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Top Things to do in Ilocos Norte and Sur

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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.

Sand Dunes. Top activities, adventures, and attractions

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.

Pagudpud. Top activities, adventures, and attractions
Photo Credit: TripAdvisor

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!

Related Content: Filipino Street Food: 15 Must eats for the Traveling Foodie

Street food in Batac. Top activities, adventures, and attractions

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.

Things to do in Ilocos Norte. Sinking Bell Tower Laoag.
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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.

Things to do in Ilocos Norte. San Agustin Church of Paoay.

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.

Bangui Wind Farm. Top activities, adventures, and attractions
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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.

Things to do in Ilocos Norte. Traditional Ilocano breakfast in Laoag.

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!

Related Content: Top Things to do on Busuanga Island: Palawan’s Hidden Gem

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!

Vigan City. Top activities, adventures, and attractions

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!

Things to do in Ilocos Sul. Top activities, adventures, and attractions

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Cecilia is a bubbly Filipino-American with an affinity for constant change...that or a 10 second attention span. Refusing to sit still, she travels the world, in pursuit of adventure, excitement and meaningful experiences. She holds a Masters degree in International Development and Public Policy, and a BA in Business Management.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Linda (LD Holland)

    I know when we did an off road adventure, we too were happy we hired a driver rather than do the drive ourselves. Let us enjoy the ride so much more! It would be good to visit the sinking bell tower before too much of it disappears. We would also want to visit the Vigan City UNESCO site. Love towns that have restored pedestrian walkways!

    1. Lovicarious

      Aren’t off-roading adventures so much fun?! We had gone off-roading on an ATV in Mexico, but this was a completely different experience. Like you said, having a driver allowed us to really just let go and have fun.

  2. TheViewDeck

    I was here five years ago and we road tripped to Vigan City all the way up north to Pagudpud. Lots of beautiful sceneries and photo-ops along the way. Also, Vigan City is one of the action settings of Tom Cruise’s 1989 movie film “Born On The Fourth of July” (in replacement to Mexico and Vietnam).

    1. Lovicarious

      I didn’t know that! So it looks like we visited 2 Hollywood sets: Paoay Sand Dunes (Mad Max) and Vigan City (Born on the Fourth of July). I’m glad you had the opportunity to explore both Ilocos Sul and Ilocos Norte. There is so much to see and do in that region!

  3. Melissa

    I like your thinking, visiting them both is clearly the right answer! The sinking bell tower would be at the top of my list. It is very fascinating to me how the earth is swallowing it up. It would be cool to be able to visit every year or every couple years and watch as it sinks deeper and deeper. A meal at the Pinkabet farm sounds delightful. The cultural presentation would itself would be worth the trip. Both places sound lovely.

  4. Lisa

    I didn’t get to visit these places when I was on a trip to the Philippines. Ilocos Norte and Sul both look so beautiful. I think I’d choose Sul, just to see Vigan. I’ve read many great things about it, and from the photos I can see that it’s true.

    1. Lovicarious

      Absolutely! Vigan is well worth the trip. The street food, the architecture, the shopping, the history….it is a great place to experience culture and history in the Philippines.

  5. Ami Bhat

    I am the most intrigued about the bell tower. It looks quite complete except when you mention that the main entrance is well below the ground. I loved all the cathedrals that you have described. Would love to go for that drive too….get that adrenaline shot!

    1. Lovicarious

      The San Agustin Church of Paoay was just beautiful. Cathedrals and old churches around the world always leave me in amazement.

  6. Jay Artale

    I’m sorry for your loss of your Auntie Oggie. But how wonderful that you got to enjoy this trip with your family before she went back to work. You have some wonderful memories to honor her .. travel isn’t just about sights you see and experience, it’s the people along on the journey with you, and the people you meet along the way. What a memorable journey for you all.

    1. Lovicarious

      Couldn’t agree with you more. I used to do alot of solo travel before Scott and I met, but I find sharing the experience with others especially loved ones, is what makes the journey worthwhile.

  7. Umiko

    Sounds like you had a wonderful heritage trip with your family, retracing where your grandma, mother, aunts, and uncles used to live. The food look delicious, and the sinking bell intrigue me the most. I’m sorry to hear about your Aunty Oggie. May her soul rest in peace.

    1. Lovicarious

      It was nice seeing the house and neighborhood where my family grew up. In fact the house is still in the family, so it was particularly special being able to sleep in the room where my mom slept all through college.

  8. Sherianne

    You had me at sand dunes, that sounds like so much fun! The fact that Mad Max was filmed here adds to the experience. It would be fun to check out the sinking bell tower and I always love street food. Pinkabet Farms sounds like a must do excursion and I love that your mom grabbed some plant drippings! Mom’s are good for things like that lol

    1. Lovicarious

      Haha I only wish I was half as good at gardening as my mom is. She can take any plant stem and make it grow into 5 new plants. One day I’ll get there!

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