10 Of My Favourite Places To Visit In Manila, Philippines

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – I have a love-hate relationship with Manila.

On one hand, I love how culturally rich and historical it is, with its museums, churches and art galleries (And Jollibee, of course!). On the other, I’m not a fan of its insane traffic, the pollution, and the fact that its one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It’s extremely difficult to find a quiet space.

Image: Assy Gerez via Unsplash

Having been here several times, I often get friends asking me if Manila is worth visiting (for many Malaysians, the Philippines is not as popular as other S/E Asian destinations like Thailand or Indonesia – and if they do visit, it’s usually to Boracay). My answer is always “It depends on what you like.” If you’re thinking the type of packaged cultural offerings you often get in Bali or Chiang Mai, or a beach getaway (because Manila is by the sea right? lol), then you will be disappointed. Manila is not a place to ‘get away from it all’. But if you’re up for a bit of urban adventure in a chaotic and colourful city…then Manila has a certain charm.

While quarantine restrictions are still in place due to COVID, that doesn’t stop you from planning for your next adventure. Since June 24 marks Manila Day – commemorating the 449th anniversary when Manila was proclaimed as Spain’s capital city in the Philippines – I’ve made a list of my favourite places to visit! For those who have never been to Manila, this will give you a good idea of what to expect.

INTRAMUROS 

If you’re new to Manila, Intramuros is undoubtedly the best place to learn about the city’s rich history. Dating back to the late 1500s, this old walled city has walls that are at least two-metres thick and six metres high, and is home to many historical landmarks, from churches and gardens to old mansions and museums. You can walk around the impressive stone ramparts, some parts of which have cannons on them, or ride around in horse-drawn carriages called kalesa.  

SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH

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One of my favourite places to visit in the area is the San Agustin Church, which was founded as a monastery by Augustinian monks. Part church, part museum complex, the building has a sad and haunting beauty, with austere stone hallways and sombre oil paintings. This is in stark contrast to the church proper, which features stunning architecture rivalling the grand churches of Europe. There are also galleries filled with religious artefacts and even a crypt. If you’re a history nerd like me, a visit to San Agustin is a must. 

BALUERTE SAN DIEGO / SAN DIEGO GARDENS 

The San Diego Gardens is one of those rare oases in Manila that offer a quiet respite, with tranquil European-style lawns and fountains that make it popular as a wedding photoshoot venue. The Baluerte San Diego, a small fort within the gardens, is the oldest structure within Intramuros. Its purpose was to ensure a clear view of the place and prepare against invaders. Back in the day it had all the facilities: courtyard, water supply tank, lodging and workshops – but all that remains of what must have once been a thriving fort are bare brick and stone.

FORT SANTIAGO

The story of Jose Rizal fascinates me. I am no revolutionary, but as a writer, there is something very moving about how Rizal’s writing set a fire in the hearts of the Filipino people that eventually led to their fight for freedom against their Spanish oppressors. His story is a true embodiment of how the pen is mightier than the sword.

Fort Santiago is where Rizal was housed before his execution in 1896, and visitors to the fort will see a pair of bronze footprints embedded in the ground and leading out to the gate – said to retrace Rizal’s last footsteps. Inside the fort, you will also find a shrine/museum dedicated to this Philippine National Hero, which contains various memorabilia including poetry pieces, letters he wrote to family and friends, replicas of sculptures, paintings and more.

PLAZA SAN LUIS 

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One of the items on my bucket list is to visit Vigan, a town known for its Spanish colonial architecture. In Manila, you have Plaza San Luis, a complex that contains five houses, a museum, theatre, hotel, souvenir shops and eateries. Since Intramuros was nearly levelled during the war, many of the old homes were destroyed, and the homes here have been replicated to represent different eras in Filipino-Hispanic architecture. The overall colonial feeling of the place – with its quaint courtyards and staircases – makes it easy to believe that you are peeking through a window in time. You can almost believe that some rich young ladies in traditional Filipinianas, giggling behind their fans in the summer heat while out for an afternoon stroll, are just about to round the corner.

