With only three days in Cebu to take part in Sinulog, inarguably the city’s biggest revelry, here is our 3-day guide on where to sleep and where to spend all your waking hours because while Cebu has become synonymous with lechon and mangoes, there’s more to cherish in this city than those.
Day 1: Pre-gaming Saturday
Once you get off the plane, check in at the Islands Stay Hotel at Archbishop Reyes Avenue. Its cool white interiors with pops of Islands’ signature orange makes it the chicest boutique hotel in town. By doing away with unnecessary extras that you may not want, it is able to offer what is absolutely crucial to the savvy traveler—free Wifi and a flatscreen TV in each room, just to name a few—without sacrificing affordability. And affordable it is with rooms for as low as P850 per night. Rates that low for a beautifully designed space sell out fast, so make your reservations now at www.islandsstay.com. (Islands Stay Hotel has a second branch in Mactan Island, just outside the airport road.)
After checking out the requisite cultural sights downtown, such as Magellan’s Cross and the Sinulog’s religious epicenter, the Sto. Niño Basilica, head to the old town of Parian for a leisurely lunch at Café Elysa. This charming café is a tribute to owner-chef Stephen Aznar’s mom and her traditional Cebuano recipes, which were passed on to her by her own mother. The recipes of Stephen’s Cebuano childhood form the backbone of his menu together with recipes acquired and made his own from various travels. Café Elysa’s loyal following rave about its goat caldereta, humba with black beans, and cream dory with anchovy-lemon sauce; you can’t go wrong with those.
While the food is a treat to the palate, the artworks displayed in Café Elysa are a treat for the eyes. Its walls are a gallery of sorts, showcasing local talent and some of the art is for sale. Currently, works of the Alcoseba family and the late Andrew Barba hang on the walls. (30A Zamora St., Parian; tel. 032-4149265 or 0908-8724980; open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and dinner from 6:30-11 p.m.)
Once you’ve had your fill of Café Elysa’s best-loved dishes, do drop by the Heritage of Cebu Monument, a massive sculpture of brass, bronze, and steel by Eduardo Castillo for a quick photo-op. It’s conveniently located literally a stone’s throw away from the café.
If you’re up for more sightseeing, the Casa Gorordo and Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House, also just within the area, are both historically and culturally significant pieces of architecture that tell Cebu’s story.
Back in the city, after freshening up and trading your flip-flops for heels, enjoy a hearty dinner at Giuseppe, hands down one of the best Italian restaurants in town. A must-try is their osso bucco served with your choice of roasted potatoes and vegetables or risotto. This place deserves a visit if only for this dish alone. Their spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino is full on flavor and is a fantastic vegetarian option although the meat lovers among us seem to adore it, too. And of course, their wood-fired pizzas are not to be missed. Made in an authentic Italian oven built by the owner-chef Giuseppe himself, their pizzas are the closest we can get to the real thing without having to fly to Napoli.
Don’t leave without indulging in some dolce. Their tiramisu is a huge hit and the tortino, their take on a warm, dark chocolate lava cake topped with vanilla ice cream, is worth throwing any diet out the door for. (Giuseppe is at Paseo Saturnino, Maria Luisa Road; tel. 032-2395102 or 0917-6220308; open daily from 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.)
After dinner, the mardi gras celebration starts at Treff at the Waterfront Hotel & Casino for their annual pre-Sinulog party. Treff is easily one of the chicest bars around with its sleek glass interiors serving as the perfect backdrop for Philippe Starck’s Louis Ghost Chairs. Try a glass or two of their caipirinha, Treff’s signature drink and get your feet moving to some tribal house tracks by resident DJ, Bong Suzara. (Treff is at the Waterfront Hotel & Casino on Salinas Drive, Lahug; tel. 032-2326888; open daily from 5 p.m.-1 a.m.)
Day 2: Sinulog Sunday
Start the day with breakfast or brunch at A Café, depending on what time you wake up. The little sister of multi-awarded Abacá Boutique Resort and Restaurant, cozy A Café in the heart of uptown Cebu is a casual dining space with white walls, comfy dark brown leather seats and minimalist décor. It is the quintessential dining venue that goes back to the essential basics of serving straightforward good food. Fuel up for what will be a long day ahead with hefty portions of all-day breakfast favorites including a hearty breakfast skillet, blueberry buttermilk pancakes and their to-die-for Eggs Benedict. Their coffee is strong and a real waker-upper, served in pretty Pavina double-wall Bodum glasses. (A Café is in Crossroads, Banilad; tel. 032-5055692; open daily from 8 a.m-10 p.m.)
Don’t let yourself go hungry before you take to the streets. If you have time, we suggest grabbing some lunch at the mall across your Islands Stay Hotel. Lemongrass, which serves Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, is a no-fail option. Their pad thai is a best seller and their green chicken curry puts all other green chicken curries to shame. Make sure to order a pitcher of their refreshing citrus herb lemonade, just the thing to keep you hydrated later as you dance the day away. (Lemongrass is on the ground floor of the Ayala Center Cebu Terraces; tel. 032-2338601.)
From the mall, you have either of two routes. If what you’re after is to get a great view of the parade and the performances, your best bet is to get yourself a ticket to the Sinulog Grand Stand at the Cebu City Sports Center. If you want to do Sinulog like a local, however, we suggest heading to Juana Osmeña Street or General Maxilom Avenue. Pick one from among the countless bars in the vicinity and in the likely event that you can’t get yourself a table, simply buy a beer from any of the vendors around and party right on the streets. You won’t see much of the parade from here, but you feel the energy of Sinulog and the pulse of the city all the same as everybody is dancing along with you, all to the beat of the same drum.
