The 3rd largest city in the Philippines, Zamboanga City operates as the commercial and industrial center of the south. The city is bustling with a factory district, plenty of businesses, shops, and markets where you can find any good or service that you desire.
Dubbed “Asia’s Latin City”, you’ll see a Spanish influence in Zamboaga City, more so than in the rest of the country. For a while, Spanish was even an official language of Zamboanga City. Zamboangueño people are very proud of their cultural roots and heritage. You’ll see reflections of this in the food, language, and architecture.
It’s important to know, however, that Zamboanga City does not see many foreigners or travelers as it is located near a state of conflict. Guerilla groups live in the south of the Philippines, not too far from this gem of a city. Security has been boosted with the National Guard all around checking IDs and keeping a close watch of suspicious activity with the aims of maintaining peace. Travelers tend to keep their distance lately, but if you do decide to go to Zamboanga City, go with a Filipino that knows their way around the safest areas. Locals will definitely be surprised and happy to see you.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zamboanga City:
1. Merloquet Falls
One could argue that the most majestic falls in Zamboanga city are the Merloquet Falls. This natural beauty looks more like an ancient ruin where a waterfall has magically decided to run through it, rather than a wall of rocks. It’s truly breathtaking.
Surrounded by jungle, you’ll come across a cool pool of water being fed by tiers of waterfall rocks. There are a couple platforms under the biggest section of the waterfall where you can give yourself a waterfall massage or just hang out and listen to the soothing sounds.
2. Paseo del Mar
Who doesn’t love a causal boardwalk along the water? Paseo del Mar offers just that with the addition of small shops, restaurants, and food carts for you to browse. There is also Zamboanga City’s pride and joy, the Dancing Fountain which shoots water into the air, captivating each passersby for a solid minute or two.
From the boardwalk, you can see the big and little Santa Cruz Islands, as well as the Basilan Island just to the south.
The evening is the perfect time to visit as the weather isn’t too hot and the lighting creates a romantic ambiance. There are police offers patrolling so you don’t need to worry about an abundance of sketchy situations.
3. Fort Pilar
You can most certainly see the Spanish influence in Fort Pilar, a 17th-century fort of defense built and used by the Spanish military.
Upon your visit, you’ll be welcomed by a large courtyard with a wide brick path leading up to the regal fortress which looks like something out of the Alamo. Fort Pilar is adorned with dozens of bright white stars surrounding an outdoor shrine for Roman Catholics who believe that the Christian mother Mary appeared here many years ago.
Feel free to come here for Sunday mass to see how Filipinos worship in Zamboanga City.
4. Rio Hondo Village
You’re in for some culture shock when you visit Rio Hondo Village. A collection of shanty wood houses built on stilts over the water, this village gives you a glimpse into how a large percentage of Filipinos live below the poverty line.
Despite their humble quarters, the people of Rio Hondo Village are extremely friendly, especially the children who spend their days fishing in small boats and playing in the water.
Walk on the long boardwalk in-between houses where you’ll find areas to buy handicrafts and small shops where you can contribute to the local economy by purchasing snacks and beverages.
5. Yakan Weaving Village
At Yakan Weaving Village, you can observe colorful textiles being made on the spot. You’ll most likely recognize these popular textiles as you’ve seen them in the form of purses, parkas, and more along your travels in the Philippines.
There are plenty of handicrafts to be purchased such as hand carved Basilian Pira Swords, satchels, scarves, and textiles to take home as souvenirs. You won’t find price tags on these goods so get ready to haggle a price that leaves both you and the vendor satisfied.
6. Pasonanca Park
A natural paradise in the middle of Zamboanga City, you could easily spend all day here at Pasonanca Park.
Most tourists come to visit the picturesque Zamboanga Tree House built back in 1963. Climb the stairs to enter as you daydream about living the tree house life.
The main event for your kiddos, however, will be the Pasonanca Kiddie Pool equipped with tall waterslides that spit them out into a cool pool of water next to a natural waterfall. For the whole family, there are 3 public pools including one Olympic-sized swimming pool and one natural-flowing pool.
7. Great Santa Cruz Island
Visible from the mainland is Great Santa Cruz Island. This small piece of rock, sand, and mangrove is absolutely worth a day trip.
To get there, head to Paseo del Mar where boats are waiting to jet you to the island on an enjoyable 20-minute ride. You’ll then transfer to another boat which will serve as your tour guide around the island.
