The old Spanish heart of Manila, Intramuros is the one part of the metropolis where you get a real sense of history. It was established in the 1570s and remains a monumental, if partially ruined, colonial relic, a city within a city, separated from the rest of Manila by its overgrown walls. It’s not a museum; plenty of government offices are still located here, and many of Manila’s poorest call the backstreets home. A good way to see it is by arranging a walking tour with Carlos Celdran. The nearest LRT station is Central Terminal, from where it’s a ten-minute walk to the walls and a little further to General Luna Street (also known as Calle Real del Palacio), the main drag.
Just beyond the southern walls of Intramuros (the closest LRT station is UN Avenue), the National Gallery (t02/527-1215) is the foremost art museum in the Philippines, housed in the grand old Legislative Building on the northern edge of Rizal Park. Galleries are laid out thematically in rather desultory fashion over two floors, but each one is relatively small and easy to digest. The highlights are paintings by Filipino masters including Juan Luna (1859–99), Félix Hidalgo (1855–1913), José Joya (1931–95) and Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972), with the most famous works displayed in the Hall of the Masters near the entrance; Luna’s vast and magnificent Spolarium (1884) is here, a thinly veiled attack in oils on the atrocities of the Spanish regime, portraying fallen gladiators being dragged onto a pile of corpses.
Other galleries are dedicated to National Artist award winners (Amorsolo was the first in 1972), showcasing Joya’s Origins and Amorsolo’s Portrait of President Manuel Roxas. There’s also a section on architect Juan Arellano (1888–1960), who designed the building (completed in 1926), and a special gallery dedicated to the large Juan Luna collection; look out for his haunting Mother in Bed and the simple naturalism of Study for Rice Harvesting. The second floor contains mostly minor works from modern Filipino artists, and also a Bones Gallery where a huge sperm whale skeleton takes pride of place.
A short walk from the National Gallery on the opposite side of Finance Avenue, the absorbing National Museum of the Filipino People occupies what used to be the Department of Finance Building, a stately Greek Revival edifice completed in 1940. Much of the priceless collection of artefacts on display has been retrieved from shipwrecks, most notably the San Diego, a Spanish galleon that sank off Fortune Island in Batangas after a battle with the Dutch in 1600. Recovered in 1992, the ship yielded over five thousand objects, not all intrinsically valuable: you’ll see chicken bones and hazelnuts from the ship’s store, as well as tons of Chinese porcelain, storage jars, rosaries and silver goblets. Other rooms contain objects from wrecked Chinese junks, going back to the early eleventh century – compelling evidence of trade links that existed long before the Spanish arrived.
The well-labelled anthropology section on the third floor is equally engrossing, with displays from almost every region and tribal group in the Philippines, including the enigmatic anthropomorphic jars discovered in Ayub Cave (Mindanao) that date back to 5 BC. These jars were used to hold the bones of ancestors.
If sightseeing in Manila on your own seems a little intimidating try Walk This Way, run by the highly entertaining Carlos Celdran (t 0920/909-2021 or t02/484-4945, w celdrantours.blogspot.com). Carlos takes weekly history-lesson-cum-magical-mystery tours around the city, and as well as the classic Intramuros circuit (P1200), there are tailor-made trips through different Manila eras (from P900). Also recommended is Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks (t0917/329-1622, wwww.oldmanilawalks.com), who runs fun tours of Binondo, and the Malacañang Palace.