Towards late afternoon or early evening, head back to your Islands Stay Hotel on Archbishop Reyes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a cab to take you there, but thankfully, it’s a manageable walk. Wash the face paint off and change into something nicer as the party moves from the streets to the bars.
Start the night right at Maya Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Lounge, a modern and masculine space accented with colorful skulls on one wall and a massive horn on another with hints of Mexican and Spanish décor throughout.
Indulge in their Mexican fare starting with an order of queso fundido, a dip of melted Mexican cheeses with jalapeños, served with fresh tortilla chips, and their tasty ensalada de jicama, a refreshing jicama salad with local citrus, cucumbers and carrots with light coriander-lime vinaigrette. Order a bunch of different mains to share so you can sample more dishes, including carne asada or grilled angus flank steak with charred chilies and roasted onions, the vientre de Puerco, Mexico’s version of our local lechon kawali, and among their specialties and at the heart of their menu are their tacos. The tortillas are handmade with 100 percent imported white corn masa or flour, and are filled with your choice of carnitas or six-hour roasted organic pork shoulder, lime and coriander grilled fish, or chicken with tomato-chipotle sauce.
Maya’s drink list is impressive with a huge selection of 100% pure agave tequilas and a full selection of Mexican beers, but they are best known for their margaritas and mojitos. (Maya is in Crossroads Mall, Banilad; tel. 032-2389552; open Sunday to Thursday, from 4PM-12 midnight, and Friday to Saturday from 5PM-2AM.)
Just down the road from Maya, also in Crossroads Mall, hop on over to the newly renovated Gilt. Rightfully calling itself an artisan lounge, Gilt is an impressive showcase of local talent with furniture from Cebu-based Carlo Cordaro and Detalia Aurora, all cleverly and skillfully mixed and intentionally mismatched by accessories designer Lani Pasquet and painter and furniture designer Delphine de Lorme who both lent their artistry and unabashed Frenchness in redesigning the space. Delphine’s cheeky pop-art paintings are also displayed on the walls. Gilt shows off its other hat, as that of a cocktail lab, with creative cocktails, such as Lani’s Mixed Berry Mojito and the GILTy Pleasure, a vodka and four seasons concoction. (Gilt is in Crossroads Mall, Banilad; tel. 032-4162342; open Monday to Saturday from 5 p.m-2 a.m.)
Day 3: Cool down Monday
Wake up in time to check out of the hotel at 12 noon, and bring your stuff with you for a leisurely lunch at Café Georg, an institution in Cebu’s dining scene. If you live in Cebu, this casual café, which offers great simple dishes at just-right prices, is the kind of restaurant you’d go to at least twice or three times a week—or even more if you live alone and don’t cook—simply because you don’t just feel full after a meal here but you are delightfully satisfied. Owner-chef Bunny Ludo-Alcordo, has done an excellent job with the comfort food menu, offering something for everyone, vegetarians included.
In its 11 years of dishing out consistently phenomenal fare, Café Georg has never advertised or had a single promotion—no all-you-can-eat buffet ploys or discount cards—because they just don’t need to. They’re always packed for lunch and dinner. Must-tries include the hummus and the spinach and cheese dip to share, and the mushroom-asparagus pasta, chicken potpie, Singapore-style fish, and pork chop with garlic-herb butter for your main. Dessert is heavenly here, with the tiramisu and chocolate decadence cake being two of their bestsellers. Enjoy it with a cup of their exquisite coffee, and after you take that last bite, you can be sure to sit back in your seat and let out a contented sigh. (Café Georg, G/F, MLD Building, Banilad; tel. 032-2340887; open Sunday to Thursday from 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m., and Friday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
After lunch, head out to the Islands Pasalubong Center in Mactan, located close to the airport. It’s your one-stop shop for local souvenir items and local delicacies such as dried mangoes, chicharon, Shamrock-brand Otap, and Titay’s rosquillos. You can leave your bags at the storage counter here then set off to the 3-minute away Cebu Yacht Club to catch the Islands Banca Cruises’ Sunset Chill-out Cruise (P295 per person, inclusive of one drink. Call 0917-6300736 or 032-2364896 for inquiries). The boat leaves the dock at 5:30 p.m. daily, and cruises along the Mactan channel for an hour and a half, allowing you a different vantage point from which to enjoy the Cebu City skyline, Liloan lighthouse, Marcelo Fernan bridge and the Mactan-Mandaue bridge at dusk. Comfy beanbags and easy-listening lounge music enhance the sunset experience, and make for a nice cap to a beautifully lazy day.
While waiting for your flight, enjoy your last meal in Cebu at Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort and Spa’s Cowrie Cove restaurant, which offers excellent seafood dishes. You can choose to dine in a gorgeous al fresco area overlooking the ocean or you can stay at either of their two newly renovated air-conditioned dining rooms, Fisherman’s Place or Captain’s Cabin. After dinner, have a drink or two at the adjacent chill-out bar, also newly renovated and christened Waves (Daily buy-one-take-one happy hour from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) because of the rippling waters that crash unto the shore below it. Designed by UK-based Ara Design, the space is casual and inviting with furniture by local furniture brand Metamorfose in colors inspired by the deep red and orange hues of the sunset. Generous pours on their cocktails ensure that you’ll have a good sleep on your flight back home. (Shangri-La’s Cowrie Cove, Punta Engaño Road, Mactan; tel. 032-2318224; Open daily from 6-10 p.m.)