Vigan is one of the most atmospheric and enjoyable cities in the Philippines. Walking its cobbled streets and exploring its heritage homes gives an inkling of the former importance of this trading city. It is one of the oldest towns in the country. Vigan was in the Spanish times an important political, military, cultural and religious center. The old town is characterized by its cobbled streets and some of the finest old colonial structure in the country – it mixes Mexican, Chinese and Filipino features. Vigan’s time-capsule ambience is aided by the decision to close some streets to traffic and allow only pedestrians and kalesas. A ride in one of these horse-drawn carriages makes for a romantic way to tour the town.
The City of Vigan is a fourth class city in the province of Ilocos Sur, Philippines. It is the capital of the Province of Ilocos Sur. The city is located on the western coast of the large island of Luzon, facing the South China Sea. According to the 2010 Philippines census, it has a population of 49,747 people. It is a World Heritage Site in that it is one of the few Hispanic towns left in the Philippines where its structures remained intact, and is well known for its cobblestone streets, and a unique architecture that fuses Philippine and Oriental building designs and construction, with colonial European architecture. Former Philippine President Elpidio Quirino, the sixth president of the Philippines, was born in Vigan, at the current location of the Provincial Jail (his father was a warden); and resided in the Syquia Mansion.
Its favorable geographical features and location continues to make it a very accessible center. It is only 408 kilometers away from Manila, 88 kilometers away from Laoag City. Its 2,511 hectares of land consists mostly of plains with gentle hills. Its boundaries on the north, east, south, and west are the municipalities of Bantay, Santa, Caoayan, and Sta. Catalina, respectively. The South China Sea is on its southwest portion. Majority of its land, 60 percent of it, is used for agriculture. Around 32 percent is made up of residential area, nearly three percent are for commercial and industrial use, and around one percent is for institutional purposes.
The area of Vigan was originally a settlement of traders coming from the Fujian Province, China. At the time of Spanish colonization, the Chinese settlers, whose language was Southern Fujianese (Min Nan, often referred to as "Hokkien" by most Filipinos), referred to the area as "Bee Gan", which means "Beautiful Shore." Since the Spanish conquistadors interchanged V and the B to refer to the B sound, they spelled the Hokkien Chinese name "Bee Gan" as "Vigan", which is the name used to this day.
Due to silting of the Mestizo River, Vigan City is no longer an island and no longer separated from the mainland. The city is unique in the Philippines because it is one of many extensive surviving Philippine historic cities, dating back to the 16th century. Vigan was a coastal trading post long before the Spaniards arrived; Chinese traders sailing from the South China Sea came to Isla de Vigan (Island of Vigan) via the Mestizo River that surrounded it. On board their ships were seafaring merchants who came to trade goods from other Asian kingdoms in exchange for gold, beeswax, and other mountain products brought by the indigenous peoples from the Cordilleras region.
The Spanish arrived in 1572. Captain Juan de Salcedo, a conquistador born in Mexico, conquered the town and named it Villa Fernandina de Vigan in honor of King Phillip’s son, Prince Ferdinand. Salcedo then rounded the tip of Luzon and proceeded to pacify Camarines, Albay and Catanduanes.
In 1574, Salcedo returned to the capital of his encomienda (trusteeship), Vigan, bringing with him his soldiers and some Augustinian missionaries to pioneer the evangelization of the Ilocos region. He established a Spanish city for the purpose of controlling the neighboring country. Between 1645 to 1660, Vigan was divided into 21 "Cabezas de Barrio" (Town Mayors) as mentioned in the Libro de Casamiento (Book of Marriage); from the records of the parish house of Vigan found in its archives. Separated from the indigenous population, the Chinese migrants were residents in a neighbourhood called El Pariancillo, los Sangleyes del parian (The Sangleyes of the Parian); and the Spanish settlers were residents in a town called Los Españoles de la Villa (The Town Spaniards).
