North of Manila, Northern Luzon harbours some of the archipelago’s least-visited wildernesses, and offers thrilling outdoor adventures including whitewater rafting, trekking, surfing, spelunking and mountain biking. As well as its wonderful mountainous areas and volcanic landscapes, the region is home to some of the country’s best surf breaks, along with wild stretches of coast peppered with virgin beaches and emerald-green waters. It is also rich in culture, with a handful of beautifully preserved Spanish colonial towns lining the west coast. Inland are the heartlands of the central Cordilleras mountain range, where spectacular rice terraces lie enveloped in clouds of mist.
The best travel tips for visiting Northern Luzon
Further east of the central Cordilleras is the Northern Sierra Madre National Park, the largest protected area in the country, offering exceptional trekking opportunities.
More than 100km off the northern coast of Luzon, and closer to Taiwan than the Philippines mainland, lie the remote, scattered islands of Batanes province with their unforgettable hills and wild rugged cliffs.
Along the west coast north of Subic, the Zambales coast is dotted with laidback resorts, while the Lingayen Gulf is the location of the Hundred Islands National Park – a favourite weekend trip from Manila.
the province of La Union draws visitors for its surfing. North of here is Ilocos Sur, known primarily for the old colonial city of Vigan, where horsedrawn carriages bounce down narrow cobblestone streets.
On the northwestern edge of Luzon are excellent beaches around Pagudpud. Northern Luzon’s east coast offers excellent surfing at Baler, while further north Palanan is the jump-off point for the barely explored Northern Sierra Madre National Park.
Despite the obvious appeal of the coast, for many visitors, the prime attraction in Northern Luzon is the mountainous inland Cordillera region, where highlights include the mountain village of Sagada with its caves and hanging coffins, and the stunning rice terraces around Banaue.
In the village of Kabayan, it’s possible to hike up to a couple of mountaintop caves to see ancient mummies. Kabayan also provides access to Mount Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon.
Best things to do in Northern Luzon
There is plenty of things to see and do in Northern Luzon, most notably some amazing rafting, trekking and surfing. It's also a bit of a cultural honey pot with the famous hanging coffins of Sagada and the centuries-old human mummies found in Kabayan.
These are the best things to do in Northern Luzon.
#1 Surf in San Juan
A dramatic crescent with huge waves, the coast just north of San Juan in the barangay of Urbiztondo is a prime surfing beach. Most of its resorts have surfboards to rent and offer tuition for an additional charge.
For experienced surfers, there are two breaks in Urbiztondo, one a beach break in front of the main huddle of resorts and the other the Monaliza point break at the northern end of the beach.
The best spot for beginners is the Cement Factory break in the nearby barangay of Bacnotan. The peak season is September to March; at other times there may be no waves but you can get significant discounts on accommodation.
#2 Go back in time in Vigan
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, it was in Spanish times an important political, military, cultural and religious centre.
The old town is characterized by its cobbled streets and some of the finest colonial architecture in the country, mixing Mexican, Chinese and Filipino features. Many of the old buildings are still lived in, others are used as curio shops, and a few have been converted into museums or hotels.
The attractions are within walking distance of one another, with Plaza Burgos the most obvious reference point, and, adding to the old-world atmosphere, some streets are open only to pedestrians – unusual in the Philippines – and romantic horse-drawn kalesas.
#3 Explore Ilocos Norte's huge sand dunes
The coastline west of Laoag is a sight to behold. More like desert than beach, it measures almost 1km across at some points and reaches as far as the eye can see, fringed by huge sand dunes.
The area has become a favourite among Manila film crews; the Suba dunes to the south – close to the Fort Ilocandia resort – are where Oliver Stone shot segments of Born on the Fourth of July.
#4 Trek in the Cordillera
Since the road network is poor in many parts of the Cordillera, and there are so many jungle-clad peaks and hidden valleys, trekking is the only way to see some of the region’s secrets: burial caves, indigenous villages and hidden waterfalls.
Gentle day-hikes are possible, particularly in the main tourist areas of Banaue and Sagada, but there are also plenty of two- or three-day treks that take you deep into backwaters.
Most of the best trails are around Sagada, Banaue, Bontoc, Tabuk and Tinglayan. In each of these towns, you’ll find a tourist office or town hall where someone will be able to help arrange guides.
