Step outside one of the Philippine capital’s busy international airports and you’ll be met by a bustling city with all the necessary buildings and highways, and the noise, traffic, and pollution that comes with it. Not that I’m complaining – this capital of the Philippines is where I live and work and I only have much love for my hometown. And who doesn’t love to live in a vibrant city with all the happenings within your reach, right? However with all these, history goes almost unnoticed – especially in central business districts. As tourists just arriving for the first time in any city, they would want to feel and experience the local vibe and culture of course, but it’s a definite part of the itinerary to see and understand the history of how the place came to be.
Manila can tell a history that can fill countless history books. And there’s no doubt that the Pearl of the Orient (nickname of Manila, and the Philippines as a whole) is a landmark history buffs will definitely enjoy – you just have to know where to look.
In fact, Manila is so rich in history (and so old) that I have to give off some trivial facts:
- Manila was christened as early as 1571 by Spanish conquistadors. In comparison, the first settlers of what would become New York City arrived only in 1623 (and it wasn’t even New York back then; it was still a patch of land).
- Founded in April 28, 1611, the oldest (and still one of the best) university in Asia is the University of Santo Tomas (UST) located in Manila. On the other hand, Harvard University, the oldest university in America was founded September 8, 1636. At the time, both UST and Harvard were not teaching calculus because this faculty wasn’t introduced until 1684. In contrast, the University of Sydney which is the oldest university in Australia was founded in 1850.
- The oldest Chinatown in the world is Binondo in Manila. It dates back to 1594 and continues to thrive today.
- This old city was key witness to the earliest signs of globalization, with it being at the other end of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. This proved its importance in the Asian region due to its central and strategic location. This also opened the doors of the rest of Asia to goods brought in from Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
- Its darkest time was when this elegant city was destroyed in 1945 during the World War II. Manila seconded Warsaw as the greatest casualty of the war.
Subtle remnants of the past are everywhere in this centuries-old megalopolis, however it takes time and enormous energy to roam around the city and see them all. It’s a good thing there’s a history-packed district of Manila that’s ideal to those who are touring around on a crunch time. Together with a friend, we toured around three significant Philippine landmarks in Manila in just a day (though I recommend spending a lot more than that to be able to stop and appreciate the small facts and details): Intramuros, Luneta Park, and the sophisticated National Museum (of the Filipino people). It’s a good thing these three historical landmarks are just adjacent to each other – just make sure you have shoes for walking, a big bottle of water from a nearby convenience store (around PHP25), some change if you decide to just take a pedicab because your feet are failing you (around PHP25 per way around these landmarks), and an umbrella just in case it rains or if the sun shines mad at you. And one more thing. Bring your best camera, your best of the best – because I swear you’re in for a refreshing and unforgettable photoshoot.
1. Rizal Park / Luneta Park
Rizal Park is more commonly referred to as Luneta (park) by locals. It is one of the largest urban parks in Asia, and some of the Philippines’ most significant historical occurences took place in this beloved park. For one, this is where the execution of patriot, poet, writer, and martyr National Hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal took place in 1896. This explains his bronze and granite statue at the other end of the 140-acre park, facing the famous Manila Bay. His remains also lays in this shrine, which is guarded by ceremonial guards 24/7.
Nowadays, this park is home to parks inside parks and countless more parks! Luneta park is an important part of the Filipino culture. It is known as a place of gathering and picnics for families and groups on weekends especially on Sundays. If you really wish to see and feel the true and raw Filipino culture and lifestyle, and how they go about, I suggest you head here and do some serious people watching.
Luneta Park attractions also include the site of Rizal’s execution, the Chess Plaza where you can play check-mate all day under the shady trees, themed parks (Nayong Pilipino, Manila Orchidarium, Japanese Garden, Chinese Garden), 3D Map of the Philippines, Lapu-Lapu Shrine, Museum of Natual History, National Gallery of Art, Planetarium, and the National Museum of the Filipino People.
2. National Museum of the Filipino People and the National Museum of Fine Arts
I lived in the metro for most of my life but I humbly admit that I think I’ve never visited the museums ’til now. And boy, was I in for a surprise! Since the museums opened its doors for free to everyone for the months of May and June (regular rates: PHP 150 for adults, PHP 120 for senior citizens, and PHP 50 for students) (UPDATE: As of July 1, 2016, the National Museum announced that access to all museums nationwide will permanently be free!), we took advantage of the opportunity to see the archaeological artifacts, fine art collections, and also ‘the’ Spoliarium (1884, Rome), a well-known and monumental masterpiece by Filipino painter Juan Luna, which I longed to see.
These two adjacent buildings just next to Luneta Park possess a striking classical architecture that makes them stand out against the metropolitan background. It has elegant and world-class interiors that make for a conducive environment for learning and ‘getting lost inside the museum’. I never expected the museums to be so stunning and the collections to be so massive and wide-ranging from local to global, and from ages ago to recent times (kudos to them!). If you miss the ‘free’ months and have to pay for the measly entrance, I propose you do so, because it’s all worth it.
3. Intramuros (The Walled City)
Literally translated as “within the walls”, Intramuros is contained within three-mile-long stone walls that circuit most of the entire city. It was the first ever and original city of Manila and the first seat of government during the Spanish colonial period, which was founded in 1571. Due to this fact, there’s no doubt that significant historical landmarks (Fort Santiago, Ayuntamiento, Palacio del Gobernador) and grand old cathedrals (Manila Cathedral-1571, San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site-1607) were to be found within the city’s walls.
This city seems to have stopped in time, with all the stone buildings still standing and the calesas (horse-drawn carriages) still being used as a means of transportation along the cobblestone paths. And the museums – especially the San Agustin Church musem – are superb and provides a different insight of what it was like during the Spanish colonial era. Pedicabs and calesas are available for English tours of the city for PHP150 / PHP350, respectively. If you wish to have a more detailed and educational tour complete with funny satire and role play made by a single guide during the walking tour (PHP1,100 per adult), I only have one guy in mind. His name is Carlos Celdran (he’s so good, he has his own Wikipedia page) – I don’t personally know him but his work educates, and entertains locals and foreigners alike through his one-man show.
Intramuros is no doubt a place that is a playground for history buffs. The walled city is witness to various historical events, including the Spanish occupation for over three centuries, Philippine revolution, American, Japanese, and British occupation, and the Battle of Manila. If only these walls could talk, right?
More info on the three landmarks above:
Nearest malls – SM Manila, Robinsons Ermita
Hotels – Manila Hotel, Hyatt Hotel
How to get around – taxi (around PHP150 for a 45-minute ride), calesa (PHP350 for a 30-minute ride), jeepney (PHP 7.50 each way), pedicab (around PHP25 each way)
Hope this helps,
Do you have another must-see Manila historical attraction to add to our list? Feel free to comment, share your tips, or ask your question in the comment box below. Please also like us on Facebook and Twitter! Thanks!