Eat, Work, and Play in a safe and clean environment without having to wander far from their homes.
Bonifacio Global City
A modern wonder of contemporary living populated by great minds and passionate hearts. The city is the perfect marriage of form and function, from tidy roads and contemporary office blocks to storied high streets and playful parks.
Bonifacio Land Development Corporation
Walkability– Living in The Fort, I could cut my transportation budget by 50% or more.
Especially if you are coming from Hanoi, Bangkok, or other SE Asian capitals, one of the first things you will notice differently about BGC is the width of the roads. Gone are the narrow alleyways that clog many city neighborhoods in SE Asia. The streets in BGC were initially airplane runways from when the area was an active Fort of the military, so the avenues are unusually wide for SE Asia. There are traffic cops at every major intersection who do their best to bring order from the madness that is traffic in Manila.
Wide streets, actual sidewalks, and traffic rules that favor pedestrians keep some of the chaos in check. At least I don’t feel like I’m taking years off of my life the way I do when I cross the streets in Vietnam or Cambodia. Wandering The Fort on foot allows you to discover the colorful street murals and enjoy the cool pop-up art installations dotting the area. The city planners have even worked to make BGC a bike-friendly community. In the spirit of healthier and more sustainable modern living, bike rentals are available for the community’s enjoyment.
Self-Sustaining Lifestyle Hub– Live, Eat, and Play without leaving the neighborhood.
Eat- Michelin star eats, rooftop sky bars, and al fresco dining options dot the areas between the shopping malls and towering condominiums. During the week, I’ve met up with friends who live and work in BGC for a bucket of six ice-cold beers for under $6 at an after-work hangout. I found a fantastic Mediterranean casual eatery called Souv, where a date and I could sip on a $10 bottle of Greek wine while eating a Mezza platter and waiting for traffic to die down. On High Street, I have eaten at a Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant for under $12 per person (see the review in the Food section of this guide).
Play– On weekend nights, the bars and clubs at The Fort Strip wake up and stay up. Here, the party starts late and runs even later. The Palace is home to 6 different bar and nightclub concepts, including the 4000-person capacity Palace Pool Club. Meant to mimic or compete against the world-class clubbing of Las Vegas, the place features two swimming pools, multiple bars, multiple DJ booths, and books of well-known International Acts.
Compared to other parts of Manila or even to other SE Asian capital cities, BGC is remarkably clean and gentrified. Gone are the hordes of panhandlers, street bums, prostitutes, and beggars. BGC is a Disney-fied copy of life in Manila. The city has ordinances against public smoking or vaping. The tap water is reportedly drinkable, though I don’t know of any local that doesn’t filter it. The skyline is uncluttered from the usual spider webs of telephone and power cables found in SE Asian cities, as the developers kept all the cabling neatly hidden underground. The buildings are modern and neat. Traffic is relatively smooth. Walking and biking are encouraged.
BCG is the most effortless transition to the Philippines, especially if you are moving from the US or Europe.
Compare Affordable Expat Areas In Metro Manila: Pasig vs. Quezon City
Quezon City– Univerity town vibe ideal for expat families
Quezon City (QC) is a part of Metro Manila, but with nearly 3 million people, it’s really its own metropolis. If you don’t need Makati’s nightlife spot and prefer to avoid crowds but still want access to activities and dining options, QC is a good choice for an expat neighborhood.
Laid-Back Lifestyle- Head down to the area between Tomas Morato Ave and Timog Avenue, which gets you to an active neighborhood with comedy clubs, board game cafes, wellness, and yoga studios, and plenty of restaurants, perfect for unwinding with friends at the end of the day. You might even spot a celebrity enjoying a meal at the table next to yours.
Improving Public Transport- While conveniently connected to Metro Manila via C-5 and Quirino Highway, traffic remains obscene during rush hour. However, the upcoming MRT-7 line and the much delayed but in-progress Metro Manila Subway promise smoother commutes into Metro Manila—the under-construction Skyway Stage 3 promises quicker Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) access.
Youthful Creativity and Vibe- As a university town home to the University of the Philippines Dillman, Ateneo de Manila University, and Miriam College, QC has always had a reputation as Manila’s Coolest Neighborhood. But it’s not just for students; young professionals and Digital nomads flock here for QC’s trendy edge and culture of creativity and innovation.
