The Philippines’ unique and enticing culture is, more often than not, overshadowed by the country’s abundance of jaw-dropping beaches. Being considered one of the world’s best destinations for seaside vacations is great on many levels but it also means that other incredible highlights go unnoticed. Rich in historical and cultural treasures and boasting a unique identity that’s still trying to find its own feet in the world, the Philippines offer a lot more than (admittedly dreamy) sun and surf. If you’re the kind of traveller who cherishes deeper connections and explorations, then why not explore beyond the beaches?
There’s more to the Philippines than you can even begin to imagine…
To gain a better appreciation of all the Philippines have to offer, we’ll give you a swift overview of its troubled history and then outline the most rewarding cultural and historical attractions you can include in a comprehensive tour. Understanding their background will help you make the most of your ‘beyond the beaches’ tour of the Philippines.
Overview of the History of the Philippines
The Philippines are a former Spanish colony, floating in the Pacific, half-way between Taiwan and far-east Indonesia. Famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan first claimed them for the Spanish crown in 1521 although the indigenous inhabitants put up such a tremendous struggle that not only did Magellan lose his life here (to a poisoned arrow) but it delayed the Spanish colonisation of the islands for more than four decades. Why were the Europeans particularly interested in the Philippines? Well, because locals had established trading routes not only with Arab nations but also (and primarily) China. Once Spain got its boots into the front door, it used the Philippines as its main trading hub between China and its newly acquired lands: Latin America.
Much as they did in South America, the Spanish introduced Catholicism to the Philippines and, nowadays, the country remains among the world’s most fervently religious.
Despite a very short-lived period of British rule, the Philippines would remain under Spanish control for the next three centuries, right up until the 1899 war between Spain and the USA. The war itself originated in Latin America yet, by the time Spain was defeated (marking the end of Spanish colonisation of the Americas) the war had spilled onto the Spanish colonies in the Pacific, including the Philippines.
Taking advantage of the defeat of their ‘captors’, Filipino revolutionaries attempted to declare independence outright but found strong resistance in the Americans. By the time the Filipino-American War ended, three years later, the two sides had reached a sort of agreement. In short, the Philippines promised to be ‘Americanised’ as long as the country could, in the near-future, be granted full independence. If it hadn’t been for Japan invading it during WWI, and the US re-invading it in order to protect it, this would have happened much sooner.
Nevertheless, the Philippines were finally granted their hard-fought independence in 1946 yet many historians say that the country’s most painful struggle hadn’t even started yet. Plagued by social and economic inequality, the Philippines fell into the hands of one of history’s most corrupt dictatorships, all the while still having US military bases peppered throughout their nations. The Marcos leadership years were filled with hardship and bloodshed and although the early 1990s saw an end to both the catastrophic Marcos dictatorship, and the heavy presence of the US military, the Philippines are, in many ways, still trying to pick up the pieces.
The Philippines finally emerged from its tumultuous 400+ fight intrinsically changed and even locals will admit that their own, unique, independent identity, is not yet set in stone.
The Best Historical & Cultural Attractions in the Philippines
Fort Santiago, Manila, Luzon island
Originally constructed in 1593, Fort Santiago is part of Intramuros (between walls) the old walled town section of the country’s capital. Widely considered the most important and revered historical site in the whole country, Fort Santiago is where the Spanish imprisoned Dr Jose Rizal in 1896. Rizal was a physician, intellectual and staunch patriot and is nowadays considered the country’s national hero and father of its independence movement. Rizal faced the firing squad in what is now Rizal Park on December 30th 1896, an act that further fuelled Filipino’s fervour for independence. The spark that started the revolt. The fort boasts a beautiful riverside location and has been turned into a public park, complete with gorgeous lily ponds, manicured gardens and beloved shrine museum to the country’s fallen hero. The museum is fascinating and gives a great overview of the American and Japanese grab for Manila.
Vigan, Luzon Island
The city of Vigan is perhaps the most astonishing walk-through museum of Spanish-Asian architecture in the Philippines, mostly because it hasn’t seen the kind of modernizing frenzy which has seen parts of Manila completely transformed. The maze of rustic cobbled streets (Crisologo being the most famous) grand mansions, stunning plazas, churches and museums have secured Vigan a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Listing. The historical link with Chinese traders means this, according to UNESCO no less, is considered the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in all of Asia. Vigan is about 400km north of Manila.
Baguio, Luzon Island
This lovely ‘City of Pines’ is a very popular summer destinations thanks to its milder weather and much cooler climate. Given the 1,470m-altitude, this is the coldest place in the Philippines, with winter lows of 18-degree and year-round averages around the low-20s. Offering gorgeous scenic views across fertile valleys and boasting an array of stunning parks, pine forests (hence its nickname) and a thriving university vibe, the town is the best gateway for hiking exploits in the high cordillera. Established by the Americans in 1900, Baguio was the only hill station the USA established, anywhere in Asia
Sagada, Cordillera Mountains, Luzon Island
Halfway between Vigan and Baguio, right in the heart of cordillera land, is where you’ll find Sagada, one of the most culturally unique towns in the Philippines. World famous thanks to its fascinating traditional ‘hanging coffins’, Sagada is – or rather used to be – one of the most isolated communities in the country, inhabited by indigenous tribes that were almost entirely left alone by the Spanish. The first mission wasn’t even founded here until 1882, which means this is one of the most untouched tribal cultures and lands in the entire country. To add to the enticement, the area around Sagada brims with stunning waterfalls, limestone peaks and caves. This is a culture and nature-lover’s absolute dream.
Historic Batad Rice Terraces,
An historic walking trail in the cordillera mountains meanders past endless undulating rice terraces, perhaps the most endearing natural landscapes in the country after the spectacular coastlines. At over 1,500m altitude, you’ll be walking through clouds, exploring the lesser-visited highlands of Ifugao Province and visiting remote indigenous communities still leading a very traditional way of life. The Ifugao people built these awe-inspiring terraces more than 2,000 years ago, facilitating agriculture in what is a very tough mountainous terrain. Many are still being used for farming today. A series of walking trails offer you the chance to explore these valleys close up.
Fuerte de San Pedro, Cebu Island
Not as famous as Manila’s Santiago Fort, Cebu’s San Pedro Fort nevertheless predates it by almost 30 years and is actually the very first fortified town ever built by the Spaniards in the Philippines. Originally built entirely of wood, the fort was fortified in stone in the 17th-century and used, at various times in history, as a US-army barrack, a protective enclave for the city’s Japanese residents and was taken over and used as a base by Filipino revolutionary forces during the fight for independence.
Shrine to Mactan, Cebu Island
Credited with having initially defeated the Spanish (and having killed Ferdinand Magellan) Lapu-Lapu is depicted in this impressive 20m-tall bronze statue overlooking Magellan Bay, in Lapu-Lapu City.
The Philippines are one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world. Aside from all the above-mentioned cultural and historical attractions, these magical and endearing islands collectively boast a superb array of natural splendours as well. Magnificent mountains and gorges, underground rivers and caves that’ll knock your socks off, spectacular lakes and outstanding wildlife-watching hot-spots, both on land and in the water.
There’s so much more to the Philippines than beaches – so why don’t you come discover the true potential of this pearl of Asia?
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