Fort Santiago is an old Spanish fortress inside the famous walled city of Intramuros in Manila. It attracts thousands of local and international tourists every year for its century-old Spanish architectural design and structure. Facing Manila Bay, it was built by the Spanish to protect Intramuros from foreign invasions and sea pirates. Intramuros was the seat of Spanish political, military and religious power, and Fort Santiago made sure it remained that way. The Philippines was under Spanish rule for 300 years.
While it enjoys tourism fame today, Fort Santiago or Fuerto de Santiago in Spanish, has a dark history. Not only was it a fortress, it was also a dungeon. Through the three centuries of Spanish tyranny, a good number of Filipinos were imprisoned, tortured, and killed in an underground dungeon that got flooded during high tide. Today, the dungeon remains shut and inaccessible. Visitors may only take a peek from above.
The most popular prisoner was no other than Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines. He fought the colonizers’ tyranny using his pen. His books, poems, and articles roused the hearts of the Filipino people to stand up for independence.
It was in the fort’s dungeon where he wrote his famous poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios” or “My Final Farewell” in English. Rizal was imprisoned here in 1896 for two months before he was executed on December 29 at the nearby Bagumbayan park. Today, his footsteps from the dungeon to the firing squad are marked in bronze so that tourists can relive his heroic fight for national independence. Rizal Shrine now stands in Fort Santiago. It is a museum that features a life-size statue of the national hero and a replica of his prison cell. Bagumbayan is now called Rizal Park, and is also a popular tourist destination.
Other things to see at the fort are medieval attractions such as arsenals, military warehouses, soldiers’ quarters and barracks, a moat, old ruins, and Plaza de Armas (the fort’s main square), as well as modern attractions such as a theater house, restaurant, souvenir shops, picnic area, refreshment kiosk and garden.
Before the Spanish came, the site where the fort now stands was the wooden fort of Rajah Sulaiman, the Moslem chief of ancient Manila. It was Sulaiman and a group of Indo-Malayan people who first settled in this bountiful area near the river (now the Pasig River). They first called this place “Maynila” or “may nila”, which means “there is nila (a water plant) here.”
When the Spanish conquered the islands in 1521, they captured Maynila, declared it their capital city, and built Fort Santiago as the city’s first line of defense. Later, during World War II, the Japanese discovered the fort and also used the dungeons to imprison and torture Filipino nationalists. They left them there to drown and die. When American forces came in February 1945, the fort was heavily damaged and was only restored in 1980.
The best way to visit the fort is with a professional tourist guide. Learn about the rich history of Manila as your guide takes you around the walled city, Rizal Park and the fort.
Getting there is easy since you can take the Light Rail Transit (LRT), taxi or jeepney. Fort Santiago is open every day from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Entrance fee is Php50 (USD1.15) for adults and half the price for children, students, teachers, the elderly and differently-abled.