Guide to Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

Entrance to Fort Santiago in Manila, Philippines

 Michael Runkel/robertharding / Getty Images

The city of Manila's origins lies here, in a crumbling fortress north of the walled city of Intramuros near the mouth of the Pasig River.

Fort Santiago was built in the late 1500s to serve as a forward base for Spanish ambitions in the Far East. Over the centuries, Fort Santiago gained a fearsome reputation among Filipinos - the Philippine national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned here immediately before his execution, and the Japanese massacred thousands here throughout their short but brutal occupation in the 1940s.

After near-total destruction at the hands of the Americans during World War II and ensuing decades of neglect, Fort Santiago is now slowly coming back to life.

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Statuary Park: Plaza Moriones

Statues of friars on Plaza Moriones, Fort Santiago

Mike Aquino

The ticket counter that allows access to Fort Santiago is set at the gate of a large garden square called Plaza Moriones.

The plaza used to be a public square until the Spanish Guardia Civil fenced it off in 1864 after an earthquake. The space takes its name from the 87th Spanish Governor General of the Philippines, Domingo Moriones y Murillo. Moriones was a tough veteran of the Carlist Wars in Spain; upon his arrival in 1877, he ended a mutiny by decimating the rebellious regiment.

The wall along Plaza Moriones' western side—the Baluartillo de San Francisco Javier—was formerly used to store military supplies; presently the Intramuros Visitor’s Center occupies part of the former storage space in the walls, alongside an art gallery, souvenir shop, and café.

The plaza itself is an open garden with an array of life-size statuary around the fringes—monks, soldiers, and historical figures populate Plaza Moriones.

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Under the Eyes of Saint James: Gate of Fort Santiago

Closeup of Fort Santiago's gates, Intramuros, Manila

Mike Aquino

The actual Fort Santiago doesn't begin until you cross the bridge across the moat from Plaza Moriones onto Fort Santiago's doorstep.

The intricately carved gate bears the royal seal of Spain and a wooden relief sculpture of St. James (Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-killer), the patron saint of Spain.

The relief sculpture depicts St. James crushing Muslims under his horse's hooves, an image that resonated particularly well with the Spanish conquistadores, who defeated Muslim natives to gain the site of Fort Santiago in battle.

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Military Nerve Center: Plaza de Armas

View of Plaza de Armas from the south, Intramuros

Mike Aquino

Fort Santiago proper consists of a central plaza (Plaza de Armas) surrounded by walls and ruins of barracks and storehouses. Formerly the nerve center of the Spanish military presence in the Philippines, the fort has now been transformed into a tribute to its most famous prisoner, the Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. His statue stands at the very center of the plaza.

The fort's military barracks lies mostly in ruins, except for a section that has been transformed into the Rizal Shrine, a museum that chronicles Rizal's life, his untimely death at the hands of the Spanish, and the ripple effects of his martyrdom on the Philippine struggle for independence.

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Remembering a Filipino Hero: Rizal Shrine

Relic of Jose Rizal's vertebra, Rizal Shrine, Fort Santiago

Mike Aquino

From November 3 to December 29, 1896, Jose Rizal was held in the Fort Santiago barracks on the western side of Plaza de Armas, where he was sentenced to death for supporting a brewing revolution against Spanish rule.

From Fort Santiago, Rizal was marched out through Postigo Gate to Bagumbayan field (the site of today's Rizal Park) and executed by firing squad on December 30, 1896.

Rizal's route as a dead man walking has been preserved as a series of bronze footprints leading out from Fort Santiago to the gate exiting Intramuros. The origin of the footprints—part of the old barrack—has been spruced up and transformed into the Rizal Shrine, where Rizal's life unfolds before the visitor.

Starting with a timeline of Rizal's life, the exhibit guides guests through numerous rooms depicting his martyrdom (complete with the only part of Rizal's anatomy viewable by the public, his bullet-shattered vertebra);  a replica of the courtroom that decided his fate; and a room that features Rizal's legacy—from reproductions of his sketches and sculptures to his last poem engraved in marble and taking up an entire wall.

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Intramuros' Darkest Dungeon: Bateria de Santa Barbara

The walls of Fort Santiago overlooking the Pasig River, Manila

Mike Aquino

The Baluarte de Santa Barbara, set at the extreme northwest of Fort Santiago, overlooks the Pasig River.  The Falsabraga de Media Naranja, a semicircular gun platform now free of guns, extends in a semicircle over the water. Under the Baluarte lies the Bastion de San Lorenzo, which stored artillery and weapons in Spanish and American times.

The Bastion also doubled as a dungeon, where Jose Rizal was confined prior to his execution, and where thousands suffered lingering torture and death at the hands of the Japanese kempeitai during the short but brutal Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Many of these victims are commemorated through a cross that stands over a mass grave; this cross can be found overlooking the Plaza de Armas in front of the Bateria de Santa Barbara.

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Getting to Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

Carlos Celdran conducting tours of Fort Santiago, Manila

Mike Aquino

Fort Santiago's fearsome reputation hasn't stopped Filipinos from using it as a shrine to the country's history and culture. Tour guides like Carlos Celdran (pictured above) include Fort Santiago in their itineraries. (Find out about taking your own walking tour of the walled city.)

Fort Santiago is an eight-minute walk away from Manila Cathedral; travelers must cross Soriano Avenue, pursuing General Luna Street to its northernmost end where it intersects with Santa Clara Street. The entrance to Fort Santiago can be found here (location on Google Maps); visitors must pay PHP 100 (about $2.10) to enter.

Fort Santiago is open on all days of the week - from Tuesdays to Sundays, guests can enter from 8 am to 5 pm, with a one-hour break at 12 noon; on Mondays, the Fort is only open from 1 pm to 5 pm.