If you go to explore the Philippines, you could follow various itineraries. But if your itinerary’s route goes through the middle of the country, you most likely would include Cebu City in it. Even if you don’t like big cities, but only nature, again, at least Cebu would be your important transportation hub. But if you want to explore everything, you should consider this city as an important and really interesting destination to visit. And there are certain tourist spots in Cebu City, which you should visit, to explore it well. Let’s take a look into this city in more detail.
Basic facts about Cebu
Cebu City is the third-largest city in the Philippines. It is located in Cebu Island, one of the middle-sized islands of the archipelago. And since it is the main city in the Visayas region, in the middle of the country, it makes Cebu City a very important transportation hub for centuries and modern-day travelers.
The city itself, and its island have a lot to reveal. Cebu City is full of culture and history, presented in its tourist spots, and the Cebu countryside is full of stunning natural sites and landscapes. Do you know that Cebu City is the oldest city in the Philippines? Yes, it is the first settlement built by the Spaniards, in the 16th century. It is not that before the Europeans there were not cities in the archipelago. But Cebu is the first modern-type city in the country. And its central Colon Street is the oldest currently existing street.
But for explorers, Cebu City has a special symbolic significance. You can see this name everywhere around the city. This name is Magellan- the most famous explorer of all time. And there is a reason why Cebu has such a deep relation with Magellan. Here he lost his life in a battle and finished its traveling around the Earth. Thus he remained in Cebu forever.
History of Cebu
Cebu City has a long history, which is very important for the whole Philippines. In fact, many events in the history of the country started from Cebu first. And many places which are now tourist spots of Cebu, are historical sites, which can’t be understood if you don’t know the city’s history. So, let’s back in time…
The ancient times until 1200
It was unclear how the area of today’s Cebu City and the whole Cebu Island looked like before 1200. We can just guess that it followed a similar history with the other parts of the Philippines. The earliest inhabitants of the archipelago were black people, looking like Africans. Probably they have lived in Cebu too, but there are no traces of them today. Approximately 2000 years ago or earlier, the first Austronesians arrived in the Philippines, gradually settling the whole archipelago and assimilating or pushing the black people in the jungles.
Singhapala era, from 1200 to 1565
Most likely the Austronesians in Cebu Island have lived in small communities with local leaders until the arriving of the Indian prince Sri Lumay around 1200. He established his own kingdom (rajahnate), today known as Rajahnate of Cebu, with capital Singhapala. The location of Singhapala is in the present day Barangay Mabolo in Cebu City (near the SM Plaza), although nothing has remained from it today. This rajahnate presented Indian culture and Hindu religion, which remained until the arriving of the Europeans, despite the growing Islamization of the Philippines. And in 1521 they arrived.
The Europeans arrived in the Philippines from the east, on their route as the first human travel around the Earth, lead by Fernando Magellan. They reached Singhalapa, welcomed by Raja Humabon. Consequently, Humabon ordered all other chieftains nearby to welcome and assist the Spaniards too. But one of them, Lapu Lapu, the chieftain of Mactan, refused to obey Humabon’s order. And when the Europeans reached Mactan Island to convince Lapu Lapu, he attacked them. In the battle that followed, Magellan was killed. Humabon himself also betrayed the Europeans and they left the archipelago for more than 40 years.
Spanish era, from 1565 to 1898
The Spaniards back to the Philippines again, this time lead by the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. This time they were not a „traveler’s expedition”, but a real army of Spain. So they conquered Cebu and gradually the whole Philippines archipelago. Conquering Cebu was quite easy, with not much bloodshed. With this, the Spanish rule over Cebu began.
A new fortress was built in Cebu, called Fort San Pedro (and it is one of the main tourist spots in Cebu City today). The new Spanish rulers also built many Catholic churches, of which Santo Nino Church is the most significant. Along with it, Cebu became the capital of the Spanish Philippines for a long time and the main starting point for many Spanish military expeditions.
