Fort Santiago & Rizal Shrine Museum, Intramuros Manila

If you’re in Manila, one of the best places to learn about the city’s rich history is at Intramuros, the old walled city which was once the seat of the Spanish empire in the Philippines. Dating back to the late 1500s, the fortified complex is home to many historical landmarks, such as the San Agustin Church (blog post here) and the Manila Cathedral. On my last visit, I missed an important place – Fort Santiago – so it was good that I got to stop by this time around.


Fort Santiago is located at the mouth of the Pasig River and was built by the Spanish as a defensive bulwark against invaders. It was named after Saint James the Great (Santiago in Spanish), the patron saint of Spain. The fort also acted as an important port for spice trade to the Americas and Europe for over three centuries.

Perhaps the most notable event in the fort’s history is it’s role as a prison for Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, who was housed here before his execution in 1896. Visitors to the fort will see a pair of bronze footprints embedded in the ground, leading from the interior out to the gate — said to retrace Rizal’s last footsteps.


Just before the fort is a park area with decorative pieces such as cannons and statues.


An abandoned building, the insides hollow and dark, stares mournfully at passers-by.

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“Hey bud, gimme a hand?”


Panoramic shot of Fort Santiago, surrounded by a moat filled with water lilies.

The fort has a perimeter of 620m in a triangular form, while its walls are 6.7m high and 2.4m deep. Its most prominent structure, the gate, is 12m high on the south wall, facing the city. Inside are storehouses, a chapel, sentry towers and prison cells.  In spite of its defenses, the fort was captured numerous times – by the British, Americans and the Japanese.  During World War II, the Japanese used it as a dungeon for hundreds of prisoners, while 600 American POWs died from suffocation or hunger.

War is always a terrible thing, and yet people are bound to repeat the mistakes of history.


The front gate was partially destroyed during bombardment in WWII, but it has since been restored.



Original Spanish coat of arms.


Inside is a well kept lawn with smooth green grass and a figure of Jose Rizal in stone, holding a book.


Next to the lawn is the Rizal Shrine Museum, a replica of his ancestral home in Laguna. This was also the spot where the Spanish held him before his execution.

Jose Rizal is known the world over as a Filipino nationalist and hero. We even learn about him in Malaysian history books (in my day, not sure how it is now!). If there was a person who embodied the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, it would be Rizal.

Born to a wealthy family, he showed a precocious intellect from a young age, going on to study medicine in Spain and becoming an ophthalmologist. He was a polymath, one who is skilled in both arts and sciences. As a writer and poet, his work under the Filipino Propaganda Movement, which advocated political reforms for the colony under Spain, inspired an anti-colonial revolution. Although he had no part in the rebellion directly, his words lit a fire in the hearts of Filipinos to rise against their colonial masters and gain independence.

Sadly, as with many writers and activists today who dare to speak the truth, this led to his execution at the young age of just 35.


Within the museum, visitors will find Rizal’s memorabilia, including poetry pieces, letters he wrote family and friends, replicas of sculptures, paintings and more. (Above) Rizal’s last letter to his family, written in Spanish (the lingua franca of the Philippines at that time)


Letter in German to Rizal’s friend whom he befriended while studying in the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Rizal was well-versed in (it is claimed) a whopping 22 languages, including German, English, Spanish and Tagalog.


Rizal’s attire

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A painting depicting his execution.

This is personal opinion, but I think Jose Rizal is like a blazing star that comes only once in a century, the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci or Archimedes. Although he was defined by his political writings, it can’t be denied that Rizal was a genius – skilled in math, science and languages. Who knows what he could have achieved, had his light not been extinguished so soon?


Skilled in the arts – sketches by Jose Rizal on a variety of subject matter, from portraits to landscapes.   20161202_132113-tile


Shells collected by Rizal during his self-imposed exile in Dapitan.


If you’re doing a round around Intramuros, be sure to pay Fort Santiago a visit! Entrance fee is about PHP75.

Rizal Monument and Manila Ocean Park, Philippines


Hi and welcome to my Manila travel series! So we’ve explored the gardens and the museums around Rizal Park: what next? Well, there is the Rizal Monument – a memorial dedicated to Jose Rizal, one of the country’s most well-known nationalists who paved the way for Philippine independence with his writings. The memorial stands about 100m from the actual execution site of this Filipino national hero.


