When travellers first arrive in Cebu, they can be forgiven for thinking that they have arrived in an overcrowded and traffic-congested Filipino city. With stunning tropical beaches and islands beckoning just offshore, it is understandable that people will want to skip by Cebu City and the greater island as fast as they can! However, take the time to explore Cebu and you will find a few unique cultural treasures up its sleeve! And before you make a sprint for the ferry port, don’t forget the famous diving Mecca of Moalboal in the south…
Cebu island offers several areas worth mentioning…
Referred to as the ‘Queen City of the South,’ Cebu is home to an estimated one million people and is actually the oldest city in the Philippines. It has a booming nightlife, gleaming shopping malls, busy international air and sea ports and if you delve deeper, a rich religious and historical heart. In fact, the city claims to be the location for the birth of Christianity in the Philippines!
Further south, you will find the unassuming beach town of Moalboal, which is around a 2.5-hour drive from Cebu Main airport. Diving and snorkelling are the order of the day here with crystal clear waters and beautiful coral reefs, with the most celebrated being at nearby Pescador Island. The main Panagsama Beach is lined with bars, restaurants and accommodation suitable for the backpacker budget. Inland there are some amazing treasures to explore such as the beautiful Kawasan Waterfall…
Joined to the main island by bridges, Mactan Island is home to exclusive, luxury resorts that would eat into most backpacker’s savings immediately! Becoming very popular of late with wealthy Korean tourists, it is also the base for the island’s main airport.
Top 7 Things to do in Cebu:
1. See Magellan’s Cross
In 1521, Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan planted a wooden cross in Cebu as a symbol to convert the native Cebuanos to Christianity. Although most historians agree that the original wooden cross was burnt by locals following Magellan’s departure, a plaque next to the cross states its genuineness. The cross is housed in an octagonal shaped building in Plaza Sugbo.
2. Visit the Basilica of Santo Niño
For all those interested in the fascinating religious history of the Philippines, the Basilica, dating back to 1565, is a must visit tourist destination in Cebu. The church contains a sacred statue of Santo Niño (translating as ‘Holy Child,’ Jesus) which is believed to have been presented to the Queen of Cebu by the Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan. The Basilica is visited by many devoted Filipinos who come to pray at the holy site.
3. Visit the dancing inmates
You’ve seen the Youtube videos (haven’t you?), now see the real-life performance!
The dancing prisoners of Cebu are a cultural phenomenon and travellers who happen to be in Cebu on the last Saturday of the month can visit the high-security penitentiary and see the show for themselves. Dancing to popular hits, from Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber, the inmates put on one hell of a performance that has become famous worldwide! And, it’s good for prison morale too – apparently, the crime rate inside dropped 80% during rehearsals for the show and the community dancing has continued to improve prison health, behaviour and spirit.
4. Take in an incredible Filipino Festival
There are so many festivals in the Philippines that during your stay, you are bound to be in the right place at the right time! Cebu is famous for one of the biggest, loudest and most colourful festivals in the Philippines, known as Sinulog, taking place on the third Sunday of January every year. The festival is dedicated to Santo Nino, the child Jesus, as the Cebuanos celebrate their development from paganism to Christianity.
Other festivals throughout the year include ‘Paskuhan,’ a Christmas celebration, Virgin of the Rule Fiesta (in November) and Kadaugan se Mactan (every April). There are many more, which lead the island to be nicknamed ‘island of festivals’ by some.
5. Island hopping!
There are no less than 167 islands that surround the main island of Cebu, making up the gorgeous, tropical Visayas Islands. If the heat in the city gets too much for you and shopping malls just ain’t your thang, just a boat ride away you will find deserted beaches and swaying palm trees on Robinson Crusoe style islands. Malapascua (voted one of the 50 top islands in Southeast Asia!), Bohol, Panglao, Siquijor and Bantayan Island are some popular retreats amongst backpackers!
6. Visit “Tops”
For an incredible view of the city and the surrounding islands, head to the area, famously known as ‘Tops’ which lies at the ‘top’ (surprisingly) of Mount Busay. You can hike, bicycle or get a motorbike to the top. Best visited at sunset for a breathtaking sight.
7. Snorkelling and Diving off Cebu’s Coast
Moalboal is world famous throughout the Philippines and Southeast Asia for its incredible underwater life and the small area has many dive schools which offer a variety of courses from beginner to advanced. The big attraction here is the ‘sardine run’ – huge shoals of sardines that can be seen all year round. Moalboal’s white sandy beaches, clear waters and abundant coral reefs will have your mouth watering and the best news is that the diving here is very affordable for budget travellers!
Where to stay in Cebu:
For backpackers who can’t afford the likes of the Shangri La Hotel on Mactan Islands (join the club!), you will find yourself with few budget options in Cebu, an island which seems to cater more for resorts. That said, there are a few reasonable options for backpackers.
Best Cebu City Backpacker Hostels…
1. Mad Monkey Hostel, Cebu – TOP PICK! One of the biggest hostel chains of Southeast Asia has finally made its way to Cebu. Located just walking distance away from all of the city’s tourist attractions around the city, this huge five-story hostel offers dorms and private rooms for as low as $13 US per night. At the hostel, you’ll find a lively bar, restaurant, and not to mention an infinity pool on the sun deck! You can party with the best DJs in town and enjoy nightly events such as pool, beer pong and drinking games with other travelers. The super friendly staff will make sure you’ll have a wicked time and give you tips on exploring what the rest of Cebu has to offer!
2. Food District Hostel has decent dorm beds for $7 USD. It’s a nicely styled place, close (surprisingly enough) to lots of restaurants. Clean and modern, this is probably the city’s best option for the budget-traveller.
3. Bugoy Bikers Hostel is a quirky choice. They offer either dorm beds or tents for $9 USD and private rooms for a very reasonable $13 USD. The showers are outside, which won’t be to all tastes, but depending on your character, you might love it!
4. Shejoje Poshtel Hostel has also gone for the quirky vibe. They have capsules for $10 USD with a kitsch painted open-window scene at the head of the bed. Colourful and clean, Shejoje has made itself a popular option.
If you’re travelling in a couple or would prefer a whole apartment to yourself, the city offers up some good options…
May’s Home Away from Home gets very good reviews and is available for $15 USD per night. Probably a great option if there’s a couple of you travelling.
Tipolo Tree Serviced Apartments are a bit more expensive at $24 USD. I guess you just have to think about what you save by doing your laundry for free in the apartment washing machine!
Getting to Cebu:
- Fly: Flights with Cebu Pacific Air are great value and take one hour to reach Cebu from Manila. The main airport caters to many daily domestic flights around the Philippines and also Cebu Pacific Air flights from Singapore and Hong Kong.
- Boat: The port at Cebu City is the busiest in the Philippines and you can connect to the majority of shipping lines here, from Cebu to Manila, Davao, Cagayan de Oro or many other offshore islands. Boats are extremely cheap and a great option for travellers who are not short on time.
Where to go next?
Bohol and Panglao Island: These laid-back, tropical islands are just a two-hour boat ride away from Cebu. Visit Bohol’s famous chocolate hills, see the world’s smallest primate, go diving, snorkelling or just relax on a beautiful white sandy beach.
Malapascua Island: A four-hour bus ride from Cebu city and you will find yourself in the small and beautiful island of Malapascua, famous for dives with ‘thresher sharks.’
Bantayan Island: Head to Bantayan to experience authentic, local island life, complete with encounters with hundreds of chicken farms!