City Within a City: Manila’s Intramuros is Both Beautiful and Sad


Hundreds of years before the modern day sprawl of modern Manila, there was only Intramuros, literally “within the walls”. This small district of old Manila simply was old Manila before the city began to grow too big to fit inside. Today it conjures a mixture of emotions for visitors.

A Bit of Perspective
Manila Cathedral

Manila Cathedral

Intramuros dates back to 1571. Less than a hundred years after Columbus landed in the Americas, Manila was a simple walled city at the edge of an island’s waters. At the time, the Philippines was in the middle of being colonized by the Spanish Empire, and it was here that the colonial government put down its roots.

Ruins, I have found, are often more beautiful than well preserved buildings.

Ruins, I have found, are often more beautiful than well preserved buildings.

Unlike many historical monuments around the world, Intramuros is still a functioning microcity within Manila. There are schools and universities, restaurants, and museums, making it a strange mixture of the old, and the modern. It even has its own franchise of Jollibee, the Philippines’ take on MacDonalds. People live within the walls, many of them squatters who’ve moved into crowded, makeshift housing; many who offer tricycle tours still live within the city walls and live in these small squatter villages. The mixture of beautiful, historic structures, and the precarious existence of the lower income residents that call this district home is precisely what makes Intramuros both beautiful and sad.

Tricycle Tours
Tricycle tours may not be precisely as depicted.

Skip is eager for his tricycle tour. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’s in the wrong place.

If you make the trip to this part of the city, be sure to hire a tricycle driver to take you around for an hour or so. Yes, you could easily walk with little exertion, but many of the residents of Intramuros make their living giving tours of the area, so be sure to tip generously if you can (a generous tip in Manila is what would be considered stingy in the western world). My guide provided a decent history of the area, and was able to answer some questions about the sites we visited, so I felt it was time well spent. Most tricycles read 350 pesos ($8.20) an hour, though they will quickly drop to 200 pesos ($4.70) an hour if you hold off. Though I got a lower price, I ended up paying my driver 400 pesos ($9.40) for a one hour tour as I felt it was worth the price. I’ve paid shitty cab drivers in Canada more money for much less time.

Fort Santiago
A carriage waiting for passengers in Fort Santiago.

A carriage waiting for passengers in Fort Santiago.

A canon placed by the occupying Japanese forces in World War II.

A canon placed by the occupying Japanese forces in World War II.

Fort Santiago was the citadel, the main defensive point, for the city of Manila when the Spanish first colonized the island and has a long history of bloodshed and imprisonment. There’s a small fee of 75 pesos to enter ($1.80) but it’s worth a peek as the gardens inside are extremely well kept and the air inside is noticeably fragrant from the sudden rise in foliage. The fort is relatively small, so an hour is plenty of time to explore the grounds. During the second world war, many were imprisoned within the walls of the fort after the Japanese invaded the Philippine islands, many whom died there. Be sure to find the small plaque hidden along the walls which has the names of the captive inscribed in their honor.

The Bottom Line

Intramuros is one of those places that a visitor to Manila is almost required to visit. To skip Intramuros would be like visiting London without seeing Trafalgar Square. It’s an area where Muslims, the Spanish, Japanese and Americans have all shed their blood for control, a city monument steeped in history, violence, abandonment, and even those who continue to struggle to survive within its walls.

Saint Augustin is the most iconic church in the Philippines.

Saint Augustin is the most iconic church in the Philippines.

A view of the gardens at Fort Santiago.

A view of the gardens at Fort Santiago.

General Douglas MacArthur, who led American forces to liberate the Philippine islands from the Japanese.

General Douglas MacArthur, who led American forces to liberate the Philippine islands from the Japanese in 1944-1945.

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