Affordable Family Housing- QC has several luxury condominium developments, but the New Manila neighborhood offers expat families the comfort of larger US-style homes with quiet tree-lined streets.
Pasig City- Convenient and Affordable City Center Living
Pasig is a commercial and residential district centrally located and well-connected to the eastern parts of Manila. It’s a good place for expats on a budget who want to live near the city center but want more affordable housing than Makati or BGC. Expats appreciate Pasig City’s central location,
The Manila Bay Area- Nestled within Pasay City lies the iconic Manila Bay Area, a hub of impressive malls, open parks, entertainment hotspots, schools, and less than one mile from one of the country’s best private hospitals, The Medical City (TMC).
Convenient Weekend Getaways: For expats seeking weekend escapes, Pasay City offers easy access to the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX), ensuring shorter travel times connecting to the North or South Luzon Expressways. With the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) nearby, you’ll have a convenient launchpad to explore the best places in the Philippines.
Stress-Free Mobility: Pasig City offers respite from Metro Manila’s notorious traffic gridlock. Its strategic location, sharing boundaries with major cities like Quezon City, Mandaluyong, and San Juan, ensures smooth connectivity. You can easily access key routes like SLEX and reach Makati without hassle.
The city’s public transportation options, including the Pasig City Ferry, e-tricycles, e-jeepneys, buses, UV Expresses, and cycling routes, cater to your diverse commuting needs. The LRT 2’s Santolan train station further enhances your ability to get around town.
Lifestyle Haven- Pasig City is hailed as the “green city” for a reason. The local government actively promotes eco-friendly living, with initiatives such as car-free days, well-maintained pocket parks, and even a stunning rooftop garden at the city hall. Long-time residents can attest to the peaceful lifestyle, open parks, museums, and galleries providing ample recreational opportunities.
Prime Shopping Destinations- Shopaholics will find paradise in Pasig City. Tiendesitas, a 30,000 m² shopping complex, offers a collection of little stores grouped into villages, showcasing everything from handicrafts to fashion, personal care products, pet-related items, and more. Or, for a more premium shopping experience, go mall-hopping at Ortigas Center with Megamall, Ayala Malls the 30th, Robinsons Galleria, and Ayala Malls Feliz.
Manila Housing Summary: Be prepared for unexpectedly high rents compared to other SE Asian retirement cities.
Low End- In Makati or BGC, expect to pay a minimum of $400 per month for a furnished 387 sqft/36 sqm apartment.
Unlike some cities where high-end co-living arrangements are common, entry-level housing for expats will be smaller apartments. By US standards, apartment size is smaller, but this statement is true in every part of the world. US housing is unnecessarily large in comparison.
Apartments starting at this rent will be newer construction with modern US-style interiors. Standard amenities include shared areas and facilities like gyms, multiple swimming pools, party rooms, and 24-hour security.
For example, $500 gets you a modest studio apartment around 335 sqft/31 sqm fully furnished with an equipped kitchen and air conditioning in the Acqua Towers in Makati. But the amenities in the complex are far beyond what you could get in the US for this price point—your parquet wood-floored lobby rivals 5-star hotels. The 55th-floor rooftop deck area features an outdoor swimming pool, cocktail lounge, and movie room. The ground floor houses a full-sized fitness area with a cardio area and boxing gym.
You live in the heart of the city on waterfront development right on the river. With your very own Country Club in the building, you don’t have to leave, but just outside your door is a Riverwalk Promenade with 4 floors of fun activities, fabulous shopping, and tons of dining and entertainment options.
A similar apartment in BGC would be around $500 per month for 387 sqft/36 sqm in the Forbeswood Parklane complex. The apartment is smaller, but the hotel-like amenities spoil you a bit more. Entry-level housing here includes a balcony to enjoy your morning coffee with a golf course view. Step inside for an exquisitely decorated interior with little touches like laminate floors in the bedroom and tile in the living room to make you feel at home.
HIGH END- Moving up the value chain to $1500 per month puts you in housing comparable in price to the US but with significant upgrades in luxury.
An 850 sqft/79 sqm one-bedroom in the Joya Lofts in Makati runs about $1500 per month. Hip beach towns of Southern California were the inspiration for these lifestyle lofts. The architecture, shops, and pockets of greenery are reminiscent of a quaint coastal town but with all the modern conveniences of city living.