MANILA CATHEDRAL

This cathedral was rebuilt a whopping eight times – it kept getting destroyed by fires, earthquakes and whatnot. While the architecture is not as grand as St Agustin, I like the stained glass art that it has, as well as the replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta in which Mary cradles the broken body of Christ

RIZAL PARK 

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A short distance away from Intramuros is Rizal Park, one of Manila’s few green areas. Like many old parts of Manila, it teems with history – hundreds of nationalists were executed here during Spanish rule, including Jose Rizal. It is fitting then, that the Philippine Declaration of Independence from America was read in this spot, and that the park was named after the revolutionary himself. When Pope Francis visited the Philippines and conducted a mass at the park, six million people turned up – that’s 1/5 of Malaysia’s population! While I wouldn’t say Rizal Park is the best park I’ve ever been to (litter is a problem), I think it’s a great place to visit if you’re sick of Manila’s endless malls. There are a few smaller parks within like the Nayong Filipino which are nice to explore.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY 

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With it’s tall, white-washed Corinthian columns and wooden doors, the grand-looking National Museum of Anthropology (aka Museum of the Filipino People) is hard to miss and is just a stone’s throw away from Rizal Park. Part of the National Museums of the Philippines, it houses the anthropology and archaeology divisions, spanning five floors. Coming from Malaysia where we have pretty lame museums (sorry, got to call a spade a spade), I was blown away by the quality of Manila’s major museums. The quality of the exhibits, as well as how they are arranged (with sections dedicated to indigenous art and culture, the history of the Philippines during the colonial era, etc.) offer interesting insights into the development of modern Filipino society.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

Filipinos are artistic people – there’s even a stereotype about how all Filipinos are good at singing and dancing (these people have obviously never met my husband) – and art has always been a way for the people to express themselves, even in times of oppression.

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The National Museum of Fine Arts, which is housed in the former Legislative Building, is a testament to this creativity and resilience, with works by national artists such as Juan Luna, Félix Resurrección Hidalgo and Guillermo Tolentino. In fact, when you walk in, the first thing you will be greeted with is an almost floor-to-ceiling work of Juan Luna Y Novicio’s Spoliarium – possibly one of the Philippines’ most popular pieces of art. The gallery is filled with artistic treasures, most of which reflect the country’s European-influenced past, and there are pieces that are so intricate and detailed, you can’t help but marvel at the level of craftsmanship that went into creating them. It’s definitely a place that you can get lost in for hours.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

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Another must-visit is the National Museum of National History, which has a very picturesque central court that boasts a structure called the DNA Tree of Life, as well as loads of interesting exhibits on nature and geology in the Philippines. There are sections dedicated to botany and entomology, marine life, mangroves and more. Even if you’re not into natural history, the architecture of the building alone is worth dropping by for.

BINONDO 

I try to visit the local Chinatown whenever I visit a foreign country. Idk, call it a subconscious need to reconnect with my roots or whathaveyou, lol.

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Manila’s Chinatown, Binondo, is the oldest in the world, dating back to 1594. Its narrow, chaotic streets, with its haphazard signboards and buildings, can feel claustrophobic, but it has a charm of its own. What I like about Binondo? The food. There are legendary establishments here that have been in the same family for generations, such as Eng Bee Tin – known for their hopia (a type of pastry) and tikoy (sticky rice cake – in Malaysia we call it niangao). If you’re here, look out for a shop called Ling Nam, which serves mami noodles (plain or with pork asado) – I stumbled across this gem purely by chance. There are many restos around the area that I haven’t had the chance to try yet, so I’m looking forward to another visit!

 

 

 

 

Plaza San Luis / Manila Cathedral @ Intramuros Manila

After a whole day of exploring Intramuros, E and I were hungry and raring for food. We walked across the street from San Agustin Church and into Plaza San Luis, a white-washed building with Spanish colonial architecture. It was pleasantly cool as we stepped into the compound, which was lined with trees and wrought-iron lamps.

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The historical/commercial complex is home to five houses – namely the Casa Manila, Casa Urdaneta, Casa Blanca, Los Hidalgos and El Hogar Filipino – each representing different eras in Filipino-Hispanic architecture. There is also a museum, theatre, hotel, souvenir shops and eateries.

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Despite our tummies roaring in protest, we took some time to admire the beautiful compound within the complex. It was straight out of a periodical Spanish telenovela – the one where the heroine stands on the balcony listening to the hero serenading her at the bottom with musical instrument in hand (coincidentally, that’s a guy up there lol).

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The Casa Manila is a replica of an 1850s San Nicolas House, and was commissioned by infamous first lady Imelda Marcos in the 1980s. Modeled after Spanish colonial architecture, the three-storey building houses a museum which depicts the lifestyle of wealthy Spanish-Filipino families in 19th century Manila. We didn’t go in because the ticket was quite pricey and we weren’t allowed to take photos. D:

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By then the stomach rumbling could not be ignored, so we stopped by at a place called Barbara’s. They had a buffet lunch but we aren’t big eaters and it’d go to waste, so we opted for their ala-carte menu instead. Seating was open air at a nice patio area.

