On a trip to the Philippines, Cebu City usually appears on the itinerary. Not precisely because it is an attractive place that attracts the attention of most backpackers in Asia, but because it is often used as a connection to other destinations in the country. What is the second most important city in the Philippines has an international airport that offers direct flights to both other countries, and to the main points of the archipelago.
If you’re passing through the city and want to find out what to do in Cebu City, this list will surprise you with both variety and quantity. Historical places, picturesque places, shopping paradises or century-old monuments are just a few examples of what you can see in Cebu if you plan to give it a try.
Read on and find out what to see and do in Cebu City.
1. Visit the Basilica of the Holy Child
In case you have little time in the city and can only choose one thing to do in Cebu, visiting the Basilica of the Holy Child is a great idea. Founded in 1565, it is said to be the oldest church in the Philippines (although some indicate that it is actually St. Augustine’s in Intramuros, Manila).
This important religious building was erected in exactly the same place where, after more than 40 years in the hands of the natives, the image of the Holy Child Jesus was recovered. This is a sculpture that belonged to the first Spanish expedition that arrived in the Philippines in 1521, led by Ferdinand Magellan, who gave it as a gift to the Rajah of Cebu at his baptism.
The image was lost in the Battle of Mactan, where Magellan died, and was not discovered until 1565, when a sailor from Miguel de Legazpi’s expedition found it intact. From that moment on, the Santo Niño de Cebu became venerated throughout the Philippines and especially in Cebu.
In the Baroque style Basilica, partly reconstructed after the strong earthquake of 2013, you can see the famous image live inside. If you want to see it from very close, keep in mind that you will have to wait in line, which usually exceeds one hour. Even so, it can be seen from a distance and entrance is free.
2. Contemplating the Magellan’s Cross
Once you leave the Basilica del Santo Niño, you cannot continue your visit without going to see another of the must-sees in Cebu City: the Magellanic Cross, located a few meters away. This is a symbol for the city, in fact it is the image that appears on its coat of arms, and it attracts thousands of fervent Filipino Catholics.
Also Read: The Magellan’s Cross: Symbol of Cebu
It is the first Christian symbol to arrive in the country when Ferdinand Magellan landed on the neighboring island of Limasawa (Leyte) with his expedition.
Since the various stories about the Magellanic Cross attribute miraculous powers to it, visitors were constantly tearing off splinters from the cross to carry protection. Therefore, it was decided to protect it inside what is now the base where a replica is exhibited. Even so, many claim that the original Magellanic Cross was destroyed after the death of Ferdinand Magellan, so it is possible that neither is the original.
On the ceiling of the chapel that protects the Magellanic Cross there are some beautiful frescoes that recreate the conversion to Catholicism of Humabon, the rajah of Cebu at that time.
3. Enter the Metropolitan Cathedral of Cebu
The Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, we will be honest, is not exactly the biggest attraction to see in Cebu. But, being only two blocks away from the previous two points on the list, it is well worth a quick visit.
The colonial architecture began in 1565, but due to interruptions in the fight against the Muslims, it took a long time to build. During World War II, when Cebu was taken over by Japanese troops, much of Cebu’s Metropolitan Cathedral was bombed and destroyed.
4. Take a walk around the Fort of San Pedro
San Pedro de Cebu Fort is another of the most interesting historical sites to see in Cebu City. Built in the 16th century under the command of Miguel de Legazpi as the first Spanish defensive settlement, you can visit it for the modest price of 30 pesos. The original Fort of San Pedro was made of wood, but around 1740 it was rebuilt in stone to be able to face the continuous attacks of Muslim pirates, this being the structure that has remained until the present day.
Inside you can learn more about the history of the first Spanish settlers, as well as enjoy old photographs of Cebu’s past, paintings of the main protagonists of the time and even original cannons that were used to repel attacks on this interesting triangular fort. We think it is a pleasant visit that is worthwhile.
5. Visit the Yap Sandiego Ancestral House and Casa Gorordo
Another historical site worth seeing in Cebu is the Yap Sandiego Ancestral House, or more simply “The old house of the Yap-Sandiego family”. Its location close to both the Cruz de Magallanes and Fort San Pedro, in an area known as Parian, that is, where mainly Chinese immigrants were located, will make you have no excuse not to stop by and gossip at this old house-museum built in 1675.
Entering it is an incredible journey back in time to what the houses of Cebu were like back in the 16th century. The decoration, the lights, the wooden construction, the religious images, details like tablecloths and cutlery… Everything was restored in 2008 thanks to one of the descendants of the first owners of the house! They are so fond of the Yap Sandiego Ancestral House that Val Sandiego and his wife Ofelia assure that not even for all the money in the world do they intend to sell it. In fact, they say they sleep there every weekend.
It can be visited from 9:00 to 18:00 and the 50 pesos that the entrance costs are destined to its conservation and restoration.