American era, from 1898 to 1946
The second half of the 19th century was the time of the decline of the Spanish Empire. And one of the events that put this empire to an end was the Spanish-American war. The Filipinos saw in this a chance for independence, and there was a revolution and struggling between 1898 and 1901. But with the end of the war, according to a treaty, the Philippines was given to the USA. The Americans didn’t miss the opportunity to take the archipelago for themselves and they conquered it by a lot of blood.
However, the following years were relatively prosperous. The Americans developed Cebu and the whole Philippines. Later, during WWII, the country suffered from the Japanese occupation. In this occupation, Filipinos and Americans were on the same side against the Japanese, and Cebu was liberated after the Battle of Cebu in 1945. And after the war, in 1946, the whole country finally gained its independence.
Modern Philippines era, from 1946 until today
Since 1946, Cebu has always been an important city in the middle of the Philippines. It faced many presidents, the dictatorship of Marcos, economic crisis and revivals. But finally, it developed into a large mega city as it is today, attracting more and more tourists from all over the world.
Our trip in Cebu
All of the above was more than enough as a reason for us to include Cebu in our 26 days Philippines itinerary. And we included it along with some other important destinations in the middle of the country. We arrived by speed boat from Tagbilaran, Bohol Island, after our Bohol tour. And we spent two full days in Cebu City.
I like off the beaten path places, but usually, before heading to them, I target the most representative spots of a destination, because having basic knowledge and experience is important. Then I would proceed to the other hidden gems in the off the beaten area. And Cebu was not an exception. We determined these important tourist spots (yes, I don’t like „tourist things”, because I am a traveler, not a „tourist”, but in reality, the important places to visit in Cebu are quite touristy) and built our Cebu City itinerary. Here is what we visited, and what more we would like to visit if we had more time.
Tourist spots to visit in Cebu City
Today Cebu City is quite large in area, but many of the most important and representative tourist spots are located within its old central part, in short, walkable distance between them. However, there are some other spots located far from the center and they require a longer time to reach and explore. Now, when I talk about Cebu City, I will include also Mactan Island, which administratively is not part of the city, but culturally and in transportation means (the main airport of Cebu City is located in Mactan) belong to it. So, let’s start with the center.
The old central part of Cebu City
It is located not far from the Cebu piers. When I say „old part”, don’t imagine an „old town with ancient traditional architecture” (maybe there has been some, but now there is almost nothing remained from it). It is just a more compact part of the city, more crowded, without modern „glass & steel skyscrapers” and other modern constructions. It is full of shops, markets, street food, narrow streets, tricycles, motorcycles and other traffic, and a lot of crowds, smells, and colors. So, when you start exploring Cebu City and its tourist spots, you would begin in this lively environment. And one of the first places to visit is Santo Nino Church
Santo Nino Church (Basilica Minore del Santo Nino)
This is the oldest Catholic church in the Philippines, established in 1565 by Legazpi and his men, and now it is an important landmark of Cebu City. It has its story. In 1521, when Magellan arrived in Cebu, he presented a gift to Raja Humabon- a small statuette of „Jesus Child” (Santo Nino). Later, when Magellan was killed and the Spaniards left the archipelago, the statuette remained abandoned in a wooden hut. There was a fire in the hut and almost everything was burned, but the statuette remained undamaged.
Then, in 1565, one of the Legazpi’s soldiers found the statuette in the ruins of the hut. It was considered a miracle, and Legazpi ordered a building of a new church there. In the following years and decades, this church was burned by fire and rebuilt many times until finally it was made by stones. Then it passed many renovations to reach the present-day image. And the statuette still can be seen exposed in the church building (although I am not sure whether it is the original statue).
When we entered the church, there was a holy mass and hundreds of people were crowding in its pilgrim yard and inside the main building. It was forbidden to take photos of the people, but obviously, in some locations within the church complex it was possible, so we didn’t miss the opportunity. There is also a museum of the basilica, presenting relics and artifacts related to the church.
It is another landmark of Cebu City and we visited it immediately after Santo Nino since it is located right in front of the southern exit of the church. The Cross is placed within a small round shrine with a painted ceiling. And the painting tells the story of this landmark. Again, it was related to Magellan. He presented a large cross to Rajah Humabon which was raised in this place. It is unclear whether the presented cross now is the original one or a replica. Nevertheless, it is full of people who believe that it has miraculous powers and come here every day to worship it.
