The walled city of Intramuros in the Philippines capital of Manila is undergoing a renaissance as of late - even the slow pace of repairs and renovations hasn't fazed a growing number of tourists willing to brave the slums and skinny sidewalks of Manila's oldest district. Intramuros is chock-full of historic Philippine churches, monuments to wars and personalities past, and a number of restaurants, hotels, and museums worth visiting.
If you're ready to take on Intramuros, take our walking tour of the walled city, or pick any of the following indispensable Intramuros destinations at your own pace.
Built in 1571 on the smoldering remains of a palisaded Tagalog fort, Fort Santiago is arguably where Manila all began. The fort changed hands several times over the centuries - the British took over for a short period in the 1700s, the Americans used Fort Santiago as a military installation in the early part of the 20th century, and the Japanese used it as a prison and torture chamber during their World War II occupation of the Philippines. Fort Santiago was heavily damaged by the American offensive at the end of the war.
Today, Fort Santiago is on the mend, with sections having been remade into tourist-friendly areas. The Baluartillo de San Francisco Javier in front of the Plaza Moriones park now houses a café, art galleries, and the Intramuros Visitors Center.
The Rizal Shrine inside Fort Santiago immerses visitors in the life and death of the Philippine national hero, Jose Rizal. Visitors can also climb up the walls facing the Pasig River for a panoramic (but not really pretty) view of the city of Manila. And avid souvenir-hunters can visit Manila Collectible Company at the Baluartillo de San Francisco Javier
- Address: Fort Santiago, Intramuros (location on Google Maps)
First Among Filipino Churches: Manila Cathedral
Intramuros' Plaza Roma was once the literal center of political, economic, and spiritual power in the Philippines. This small square was flanked by the Ayuntamiento, the Intramuros city hall, on the east side; the governor-general's palace on the west side; and the Manila Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Manila, on the south. Today, only the Manila Cathedral is open to visitors, and is the only building that still serves the purpose it was built for.
The present cathedral structure is not the original one that was built in 1571; the previous seven incarnations were destroyed by fire, earthquakes and World War II. The present building dates back to 1958, and underwent rehabilitation in 2013. The newly-reopened cathedral includes modern touches like flat-screen monitors and LED lighting, but the historic artistic details - crafted by Italian masters - remain the Cathedral's main draw.
- Address: Cabildo corner Beaterio, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
This massive Baroque church was completed in 1606 and survives to the present, withstanding the worst that natural disaster and war could throw at it. Good thing, too - San Agustin Church's High Renaissance façade, the trompe l'oeil ceilings, and the monastery/museum are collectively the single best destination for visitors to Intramuros seeking insight into the walled city's spiritual life.
The museum preserves an amazing collection of ecclesiastical art from the beginning of the Spanish presence in the Philippines all the way to the present day. Paintings on the hallways depict scenes (both historical and fantastical) from Church sources. Rooms along the hallways have been converted into galleries that showcase Catholic relics and artifacts from all across Asia.
The church's crypt houses the remains of notable Filipinos, including national heroes and captains of industry. This was also the site of a deplorable atrocity committed by the Japanese in the dying days of World War II: over a hundred innocent civilians were slaughtered in the crypt by the Japanese imperial army.
- Address: General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
One Stop Cultural Shop: Plaza San Luis Complex
The Plaza San Luis Complex, despite its historical look, only dates back to the 1970s. A pet project of former first lady Imelda Marcos, the complex comprises five houses built around a small inner plaza. The complex is designed to look like what a rich Spanish-Filipino ilustrado's residence must have looked like in Intramuros' heyday.
Today, the Plaza San Luis Complex is a one-stop shop for tourists; visitors will find a budget hotel, restaurant, shopping outlets, tour services and a museum within the premises. Key tenants include:
Casa Manila: a museum that purports to replicate the home and daily doings of a rich Filipino family from the 1800s;
Barbara's: This restaurant's evocative architectural touches - a carved staircase, silver-tinted mirrors and crystal chandeliers - serve as an elaborate backdrop to an authentically Filipino culinary and cultural experience;
White Knight Intramuros (whiteknighthotelintramuros.com): A 30-room budget hotel with a coffee shop, function rooms, and its own tour services;
Bambike Ecotours (bambike.com/ecotours): organizes tours of Intramuros and other areas of interest around Manila on bikes made of bamboo.
- Address: Real Street corner General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
Telling the Chinese-Filipino Story: Bahay Tsinoy
The Chinese presence in the Philippines precedes that of the Spanish, and of these two non-indigenous cultures, the former has had the most success integrating into Filipino society. The Chinese-Filipino story is told in great detail in this sprawling museum.
