Are you trying to decide between visiting Ilocos Sur or Ilocos Norte? Well, why not visit both? Each region is filled with adventures, activities, and attractions to keep you entertained.
We spent about a week in the Ilocos region exploring the most popular tourist attractions including cultural landmarks, sunny beaches, and street food markets. This article will go over some of the top things to do and experience in the Ilocos Region.
Best Things to do in Ilocos Norte
Ride a 4 x4 at the Paoay Sand Dunes
The Paoay Sand Dunes provides a thrilling adventure in the heart of Ilocos Norte. A licensed driver will pack up to 5 people in the back of a 4×4, and take you on a wild ride through the peaks and drops of the Ilocos sand dunes.
Initially, we wanted to drive our own 4×4, but we are so grateful that we hired a driver instead. He knew all of the best routes to make us hold on for dear life and scream until our lungs gave out. The 30 minutes is packed with 20-foot drops and sharp turns that make you feel as if you barely have tires on the ground. The adrenaline is broken up by a few photo opportunities. One of the best viewpoints overlooks the ocean in one direction and Laoag city in the other.
The 4×4 ride ends with the opportunity to surf down the final sand dune. Our guide allowed us unlimited tries as we all fell and ate sand time after time.
Fun Fact: Scenes from the Hollywood film Mad Max was filmed here.
Water Sports at Pagudpud
Pagudpud, pronounced pah-good-pood, is the northernmost point of Luzon island. Aside from being fun to say (”Pagudpud”…”Pagudpud”. Just try it. See, isn’t that fun?), Pagudpud is also a popular tourist destination known for its beaches and surfing. Local companies like King Fisher Resort offer a number of extreme water sports. This typically includes kite surfing, paddleboarding, and of course surfing. They also have the best Turon I tried while in the Philippines.
Street food at Batac
If you are looking to try authentic Ilocano eats like Longanisa, Ilocano empanadas, and Bagnet, then Batac is the place to go. This city is known to have one of the best public markets in the region. Fun fact: Batac is my lola’s (grandma) hometown!
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Visit the Sinking Bell Tower
Like most cathedrals, the St. William’s Cathedral in Laoag City has a bell tower that rings daily calling the community to mass. This bell tower has two things that make it unlike any other. Firstly, it is located about 280 feet away from St. William’s Cathedral, a substantial distance considering bell towers are typically attached to their respective church. Secondly, the bell tower is sinking.
Perhaps due to the fact that it was built on a sandy foundation, the Sinking Bell Tower of Laoag is slowly burying itself into the ground at a rate of one inch a year. When it was built in 1612, the structure towered over the city at a height of 150 feet. It is said that one could enter the bell tower gates on horseback. Today, this main entrance is barely visible above the ground.
The Sinking Bell Tower remains a unique attraction in Ilocos Norte. Visitors are drawn to Laoag each year to see this piece of history before it disappears completely.
Learn about San Agustin Church of Paoay
Like many of the popular landmarks in Ilocos, the San Agustin Church of Paoay was built during the era of Spanish colonization. The adjacent bell tower later served as an observation post during the Philippine revolution against the Spaniards. Years later it was used again by Filipino guerillas during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
The church is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best examples of a Baroque Church in the Philippines. The imposing 24 solid buttresses on each side of the church reinforce its resistance against natural disasters. This has earned it the nickname of the “Earthquake Baroque” church.
Take a picture at the Bangui Wind Farm
The Bangui Wind Farm is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Ilocos Norte. It is one of the largest windmills in Southeast Asia and provides electricity to approximately 50% of the Ilocos Norte region. Aside from being an environmentally friendly attraction, it is also an ideal location for capturing stunning photos of northern Luzon.
The 20 windmills arc along the shoreline of Bangui Bay creating a backdrop for photography that is both stunning and aesthetically pleasing. The best part? It is easily accessible and there is no fee to visit! In fact, there is no need to leave you car to see these turbines. We were able to view the towering windmills along the main road from Laoag to Pagudpud. However, if you want to capture an incredible photo, we recommend driving to the shoreline.
