The island of Luzon is the main and most crowded island of the Philippines, although it is impossible to cover it in a few days, we will come close to explore the historic colonial city of Vigan, the Igorot culture in Sagada present today with the hanging coffins in the Echo Valley, the unforgettable rice terraces of Banaue and Batad and finally the effervescent metropolis of Manila, the national capital of the Philippines. I have put together in this guide all the practical information on what to do on the island of Luzon through these fascinating places: Vigan, Sagada, Banaue and Manila, in order to make the most out of your time on this wonderful island.
Considering the long distances and length of the trips, we really had 1 full day in each place we visited, although it is enough time to see the basics, however one extra day in each place will allow you to go in depth.
Vigan: 1 day
Sagada: 1 day
Banaue: 1 day
Manila: 2 days
WHAT TO DO IN LUZON
In the city of Vigan, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, you will find the best evidence of Spanish colonial architecture in Asia. Its historic center is within walking distance and its beautiful old buildings, colorful colonial houses and mansions, cobblestone streets will instantly take you back to its Spanish colonial past. Besides, here you will enjoy delicious local food.
How to get to Vigan
From Manila to Vigan you have 2 options, either by plane or bus.
The fastest option is to fly from Manila airport to Laoag with Philippine Airlines and once in Laoag take a bus to Vigan. Afterwards, to go to the Laoag bus station from the airport, it is best to take a taxi.
The flight from Manila to Laoag takes 1 hour.
The distance between Laoag and Vigan is 87 km, the trip takes 2 hours and the bus fare is Php 120.
Between Manila and Vigan there is a distance of 400 km so the journey is long, although consider the advantage that the route is direct and you can travel at night and therefore you save a night in a hotel. It takes 8 hr 30 min.
There are several companies running this route: Farinas Trans and Aniceto Bus Lines, among others. You can buy online tickets on the website 12Go.asia.
What to do in Vigan
Vigan is probably one of the most beautiful colonial cities that best conveys the Spanish colonial atmosphere of the entire Philippines. Strolling through it is like traveling back in time, through its cobblestone streets, its colorful colonial houses and even carriages. Crisologo Street is the main street of the historic center and the one with the most ambiance. It is pedestrian and all along it, you can find museums, antique stores, souvenir stores, hotels, delicious food … and also in the afternoon-evening, take place on some tourist attraction such as a show with a colorful fountain and music.
I like to underline that the traditional houses on this street are where the Spanish lived until the 19th century, some of which have now been turned into museums, souvenir stores and restaurants.
Below are the interesting places to visit in Vigan:
This is a private museum packed with objects and antiques belonging to the congressional representative Crisologo. It is the ancestral home of former Ilocos Sur Representative Floro Crisologo and his family. You will find the house is in excellent care and the tour guide gives quite knowledgeable explanations about the history of the Philippines; definitely it’s well-worth a visit. Besides, admission is free, although donations are welcome.
Leona Florentino House
Located also on Crisologo Street, this building was the ancestral home of a one of the most respected literary figures in the Philippines, Leona Florentino. Leona was deemed “the mother of feminist literature” in the Philippines and the first internationally renowned Filipino poet. The museum is worth a visit, if only to learn who Leona Florentino was.
Admission is free.
The facility itself, besides the museum, currently houses the Provincial Tourism Center, the Vigan Heritage Commission and Cafe Leona, a well-known restaurant among tourists.
This mansion converted into a museum was the home of President Elpidio Quirino, one of the most important presidents of the Philippines. It dates back to the 19th century, was built on several floors and coupled with a garden. It displays luxurious rooms, antique furniture and fine artworks. I found the museum very cute.
Admission is 30 Php and opening hours are Monday to Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.
San Pablo Metropolitan Cathedral
Also known as the Cathedral of Vigan, The church as stands today dates back to 1800 and is the fourth construction, after having been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The church was built in the Seismic Baroque style to endure earthquakes, with large buttresses on the sides and the bell tower separated from the cathedral; its architecture mixes Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and Chinese influences.
