The manicured gardens, plazas and fountains that greet visitors to historic Fort Santiago belie the dark side of this former military base and prison. But while you’ll hear shocking stories of torture and execution as you tour the grounds, you’ll also gain fascinating insight into Manila’s turbulent history and an appreciation for the man long regarded as the ‘National Hero of the Philippines’.
Set in the historic heart of Manila within the Walled City, or Intramuros district, Fort Santiago was built by the Spanish in the 16th century and played a major role in the city’s penal and defense system until the end of World War II. Legendary political reformist José Rizal, who spoke out against Spanish oppression, was imprisoned and later executed here in 1896. The fort was also the site of numerous atrocities that Japanese troops committed against Filipino civilians during the Battle of Manila in 1945.
Today, it’s home to the extremely informative Rizal Shrine, which tells the story of the hero’s life and work and includes books, artworks, personal letters and other artefacts, including one of his bones with a bullet still embedded in it. You can also visit a re-creation of his cell and literally walk in his footprints – reproduced in bronze – to the site of his execution by firing squad.
Other points of interest include a cross marking the final resting place of more than 600 Filipinos and Americans, all victims of Japanese torture who were incarcerated inside one of the fort’s notorious dungeons. And as you pass through the beautifully reconstructed main gates, don’t miss the carved wooden relief of St James the Great on horseback. The fort was named in honour of this patron saint of Spain.
Easily accessible by taxi, bus or jeepney, the fort is open daily from 8am to 6pm. And although its historical significance is the main drawcard, it’s worth leaving enough time to just relax and soak up your surroundings. The stunning gardens set against a backdrop of 16th-century architecture make for the perfect picnic spot.