E ordered Pancit Canton without the veggies, which made the waiter roll his eyes. The portion was small but tastewise it was really good: noodles had a fragrant, soy-sauce flavour and there were bits of roast pork in it.

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My carbonara was quite disappointing; it was very different from carbonaras back home in Malaysia. (I learnt this is because they use condensed milk in place of cream) The sauce was liquidy in texture, and the pasta serving was small with a sad side of limp garlic bread.

Either way, there aren’t many restaurants within Intramuros – but there are fast food chains a short walk away.

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After filling our tummies, we resumed our exploration. Came across a park with a memorial statue dedicated to the 100,000 lives lost in the battle of Manila.

I often doubt the nature of God, even when I ask for his guidance. Because I do believe in a higher power – but it’s hard to question when you hear news of wars and suffering everyday in war torn countries. The innocent children who die. The lives that are lost in the name of religion, ideas, petty things.  Mostly, it comes back to the evil nature of man and why if there is a God, would he allow such cruelty and horror to happen.

I’m still at that stage where I’m soul searching for my own faith. I hope I’ll find it someday.

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Palace of the Governor, a grey and orange building resembling a hotel in front of Plaza Roma. Although sitting on the original site of the same name (destroyed in earthquake) , the current building was only constructed in 1976 and is used to house government offices.

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Our last (but not least) stop in Intramuros was the Manila Cathedral.Dedicated to Mary and originally built from nipah, wood and bamboo in the late 1500s, it was destroyed in fire and a stone one was erected instead. This was also destroyed in an earthquake in 1600 – but no worries, they rebuilt it. In this way, the cathedral was rebuilt 8 times; after destruction from fires, earthquakes and wars. The latest version was completed in 1958.

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The entrance was flanked by statues of saints sculpted in Roman travertine stone, along with Latin inscriptions.

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Unlike St Agustins, which was flamboyant and bright, Manila Cathedral seemed more subdued, with white-grey marble columns supporting a simple domed ceiling.

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There were smaller chambers all along the main hall, housing states of saints and other religious figures. Here we have a simple but beautiful statue of Mother Mary in front of a carved stone portrait.

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In one of this chambers is a replica of Michelangelo’s La Pieta, in which Mary is seen cradling the body of Christ.

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More beautiful works of art within the Cathedral.

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Long story short, the trip to Intramuros was an educational one – I learned a lot about Manila and its history, albeit a sad one.  As far as experiences go, I admire Filipinos because even though life is hard, they always have a smile on their faces, drawing strength from religion and family.

So take a break from those glitzy shopping malls to explore Old Manila – one that time has not forgotten and which has helped shape this country’s history to what it is today.

 

 

 

 

San Agustin Church & Museum, Intramuros Manila

 

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Image: Wikipedia

For some reason, my heart felt heavy as I stepped through the intricately carved doors of San Agustin Church in Intramuros, Manila. Maybe it was the imposing stone facade – a far cry from its once bright yellow front – but mostly I think because the church has a sad beauty about it. It has seen its fair share of wartime horrors, and was one of the only structures to have survived destruction by the end of World War II, while all others lay around it in piles of rubble. The British looted it in 1752, while the Japanese used it as a prisoner concentration camp – God must have turned his face away from the horrors that man inflicted upon each other in His holy place.

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The church started off as a monastery and was built by Spanish monks of the Order of St Augustine, whose teachings and way of life were based on St Augustine of Hippo. Completed in the 1600s, it is the oldest church in the Philippines and is now a major tourist attraction in Intramuros. 

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The old wooden doors were carved with figures of saints and religious symbolism, and employed high quality craftsmanship.

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For some reason there were lions outside the church, resembling Chinese fu-dogs that you usually see guarding temple entrances.

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We were immediately thrown into dark and quiet upon entering – it could easily have been hundreds of years ago. I think the lights were dimmed so as to protect important art pieces, so most of the time the only light sources came from sunshine filtering in through the windows.

The walls were lined with 18th and 19th century oil paintings depicting religious scenes: most were faded or intentionally painted in muted, dull colours (as was common in the style of that era). As we walked down the hallways (the structure is square shaped with a courtyard in the middle), I imagined Augustinian monks, gliding down the same paths we were taking with their oil lamps at night, 400 years ago.

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We entered the actual church area through a side door. It was different from the dark and sombre mood of the adjacent monastery. Soaring buttresses, arching doorways and carefully painted ceilings gave off a feeling of grandeur, while the red carpeted aisle going through the benches was decorated with white drapes and flowers. Adding a Filipino touch were traditional bamboo frames called Singkabans, placed behind life-sized saint statues.