Bantay Church and Belfry
The today’s Bantay Church was built by the Augustinian friars in 1950 and is deemed to be one of the oldest churches in the province of Ilocos Sur, in the municipality of Bantay. Because of the materials used to build it, red bricks and mud, this architectural work stands out for its bright color.
Next to the church is the Belfry, which is the remains of the old church built in 1590 and subsequently destroyed during World War II.
The Belfry site offers spectacular views over the city of Vigan, and for this reason is one of the most recommended attractions.
Where to stay
Since Vigan is a small town, the historic center is the best area to stay, with hotels to suit all budgets.
We stayed at the Villa Angela Heritage House hotel, which we booked through Booking.com, and I highly recommend it. I liked the house itself, which for its antiquity looks like a museum, and also for the rooms’ cleanliness and friendly staff.
Where to eat
- Leona Cafe. As I mentioned before, Leona Cafe is one of the most iconic restaurants in Vigan. In its extensive menu you will find local, Italian and Japanese dishes. We tried several dishes and found them delicious.
- 1995 Studio Cafe. We stopped here to have a break and liked the place for its pleasant ambiance and quality coffee.
- Irene’s Empanada. Empanadas are the House specialty, and they are really delicious. It is worth trying them.
To the north of the island of Luzon, located between mountains, we find the fascinating village of Sagada. Here the Igorot culture is still very well-alive up to the present time, since surprisingly the inhabitants still preserve their ancestral funeral customs. In my opinion, in order to gain a better understading of this culture, two places are definitely essential to visit: the first one is the hanging coffins in the Echo Valley and the second one, Lumiang Burial Cave, where a hundred of wooden coffins stacks at the opening of the cave. A visit to the Lumiang Cave allows you to see this century old tradition. This cave houses at least a hundred of coffins that have been there for about 500 years.
As the guide explained their customs, I could not help but relate them to those of the Tana-Toraja ethnic group in Sulawesi (Indonesia).
How to get to Sagada
The means to get to Sagada is by bus.
We came from Vigan, and to get there we took two buses: first from Vigan to Baquio and then from Baguio to Sagada.
The distance between Vigan and Baquio is 185 km, and the trip took 5 hours. From Baguio to Sagada the journey was a little over 5 hours, as the road was not in a good condition and in several stretches we found that because of the rains the rocks had broken off and blocked the road.
You can buy the ticket online on the website 12go.asia and therefore be sure to get a seat.
Where to stay
We booked the accommodation through Booking.com, in the only place that was available, the hostel Nuestra Hogar Lodge Sagada, however, we found it quite acceptable, since the center was within a 10-minute walk, the rooms were spotless and the owner was friendly.
Where to eat
* Yogurt House. Restaurant with international, Filipino and Asian food. It overlooks the mountain, and we found the food delicious. The pesto pasta was exquisite, as was the yogurt, which we loved. Highly recommended.
What to do in Sagada
In order to make the most of our time since we were only here for 1 day, we booked an excursion at the Sagada Tourist Office. They were very helpful and informed us extensively about what to do in the village. For Php 600 we had a guide who took us to the interesting places and explained the Igorot culture.
Once in Sagada, the essential visits are the ones I detail below, in case you only have 1 day. If you have more time, my recommendation is that you get advice from the tourist office where they will suggest you appealing options, from visiting the neighboring villages to trekking through rice fields on the peak of a mountain…
The Hanging Coffings of Echo Valley
The Echo Valley is home to the Igorot ethnic minority “people of the mountains”, although they have a typci cemetery, they still maintain their custom of hanging coffins on the cliffs or in caves.
To get to this area of the hanging cemetery, the route is pretty varied, as along the way you come across a christian (standard) cemetery (located between a school and the church), forests with waterfalls and some small rice terraces.
