Exploring Cebu City’s Rich History on Foot

Exploring Cebu City’s Rich History on Foot

To be honest, before traveling to the Philippines, I didn’t know a whole lot about the country’s history. It isn’t really a subject US schools cover, despite the fact we ruled the Philippines for almost 50 years.

I at least knew about the US ruling (which is something most Americans don’t even seem to know), and I knew before that the Spanish had colonized it as well, but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

I actually really enjoy history and often choose to visit locations because of their colorful pasts, but when I chose to visit Cebu, little did I know that Cebu has a rich history. In fact, the capital of Cebu, Cebu City, is the Philippines’ oldest city.

As we toured around downtown Cebu City, we were given a crash course in the history of Cebu. It made for a great day trip, and what was even better is that the sites are all within a short distance of each other. Remember how I said getting around the Philippines was a little difficult? Well, these sites lend themselves for a great mini walking tour of the city.

Here are 5 places not to miss when exploring historical Cebu City:

Heritage of Cebu Monument

If you know nothing of Cebu’s history, this is a great place to start. This monument tells the story of Cebu’s past as you work your way around this massive structure. It also sets the scene for some of the other historical attractions that you’ll be visiting later in your walk, as they are portrayed in the sculpture as well.

The monument begins with the story of chieftain Lapu-Lapu defeating Ferdinand Magellan on April 21, 1521. As you continue around you’ll see revolutions against the Spaniards,  Rajah Humabon, the first indigenous to convert to Christianity and the veneration of Sto. Niño.

Philippines - Apr 2014  Philippines - Apr 2014
Philippines - Apr 2014

Sandiego-Yap Ancestral House

The Sandiego-Yap Ancestral House is one of the oldest houses in the Philippines. It was constructed out of coral and wood by a family of Chinese merchants in the 1600s. Since then the house has been passed down through eight generations, and it is still standing even after numerous earthquakes in Cebu.

Stepping into this house is like stepping back through time, and a great look into the history of the area. What may be even more amazing is that this house is not just a museum, the owner actually comes to live here each weekend, caring enough to ensure things are maintained and preserved.

Philippines - Apr 2014
Philippines - Apr 2014  Philippines - Apr 2014

Fort San Pedro

Built in the 1500s under the command of Spaniard Miguel López de Legazpi, this is one of the oldest triangular forts in the Philippines. With one side facing inland and the other two facing the sea, this fort was built as a stronghold against pirates, although later it provided useful to Cebuano revolutionaries fighting against the Spaniards. 

Since then it has served as a prison camp during WWII and a public zoo in the 1960s. Today it is merely a peaceful walled garden, but the decaying ruins are beautiful to explore, and inside you’ll find a small museum with remaining Spanish artifacts.

Philippines - Apr 2014

Magellan’s Cross

Magellan’s Cross is probably the most important historical marker in Cebu, as it’s where Christianity in the Philippines began. The cross is located supposedly where Magellan himself planted it in 1521. Although the cross you’ll see is only a replica, it is said that the real cross is inside, although the truth of this statement is often disputed.

If you visit, be sure to buy a candle from one of the women dressed in yellow. These women offer prayers of safety and welfare by performing a traditional Sinulog dance.

Philippines - Apr 2014
Philippines - Apr 2014  Philippines - Apr 2014

Basilica del Santo Niño

The Basilica del Santo Niño was founded in the 16th century, and is the oldest church in the country. It was supposedly built where a sculpture of the Santo Niño de Cebu (Child Jesus), left behind from Magellan’s expedition, was found by Spanish explorers.

The Santo Niño was said to have been given by Magellan to Rajah Humabon after he converted to Christianity, and is today an image revered by Filipinos. It is considered the oldest religious relic in the Philippines and is still housed in the basilica today.

Philippines - Apr 2014  Philippines - Apr 2014
Philippines - Apr 2014

Want to walk this same tour? Follow the route we used below!



Where would you like to visit in Cebu?
Do you enjoy learning about a place’s history when you travel?



  1. April 22, 2015 / 3:23 pm

    Hi Beth,
    Katherine Belarmino told me about this post. So glad to have found you and so excited to read about your adventures in the Philippines. I’m heading to Cebu in two weeks and have had a really hard time connecting with the visitors bureaus in Cebu or Philippines. Any suggestions?

  2. May 31, 2014 / 8:41 pm

    We went to Cebu Island last year, but we were more in the mood for beaches, so we didn’t really visit Cebu City. From your post it seems that we should have! Thanks for the great itinerary!

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:36 pm

      The beaches were what we missed (for the most part), but we hope to go back to enjoy them soon! I hope you get a chance to go back to enjoy the city!

