Manila vs Cebu City: Which Is Better for Expats and Nomads?

I’ve lived in Cebu City for about 2 months and in Manila for 1 month as a digital nomad. I’ve also stayed in 15 other cities in Asia so far. In this post, I’d like to explain how Manila and Cebu City stack up, from a digital nomad’s perspective.

As of yet, my experience is mostly limited to staying in Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Manila, and in IT Park in Cebu City—both are popular places for expats to stay. However, I also explored other parts of each city.

Overview: Living in Manila vs Cebu City

The biggest difference between Manila and Cebu is their size. From a foreigner’s perspective, the climate and culture are similar. The English level is similar. The food is similar. But Manila is a big city, and Cebu is mid-sized.

As such, living in Manila—especially in the “nicest” neighborhoods like BGC and Makati—comes with some “big city” advantages. Specifically, I found these benefits of living in BGC in Manila:

  1. More Restaurants and Shopping
  2. Shorter Lines and Wait Times
  3. Fewer Beggars
  4. Big City Views and Energy

But there are also some advantages to living in a smaller city like Cebu. Specifically, I found these benefits of living in Cebu City:

  1. Lower Cost of Living
  2. Quicker to Get Across Town
  3. More Beautiful Nature Nearby

Now let’s dig into each of these details, to help you get a better picture of what it’s like to live in each place.

Why BGC Is Better Than Cebu City

BGC is probably the most “developed” neighborhood in the Philippines. So naturally, that comes with some benefits you won’t get in Cebu City. Here are four things I liked more in BGC than Cebu.

1. More Restaurants and Shopping

Manila is a much bigger city than Cebu, so it stands to reason that there are many more restaurants, shopping malls, and so on.

As I’ll cover below, getting across Cebu City is faster and easier than getting across Manila. So, you could argue that you’ll have greater access to the whole city in Cebu… But even so, I think the food and shopping options are greater in Manila.

Even if you want to stay mostly in your own neighborhood, BGC in Manila still has many more options than either IT Park or Cebu Business Park in Cebu City.

So basically, if you go with Manila, I think you’ll have more options to find whatever you need, eat whatever you want to eat, and so on.

2. Shorter Lines and Wait Times

For some reason, I had a recurring experience in Cebu City where I just had to stand in line for a long time. This happened most routinely at the grocery stores (at all three locations I tried).

I guess it must be an issue with understaffing? But it seemed common in Cebu to stand in line for 15+ minutes. The Globe phone store had long wait times, as well. I don’t like wasting so much time standing in line.

Meanwhile, the grocery store lines in BGC were usually short and quick. Overall, it seemed like maybe things are running more smoothly in BGC in this regard.

3. Fewer Beggars

In my blog post about Cebu City pros and cons, I shared my experience with beggars in Cebu. Personally, it was a big downside for me.

As the beggars in Cebu tend to be quite persistent and sometimes rude, I felt much less comfortable walking around or sitting in public spaces.

Maybe it was just my personal experience, but I was only approached by one beggar during my whole month in BGC in comparison. So, it was less than a third as much.

As a result, BGC felt like a more comfortable place to just walk around or sit in public places without being hassled. This may not apply to Metro Manila overall, but it seemed to be true of BGC.

4. Big City Views and Energy

If you like big cities, it’s important to realize: Manila is a big city, and Cebu is not really. So the skyline views and the city energy are much more in Manila.

Although Cebu City is the second most populated city in the Philippines, it comes in way behind Manila. Metro Manila has over 13 million people, while Metro Cebu has about 3 million.

Metro Manila has 110 skyscrapers above 150 meters tall. That puts it roughly 12th in the world. Meanwhile, Cebu has only 5 such skyscrapers, with just a few more in construction. (source)

As such, the skyline views and big city energy are definitely a lot more in Manila. Cebu City is more of a mid-sized city, not a megacity by any stretch of the imagination.

Why Cebu City Is Better Than Manila

As a smaller city, Cebu has perks, as well. Here are 3 of the benefits I see of choosing Cebu City as a base, over Manila.

1. Lower Cost of Living

When you compare Manila to the other big cities of Southeast Asia, one of the big downsides of Manila is the cost of living. Manila is still cheap compared to America, but it’s expensive when compared to Bangkok, Saigon, or Kuala Lumpur.

Particularly, staying in BGC in Manila, it seemed like my Airbnbs cost 50% to 80% more for the same quality that I usually get in big cities in SE Asia. But what about Cebu?

My Airbnb condo in Cebu was one of the cheapest I’ve had in my whole digital nomad journey so far. Without any long-term lease, I got a full month in a nice high-rise studio right in IT Park for ~$600 USD.

Looking around on Airbnb, I’ve found other good deals in Cebu City, as well. It seems at least equally affordable as most SE Asia cities I stay in. Meanwhile, BGC in Manila cost more.

Therefore, if you’re looking to live cheaply, Cebu City is probably going to let you save more, and get more for your money than in Manila (or at least in BGC).

2. Quicker to Get Across Town

Manila traffic can get pretty bad. And for some reason, it also seemed harder for me to quickly hail a taxi or motorbike taxi in BGC, compared to IT Park in Cebu. I explained that whole situation more in my BGC pros and cons post.

As a result, it started to feel like a bit of a time-consuming hassle to even leave BGC in Manila. However in Cebu City, I routinely took taxis or motorbike taxis (habal habal) all around town without much waiting in traffic.

This is often an advantage of smaller cities—the traffic is not as bad, compared to the big megacities. So, it’s not a big surprise.

The exception is that it does take quite a while to go between the main parts of Cebu City and the Lapu Lapu / Mactan area with the airport. That taxi ride seemed to take ~40 minutes each time I did it.

3. More Beautiful Nature Nearby

When people come to Cebu for a vacation, they’re not usually coming for Cebu City itself. The island of Cebu features a lot of natural beauty, and arguably that’s the main attraction of the region.

From Cebu City, you can make day trips to various beaches, waterfalls, wildlife sightseeing areas, famous gardens, smaller nearby islands, and more.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, just Google search for “stuff to do in Cebu.” You’ll see that most of the recommendations are for natural beauty outside the city.

For me as a solo traveler focused on work, I didn’t get around to exploring much of the nearby natural beauty in Cebu—but it’s there. Meanwhile in Manila, you’re surrounded by a lot more city. The natural beauty of Luzon is further away.

In my view, the overall decision of Manila vs Cebu City comes down to a decision of big city vs mid-sized city. So, if you have a consistent preference when it comes to that issue, then that’ll really be the deciding factor for most of you.