The Philippines has been on my top list of countries to visit for some time, and finally, we decided to tick the box. We were not sure how and where to start our trip, but we knew that we didn’t want to start and end our trip at the same location in the Philippines or it might be better to say from the same island.
We knew Cebu was one of the islands in the Philippines that we definitely wanted to visit. Swimming with whale sharks was the main reason we wanted to go there. You probably have seen the photos on social media, we have too. But, in the end, we did go to Cebu but we didn’t go swimming with the popular whale sharks. Yes, we planned to experience it but we skipped it for a few reasons: it is way too popular among tourists and it can get very crowded to be enjoyable, it can be not as nice and relaxing as diving or snorkeling. Another main reason was the location, it was quite far from Cebu City and it takes between 3 to 4 hours to get there and at least the same amount of time to get back. The last but very important reason was that we love to see animals in their natural environment without disturbing their lives, while these whale sharks come to Cebu because they are fed by fishermen, they don’t live there. So we promised ourselves we would find a better way to swim with whale sharks in the future and planned something different.
Cebu City is one of the 6 component cities in the island, and it offers a variety of activities and things to do. If you, like us, don’t want to swim with whale sharks in a crowded spot, this post is for you.
How to get to Cebu
The fastest way to reach Cebu is by plane. Cebu is an international destination with flights from Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and also Dubai. We booked our flight from London to Cebu with only a two-hour layover in Dubai. If you are in Europe you can do the same and book your flight with Emirates Airline and change in Dubai to get to Cebu. No worries if you prefer a direct flight to the Philippines. You can go directly to Manila and stay a day or two there, then take a domestic flight to go to Cebu.
Where to stay in Cebu City
Mactan-Cebu International Airport is not far from the city. Some people choose to stay near the airport, but others, like us, prefer to stay on the main island, closer to Cebu City. We stayed in two different hotels during our stay in Cebu, both were great in regards of location and services: Bai Hotel Cebu, which has ultra-modern amenities and facilities with a great view and an outdoor swimming pool, and Summit Galleria Cebu, the epitome of artistic and urban contemporary design with an indoor swimming pool and a very nice restaurant.
Things to see in the city
We took a taxi in front of our hotel to go to the city centre. Keep in mind that it is convenient and cheap to move around in the Philippines including Cebu by taxi, apart from the usual traffic. We got off the taxi somewhere in the centre, then we strolled around the streets. We passed some street markets until we reached Colon Street, the main street in the city, where there are shops, malls and restaurants (most of the restaurants around are fast food restaurants though).
We were hungry and as I mentioned earlier in Colon Street we could mostly see fast food chains. We were familiar with some of them like McDonald's or KFC, but there were many others that we didn’t know at all. We could see a Jollibee sign almost everywhere and it was always the busiest restaurant. We did some research online and found out Jollibee is “the most beloved fast-food chain in the Philippines”, so we decided to try the local food despite the fact that we usually avoid fast food. We ordered some chicken and rice with a coca cola. The food was tasteless and we couldn’t finish it, I should add that the drink also tastes mostly like water. We don’t regret trying Jollibee (since we wanted to do what locals do), but are we ever going to try it again? Our answer is a big “NO”.
Basílica del Santo Niño
After lunch, we walked to the Basilica del Santo Niño, the oldest Roman Catholic church in the Philippines. The church dates back to the early Spanish colonial era.
We walked through the church halls and saw amazing ancient paintings, beautiful archways and we could see the image of Sto Nino (Holy Child Jesus). Even though the church is one of the main historical attractions in Cebu, many locals and tourists go there to worship on a daily basis.
Fort San Pedro
After visiting the church we walked to Fort San Pedro, the oldest triangular bastion fort in the country, which is a military defense structure. It was built by the Spaniards in 1738 during the Spanish colonisation. The original fort was made with wood, but its walls were later replaced with stones to repel Muslim raiders.
After exploring the fort, we went back to our hotel for a night swim and we watched a stunning sunset.
The day after, we took a taxi for the whole day for 2000 pesos to take us to the places we couldn’t reach by walk. Apparently, you can also take Habal Habal (a motorcycle taxi in the Philippines) if you want to save money and experience a different local way of transportation.
The first stop was the Tops Lookout, where we had a panorama view of Cebu City. You have to pay the admission fee of 100 pesos (less than £2). It wasn’t crowded at all, it was only us and another group visiting the place at that time. There is little to do except taking photos and buying some snacks and drinks from the surrounding shops.
Pro Tip: it is better to go there in the evening and watch the sunset.
Sirao Flower Garden
The second stop was Sirao Flower Garden. The entrance fee is 50 pesos (less than £1) and you might also need to pay for parking (20 pesos will do). The ticket is a flower-shaped stamp which will be marked on your wrist.
The garden is full of colourful flowers. You can also have a very beautiful view of the hills nearby Cebu. There are some nice sculptures like a huge hand, a tree house, and colourful umbrellas and hats. This picturesque garden is a perfect place to have fun and take photos. I would recommend this place to who likes taking worthy photos for Instagram.
Temple of Leah
The Temple of Leah was our third stop. It didn’t look like any other temples I have visited before. The temple is actually a shrine holding the memory and treasures of Leah Albino-Adarna, the late wife of Teodorico Soriano Adarna, owner of the Queensland chain of motels in Cebu. Some people call it “Cebu’s Taj Mahal” since it is the gesture of love from a husband to his wife. The temple has been opened to the public only for a few years and the entrance fee is 50 pesos per person plus the usual 20 pesos for parking.
I wouldn’t recommend visiting the temple if you are not visiting other attractions nearby, because it is a 45-minute drive from the city centre, but if you are willing to do what we did, it is worth a visit.
Our last stop of the day was the Taoist Temple, a beautifully designed Chinese temple located 300 meters above sea level. You should be ready to climb 181 stairs.
There is no entrance fee and no parking fee. You can take photos and videos in the outdoor space of the temple, but not inside. You also need to wash your hand and take off your shoes when you go inside and be quiet and respectful.
Taking Day Trips
We stayed in Cebu for a few days and when we finished exploring the city, we went on day trips. You should keep in mind that you can plan your own day trip and arrange the transport. One day we went to Bohol Island (A day trip to Bohol Island from Cebu) and another day we went to Kawasan Waterfalls for canyoneering (I would also write about this experience and the details of the trip including how to get there and all the available activities in another post). There are plenty of waterfalls and islands around Cebu worth visiting on a day tour.
Please let me know what is your favourite place to visit in Cebu in the comments.