Try a traditional Ilocano breakfast in Laoag
After a long night of drinking at Java Hotel, our cousin from Laoag recommended Ilocano breakfast as the best cure for any hangover. Never one to turn down a foodie adventure, our whole family crammed into a tiny little breakfast spot in downtown Laoag.
Ladies in hair nets came out placing small dishes on our table. They scooped a distinctly meaty smelling broth into our bowls. This Ilocano staple, Sinanglao, is an incredibly rich broth flavored by various beef innards and bile. After finishing off a bowl, I can attest to my cousin’s statement. The oil and flavors of this rustic soup is indeed a magic tonic for soothing an uneasy tummy.
If you are open to trying new foods that are a bit unconventional (at least to an American palate), make a point to experience a traditional Ilocano breakfast.
Best things to do in Ilocos Sur
Enjoy a traditional meal and entertainment at Pinkabet Farms
Pinakbet Farm is more than a farm, it is a complete cultural experience. Visitors are treated to a feast served in the traditional Kamayan style, which essentially means eating with hands. While dining on an incredible meal sourced from the onsite farm and river, the staff entertain guests with a cultural presentation. This production blends music and theater to showcase key aspects of Ilocano culture including trade, courting, marriage, and family.
At one point during the presentation, I looked over to find my mom sneaking into the farm. My mom and her sisters have this habit of picking up plant clippings wherever they go to propagate at home. My mom ended up leaving Pinakbet Farm with a nice harvest of peppers, with the owner’s blessing of course.
Pinakbet by the way is an indigenous Ilocano dish consisting of fresh vegetables mixed with shrimp paste. It is derived from the Ilocano word pinakbet which means to shrink the food into one dish to prevent it from spoiling. My mom would make this dish for us growing up. Knowing it was chock full of healthy vegetables I always avoided it. Trying this dish at Pinakbet Farm makes me wish I had given it a shot much sooner!
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Visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A trip to Ilocos Sur is not complete without visiting Vigan City, rated one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines. This 16th-century town is the best-preserved Spanish colonial city in Asia, earning its place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
What makes Vigan truly unique is that the architecture reflects its distinct cultural heritage. Influences from early Chinese traders and settlers are blended with remnants of Spanish Colonialism. Walking along the cobblestone streets alongside horsedrawn kalesas, is like stepping into another place and time.
There are endless things to do in Vigan City. Visitors can watch the dancing fountain show at Plaza Salcedo, visit museums, and make pottery at the Pagburnayan jar Factory. Perhaps the most popular thing to do when visiting Vigan is to explore the Calle Crisologo. The street has been restored as a pedestrian walkway allowing visitors to explore shops and roadside vendors at their leisure. Do not miss the opportunity to try dirty ice cream from one of Vigan’s street vendors. We recommend Ube (purple yam) flavor!
Where to Stay when visiting Ilocos
We stayed at the beautiful Java Hotel during our week-long adventure of exploring the Ilocos region of Luzon. With its central location in Laoag, it was the perfect home base to explore all of the things to do in both Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur. Even though we spent most of our time outside of the hotel exploring, it was nice coming back for a delicious meal at their restaurant followed by an in-room massage. The quality of service, facilities, and amenities are 1st class. We would not hesitate to recommend Java Hotel for your next visit to Ilocos.
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Tribute to Regina Marcos
I am dedicating this article to my aunt Regina Marcos. We had the incredible opportunity to explore the Philippines with 21 of my aunts and cousins. Together we learned about our own Filipino heritage and saw the places where my Lola, mom, aunties, and uncles grew up. This Ilocano portion of the trip was coordinated entirely by my Auntie Oggie.
These pictures and stories will forever remind me of those moments we all spent together in Ilocos laughing, eating, and embracing the loving company of our family.
After our Philippines trip, Auntie Oggie returned to the hospital where she served as a nurse helping patients to battle COVID-19. Having asthma herself she knew the risks of continuing in her line of work. She fiercely pushed on saying,
“I became a nurse to help people. You don’t just stop because you’re afraid.”
On May 23, 2020, she lost her own battle with the disease and joined the angels in heaven. I love you Auntie Oggie!
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