It’s not an understatement to say that it was the most beautiful church I had seen in the Philippines so far. Everything about it reflected the riches of old Manila, married with European glory.

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A Santa Nino (child Jesus) statue.  20160209_111723-tile

There were many tombstones on the walls, and placed like tiles underneath our feet. Most were from the late 1800s.

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Gold crosses in wrought iron separate the main altar and the pews.

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Podium for sermons

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Staring up at the ceiling, you’ll notice that it gives off a 3-D effect despite being flat. This technique is called the Trompe-l’œil, and the ones in San Agustin church were done by Italian painters.

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The church also has 16 chandeliers imported from Paris.

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We returned to the monastery area. I told E about my trip to the York church in UK – how the place hadn’t needed any loudspeakers for their choir because the building itself had very good acoustics.

“It was so magical. The hymn music and voices just filled the whole hall,” I emphasised.

Meanwhile, a loud voice floated across the courtyard and I saw a man talking on the phone.

“There, our churches have good acoustics too,” E laughed.

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Stained glass art. Are those heads with wings!?

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One of the chambers was a crypt. Some of the slots were empty, but the ones that weren’t had flowers placed on them. It was colder and draftier here.. or maybe it’s just the air conditioning?

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Gallery of religious artworks – mostly paintings and wood carvings.

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Scenes from the Bible.

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More statues with missing hands.. idk why but a lot of the old statues at museums and churches here have missing limbs.

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One really has to marvel at how superb the craftsmanship was back in those days, even without the help of machines – just good old hands. These figures of Joseph and Mary flanking a baby Jesus were placed within glass jars, gilded in gold and sky blue. The detailing on their costumes, kindly facial expressions, down to their life-like hair – was nothing short of exceptional.

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Regal looking life-sized statue of Mary holding a child Jesus.

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Sometimes, old art can be scary/creepy looking, like this set of wooden panel depicting three martyrs. Idk, I guess it just has a very otherworldly vibe to them.

I’d hate to be stuck in this place at night, to be honest.

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Robes worn by priests, according to rank.

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We also explored the second floor,  which wasn’t much different from downstairs.Most of the rooms were not open to the public.

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20160209_115047-tile  Last but not least, we made a quick round of the courtyard. Simple and shady, and a good respite after the church’s dark and sombre interior.

To be very honest, I didn’t much like the church – it feels…. haunted, somehow. If not by ghosts, then by sad memories from all the horrors it has seen (fires, seven earthquakes, one war, a massacre and still standing).

I can’t deny that it’s one of the most beautiful ones I’ve visited so far, but it left me feeling depressed by the end of it. I don’t know if that’s a product of an overactive imagination, or something else. Either way, it’s still one of the must visit places in Intramuros for its history and architecture.

SAN AGUSTIN CHURCH

General Luna St, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Phone: +63 2 527 4060

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Baluarte de San Diego, Intramuros Manila

Gardens in the city are like oases in the desert – a place to relax and escape from the everyday stresses of urban life. Within the walled city of Intramuros in Manila, there is the Baluarte De San Diego Gardens. 

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Named after the 16th century Spanish fort it houses, the Gardens are tranquil and pretty – well worth the PHP75 ticket price. There was an avenue lined with shady trees, with bobbing disco-balls hanging from its branches. A dried-up stone fountain sat in the middle, covered in trellises and plants. Flanking the garden on both sides was a  covered walkway, which looked almost British colonial style to me.

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There were people getting ready for a photoshoot. A makeup artist was carefully applying shadow onto a nicely dressed lady’s eyes, while another fluffed up her hair with hairspray.

The Gardens are available for rent for private events and photoshoots. Heard that it’s a popular venue for weddings!

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They also had some rusty structures of machinery (?).. maybe to add to the whole vintage garden ‘feel’ of the place.

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Time to explore the Fort itself. The Baluerte de San Diego was built in 1591, and is the oldest rock structure within Intramuros. Its purpose was to ensure a clear view of the place and prepare against invaders. During that time, it had all the facilities: courtyard, water supply tank, lodging and workshops. The upper level is connected to the rest of the Intramuros’ outer wall, but its sectioned off since it’s private property that you have to pay for to go in.

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The circular-shaped fort has three circles, the first two of which are plastered in pink terra cotta and terra-cotta finish, with brick flooring. The outer circle has 11 chambers and was constructed with adobe walls, with a thickness of 3 metres (!)

