By Herman M. Lagon
ILOILO CITY is a vibrant destination brimming with rich culture, delicious food, and lively festivals, among many others. The Department of Tourism even recently considers it the second top tourist destination in the region next to Boracay Island. Although lacking white beaches and trekking destinations, the city captivates visitors from diverse backgrounds with its distinctive heritage, delectable cuisine, and grand festivities. But many people, including locals, have yet to discover some of its hidden treasures. Within the city’s core and borders, an enchanting experience is still waiting to be explored and celebrated.
An iconic feature of Iloilo City is its historic street, Calle Real (Royal Street), now known as J.M. Basa Street, which has been famous since the Spanish era. This thoroughfare reflects the city’s prosperous past through its splendid buildings. Walking through the seven-street Calle Real Heritage Zone feels like stepping back in time, passing remarkable landmarks such as Edificio de Villanueva (International Hotel), Teatro Regente, Cine Aguila, Aduana de Iloilo (the second biggest Customs house in the country), Edificio de Elizalde (Ynchausti Building), San Jose de Placer Church, Plaza Libertad, and Hoskyn’s & Co. (the first Department Store in the country circa 1877) Compound, among others. Recently, I had the pleasure of taking my daughters and students from ISUFST to some of these buildings, which offer free museums and provide a glimpse into the past. It was an experience that undoubtedly had a profound impact on them.
Venturing into other city districts unveils the captivating charm of old-world architecture. Guided by a knowledgeable historian or tour guide, you will realize that these buildings share fascinating stories that showcase Iloilo’s rich heritage. Must-visit places include the “feminist” Iglesia de Molo (St. Anne Parish) Church, Molo Plaza (known as the Athens of the Philippines), Yusay-Consing Mansion, Jaro Municipal Hall, Beaux-Arts Lizares Mansion, Jaro Cathedral (National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles), Seminario de San Vicente Ferrer (the last seminary established by the Spaniards), Casa Montinola, Muelle Loney, Nelly’s Garden Mansion (Lopez Heritage House), Casa Mariquit, Campanario de Jaro (Jaro Belfry), La Villa de Arevalo (the first Spanish settlement in Panay in 1581), Casa Real de Iloilo, and Casa Rizaliana, among others. The efforts to preserve and restore these architectural gems deserve recognition as they contribute to preserving Iloilo’s history and identity.
During a local culture tour in our Socio-cultural Foundations of Education class at UP, I had the opportunity to revisit several of these remarkable places, but this time in full immersive view. Accompanied by a local historian and my enthusiastic professor, the experience became more relatable and empowering, especially for someone like me who proudly identifies as a full-fledged Ilonggo.
However, Iloilo City offers much more than just impressive buildings; it is a true haven for food enthusiasts. The culinary scene showcases a delightful fusion of flavors influenced by diverse cultures: from renowned establishments like Deco’s, Ted’s, Alicia’s, and Popoy’s, where you can relish a hearty bowl of La Paz Batchoy, to the bustling hubs of Villa Beach and the newest Coastal Road, where you can indulge in surprisingly affordable and mouthwatering seafood and expertly grilled delicacies, and not forgetting the iconic one-and-only Roberto’s Restaurant, known for its delectable local delicacies such as the famous Queen Siopao, flavorful meatballs, and my personal favorite, chicken bihon. Iloilo City’s gastronomy truly caters to every discerning palate, promising a culinary experience that will leave you satisfied and craving for more.
You may also indulge yourself in various must-try Ilonggo dishes that will surely tantalize your taste buds. From Jo-Ann’s flavorful fishballs to Kap Ising’s delectable pancit molo, Pat-Pat’s savory kansi, Tatoy’s succulent native lechon manok, and Madge’s aromatic native kape, the culinary delights of Iloilo City are truly unmatched. Savor the pre-war pandesal from Panaderia ni Pa-a, relish the delectable pan de siosa from Los Filipinos Bakery, treat yourself to the childhood-remembering taste of pancho from Buho, and experience the rich flavors of tsokolate de batirol from Camiña Balay nga Bato. Don’t miss the suman sa ibos at Café de Panay, the mouthwatering liempo from Ramboys, and the delightful KBL (kadios, baboy, and langka) at Breakthrough. Sample the comforting sinigang in Punsyon, savor the native chicken adobo from Y2K Talabahan, take pleasure with tinuom of Pio’s, slurp up rice porridge in Luna’s Arroz Caldo, scoop up some hot soup (magpasabaw) with Patakiks sa Molo, and delight in Punot’s flavorful laswa and linagpang. Treat yourself to the exquisite baked oysters (talaba) at Bulljack’s, and indulge in the heavenly delights of butterscotch, barquillos, biscocho, and galletas for pasalubong from Biscocho Haus, Deocampo’s, Molo County Bakeshop, Tibiao Bakery, or Panaderia de Molo. I have personally savored each of these delectable dishes and I still find myself longing for them time and time again. So, trust me when I say embarking on an Ilonggo gastronomic adventure will leave your taste buds immensely grateful.
In addition to its culture and local cuisine, Iloilo City is renowned for its vibrant festivals. The Dinagyang Festival, held every fourth weekend of January, is one of the biggest and world-class festivals in the Philippines. It is a spectacular celebration of dance and music that pays homage to the Holy Child Jesus, known as Senior Santo Niño and marks the Malay settlers’ arrival and the legendary barter of Panay with the native Ati people. The streets come alive with colorful tribal costumes, rhythmic beats, energetic performances, striking props, and impressive choreography, creating a Dagoy atmosphere of joy, bonding, and festivity. Having witnessed this vibrant celebration for almost five decades, I can wholeheartedly affirm that it is an extraordinary experience that should not be overlooked. The festivities truly encapsulate the indomitable spirit, boundless creativity, and profound passion of the Ilonggos.
The city also takes pride in the Paraw Regatta Festival, an annual event in February that celebrates the traditional sailing vessel called “paraw.” Jaro Fiesta, held every February 2nd in honor of Jaro’s patroness Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles), also fills the air with religious festivity. The Chinese New Year brings colorful celebrations to Chinatown on Calle Real and Iznart Street, where the city’s Chinese-Filipino community joins in the fête. Additionally, the Kasadyahan Festival, held every eve of Dinagyang, showcases the diverse cultural heritage and creativity of different Ilonggo festivals in Western Visayas. The city also celebrates the Iloilo Bike Festival every March, the Iloilo Dragon Boat Festival at the Iloilo River Esplanade every August, the month-long Charter Day Celebration in August, and the Lantern Festival in December, plus other religious and socio-cultural events such as Santacruzan, fiestas, processions, and countdowns.
Iloilo City is a hidden gem that offers a captivating experience for both locals and visitors. Its rich culture, mouthwatering cuisine, and vibrant festivals make it a destination worth exploring. From the historic streets and architectural marvels to the delightful flavors and lively celebrations, Iloilo City never fails to leave a lasting impression. That is why no less than the DOT-DFA-sponsored 14th VIP Tour 2023 has identified the metropolis as the country’s top tourist destination. So, take a closer look, let it charm you with its heritage, delight you with its flavors, and immerse you in its celebrations. It is an experience you will remember for life.
Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world that is grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views herewith do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions where he is employed or connected with.