The well-kept monument is surrounded by grass and an avenue lined with flags. Visitors are not allowed upclose to the obelisk structure, as it is guarded continuously by the Philippine Marine Corps. If you come at the right time, you might see the changing of the guards !


Constructed in the early 20th century during American occupation, the structure has Rizal in an overcoat holding a book, representing his famous novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The three stars atop the obelisk are said to stand for the three regions in the Phils, namely Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. There are two figures beside Rizal’s – a mother and her child, and two boys reading to symbolise family and education.

There were park commissioned (?) photographers (because they were all wearing the same vests) at the ready with heavy DSLRs slung across their necks to take photos for visitors. It was kinda redundant though because many tourists took selfies with their own cameras instead.


The monument faces a wide road called Roxas Boulevard. Traffic was heavy but there were no pedestrian crossings so we kinda just ran across lol. There were also horse-drawn carriages trooping up and down the street.

Just across it is the Quirino Grand Stand. The Manila Hostage crisis, in which a disgruntled former national police held a bus full of tourists hostage resulting in eight deaths, happened here in 2010.

Our destination was Manila Ocean Park just nearby.


Opening its doors in 2008, the Philippine’s largest Oceanarium spans across 8,000sq m of space and is divided into different attractions. Entry price is based on the ‘package’ you take – fiancee and I opted for the one with the Sharks & Ray Encounter, Jellyfish, Sea lion show and Night Symphony (water and light) show.


The Sharks and Ray Encounter was an outdoor pool, next to the Amphitheater. Staff periodically held up the rays so that we could pet them. They were soft, slimy and had a texture like jelly.


We didn’t touch the sharks though. Shark skin is hard and you my end up scraping the skin of your fingers off. They were big and some were clustered at the bottom of the pool like they were hanging out.


Entering the oceanarium, we were greeted by a sunny ‘rainforest’ area with trees overhung by tendrils, lots of leafy green plants and giant tanks filled with tropical fish like Arowanas.


In the aquarium, there were loads of fish of all shapes, colours and sizes swimming among the corals. It was a pretty sight 🙂 There were also helpful information placards on the different kinds of marine life.




A highlight of the park is their Buhay na Karagatan (Living Ocean) – a 25-metre long walkway/tunnel with curved acrylic walls that allows visitors to have all-round views of marine life swimming in the tank. It’s like you’re walking underwater through a deep ocean wonderland with shoals of fish, smiling sting rays and sombre sharks gliding above you. 🙂 For special packages, you can even dive inside and swim with the fishes (literally).


Our ticket included admission to the ‘Back of the House’, which is where you get to see what goes on behind the scenes, including equipment used for treating/pumping the water, how they keep specimens healthy, etc.


My favourite part of the oceanarium was the Jellyfish room. Hundreds of these beautiful (but sometimes deadly) creatures floated airily in tanks. Since they’re transparent, they glowed according to the different coloured lights. Classical music played in the background so they seemed like they were pulsing to the beat. Very relaxing to look at 🙂

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Hard to believe something that is 99% water can look so… ethereal. Also hard to believe they can kill people. Ah, nature.

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It was time for our Sea Lion Show! The outdoor amphitheatre has a stage with a pool where the sea lions dive and do tricks. There are three shows throughout the day.

The sea lions were adorable. Their blubber made them look rubbery and so fat that I just wanted to squeeze them tight! They were very intelligent and could perform tricks like standing up, balancing balls, clapping their flippers together, and even dancing 🙂 The show lasted for about half an hour.

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After the sea lion show ended, we still had an evening symphony to catch, so we hung around watching the sun set on Manila bay. It was gorgeous. 


There are two symphony shows daily. Because the first show as full, we had to catch the second one. The amphitheater was packed with school kids and screaming children who yelled at everything lol. Playing to a number of songs, the show featured spraying water coupled with light technology to create moving shapes in the air. There were ‘animations’ like beautiful swimming fish, dancing jellyfish, cartoonised mangrove swamps, and more.


The highlight of the night was My Heart will Go On – the fountains spouted up at least five storeys high! They ended the show with a bang with fireworks as the crowd roared, cheered and clapped.


