As the senior city in the Philippines (founded six years before the city of Manila), Cebu lays claim to an older, purer Filipino culture. It has fervent Catholic faith, grounded in devotion to the Santo Niño; tangible history, shown by the old churches and watchtowers in the city and the rest of the island; and proximity to nature, by way of beaches, diving spots, waterfalls, and mountains.
Fly straight to Cebu Airport and out to Cebu Island and its variety of activities. The ones we’ve listed here cover not just Cebu and Mandaue Cities, but also the nearby island of Mactan and other points of interest throughout Cebu Island itself.
Make a Pilgrimage to the Santo Niño Basilica
The Basílica Minore del Santo Niño (Minor Basilica of the Holy Child) stands on the site of a "miraculous" discovery. In 1565, an icon of the child Jesus was found in the smoldering remains of a native village that was burned down by the Spanish for their impertinence.
Ever since that momentous discovery, the Santo Niño ("Holy Child" in Spanish) has served as Cebu’s foundational icon, the center of local worship, and the basis for Cebu’s biggest festival, Sinulog.
A shrine immediately to the left of the Basilica del Santo Niño's gilded altar contains
the 500-year-old Santo Niño icon, which leaves its niche once a year for Sinulog. At the nearby Pilgrim Center, a tiny museum houses centuries-old sacred vestments, Bibles, missals, Mass accessories, and donations from devotees. Several shelves hold donated toys, supposedly for the child Jesus' enjoyment!
Throw candles for luck at Magellan’s Cross
At Plaza Sugbo, the square at the southern side of the Basilica del Santo Niño, a small pavilion houses an interesting relic of extreme significance to Philippine history. The barred pavilion contains the wooden cross first planted by Ferdinand Magellan on Philippine soil in 1521.
The original cross is supposedly inside the cross that now stands in the pavilion, preventing devotees from pursuing their former habit of chipping off splinters to keep as souvenirs. For good luck, visitors instead throw candles onto the foot of the cross.
Above the cross, the painted ceiling depicts the seeds of Catholicism (and three centuries of Spanish colonial rule) being planted on Cebu’s shores—the baptism of a local nobleman and the installation of Magellan’s cross on the island.
Walk Through the Historic Parian District
Wherever the Spanish conquistadores set up shop, they created settlements called “Parian” where house the local Chinese community. The families that lived in Cebu's parian transformed the area into a bustling economic hub.
While the district has seen better days, many buildings in the parian still retain an echo of their former glory. Visit this historic area in Cebu City to visit its grand houses-turned-museums: the Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House; Casa Gorordo, built in the 1850s to house its namesake merchant family; and the Jesuit House (Museo Parian sa Sugbo), a grand house donated by its builders to the Jesuit Catholic order, and the oldest house in Parian, dating back to 1730.
Swim With Whale Sharks in Oslob
Tame whale sharks swim in the waters off Tan-Awan town in Oslob, some three hours’ drive south from Cebu City. After a careful briefing by local authorities, visitors can board paddle-powered outrigger boats to meet the whale sharks. They can even snorkel among the slowly-swimming whale sharks, though visitors are cautioned to maintain a healthy distance from the giant fishes.
Local whale sharks have been conditioned to feed from local fishermen, who throw krill in the water to attract them. This has attracted some controversy, as some consider the local practice to be an unethical form of behavioral modification.
To get to Oslob, go to Cebu City’s South Terminal and look for buses headed to “Bato Oslob”; air-conditioned buses cost 155 Philippine pesos per trip.
Buy a Handmade Guitar at Alegre
Filipino musicians swear by Cebu’s high-quality handmade guitars. Introduced by friars during the Spanish colonial era, the art of guitar-making is now concentrated in Maribago on Mactan Island.
Alegre Guitar, run by third-generation proprietor Fernando M. Alegre, is one of Maribago’s most tourist-friendly places to see guitars being made. Alegre’s luthiers painstakingly craft guitars from local wood and imported strings; the factory churns out a limited number of guitars a week, ranging from compact ukeleles to gorgeous full-size instruments with exotic inlays.
Parachute or Paraglide over Cebu
Cebu’s even more fun in freefall—just ask happy customers of Skydive Cebu Adventures,
the Philippines’ only USPA (United States Parachute Association) certified group member.
Strap in for a tandem skydive over Cebu’s Bantayan Island—paired with a skydiving instructor, you’ll jump off a plane at 20,000 feet and fall to earth until the instructor pulls the chute and you drift down, enjoying the scenery all the way.
