An unmissable part of any North Luzon itinerary, VIGAN is one of the oldest towns in the Philippines. Lying on the western bank of the Mestizo River, Vigan was in Spanish times an important political, military, cultural and religious centre. The old town, with Plaza Salcedo and Plaza Burgos on the northern edge and Libertad (Liberation) Boulevard to the south, is characterized by its cobbled streets and some of the finest old colonial architecture in the country – it mixes Mexican, Chinese and Filipino features. Various governmental and non-governmental organizations have joined forces to preserve the old buildings; many are still lived in, others are used as curio shops, and a few have been converted into museums or hotels. Vigan’s time-capsule ambience is aided by the decision to close some streets to traffic and allow only pedestrians and kalesas. A ride in one of these horse-drawn carriages makes for a romantic way to tour the town.

Vigan’s old town is where most of the beautiful ancestral houses are located. Also known as the Mestizo District or Kasanglayan (where the Chinese live), the old town runs roughly from Plaza Burgos in the north to Liberation Boulevard in the south. The most important thoroughfare is elegant old Crisologo Street, which has been given a makeover and is closed to traffic – a rarity in the Philippines. Architecturally, the houses are fundamentally Chinese or Mexican, influenced either by the immigrant architects from China’s eastern seaboard who prepared the plans, or by ideas picked up by the Spanish in their South American colony. But they have flourishes such as sliding capiz-shell windows and ventanillas (ventilated walls) added by local artisans.

Although most houses are still private homes, a few are open to the public. These offer an intimate view of ilustrado life at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Crisologo Museum on Liberation Boulevard has displays about the history of the influential – and sometimes controversial – Crisologo family, including the car in which Governor Carmeling Crisologo was ambushed in 1961. Syquia Mansion on Quirino Boulevard is the ancestral home of former President Elpidio Quirino, an eye-catching red-brick colonial house that has been restored and furnished in nineteenth-century style and contains a collection of presidential memorabilia. Quema House (t077/722-2542), at the junction of Liberation and Quirino boulevards, can only be seen by appointment. It is chock-full of beautiful old polished wood furniture, curios and oil paintings.