With over 7,000 islands, it is not a surprise for backpackers to have a dilemma in deciding which city to stop at first in their visit to the Philippines. Some argue it’s the best idea to go to Manila as it is the main hub of the country and experiences are abundant here, while some decide against this and skip the capital altogether for quieter and less busier cities. Regardless of preference, Cebu City is a perfect hub to begin a trip to the country given its geographical location as well as its accessibility from other countries. With white sand beaches, canyoneering areas, and snorkelling spots, the country’s oldest city is your best first stop of choice. Here’s a backpackers guide to Cebu City, or ‘Sugbu’ as the locals call it!
Caohagan Island, Mactan, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
THINGS TO DO IN CEBU CITY
GO SIGHTSEEING AND EXPERIENCE THE CITY
Being one of the country’s biggest cities, Cebu enjoys the comforts of any major city - from shopping malls to city parks and Instagram-worthy locations, it is a city that provides any backpacker would look for.
Last minute shopping needs? Ayala Center Cebu and SM City Cebu have got you covered. Feeling a bit historic? Visit Magellan’s Cross and Fort San Pedro and learn about the history of the city and how much contribution Spaniards (and the rest of the world) gave to this city. Need to add a little pizzazz on your Instagram feed? Drive up to Temple of Leah and Sirao Flower Farm for those artsy photos. Feeling romantic? Head over to TOPS for some peace and quiet while watching the city twinkle before you, or otherwise embrace the connoisseur in you and enjoy a glass of wine at La Vie in the Sky.
Magellan’s Cross, Cebu City, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
EXPERIENCE THE NIGHTLIFE
Being a big city, Cebu has a very young and fresh nightlife. Mango Avenue used to be the biggest strip of bars and clubs, until recently where the newer bars have decided to disperse and build themselves in other key areas in the city. Regardless of location, Cebu has it for everyone; from happy hour and open bar specials on rooftop bars, to posh resto-bars and wine cellars, there’s something for every kind of backpacker.
Rooftop pool bar at Mad Monkey Hostel Cebu City, Philippines © Courtesy of Mad Monkey
Mad Monkey Hostel Cebu has a rooftop pool bar with spectacular views of the city. On top of the usual food and drinks, they offer nightly events, free arcade machines and pool table. You might want to come early though because on a clear day, you will be able to see the sun set against skyscrapers while enjoying a bottle of ice cold beer or a glass of monkey punch. If this is too laid back for you, Trademark Bar and Lounge could be a good choice, especially since OQTAGON is right next to it if you need to satisfy your nightclub craving. For the fancy, La Vie Parisienne is a spectacular choice for a sophisticated night out in the city with award-winning wine selections and delectable French food.
SWIM WITH SARDINES, CANYONEER AND JUMP OFF WATERFALLS
More than the usual big city offerings, Cebu is also the main jumping point to one of the best canyoneering areas in the region. In just a 3-hour scenic countryside drive through local homes and palm trees, you can take advantage of your adrenaline rush and jump off waterfalls at Badian into bluegreen waters. Courage is well tested in three different jumping points. Fret not however because safety is a priority; all tours must provide you with a life vest and a helmet. Always make sure that these are strapped on comfortably.
Face your fears at Badian, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Ingrid Timmermans/Mad Monkey
Whilst in the area, consider stopping by Moalboal to swim with a cloud of a million sardines. This is an experience that can be done all-year round, regardless of diving experience and licensure. If strapping a heavy tank on your back isn’t quite your thing, you can still enjoy seeing these clouds of fish from the surface through snorkelling. Scuba enthusiasts are in for a thrill however because the reef drops dramatically about 20 meters from shore and clouds of sardines form different shapes here against reef walls. On occasion, you will be able to see larger fish species feed on these sardines - making it a perfect opportunity for marine enthusiasts.
Swim with sardines at Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Shutterstock
GO ISLAND HOPPING
Because of its location, Cebu is home to hundreds of islands and islets making it a perfect destination for beach lovers. In just 20 minutes from the airport (or 45 minutes from the city), you can jump on a boat in Mactan and go sunbathing on different islands around the province. Caohagan and Olango Islands are two of the more famous islands being visited due to its proximity and quality of sand and sea water. In these two islands, expect white sand beaches and crystal clear blue waters, making it a perfect choice for a break from the city life. Grilled seafood and ice cold beers make a perfect addition to this island hopping break, so be sure to stock up on these before you leave shore to enjoy a delectable lunch on the boat.