  3. May 31, 2014 / 6:53 pm

    I would love to travel to Cebu and dig more into the history of the place. The collection of photos, especially the ones taken at Magellan’s Cross are very beautiful!!

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:35 pm

      Cebu was a lot more historically fascinating than I thought it would be. I had no idea it was the epicenter of history for the Philippines! I’d love to go back and dig deeper as well.

  4. May 31, 2014 / 2:54 am

    I’d love to visit all the historical places in Cebu. Really informative post, super handy for those who want to see more than just beaches in the Philippines.

    • Beth Williams
      September 28, 2014 / 10:22 am

      The Philippines really offers everything–food, culture, beaches… I can’t wait to go back!

  5. May 31, 2014 / 12:15 am

    What an interesting read! I won’t lie that I haven’t thought too much about visiting the Philippines… but it looks gorgeous! It seems like you got to see so many interesting things!! I just love learning about history on my travels, or oftentimes before we leave… or when we get home… :) My husband and I went to Saint John, NB and Halifax, NS last summer and I did a little research before we left on the Acadians (French settlers in Maritime Canada & surrounding areas). It’s a lot about England vs. France in Canada… and the displacement of all of these people. I was really interested in it and found I already owned a historical fiction novel based on the topic. On our trip I bought Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic ‘Evangeline’ which gives a story to that part of history. I read it after I got home.. and felt a lot more connected to our trip. The epic actually takes the characters to French Louisiana, and we went to New Orleans for a trip just a few months ago. It’s really cool to kind of see some of the places and imagine what these people went through! – Super long! sorry. :) -Alexandra

    Simply Alexandra: My Favorite Things

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:24 pm

      That’s really cool to experience that and see those places. I’ve never been to Saint John or Halifax (or really anywhere in Canada) but those sound like really cool places to visit from a historical aspect!

  6. May 30, 2014 / 7:48 pm

    What a neat post. And, what I always appreciated, packed with fantastic pictures. You captured it right.

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:22 pm

      Thanks Zof! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it.

  7. May 30, 2014 / 6:40 am

    Looks like a beautiful spot to visit- and the ceiling of that basilica is gorgeous!

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:22 pm

      It was! I felt like I should be in Europe somewhere.

  8. May 30, 2014 / 1:19 am

    I didn’t know that much about the Phillipines either. I didn’t know the U.S. ruled over them for 50 years. Really cool fact. Not surprised that it wasn’t covered in school though.

    The Magellan’s Cross site looks beautiful — especially that ceiling! I love the local folklore abroad and the discussions about what’s real and what’s fake. Really interesting.

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:21 pm

      Yeah, the US doesn’t seem to cover much of anything in our history books, so I wasn’t too surprised either.

      Magellan’s Cross was really beautiful, especially the mural above it. I agree that the debate and folklore is really interesting!

  9. lorrie
    May 29, 2014 / 10:29 pm

    the art and architecture are beautiful

    • Beth Williams
      June 7, 2014 / 12:20 pm

      They really were!

  10. May 16, 2014 / 8:36 am

    Was in Cebu in June 2013 just before the big storm. Loved the city lots of things to see.

    • Beth Williams
      May 28, 2014 / 9:36 pm

      Glad you were able to leave before the storm. We were supposed to visit, but had to delay our trip.

  11. May 14, 2014 / 11:54 am

    It looks like a really interesting place to visit with so much history to learn about. I always try to know a little about a places history before I go there and then learn more along the way.

    • Beth Williams
      May 28, 2014 / 8:32 pm

      I enjoy learning about history while I travel rather than beforehand. It usually surprises me and makes me appreciate the country even more.

  12. May 13, 2014 / 3:57 am

    I know absolutely nothing about historic sites in the Philippines. This is a great walking tour you’ve put together. I love house museums and wouldn’t have thought there would be any in the Philippines, especially with the earthquakes and hurricanes.

    • Beth Williams
      May 28, 2014 / 8:21 pm

      I also really enjoy house museums, but to be honest, they’re quite rare nowadays in general! I was so surprised to see one in the Philippines, as I’ve never seen one in Asia elsewhere.

  13. May 12, 2014 / 11:12 pm

    Nice post. Very informative, especially with a map to show how to navigate these sites!
    I haven been following your posts via twitter/tribber for a while. Really love your posts on interesting spots. I am wondering whether you are interested in posting your travel expertise on a location based publishing platform on iphones. If you are interested, we would like to invite you as a beta tester to try out this new iphone app. Here is a quick demo to show how the app looks like.
    Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks Daijie
    twitter: @GoLeafCanoe email:beta@leafcanoe.com

    • Beth Williams
      May 28, 2014 / 8:20 pm

      Thanks for following, and I’ll have to look into your new app!