Intramuros is the old district of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. It carries a lot of history and meaning within its walls as I shared with you in a prior post. Though it is quite distinctive and historic, it is not your typical tourist haven. That is actually what makes it an appealing place to visit for me: it is first and foremost a national treasure for the country itself, not just for tourists. As a national treasure its reconstruction and growth are managed by the Intramuros Administration (IA). Maintaining the integrity of the district is very important to the IA and that is a good thing for current and future generations.
Some of the highlights of Intramuros
The first thing that will catch your attention is the city walls and all the forts, gates, bulwarks, ravelins and redoubts (clearly, I picked up some words related to military fortifications!). A good starting point in this network is Fort Santiago. The fort was built by the Spanish starting in the late XVI century.
Through the centuries it has changed due to earthquakes, attacks, or modifications. During WWII it suffered great damage. Today, it is set up well for visitors. You first enter a plaza or park and then cross the moat (which is an arm of the Pasig River) to enter the main part of the fort.
You can walk along the walls and look across the river.
And you can see the place where the Philippines’ national hero, José Rizal, was imprisoned right before his execution in 1896. A poignant detail you will notice is that his footsteps from his prison to the place of his execution are marked on the ground.
After you are done in Fort Santiago, a short walk takes you to the Manila Cathedral, which has been destroyed and reconstructed more than a handful of times since it was first built in the late XVI century.
The Cathedral shares the Plaza de Roma (used to be called the Plaza de Armas, a key spot in any Spanish colonial town) with the former Governor’s Palace (also destroyed in the past) which now houses government offices, including the Intramuros Administration.
San Agustín Church, the oldest stone church in the Philippines, is one of the few buildings still standing in Intramuros that pre-date WWII. Though it suffered a little damage, it is mostly still the same structure. Along with three other churches in the Philippines, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Legazpi, the founder of the city of Manila is buried here. And if you get to visit, check out the ceiling – it plays a trick on the eye: though it looks elaborately decorated, all that you see is painted on a smooth surface!
Though I call out Fort Santiago, the city walls with all its different components are good places to explore and get up on to check out the views. Worth noting that right outside the city walls, the former moat was reclaimed during the American period and a full 18-hole golf course established!
How to see Intramuros
Depending on the reason for your visit to Manila and how much time you have, how you do Intramuros may vary. But whether you only have half-a-day or two days to spare, you should find a guide to show you around for 2-4 hours. There is a lot behind what you see in Intramuros and you will miss more than half of the story if you only walk around without a guide. I had a neat tour guide who, though a little too freely-sharing and opinionated, nevertheless presented Manila’s story in a very compelling way.
You can walk the district (it is not too big) or use a calesa to get around a little more comfortably, especially on a hot day. The good part about walking is that you can meander around with more freedom and take better pictures!
Finally I would recommend not only visiting Intramuros but staying there one or two nights to soak in the district. While it is not the most lively area in the evening, there is a perfect spot to explore the old town, watch the sun set, and enjoy the evening breeze: The Bayleaf Hotel.
The unique Bayleaf Hotel
The Bayleaf is unique in several ways. For starters, it is actually the only hotel within the city walls. Secondly, it is the tallest building in Intramuros. Thirdly, it is well-known to be very welcoming: I researched the hotel in TripAdvisor where it had the top rank from other travelers’ reviews, always a nice benchmark for me especially with so many reviewers opining. In fact, the Bayleaf also received TripAdvisor’s 2013 Circle of Excellence award. Finally, it is one of the best spots to watch the sun set in Manila (even locals suggested we go there without knowing I was staying there!).
The Bayleaf is a boutique hotel, well-priced, and possessing a neat color scheme indoors as you would expect in the tropics (my floor and room were my favorite color: orange) while the outside of the building maintains the exterior that makes it a clear part of Intramuros. It sits right by the city walls and Victoria St., a very colorful street worth walking. So clearly this is where I would recommend staying when exploring Intramuros both for the convenience and charm.
A sunset that never happened but I did get a good view
I was a guest of the hotel for one night to see how great its location is and, hopefully, get one of the best sunset views in Manila over Manila Bay from its Sky Deck rooftop terrace.
Unfortunately, watching the sunset from the Sky Deck became impossible as it rained really hard that day so not sunset to be seen (so the photo above is not mine but from the hotel’s site). While the sunset was a no-go, I enjoyed an adobo (a typical Filipino dish of pork and chicken in soy and vinegar sauce) at the 9 Spoons restaurant which sits right below the Sky Deck terrace.
I did go up the next morning to the Sky Deck terrace to soak the awesome 360 degree view it offers. Being the tallest building in Intramuros, the view is spectacular. You can see the golf course built in the site of the moat outside of the city walls. You can see the tall Manila Town Hall right outside the walls, then the National Museum. And then you can turn around to see all of Intramuros right below you.
I only wish I had been there on a clear sunset, with some tropical beverage and camera in hand… I guess there is always a return to Manila. If MacArthur did it, why not me??