How Best to Explore Intramuros in Manila

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 a key point of interest in Manila:  it is 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 of locals – and the world at-large.

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 and formed part of the city walls that once surrounded Manila, much as the Spanish did in a few of its colonial capitals (like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico).  Protecting the city was important as it was a key connecting point in trade routes for Spain, trade routes that even spanned the Pacific Ocean going all the way to Mexico, one of the richest pieces of the Spanish Empire.  All this rich history makes Intramuros an area to explore around Manila and its environs.

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The entrance to Fort Santiago from the land side, repaired after WWII

Through the centuries it has changed due to earthquakes, attacks, or modifications.  For example, there use to be a building right around the main gate shown in the pictures – the building was destroyed in a great earthquake that rocked Manila in 1880.  During WWII the fort 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.

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The moat in front of the entrance to Fort Santiago

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You can walk along the walls and look across the river.

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Walk along the walls of the fort!

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.

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Lifelike statue of Rizal in his former cell

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Rizal’s walk to his execution

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 16th century.

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The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception built in 1958

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, which I got to visit.

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The Governor’s Palace

San Agustín Church, the oldest stone church in the Philippines (it opened in 1607), 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!

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Interior of the church – everything on the arches and ceiling is painted on!

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Detail in the interior of the church

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!

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City wall fortifications with the golf course in the background

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!

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Calesas on the run

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.

Staying in Intramuros

Understanding how to explore Intramuros is one thing but it is also important to know where to stay!  I found it preferable to stay right in Intramuros to enjoy the view at night and not have to deal with traffic.  I stayed at the Bayleaf Hotel which has great views (plus it was the tallest building in Intramuros) and was the only hotel within the city walls.  The hotel sits right by the city walls and Victoria St., a very colorful street worth walking so the location was great.

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!).   Unfortunately, I did not get to watch the sunset from the hotel as it rained really hard that day (it is the tropics!).  I did go up the next morning to the Sky Deck terrace to soak the awesome 360 degree view.  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.  Even if you don’t stay at this particular hotel, find a way to go to the terrace!

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Looking from the Bayleaf’s Sky Deck towards the Manila Town Hall (notice the golf course)

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View over Intramuros (the Cathedral to the left) towards Manila Bay

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??

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Read more details about the history of Fort Santiago here.

A Survivor Story: Manila’s Story

As I headed to Manila for my very short visit, it dawned on me I actually knew little of the city’s history outside of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and the story ever since them (and even that, superficially only).  I had a notion of World War II impacting it through names like Corregidor and Bataan, names that meant very bad things had happened thanks to the vicious Japanese invader.  But that’s where my awareness ended.

In my visit, I did no have time to explore all of Manila.  It would seem nearly impossible.  Suffice it to say it has a wide range of neighborhoods, from those that remind you that you are in the developing world to those that show business dynamism and economic vitality (such as the important business district of Makati).

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At the Greenbelt Mall in the Makati district

The old city

The highlight of my short visit to Manila was to explore the old part of town, the “original” Manila:  Intramuros.  Intramuros’ name means “within the walls” as city walls were built around the old town by the Spanish to protect it from attackers coming either from water (Manila Bay or the Pasig River) or from land.  The Philippines had become a Spanish colony in the 1500s after the arrival of Magellan, of Magellan Straits fame, and became the western terminus of Spain‘s trans-Pacific shipping lanes to and from Mexico (which actually governed the Philippines on behalf of the Spanish crown until it became independent from Spain; what a complex web!).

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Looking down on the city walls of Intramuros from The Bayleaf Hotel

In any case, the walls did not always deter invaders successfully:  the British actually occupied Manila for 3 years in the 18th century.  Manila did survive the British but that’s not quite the survival story of Manila I want to share…

Liberated from the empire

The Philippines was not as prized a possession for Spain as were, for example, Perú and Mexico.  The Filipinos wanted to be done with Spain and their opportunity came thanks to the Spanish-American War of 1898 (which taught the world the lesson that if you are an ailing former superpower, you shouldn’t go picking up fights with the newbie superpower…).  Out of that war, via the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded or sold various territories to the U.S. such as the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc.  Treaties like this one always make me think that losers in wars get to go to cool places to sign documents.  It almost tempts a dictator to start a little war to get a free trip to Paris… But I digress.

World War II (WWII) ruins a city

The Philippines stayed under U.S. control for about 50 years until after WWII.  But independence came only after some very extreme suffering.  The Japanese invaded the Philippines and took over Manila which at the time was U.S. territory.  Think about that:  they bomb Pearl Harbor (Hawaii was not a state yet) and then they go after the Philippines just days later.  The Japanese knew what they were doing; I wonder who was asleep at the wheel on this on the U.S. military’s side, especially down in Manila…

So the battle for the Philippines was vicious.  Over 100,000 civilians died when it was all said and done.  The Japanese inflicted tons of damage but so did the liberators of Manila via American and Filipino forces.  The bombing campaign to finally evict the Japanese out of Manila required throwing them out of the old city.  Intramuros was bombed significantly.  Most of it was completely destroyed.  It is quite telling (and news to me) that the second most destroyed city in WWII after Warsaw was Manila.  The Battle of Manila is considered the bloodiest battle in the Pacific in WWII which is also shocking since we always hear other names talked about a lot in the battles of the Pacific.

Intramuros today

Most of what you will see in Intramuros today is a reconstruction.  Well done, but a reconstruction.  Save St. Agustin Church (which the Japanese used as a concentration camp during their occupation).  Though it suffered some damage, the church survived the attacks fairly well.

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The main altar at San Agustin Church

The current church was built in 1607 though other churches had existed on the site before.  St. Agustin now, along with 3 other churches in the country, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the name Baroque Churches of the Philippines The city walls you see today are mostly a reconstruction.  A reconstruction that has been well done as it does not look like they are as young as they are.

Intramuros is managed by the Intramuros Administration (IA) set up by the government to manage this national treasure of the Philippines.  It oversees repairs and renovations while also exercising controls to ensure the district retains its historical and architectural integrity.  I got to meet its marketing lead and its brand new Administrator which gives me great hope for continued progress in the restoration of this gem in Manila.

A survival story

Seeing Manila through the eyes of its history lends it great dignity.  Everything may not be perfectly ticked-and-tied in Manila, but the bigger point is seeing a survivor that has stepped out of sheer destruction and is just moving forward.  The long-in-distance and short-in-duration trip certainly delivered a great understanding I didn’t even realize I was going to get.  And that’s why I live to travel.


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