The Colorful & Grand Sinulog Festival of Cebu, Philippines (Tips & Travel Guide)

by Philippines, Festivals & Events40 comments

If you’re planning on visiting the Philippines, tell me: are you the kind of traveler who not only likes to party but also wants to be a part of something big and significant? If you are, I suggest that you time your trip in early January so that you can catch one of the grandest events that the country has: Cebu‘s Sinulog Festival!

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The Sinulog Festival

The Sinulog Festival, which is also called as Santo Niño Festival, is a lively celebration that lasts for 9 days in Cebu! Apart from the religious aspect of this festival, it is also well-known for its lively street parties and parades.

Sinulog Festival Dancers
Sinulog Mass

Bottom photo by: Ronald Tagra/CC

» History of Sinulog Festival

EARLY TIMES. One of the key events in the Philippines’ history for religion was when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Cebu to spread Christianity by first handing over the image of baby Jesus (Sto. Niño) to Rajah Humabon (the Rajah/king of Cebu, later baptized as King Carlos) and his wife Amihan/Humanay (later baptized as Queen Juana) in front of other island rulers, and over 800 natives.

This simple act alone paved way for the Philippines’ acceptance of Christianity, converting most of the people to the Roman Catholic faith.

Truth be told, this event is also frequently used as a basis for most of the Sinulog Festival’s dances wherein a girl dressed lavishly as Queen Juana will hold the Sto. Niño as she dances and ‘blesses’ the people with it to ward off evil spirits.

* * * * *

TODAY. The Sinulog Festival largely commemorates the Filipinos acceptance of Roman Catholicism, thus rejecting their former pagan or animist beliefs. The image of Sto. Nino itself is also regarded as miraculous and it is housed at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu.

Since the 16th century, pilgrims from all corners of the Philippines make a yearly journey to Cebu to visit the church and take part in the Sinulog festival and procession.

By 1980, the city government of Cebu organized the first Sinulog Festival under the management of David Odilao. The parade was first made up of several students who were dressed in Filipiniana costumes, dancing the steps of Sinulog — this concept was well-liked, and the Sinulog project was taken on by the Cebu City Historical Committee.

Under Kagawad Jesus Garcia, the Sinulog Parade came to life in 1981 and it involved participants not only from Cebu but from other Philippine provinces as well!

NOTE: Though festivals like Dinagyang in Iloilo and Ati-Atihan in Aklan also celebrate Sto. Nino, Sinulog differs from them in a way that it focuses more on the historical aspects of the dance as it represents the way the country welcomed the Christian faith.

» Meaning of “Sinulog”

Sinulog Festival: Queen Juana and Dancers During Parade

Photo by: Shutterstock

The term “sinulog” is derived from the Cebuano word “sulog” which roughly refers ‘a movement that’s like the water current‘. As such, the Sinulog dance itself primarily consists of a forward-backward movement — two steps forward and one step back which is in tune with a very recognizable drumbeat that identifies this festivity.

You’ll see a lot of the performers executing this step, and you’ll even find vendors doing the same thing!

History states that long ago, after Ferdinand Magellan was slain by a local chieftain, Lapu-Lapu, the image of Sto Niño was left behind, only to be discovered 44 years later by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi who discovered that Cebu natives have already been dancing a movement similar to Sinulog to honor the image.

Another theory states that the Sinulog dance steps originated from Rajah Humabon’s advisor, Baladhay. It is said that when Baladhay was sick, the image of Sto. Nino helped him recover and he was seen dancing with a figure of it in a movement that is reminiscent of the flow of a river.

* * * * *

As for the official logo of Sinulog, the committee decided to use a two-headed hawk that marked the rule of the House of Habsburg in Europe (the dynasty that ruled over Spain when they sent expedition to the Philippines).

This emblem was chosen since it represents the “Champion of Catholicism and Defender of the Faith” or basically the acceptance of Roman Catholicism, and combined with the native shield as the background thus represents the country’s resistance to colonization. (Unlike what you would expect, an image of Santo Nino was not used because they deem it as a symbol of sacrilege).

» Celebration Date

The Sinulog Festival is usually held for 9 consecutive days in Cebu, with the Sinulog Grand Parade usually commencing from the third Sunday of January.

For 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sinulog Festival will only be done virtually through their Facebook page, starting from January 3 (with the actual start of the celebrations on January 17).

» Things to Do During Sinulog Festival

See Fluvial Parade, Solemn Procession & ‘Kaplag’

This is held a day before the Sinulog Grand Parade! For starters, the Fluvial Parade is held at 6AM and it is basically a parade that is done with boats.

