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The Philippines is known for its 7,641 islands with pristine beaches and colourful underwater ecosystems galore—Boracay and Cebu are some notable examples. Its capital city, Manila, on the other hand, is famed for being a shopper’s paradise, with some of the largest shopping malls in the world, and golf courses with rolling greens. It is a thriving metropolitan with skyscrapers and exciting nightlife. Unbeknownst to many, however, Manila also has a rich and storied history that is reflected in its architecture. The entire city is a fantastically confusing mishmash of the new and the old.
Beginning with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 and several other Spanish expeditions that followed, the Spanish set up their capital in 1571 in Manila. Today, the influence of the Spanish can still be seen throughout the city. Here are the best museums and structures to visit to take a step back in time.
Intramuros, also known as “The Walled City,” boasts attractions such as Fort Santiago, Casa Manila, Manila Cathedral, and the San Agustin Church, amongst others. Located at the east of Manila Bay, it served as the political and military base of the Spaniards some 400 years ago. It is a must-visit for any visitor wanting a glimpse into the history of Manila.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin is known as the oldest church in the nation, completed in 1607. Those who are not religious will similarly marvel at its ornate interior, which is adorned with numerous chandeliers. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, take your time to marvel at its collection of Spanish era artefacts, paintings, and other ornaments from the church. Its European baroque style architecture has made it a highly sought after backdrop for weddings.
San Agustin Church, General Luna Street, Manila, 1002 Metro Manila, Philippines | (+63) 2 2527 2746
This fort still stands proudly as one of the landmarks of the city that guards the Pasig River. In the past, the fort served as a military base, but now it has become one of the most important historical sites of Manila.
The best time to visit the fort is in the evening, just before sunset, when the citadel comes to life with twinkling lights and Italian music playing in the background, making it a strangely romantic setting. It is also the perfect place to catch the sunset overlooking the river. Its sprawling grounds are also the perfect spot to enjoy a quiet evening. You will see many locals out with a picnic blanket on the grass.
The fort also houses the Rizal Shrine, which is filled with memorabilia dedicated to José Rizal, widely known as the national hero of the Philippines who advocated political reforms for the former colony under Spain.
Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila, 1002 Metro Manila, Philippines | (+63) 2 525 2000
Stepping into Casa Manila will make you feel as if you took a wrong turn somewhere and stumbled into a different city. The mansion allows you to step back in time and relieve Intramuros’s colonial past.
The nineteenth-century mansion holds many fascinating antiques and handicrafts spanning three floors. See how the Spanish noblemen lived in grandeur back in their heyday. Lamps, vases, chandeliers, and even a washing stand remain here as a testament to the past that still lives on within its walls. One of the more amusing exhibits is a “latrina,” two toilets situated companionably close to each other, which includes a checkerboard incised on its arms to whittle time away while you relieve yourself.
With some luck and great weather, you can even bask in the sunshine in the courtyard and peacefully enjoy the beauty of the gardens.
Casa Manila, Plaza Sans Luis Complex, General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila, 1002 Metro Manila, Philippines | (+63) 2 8527 4084
Head over to Rizal Park to find four museums all within walking distance of each other, namely the National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Anthropology, the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of the Philippines.
Formerly known as the National Art Gallery, the building which was originally designed to be a public library is in itself magnificent with stylised Corinthian columns and sculptural forms inspired by the Renaissance. The crowning glory of the museum is the Spoliarium by Juan Luna, which was notably awarded a gold medal by the Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes in 1884 in Spain.
Works by classical Filipino artists are set against colourful walls, mirroring the vibrancy of the Filipino people through its art. A whole day can be spent here gazing at the various artworks, ranging from portraits to sculptures.
This entire museum is visually stimulating from the moment you walk through the entrance, and the interior architecture even somewhat mimics the British Museum. It is a noteworthy place to bring little ones to because there are high-quality open exhibits that depict life-sized mangroves, and coral reefs that take you under the sea. There are collections dedicated to botany, geology, and zoology, displaying the skeleton of the largest crocodile in history, named “Lolong.” You will definitely leave with a cool piece of trivia or two. The museum also has perfect photo spots with its modern and majestic courtyard.
National Museum of the Philippines, Padre Burgos Ave, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila, Philippines | (+63) 2 8527 7889