Our country is steeped in history and culture that is as rich and diverse as our geography. The imposing and often world-recognized landmarks spread across our archipelago are visually-arresting expressions of our colorful history.

But did you know that many of these important destinations offer immersive experiences beyond historical education?

From riding on the highest zipline through cultural landscapes in Mindanao to being in awe of one of the most photographed streets in our country, to appreciating the wide expanse of sea and sky at an observation deck, here are experiences at heritage sites recommended by the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Take a tour of the tombs and columbary of San Agustin Church in Intramuros

Three centuries of Spanish occupation is seen and felt all over our country until today, and many of these hispanic influences are easily visible in Intramuros. The 60-hectare block of land was built and fortified by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the first Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, in the 16th century.

Many important landmarks have persisted from the time of The Walled City’s construction, not the least of which is the 400-year-old San Agustin Church. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the structure is one of the oldest Catholic churches here, and the first built by the Spaniards in Luzon.

The church, as it stands now, is the third time that its Augustinian friars rebuilt it. First made of bamboo and nipa in 1607, it was brought down by a fire. The wooden structure that came after also burned down.

San Agustin Church, taken before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Besides being a place of worship, the ancient structure is also a Museum and Cultural Center filled with centuries-old artifacts. A tour here includes a visit to the tomb of governor-general de Legazpi, who is buried within the holy grounds. You can also pay your respects to renowned Filipino painter Juan Luna, whose remains are kept in the church’s columbary.

Immerse in Spanish architecture at the most photographed streets of Vigan

Calle Crisologo at night. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Slices of pre-colonial Spanish rule also exist outside of our country’s capital, and one notable example of this is Vigan in the northwestern province of Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 400-year-old Ilocano city is renowned for its well-kept ancestral homes and buildings, and is and one of CNN’s “most picturesque towns in Asia.”

Much of the immaculate architecture here can be found near Plaza Salcedo, which is named after Vigan’s founder, the Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo.

From there, you can easily explore the rest of the picture-perfect location on foot, beginning with St. Paul’s Cathedral across the street. Built in 1800, the baroque church stands on the same spot where de Salcedo established the community’s first wood and thatch chapel in the 16th century.

About five minutes away is Calle Crisologo, the city’s most photographed street and most popular tourist attraction. Like a postcard come to life, the thoroughfare is lined with the homes of Vigan families who rose to prominence in the town’s heydays as a trading hub.

You can easily walk around the cobblestoned stretch, but a kalesa ride, which costs Php150 an hour, might give you a more immersive experience. Many of Crisologo’s antique residences have been converted into museums, hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants, allowing you to go on a deep dive of the Vigan’s history.

Vigan only allows pre-booked tours with accredited agencies and operators. We suggest booking your accommodations in advance as well to ensure a smooth and safe trip to and around the Ilocano capital.

Look far and wide from the Memorial Cross observation deck at Bataan’s Shrine of Valor

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

The United States of America also occupied our country, but just for a fraction of time than the Spaniards’ centuries-old rule. While the Americans still met fierce opposition, their 48-year-old occupation did allow for gradual independence and the formation of a commonwealth government.

This US-Philippine alliance was strengthened by the events of World War II, which saw American Armed Forces fight alongside Filipino soldiers against Japanese invaders. The months-long battle came to a head in Bataan in Northern Luzon, where the allied troops surrendered.

Today, the Shrine of Valor stands near the peak of Mt. Samat, the US’s last stronghold on the island, in remembrance of the fallen heroes who bravely defended the country’s freedom.

Inaugurated in 1970, the 72-hectare Shrine consists of a Colonnade decked with sculptures, murals, and stained glass displays that depict the Battle of Bataan. Behind this marble hall stands the Memorial Cross, a 92-meter-high structure of reinforced steel and concrete that stands watch over the province.

Its base is clad with an 11-meter-tall relief designed by our National Artist Napoleon Abueva, which illustrates historical events and icons like Jose Rizal and Datu Lapu-Lapu. You can ride an elevator up to an observation deck on the Cross’s 30-meter-wide arms that opens to 360-degree views of the peninsula and nearby Corregidor Island and Manila Bay.

The Shrine currently only accommodates pre-booked visits. You can reserve your slots at least two days before your intended travel date.

Appreciate Mindanao’s cultural landscape on the highest zipline in Southeast Asia

Lake Sebu. Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

First and foremost, our country is a land of diverse ethnicities. Before the Spaniards came, a variety of indigenous tribes thrived across the archipelago. Many of these groups were able to repel these would-be foreign conquerors and, as a result, managed to uphold their own values and traditions until today.

The island of Mindanao, in particular, is home to a total of 18 indigenous tribes. Four of them—the T’boli, Ubo, Tiruray, and Manobo—continue to flourish in the municipality of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.