The Solemn Procession happens in the afternoon at around 2PM and it is typically followed by “kaplag” wherein performers (usually students, actors or actresses) reenact the scene in history when Sto. Nino was handed over to Queen Juana and Raja Humabon — along with the moment when they were baptized as Catholics.

Other events that are held during the whole of the festival period are Sinulog sa Kabataan, Sinulog Dance Crew, search for Ms. Cebu, and many others.

– – –

Witness the Sinulog Grand Parade

Sinulog Grand Parade
Sinulog Grand Parade Dancers

Photos by: Shutterstock

Said to be the center of the Santo Niño celebration in the Philippines, one of the main highlights of this festivity would be the Sinulog Grand Parade that runs for 9 to 12 hours and starts at around 8:30AM. (This is preceded by a Mañanita and Pontifical mass at the Basilica Minor Del Santo Niño, and a Holy Mass at the Cebu City Sports Center).

This parade is held on the final day, and it is super popular that millions of people (that are not only composed of Filipinos but also foreigners from around the world) would flock to this occasion every year.

TRIVIA: It once reached 4 million visitors! In a way, this celebration can easily rival the colorful Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil or even Mardi Gras!

Now, what happens during this Sinulog Festival’s grand parade? Street dancing of course!

It’s basically a long procession that consists of several grouped street dancers who are all clad in colorful costumes and backdropped with amazingly decorated platforms.

As they go through the whole of the town, they would perform either their own dance steps or the ‘Sinulog dance‘ — usually as well, the dancers’ performances are interpretations of how Santo Niño had helped their respective communities.

And as they dance, they would occasionally shout petitions or words of thanks like “Pit Senyor kang Mama kini, Pit Senyor kang Papa kini!” or simply the more identifiable phrase “Viva Pit Señor!” which means “to call, ask, and plead to the king”.

There would also be a girl that’s usually in front of each group who would wave icons of the Santo Niño in their hands as they move along the crowd — which like I said previously, represents Queen Juana.

FINALE: Around 4PM, the grand parade typically ends and the street dancers will do their final performance at the Cebu City Sports Complex. (This is where they will hold the competition leg of the Sinulog festival with various prize categories, namely the Street Dancing Category, Free Interpretation and many others). Oftentimes, this event is televised — which is great because with the number of people, the complex is usually too packed.

– – –

Join the Street Parties & Concerts

Before and after the Sinulog Grand Parade, you will find street parties and live concerts in almost every corner of Cebu (especially in the evenings).

So I say, dress lightly, get some face paint and get ready to chug some beer! Most of the people just hang out on the streets while some would go to places like Mango Square, Baseline, or Fuente Osmeña to have some fun until the wee hours of the next day.

  • Just watch through the video above and you’ll see how crazy the parties can get!

– – –

Catch the Sinulog Fireworks

Sinulog Fireworks (Pyro Show)

Photo by: Shutterstock

To end the Sinulog Grand Parade with a ‘bang’, Cebu City typically holds a spectacular pyro show!

The colorful fireworks display is often held on 9PM at the Cebu Business Park in Ayala Center Cebu. If you can find a way to stay with a Cebuano/Cebuana friend’s condo place that has a great view over this area, the better it will be! Otherwise, you can also have a great view of this fantastic show from the ground.

– – –

Do Other Fun Activities Around Cebu

Things to Do in Cebu: Magellan's Cross

Photo by: Shutterstock

There are a LOT of exciting things to do in Cebu, and some of them that you MUST do in order to fill up your time are as follows…

  • TOUR THE CITY. Cebu City has a rich history! Holding a number of key spots, you should definitely check out:
    • Basilica Minor Del Santo Niño: This is the oldest Roman Catholic church in the country and its icon, a statuette of Sto. Nino, is said to be the same one that was presented by Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon.
    • Magellan’s Cross: Found near the basilica is this famous landmark that was planted by Portuguese and Spanish explorers under the order of Ferdinand Magellan when he arrived in Cebu.
    • Mactan Shrine: Also called as Liberty Shrine, this place holds two monuments: that of Ferdinand Magellan and that of Lapu-Lapu. It was erected here as it is believed to be the approximate location wherein the Battle of Mactan was held (that lead to the defeat of Magellan against Lapu-Lapu).
    • Temple of Leah: Holds memorabilia of the late Leah Albino-Adarna, grandmother of the local actress Ellen Adarna. It’s an imposing structure that has been lavishly built by Leah’s husband as a symbol of his undying love for her.
    • Fort San Pedro: Built in 1738, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi intended for this fort as a means of protection against Muslim raiders. Today, you’ll find exhibitions here depicting the history of the city along with some other preserved Spanish artifacts.
    • Taboan Public Market: Put your haggling powers to good use to shop at this popular local market that holds a range of dried fruits, meat, nuts and seafood.
    • Cebu Taoist Temple: Located in Beverly Hills, this towering Taoist temple is built by the Chinese community in the city back in 1972.
      .