Your boat will navigate through the dense mangroves as you do a little bird watching for Purple Herons, egrets, and other graceful creatures. In the blue lagoon, keep an eye out for jellyfish, coral, and interesting water vegetation. The last stop will be at Pink Beach; you’ve never seen anything like it! Imagine pink sand next to turquoise water. It’s a life-changer.
8. Little Santa Cruz Island
From the air, Little Santa Cruz Island is just a small sand bar in the middle of the sea. From land, it’s pretty much the same- which is awesome. This is literally a beach in the middle of the warm, clear, turquoise water. It doesn’t get any more paradisiacal than this!
Boats leave the mainland to Little Santa Cruz Island twice per day: once at 6am and once at 3pm on a ‘first come first serve basis’. You’ll stay for a few hours enjoying the awe-inspiring realization that this is indeed real life. Bring snacks and beverages with you, as there are no stalls, clean drinking water, or shops on the island.
9. Bayangan Island
Attention all divers: if you want go on an underwater adventure while in Zamboanga City, Banyangan Island offers some great views. You’ll find plenty of tour shops in the city selling package tours with competitive prices. Underwater, visibility is nice and there are tons of fish to be seen.
If you’re not a diver, Bayangan offers other forms of fun for you. This strange little island consists of an unusually wide beachy perimeter and a small patch of jungle in the middle. It’s clean, shady, and provides a great space for climbing and exploring.
10. Go Island Hopping
You’ll find dozens of little islands around Zamboanga city, each one more beautiful than the next. There are 11 islands to be exact, all of which are perfect to incorporate into a day of island hopping. Hire a boat to take you to Buluan Island, the Sibugay Sinking Island, Pandilusan Island, and more. Bring a snorkel and discover the marine life hiding below the surface.
Alternatively, you can rent a kayak and go on an island tour of your own. There are a few islands within reach from the shore- just wear a lifejacket!
11. Caragasan Beach
A 30-minute Jeepney ride from the city lays Caragasan Beach, a spot that is quite popular with the locals.
You’ll enjoy the beach with its cool waters and coarse sand between your toes. You can watch a flurry of boats coming in and out, some with tourists and others with merchandise.
But the main attraction at Caragasan Beach is the night market! This night market has some of the freshest seafood, vegetables, and local delicacies. Better yet, the prices are ridiculously affordable which means that you can eat until you’re stuffed.
12. Nancy Falls
No trip to Zamboanga City is complete without a visit to Nancy Falls. You’ll feel as if you’re in a Jurassic Park Movie (probably the 3rd one) as you sit in the back of the bumpy Jeepney, making your way through the jungle to the base of the falls.
You’ll be taken to the bottom of the waterfall where a system of natural waterfalls flow down into a cool pool at your feet. Don’t be shy; you can hop right in. There are wooding plank bridges that you can climb along while exploring the brush.
13. Canelar Barter Trade Center
It’s time to put your haggling skills to the test at Canelar Barter Trade Center. This covered market is full of stalls selling colorful Filipino handicrafts and souvenirs to take home. For the ladies, there are dresses and traditional Filipina garments everywhere you turn. For the men, you have a nice selection of sunglasses, flip-flops and a few stalls with clothing.
The Canelar Barter Trade Center specializes in doorknockers and manual doorbells that are shaped like deer, oxen, chickens, and lions. This would certainly be a unique memento to walk away with.
14. Tagbilat Falls
If you’re up for a 1-kilometer walk through the jungle that leads you to a dam-like waterfall, then why not check out Tagbilat Falls? Take a guide with you who will lead you through the unmarked jungle paths until you get to the natural swimming pool and tall falls. Off the beaten path, this site is as raw and unspoiled as it gets.
Locals are most familiar with these falls as they are closest to town and many tourists like to visit. Although this has become a popular spot, you aren’t going to find food vendors out here. Bring your own snacks, water, and don’t forget a change of clothes!
15. La Vista del Mar
Once you arrive, you’ll understand why La Vista del Mar is so often used as a wedding location!
Here is the perfect place for you and your loved one to have a romantic dinner in a quite and peaceful area. La Vista del Mar is a seaside restaurant that captures stunning views of the sunset, receives a refreshing breeze off the sea at night, has a lovely boardwalk to take a stroll, and of course, serves up some incredible dishes that turns visitors into regulars.
Try the tuna belly, Lapulapu sweet and sour, and vegetables cooked in coconut milk. You won’t be disappointed.