One of the potentially incendiary results of Spanish political domination of Vigan was the rise of a mestizo masterclass, whose wealth and stature began to cause resentment among landless natives. In 1763 things came to a head when revolutionary Diego Silang and his men assaulted and captured Vigan, proclaiming it capital of the free province of Ilocos. When Silang was assassinated by two traitors in the pay of the Spanish, his wife, Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang, assumed leadership of the uprising. She was captured and publicly hanged in the town square.
During the Philippine Revolution, revolutionary forces under Manuel Tinio, supported by the Ilocano rebels, attacked and defeated the Spanish colonial forces and captured the city in the Siege of Vigan. During the Philippine-American War, American forces led by Commander McCracken and Lt. Col. James Parker occupied the town in Nov. 1899. During World War II, Japanese Imperial Army planes bombed Vigan on December 1941 and Japanese troops occupied the town in 1942. In 1945, combined U.S. and Philippine Commonwealth ground troops, aided by Ilocano resistance fighters, defeated the Japanese Imperial forces and liberated Vigan.
In 1999, Vigan City was listed by UNESCO as the best preserved example of Spanish colonial towns in Asia. Its architecture is the conglomeration of cultural elements from the Philippines, China, and Spain, making it unique in the world.
Arrival and Information
Partas buses arrive at a terminal near the market, while Dominion’s terminal is at the southern end of Quezon Avenue. Other buses stop on the National Highway in the nearby town of Bantay, by tricycle from Vigan. The tourist office is in Leona Florentina House, near Café Leona on Plaza Burgos. Vigan’s main hospital is the Gabriela Silang General Hospital, south of the center of Quirino Boulevard.
The urban planners of the Spanish government also followed a basic pattern that can be observed in most old towns in the country, whose establishment dates back to the Spanish colonial period. This pattern is detailed in the Ley de las Indias, the Law of the Indies, and was put into force in the 18th century. Under the Law of the Indies streets were to follow a grid pattern, the center of which being a plaza or central park. In Vigan, the central park is the Plaza Salcedo. Next to it are the administrative buildings—the Casa Real or provincial administrative office, and the municipio (municipal hall). A stone's throw away are the religious buildings—the seminary of the archdiocese, the Arzobispado (Archbishop's Palace), and the St. Paul's Cathedral. Beside these religious structures is the church-run school, the Saint Paul College, known in its early days as the Colegio de Niñas. (It is currently being occupied by a retail store chain.)
A unique thing is the existence of another plaza, the Plaza Burgos, which is immediately beside the St. Paul's Cathedral. After the first tier emanating from Plaza Salcedo are the houses of prominent residents that now make up the preserved heritage houses of Vigan. This urban plan remained relatively intact despite wars and natural calamities that have been endured by Vigan since its foundation.
Vigan’s old town is where most of the beautiful ancestral houses are located. Also known as the Mestizo District (Kasanglayan), the old town runs roughly from Plaza Burgos in the north to Liberation Boulevard in the south. The most important thoroughfare is elegant old Crisologo Street, which has been given a makeover and is closed to traffic – a rarity in the Philippines. Architecturally, the houses are fundamentally Chinese or Mexican, influenced either by the immigrant architects from China’s eastern seaboard who prepared the plans, or by ideas picked up by the Spanish in their South American colony. But they have flourishes such as sliding capiz-shell windows and ventanillas (ventilated walls) added by local artisans. Although most houses are still private homes, a few are open to the public. These offer an intimate view of ilustrado life at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Presently, there are other major areas of activities other than the two plazas, though these are still where most recreation and shopping are done. One may also go to the southern part of the city to reach the commercial area and public market. The current Public Market is a new one, as the old one (formerly the Imelda Socio-Commercial Complex), on the same site, was destroyed by fire. The very first Public Market, found in the center of the business district, is now the site of new commercial buildings and the site of a tricycle-for-hire terminal.