Want a hassle-free experience?

Book a guided tour that takes you to all the key spots in Cebu City!

  • VENTURE OUT OF THE CITY: Beyond Mactan Island and Cebu City are these other key modern structures…
    • Simala Shrine: This grand church that’s perched on top of a hill in Lindogon is a Monastery of the Holy Eucharist.
    • Sirao Flower Garden: Dubbed as a ‘mini Amsterdam’, you’ll find different flowers here, most prominent of which is the bright red and yellow blooms of celosia.
    • Tops Lookout: A great place to head to if you want a bird’s eye view of the whole Cebu cityscape. Try to come here during sunset!
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  • ENJOY THE SURROUNDING BEACHES. There are a lot of pristine beaches and resorts that speckle the coastline of Cebu! If you got more time on your itinerary, I highly suggest going to places like Bantayan Island, Camotes Island, Malapascua, Moalboal and Oslob among many others!
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  • TAKE PART IN OUTDOOR TOURS. Get your adrenaline pumping with any of the following Cebu activities…
    • Kawasan Falls: A famous trio of waterfalls that flow into a natural swimming pool and lagoon.
    • Oslob: A unique place where you can swim up close with giant whale sharks!
      .
  • INDULGE IN LOCAL CEBU DELICACIES. Have your fill after a day of celebrating the fiesta! Some of the Cebu dishes that you should try are…
    • Cebu Lechon: This is a roasted suckling pig that the city is well-known for! Cebuanos are proud of the way they cook their lechon and some of the top places that you can try it in are Rico’s Lechon and House of Lechon.
    • Puso Rice: Also known as hanging rice, this is easy to spot because the rice is packed in a triangular casing of woven coconut leaves. Pair it with lechon and you’re sure to have a delectable meal!
      .
  • SHOP TILL YOU DROP. The prices in Cebu City are a lot cheaper than that of Manila, not to mention that it holds a number of amazing factory outlets! Apart from checking out SM City, Robinsons Galleria, and Ayala Center, you should also stop by Mactan Marina Mall and The Outlets at Pueblo Verde.

» My Sinulog Festival Experience

Sinulog Grand Parade Winners
Sinulog Crowd

Bottom photo by: Ronald Tagra/CC

To sum it all up in one word, my first Sinulog Festival was… intense. And I bet every first-timer out there has the same sentiment!

Truth be told, it actually still surprises me how I was able to survive walking through the throng of people as I tried to get from one place to another.

I went to this event with my friends back in 2013 and initially, there were 10 of us who were all moving altogether during the procession; but as the day droned on, the sea of people forced us to separate and I ended up with just 4 of my friends with me! (Thank goodness for technology though, we managed to get together again later by the day.)

Plus, our Sinulog adventure turned out to be some sort of obstacle activity because our accommodation was situated outside the city center — and the city center is exactly where the festival’s core events were being held. Most streets were already blocked in the morning, therefore we can’t just get a taxi or a jeepney in order to reach the procession. In the end, we had to walk.

Mind you, walking wasn’t such an easy task since we had to go through 5 various locations that were ridiculously packed with people, and it was only a couple of hours later that we finally reached a less-crowded area that enabled us to watch the grand parade. Naturally, at that time, I was already exhausted!

But then again… as I stood there watching the street dancers, I started to feel that the trouble I had gone through was oh-so-worth-it because it was an absolute spectacle to watch the parade up close! For one thing, it was soooo colorful. Add the smiles of the performers and the electric atmosphere and I just can’t help but feel as if all my exhaustion had melted away.

Besides, they really put a LOT of effort into everything. Just think about all the work that they had to do in order to come up with their costumes and equipment!

* * * * *

After a while, a close friend of mine who was with me at that time remembered that he had a friend who had a condo that was located near where we were. He arrived at this thought because the place that we were in was slowly streaming in with more people. We definitely didn’t want to battle with yet another herd of people so we decided to take refuge in that condo for a while.

Once we arrived at the venue which was 30 floors high, I looked out to the Sinulog Festival scene below me and I was flabbergasted. Just look at this!

Sinulog Birds Eyeview

There’s no doubt that this celebration is visited by millions! And again, it’s seriously amazing how everyone manages to brave through such an ordeal (while we are at that line of thought, I’d like to take this moment to give myself a pat on the back).

Surely, I’ve had my fair share of packed trains back in Manila, but this event was just on a whole other level.