Further south at the town of Daanglungsod near Oslob, you can take a paragliding expedition from the local hills courtesy of Oslob Cebu Paragliding Development. You’ll be strapped in with an instructor, who controls the flight and directs the launch and touchdown—all you need to do is enjoy the view!
Take an Easy Hike Up Osmeña Peak
The cooler climate of Barangay Mantolongon south of Cebu City feels like a relief compared to the Philippines’ sea-level humidity. The landscape is just as different: sharp limestone peaks stab the sky, your backdrop as you hike to Osmeña Peak from Mantolongon.
Motorized tricycles can drop you off at the trailhead and reception building. Pay 30 pesos at the registration area, then start the 25-minute hike to the peak – an easy workout with amazing views along the way. At the peak (3,300 feet above sea level), you’ll see almost the entirety of Cebu Island, with neighboring islands Bohol and Negros in the distance.
See (and Smell) Taboan Market
For Cebu local culture at its most authentic, a visit to Taboan Market in the middle of Cebu City can’t be beaten. Check out this Cebu city wet market, and you’ll walk away with an appreciation of the Filipino love for dried seafood, and a few local snacks or two.
Start at the entrance on Trese de Abril Street and work your way in—you’ll pass piles of dried rabbitfish called “danggit”; dried squid, or “pusit”, and local delicacies like dried mango and the flaky cookies called otap.
Be forewarned, though: the heaps of dried fish and squid exude an unforgettable aroma that even sticks to your clothes after you leave!
Go Scuba Diving in Cebu’s Waters
The waters surrounding Cebu have both excellent scuba-diving conditions and easy access. Drive or take a motorized outrigger boat from Cebu City (as the case may be) to any of the outlying areas or islands and their dive sites.
Malapascua Island in the north is famous for Monad Shoal and its schools of thresher sharks and manta rays; Talima is a favorite reef and wall dive, thanks to its plentiful coral and fish population. Finally, Moalboal’s “sardine run” is a particular hit with divers, who marvel at the huge schools of sardines gathering in the waters, then being scattered by blackfin trevally.
Warm waters averaging at 84 degrees F (29 degrees C), and good visibility at 50-66 feet, combine to make Cebu a truly epic dive destination. Time your visit for the dry season between November and May.
Visit Cebu's Biggest Taoist Temple
Thanks to Cebu’s vibrant Chinese community, Taoism continues to be practiced by a fair number of the city’s most influential people. You can see this ongoing practice up close at the Cebu Taoist Temple, a house of worship located inside a private housing subdivision in the hills surrounding the city.
Two different temples make up the complex: the Phu Sian Temple (closed to visitors) and the main temple that can be visited by all comers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Once you get past the entrance, you’ll find yourself in a richly-decorated temple complex with a library, chapel, wishing well, and souvenir shop. Devotees come to have their fortunes told, meditate, and just enjoy the panoramic views from the temple terrace, from some 880 feet above sea level.
Entrance to the Taoist temple is free, but photography is not allowed once inside.
Check Out Carcar’s Stately Old Houses
Carcar looks pretty good for a 400-year-old town. Established in 1599, this heritage town south of Cebu City has plenty going for it: weathered but beautiful old mansions; an expansive town square where one can buy the island’s best lechón (roasted suckling pig); and public architecture (both religious and civic) that reflect the best of the era they were built in.
The Carcar City Museum is the best place to start exploring; outside you’ll marvel at the gorgeous latticework from the 1920s, inside you’ll find the town’s history laid out through relics and displays.
Eat Cebu's Local Lechon
A “magical animal” and the “best pig ever”: the late Anthony Bourdain had no small praise for Cebu’s lechón. In many ways, it’s the same as the suckling pig you’ll chow down on in Bali, and in so many essential ways it’s worlds apart.
When Cebuanos prepare lechón, they stuff a whole pig with lemongrass, garlic, onions, and bay leaves; then slowly broil it over glowing coals for hours until the skin turns crisp. No self-respecting Filipino celebration ever takes place without a lechón at the buffet table, but Cebuanos have turned their particular talent for making roast pig into an all-year-round treat.
Cebuanos swear by the lechón served at Carcar Public Market's Lechón Alley but in Cebu City, you can go to Rico’s Lechon, CnT Lechon, Zubuchon, and Ayer’s Lechon to try this local delicacy for yourself.