Souvenir-hunters should head for Rowilda’s Hand Loom, on Crisologo Street near the Cordillera Inn, which offers the kind of old-style textiles traded during colonial times. If that whets your appetite then head out of the center. In the barangay of Mindoro, to the south near the airport, you can buy blankets called binakol, which have distinctive geometric patterns, while in Camanggan, to the east, you can watch women at Cristy’s Loom Weaving using old looms to make bedsheets, tablemats and runners.
Vigan is also known for its pottery. The massive wood-fired kilns at the Pagburnayan Potteries in Gomez Street, at the junction with Liberation Blvd., produce huge jars known as burnay which are used by northerners for storing everything from vinegar to fish paste. They also make simple U-shaped pots called tapayan on which salt is dried. A little further southwest beyond Pagburnayan, the Hidden Garden is a shady spot popular with families at the weekend. It’s primarily a nursery, selling ferns, palms, bonsai and bamboo among others, but also has a café and is simply a pleasant place to wander around.
There is little accommodation in Vigan for those on a very strict budget, but it is possible to find good value for money. If you’re willing to spend a little more you can stay in one of the several places reflecting the heritage of the city, all are located conveniently in the town center.
- Hotel Salcedo De Vigan. The rooms are classy and clean. The comfort rooms are fragrant. The entire place gives you a feel of the Spanish period. The food and rooms are just priced ok compared with the other surrounding hotels. No complaints with their service too. Best thing about it is it's just right beside the famous walking street of Vigan, Calle Crisologo. (Php2,244 and up)
- Vigan Plaza Hotel. Plaza Burgos. Charming option in an excellent location close to the Cathedral and Plaza. Windows are made of capiz shell, floors are hardwood and there’s a pretty inner courtyard with a fountain. Rooms are fresh and comfortable, with spotless linen and clean showers, breakfast is included. (Php2,302 and up)
- Gordion Hotel. V. Delos Reyes cor. Salcedo Sts. A brightly coloured place with appealing standard and deluxe aircon rooms; the suite has a huge bathroom with a roll-top bath. The airy brick-walled restaurant offers some good vegetarian dishes and serves the included breakfast; there’s also an outdoor dining area with a teppanyaki bar. Wi-fi in public areas. (Php1,665 and up)
- Ciudad Fernandina Hotel. Mabini St. They have the best service. The employees are very attentive and friendly. Rooms are clean and cozy. Wifi is a bit weak inside the rooms. Delicious food. Very elegant ambiance.
- Hotel Luna. Luna St. The hotel has great ambience. Rooms are great, big bed, are very comfortable. Staffs are excellent. Worth staying. (Php2,626 and up)
- Hotel Felicidad. V. Delos Reyes cor. Florentino Sts. The staff welcomed every guest with cold face towels. They are always available to attend to their needs. The rooms are clean and cozy. The beds are soft enough for a good sleep. The massage service is relaxing and soothing. The hotel itself is strategically located to be near enough Vigan's famous spots. (Php2,446 and up)
- Villa Angela Heritage House. Quirino Blvd. The most colonial hotel in the city. The billet of choice if you want to wallow in history. Tom Cruise slept in one of the rooms, when he stayed when Born of the Fourth of July was being filmed on the sand dunes near Laoag.
- Grandpa’s Inn. Bonifacio St. Very popular with travellers on budget, this place is full of curios and even has rooms where you can sleep in a kalesa. Noise can also be an issue at night.
- Hem Apartelle. A. Reyes St. An absolute bargain, particularly for solo travellers, as singles are just P600. Offered as apartments, rooms are clean and simple, with small flat-screen TVs.
- My Vigan Home Hotel. Plaridel cor. Bonifacio Sts. A cool and spacious lobby with exposed beams gets this place off to an appealing start. The standard rooms may be small, but they have attractive wooden floors and furniture; the bathrooms are also high quality. Superior rooms are on a veranda overlooking a garden. (Php1,887 and up)
- Condotel Asuncion. Florentino cor. Jacinto Sts. Quiet, restful and a great choice for visitors wishing to self-cater, as each room comes with a stove, oven, microwave and refrigerator.
