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10 must-visit historical sites in the Philippines

In celebration of Independence Day, we give you these under-the-radar destinations that will take you on the best journey yet—back in time

Published

By Lui Batongbakal, Jr.

 

Old places have souls, but none as palpable as those found in landmarks of great historical importance. These places are mute but great storytellers; stationary yet the closest thing to a time machine you’ll ever experience. Whether you’re a history buff or a curious traveler, you can know more about the Philippines—its past tragedies, triumphs, and defeats—by going beyond the trite Luneta or National Museum. Although relatively less popular, these captivating parks and buildings helped shape the Filipino identity in ways that are both profound and unforgettable.

1

The Aguinaldo Shrine (Kawit, Cavite)

Emilio Aguinaldo has been vilified as one of history’s bad guys. In his house in Cavite, however, only the greatness of his life and achievements take center stage. Standing at 4,864 square meters, the Aguinaldo House is located along the main road called Camino Real, suggesting of his connections to the Spanish authorities as a member of the principalia or the ruling elite.

Indeed, the items inside the mansion are the stuff of luxury: from the bowling alley to a swimming pool with a secret door to the grand salon and 1924 Packard limousine—far from its humble beginnings in the 1840s as a nipa-and-thatch structure.

From its front window, the first Philippine flag was unfurled and our independence from Spain was proclaimed on June 12, 1898. Several renovations later, the mansion of mixed Baroque, Malayan, and Romanesque architecture is now a museum showcasing Aguinaldo’s most prized possessions and a colorful history presented through hologram, diorama, and multimedia presentation.

2

Barasoain Church (Malolos City, Bulacan)

Few Philippine churches can equal the historical significance of Barasoain Church, also known today as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. Not only did it become the venue for two Presidential inaugurations (Aguinaldo and Estrada), it was also the site where the Malolos Constitution was drafted, the First Philippine Congress (Malolos Congress) was convened, and the First Philippine Republic was born.

Proclaimed a National Shrine by President Marcos in 1973, Barasoain Church complements its history with charming old-school architecture evident in its picturesque facade and perfectly preserved wood carvings. Visit it on Sundays to attend the mass or immerse yourself in its rich history through the light and sound museum at the second floor.

3

Rizal Park and Shrine (Dapitan City, Zamboanga Del Norte)

While Jose Rizal’s birthplace and execution site have always been part of many educational tour itineraries, the same can’t be said for Dapitan City’s Rizal Park. In addition to its distance from Manila, Rizal’s life in Dapitan is greatly underplayed. But a glimpse of the park’s attractions suggests that the four years Rizal spent in exile are just as noteworthy as the days leading to his death.

Bought using his lottery windfall, the 16 hectares of land in the seaside barangay of Talisay holds structures and buildings (mostly replicas) that are proof of how Rizal lived productively instead of wallowing in self-pity. Great for nature lovers and history buffs alike, the Rizal Park and Shrine features must-see attractions like the Mi Retiro Rock, or the heart-shaped rock where our national hero scribbled words from his poem; Casa Cuadrada, his official residence; Casa Redonda, which served as his pupil’s dormitory; Casa Redonda Pequena, or the chicken house; and an aqueduct made by Rizal himself to provide irrigation for farmers.

4

Biak-na-Bato National Park (San Miguel, Bulacan)

Being one with nature while in direct contact with a piece of Philippine history is what Biak-na-Bato promises to its visitors. Declared a national park in 1937 by then President Manuel Quezon, Biak-na-Bato’s centerpiece is its magnificent cave network where vital decisions that changed the course of Philippine history were made.

In one of these caves, Filipino revolutionary forces took refuge from the pursuing Spaniards. It’s also here where the Malolos Constitution was signed and the short-lived Biak-na-Bato Republic by Emilio Aguinaldo was established. Today, it’s considered one of Bulacan’s favorite spots for eco-adventures, offering the thrill-seeker multiple activities—from rappelling to cave exploration—that will keep one’s adrenaline pumping.

5

Plaza Cuartel (Puerto Princesa City, Palawan)

Save for the bronze historical marker, nothing in Plaza Cuartel, which is now a leisure park in Palawan, suggests of its grim past. On Dec. 14, 1944, the Japanese, facing imminent defeat, poured petroleum over the American prisoners languishing in the underground bunkers and burned them alive. More than a hundred POWs perished in the massacre, while only 11 survived to tell the tale.

The former garrison is now part of the plaza complex where people can have an afternoon stroll and enjoy the view of the sea of Palawan. The picturesque Immaculate Conception Cathedral also stands nearby.

