The Most Historic Streets in Manila

If these streets could talk...
IMAGE Wikimedia Commons

As the Philippine capital, Manila has always been hot and happening. It started out as a busy trading port frequented by Indians, Malays, Chinese, and Muslims before it was occupied by the Spaniards, British, Japanese, and Americans.

Even historians would probably take some time to pick out ten of its most historic streets. This is one city that has seen so much history. Along with that rich history, its streets also have ever-changing names.

Intramuros Streets

Who hasn’t heard of Intramuros? It’s the walled city built by the Spanish-around which the city of Manila expanded. Within it are streets that served as settings for the milestones in the country history.

Intramuros’ main street, General Luna (after General Antonio Luna), was originally called Calle Real. Today, you can still find the key buildings built by the Spanish colonizers: the San Agustin Church (the oldest church in the Philippines, built in 1571) the Palacio del Gobernador (where the Spanish governors lived before Malacañang Palace became the official residence), and the Manila Cathedral. The street ends up at Andres Soriano Street (formerly Aduana), at the corner of which lies the Plaza Roma (formerly Plaza Mayor, then Plaza McKinley during the American occupation). Just across the Plaza is the entrance to Fort Santiago, where national hero Jose Rizal was imprisoned before his execution on December 30, 1896.


These days, new establishments such as convenience stores, offices, street food vendors, and fastfood spots exist amidst the remnants of Intramuros’ Old World stateliness. There are five barangays in Intramuros.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Ramon FVelasquez

Jose P. Laurel Sr. Street

The street is named after one of the country’s past presidents. This is the street you should be on if you want to get close to the seat of power. (Sitting on it is another thing entirely.) Originally called Calzada de Malacañang (later Aviles), this is the main street of the San Miguel district. It’s been "power central" ever since Governor General Rafael de Echague moved into the Malacañang Palace in 1863. Prior to that, the Palace was just the governor-general’s summer home. Echague had only been forced to move in because an earthquake had damaged the Palacio del Gobernador. However, when the Palacio was fixed Echague moved out of the Palace. He shouldn’t have bothered. Another earthquake in 1869 had him moving back in. In the other words, it took a really earthshaking event to make the Palace become the official seat of power. At the end of the street, is where another structure close to the hearts of most Filipinos, especially the men, was built in 1890: La Fabrica de Cerveza de San Miguel. Yes, that factory that was the first to turn out what has become the favorite beverage of many Pinoys.

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Today, the street houses several government buildings such as the Presidential Anti-Smuggling Group and the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women. The street is has multiple checkpoints. Taking photographs of the Palace up-close is restricted for security reasons. Ask the police officers patrolling the area if it’s alright to take photos of certain buildings first before you bring out your camera-otherwise you could get in trouble.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Judgefloro

Claro M. Recto Avenue

Say what you will about how it looks now, but this is one kick-ass avenue. It’s where you go if you want to make a political statement or if you’re a big fan of Andres Bonifacio. The Katipunan founder was born in the Tutuban area of Tondo at the northern end of this street, formerly called Calle Azcarraga. At the opposite end, at the so-called University Belt, lies the famed Mendiola Bridge that crosses to the main gate of Malacañang.


Since the 1960s, the area around the bridge has been the stand-off point for anti-government protestors and police-military forces. The stand-off would sometimes turn into bloody clashes, as in the pre-martial law First Quarter Storm, where activist students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at government troops, who, in turn, got back at them with shields, truncheons, and high-pressure firefighting hoses.


A similar incident, which took place on January 22, 1987, came to be known as the Mendiola Massacre, or Black Thursday, in which a clash between farmers seeking genuine reform from President Corazon Aquino were violently dispersed by anti-riot troops. Thirteen farmers were killed and several more were wounded when the troops opened fire on them.

On usual days, Recto, with its shops, restaurants, and theaters, regains its less tense but still bustling atmosphere. However, some of its sidewalk vendors or stall owners are known for hawking contraband such as ready-made term paper, theses, and even fake diplomas. Students and bookworms also go to Recto for cheap secondhand books.


The avenue, which is named after writer and statesman Claro M. Recto, cuts through parts of the districts of Sampaloc, Quiapo, Sta. Cruz, Binondo, and, Tondo.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Patrickroque01

Quezon Boulevard

Politics and religion make for strange bedfellows on this boulevard-what with Plaza Miranda situated right beside the Basilica of the Black Nazarene. Either way, many believers troop to this spot.

As political discussions go, the ones at the plaza would sometimes be disrupted by bad tempers. In one instance, it was marred by violence. On August 21, 1971, two grenades were thrown at the stage during the miting de avance of the Liberal Party (LP), killing nine and wounding around 100 in the crowd of about 4,000 people. Among those injured were Senators Jovito Salonga and Eddie Ilarde, LP president Gerardo Roxas, and Sergio Osmeña Jr., son of former President Sergio Osmeña.



