Travel Guide to Intramuros, Manila, Philippines

Fort Santiago gate, Intramuros, Manila

Mike Aquino

For hundreds of years, the Philippines' walled city of Intramuros was Manila: the Spanish settlement at the mouth of the Pasig River sat at a strategic location for trade and defense, and the settlers ruled their growing Philippine empire from within their settlement's walls.

Intramuros served as the main trading link between Spain and China; in exchange for silver mined from Spain's Southern American colonies, Chinese traders provided silks and other fine finished products, which the Spanish then loaded onto galleons for the long trip back to Acapulco.

The Spanish colonizers defined their milieu by the walls that girded their fair city - Intramuros (within the walls) was where civilized (i.e. Spanish Catholic) folk lived, traded, and prayed; while outside the walls, out there lived barbarians and savages.

Intramuros and Philippine Culture

The Spanish had good reason to build such high walls around their home away from home: Intramuros was surrounded by enemies. The Chinese pirate Limahong had attempted to take over Manila twice in the 1570s. Resentful natives, too, were also likely to rebel at any given moment. Even trading partners were not to be trusted - Chinese traders were forced to settle in the Parian, within cannon shot of Intramuros' walls.

Within the walls, though, the Spanish created a society that would serve as the foundation of a nation. The seven churches within Intramuros helped strengthen the Catholic foothold in the country, so much so that the Philippines is almost indelibly Catholic to this day. The Governor-General may have ruled from Intramuros' Palacio del Governador in the name of the King, but the real power lay in the hands of the Catholic Church, embodied in the Manila Cathedral standing across the street.

The Philippines' identity was so wrapped up in Intramuros that when the returning Americans bombed Intramuros near the end of World War II, they also inadvertently destroyed the core of Filipino culture - something that ensuing generations of Filipinos have been trying to rebuild since.

The Lay of the Land

Present-day Intramuros does show a few signs of its ill-treatment in the first half of the 20th century, but the walled city also shows signs of returning to its former glory. The walls once left to deteriorate after the war, have mostly been restored and cleared of garbage. The 64 hectares of real estate encircled by the walls, once a mass of rubble, have undergone a valiant reconstruction effort - new buildings stand alongside war survivors, new rubbing shoulders with the old.

The undisputed survivor of Intramuros remains the San Agustin Church, a stone baroque church constructed in the 1600s. San Agustin has survived centuries of war and natural disaster that has since reduced its contemporaries to rubble.

Many of those ruins are slowly being rebuilt - the Ayuntamiento, a low government building in front of Manila Cathedral that was eradicated by wartime bombing, was recently re-created and hosts the Philippines' Treasury Bureau. And the San Ignacio Church, a ruined chapel once managed by the Jesuits, is now undergoing reconstruction and will serve as a museum displaying Intramuros' collection of ecclesiastical art.

Some of Intramuros' most interesting attractions are actually older structures converted into new uses: Many old houses now have museums or restaurants within, and many former fortifications have been repurposed into gift shops and al fresco eateries.

The architecture around Intramuros is a mix of the old, the new, and the new-made-to-look-old. Many of the buildings constructed (or reconstructed) after the 1970s are patterned after the Spanish-Chinese architecture popular in Intramuros before the American takeover in 1898.

How to Get There

To get to Intramuros, you'll either need to take the LRT (light-rail transit) or the jeepney going in.

Getting here by LRT means stopping at the Central Terminal Station, then walking five minutes to Manila City Hall. From here, a pedestrian underpass takes you across Padre de Burgos Street. Immediately upon exiting the underpass, you'll see Victoria Street, which curves right through the walls.

When inside Intramuros, you'll find most of the sights within a ten- to fifteen-minute walk away. The narrow streets are only minimally pedestrian-friendly; the sidewalks are often blocked, forcing you to walk on the streets and contend with motorized traffic. If you want to ride around in Intramuros, you have two choices:

  • "Pedicabs" are ideal from moving from point A to point B within Intramuros. These are simply bicycles with side-compartments, essentially rickshaws; many of them have queues outside Intramuros' main tourist attractions. Each trip costs about PHP 50-70 (negotiable).
  • Calesa are great for leisurely trips around Intramuros, where you take in the sights from aboard a horse-drawn carriage. Calesa accommodate 1 to 3 passengers on a 30-minute guided tour of Intramuros.

Where to Stay

Within the walls, visitors have two choices for accommodation - one more suited for budget travelers, another offering greater comfort at mid-level prices.

The budget Hotel White Knight Intramuros is located right in the middle of Intramuros, inside the Plaza San Luis Complex. Apart from comfortable rooms and a cozy restaurant on the ground floor, the White Knight offers Segway and bike tours of Intramuros.

The business-class Bayleaf Hotel is set right across the Victoria Street gate, near the walls of Intramuros. The Bayleaf is run by the local Lyceum school for the benefit of their Hotel and Restaurant Management students. The Bayleaf's rooftop is one of the best chill-out places in Intramuros, with perfect views of the Manila sunset.

Elsewhere in Manila, you'll find plenty of cheaper accommodations if you don't mind a short commute to Intramuros.

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