Intramuros: The Original Manila?

Updated on August 30, 2018
Tom Wagner profile image

Admittedly a novice when it comes to travel in the Philippines, Tom has had the local's-eye view as his tour guides have all been family.

Victoria Street Entrance to Intramuros
Victoria Street Entrance to Intramuros | Source

Intramuros: The Original Spanish Stronghold

The walled city of Intramuros (which, fittingly, is Latin for "within the walls") is reputedly the original city of Manila and lies geographically in the western center of Metro Manila today. Its construction began in the late 16th century to keep foreign invaders at bay (literally!) for at that time, Intramuros was on the coast. However, some believe it was built primarily to keep the Filipino people out.

Unlike their Latin American colonies, the Spaniards who "acquired" these islands from the native people avoided contact with Filipinos to the point where they forbade the teaching of Spanish to non-Spaniards, including their myriad illegitimate offspring. The Spaniards are not well liked in the Philippines. Learn something of their history and you'll understand why.

My personal belief is that after Lapu Lapu—the leader of the Mactan people of Visayas—had the cojones to take on Magellan (after the Spanish Captain fooled most of the tribal leaders into surrendering their land to Spain) and not only won but also stopped Magellan's attempt at circumnavigating the globe, the Spaniards didn't trust the locals very much. Filipinos are not particularly fond of Magellan, for obvious reasons.


Getting Around Intramuros Is Easy and Convenient

Now that the people of the Philippines are free of Spain—not to mention we Americans—Intramuros is no longer the center of colonial culture that it used to be and is instead simply a neighborhood that will teach you more about Spanish colonialism than you ever wanted to know.

The entire city covers only 40-something blocks, but unless you're a runner and enjoy jogging everywhere you go, it's hard to see it all on foot. You can drive through the walled city, but only if you enjoy traffic snarls and tight spots. The streets are quite narrow; and besides, any tourist would have to be insane to want to try driving in Manila. I think I saw five traffic light-controlled intersections in the entire city (and not one freeway or even tollway), and it's twice the size of Los Angeles!

Your best bet is to take a cab to the entrance if you can afford it; if not, go on a bus (and bring something to keep you distracted—Manila bus drivers all think they're driving bumper cars) or a jeepney. Once inside the walls, you'll find plenty of trikes, especially pedal-powered trikes, and that's the cheapest, easiest way to get around because they can bypass traffic jams with ease.

The Most Elegant Way to See Intramuros, Though Not the Cheapest
The Most Elegant Way to See Intramuros, Though Not the Cheapest | Source

If you want an elegant ride or want to impress a date or spouse, take a ride in a horse drawn carriage. The clip-clop, clip-clop is mesmerizing, however, so bring a pillow and be sure to tell the driver to wake you when you reach something of interest.

Manila Cathedral Lights Up at Night
Manila Cathedral Lights Up at Night | Source

Must-See Attractions

There is a lot to see in Intramuros. Here are some sights that shouldn't be missed.

  • Manila Cathedral is one of many lovely churches built by the Spaniards in and around Manila, using Filipino labor, naturally. This cathedral is very popular with the faithful and those interested in architecture alike.
  • The Bahay Tsinoy is a museum showing how the Chinese influenced Filipino culture.
  • Take a ride down Sta. Lucia Street to see individual murals of every President of the Philippines.
  • Visit Memorare-Manila on Anda Street if you feel like crying: It's the saddest memorial to the innocent victims of war that I have ever seen.
  • Tour Casa Manila to see how the wealthy Spaniards lived at the expense of Filipinos.
  • Explore San Agustin Cathedral, across General Luna Street from Casa Manila, considered by many to be Manila's most beautiful church.

Casa Manila Courtyard
Casa Manila Courtyard | Source

Casa Manila Museum

A pet project of the rotten dictator Marcos's wife, Imelda, Casa Manila is a late 20th-century recreation of an authentic 19th-century Spanish colonial house. You can tour most of the facility with a tour, but don't try to take any pictures or they'll take your camera away. The patio area can be rented and is popular for weddings and other special events.

Directly across the street from Casa Manila is San Agustin Church, which is architecturally interesting and particularly creepy when filmed from the right angle in black and white.

San Agustin Church
San Agustin Church | Source

Fort Santiago: the Off-Center Heart of Intramuros

Fort Santiago, located at the northwestern tip of Intramuros, is perhaps the most picturesque part of the walled city. Here you will find:

  • Ruins of old barracks
  • Sinister dungeons
  • Old battlements and cannons the Spaniards were forced to abandon when the Filipino people rose up against them in the 1890s and kicked some Spaniard butt
  • Numerous gardens
  • Several fountains
  • Beautifully landscaped parks
  • A museum/shrine—one of many in the Philippines—dedicated to Dr. Jose Rizal, one of the nation's heroes

The shrine is actually where Dr. Rizal was imprisoned before his execution on December 30, 1896, which sparked the revolution. Ironically, Dr. Rizal wanted Filipinos to gain independence through non-violent means; however, the Spaniards believed he wanted to incite violence, and it was his execution that caused the people to revolt.

Battlements and Cannons of Fort Santiago
Battlements and Cannons of Fort Santiago | Source

Do keep in mind while visiting that this is a city within a city and that people live, work and die here. Intramuros has three college campuses, many residents and numerous eateries serving some of the best food you'll ever have. Look for the places with the most Filipinos waiting in line and you'll know it's the right place.

Because it is a residential and business area, there is no admission fee to enter Intramuros, and the area is so rich with Filipino history that you'll regret missing it if you do. Getting there is an ordeal, but it is well worth the effort.

Fort Santiago Is the Most Picturesque Area of the Walled City
Fort Santiago Is the Most Picturesque Area of the Walled City | Source
It's true, you know.
It's true, you know. | Source


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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      23 months ago from UK

      That's a good tip. Rain gear gets hot and uncomfortable. Should the weather improve an umbrella can also serve as a sunshade.

    • Tom Wagner profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom Wagner 

      23 months ago from Los Angeles

      My best advice for those visiting the Philippines (or anywhere in the tropics) for the first time is to NOT bring any rain gear of any kind. Buy an umbrella (or bumbershoot for our British friends) when you get there and take it EVERYWHERE YOU GO. Either that, or let yourself get wet. Even a light rain poncho can be stifling in that climate.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 years ago from UK

      It looks like it was a little damp there when you visited. This gives an interesting insight into a part of the world I have yet to visit.


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