The spacious, airy apartment has next-level luxury amenities: multiple swimming pools, a spa, a fitness center, a playground, landscaped gardens, and a business center. You can also access additional services, including housekeeping, laundry and pressing, dry cleaning, in-room massage, concierge and reception, and 24-hour security.
All of this is in the heart of the Makati CBD, at the northeast block of Rockwell Center; it’s right across the Power Plant Mall, where you have additional shopping and dining options.
If California inspired the example above, the Bellagio Towers in BGC is all about Las Vegas extravagance. Opulence is the buzzword around these apartments, but at a reasonable price of less than $1300 monthly for a 721 sqft/67 sqm. Luxury interiors with wood-like flooring, full glass panel window walls, and wall accent mirrors abundantly positioned around the entire apartment enhance the whole flat and create an illusion of space.
You have a full view of The Manila Golf Course from the living room and bedroom. If the green fairways don’t grab your attention, then the multiple large wall-mounted flat-screen TVs can keep your eyes occupied. The kitchen is perfect for your next dinner party. The tile-floored kitchen is in a two-wall formation with cream-colored granite countertops and maple-syrup-colored base cabinets and cupboards. Across the kitchen are the cabinet-type refrigerator, induction range, and convection oven below the under-cabinet range hood.
An eight-seat wood-framed and glass-top dining table with beige upholstered seats and contrasting dark wood backrests will surely compliment your home-cooked gourmet meal. After a night out, relax in your generously-spaced bathroom with a rainfall shower and cream granite counters.
If you want to reduce your monthly costs, living like a local is one of the best ways to make your retirement dollars last longer. Moving outside the hipper upper-class expat areas makes housing significantly less expensive. If you don’t need to live in the heart of the city, large three-bedroom homes and apartments are more affordable and easy to find in the suburbs. A typical 3-bedroom townhouse in Parañaque and Quezon City is around $500-$600 monthly. The trade-off is these places are situated far from the lively and vibrant central districts of Makati or Bonifacio Global City (BGC).
There are several favorite expat neighborhoods in Manila, with Makati City and Fort Bonifacio (BGC) being the top choices. My fav when I’m in town is always BGC, with its wide streets, cleanliness, and order, making it suitable for first-time expats. For those on a budget, Pasig City and Quezon City offer affordability and larger homes, but are farther from the bustling city center.
Do you prefer the excitement of being in the gritty heart of Makati that never sleeps or the clean and more organized BGC? Would you splurge for high-end housing or save and get a smaller apartment? Please give us your feedback in the comments below.
But wait, there’s more. Check out PART 3 of our guide to Where To Eat In Manila and get answers to questions like:
- I’m scared of Filipino food. Will I starve living in Manila?
- Do I need to speak English to shop for food at the market?
- Where can I eat good food without killing my budget?
- It’s date night. What restaurant do I go to splurge a little?
FAQs- Food In Manila, Philippines
If you’re a first-time expat in Manila, I’d recommend choosing BGC (Bonifacio Global City). With a starting housing cost of $500 per month, BGC offers a clean and organized urban lifestyle. It boasts wide pedestrian-friendly streets and condos with gyms, pools, and restaurants at your doorstep.
Manila is the most expensive city in the Philippines, but you can still find finished apartments in BGC with rent starting at $500 for a studio to $700 for a one-bedroom.
The value of accommodation in Manila is not the apartment but the amenities. Most complexes are set up as self-sustaining “lifestyle centers,” with integrated gyms, pools, and theatre rooms. Some offer a weekly cleaning and laundry service for an extra cost.
Most areas in Manila that expats visit will rarely feel unsafe. You may have petty crime and pickpockets that are prevalent in any major city, but violent crime against expats is rare. Especially in upper-class neighborhoods in Makati, BCG, or Quezon City, your risk is very low.
If you love nightlife, then any of the neighborhoods in Makati will put you in the heart of the action. Especially near the Poblacion, which is my favorite place in Manila to let loose. BGC, with high-end clubs and wine bars, also has a thriving nightlife, but with a more upscale vibe than Makati.
There is no surprise that high-poverty areas also have the highest crime levels. Tondo, near the Manila Bay port, gets called out by the French Government Diplomatic website as “In Manila, especially avoid the port area, especially the Tondo district and the surrounding slums.”
Other crime-prone areas of Manila are Caloocan, Malabon, and Navotas cities.