In the 19th century, Iloilo was the Philippines' richest city. The sugar trade made millionaires out of the landowners, traders and middlemen who lived in the city and neighboring towns of Jaro, Mandurriao, La Paz, Santa Barbara, and Molo.
While the local sugar trade is a shadow of its former self, Iloilo remains a crown jewel of the Philippines' cities: a gracious settlement with a bustling city center, grand churches, excellent food, and a tradition of generosity that visitors experience to this day.
The Philippines' capital Manila fares poorly in comparison. Iloilo has little of its packed slums, traffic, and pollution, replacing those with an abundance of museums, shiny new hotels and restaurants, and an irrepressible optimism and pride of place.
The city is a six-hour bus ride from Caticlan near Boracay, and well worth a few days' detour if you want to see the cultural upside of this part of the Philippines. Here's what to do once you're there.
Take a Morning Stroll Along the Iloilo Esplanade
A new, 0.7 mile-long riverside walk now graces the Iloilo River separating the city’s districts of Mandurriao and Molo. The Iloilo Esplanade currently serves as a focus for activity, leisure, dining, and nightlife in the city, thanks to its central location and its proximity to bars, restaurants, and hotels in Smallville and the Atria Park District.
Early morning and late afternoon hours at the Esplanade see it filled with joggers and pedestrians just taking in the gentle light, the sight of the river, and the occasional mangrove patches along the water. Coffee breaks or full-blown meals can be had at the adjacent Riverside Boardwalk complex.
Travel Back in Time at Calle Real
The main thoroughfare of J.M. Basa Street has long been Iloilo’s main business avenue, The former “Calle Real” (Royal Street) connected the Plaza Alfonso XII (now Plaza Libertad) to the Casa Real and the city’s stately mansions. The buildings on this stretch have a long, rich history dating back to the early 20th century,
Key stops along Calle Real include the venerable Eusebio Villanueva Building, formerly a luxury hotel and now a creative space for art galleries like gallery i; Roberto’s Queen Siopao, Iloilo’s favorite stop for Chinese meat buns; and the Casa Real de Iloilo, former provincial capitol turned museum and exhibition space.
Visit Iloilo’s Only UNESCO World Heritage Site
The gorgeously-carved Miag-ao Church is one of the Philippines’ UNESCO-recognized baroque churches, sharing the honor with San Agustin Church in Manila. Completed in 1787, it was set on the highest point of the town inland to protect against then-frequent slave raids—the five-foot-thick walls attest to Miag-ao Church’s secondary use as a fortress.
The stone bas-relief on the Miag-ao Church’s facade uses tropical elements, like a coconut tree, palms, and papaya trees, to accompany venerable Catholic figures like Saint Christopher and Miag-ao’s patron saint Thomas of Villanueva.
You can visit the church on any day (Miag-ao is a 30-minute drive from Iloilo City), but try to visit during St. Thomas’ feast day, on Sept. 22, to join in the fiesta celebrations with the rest of the townspeople.
Buy Handmade Lace and Fine Embroidery
About 50 women work at Women United Through Handcrafted Lace and Embroidery’s workshop tables, creating beautifully-rendered religious artwork and fanciful animals from little more than thread, cloth, needles, and bobbins.
Their handiwork was borne out of necessity—these former patients of the Western Visayas Sanitarium in Santa Barbara had trouble finding employers willing to hire leprosy survivors. Today, their cooperative turns out delicate bobbin lace and embroidered cloth.
Tourists can come to watch the masters at their craft, and buy their products at the shop after.
Feel Like a Million Bucks at a Sugar Baron’s Mansion
The megamillionaire Lopez family of the Philippines built a sugar empire from their home base in Jaro, Iloilo. One of the Lopez scions later built a magnificent Beaux-Arts mansion in 1928 that reminds today’s visitors of the charmed lives of Iloilo’s pre-war upper crust.
The mansion at the heart of the ten-acre Nelly’s Garden (named after the builder’s daughter) looks wedding-cake gaudy both inside and out, with jazz-age ornaments and furnishings. A gracefully-curving staircase links the upper and lower floors, and the interiors are lavish in hardwood and luxurious fabrics.
In its heyday, Presidents, ambassadors, and Governors-general regularly slept here when visiting Iloilo. The present-day Nelly’s Garden was named a National Historic Landmark by the Philippines’ National Historical Institute in 2004.
Eat Netong’s Original La Paz Batchoy Noodles
The hearty Iloilo noodle dish known as La Paz batchoy was invented in its namesake market in downtown Iloilo, where Netong’s still holds court. Nothing can be more straightforward, yet more beloved to the average Ilonggo (as the local ethnic group is called): beef stock, egg noodles, innards, bone marrow, crushed pork rind, garlic, and egg, best eaten with a side order of puto, or Filipino rice cakes.
Netong’s has branched out across the city, with standalone air-conditioned stores in fancier locales like the Atria Park District. But Ilonggos swear by the batchoy that’s still served at Netong’s original market location.
Relive a Golden Age at Molo Plaza
Before its incorporation as one of Iloilo City’s districts, the town of Molo was the designated Chinese residential area—and as the local Chinese and mestizos’ fortunes rose with the sugar trade, the town increased in prominence and beauty as well.
Traces of the town’s old glory can be found at the Molo Plaza, where the Saint Anne Parish Church (Molo Church) stands. Raised in 1831, the neo-Gothic Molo Church trades feminist themes with its adjoining park. On the church’s aisle pillars, 16 female saints occupy niches looking over the congregation; outside, a gazebo in the plaza shelters a sextet of Greek goddesses (pictured).
On Locsin Street at Molo Plaza’s western side, the 1920s-era Yusay-Consing Mansion (Molo Mansion) serves up artisanal ice cream at the backyard and local souvenirs at the ground floor.
Explore Local History at the Western Visayas Regional Museum
A former provincial jail now serves as the premier National Museum for the Western Visayas region. Some $1.9 million was spent on refurbishing the building, enclosing the courtyard in a glass dome, and adding a grassy walking space on the roof.
Today, the Western Visayas Regional Museum shows a rotating lineup of exhibits that depict the islands’ surprisingly extensive history and rich culture.
Little remains of the prison that operated here from 1911 to 2006. In place of cells, five galleries exhibit displays ranging from traditional textiles from the Visayas; ancient fossils from nearby islands; and permanent exhibits like the Oton Death Mask, a pre-colonial funerary mask made of hammered gold.
Tee Off at the Oldest Golf Course in the Philippines
The sport of golf was brought to Iloilo by Scottish railroad engineers in the 1900s. The course they constructed was the Philippines’ first, opening in 1913 as the Santa Barbara Golf and Country Club.
The rolling terrain of Santa Barbara town made it a perfect setting for a golf course, and the trees and water hazards complement the hills to make all 18 holes a challenging proposition for visiting golfers.
A museum at a pavilion overlooking the course contains artifacts relating to the Country Club’s century in existence, including very old-school gutta-percha golf balls found on the grounds.
See and Smell What’s on Sale at Iloilo Central Market
Just off Calle Real stands a massive market occupying an entire block. If you’ve never been inside a traditional Asian market, then the Iloilo Central Market can be quite a shock: maze-like hallways inside contain a variety of shops selling raw meat, dried fish, and cooked food.
The Central Market is especially famous for its trade in dried fish, which you’ll find on the Guanco Street side. The unavoidable odor of dried fish fills the air, and you’ll need a guide to explain the different kinds of fish on sale: dried squid, the tiny fish called dilis, the butterflied dried fish called daing, and mounds of fish paste the locals call guinamos.
Once you’ve made sense of the market’s layout, head over to the cooked food section where you can have coffee or a bowl of batchoy, piping hot, and cheap!
Ascend to Heaven from Garin Farm Pilgrimage Resort
Kitsch and Catholicism go surprisingly well together. Take Garin Farm’s Pilgrimage Hill experience, where guests ascend a 456-step staircase that passes by scenes from Jesus’ life, before entering a dark tunnel that terminates in a blindingly white reimagination of Heaven, complete with a looped tape of choral music praising the Most High.
This experience is particularly popular during Catholic Holy Week, where devout locals trek up the hill for a glimpse of the Afterlife.
The whimsical ascent to Heaven aside, guests to Garin Farm can enjoy everything a 34-acre working farm delivers: face-to-face encounters with farm animals; recreational facilities like a zipline, swimming pool, and fishing pond; and surprisingly comfortable accommodations for guests who prefer to stay overnight.
Buy Souvenirs at a National Hero’s Home
Patrocinio Gamboa was Jaro, Iloilo’s Betsy Ross. In 1898, she sewed a copy of the Philippine flag that signaled the town’s allegiance to the Revolutionary Government of Visayas. Her handiwork eventually led to the end of Spanish rule in this part of the Philippines.
The house she sewed the flag in—Casa Gamboa—now houses Tinukib, Iloilo’s premier souvenir shop brand on the ground floor and the Jaro Museum on the second floor. The Museum depicts the life of the Jaro heroine and her times through images and artifacts, while the shop below honors contemporary Jaro women and their beautiful handiwork.
You’ll find plenty of traditional Jaro products on sale here, along with occasional crafting demonstrations (the shop has hosted chocolate-making and “hablon” weaving demonstrations on occasion). More modern-day souvenirs adorn the shelves, too, including T-shirts, baller bands, keychains, and books.
Swim and Play at the Gigantes Islands
The “Islands of Giants” off northeastern Iloilo can take another few hours of travel from Iloilo City to reach, but this archipelago is as unspoiled as its cross-island cousin Boracay is developed. Jagged limestone formations, clean white sand beaches, and mysterious lagoons can be found in the space of a day.
You can book an island-hopping expedition that takes you to all corners of the Islas de Gigantes, including the saltwater cove known as Tangke, the lighthouse at North Gigantes Island, and the pristine beaches of Cabugao Gamay and Antonia Beach.
To get here, you’ll need to take a bus or van from Iloilo City to the town of Estancia; then ride a ferry to Gigantes Norte, the main jump-off point for a Gigantes islands adventure. Accommodations in the Gigantes Islands are basic and cheap, mostly located on Gigantes Norte Island.