The Philippines; A tropical paradise, awaking images of pristine beaches, coconut palms, deep blue sky, pure sea water and an exotic vacation. But this country has much more to reveal, if you have the will to explore. It has a fascinating history and culture and if you want to dive into this side of the Philippines, you must plan your Cebu itinerary to the country’s third largest city.
There is one name that you will read and hear many times if you explore Cebu. This name is one of the symbols of the exploring travel- the name of the first man, whose expedition has made a full trip around the Earth – Fernando Magellan. He was not lucky enough to complete this trip, and he was killed here, in Cebu. But after his death, his presence can be felt in every historical place in the city. And that’s why Cebu is so significant – it’s a city rich in history and is the first thing that you MUST think about when you building your Cebu itinerary. And for something that covers more o this beautiful island, this Philippines guide should help.
Some basic facts about Cebu
Cebu is the third largest city in the Philippines. It is located in Cebu Island, one of the Visayas group islands of the country. The city consists of two main parts- Cebu mainland part, where is the center, and Mactan Island, situated closely to the eastern coast of Cebu Island, where is the main airport, some suburbs, some beach resorts, and the place where Magellan was killed.
An important fact to know is that Cebu is the oldest city of the Philippines and the first Spanish settlement. Here you can find also the oldest street and the oldest church in the country. Although it doesn’t have an “Old town” now, you can still feel the historical atmosphere in many places of this city.
How to get to Cebu
There are three main ways to reach Cebu- by plane, by ferry and by bus. And if you are coming from another country- only by plane. Cebu has a large international airport, which connects the city to many countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. There is also the main office of Cebu Pacific Airlines.
But if you have already arrived in the Philippines and Cebu is only a part of your Philippines itinerary, then you can reach Cebu not only by domestic flight (from Manila or many other cities in the country), but also by ferry and bus.
Since Cebu Port is the largest in the Philippines, almost every shipping company has routes to there. There are also buses going to Cebu, not only from the points within Cebu Island, but from other islands too, using Ro-Ro ferry service.
Building your Cebu itinerary
Once you’ve arrived in Cebu, you can start planning how you’ll spend your time here. Everyone’s traveling style is different, but in my opinion, if you want to taste and experience the most essential parts of the city, the minimum stay should be 3 days. So, below is my sample 3 day Cebu itinerary with a detailed list of all the best things to do in Cebu.
Day One of your Cebu Itinerary
Start first from the centre of Cebu. There is Colon Street, which is the oldest street in the Philippines. Although there are not old buildings remained on this street, it is still famous, and here you can feel the spirit of the city. You can see a lot of shops, malls, restaurants, street vendors, and everything else, which is typical for the urban life of the Philippines. Yes, it may be not a favourite place for those who love natural tranquility, but if you want to get an initial “feeling” of Cebu, it is a must to visit area.
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Basilica Minore del Santo Nino and the Magellan’s Cross
This is one of the landmarks of Cebu. Basilica Santo Nino is the oldest church in the Philippines, containing the oldest relic in the country- the small statuette of the Child Jesus. There is a story behind it. This statuette was a gift, offered by Magellan to the local prince Rajah Humabon in 1521. But only few days later Magellan was killed and the Europeans left the Philippines.
44 years later new Spanish colonizers came, lead by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who burned the resisting local city to the ground. But a Spanish soldier found the statuette of Santo Nino undamaged in the ruins. It was considered a miracle, and since then this statue has it special place in the Basilica Santo Nino, like a symbol of the resurrection. The same year, 1565, the first church in the Philippines, in the present location of the Basilica was built.
You can walk around the church- inside the main church building, and outside in the yard. There is a small museum, presenting its history and some relics. But if there is a mass service, you can’t make photos everywhere outside, but only in some places, where it is allowed.
Then you can go out, from the other gate, and you will see the small shrine of the Magellan’s Cross. It is a cross, planted in this place by Magellan’s people in 1521. Now it is not sure if the present cross in the shrine is the original one, or a replica, made later by the Spanish colonizers. But one thing is sure- it is another special relic, an object of worship by the locals, which believe that this cross has some miraculous power. And indeed, you can often see people praying and worshiping inside the shrine. Now the shrine and the cross are another landmark of Cebu to visit.
Fort San Pedro
After the Basilica and Magellan’s Cross, you can proceed walking about 10-15 mins to another destination to visit- Fort San Pedro.
This fort is the oldest one in the Philippines (again, Cebu presents one more “the oldest” thing). Its first version was wooden, built by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. Then it was made by stones, few times renovated, used by Spaniards, Americans and Filipinos. Until recent times, only some 50-60 years ago, when it was turned into a museum.