For the adventurous, another option that is further out of Cebu is North Sandbar in Bohol. Yes, geographically, it is already in Bohol. Albeit thrice as far, North Sandbar provides incomparable sea views with whiter sand (sand bar!) and even bluer water. It is important to remember to bring food and drinks if you decide to head over North Sandbar though, because there is literally nothing there except a sandbar. On the flipside, expect some peace and quiet while you’re here. If the tide cooperates, you will get to enjoy a long stretch of sandbar all day long.
Guests enjoying the sun at North Sandbar, Bohol, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
WHERE TO EAT IN CEBU CITY
Major cities in the country, Cebu included, have been heavily influenced by international cuisine. If you miss having English Breakfast to cure your hangover or crave some pizza after a long day, it won’t be a challenge. Cebu has a very rich food culture however, so it’s a big miss not to go local. House of Lechon is the perfect choice for the suckling pig (locally called ‘lechon’) that the province is famous for. This is best paired with ‘puso’ (rice cooked in banana leaf) and local vinegar.
A plate of chopped lechon in Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Shutterstock
For the budget conscious, Sunburst Fried Chicken and Jonie’s Sizzlers and Roast are great options for home-grown affordable meals. Chika-an, Golden Cowrie, and Hukad are popular choices for mid-range casual restaurants that usually offer seasonal specials. Cafe Laguna and Lighthouse Restaurant are on the more expensive side (although still casual) but are timeless choices that have been staples for local food for many years now.
Local food at Chika-an restaurant, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
Cebu knows their coffee. Although they have Starbucks, the city is known for Abaca Baking Company, a homegrown cafe that serves Filipino-grown and roasted coffee, freshly-made sandwiches, homemade pastries, and meals. A must try from their menu is their ABC Sandwich (tip: add fresh avocado slices and cheddar cheese) paired with their house brewed coffee or a flat white.
ABC Sandwich and flat white at Abaca Baking Company, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
HOW TO GET TO AND AROUND CEBU CITY
Cebu is served by the country’s second largest airport, Mactan-Cebu International Airport (CEB). The old terminal now serves purely domestic flights, while the new terminal is dedicated to international departures and arrivals. International travellers can enter the country directly into Cebu from Singapore, China, UAE, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, among many others. If you’re coming from other islands in the Philippines, Cebu is one of the country’s main seaports and is vastly connected to other islands like Bohol, Ormoc, Bacolod, Iloilo, Dumaguete, and many more.
International departures at Mactan-Cebu International Airport, Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Mykee Dizon/Mad Monkey
From the airport, MyBus runs for less than US$1 per person from the airport to SM City Cebu. From there, getting around is easy through Grab, Southeast Asia’s version of Uber. Although there are regular taxis and local jeepneys that ply the city, it is still advisable to take a Grab for convenience and safety. Always keep in mind that the city suffers from heavy traffic during rush hour and peak times, so make sure you plan your timings ahead.
WHERE TO STAY IN CEBU CITY
There are usually two major areas where people stay in Cebu - Mactan and Cebu City. Mactan is another island off Cebu where the airport is located. For quick stopovers in the city, an airport hotel in Mactan could be a good choice. Island Stays Hotel is affordable and is very close to the airport. For stays in the city, Mad Monkey Hostels is one of the newest properties offering a rooftop bar, pool, and restaurant. Aside from being brand new, it is well within perfect distance to shopping malls, bus terminals, and financial districts. It caters to all sorts of travellers under different budgets, too, given that they offer both dorm rooms and private rooms. If you feel like (or want to feel like) a king and would appreciate some downtime relaxation, Waterfront Hotel and Casino has rooms and suites in their Ambassador floor that gets you private lounge access with afternoon snacks and cocktails and breakfast in the morning. In-suite massage services could also be availed, perfect after a full day’s tour.
Private double room at Mad Monkey Hostel Cebu, Philippines © Courtesy of Mad Monkey