Fort San Pedro
Only around 10 mins walk from the Magellan’s Cross is Plaza Independencia- a small park with Legazpi and Cebu Veterans monuments. And behind the park is the next landmark of Cebu- Fort San Pedro, maybe the most important of the city’s tourist spots.
Fort San Pedro has a long history. As the other landmarks nearby, it was built by Legazpi in 1565. Its first version was a wooden fortress. Later the wood was replaced by stones. It served as a military fort during the whole Spanish era. Then, in the 20th century, it was used for many purposes- from hospital and place for offices to ruins planned for a zoo by a religious sect. Meanwhile, it was gradually decomposing until 1968, when an ambitious restoration project has started. Now it is restored into its original image and turned into a tourist attraction.
The fort has a triangle shape, with more than 2 m thick walls and three bastions on its three corners. There is a beautiful garden inside it, and a small museum presenting relevant artifacts. Entrance fee: 30 PHP.
From Fort San Pedro we moved northward to another compact area in the central part of Cebu City. We went there by taxi for around 20 mins. Not because it was too far, but because there was a heavy traffic jam, as usual (actually, if we walked, we would arrive there again for 20 mins). This area is full of interesting and important places, and the first one that we visited was Casa Gorordo.
Casa Gorordo is a mansion of a rich family, presenting the mixed culture of some Filipinos from the last century. It is a place with many cultural influences, from local Cebuano to American. We entered the main building lead by one of the guide girls. After watched a short movie about the subject, she guided us through all the rooms of the mansion, enjoying various kinds of antique furniture, clothes, cutlery, and many other artifacts, creating a unique atmosphere. Entrance fee: 150 PHP.
Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House
It is another treasure of Cebu, located only about 100 m west of Casa Gorordo. And again, it presents another rich family’s life, but from an older era, and in a different style. It is one of the oldest survived houses in Cebu City, carefully managed and protected from the time of its building (the end of the 17th century) until now.
The house was built by Don Juan Yap and Dona Maria Florida. Since then, several generations have owned it, and its current owner Mr. Val Sandiego, seeing its great value as a cultural heritage of Cebu, decided to restore it and turn it into a beautiful museum, full of artifacts and splendid art pieces. Entrance fee: 50 PHP.
Cebu Obelisk and Heritage of Cebu Monument
Walk only 50 m from Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House and you will see a magnificent monument, presenting the Spanish conquest and its symbols. This is Heritage of Cebu Monument. A Spanish ship, a Catholic Cathedral, and a high cross are presented as some of the main art pieces of the Monument. This is a great place for photos.
And on the southern end of the monument is the beginning of Colon Street, the oldest street in the Philippines. It is marked by an obelisk (a four-sided pillar), with historical writing on it, which has become an important symbol. From this point, you can enjoy life on the colorful Colon Street. But before that, if you have more time, don’t skip the nearby Jesuit House Museum.
Jesuit House Museum (Museo de Parian)
This museum is established in an old traditional house, dating from about 1730. Initially, it has been a warehouse, and this can be seen in its interior. The museum exhibits a lot of artifacts from the Chinese-Filipinos culture. Entrance fee: 50 PHP.
There are more places in the central part of Cebu City, which are really worth visiting if you have more time, for a richer impression of this city.
Cebu Provincial Museum (Museo Sugbo)
It is located some 700-800 m northeast of Casa Gorordo. In fact, it used to be a prison, built in the late Spanish era, and its architecture, along with the two canons in front of its gate still create such an impression. This museum presents a lot of cultural and daily life artifacts from the whole province of Cebu. Entrance fee: 75 PHP.
University of San Carlos Museum
One more museum. Being established in a university, it presents more scientific artifacts- archeological excavations, old religious and cultural relics, and even some zoological and botanical specimens. It is located about a km west of Casa Gorordo.