6

The Luna House (Badoc, Ilocos Norte)

Ilocos Norte has a lesser known jewel often overshadowed by more popular tourist hotspots like Bangui Windmills and Paoay Sand Dunes. Located in Barangay Garreta is the two-storey ancestral house of the Luna brothers: the world-renowned painter Juan Luna and the chemist-turned-general Antonio Luna.

Although it’s usually referred to as the Juan Luna Shrine, the museum holds collections that commemorate the lives and careers of both patriots. Damaged by fire in 1861, the house was later ceded to the government who then tasked the Department of Public Works and Highways and the National Historical Institute with its restoration.

The Luna house is made of clay bricks and molave wood. Every item is a feast in the eyes for both history buffs and art aficionados: from reproductions of Juan Luna’s famous paintings to General Antonio Luna’s sword and written letters. It’s a museum that invites you to take a peek of the Luna brothers’ lives, in the same way the Rizal house in Calamba sheds light on our national hero’s childhood.

7

Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque (Simunul, Tawi-Tawi)

With majority of Filipinos born and raised in Christian traditions, it’s easy to forget that we have Muslim brothers and sisters further down south whose history is quite as colorful as ours. Understanding them is the pathway toward unity, but it’s difficult to achieve it when our history books are replete with information focusing on Christianity and Manila inhabitants.

One way to gain a better idea of the Philippines’ Muslim faith is to travel to the exact place where it all started—Sheik Karim al Makdum Mosque in Tubig Indangan, Simunul, Tawi-Tawi. Originally built in 1380 with a coconut-thatched roof, it is considered as the first and oldest mosque in the Philippines. Its four original pillars still stand today after several attempts to remove them failed, symbolizing how Islam has deeply and successfully penetrated the Mindanao populace.

Few meters from the mosque is the tomb of Karim, credited for introducing Islam to the country. Some believers get some soil from the tomb for good luck, proving that our Muslim friends are just as superstitious.

8

Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery (Nagcarlan, Laguna)

A chapel in Nagcarlan with a neoclassic façade more than meets the eye. In 1845, the church was renovated by Franciscan friar Fr. Vicente Belloc, who also ordered the construction of an octagonal cemetery made of bricks, river stone, and adobe.

The said cemetery, located two kilometers from the town center, would house the remains of the townsfolk. An underground crypt, on the other hand, contains 36 niches where friars and some of the most prominent personalities of the town were interred.

Today, the place is now revered as the only underground cemetery in the Philippines. It’s also historically important: Revolutionary leaders of the Katipunan once used it as a secret meeting place, as did Filipino fighters and guerrillas during the Philippine-American War and WWII. A museum opposite the cemetery was recently opened to the public to showcase artifacts and the fascinating history of the cemetery—all presented in ways that will truly delight the senses.

9

MacArthur Landing Memorial National Park (Palo, Leyte)

Also known as simply Leyte Landing Memorial Park, this major tourist attraction in Eastern Visayas has been part of every WWII enthusiast’s travel bucket list. It’s easy to figure out why: It was the exact spot where General Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise summarized in three powerful words: “I shall return.” On Oct. 20, 1944, his dramatic return started with a historic landing in Leyte Gulf, culminating in a fierce naval battle that ended in Japanese defeat and surrender.

To commemorate the momentous event, the bronze, larger-than-life statues of MacArthur and others were installed in a park at Barangay Candahug in Palo, Leyte. Made by prominent sculptor Anastacio Caedo, the statues now attract tourists from all over the country who are not only excited to take photographs but also take part in the annual reenactment and memorial rites that celebrate the historic event.

10

Malinta Tunnel (Corregidor Island) 

Malinta Tunnel is not for the faint of heart. Traversing the Malinta Hill, this tunnel was originally designed to house food, ammunitions, and other supplies. During the siege of Corregidor, however, it became the haven for thousands of men and women who defended the place from the Japanese forces.

The tunnel, which took 10 years to complete, also served as a bomb-proof shelter for General MacArthur’s USAFFE headquarters as well as a 1,000-bed capacity. Surviving inside was a nightmare: The embattled Filipinos or Americans lived in a pitch-black environment with horrible sanitation, relying only on blowers for ventilation.

To relive what they had gone through, visitors are treated with an incredible light and sound show called “Malinta Experience,” with reenactment made even more dramatic by the script from national artist and film director Lamberto Avellana and life-sized sculptures made by another national artist Napoleon Abueva.

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