A taste of Cebu

Georgia Popplewell finds herself in the middle of a colourful street masquerade, in a tropical city with a colonial past, in an archipelago of islands. But she’s not in the Caribbean. Welcome to Cebu, the Philippines “second city”

  • Preparing for a jaunt in an outrigger canoe off Mactan Island. Photo by pmrmichaelangelo / Shutterstock.com
  • Photo by Georgia Popplewell
  • Cebu City’s annual Sinulog festival pays tribute to the Santo Ni–o. Photo by Patrimonio Designs Ltd / Shutterstock.com
  • The Philippines’ oldest city, Cebu has a population of nearly nine hundred thousand. Photo by Joyfull / Shutterstock.com

It’s the third Sunday in January, and I’m walking south along Gorordo Avenue in Cebu City. There’s a buzz in the air, the strain of music in the distance, the scent of grilling and frying from the food stands along the road. “Pit Senyor!” people greet each other in passing, and as we near our destination on General Maxilom Avenue the crowds grow denser.

Our destination is the parade route for the culmination of Sinulog, Cebu City’s signature festival. According to the guidebooks, it’s not the largest or the shiniest festival in the Philippines, a country with a strong taste for pageantry. But viewed through the lens through which I see all costumed spectacles — Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival — the Sinulog parade looks plenty impressive.

The troupes are sizeable and the costumes spectacular, especially the opulent, wide-skirted gowns worn by the queens, and a non-local could easily mistake this for a Caribbean-style Carnival, were it not for the fact that each troupe’s queen carries a figurine of Señor Santo Niño, the Christ Child, wearing a crown and an ornate cape and very much resembling the Infant of Prague, with the added detail of golden boots. In the days leading up to the parade, pilgrims from all over the deeply Catholic Philippines and its diaspora will have converged upon the Basilica de Santo Niño to pay tribute to the actual Santo Niño (or rather his replica, displayed in a glass case).

Also circulating among the troupes are giant puppets of saints and clerics. Our Cebuano friend Bino, however, points out areas along General Maxilom where the action will shift by nightfall into decidedly secular gear, and on the side streets the sound systems are already blaring, the party spirit ramping up around neighbourhood bars.

The island of Cebu sits in the middle of the Visayas, one of three island groupings that make up the seven-thousand-island Philippine archipelago. Its capital, Cebu City, is dwarfed by Metro Manila, the country’s capital region. But in addition to being the country’s second city, Cebu is also its oldest, and if historical primacy translated into enduring regard, we would all know about Cebu. It would be a familiar name, for instance, in the narrative of globalisation, for some scholars consider it the site where the unending struggle between “east” and “west” began, in the form of the encounter between Lapu-Lapu, chieftain of Mactan island, and Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan — the world’s first instance of successful indigenous resistance to a foreign power, back in 1521.

That encounter resulted in Magellan’s death, and turned Lapu-Lapu into a Philippine national hero. The Battle of Mactan is faithfully reenacted at the Kadaugan sa Mactan festival each April at the Mactan Shrine in Lapu-Lapu City. But the tide of history followed Magellan, and his sponsors, the Spanish, ended up winning the Philippines, followed three hundred years later by the United States, who received the islands in 1898 as part of their victory package in the Spanish-American War.


The tide of history also shifted the action north to Luzon Island and Manila. Like many second cities, however, Cebu City is proud, welcoming, ambitious, independent. The Cebuano language, despite lacking official language-status in the Philippines and not being formally taught, has the largest native-speaking population in the country, and it’s Cebuano — not Filipino — that you hear in the streets of Cebu.

With a population of nearly nine hundred thousand, Cebu City is by no means insubstantial. It’s large enough to offer many of the advantages — entertainment, shopping, several universities — and some of the glitz of Metro Manila, with smaller servings of traffic and urban sprawl, along with additional assets such as idyllic tropical scenery at close range. There are direct flights to Mactan Cebu International Airport from several Asian cities, including Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul.

As the country’s oldest city, Cebu has a rich colonial heritage and is home to several important historical sites and museums. Foremost among these is Magellan’s Cross, site of the Philippines’ first Catholic mass, where a large hollow wooden cross is said to contain the remnants of the original cross of evangelisation. The country’s oldest religious relic, the image of the Santo Niño, or Christ Child, said to have been presented by Magellan to the Rajah of Cebu’s wife on her conversion to Christianity, is housed at the Santo Niño Basilica, considered by the Vatican to be the most important church in the Philippines.

The Casa Gorordo Museum, housed in a grand old residence with features such as timber windows with capiz-shell panes, has displays of memorabilia related to Cebu’s traditional lifestyle. The Museo Sugbo, formerly the city’s provincial jail, is the province’s main historical museum, with collections and displays covering pre-colonial to modern periods. Also now a museum is the seventeenth-century Fort San Pedro, which has served as a fort, a prison for Cebuano rebels, and a military outpost during the US occupation.

My personal favourite is the CAP Osmeña Museum, located in the former residence of Sergio Osmeña, a son of Cebu who served as the country’s fourth president from 1944 to 1946. Among the museum’s artefacts are an ancient elevator, a black Cadillac, and memorabilia associated with US General Douglas MacArthur, whom Osmeña accompanied on the former’s famous “return” to the Philippines — then occupied by Japan — near the end of the Second World War.


The evening after the Sinulog festivities, we drive up to Tops lookout in the hills of Busay, where, wrapped in shawls against the evening chill, we take in the views of Metro Cebu and the islands of Mactan and Olango two thousand feet below. On the way back, we stop at the Busay branch of Lantaw Native Restaurant, where we sit out on a wide wooden deck among chattering Cebuano families, while our Filipino friends order up a feast of tangy soups, vegetables sautéed in mouth-watering sauces, and all manner of fried and grilled meat and fresh seafood.

That Filipino cuisine isn’t as well known as that of its Asian neighbours is a likely result of the country’s cultural diversity — its myriad culinary influences make it difficult to categorise. A Filipino hotel buffet might include ostensibly Spanish items like adobo and longanisa, pancit and lumpia from China, biko and suman from Indonesia, and delightful fusions such as turrón de banana, a delicate banana-filled spring roll. Lately, however, “native” Filipino dishes like pinakbet, kinilaw, sisig, and sinigang have emerged from family kitchens to become the centrepieces of the menus in restaurants like Cebu’s Lantaw, Golden Cowrie, and Orange Karenderia, a funky take on a traditional working people’s cafeteria.

Few carnivores probably visit the Philippines without sampling lechon (roast suckling pig) from a roadside restaurant, or an upscale fast food joint like Cebu’s Zubu Chon. Cebuanos claim to make the best lechon in the country, and I’ve even met Manileños who’ll admit that in this respect, at least, the country’s second city rules.


Filipino flavours

A quick guide to the deliciously diverse cuisine of the Philippines.

Adobo: sometimes called the Philippines’ national dish; chicked or pork cooked in a marinade of vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce

Longanisa: a meat sausage; its seasonings and spices vary depending on the region

Pinakbet: vegetables steamed in shrimp or fish sauce

Pancit: Chinese noodles, adapted to Filipino ingredients

Lumpia: steamed or fried spring rolls

Kinilaw: Filipinos’ take on ceviche

Sisig: meat or fish marinated in lemon juice or vinegar

Sinigang: a tangy tamarind-flavoured soup

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