If you want to see more colors of present-day life in Cebu, other than the historical buildings and museums, and something different than Colon Street, the best place for that is Carbon Market. It is located on some 15 min walk west of the Magellan Cross. The market is more than 100 years old and there you can find clothes, fruits, vegetables, spices, souvenirs, handicrafts, as well as many other various things for daily use. But the most important is the unique local atmosphere that you can feel and enjoy.
These are the most important tourist spots to visit in the old central part of Cebu City. But there is more than this city can reveal, however, you have to move to its suburbs.
Cebu City spreads much further beyond the old central part. And since the other area outside the center of Cebu is much newer, you can’t find too many historic tourist spots there. Yes, there are some attractions, but they are modern- mainly malls and sports centers, such as Robinson Galleria, SM, Parkmall, Cebu City Sports Complex, or Cebu Ocean Park. Of them maybe the most attractive one is Sky Experience Adventure- an extreme sports activity from the top of Crown Regency Hotel- the tallest hotel in the city.
Of course, all these places are a part of the Cebu’s reality and are all worth to visit and experience to explore the modern face of the city. But if you are still looking for more culture and history, there are still two spots that you can explore.
Cebu Provincial Capitol
This is the seat of the provincial government. It is not a museum to enter inside and explore, but an architectural masterpiece in neoclassical style. So it is worth to visit just to see it outside, for photos. And it is worth because it is now declared as National Historial Landmark.
Cebu Taoist Temple
It is new construction, built-in 1972 by the Chinese community of Cebu City, and as its name suggests, it is a place for Taoist worshippers. But of course, for tourists too. The temple is designed in a typical Chinese style building complex, and even its entrance is made like the Great Wall of China. It is built on the hills northwest of Cebu, and you can enjoy a great panoramic view of the city from above.
But the exploring trip to Cebu would be not full if it doesn’t include the nearby Mactan Island. Because this is the place where Magellan was killed. And in fact, Mactan is related to the main Cebu City in many ways. So, let’s move there.
Mactan Island is a flat piece of land (that’s why the airport of Cebu is built there), slightly larger than Cebu City itself. Its northern part is covered mainly by some urban and industrial areas and the airport of Cebu. Its southern part is more agricultural, with some villages scattered on it. And its eastern and southeastern part is full of resorts, following the coastline. There are some nice beaches (but definitely far from the pristine and exotic beaches of Panglao and other islands), and reefs on the southern coast of Mactan.
This is how Mactan Island looks like today, and its main historical point is located on its northern coast- the site of the battle between the people of Magellan and Lapu Lapu. This place is marked by the Magellan’s Marker and Lapu Lapu Monument.
Magellan’s Marker and Lapu Lapu Monument (Mactan Shrine)
It happened on April 27th, 1521. Magellan and his people were welcomed by Rajah Humabon in Cebu (Singhapala) and Humabon orders all chieftains of the nearby areas to welcome the Europeans too. But Lapu Lapu, the chieftain of Mactan opposes Humabon. When Magellan tried to convince Lapu Lapu, he treats the European expedition with destruction.
The Spaniards, led by Magellan try to bring fear to the locals, burning some of their houses on the northern coast of Mactan. However, it only makes Lapu Lapu and his people more angry and furious. They especially aim at Magellan himself. Soon they wounded and killed him. The remaining Spaniards quickly leave the battlefield and back to Humabon, who however turns against them too, so they leave the Philippines Archipelago back to Spain, completing the first circumnavigating trip around the Earth.
As a result, both Magellan and Lapu Lapu were declared heroes. Magellan- because he is the most famous explorer bringing a significant cultural influence to the Filipinos. And Lapu Lapu- because he was considered the first fighter against the foreign colonial oppression. That’s why you can see both Magellan’s Marker and Lapu Lapu Monument in one place.
Magellan’s Marker is actually a small shrine with a sign commemorating the historical event of the battle. And Lapu Lapu Monument is built some 30-40 m north of it, showing a statue of a Filipino warrior, following the imagination how probably Lapu Lapu itself has looked like (actually, you can see Lapu Lapu’s image like an advertisement banner everywhere in the area too).