The LP suspected President Ferdinand Marcos of being behind the bombing. In later years, after the 1986 EDSA Revolution, prominent personalities associated with the event laid the blame on the Communist Party of the Philippines under José María Sison. Salonga, in his autobiography, states his belief that the CPP was behind the incident. The communist threat was one of the reasons Marcos cited for declaring martial law in 1972.

On the other hand, the Black Nazarene attracts thousands of devotees to the area every year on its feast day on January 9. The statue, dark wooden figure of Jesus, was made by an unknown carpenter in Acapulco, Mexico, and transported to Manila in 1606. Every year, many devotees get injured or die in their attempt to fight through the crowd of thousands.

These days, the boulevard named after Commonwealth Manuel L. Quezon, is lined with shops, street stalls, restaurants, and theaters showing "outdated" titles. Sometimes, the (now dingy) theaters even offer the so-called "double feature," wherein two different movies are screened one after the other.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Judgefloro

Taft Avenue

This major Manila thoroughfare transformed the pre-war residential character of what used to be a tree-lined street, one that many old-timers compared to the Champs Elysees in Paris. The country’s first Light Rail Transit line runs through.

The south end of the road leads to many historic, yet still functioning landmarks that were part of the design made in 1904 by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who is also responsible for planning Baguio City. There are neo-classic style structures in the area.

Between the rear area of Rizal Park bounded by T.M. Kalaw and Finance Streets is the Agrifina Circle, so called because on either side of it are the Agriculture and Finance buildings, which now house the Deparment of Tourism and the Museum of the Filipino People, respectively. Then, across the Museum, in that triangular patch formed by the intersection of Taft with P. Burgos Street is the Legislative building, which now houses the National Museum.



Across the Agrifina Circle, on the other side of Taft, was the site of the Jai-Alai Building, once considered as one of the finest Art Deco structures to line the avenue. It was designed by popular Hollywood architect Welton Becket and bulit in 1940. Not only was it the venue of the popular Basque "game of a thousand thrills," but its posh Sky Room was the in place for wining, dining, and dancing for the country’s social elite. Unfortunately, it the building, unused for years, was ordered demolished in 2000 by then Mayor Lito Atienza.

Across the Taft-Burgos intersection is the Manila City Hall, near one end of which is the capital’s iconic clock tower. Some Google Map users, though, are bothered (or maybe amused?) by the coffin-like configuration of the complex viewed from the air.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Patrickroque01

Roxas Boulevard

This eight-lane tree-lined boulevard, formerly called Dewey, offers the Manila Bay sunset, considered by tourists, both local and foreign, as one of the most beautiful in the world.


The road, now bearing the name of President Manuel Roxas, still has some of the city’s best hotels and nightclubs, notably the historic Manila Hotel, where Gen. Douglas MacArthur and wife Jean used to live from 1935 to until shortly after the Japanese started its invasion on December 8, 1941, during World War II.

The hotel’s the original H-shaped plan was designed by New York architect William E. Parsons. It opened in 1912 and has since attracted many famous guests from abroad, among them writers Ernest Hemingway and James A. Michener and publisher Henry Luce; US President John F. Kennedy and Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden; music icons The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Sammy Davis, Jr.; actors Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Wayne.


Just across the hotel entrance is the Quirino Grandstand, which occupies a 10-hectare part of the 32-hectare Rizal Park. (The park area east of the Rizal monument was called Wallace Field during the American colonial period.)


The grandstand is traditionally where Presidents and Vice Presidents take their oath of office and deliver their first official speeches. During Spanish times, the area that the park now occupies was the seaside town called Bagumbayan, where national hero Jose Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896.

A few meters from Rizal’s monument is a marker of the spot where, according to eyewitness accounts, he stood before being shot. Appropriately, the monument itself is Kilometer Zero, from where all distances are reckoned.

Dewey Boulevard, which some old-timers still use to refer to the road, was named after Admiral George Dewey, "the hero of Manila," whose ships sank the entire Spanish fleet, in the Battle of Manila Bay, during the Spanish-American War.


España Avenue

This avenue is a major Manila thoroughfare cutting through the Sampaloc district.

At the corner of España and Lacson stands the most prominent landmark of the district - the University of Santo Tomas, one of the two oldest universities in the Philippines (a point disputed by the University of San Carlos in Cebu). Founded in 1611, UST was first housed in a building in Intramuros before it moved its campus to a 21.5-hectare field on Sulucan Hills in Sampaloc where it still stands.



In World War II, the Japanese converted the UST campus into a concentration camp for civilians, mostly foreigners. Japanese soldiers committed some of the most brutal war crimes against American soldiers and civilians in this camp. The prisoners were liberated by the US and Filipino troops during the battle to retake Manila in 1945.