These groups have resided in this part of the country for centuries, with the T’boli making up more than half of its population. They still live the way their ancestors did, relying on fishing and agriculture for livelihood, and, because of their careful cultivation of the land, UNESCO has recognized the region of Lake Sebu as a cultural landscape.

Once travel restrictions are lifted, you can take a trip down to the Mindanaoan province to visit the museums and centers around the area. You can also observe the tribe’s customs and rituals including musical performances as well as the complex process of T’nalak weaving.

One of these places, the Lake Sebu School of Living Tradition (LST), also serves as a homestay for visitors. While there, you can don traditional T’boli garb for Php200 (women) and Php150 (men).

  • Address: Lake Sebu School of Living Tradition, Sitio Lambanig, Brgy. Poblacion, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
  • Contact number: +63 935 456 9359
  • Website: https://www.facebook.com/LakeSebuSLT
  • Rate: Php350 a night, with breakfast

At Lake Sebu, you can also trek through the “Seven Falls” via hiking trails. But we highly recommend viewing it on the highest zipline in Southeast Asia, a sweeping ride that is 600 feet above the ground.

Only four out of the seven falls can be seen from this point of view, while the rest is only accessible on foot. But at Php300 to Php350 for a two-way ride, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss.

  • Address: 7 Waterfalls Zipline, Brgy. Lake Lahit, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
  • Contact number: +63 65 8281 1761
  • Entrance fee: Php20 (adults) / Php15 (senior citizens) / P10 (students) / Php5 (children below 12)
  • Zipline rates: Php350 (weekends and holidays) / Php300 (weekdays)

Have a remote travel experience in the secluded village of Batad

Batad Rice Field, Banaue, Ifugao. Photo courtesy of the Jubran Elias.

Next to Mindanao, Northern Luzon has the second highest concentration of indigenous cultures in the Philippines. The mountainous Cordillera province is home to seven major ethnic groups—the Tinggian, Isneg, Kalinga, Kankana-ey, Ibaloy, Ifugao, and Bontok—collectively known as Igorots, from the Spanish word Igorrotes which means “of the hill or mountain.”

These highland tribes are farmers, distinguished for their ingenious tradition of agricultural terracing. This is the method behind our world-famous, and highly photographable rice terraces.

Not many may know but there are in fact more than 48 of these farming landscape wonders in the Igorot mountains, some even dating back 2,000 years. Five of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Hungudan, and Nagadacan Rice Terraces.

The Banaue Rice Terraces, actually, is not included in this list because of the abundance of contemporary structures in its area. But it remains to be one of the top tourist spots in our country and is considered a National Cultural Treasure.

There are a lot of activities to keep you occupied at Banaue. Apart from hiking up the mountain to observe the terraces from different vantage points, you can drop by the Banaue Museum as well as the Tam-An Village to observe the daily life of an Ifugao tribe.

But if it’s a unique and completely remote travel experience that you’re after, make a beeline for Batad. To get to this secluded village, you’ll need to take another 45-minute jeepney ride from Banaue town proper to a drop off point called the Saddle. From there, you’ll have to trek another 20 minutes until you reach your destination.

Despite its isolation, Batad has several affordable options for accommodation in the area, including homestays in traditional Ifugao huts. In terms of getting around, the area’s unspoiled landscapes mean you’ll have to go on long hikes to visit sites. But it’s worth it for the breathtaking views.

After trekking up the rice terraces, you can venture out to Tappiya Falls for a swim, or head out to Awa View Deck up in the mountains for unparalleled panoramas. You can explore the area on your own, but there are local guides you can hire for around Php600 (max of four people) to tour you around.

Right now, travel to the Cordillera province has been limited in line with nationwide safety protocols. But locals will be happy to welcome visitors back once travel restrictions ease up.

Appreciate cave systems and limestone cliffs on a paddle boat at the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Park

Photo courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Palawan’s Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature.”

The main draw at this 22-hectare ecotourist spot is the 8.2km long underground river that flows directly into the sea. About 4.3km, or half of the whole route, can be explored aboard a paddle boat that will take you to see intricate cave systems and limestone cliffs.

This largely landscape contains a mountain-to-sea ecosystem that protects Palawan’s rainforests. It also provides critical habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the region.

You’ll likely catch some of the park’s four-legged, furry, or winged residents before you enter the underground river. These include crab-eating monkeys, monitor lizards, bats, and flocks of birds that wander the area.

Just off Puerto Princesa town proper, the park usually only allows a limited number of tourists to enter per day so it’s best to book your visit ahead. Right now it still remains closed due to COVID restrictions.

But when things pick up again, you might want to check out packages online or through your accommodation, which usually start at Php2,000. If you prefer to explore on your own, you’ll need to secure a tour permit from their office in Puerto Princesa’s City Coliseum before you can travel to Sabang Village. You’ll also need to pay a Php500 environmental fee upon arrival at the park.

Travel safely!

All of these tourist destinations have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.

To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.