Of course, now the place of the battle looks much different than what it looked like some 500 years ago- with streets and urban areas (with restaurants, shops, auto services, warehouses, etc.), concrete coastal constructions and nearby luxurious hotels. But at least you could get some idea about the location of the battlefield. And the best thing that you could do after visiting this place is to go to the eastern coast of Mactan and its beaches.
The beaches of Mactan
As I already mentioned, these beaches are far from perfection but are still worth to visit. Many of the beaches are actually artificial (or at least artificially expanded), but are still small in size, with some entrance fee, different in different beaches. But at least the water is pure and transparent as in most of the Philippines and is full of corals and colorful fish. And of course, along with the beach relaxing you can visit some of the modern resorts, particularly the Mactan Newtown, where you can enjoy a cafe, bar or a restaurant.
But there is a more exotic place, still not far from Cebu City- Olango Island. What kind of island is it?
Olango Island is located some 20 mins travel by boat from Mactan. Actually, it is a group of seven islands, of which Olango is the largest one. And this area presents a lot of reefs, beaches, and marine wildlife. For more information look here.
Transportation in Cebu City
Everything may look great, but the problem is how to reach the tourist spots of Cebu and move between them. In general, there are few ways- by taxi, by jeepney, by tricycle and on foot.
As I mentioned above, the old central part of Cebu City is not too large, the tourist spots are very close between each other and you can explore it just on foot. In fact, it can be even faster than using any other transport due to the often traffic jam in this area.
If you want to go further, and want to go by jeepney, remember one important location name: Parkmall. This is the main jeepney terminal in Cebu. No matter where in the city are you located, you can see a lot of jeepneys passing by you. It is difficult to determine which of the passing jeepneys go to your desired destination. Yes, there are the names of the first and the last stop of their routes written on them, but if you don’t know the map of Cebu City in detail, these names couldn’t help you. Don’t expect to see names of the tourist spots written on a jeepney!
So, the best way is to ask the locals which jeepney goes to your desired destination. And they will tell you what written name on a jeepney you should look for. Or will tell you to go to Parkmall and get the desired jeepney from there.
Taxis are more expensive than jeepneys but are much faster and convenient. Avoid getting a taxi from the piers of Cebu Port- they usually give you a much higher price and most of them refuse to use the taxi meter. If you just arrive at the port, walk a little to the nearest boulevard and get a taxi from there. If you travel withing the city, you can expect a price within 150 PHP, but if you go to Mactan, it can be more than 200 PHP.
There are some buses between the main malls, business parks, Pier 1 and the airport too. Some of the are free. If you want to go to the airport and leave Cebu City, a convenient way is to go to SM City Cebu and get the bus from there. The price is 50 PHP. As I know, there is a cheaper bus to the airport from Parkmall- for 25 PHP.
Accommodation in Cebu
Being the third larger city in the Philippines, Cebu has a lot of hotels. You can find many options in Booking and Agoda. But here I would like to talk about the location. We chose Hotel de Mercedes, in the old central part of Cebu City, right beside the Colon Street. Strategically it is very convenient. The hotel is old, cheap and not too luxurious, but if you are not too pretentious, it is a great choice.
From Hotel de Mercedes you can make a whole day tour around the center of Cebu City and its tourist spots. There are some other options in the area, but not too much. I would mention GV Tower Hotel, Honeybee Royal Inn, Che & James Guest House Colon and Southpole Central Hotel.
Further in Cebu Island
If you have enough time, don’t skip the rest of Cebu Island, outside of the main city. The island is not big. It is an easily explorable narrow strip of land. Most of its popular attractions are located on its southern part. There are three important tourist spots in the area: Moalboal, with its beaches and great scuba diving opportunities, Oslob, with its whale shark watching center, and Kawasan Falls. Yes, everything is quite touristy, but as I often write- nature is nature, regardless of the tourist crowds.
We, however, didn’t have time to explore the rest of Cebu Island. Instead, we headed to a wilder and less touristy area of the Philippines- Siargao Island. So, we left Cebu City by the night ferry to Surigao and proceeded to Siargao. But Cebu still left a nice impression in our hearts, with a desire to back there and explore it more.
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