You know something’s afoot when the local city tourism council launches a flashy new website and Mactan international airport is getting spruced up round the clock. Cebu, with its varied terrain, numerous beaches, standout specialties (who doesn’t know about that crunchy pig?) and lively metropolis, has always been a favorite holiday destination for many Filipinos, and now it’s poised for even greater things: international stardom.
Also read: Cebu city guide
Beyond the fancy website and the airport that is promised to be a major Asia-Pacific hub by 2020, there are other telling signs: crafted tours offered by the local tourism office, more than a few new restaurants that cater to a wider and more diversified range of preferences (what would you like for breakfast — eggs Benedict or danggit and fried rice?), and old favorites are getting being properly repackaged.
You’ve got to pay a visit to get a real feel of this energetic vibe. Cebu, unfortunately, is also showing signs of what usually ails many fast-growing cities — traffic congestion, especially during rush hour — so plan the day right. Here’s how we’d play it in 24 hours.
Start the day with a hearty breakfast at Abaca Baking Company (Crossroads Mall, Gov. M. Cuenco Ave; +63 32 262 0969; theabacagroup.com), a bistro and bakery that serves fresh-from-the-oven pastries, American comfort food (a large serving of chicken and waffles is good for two people), and unlimited coffee until 10am. It’s also a nice place to decompress after a long flight — the café, while decidedly Western in its menu, is also a gallery for homegrown art, and works by the likes of artist Sio Montera decorate the walls.
Put on comfortable shoes and prepare to get active in the great outdoors. The city’s fancy new website (cebucitytourism.com) flashes with a new slogan, Gateway to a Thousand Journeys, and they’re not kidding about that. Among the day excursions you should make are trips to two caves (Bombahanan and Satuhan, with their interesting rock formations), a waterfall (Tabunan), and a 25ha flower farm, all of which are less than an hour from the heart of the city. Eighty per cent of Cebu’s land area is hilly terrain, much of which hasn’t been marketed to tourists. End the tour with a leisurely lunch at Betty’s Botanical Garden (+63 915 894 3466), which serves dishes of freshly picked ingredients and local specialties like humba, a braised pork dish inspired by Chinese cooking. Book these highland tours three days in advance to secure a slot.
Head to the Parian district of downtown Cebu, where several heritage homes-turned-museums are within walking distance of each other (a great way to burn off lunch). Cebuanos are proud of the fact that theirs is the oldest city in the Philippines, and this particular area is a showcase of that heritage.
Visit the Jesuit House (26 Zulueta St; +63 32 255 5408) of 1730, the oldest house in the country, which was discovered inside a warehouse that still stocks construction supplies; Casa Gorordo, the home of the first Filipino archbishop, for a slice of turn-of-the-century life in Cebu; and the 17th-century Yap-Sanediego House (155 Lopez Jaena St corner Mabini St; Jardin de Rafael; +63 918 922 7622), where you can enjoy a quick merienda at the al fresco Jardin de Rafael. Specialties include the famous Carcar lechon (spit-roast pig served with the fat drippings) and torta, a pastry made from a surplus of egg yolks.
After the walkathon and information overload, head over the Mactan Bridge to squeeze in a 90-minute hilot, the indigenous style of massage, at Anahata Spa (Cebu White Sands Resort, Maribago Beach, Mactan; +63 32 268 9000; whitesands.com.ph), where they use virgin coconut oil and heated banana leaves to wrap pressure points (PHP2250).
Your massage puts you in a strategic spot to pick things up again. Head to the top deck at White Sands to find Room 801 (5pm-midnight daily, with happy hour from 5-7pm), Mactan Island’s first and only rooftop bar, and enjoy the day turning to night with a glass of home-brewed Turning Wheels craft beer, along with an unimpeded view of both the Mactan Channel and the sun sinking behind the hills of the mainland. At just over a month old, it’s fast becoming one of Cebu’s hottest nightspots.
Cebu’s increasingly 24-hour bustle is concentrated mainly around the call-center buildings — within the IT Park in Lahug and Mabolo — that reportedly hold over 100 BPO firms. Head this way if you want to try the perfect midnight meal, Cebuano-style: the stomach-warming pochero — a hot, clear soup of beef shanks, bone marrow and cabbage — at Kusina Uno (GND Complex, F. Cabahug St, Manolo; +63 32 238 5283) is a great way to satisfy your craving.
Still going? Head uphill to TOPS (Cebu Transcentral Highway; take a motorcycle taxi from JY Square Mall in Lahug), the lookout point 2,000ft above sea level that is now open 24 hours. The preferred vantage point for the city lights at this hour, it’s quiet and pleasantly cool up here. There’s a modest PHP100 to enter the viewing deck. Stay until sunrise because on a clear day, the view extends to Olango Island, a world-famous bird sanctuary and avian flyway, all the way to the province of Bohol. This is a view, and a proper chill-out, that never gets old.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Smile magazine.