The Igorot Culture
According to Igorot tradition, they believe in spirits, including those of ancestors, and perform complex rituals to propitiate them.
Also, the members of the Igorot tribe follow the custom of handcrafting the coffins before death, and at the time of burial their families dress them with their clothes and emblems so that their ancestors can recognize them in the “afterlife”. They buried the body in the fetal position, because they believe that this completes the life-death cycle.
A few days after the death, the coffin is moved to the Echo valley where it is hung on its walls in order to facilitate the deceased’s ascension to heaven, since in their belief, the higher the coffin is, the easier it will be to reach heaven and from this position be able to take care of their relatives from above. For this reason, they placed the coffins on mountain cliffs or in caves, but always in places where sunlight can reach them.
On the other hand, there is another theory that claims that they started hanging the coffins to save space on the farmland and to protect them from wild animals.
Sumaguing and Lumiang Caves
Lumiang Cave, also known as Sagada Cave, has at its entrance 100 ancient coffins, stacked one on top of each other, forming a wall 9 layers high. Probably the oldest coffins are about 500 years old. The reason for placing them at the entrance is that according to their beliefs, the daylight keeps away the evil spirits, and so they do not disturb the rest of the souls.
Inside the cave of Sumaguing is where you will find wonderful limestone formations. The visit lasts about 3 hours. We did not visit the cave because it was closed during the rainy season.
BANAUE and BATAD
The main reason to come to the small town of Banaue (located in the island’s north of Luzon, in the province of Ifugao) is no other than visiting its famous and ancient rice terraces. These impressive and artistic terraces deemed as the “eighth wonder of the world” have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the rice terraces of five surrounding villages, the most striking of which are those of Batad.
How to get to Banaue
By bus from Sagada, the trip takes three hours with the company Coda Lines, with schedules at 10 a.m, 14 p.m and 15 p.m. We took the 15 pm bus, buying the ticket directly at the Sagada’s ticket office.
Otherwise, the jeepney is another option, but it is not as comfortable as a bus.
Where to stay
We booked at the Rice Homestay hotel on the go; it was the only one that had availability. At a short distance from the terraces, you can enjoy a splendid panoramic view of the terraces and the river. Another plus is that they allow you to take a shower once you finish the trekking through the rice fields, even if you have already left the room.
In order to make the most of the time and see the terraces of Banaue and Batad, we preferred to hire the tour through the Tourist Office. It was the best choice because they not only informed us at length about the tour but also assigned us a friendly guide.
The price of the tour with the guide and 2 tricycles was Php 3800 plus 50 Php admission fee per person.
The tour comprises stops at 4 viewpoints along the Bontoc road at intervals of 200 meters. At one viewpoint we took a picture with an Ifugao elder wearing his tribal party attire, and for that we paid him 20 Php for the photo.
The last stop is the most spectacular, Banaue View Point, with breathtaking views of the rice terraces.
After shooting the panoramic views of the rice fields, we moved by a tricycle to Batad. This village is located 18 km from Banaue and it took us about 1 hour to get there. Because of the torrential rains of the last few days, some sections of the road were in terrible condition.
Batad amazed us with its impressive ancient terraces; the rice fields, sculpted by hand by the Ifugao tribe, are a work of engineering because of its perfect irrigation system that channels water from the jungle, left us speechless! In this village they cultivate the small plots on very steep slopes, making the shape of an amphitheater, a spectacular amphitheater that is 2,000 years old.
After enjoying the rice fields from the different viewpoints, we also made a 3 hour trekking tour along the terraces, until we reached a waterfall with abundant flow, the Tappiyah waterfall where we took a bath. To get there you have to go down about 1000 stone steps, very high and uneven, definitely a good workout. Try yourself!
Then, after cooling off at the waterfall and regaining our strength, we returned to Batad where we had lunch in a restaurant, amidst breathtaking views of the valley and rice paddies.