Other hotels are: Metro Vigan Inn, Cordillera Inn, Casa Rica Hotel, Hotel Veneto de Vigan, OverMar Resort Hotel, and Metro Vigan Regency Hotel.
Modes of transport within the city are purely land-based. Vehicles for public use include jeepneys, tricycles, vans-for-hire (or PUVs/public utility vehicles) and calesas (horse-drawn vehicles). Buses, mini-buses and jeepneys provide transportation to and from Vigan. The metro Vigan transport system is mostly served by tricycles, which are color- and number-coded to identify their municipality of origin.
Vigan City is well-served by a network of roads and a major highway that connects to Maharlika Highway and Manila North Road, two highways leading to Manila and the rest of the country. Bus companies such as Dominion Bus Lines, Viron Transit, Partas, and Aniceto/St. Joseph operate terminals in Vigan. Bus companies such as Philippine Rabbit Bus Line, Florida, Maria de Leon, and Fariñas pass by Vigan on their way to Laoag. GMW Florida Transport operates a terminal at the entrance to Vigan. They operate direct and/or indirect bus services from Vigan City to points in Luzon, mostly to Manila, Baguio, and Laoag and vice versa.
A secondary airport called Mindoro Airport (also known as Vigan Airport) is located at Brgy. Mindoro. It has one asphalted runway, 900 meters long and 30 meters wide. The airport was once a sleeping asset of the city for it does not generate revenue, with only chartered and private planes using it; it is currently being upgraded and is on its way toward commercialization, to attract tourists and to lighten the burden of traveling to Vigan from Manila and most parts of the Philippines.
Many of Vigan’s attraction are within walking distance of one another, with Plaza Burgos the most obvious reference point, although it’s cheap enough to take a tricycle or a kalesa around town. Just tell the kutchero where you want to visit, or let them suggest a route.
- Calle Crisologo (Mena Crisologo Street) - It is what Vigan City is known for—streets lined with Spanish Era ancestral houses (with ancient tile roofs, massive hardwood floorings, balustrades and azoteas in varying Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese architectural styles) and cobble-stoned streets, which led to Vigan's inscription in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Tourists can buy souvenirs or even ride a calesa (horse-drawn buggy). This street is also known as “Vigan Heritage Village.”
- Vigan Cathedral/St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral - the seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia. Burial place of the great Ilocano poet Leona Florentino. It also houses the replica of the Miraculous Santo Cristo Milagroso (the original being in Sinait, Ilocos Sur). Built by the Augustinians between 1890 and 1900 is like something from a Mexican fairy tale. Standing between Plaza Burgos and Plaza Salcedo on the city’s northern edge, it is an “earthquake Baroque” church, with thick ramparts and a belfry built 15m away so that it stood a chance of surviving if the church itself collapsed.
- Archbishop's Residence - Located next to the Vigan Cathedral, The Archbishop's Palace of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia is the oldest continually inhabited Archbishop's residence in the Philippines, with the building itself dating to the 16th century. It was completed in 1783 after a span of 7 years. It features sliding capiz windows and cut-out decorations with floral motifs. It has a back entrance that leads to the nearby Govantes Dike, which was once a docking port for water craft. The palace has a collection of priceless ecclesiastical artifacts and relics from other Ilocos churches.
- Father Jose Burgos' Residence - Located almost behind the Provincial Capitol. The birthplace of Father Jose Burgos, one of the three martyred Filipino priests at Bagumbayan (GOMBURZA). It also houses Ilocano artifacts and ethnic arts of the Tinggians.
- Plaza Burgos - dedicated to the memory of Father Jose Burgos. Located beside the Vigan Cathedral.