These days, España is lined with shops and chow spots that cater to the university crowd. Dormitories have also been put up near it. The avenue (along with the entire Sampaloc district) is also notorious for flooding each time it rains. Some commuters have referred to it as "Waterworld" or "Venice."



Rizal Avenue

Rizal Avenue is the longest street in the capital, extending from Carriedo Street in Sta. Cruz to as far as the Bonifacio Monument in Caloocan (as Rizal Avenue Extesion). During the Spanish colonial era, it was called Calle Dulumbayan, "the edge of town," which it was in those times. In the early 1900s, it was renamed as Avenida Rizal, in honor of national hero Jose Rizal, a name it has retained in Anglicized form as Rizal Avenue.

Before and shortly after World War II, the avenue served as center of the social life of the city and its suburbs, with its variety of shops, restaurants, and theaters. Many of the theaters were designed by prominent architects, among them Pablo Antonio and Juan Nakpil, who were later named National Artists.


The avenue’s most prominent entertainment structure was the Manila Grand Opera House, which started its long life in mid 1800s as the National Cycle Track, a wooden circular building with a nipa roof. In 1890, it assumed a different function and was renamed the Teatro Nacional (National Theater), where the Russian Circus and some American theater companies performed. In 1902, the structure was expanded into an opera house and renamed the Manila Grand Opera. The renovation was completed in time for the visit of an Italian opera company. But the most historic event that took place there was not musical but political-the inauguration of the members of the First Philippine Assembly on October 16, 1907. Today, the Opera House has been converted into the Manila Grand Opera Hotel.


Despite some reconstruction work after being devastated by the Battle of Manila, Rizal Avenue, along with much of the Sta. Cruz area, has deteriorated due to neglect and overcrowding. But two of its mayors, Lito Atienza and incumbent Alfredo Lim, have been trying to spruce up the avenue, making a section of it, along with nearby streets, a pedestrians-only zone.

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons - Patrickroque01

Escolta Street

Calle Escolta, a street that has been spared the name-changes politicians are so fond of, got its name from the Spanish word for escort. This was during the British occupation of 1762, when horse-mounted military escorts of the British commander-in-chief would pass through the street.

Older Filipinos, that is, those who were already around before World War II, would sometimes be nostalgic about the days when Escolta was the shopping strip for the rich and famous. Indeed, the place was a trendsetting center of those days, boasting of many firsts in the Philippines-the first ice cream parlor (Clarke’s Ice Cream), the first moviehouse (Cinematógrafo), the very first electric cable car (the Tranvia), the first elevator (at the Burke Building, which was named after cardiologist William J. Burke who introduced and installed the first electrocardiograph in the country).



Even the shops there offered the latest goods, locally made or imported. Some of its more famous shops were Heacock’s, La Estrella del Norte, Oceanic, Beck’s, and Aguinaldo’s.

By the early 1900s, the street also started to become a showcase of the latest architectural trends. Some of the said buildings were spared the destruction of war and neglect are the Art Deco-style Perez-Samanillo Building (now the First United Building), which was built in 1928, and the Beaux-Arts-style Regina Building, which was built in 1934.

Felix R. Hidalgo Street

Felix R. Hidalgo Street, named after the 19th century Filipino painter, was once considered the most picturesque street in Manila, even the entire Philippines. "In fact, in 1817, the street was called the most beautiful street in Manila because of its grand homes," said Dr. Fernando Nakpil Zialcita in an article.


The street connects two historic churches in Quiapo: the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene and the Minor Basilica of San Sebastian (the street used to be called Calle de San Sebastian).

The San Sebastian Church, designed by architect Genaro Palacios and completed in 1891, is in the tentative list for possible designation as a World Heritage Site. It’s the only all-steel church in Asia and reputed to be the first prefabricated building in the world, with its prefabricated steel parts made in Belgium.


At any rate, in between the two churches there were once several posh houses of prominent upper and middle-class families-Aranetas, Zaragosas, Ocampos, Genatos, Paternos-who favored the place because of its proximty to schools, shops, offices, and Malacañang Palace.

Among the schools in the area are the Nazarene Catholic School, Manuel L. Quezon University (MLQU), St. Rita’s College, and San Sebastian College. Some of the old houses survive, though the street has been marred, starting sometime in the 1960s, by congestion and neglect. But it has become a haven for photographers. Thus, it now has many shops selling photographic supplies and equipment.


In 2006, advertising photographer John Chua and advertising consultant Jason Lindo were so fascinated with the street that they proposed a beautification project to city hall that has been implemented. In 2009, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority has also done some cleanup work in the area, in response to a request by MLQU officials.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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