With the unique blend of a glorious bygone era and the allure of modern living, Iloilo gives you the best of both worlds
Mention Iloilo City to most Filipinos in the know, and its succulent cuisine and heritage structures are likely the first come to mind. And while Cebu has long been renowned as the “Queen City of the South,” there is an often overlooked fact in Iloilo’s checkered history—and that it is the first “queen city” because of its political and economic prominence during the Spanish era.
According to historians, Queen Regent Maria Cristina gave Iloilo the titles “La Muy Leal Y Noble Ciudad” (The Most Loyal and Noble City) and later “Queen Regent’s City in the South.”
Iloilo takes pride in its array of postcard-perfect heritage homes of its ilustrado class, which are remarkably well-preserved. With the slogan “The Past is Always Present,” the city government has passed an ordinance providing tax incentives to restore these antiquarian gems and give them a new lease in life.
As such, a number of ancestral homes have retained their grandeur, and have undergone adaptive reuse as tourist establishments. Some of the must-visit structures of the ilk are the 1865 Camiña Balay nga Bato, an antique shop, sinamay and hablon weaving room, and café for Ilonggo heirloom cuisine; and the Molo Mansion, which hosts SM’s Kultura retail shop.
The stately circa-1920s Nelly Garden – Iloilo’s “Queen of Heritage Houses” built in the tradition of Beaux Art of French chateaus – is a noteworthy mansion that served as the colonial era’s social events center, a role it continues to perform up to the present.
J.M. Basa St. (or Calle Real) downtown underwent an urban facelift to bring back its glory days. Aside from being a visual treat with its spruced-up facades, visitors can enter and marvel at the old buildings’ well-preserved state.
Tourists can also hop around the historic churches such as the Cathedral of the Our Lady of Purification, the Gothic-style Church of St. Anne in Molo, the San Jose de Placer at the city center, and the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage Church in La Paz.
But far from being a museum city frozen in time, this urban hub at the center of the archipelago is a bustling metropolis and a preferred location for business and leisure by the industry’s big players.
Being the capital of Iloilo province and the regional center of Western Visayas, the city is a virtual melting pot of people who work, play and live there.
Its modern facet is represented by the Iloilo Business Park, a master-planned enclave at the old airport site where major real estate firms have established a foothold. The new central business district teems with lifestyle retail shops, dining outlets, star-rated hotels, and other vertical mixed-use development.
The heart of this new township is the two-year old Iloilo Convention Center or Icon, which aims at making the city a new hub for MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions). The state-of-the-art facility is at par with the country’s best, and has hosted prestigious national and global gatherings, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Asean 50 Summit.
In anticipation of a boom in the MICE sector, the Ayala conglomerate has positioned itself strategically around the convention center with its Atria Park District, Avida Village, and Seda, a leading local hotel brand. Courtyard by Marriott, an international lodging chain, is also set to open by yearend. Moreover, an old guard in the hotel industry— The Mansion, the rebranded Sarabia Manor Hotel is undergoing a major facelift to blend its Old World charm with the comforts of modern lodging.
An interesting variety in the city’s go-to places is the newly-opened Waterworld Iloilo – a two-hectare waterpark, which is reputed to be first of its kind in the world to be powered by solar energy. It boasts of 17 slides, a 222-meter long lazy river, play area for toddlers, and a host of family-oriented amenities.
A new source of pride for the city is the Iloilo River Esplanade, rejuvenated by a program which saw the rehabilitation of the once-polluted waterway.
The best of its kind in the country, the nine-phase program covers river desilting, mangrove reforestation, landscaping of path for walking, biking, jogging, and public recreation, with a combined length of more than nine kilometers.
Designed by the famed urban planner Paulo Alcazaren, the Esplanade was given the GantimPALA Excellence Award for Leisure by the Philippine Association of Landscape Architects (PALA) in the recent 2017 Landscape Architecture Festival.
And while shuttling between Iloilo’s old and modern worlds, you can feast on renowned local cuisine such as batchoy, chicken inasal and binakol, pansit molo and laswa – cooked both in the traditional and contemporary manner by home-grown brands, specialty restaurants, and dining colonies. Alternatively (or as a post-meal plan), you can laze around in the breadth of cozy coffee shops, music lounges and watering holes found in Iloilo.
From Manila Air Asia, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have daily flights to Iloilo. It can also be reached by air from key Philippine cities such as Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.
By BERNARD L SUPETRAN
Photos courtesy of ROBBIE ROBLES