Historic City of Vigan – UNESCO WHS Review

Location: Vigan City, Ilocos Sur, Philippines
Visited: Jan 10, 2020
Site Type: Cultural
Inscribed: 1999
Background and Opinion:

Before talking about Vigan directly, we need to go back, all the way back to 1521. If you are a fan of the Civilization series of games, or paid attention in history class, you’d know this is when Magellan arrived in the central Philippine island of Cebu. He had the first mass here and subsequently went on to live happily ever after in Spain. Just kidding, he was killed. Nonetheless, his expedition made it back, thus crediting Spain with the first circumnavigation of the globe and giving them a +2 movement to all sea vessels for the rest of time. Super broken buff if you ask me. Civ references aside, Spain did go on to colonize the Philippines under the New Spain Viceroy and become an important link of Spain’s Empire. Enter Vigan.

Vigan City is noted for being one of the best examples of a Spanish colonial town in Asia. Established in the 16th century, it was an important trading post linking the Pacific coast towns of New Spain with the Philippines and on to the rest of the Spanish domain. Its buildings combine Filipino, Ilocano and Chinese influences with Spanish design. My Ilocano friend tells me that pre-WW2, Vigan-like towns were a dime a dozen and being a Spanish colonial town wouldn’t have been seen as special. However, Vigan is one of the only well preserved ones post Japan’s devastating withdraw from the islands.

Walking around Vigan is truly special. What made this site more memorable was being shown around by a fellow Unesco World Heritage Site fanatic. Small things that go otherwise unnoticed become highlights. I probably would have made a fuss about Jollibee being placed on one of the 4 sides of the town square if Bernard hadn’t pointed out that this is traditionally where the market place goes, thus the most appropriate place to have it. Vigan reminded me a lot of Guanajuato, where knowing the history and being able to interact with the locals without a language barrier really makes a difference. But how does Vigan stand up compared to other UNESCO WHS? Let’s find out.

Enjoying some local food with Bernard. These little pop up eateries are for breakfast and early lunch. Super cheap and super yummy.


1) Completeness and Originality (13 out of 15):

With over 200 buildings meticulously preserved over the course of more than 4 centuries, it is hard to give it a bad score. Walking along the town in the morning or very late at night is the best to enjoy it outside of the crowds. To be honest, even at peak times, tourism isn’t a huge issue as Vigan is mostly popular with local Filipinos and the majority stick to the same picturesque street. Here is where my criticism comes in though. Preventing it from getting a perfect store are the knick knack jobs that line this particular street, which in the evenings, kinda just looks like a tourist trap. Still, 13 of 15 is very respectable.

2) Extensiveness of the Site (12 out of 15):

Using Kyoto (huge) , Nara (medium), and Guanajuato (big) as references, I think Vigan lies between Nara and Guanajuato. There are tons of little buildings to explore and a plethora of small museums, but it is nowhere nearly as extensive as a city like Guanajuato or Kyoto. You can comfortable spend a full day (about 12 hours) and feel satisfied that you saw the gist of it. However, to truly experience it, take it slow and divide it between 2-3 days.

3) Cultural Significance (17 out of 25):

This was by far the toughest to grade. Following my own evaluation criteria, it seems like Vigan would fit under “significant on a global scale for centuries.” However, the reality is that while the colonial cities as a whole were super important to world trade, Vigan specifically just happens to be the city that survived. Nevertheless, Vigan city is a symbol of how the globe finally came full circle not just in travel, but in trade.

4) Personal Impact (8 out of 15):

My experience of having a personal tour with a local is not the only reason I loved it. Vigan is a wonderful town to just get lost in its streets.

5) Logistics (3 out of 10):

10 hours in this! Just Kidding

The Philippines has no major train transport outside of Metro Manila. As you may already know, this is a big no-no in my book as train is my favorite way to get around. Furthermore, the bus from Manila to Vigan is in the neighborhood of 10 hours. The buses aren’t terrible, but having only the settings of ‘freeze’ and ‘off’ is pretty uncomfortable. Luckily, I had my jacket since it is winter in Korea, but everyone else would be F’d. The closest airport to Vigan is Laoag International which is still a good 3 hour+ bus ride to Vigan. Unfortunately, this isn’t a place you “pass by.” You have to actively try to get here.

6) Uniqueness (10 out of 20):

I know that it was submitted for its uniqueness as a Spanish colonial town in Asia. But if you have been to Mexico or anywhere else with colonial cities, this doesn’t particularly stand out as unique. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that Spain spread its seed across the globe is part of the charm of Vigan. Nevertheless, it is somewhat similar to towns like Zacatecas in Mexico.

Combined Score: 63/100

Is this a good score? Find out how it compares with other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in our rankings.

Curious how the scores are derived? Check out the scoring criteria.

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Julio Moreno
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