By the way, right in front of the house is the Heritage Monument of Cebu. This huge monument stages some of the most important moments in the history of the city. Admission is free, so it’s worth taking a look.
This house is great, but if we have to choose one, we’ll go with Casa Gorordo. Located less than a minute’s walk from the previous one, this is another of the ancestral Philippine houses and, in our opinion, the best preserved. Even more interesting than Casa Manila in Intramuros, this one dates back to 1850 and was owned by Isidro Gorordo, a Basque merchant who settled in Cebu.
The house is an example of balay nga tisa, that is, a house with a tile roof, but combining elements of colonial and Chinese architecture, as can be seen in the ends of its roof.
Acquired by the Aboitiz family (one of the richest in the Philippines) and converted into a museum, the visit is a delight. You are accompanied by a guide who puts you in context, they put an explanatory video and then you go up to enjoy the different rooms of the house, where you can appreciate original furniture.
For us, the best place to see in Cebu is, if you only have a few hours, Casa Gorordo. We loved the visit and left there more than happy to have known another little piece of Philippine history. The entrance fee is 80 pesos, which helps to preserve it and seems more than deserved.
6. Surprise yourself with the Taoist Temple in Cebu
Following the route through Cebu we pass from the center to the outskirts of the city, specifically to the upscale residential neighborhood “Beverly Hills”. Here is another interesting religious building to see in Cebu, the Taoist Temple.
Built in 1972 by the Chinese community of Cebu, it offers a great view of the city and a very colorful walk among huge dragons, Chinese architecture and even a small replica of the Great Wall of China. If at this point you feel you have some existential doubt or desire to fulfill that only a god can answer, here you can try your luck with the Taoist tradition. Inside the main temple you will find two kidney-shaped wooden blocks for this purpose.
After washing your hands and lifting the two pieces to the sky, you must drop them while you think about your question. If the two concave sides fall upwards, your wish will not be fulfilled; if it falls with one concave side and one flat side upwards, your wish will be fulfilled; and if it falls with the flat dice upwards… It means that even God does not know the answer! In that case, you should simplify your question and try again. If you make a little mess, as it is a religious rite and you have to keep respect, do not worry, you can ask a gentleman who is always there and will kindly help you to complete it.
Entrance to the Taoist Temple in Cebu is free and access is allowed between 6:00 and 18:00. To get there, we recommend taking a white taxi or a car to Grab’s app. Please note that you will have to walk to the entrance of the development to return, as taxis cannot enter without a customer inside. It won’t take you more than 5 minutes, don’t worry.
7. Shopping at Ayala Mall
If you are in Cebu City and you need to buy something to continue your trip or you are just leaving the Philippines and want to do some last minute shopping, this is your place. Ayala Mall is the largest shopping center in Cebu City and also the most modern in terms of infrastructure and decoration. Electronic products, beauty products, clothes, souvenirs, a big food court and even a cinema where you can spend a fun time enjoying the latest Philippine movie releases are just a few examples of what you can find.
Still, this isn’t the only mall in Cebu. If you are interested in handicrafts, you will be interested to know that in the new and massive SM Seaside City Cebu and in SM City Cebu (downtown) there is a branch of Kultura Filipino, a chain of stores where you will find, besides typical souvenirs, a lot of handicrafts. Unfortunately, in the Ayala Mall there is not so much variety.
8. Exploring Mactan Island
If you are going to arrive or leave Cebu by plane you will pass yes or no through the island of Mactan, as the airport is located there. Almost as big as the city, it is separated from it by a couple of bridges that are barely a kilometer long and offers some interesting plans for those who want to fill in the gaps left in their travel itinerary to the Philippines.
In Mactan you can enjoy beaches like Banban Beach or Tonggo Beach which, far from being on par with the best beaches in the Philippines, can provide you with a refreshing dip at any time. In addition, near the airport stands the imposing statue of Lapu Lapu, the famous native Filipino hero who stood up and defeated the Spanish in the bloody Battle of Mactan. It won’t be unusual if you find some Filipino making a selfie there while emulating his combative pose.
To close the day, you can go to the terrace of the Scape Skydeck restaurant and taste some of its level dishes, with a panoramic view of the port of Mactan.
9. Take a guided tour of Cebu City
If you feel like discovering everything there is to see and do in Cebu, and you want to do it in a super comfortable way that includes transportation and information about each site you visit, you may be interested in taking a guided tour of. This will take you to see, among other places, the Magellanic Cross, Santo Niño Basilica, St. Peter’s Fort, Yap House Museum and the Taoist Temple of Cebu, all dressed up with interesting facts about the city, air-conditioned transportation and a guide.
10. Visit the Sirao Flower Garden and Leah’s temple
One activity that became super fashionable to do in Cebu City in 2019 was a visit to the Sirao Flower Garden. This is a corner in the mountains surrounding Cebu that emulates the Netherlands, full of flowers. Not for nothing is it known as “Little Amsterdam”, bridging, of course, a lot of distance.