Manila Ocean Park is definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city, even though prices can be a bit steep. Allocate at least half a day so that you don’t miss anything – there are many attractions that we didn’t manage to go to like the ‘Penguin’ encounters and glass bottom boat ride.

Getting there 

Useful link here: DIRECTIONS


666, Behind Quirino Grandstand, Luneta,

Manila, Metro Manila 1000, Philippines

Tel: +63 2 567 7777

Opening hours: 10am – 8pm

Ticket prices are from PHP550 onwards. We took the: Deep Sea Rush 5 package – Oceanarium, Sea Lion Show, Marine Life Habitat, Evening Symphony, Jellies Exhibit (PHP 550)


National Art Gallery, Manila

If I were to sum up my visit to the Philippine National Art Gallery in Rizal Park, it would be impressive. Spanning across two floors, it was used as the Old Legislative Building from the 1920s – 1970s, before it was converted into a museum. It currently houses hundreds of works by Filipino artists through the ages.


There is a big difference between Filipino and Malaysian art. Malaysian art is heavily influenced by Islam: hence, a strong use of geometry, patterns and calligraphy. It is impossible to find religious/naked figures in our national art gallery.

The Philippines, having been colonized by the Spanish for hundreds of years, draws inspiration from Europe. In fact, stepping into the spacious main lobby, I was immediately reminded of European art galleries. Just behind a detailed statue of a winged angel is one of the most famous paintings in Filipino art: Spoliarium by Juan Luna Y Novicio.


The huge oil on canvas painting, which was submitted for a contest in Madrid where it garnered first place, towers over visitors from floor to ceiling. The subject of the painting was none other than bloody carcasses of slave gladiators being dragged away from the arena. In a speech, Filipino freedom fighter Jose Rizal said that the painting embodied the Filipino experience with their Spanish masters, and “embodied the essense of our social, moral and political life: humanity in severe ordeal, humanity unredeemed, reason and idealism in open struggle with prejudice, fanaticism..”

Luna’s win, in a way, proved to the world that even the ‘oppressed’ could outshine their colonists, who regarded them as inferior and barbaric. Second place was also won by a Filipino painter: El Asesinato del Gobernador Bustamante (The Assassination of Governor Bustamante) by Félix Resurrección Hidalgo (which is also displayed here, just across the Spoliarium)


We started our exploration of the gallery. Most of the first floor was dedicated to older pieces. Other than paintings, there were wooden statues and stone carvings. Many pieces were religious works, featuring figures in Catholicism such as Jesus, Mother Mary and the saints (for some reason many were missing hands).


The hall holds a National Cultural Treasure: a retablo (altar piece) from the Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Dimiao, Bohol.


There was a series of paintings which detailed Jesus’ crucifixion and his eventual ascension to heaven. Framed in dark wood, the colours were muted and sombre, giving the characters in them a sad, suffering quality.


Detailed stained glass, featuring Jesus and angels.




There was a whole hall dedicated to Jose P.Rizal. He’s so famous that we even read about him in Malaysian history books! His is a true example of the pen being mightier than the sword. Although he had never organised a direct rebellion, his writings and ideas fueled a drive for independence among the Filipinos, which eventually led the country to finally be free of Spain’s influence. He was executed (at a young age of 35) by the Spanish for rebellion.

PS: Apparently he was quite the ladies man. I mean, he does look dashing in most of the paintings.. 😀


Besides writing, Rizal had an artistic flair, creating sculptures and statues such as the one above.


A hall dedicated to paintings of former politicians and presidents (and their wives – guess which famous president’s wife has a portrait here? Clue: bouffant hair).


Upstairs was the former Session Hall of the Senate of the Philippines. 

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The second floor featured modern art. Other than portraits, there were also scenes of rural Filipino life and surrealist pieces.

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Watercolour – material used for painting.

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The Philippine National Art Gallery is a must visit – both for art appreciators and the regular visitor, to see how the scene has evolved through the ages and how they resonate with cultural and political issues.


P. Burgos Drive, Rizal Park, Manila
Opening hours: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Entry ticket: PHP150 (adults – includes entry to Museum of the Filipino People, Planetarium)