Tips to visit Batad
- Money. There are no ATMs in Batad, so it is essential to bring cash.
- To make the trekking it is essential to use trekking boots for hiking through the rice fields.
- If you stay overnight in Batad, you will definitely need warm clothes and a raincoat as it gets cold at night in the mountains.
I found the Philippine capital to be a chaotic city, with crowded and unplanned neighborhoods, but full of life. From my point of view, although I didn’t find the city very attractive, from my point of view it deserves at least a visit given its colonial legacy.
How to get to Manila
By bus, from Banaue to Manila, the trip takes 10 hours and a half. The distance between these two destinations is 470 km.
The bus company Ohayami bus allows you to book online on the web. Departure time from Banaue is at 7 pm.
Once in Manila, we ordered a cab with the Grab app to transfer us to the hotel.
Since the city is so chaotic, the best way to move around the city is to use Grab cars, which inform you of the fare at the same time of hiring. To do so, you just have to download the application.
Where to eat
Fortunately, the dining options in Manila are endless. In my opinion, it is easy to find excellent restaurants at an affordable price. Below are the restaurants that we tried and that I recommend:
- Harbor View Restaurant (1000 Katigbak Parkway Rizal Park). We liked the restaurant for its views of the Manila Skyline and for its delicious food; their specialties are seafood and fish, and also for the friendliness and efficiency of the staff.
- Corner Tree Cafe (150 Jupiter Street Bel-Air Village, Makati). This is a vegan restaurant in Makati in a cozy setting, which serve delicious food from different parts of the world. You can find here local beers, wines and cocktails.
- The Bayleaf Intramuros (Muralla corner Victoria streets Intramuros). We went up to the Hotel Terrace Cafeteria where we took a break during our Intramuros and it was really worth it. The views over Intramuros stroll and Rizal Park are spectacular.
Where to stay
In Manila, you will also find a wide variety of accommodations to suit all budgets.
Definitely the best area to stay is Makati, since being the financial and commercial district of the city, it is not only the safest neighborhood in Manila but also counts with many restaurants and shopping malls. Another option if you have an early flight is the area around the airport.
We opted to book near Intramuros since this was mostly the area where we spent most of our time; we stayed at the Casa Bocobo Hotel (Jorge Bocobo St, Ermita, Manila, 1000 Metro Manila) a 15-minute walk from Intramuros. Above all, I would highlight the cleanliness of the rooms and friendliness of the staff.
What to do in Manila
If you only have 2 days to visit Manila and you want to see the most of this city, then you should visit Intramuros. It is the small walled enclosure of the city where the original city was located, founded by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571, and in which you can currently see the remains of its colonial past, so knowing it will help you better understand the colonial history of the Philippines.
During World War II, the city was destroyed by the American forces and unfortunately it was never restored. The only building left standing was the church of San Agustin, and today there is much to rebuild. The planned grid layout of Intramuros contains huge squares and the monumental governor’s palace.
What to see in Intramuros
Here are the must-see places during your stay in Manila.
1 – Fort Santiago
In the first place, considering its history, the must visit site is Fort Santiago, a fortress built by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1590. For Filipinos, the Fort Santiago is very important because it was here that Jose Rizal, defending the rights of all Filipinos, was accused of rebellion by the Spaniards, later imprisoned and finally executed in 1896.
There is a memorial to Rizal that explains his history and his life. You can also visit the cell where he spent his last days and wrote the poem “My Last Farewell”.
In other news, you will enjoy strolling through the peaceful gardens.
Price: 75 pesos
Opening Hours: 8 am to 11 pm.
2 – Manila Cathedral
The second must-see visit in Intramuros is the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or Manila Cathedral, located in the Plaza de Roma. The church began construction in 1581 and has been destroyed several times.
In fact, the present Cathedral is the eighth version of the first cathedral in Manila. The present building dates back to 1958 and features the Spanish colonial style.
