Churches, Culture, and Heritage: Must-Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines

To be named in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) prestigious list of World Heritage Sites is an honor. The World Heritage List names places that “exhibit the highest universal value and should be conserved for future generations,” as noted by the late heritage advocate Augusto Villalon.

Among those on the World Heritage List are the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and the Notre Dame Cathedral in France. The Philippines hosts six cultural and natural sites, and there are almost 20 on the tentative list. These distinct places have stories and histories that shouldn’t be forgotten as we move forward.

With that said, here is your brief guide to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines, focusing on cultural heritage sites.



Paoay Church

via Bernard Spragg. NZ on Flickr (CC0 1.0)

The Philippines has a group of four Baroque churches on the World Heritage List. The northernmost of the four churches is the Church of St. Augustine in Paoay. It is located only 20 kilometers south of Laoag, Ilocos Norte. Paoay Church’s imposing buttresses and expansive courtyard are must-see attractions.

Tip: Shop for local handicrafts and snacks at stalls surrounding Paoay Church. Also, try the pinakbet pizza at Herencia Café.



Historic City of Vigan

via Joelaldor on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vigan, Ilocos Sur, is a well-preserved Spanish colonial town. Its architecture—notably on picturesque Calle Crisologo—reflects cultural elements from the Philippines, Asia, and Europe. The result is an unparalleled townscape. Explore Vigan on a day trip. The city is a two-hour drive south of Laoag, or you may book a Vigan day tour from Manila.

Tip: While in Vigan, sample their version of Ilocos empanada and ride a horse-drawn kalesa. In addition, visit other sights such as Vigan Cathedral and Syquia Mansion.



Santa Maria Church

via Harrybalais on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The second Baroque structure is the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. Commonly known as the parish church of Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, this brick-laden landmark sits atop a hill. Santa Maria Church’s elevated setting is unusual for Spanish colonial churches. You have to climb a long stairway to see the church and its belfry.

Tip: Coming from Laoag? Make Santa Maria Church the first stop of your trip down south, and then spend the rest of the day in Vigan. Coming from Manila? Ask your van driver to stop by the town of Santa Maria to see their glorious church.



Banaue Rice Terraces

via jonrawlinson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras are a six-hour drive from Baguio City. Booking a tour of the Banaue Rice Terraces is recommended. The adventurous will want to trek down the mountainside to see up-close the villages set amidst the rice paddies. From above, you’ll be swept away by the stunning vista. To think that human hands carved the terraces without modern-day equipment is impressive.

Tip: It’s best to visit during the cooler months of November to February. During the monsoon season, low-lying clouds could cover the mountains. Landslides may also block the roads.



San Agustin Church

via amaknow on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Within the walls of Manila’s historic Intramuros district is San Agustin Church. What makes the heritage site different from other Baroque churches is that it’s supported by an adjacent convent rather than buttresses. Upon entering the church, you’ll notice temple lions guarding the ornate doors. Inside, the walls and ceilings are painted in the illusive tromp l’oeil style.

Tip: If you have time to spare, explore the convent-turned-museum and gardens. Look for the niche of Juan Luna, view centuries of ecclesiastical art, and take in the view of the Blanco Gardens.



Miag-ao Church

via Gary Todd on Flickr (CC0 1.0)

Miag-ao Church is the southernmost of the four Baroque churches on the World Heritage List. Also known as the Santo Tomas de Villanueva, the parish church of Miag-ao is an hour’s drive west of Iloilo City. The church is distinct for its fortress-like structure and its use of pale sandstone. Moreover, Miag-ao Church features a façade carved with Filipino motifs, such as coconut, guava, and papaya trees.

Tip: Stop for lunch at Tatoy’s Manokan and Seafood in Arevalo. On the way back to the city center, take a break in Molo. Visit Molo Church and shop for local biscuits at Panaderia de Molo.



*Featured image via Dan Lundberg on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)