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There was an open area above the fort, so we walked around. The grass is nicely kept, but again, a lack of garbage bins (why oh why Manila do you not have bins) meant that some visitors had thrown litter into the fireplace structures that lined the walls.

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“Yep, full of litter”

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I think these were mini hubs where the soldiers or whoever manned the forts could rest and warm their hands in the fireplace. Or maybe they were for cooking?

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There is a golf course nearby, so visitors are advised to dodge any flying golf balls.

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Apparently the golf course used to be where the moat surrounding Intramuros was.

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The rocky path is uneven, so the elderly and small children should take care when visiting.

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Very peaceful during our visit; not a soul around except for a dog (i don’t know how it got  up there) that stared at us rather creepily lol. Good thing it wasn’t too hot because there was no shade up there.

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Old Manila and New Manila.

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Another section which had loads of bonsai trees. We used the ramp there to go back to the lower level, where there was another garden area.

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Anyone know what these plants are? They look like cotton earbuds.

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The inner garden – you have to go further in as its hidden from the main entrance.There was a gazebo and large trees with overhanging tendrils, creating a curtain effect (hence the attempt at a hipster cover photo for Facebook lol).

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Well kept plants and bonsai trees. Imagine the effort to keep everything spick and span; I only saw two maintenance /gardening guys around though.

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The Baluerte de San Diego Gardens is a great place to visit and very worth the PHP75 price tag. We spent some time just chilling and admiring the flowers blooming amid century-old stone structures. Remember to visit when in Intramuros! 🙂

BALUERTE DE SAN DIEGO GARDENS 

Sta. Lucia St, Intramuros, Manila, Metro Manila, Philippines

Opening hours (daily): 8am – 5pm

Ticket: PHP75 (regular), PHP50 (students with valid ID)

The Walled City of Intramuros, Manila

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I blogged about staying at The Bayleaf Hotel during the first few days of our Manila trip. The hotel is actually located within the confines of Intramuros, but our itinerary was so packed we didn’t have time to explore the place. So we took another day off to cover some ground.

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Intramuros is Spanish for ‘within the walls’. This centuries-old district was founded as the seat of the Spanish government during their conquest of the Philippines in the 1500s. Stone walls were erected to keep pirates at bay. These structures are at least 2ms thick and 6m high. Within the walls are various historical landmarks such as churches and gardens, as well as museums, souvenir shops and several colleges (so you’ll see a big student crowd milling in and out of the place).

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We walked up a rampart and onto the walls itself. They were shaped like square basins, with the floor being lower in the middle.

Did you know that most of these structures were destroyed in World War II during Japanese occupation? Only the Church of San Agustin still stood by the end of the fighting. What visitors see today comes from painstaking restoration and rebuilding.

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If any place is haunted in Manila, it’d be Intramuros. The place has seen some extremely horrific crimes, especially in the Battle of Manila where thousands of innocent civilians, even women and children, were raped, mutilated and killed. Within Intramuros alone, more than 10,000 Japanese soldiers were killed during American bombardment.

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‘How to Pose with a Cannon’. 

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Walking along the walls, we passed by the Manila Bulletin, the largest broadsheet newspaper in circulation with over 100 years of history.

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Tourists can ride the horse-drawn kalesa (carriage) to tour Intramuros.

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We thought we’d be able to walk the entire length around the walls, but some sections were cordoned off. So down to ground level we went..

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As  I mentioned earlier, there are many colleges and universities within Intramuros. (Above) University of the City of Manila, which was a government funded, tuition free institution started in the 1960s. It accepted elite students from public high schools and was consistently ranked as one of the top unis in the Phils. Today it has about 10,000 students in 12 colleges, 7 graduates and 2 professional schools.

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The pink and white Don Pepe Atienzo Hall.

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Moving on.. E was distracted and stepped into dog shit while I pointed out an interesting looking building to him lol.

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We were attracted by a ‘free art gallery’ sign outside the National Commission for Culture and Arts building. As soon as we stepped in, we were greeted by a mini orchestra playing classical music – staff members practicing a show for the day. A small gallery on the left housed works by Filipino photographers covering a variety of subjects.

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A series depicting life of Filipino transgenders.

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An interesting art piece there was a statue buried up to the waist, which visitors can ‘stone’. It was disturbing but definitely had shock value and highlighted the horrible treatment of women in some countries.

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Residential/shop area within Intramuros.

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An old fraternity house called the Knights of Colombus.

Anyway, we’re not done with Intramuros, so stay tuned!

Getting There 

A good article on how to get to Intramuros: here