It has a shape of triangle, with three bastion towers on its corners. There is a garden inside, and two exhibitions of photos and relics. Entrance fee: 30 PHP
There is also a nice park in from of the fort, where you can sit for a while to relax and make som beautiful photos of the area. Then you can proceed to the north, where 3 more places are awaiting you. The first one is Casa Gorordo, in some 25-30 mins walk from Fort San Pedro.
This beautiful mansion is the best presentation of the mixed culture in the Philippines. As we know, this country has a lot of influences during its history, and it formed the current modern atmosphere here. Local Filipinos, Spanish Catholics, Americans, also Chinese, Muslims, all they left their cultural traces everywhere.
Casa Gorordo is a splendid example of a rich family presenting this mixed culture, which lived here until the first half of the 20th century. When you enter its yard, you can see a nice small garden with a lot of Chinese red lanterns hanging on a decorative rope. Then you can enter the house.
A friendly guide will take you to a short tour inside the house. You will see a movie, an introducing exhibition, then you will enjoy the rooms and their unique decoration. There you can recognize various cultural traces in everything- from the furniture to the plates in the kitchen. Finally you can relax in a cafe on the exit. Entrance fee: 120 PHP
Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House
From Casa Gorordo walk 2-3 mins, turn left and you will see another house. A dark brown, richly decorated house with a lot of wood material, and a small beautiful garden beside it. This is Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House.
It is one of the oldest houses in Cebu. Built in the late 17th century and owned by a Chinese merchant. Here you can see another example of the mixed culture, but this time the mix is mainly between Chinese and Spanish influence. Entrance fee: 50 PHP.
Heritage of Cebu Monument
Proceed walking on the street, and after 1-2 mins you will see a huge stone ship, with many symbols of the Catholicism and conquistador’s era. There is a high cross, church image, Spanish warriors, and sails standing still forever, blown by the wind of the centuries. This is one of the final landmarks of Cebu, which can mark the end of the historical Day One of this itinerary. You can make a memorable photos there, then you can relax, preparing for the next day.
All the destinations of Day One can be passed on foot. The distances are short and since it is the center of Cebu, the local street traffic is very busy, it can be horrible sometimes. In fact, if you take a taxi from Fort San Pedro to Casa Gorordo, due to the traffic you can travel around 15 mins. But walking on foot is 15 mins too, so if you don’t feel too hot or tired, better just walk.
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This day you can make your trip to Mactan Island. If you arrive at Cebu or depart from the city by airplane, you inevitably will go to Mactan, because there is the airport. But apart from it, you have to make a separate visit to this island.
Again history and again Magellan. This is the place of the Battle of Mactan, where in 1521 the famous navigator and his people, in union with Rajah Humabon go to the island to fight against the Humabon’s rival- Lapu-Lapu. Unfortunately for the Europeans, Magellan found his death there and his followers left westward to Portugal, accomplishing the first human trip around the world without their leader.
Now there is a small park in the battleground, called Mactan Shrine. It has two monuments. The first one is Magellan’s Marker, dedicated to the famous navigator and marking the place of his death. And the second one is Lapu-Lapu Monument- a statue of the local chieftain warrior, considered now as a national hero, fighting against the foreign rule (currently the second monument is inaccessible due to construction work, but seems it will be opened soon). You can also see a decoration of many images of Lapu-Lapu along the local Punta Engano road too.
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The beaches of Mactan
Then, it is time for beach. The whole southeast coast of Mactan Island is a place, mainly arranged as a beach resorts chain. There are many resorts with their own beaches. The beaches are sandy and relatively small. The water is pure (as in most of the Philippines) and calm, without waves, so it is good for diving too.
Every beach has entrance fee, which is not always cheap. The price varies between 120 and 350 PHP. The main beaches are Mactan North, Maribago North, Maribago South and Mactan South. And there are luxury resorts- hotel complexes near the coast of Mactan. So you can go there and use this second day of your itinerary to enjoy the sea at Cebu.
How to go to Mactan
If your accommodation is in the center of Cebu, this time you need transport to Mactan. The fastest way is by taxi, but of course, it is the most expensive way- it can be around 300 and more PHP (and there is often traffic jam before the two bridges to Mactan, which additionally increases the sum).
The cheap way is by jeepney. First you have to go to Parkmall. It is a large mall in the northern suburbs of Cebu, where is one of the main jeepneys terminal. From there you take another jeepney to Mactan Shrine. The price in the jeepney normally is between 8 and 12 PHP.
And from Mactan Shrine to some of the beaches you need a taxi, but it would be much cheaper, because you are closer to the beaches. Depending on the beach and the distance, the price can be between 60 and 150 PHP.
A good option is to not just spend your time in a Mactan beach, but to make a trip to Olango Island. It is actually a group of small islands with a shoal between them, where is the Wildlife Sanctuary. You can take a boat from Angasil wharf for 15 PHP and reach Olango for 20 mins.
