Introduction to Manila, Philippines' Premier Walled City
For hundreds of years, the walled city of Intramuros was Manila: the nerve center of the Spanish occupation in the Philippines, home to several thousand Spanish colonists, their families, and their Filipino servants.
Intramuros was erected on the ruins of a Malay settlement at the mouth of the Pasig River. Its strategic location attracted the attention of the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who took over the area in 1571 and proclaimed it as the Philippine colony's new capital.
For 400 years, Intramuros was the center of Spanish political, religious, and military power in the region. (Read about churches in the Philippines.) The walled city suffered grievously through World War II; only San Agustin Church was left standing by war's end.
In the 1980s, the government led a major restoration effort that reconstructed Intramuros to its present state. Today, Intramuros is a prominent tourist spot where visitors can experience Spanish-era Manila through the walled city's churches, restaurants, and museums.
Beginning Your Intramuros Walking Tour
Begin at the Intramuros Visitors' Center at the restored Baluartillo de San Francisco Javier in Fort Santiago (Google Maps). This is an ideal jumping-off point for many walking tours through Intramuros, or independent visits to Intramuros' top sights.
At the Center, you can pick up brochures on the places you plan to see or find out about scheduled cultural events in the Walled City.
Fort Santiago is easily accessible via taxi, jeepney, or LRT (the Central Terminal Station is the closest stop). Read about Manila's commuter rail system for more details.
The tour will take about two hours and involves a fair amount of walking. We recommend you avoid walking in the middle of the day; limit your trips to before 9am, or after 4pm to avoid sunstroke or sunburn.
To fully enjoy your trip, you'll need:
- a carry bag for souvenirs
- comfortable shoes
- a camera
- bottled water
First Stop: Fort Santiago
Fort Santiago (Google Maps) was built by Spanish conquistadors in 1571, replacing the destroyed fortress belonging to the last datu (king) of pre-Hispanic Manila.
Over the years, Fort Santiago served as a fortress against marauding Chinese pirates, a prison for Spanish-era political prisoners, and a Japanese torture chamber in World War II. American bombs deployed during the Battle for Manila almost succeeded in destroying the Fort altogether.
A postwar government initiative helped restore Fort Santiago and clean its bad juju away. Today, Fort Santiago is a relaxing place to visit and an enlightening portal into the Philippines' colonial past. It contains a peaceful park, battlements overlooking the Pasig River, and a memorial museum to the Philippines' national hero Jose Rizal.
For more information, read our overview of Fort Santiago in the Philippines.
Next Stop: Manila Cathedral
Exit the main gate of Fort Santiago and make a five- to ten-minute walk southeast down General Luna Street, past the Plaza Moriones and the Palacio del Gobernador. The Cathedral will be visible to your left.
The Manila Cathedral (Cabildo cor. Beaterio Streets, Intramuros; Google Maps) is the ecclesiastical seat of the Archdiocese of Manila. In Spanish colonial times, this was the seat of the Spanish Archbishop of Manila, who had jurisdiction over the entire archipelago.
This structure is actually the sixth church to occupy the site. The first one, built in 1581, was razed to the ground two years after it was built. The present structure was completed in 1958.
The Cathedral's crypts serve as a final resting place for former Archbishops of Manila, just as the crypts of St. Peter's in the Vatican do for the bodies of former Popes. Among those interred in the Cathedral's crypts is Jaime Cardinal Sin, one of the ringleaders of the 1986 Edsa Revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Next Stop: Walls of Intramuros/Puerta de Santa Lucia
A further five-minute walk down General Luna Street in the same direction; after two blocks, turn right and walk down Calle Real until you reach Puerta de Sta. Lucia.
Facing the former Malecon Drive (now Bonifacio Drive), Puerta de Santa Lucia (Google Maps) is one of several gates passing through the Intramuros walls. First built in 1603, Puerta de Santa Lucia (when open) leads out to Malecon, once a waterfront promenade before reclamation transformed the shores in front of the walls into the present-day Port Area.
Passersby get a close-up look at the thick stone walls and moats that skirt Intramuros' borders, as the walls can actually be climbed for a commanding view of the streets within Intramuros and the golf course beyond the wall.
During Manila's colonial heyday, no one could enter Intramuros but the Spanish, their servants, and mestizos (half-Spanish Filipinos). Outside Manila lived Filipinos and Chinese merchants. The latter were forced to live in a ghetto that was conveniently located within range of Intramuros' cannons, in case the Chinese revolted against Spanish rule.
Next Stop: San Agustin Church and Museum
Go back up Calle Real, turn right on Gen. Luna Street and enter the parking lot of San Agustin Church immediately on your right.
The San Agustin Church (Calles Gen Luna and Real, Intramuros; Google Maps) is the first European stone church designed along Spanish lines in Manila. It has 14 side chapels, hand-carved hardwood pews dating back to the 17th century, an 18th-century pipe organ, and a beautiful trompe l'oeil ceiling. Beside the church is a small museum featuring Spanish-era vestments, furniture, and religious artwork.
Along with three other ancient Philippine churches, San Agustin Church was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Its walls have stood as a mute witness to Philippine history. Three Spanish conquistadors are buried here. In its vestry, Spanish and American commanders discussed the city's terms of surrender during the Spanish-American War. Japanese soldiers massacred 140 people on the premises during World War II, as the American troops approached Intramuros.
For the bloody details, read our overview of San Agustin Church.
Next and Final Stop: Casa Manila
Go back the way you came, through the parking lot—cross the street to get to the Plaza San Luis Complex.
Plaza San Luis (Calle Real del Palacio, Intramuros; Google Maps) was a pet project of Imelda Marcos (she of the 7,000 shoes): its centerpiece is Casa Manila, a reconstruction of a Spanish colonial home of the 19th century. (The whole structure itself dates back only to 1981.)
Each room in Casa Manila is decorated in period style, complete with antique furniture, fixtures, and artwork.
Beyond Casa Manila, the Plaza San Luis Complex contains several other stops that will hold any tourist's interest: the White Knight Intramuros budget hotel; Puesto Manila, a creative hub and cafe; Barbara's, a Filipino restaurant; and Bambike Ecotours, which takes guests on tours of top Manila stops using bamboo bikes.