Step back in time as you pass through the historic gates of Intramuros (from the Spanish word meaning ‘within walls’). Once the stronghold of Spanish colonial rule, this 64-hectare site flanked by thick walls of stone has remained largely untouched by modernisation. As you wander the wide streets and leafy plazas, you’ll find fascinating remnants of Manila’s colonial past, as well as monuments to those who perished here during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
Located along the southern bank of the Pasig River, the Walled City, as it’s otherwise known, was built by the Spanish in the 16th century in the style of a European medieval city. Meant only for the clergy and Spanish nobility, churches, palaces and city halls were built in the Spanish baroque style, and the city soon became fortified to protect it from invaders. By the end of World War II, much of Intramuros lay in ruins, but a series of restoration projects have given this historic area a new lease of life.
Open daily from 8am to 6pm, Fort Santiago at the mouth of the Pasig River is the district’s premier tourist attraction. Well-kept gardens surrounded by beautiful examples of 16th-century architecture provide an atmospheric setting to learn more about Manila’s turbulent history. Here you’ll find the Rizal Shrine, where you can pay homage to the country’s national hero, José Rizal.
Set in the building where the political reformist was incarcerated, it features a number of Rizal’s personal effects, including a copy of the poem he wrote on the eve of his execution in 1896, ‘Mi Ultimo Adios’ (My Last Farewell). The oldest stone church in the Philippines, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed San Agustin Church, is the only structure that survived intact after the Battle of Manila in 1945.
Behind its huge façade, you’ll marvel at the opulent interior, complete with a vaulted ceiling depicting intricate trompe l’oeil frescoes. Visit during mass to enter for free, or access the church through the San Agustin Museum – a treasure trove of antiquities. And for a beautiful reconstruction of a Spanish colonial mansion, cross the street and you’ll find Casa Manila, where you can imagine what it was like to live among the wealthy elite in this bygone era.
You can reach Intramuros by taxi, bus or jeepney, or take the light rail to United Nations Station followed by a 20-minute walk. Once there, you can explore on foot or do as the Spanish nobility once did and hop aboard one of the decorated horse-drawn carriages, or kalesa.