There are 2 Sirao Gardens: one called “Sirao Flower Garden” on Google Maps and another called “Sirao PGSC” (Pictorial Garden and Camping Site). The one that takes the lead in Instagram is the 2nd one, because it has a statue of a hand that makes a furore in the social network. It also has several other Bali-style sites for photos. However, the first one has more carefully tended flowers and is usually less crowded, you decide!
The entrance fee to the Sirao Flower Garden is 100 pesos, while the Sirao PGSC is 50 pesos.
And from Amsterdam we go to the one they say is the “Taj Mahal of Cebu”. The Temple of Leah was an act of love of Teodorico Soriano Adarna to his late wife, a majestic building that emulates a Roman temple with columns of Doric-style capitals and statues of Roman gods. Yes, as it sounds, it’s a little horterada, but it’s a curious place to visit in Cebu and can be combined with a visit to the Sirao Garden. The entrance fee is 50 pesos per person.
How to get to the Sirao Garden? As they are a little far away, it is possible to arrive by taxi, but you will have to negotiate if you want to combine the 2 places and be waited for. Most taxi drivers and cars from Grab usually take you to a small sign offering this possibility, but the prices are usually a bit crazy (about 2,000 pesos). So we recommend you to bring out your bargaining skills. Another alternative is to go to the Ayala Cebu PUV Terminal and there take a van to Sirao (50 pesos per person). Ask the driver to drop you off near the gardens and then take a habal-habal (motorbike with driver) for about 30 pesos per person. You can also go to JY Square Mall in Cebu and take a habal-habal for 2 people. They usually charge 400 pesos for the return trip plus 100 or 200 pesos per hour of waiting.
How to get to the Temple of Leah? As in the previous case, you can either negotiate a taxi or go to JY Square Mall and get a habal-habal. This usually costs 150 pesos each way (2 people).
11. Make the day trip to Bohol
Although we usually recommend spending more time with Bohol, if you don’t have it and don’t want to miss out on its main attractions we recommend that you book a day trip to Bohol from Cebu.
Among the many surprises there are the oldest stone church in the Philippines, a visit to the Tarsier Recovery Center, a free buffet boat ride on the Loboc River and, of course, a visit to the famous Chocolate Hills, a symbol of the country. Unlike the guided tour of Cebu, this one is in English. But don’t worry, you won’t need to speak much English to enjoy all that is included.
12. Climbing at the top of Osmeña Peak
If you are not only a beach lover but also one who enjoys hiking and nature walks, one of the most popular excursions to do in Cebu is the one that will take you to the highest peak on the whole island: the Osmeña Peak. The so-called “Chocolate Hills of Cebu” are a collection of peaks covered with a greenish layer of vegetation and surrounded by small villages and vegetable plantations of all kinds.
The views from the 1,013 meter high peak make it worth the 80 kilometer journey from Cebu City to here. The trek to the top of the Osmeña Peak is really easy, as once you reach the access area you can complete it in half an hour.
>> How to get to Osmeña Peak from Cebu
First you will need to go to the South Bus Terminal in Cebu to take a bus to Santander/Li-loan or Argao. The price of this air-conditioned bus is 106 Philippine Pesos and the journey takes about 3 hours. You will need to advise the driver to drop you off at the Dalaguete junction for Osmeña Peak. When you get off, you will easily see the habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) drivers waiting for you. The ride costs 200 pesos per motorbike, so if you are travelling with someone you will pay 100 pesos per head, as they can take up to two passengers. In about 50 minutes you will be dropped off at the Osmeña Peak Tourist Center and, once you have paid the 30 peso entrance fee, you will be able to start your walk. The path is easy and you can’t miss it, so you won’t need to hire the guides who offer their services for 150 pesos.
13. Living the Sinulog Festival
Your visit to Cebu City coincides with the month of January? Well, you might be in luck! On the third Sunday of that month, one of the biggest festivals in the Philippines is held every year: the Sinulog Festival. This huge festival in honor of the Holy Child is a total explosion of color, music and dance that you should not miss if you have the chance.
The streets are filled with dancers dressed in their best clothes who parade to the beat of drums, resembling the current (Sinulog in Cebuano) of what used to be the Pahina River in Cebu. This spectacular festival connects the country’s pagan past with its conversion to
Catholicism and attracts Filipinos from all corners and tourists in search of one of the biggest events of the year in the Philippines.
>> Where to Sleep in Cebu City
Cebu has a wide range of accommodation for all types of travellers, from luxury beachfront hotels to backpacker hostels. Here are a couple of recommendations:
Near the airport, good, nice and cheap: Little Norway Guesthouse
Near the port and with swimming pool: One Central Hotel
Disclaimer: This post is contributed by Sam From Ultimate Vietnam.