- Vigan Empanadaan - a reserved location where visitors can sample Vigan's famous empanada; as well as sinanglao (traditional hotpot made of beef innards). Located at the eastern part of Plaza Burgos.
- Baluarte - a zoo located in Salindeg where visitors can see a variety of animals (including tigers and ostriches). It is also a popular venue for special events such as seminars and conferences. The owner of Baluarte is former Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson.
- Quezon Avenue - the business center of Vigan.
- Plaza Salcedo - dedicated to the memory of the great conquistador Juan de Salcedo. It is also the site of Gabriela Silang's public hanging in 1763. Located in front of the Vigan Cathedral.
- Syquia Mansion - the Vigan residence of Elpidio Quirino, 6th President of the Philippines, an eye-catching red-brick colonial house that has been restored and furnished in 19th century style.
- Crisologo Museum - the residence, in Liberation Blvd., of the Crisologo family in Vigan converted into a museum. It houses the memorabilia of the Crisologos and original furnishings of a typical Vigan ancestral house. It displays about the history of the influential family, including the car in which Governor Carmeling Crisologo was ambushed in 1961.
- Mindoro Beach - the only seaside location in the city, just adjacent to the Vigan International Airport.
Dining and Nightlife
Don’t leave Vigan without trying the local empanada (crispy deep-fried tortilla of rice-flour dough containing cabbage and green papaya). The stalls on the western side of Plaza Burgos, known collectively as Empanadaan, sell empanada along with okoy (egg, prawn, tomato and onion frittata) dip it in vinegar. For breakfast, if you’re feeling adventurous then head out and early to the Vigan Slaughterhouse near the barangay of Mindoro. A bowl of exceptionally fresh liempo (beef, innards and onions in broth) costs just a few pesos. Nightlife is pretty limited and quiet, with the exception of Legacy Super Club.
- ·Café Leona. Crisologo St. Tourist are drawn to the outdoor tables here in the evenings. Serve native Ilocano dishes such as bagnet.
- Dos Meal. A. Reyes cor. Salcedo Sts. Wi-fi equipped café offers a Thai menu. There are several imported beers available.
- Irene’s Empanada. Just around the corner from Syquia Mansion, this simple place has many local devotees who say it makes the best empanada.
- Legacy Super Club. Crisologo cor. Mabini Sts. Owned by one of the influential local families, this nightclub has somehow been given permission to open within the heritage district.
- Los Majitos de Vigan. Gen. Luna near Quirino Blvd. This street restaurant opens only in the evenings, when its candlelit tables are almost always full. The food is mostly grilled, with few Ilocano dishes.
- Uno Grille. Opposite Grandpa’s Inn, this courtyard restaurant has an open kitchen. There are two menus, one covering grilled food and the other a variety of Asian dishes including some unusual options such as mountain ants and eel adobo. Most dishes are for sharing, although solo diners might try the molo.
The town of Bantay, close to Vigan on the National Highway, is a popular stop on kalesa tours thanks to the bell tower of Saint Augustine Parish Church. Built between 1590-92, it has five bells each associated with a different occasion. The tower is famous as one of the locations in the Filipino fantasy movie Ang Panday. Another worthwhile trip from Vigan is to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Santa Maria Church, about an hour’s drive south and dating from 1769. It’s a solid structure with a brick façade, set on a hill and reached via 83 steps; unsurprisingly it was used as a fortress during the Philippine revolution.
The coastal road north of Vigan to Laoag is sealed all the way and the journey is only two hours. If you do want to break the journey then you might try stopping at Badoc, the birthplace of the Filipino painter Juan Luna. His reconstructed house, known as the Juan Luna Historical Landmark, stands in a side street close to the 17th Century Virgen Milagrosa de Badoc. About a kilometre off the coast lies Badoc Island, which is gaining a reputation for good surfing and can be reached by hiring a Bangka from the little wharf in Badoc town.