#5 Discover centuries-old human mummies in Kabayan
Kabayan came to the attention of the outside world in the early twentieth century when a group of mummies, possibly dating back as far as 2000 BC, was discovered in the surrounding caves.
The history of the Kabayan mummies is still largely oral. It is even uncertain when the last mummy was created; according to staff at the town’s museum, mummification was attempted most recently in 1907 but the wrong combination of herbs was used.
It’s possible that the last successful mummification was in 1901, of the great-grandmother of former village mayor Florentino Merino.
Be sure to visit Opdas Cave at the southern end of Kabayan village. It contains around two hundred skulls and bones estimated to be up to a thousand years old, discovered in a pile but now arranged.
Nobody knows why they were buried together, but one theory is that they died as a result of an epidemic.
#6 See the hanging coffins of Sagada
The small town of Sagada, 160km north of Baguio, has long attracted curious visitors. Part of the appeal derives from its famous hanging coffins and a labyrinth of caves used by the ancients as burial sites. But Sagada also has a reputation as a remote and idyllic hideaway where people live a simple life well away from civilization.
The landscape here is almost alpine and the inhabitants are mountain people, their faces shaped not by the sun and sea of the lowlands, but by the thin air and sharp glare of altitude.
Sagada only began to open up as a destination when it got electricity in the early 1970s, and intellectuals – internal refugees from the Marcos dictatorship – flocked here to write and paint. They didn’t produce much of note - it's said that this is perhaps because they spent much of their time drinking tapuy (the local rice wine).
European hippies followed, as did the military, who thought the turistas were supplying funds for an insurgency. While the town doesn’t offer a lot to do, you’ll find plenty of activities in the surrounding area.
#7 Explore the rice terraces of Banaue
Most people know the rice fields of Bali, or Chiang Mai in Thailand. But one of the most impressive rice fields, or terraces actually, can be found in the Philippines. Banaue is a municipality located in the province of Ifugao in the Philippines.
It is famous for its stunning rice terraces, which are often referred to as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." The terraces were built by the Ifugao people over 2,000 years ago and are still in use today for agriculture. Banaue is also home to several indigenous communities, and you can learn about their rich culture and traditions through various activities such as weaving workshops and cultural performances.
The town itself is small and quaint, but there are several accommodations available for visitors who want to explore the area.
Where to stay in Northern Luzon
There is a wide variety of accommodation in Northern Luzon, from little fan-cooled nipa huts on the beaches and shaded open-fronted huts to lovely beach resorts. Here’s where to stay.
The Zambales coast
Along The Zambales coast, travellers tend to head for the resorts of San Antonio-Pundaquit, the surfers’ hangouts of San Narciso, or the beachside Botolan midrange stays.
The Lingayen Gulf
The accommodation options in Lucap are largely uninspiring, so if you’re staying in the area for a few days, consider basing yourself in Bolinao. You can camp overnight on Governor’s Island, Children’s Island and Quezon Island.
Vigan has some charming accommodation: old colonial hotels, mansions, and boutique stays.
Resorts around Pagudpud are a little pricier than similar establishments elsewhere. It’s always worth asking for a discount. Budget travellers should consider a homestay behind the main resorts on Saud Beach.
All the best accommodation in the northeast is in Baler, or around the beach at Sabang, which is a short tricycle ride from town.
For the Cordillera stay in Baguio. Hotels in the centre can get quite noisy, so ask for a room away from the road; there are also a number of good choices outside town in peaceful pine forested areas. Artist-run Tam-awan Village also has traditional huts.
The towns of Tinglayan and Tabuk have some half-decent, if limited accommodation. Away from them, expect simple lodges or local homes
Banaue’s accommodation is generally simple but clean and friendly, and many places have restaurants attached. There are also B&Bs in Batad and Banga-an.
There are no campsites in Batan, but as long as you respect the landscape no one minds if you pitch a tent for the night near a beach. Sabtang and Itbayat islands only really have small homestays.
Best restaurants and bars in Northern Luzon
If you're into fast food, it's time to fill your boot because Northern Luzon is stuffed with quick, takeaway joints. Aside from Baguio, the best meals will be served at resorts. Here's where to eat:
The Lingayen Gulf
Eating options are limited, although most hotels have their own restaurant. Reserve ahead for eating in the resorts of San Juan.
Vigan doesn’t offer much in terms of restaurants, although make sure to try some local specialities, including the town’s famous crispy empanada.
