Intramuros - The Walled City of Manila

Posted December 2015

Spain announced its sovereignty over the Philippines in 1571 after taking control of Manila. Shortly after, the city was declared the capital of the newly-founded Spanish colony by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, and construction of Intramuros began. This large complex quickly became the political, cultural, and religious center of Spanish influence in Asia. Despite massive damage during World War II, Intramuros still stands in stark contrast to the surrounding metropolitan city of Manila as a reminder of the country's past.

Referred to as The Walled City, construction of fortified walls surrounding the complex began in 1590. The walls themselves cover over 64 hectares of land, standing eight feet wide and 22 feet in height. These walls encompass nearly one-square kilometer along the Manila Bay and Pasig River waterfronts that were once filled with government buildings, churches, monasteries, schools, and homes of the rich. The city was protected by seven bastions strategically placed around the complex, and accessed via eight drawbridge gates passing over an inner and outer moat.

The old saying "if these walls could talk..." must refer to Intramuros. Through its storied history, the walls of Intramuros helped the Spanish hold off threats by Chinese pirates and Dutch forces. The British took control of the city for two years during the 1760's before Spain was able to regain this important post. The Spanish finally relinquished control after the Spanish-American War ended in 1898. 

America took control of the Philippines, and The Walled City became the seat of its government and military in Asia. They made drastic changes to the complex, including the removal of massive sections of its wall and destruction of its moats. The Japanese invaded the Philippines in the early stages of World War II and took control of Manila. The Americans defeated the Japanese in the Battle of Manila in 1945, regaining control of the Philippines. 

The Battle of Manila lasted just 1 month, but proved to be devastating. The city of Manila was war torn and Intramuros was nearly destroyed entirely. In what became know as the Manila Massacre, the Japanese army committed violent murders, mutilations, and rapes on civilians resulting in 100,000-500,000 Filipino deaths. Artifacts held at Intramuros include church bells recovered from those looted and destroyed throughout the city.

Intramuros will never be the same, though restoration efforts have continued since the end of World War II. It remains listed as one of twelve endangered cultural heritage sites "on the verge of irreparable destruction and loss" by the Global Heritage Fund, and hopefully conservation efforts will continue. The population explosion in Manila has seen development pressures close in on the site, which is now home to several office buildings, schools, residences, and even a graffiti-covered skatepark.

How to Explore Intramuros

There are several companies that oganize and operate tours of Intramuros. Kristin and I decided we could create our own tour, which would cover more of the city and save money at the same time.

Intramuros architecture is defined by Spanish colonial buildings despite being largely destroyed during World War II

We parked our car near the Manila Cathedral. We were quickly approached by Mac, a friendly pedicab driver who offered to drive us at a rate of 200 pesos per 30 minutes (about $5 USD). Instead of spending 1,500 pesos each for a 3-hour tour, we spent 1,600 total for a 4-hour tour with a personal pedicab driver. Mac had a map of Intramuros for us to review. He also had a good knowledge of the area and was able to provide some history of the sites while he drove us around.

It's easy to spend an entire day exploring Intramuros. There is so much to see and learn. Here is a short selection.

Manila Cathedral 

Also known as the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception,this cathedral was originally constructed when the Spanish first colonized Manila. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over its 400-year history, but remains the Prime Basilica of the Philippines and the seat of the country's archbishop.

Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago is probably the most historically significant site within Intramuros due to its strategic location. It was the first citadel built during the construction of The Walled City by Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, situated at the mouth of the Pasig River. Thousands of prisoners died within Fort Santiago during the Spanish colonial rein and the Japanese occupation during World War II, including the Filipino national hero Jose Rizal who was imprisoned here prior to his execution. Check out the Rizal Shrine Museum, the classic building structures, the adjacent Plaza Moriones, and the views over the river from the Santa Barbara cavalier (pictured below).

Plaza de Santa Isabel

The small but beautiful garden in Plaza de Santa Isabel provides a nice respite from the streets on Intramuros, which Kristin and I used as a rest stop during our visit. Its centerpiece is a beautiful memorial dedicated to the Battle of Manila victims.

San Agustin Church

Considered the oldest stone church in the Philippines, San Agustin Church is one of the few structures in Intramuros that survived World War II. Construction was completed in 1607 after the two original structures of wood burned down in fires. Tourists are welcome to explore San Agustin, granted there isn't a wedding in progress. The beautiful church has gained a reputation as "the wedding capital of the Philippines". The adjacent monastery has been converted into the San Agustin Museum and contains relics of the Spanish colonial church and culture.

Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton
Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton