The historic city of Vigan, Philippines

With the Philippines reopen, it's time to visit Vigan. This fascinating, UNESCO-listed city has architecture more akin to that of Latin America or Spain and a centuries-old heritage of international trade

4 mins

It’s perfectly likely any traveller that has visited Latin America will have encountered Spanish colonial heritage, perhaps in Cartagena in Colombia or Quito in Ecuador. Because ever since the era of the conquistadores, the Spanish relished leaving their architectural mark on their overseas possessions, artistic flourishes that captured the grandiose pomp and power of imperial Madrid.

A brief history of Vigan

Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that this predilection for architectural aggrandisement prevails in the Philippines. Under the rule of King Philip II, the Spanish began their colonisation of this sprawling archipelago in 1565 and would not relinquish it until surrender in the Spanish-American war in 1898. Yet while traces of their rule might be expected in today’s capital, Manila, the most complete and beautiful exposition of this era is actually to be found in the remote far north of Luzon Island in Vigan, a small city redesigned in their own image by the Spanish from the 16th century onwards.

An extension of the Silk Road, Vigan was flourishing long before the Spaniards had invented long-distance galleons. Prior to Juan de Salcedo seizing the city in 1572, it was a trading outpost sought by Chinese merchants who brought their silks to trade for the likes of indigo, gold and a highly prized (and still woven) fabric known as abel. When the Spanish took the city, they named it Villa Fernandina de Vigan in honour of King Philipp II’s late infant son.



Horse-drawn kalesa were the principal form of transport in the colonial era (Alamy)

Horse-drawn kalesa were the principal form of transport in the colonial era (Alamy)

Located in Ilocos Sur province, Vigan is easily missed by travellers because it’s a little off-the-beaten track for those tight on time. The World Heritage-listed rice terraces of Banaue, 250km to the south-east, are typically as far north as many visitors will venture. With no flights, and requiring a longish bus journey to reach, Vigan may feel like a bit of a schlep.

However, it’s thoroughly worth the effort. Certainly Vigan impressed UNESCO enough to invest it with World Heritage status in 1999. There were two principal reasons Vigan earned this inscription. First, it remains one of the few intact European trading cities in South-East Asia; its architectural integrity has survived sporadic upheavals by the local Bigueno population against Spain’s imposed rule and escaped excessive bombing during the Second World War – a fate that befell Manila. Second, it characterises a unique fusion of Spanish and Asian design. This is reflected in the name of the river running through the city, the Mestizo (meaning ‘half-blood’ or ‘mixed’) – a river that was an important trade corridor, providing access to the South China Sea.

St Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral was built to withstand earthquakes (Shutterstock)

St Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral was built to withstand earthquakes (Shutterstock)

What remains for visitors to enjoy today is a template of Spanish design that encapsulates elegant plazas, churches and convents, wealthy mercantile houses and cobbled streets that all retain details influenced by Chinese-Ilocano culture.

It is made for exploring on foot. Some of the city’s most attractive streets of predominately 18th- and 19th-century buildings are pedestrianised, while navigation is made easy by the grid-plan layout. The richest agglomeration of heritage architecture huddles around the two most historic plazas, Burgos and Salcedo; these are found below the confluence of the Mestizo and Govantes rivers, which make for a pleasant sunset cruise. The alleys also echo with the clip-clopping hooves of horse-drawn carriages called kalesa – they offer rides, though try to avoid them as concerns remain over the welfare of the horses.

An excellent landmark is St Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, an early 19th-century reincarnation of a church built by the Augustinians in 1574; inside is the typical bombast of Baroque design. It lacks the finery of the nearby Archbishop’s Palace, finished in 1783, and which possesses a colourful museum of all things ecclesiastical. On the subject of museums, do seek out a nearby one, on Reyes Street, dedicated to the life of Vigan-born Padre José Burgos, a revolutionary Filipino Catholic priest who called for reform. He was unjustly tried by the Spanish and taken to Manila in 1872, where he was garrotted.