Resorts around Pagudpud generally have good places to eat, else it's slim pikcings. Tuguegarao City mainly has fast-food restaurants and popular all-you-can-eat Filipino lunch buffets.
Baguio has some of the best restaurants in the country. There is also a good selection of street food, including a couple of places beside Casa Vallejo hotel serving bulalo (beef on the bone in a broth).
Several of the lodges in Basco have restaurants or can make food to order, while elsewhere on the island you’ll be reliant on the occasional small canteen.
Here are the best restaurants in Northern Luzon.
- Café by the Ruins, Baguio Located in a breezy setting, with tables dotted around the World War II ruins of the residence of Baguio’s first governor, this is one of the city’s best restaurants, with excellent organic food prepared with home-grown herbs and served either indoors or in the shady yard.
- Chef’s Home, Baguio The Malaysian owner and chef rustles up exceptional Asian fusion dishes embracing Malay, Thai and Indian cuisine. Dishes are large enough to share.
- Irene’s Empanadahan, Vigan This fourth-generation empanada place has been going strong since the 1930s – locals say it’s the best place in town to savour the Vigan speciality, which comes in several varieties, including pork, beef, chicken, (canned) tuna and, if you’re lucky, crab.
- Angel and Marie’s Place, San Juan The favourite surfers’ restaurant in San Juan offers serious fish dishes such as tuna steak or squid adobo, with banana chocolate crêpes for afters, and Filipino breakfasts at the weekend.
How to get to Northern Luzon
Bus is the best way to get to Northern Luzon, though there are a number of options.
Victory Liner have services straight up the coast from Manila, stopping at major towns like Iba and Santa Cruz but able to drop you en route on request, and can often stop right by your resort – make sure to tell the driver where you’re going.
For Pundaquit, buses stop at San Antonio, a short tricycle ride away (10min), while to get to the Botolan resorts you’ll have to catch a tricycle or jeepney (5min) from the spot on the main highway where buses drop you off. Regular local buses also connect all the towns along the coast.
A number of jeepneys connect the towns along the coast.
Bangkas connect the Zambales towns with small islands off the coast – Pundaquit to Capones Island, for example (20min). Hotels can often help organize bangka hire.
How many days do you need in Northern Luzon?
If you're planning to visit popular destinations such as Baguio, Sagada, and Banaue, you'll need at least 5-7 days in Northern Luzon. However, if you have more time and want to explore more off-the-beaten-path destinations or take time out on the beach, you could easily spend up to two weeks here.
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Tips for getting around Northern Luzon
There are plenty of ways to get around Northern Luzon, but buses and vans are the most helpful for travellers. Here's how to get around:
Most major towns and resorts are served by regular buses, though in some regions the roads can close during the wet season. Victory Liner and Five Star serve Manila (roughly every 40min–1hr; 4–8hr) and Santa Cruz (every 30min; 2hr).
Jeepneys connect some of the small resorts and shoot around towns, but they take much longer than the buses and generally only leave when full.
Tricycles are found in most areas and can be helpful for short hops or the last leg of a journey. Agree on a price before setting off and prepare to haggle.
A/C vans serve a number of rural destinations and larger cities. Some even have their own terminals. Again, they will only leave when full.
There are several airports in Northern Luzon. The small Vigan Airport, about 4km southwest of the centre, is served by infrequent flights to Manila and Basco.
Tuguegarao airport, 2km north of Tuguegerao Junction, is easily reached from town by tricycle (15min). It has daily flights to Manila, as well as Basco in the Batanes Islands.
Note that Cagayan North International Airport opened, 77km west of Santa Ana, has no scheduled passenger flights.
Best time to visit Northern Luzon
The best time to visit Northern Luzon is generally the dry season (November to April) as the weather is cooler and more pleasant.
The wet season (May to October) can bring heavy rains and typhoons, which may affect your travel plans and cut off access to certain destinations.
If you plan to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces, the best time to go is between February and May when the terraces are lush green and the weather is generally good.
The summer months of April to June are also a great time to visit Northern Luzon for beach activities in Pangasinan and La Union.
For cultural experiences, you may want to visit during festivals such as the Panagbenga Festival in Baguio in February or the Kalinga Tattoo Festival in Kalinga in March.
Keep in mind that these festivals may attract large crowds, so book any accommodation ahead of your arrival.
Find out more about the best time to visit the Philippines.