Bahay Tsinoy begins the saga with the roving Chinese traders who did business with local chieftains prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, and ends with contemporary "Tsinoy" success stories like the late Jaime Cardinal Sin and former President Corazon Aquino. Artifacts from historical accounts - from a Kapitan China's chair to household items from Tsinoy families throughout history - populate the museum, standing alongside valuable relics from various Chinese dynasties and portraits of Tsinoy notables.
- Address: 32 Anda Street, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
Stone Sentries: the Walls of Intramuros
With the exception of a few hundred yards of missing fortifications near Plaza Mexico, the stone walls that gave Intramuros its name still stand guard to this day. Not all of it is original, though - much of Intramuros' fortifications, like the buildings they were supposed to protect, were knocked down during the dying days of World War II.
The best-preserved walls are worth a visit, if only to serve as a reminder that the Spanish presence in the Philippines was also a fearful one, with plenty of threats lurking just beyond cannonshot. The Chinese settlement formerly known as the Parian, for instance, was purposely set up within firing range of Intramuros (the Spanish never trusted the Chinese, despite doing plenty of business with them).
One of the better preserved sections stands off the Victoria gate near the present-day Bayleaf Hotel - the San Francisco de Dilao fortifications (location on Google Maps, pictured above) used to stand guard across from a Japanese suburb; its inert cannons now face a golf course and the Manila City Hall beyond it. A ramp from Muralla street can be easily climbed, permitting visitors access to the walls and the views beyond.
Dine Like a Bishop: Ristorante delle Mitre
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' headquarters is generally concerned with Catholic doctrine (and not a little bit of politics), but the ground floor restaurant offers a delicious diversion from spiritual matters. The Ristorante delle Mitre was opened to serve the urgent culinary needs of Filipino clerics, and has expanded its reach to serve visitors to Intramuros, too.
The interior feels homey, furnished with wooden furniture and decorated with mementoes from notable Catholic bishops and cardinals, including the miters (bishops' hats) that serve as the restaurant's namesake.
The dishes are named after clerics, though the connections between the personalities and the dishes are rather tenuous. The food - consisting of traditional Filipino favorites and hearty Western selections - is top-notch: this writer recommends the beef medallion with mashed potato, the crispy pata (pork knuckle) and the pumpkin soup.
- Address: CBCP Bldg., 470 Gen Luna St., Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
The Roof of Intramuros: Bayleaf Hotel's View Deck Restaurant
The famous Manila Bay sunset can be viewed from the highest elevation within Intramuros - and if you can enjoy a beer and grilled seafood while watching the sun recede into the sea, why the hell not?
The Bayleaf Hotel is a 57-room boutique hotel that stands ten storeys over the rest of the walled city; travelers can take the elevator up to the ninth floor, then walk up a staircase to the View Deck restaurant on the rooftop. This 80-seater restaurant serves a wicked nighttime buffet, alcoholic drinks, and grilled specialties to discerning guests. After dark, live music ups the romance factor.
While the views from the main deck are awesome enough, guests can get an even better view of the surroundings on the small, elevated Sunset Deck which rises an additional storey off of the rooftop.
- Address: Muralla corner Victoria streets, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
Galleon Trade Terminus: Plaza Mexico
Here's a little known fact about the Philippines - it used to be administered by the Spanish as a province of Mexico. The Philippines was the Asian node of the famed galleon trade that exchanged American silver for Chinese goods; the Asian merchandise stopped at Mexico before making its slow way back to Spain.
To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the galleon trade, the Presidents of Mexico and the Philippines inaugurated twin monuments on either side of the Pacific. The Philippine equivalent stands in Plaza Mexico, formerly Intramuros' key port on the Pasig River, while its Mexican counterpart can be found in Barra de Navidad, Jalisco State, the former port and shipyard for galleons heading to the Philippines.
- Address: Gen Luna Street corner Anda Street, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)
Remembering the Hallowed Civilian Dead: Memorare Manila
The tiny Plazuela de Santa Isabel offers some tree-shaded relief for tourists walking through Intramuros, along with a sober reminder of the nameless casualties of World War II. The Memorare Manila monument was erected on the Plazuela in 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Manila (Wikipedia) where over a hundred thousand Filipino civilians were senselessly killed by Japanese troops making a brutal last stand in the capital.
The monument features a sculpture by Filipino artist Peter de Guzman, depicting six suffering civilians flanking a hooded woman with a dead child in her arms.
- Address: Gen Luna Street corner Anda Street, Intramuros, Manila (location on Google Maps)