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Ermita was founded in the late 16th century. The name was taken from the Spanish word for "hermitage", after the fact that on this site was built a hermitage housing an image of the Virgin Mary known as the Nuestra Señora de Guia (Our Lady of Guidance). The hermitage has since evolved into Ermita Church, which has been rebuilt several times since the early 17th century. 
Ermita gained renewed prominence during the American colonial period. It became known as the university district, containing the campuses of the University of the Philippines, the Ateneo de Manila, the Assumption College and the St. Paul College for girls. Dormitories for students also flourished in the area. The residential portion of Ermita was populated by American residents, who set up such establishments as the Army and Navy Club, and the University Club. 
During the 1945 Battle of Manila, Ermita was the scene of some of the most horrific massacres that occurred during the month of February, 1945. The wife and four children of future President Elpidio Quirino were murdered in Ermita, as was Supreme Court Associate Justice Anacleto Diaz. Between 68% to 85% of Ermita was destroyed during the Battle of Manila, with an estimated total of 100,000 Filipino civilians killed in the city itself. 
Ermita was rebuilt after the devastation of the war. University life remained vibrant therein. However, as decades passed, Ermita started earning a reputation as the red-light district of Manila. During the term of Mayor Alfredo Lim, an effort was made to "clean up" Ermita, helping improve its reputation since then. However, a local city ordinance prohibiting the establishment, on grounds of public morality, of motels, lodging houses and other similar establishments, was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  As a result of the clean-up efforts, nightlife in the area dwindled though it has picked up of late with the help of the emergence of the nearby Malate district and the Roxas Blvd. Baywalk area in the nightlife scene. Since 2001 there has been a resurgance of prostitution in Ermita. So-called Karaoke bars (KTV) operated by Korean and Japanese nationals, have lured thousands of women into prostitution and it remains the Philippines second largest center for prostitution after the infamous Angeles City to the north of the capital.
Ermiteño was a Spanish-creole that was spoken in Ermita. It is believed to be extinct today.
Sites of interestPhilippine Supreme Court, the City Hall of Manila, the Philippine Postal Office building, and other offices found along the old government circle designed during the American era by architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, such as the Department of Tourism and the National Museum of the Filipino People. Rizal Park, the widest open urban public park in the country and location of the monument to the national hero Jose Rizal, is a prominent feature of Ermita. Other sites of interest in Ermita include the United States Embassy, the Quirino Grandstand and the Philippine General Hospital, the country's largest hospital.
A number of educational institutions are also found in Ermita, including the University of the Philippines - Manila campus, Adamson University, Santa Isabel College, the Philippine Normal University, the Technological Institute of the Philippines, Universidad de Manila (formerly the City College of Manila) and Manila Science High School, which leads the city in offering specialized science and technology oriented curricula for secondary education. The students have turned Robinson's Mall into a bustling shopping center and rendezvous spot along with several other coffee shops and outdoor-type cafes.
Ermita also hosts a number of coin shops and antique shops, as well as some artists who remained in the area, such as the novelist and National Artist F. Sionil Jose who maintains a modest bookstore, La Solidaridad, on Padre Faura Street.
Prostitution is centralized around the 'Karaoke bars' and 'Cafes' of M.H.Del Pilar street.
- Aluit, Alfonso (1994). "The Christian City", By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II 3 February - 3 March 1945. Philippines: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, pp. 85-89. ISBN 971-8521-10-0.
- ^ By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II 3 February - 3 March 1945, p. 85-86
- ^ By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II 3 February - 3 March 1945, p. 89
- ^ By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II 3 February - 3 March 1945, p. 405