In the Plaza de Roma, considered the center of Intramuros, we also find two landmark buildings: the Governor’s Palace and the Consistories Houses or Manila City Hall. In the center of the square there is a statue erected in honor of Charles IV of Spain as thanks for having sent to the Philippines the first vaccine against smallpox.
Opening Hours: 6 am to 5:30 pm from Monday to Friday; 6 am to 7 pm on Saturdays and Sundays
3 – San Agustin Church
The Church of San Agustin dates back to 1607 as the oldest church in the Philippines, and as I mentioned before, it was the only building left standing after the bombings of World War II. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, it houses the tombs of Spanish conquistadors Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, Martin de Goiti and Juan de Salcedo.
4 – Museum
Within the walled area of Intramuros is this museum housed in the reconstructed Church and Convent of San Ignacio. The Jesuits built the church, and it exhibits over 500 religious items belonging to the ecclesiastical buildings of Intramuros.
I highly recommend a visit to this museum in case you can spare the time, since it explains the history of the Philippines in a most didactic and entertaining way. Admission is free.
5 – Casa Manila
One of the must-see buildings in Intramuros is Casa Manila. It is a colonial style building that Imelda Marcos had built in the 1980s. The museum/palace recreates the ambiance of a colonial gentry family home. Its furniture is exquisite and made of fine woods: chairs, tables, armchairs and definitely the distribution of the rooms will amaze you.
Not only does the house have a beautiful courtyard with a fountain but also several restaurants and a bar where you can relax and get away from the chaos of the city for a few moments.
Price: 75 Php
Opening Hours: 9 am to 6 pm. Mondays closed
6 – Intramuros Wall
This wall defended the city and surrounded it along the Pasig river. As of today, it only remains standing at some points, but you have the possibility of walking along it and to walk through its gardens. Also, from them you can enjoy an amazing panorama of the most modern area of Manila.
Some facts of this wall: the walls were 2 and a half meters thick, and measured 6.5 meters approximately.
Moreover, in Intramuros you can find 7 defensive bastions, the oldest is the one of San Diego, from 1587.
Finally, the wall had 8 access gates to the city, with drawbridges, but nowadays you can appreciate only three: Puerta de Santa Lucia, Puerta Real and Puerta de Isabel II, since the other gates were demolished during the Second World War.
What to do outside Intramuros
Rizal Park and José Rizal Monument
This bustling park is located just outside Intramuros, where Manila families enjoy picnics and the coolness of its fountains. In this park was where Jose Rizal was executed and therefore also contains a monument erected in his honor.
The Rizal Park monument is a 42-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Rizal, placed on a granite stone base in which his remains are buried.
Go for a stroll along China Town
If you feel like getting to know Manila’s Chinatown, definitely come and visit it. As a curiosity, Manila’s China Town is the oldest in the world. Walking around the streets of Chinatown is like being in China, all written in Chinese. Be patient, as there are people everywhere.
Visit Makati district
The cosmopolitan neighborhood of Makati will surprise you. Manila’s commercial and financial district of the Philippines, is home to the tallest and most modern buildings in the Philippines, businesses and, of course, a multitude of leisure options, for example, huge shopping malls, places crowded by the locals seeking entertainment and a relief from the sweltering heat.
In particular, the Greenbelt mall stands out with its 5 buildings and Glorietta with 4 buildings. Likewise, the Ayala Triangle is a small green park, beautifully maintained with restaurants and terraces to take a break during your sightseeing tour.
Finally, in Manila ends our journey through the Philippines. It has really been 30 intense days, full of experiences, in which we have known the culture of the country, remarkable landscapes and wonderful people.
Luzon Island Guide Final Thoughts
I hope this guide to the island of Luzon will help and inspire you to prepare for your trip. In addition, if you are planning to travel for an extended period in the Philippines, you might be interested in reading this series of guides I have compiled about the islands.