Elsewhere in Vigan, a pleasing uniformity of design remains, notably ancestral houses with thick walls, weighty doors and red-tiled or corrugated-aluminium roofs. Look out for vernacular flourishes such as delightful capiz-shell sliding windows, a cheaper substitute for glass. Most pleasant of all is Crisologo Street. Free of traffic, it’s a lively cobblestone thoroughfare with classical townhouses and abundant cafes and bars, that can be ducked into during the fierce heat of the day. This is Vigan’s tourist hotspot and commerce here remains alive and well, with numerous souvenir shops, mostly selling tat. However, there are some lovely keepsakes to be found, not least Vigan’s renowned woven fabric, abel ilocano, as well as a speciality ceramicware called burnay, handsome narrow-necked storage jars that will certainly require a larger suitcase to transport home.

Many of the heritage hotels and guesthouses are located centrally, and provide easy access to the fairly sedate nightlife offered in this conservative town. Sunset brings a measure of cool – albeit a minimal reduction to the clinging humidity – so head out at dusk onto the atmospherically lamp-lit streets to seek a cold drink and typical Ilocano delicacies including longganisa sausage, sinanglaw (soupy beef brisket) and orange-coloured empanadas. Cafe Leona, on Crisologo Street, is a highly popular place for food.

Before the evening ends, drift back to Plaza Burgos to enjoy a dazzlingly kitsch display of illuminated fountains.

Crisologo St was also called Kasanglayan, or ‘Place of the Chinese’, as it was a hub for foreign traders (Shutterstock)

Crisologo St was also called Kasanglayan, or ‘Place of the Chinese’, as it was a hub for foreign traders (Shutterstock)

Antique furniture dots the cobble-stoned streets (Shutterstock)

Antique furniture dots the cobble-stoned streets (Shutterstock)

Top things to do in Vigan

Stroll… Take a walk down Vigan’s liveliest and most historic street, pedestrianised Calle Crisologo. Enjoy and savour the street’s appealing blend of classical architecture, café-bars, souvenir shops and museums.

Watch… It’s possible to visit family looms to see weavers at work, creating hand-woven abel iloco, the bright, naturally dyed cotton textile particular to the city. The cloth may be fashioned into table runners and scarves, available to buy locally.

Eat… There’s definitely nothing plant-based about Vigan longganisa, the city’s much-loved speciality sausage. This hearty banger is made with pork, brown sugar, garlic, onions, bay leaves, soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper and salt.

Swim… Take a dip in the warm South China Sea from gorgeous black-sand Mindoro Beach, a short journey by bicycle from Vigan’s historic centre. Sip a cool drink and enjoy panoramic sunsets.

Hotels in Vigan

Hotel Luna

Purporting to be the only museum hotel in the Philippines, this quirky and affordable boutique retreat in the city centre has rooms arranged around an atrium with a swimming pool as well as art and sculptures scattered throughout. Luna St;

Hotel Ciudad Fernandina

This classic property dates back to 1758 and has rooms for all budgets, from executive suites to dorm beds. There are lots of architectural touches from the past, plus a pleasant place to dine inside called St Martha’s Café. Plaridel St;

Heritage House

This ornate 1870s mansion, set away from the chaos of downtown, is a blast from the colonial past, with four-poster beds, tiled floors, wooden beams and antiques. Fun fact: Tom Cruise once stayed here. Quirino Boulevard;

Historic colonial town in Spanish style Vigan (Shutterstock)

Historic colonial town in Spanish style Vigan (Shutterstock)

Historic centre of Vigan, Philippines (Shutterstock)

Historic centre of Vigan, Philippines (Shutterstock)

Essential travel information for Vigan

International dialling code: +63

Currency: Philippine peso (PHP), currently around 69 PHP to the UK£.

Getting there: From Manilla there are two options for onwards travel to Vigan. Several bus companies offer inexpensive fares; an overnight journey from Manilla takes around nine hours. Or fly: with no flights currently to its own airport, the nearest is Laoag, two-hours away.

Getting around: Vigan’s centre is easy to explore on foot even if the traffic feels chaotic at times. Other options include kalesa (horse-drawn carriages), tricycles, taxis, jazzed-up jeepneys and minivans.

Festivals: Processional saints’ days in the Philippines are always lively, not least the Vigan Town Fiesta, which is dedicated to St Paul the apostle and held on 25 January. St Paul shares his limelight with a sausage: the local longganisa has its own festival, celebrated around 16-27 January (dates vary each year). Late October ushers in the vibrant Raniag Twilight Festival, a quasi-religious affair featuring dancing, illuminated floats and parades.

Further information:

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