Once arrive in Olango Island, you can explore its Wildlife Sanctuary. Another popular activity in this place is scuba diving. There are three main spots for it- Mabini Point, Baring and Santa Rosa.
To cover everything what is essential in Mactan and Olango islands, it is better to go there early, to have enough time to enjoy what the local sea offers. However, bear in mind that the beaches of Mactan are not the best beaches in the Philippines, so one day for them is enough.
This would be the day to finish everything else, which Cebu can offer. There are many things that you can do in the city.
If you like shopping- there are a few big malls where you can go. Among them the most notable are SM Cebu Mall, Ayala City Mall, Robinson’s Mall and Parkmall. They are not far from the center and you can go there for about 100-120 PHP by taxi or just by jeepney. The center itself also is a good place for shopping. It is quite crowded, but for those who want to feel the local city atmosphere, it has its own charm.
There are a few museums, which are good to visit too, to enrich your impression about Cebu. The best one is Cebu Provincial Museum. It is still in the center and can be reached on foot. It presents information about the history of Cebu (and as you already noticed, the city’s history is long and interesting). Another museum is Jose R. Gullas Halad Museum, dedicated to the music of the Philippines.
It is another activity, which can be experienced in the tallest building of Cebu – Crown Regency Cebu. You can go to the top floor of the building, enjoy the stunning view of the city and walk on the edge (it is made safe by cables).
Nightlife in Cebu
The best area about the night life is Mango Square and the area around it. It is full of bars, discos and restaurants, so you can enjoy spending your evenings in Cebu in this place, if you like such kind of evenings of course.
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Useful tips about a trip to Cebu
Cebu is relatively easy and safe to explore. Of course, not everything is perfect, but a trip to this city could be a nice and funny experience. Here are some useful tips to help you have a better time in your trip.
Transport in Cebu
The main kinds of transport around Cebu are jeepneys, taxi, tricycles and buses. As everywhere in the Philippines, there are no “bus numbers” or “jeepney numbers”, but if you want to know where is this or that jeepney going, you can read the names of its main terminals. Anyway, the best is just to ask the driver.
Buses are available too, but they are rare, connecting mainly Cebu Mactan Airport and the neighboring towns. One of the main bus terminals is SM Cebu City.
The taxis are basically cheap, starting from 40 PHP, as in the other cities in the country. An advice: if you arrive in Cebu by ferry, it is better don’t take a taxi directly from the port, unless you have a good experience with them. There are many taxi drivers “hunting naive tourists like predators”. They could offer prices, which are 2-3 times more expensive than the real price, and usually refuse to use their taxi meter. But if you walk only 100 m further, you can stop a passing taxi, which is usually “normal”.
The tricycles are usually more expensive than the jeepneys, especially to the foreigners, but you can bargain. From Cebu port 1 to Colon Street for example should be around 50 PHP and even cheaper if you bargain better.
Accommodation in Cebu
Such a big city like Cebu has a lot of hotels, hostels and Airbnb, from low budget to luxury. If you are looking for the luxury hotels- most of them are in Mactan beach resorts. If you are looking for a good location – for an itinerary like this, the best option is one of the hotels located a little north of the center.
Looking for good location, the best hotel that I found was Hotel Mercedes. It is only 60 m away from Colon Street, in easy walkable distance from all the destinations in the center, with a lot of taxis and jeepneys passing by, and a lot of shops, restaurants and malls nearby.
Where to eat in Cebu
Here I would not come into details about the food in the Philippines and particularly Cebu. There are a lot of good restaurants, offering various meals of the traditional Philippines food. But instead I would just advice: be aware of buying street food! It smells yummy, but the hygiene is quite low, so the possibility of stomachache, diarrhea or even something more serious is real!
If you just want a cheap food- one of the Philippines cheap food emblems- Jollibee fast food can be found everywhere. Another good cheap restaurant is Mang Inasal, where you can eat delicious chicken with rice.
Internet in Cebu
As everywhere in the Philippines, the mobile internet is painfully slow. Wifi is better, compared to most of the other smaller cities, towns and villages- at least it is more stable.
Safety and scams in Cebu
Cebu is generally a safe city. There are no more dangerous possible situations than every other big city in Asia and in the world, but just the “normal” ones, such as pick-pocketing, taxi improper charging or selling false replicas of some expensive products. That is actually normal. I would advice- if you fall in such a scam, and if it doesn’t harm seriously your money, health or time schedule, just forget it, don’t allow it to destroy your mood and your nice time in Cebu!
This guest post has been written by Krasen and Ying Yang, a couple from Bulgaria and China who run the travel site Journey Beyond the Horizon. You can follow their travel adventures on Facebook and Instagram.