• • •

Sinulog Travel Tips

  • Book your accommodation way ahead of time. Preferably, as early as August. Why? You have to remember that there are millions of people who want to attend this every year so it’s not a surprise for most hotels to be fully booked months prior!
    • Best location: Pick a hotel that’s near the parade. These would be the areas near Capitol, Ayala Shopping Mall, SM Shopping Mall, downtown, or Fuente Osmeña. Take note that since most of the streets will be blocked off, taxis will be hard to come by, and then usually after the festival, it’s even harder to get a hold of them so it’s best that you pick a place that you can just walk to afterward. (To illustrate, since our accommodation was far, we had a hard time finding a taxi or even a non-packed jeepney after the parade. Thankfully we found a motorist who was willing to give us a ride in exchange for a small fee. So if you don’t want this kind of hassle, again, plan for this ahead of time!)
      .
  • Fly in earlier. Most of the main roads will be barricaded for the parade so it’s best that you arrive in Cebu City a few days earlier before the parade. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in a standstill from the airport to your hotel, right?
    .
  • Wear comfortable clothes. You’ll be doing a lot of walking under the intense heat of the sun; therefore, you should make sure that you’re wearing the right clothes AND the right shoes. It’s certainly best if you wear shoes or sneakers since sometimes there could be debris or broken glasses on the road. (Watch out for the weather forecast too in case it rains!).
    .
  • Bring only the essentials. You’ll be up and about, so only pack a small bag that contains a few of your valuables: your phone and some money. While you’re at it, make sure that you wear sunscreen and that you pack some water!
    .
  • Stay vigilant. With the number of people, petty theft can happen so try to be wary of pickpockets. For instance, try to avoid wearing a backpack and go for bags that you can position in front of your body.
    .
  • Let loose. At the same time, be patient and have fun! It’s also commonplace for people to just suddenly hug you or smear your body or face with paint — or even water. It’s all part of the fun!
    .
  • Going to a party? Wear disposable shorts and shirt. If you’re planning on staying for the crazy after-parties, as I mentioned previously, body paint can be involved so you’re better off wearing something that you wouldn’t mind throwing away later on. Speaking of which, sometimes they use color powder, and they would even splash beer and drinks on everyone. Yep, it’s that rowdy… but fun! (Note: Make sure to protect your gadgets!)
    .
  • Get acquainted with Cebu’s layout. Right before you plunge into the Sinulog Festival, make sure that you go over a map first (most especially if it’s your first time to come to this place). With all the swarm of people and the countless barricaded streets, you would often have to take different routes. So other than reviewing the layout of the city beforehand, bring a map with you or ensure that you’re connected so you can access Google Maps at all times. Better yet, if you have a friend who lives in Cebu, ask them out!
    .

• • •

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is the meaning of the word ‘sinulog’?

The term “sinulog” is derived from the Cebuano word “sulog” which roughly refers to ‘a movement that’s like the water current‘. As such, the Sinulog dance itself primarily consists of a graceful forward-backward movement — two steps forward and one step back which is danced in tune to a recognizable drumbeat that identifies the Sinulog festivity.

Why is Sinulog celebrated?

The Sinulog Festival is done in honor of Santo Niño (the Child Jesus) and it is usually held for 9 consecutive days in Cebu, with the Sinulog Grand Parade usually commencing from the third Sunday of January. The famous parade also primarily commemorates the Filipinos acceptance of Roman Catholicism (when the image of the Child Jesus was handed over as a gift by Portuguese conquistador Ferdinand Magellan to the king and queen of Cebu in 1521), thus transitioning from their former pagan or animist beliefs.

Why is there always a girl dancing in front of a Sinulog parade?

The girl actually represents Hara Amihan (Humanay, later baptized as Queen Juana, the wife of Rajah Humabon or the olden king of Cebu) and you’ll see her holding an icon of Sto. Niño as she dances during the Sinulog Festival Grand Parade because it was the baptismal gift handed over by the Portuguese conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan, when he came to Cebu.

What does ‘Pit Senyor’ mean?

‘Pit Senyor’ or ‘Viva Pit Señor’ means “to call or to hail Senyor Santo Niño” (or the Child Jesus). It is occasionally shouted as a petition or word of thanks during the Sinulog Festival (other chant phrase often used is also “Pit Senyor kang Mama kini, Pit Senyor kang Papa kini!”).

• • •

» Top Cebu Tours «

Oslob Whale Shark Watching Experience

Oslob Whale Shark Watching
Tick off a bucketlist experience!

• • •

Booking Essentials

Book an AirBnB
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TIP: It’s a good idea to crosscheck your World Nomads‘ total travel insurance price with that of SafetyWing because the latter is often priced cheaper (especially when it involves travel that spans for several weeks or months — and even years!).
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However, take note that SafetyWing’s affordability typically means lesser coverage than World Nomads. So please always ensure that you read the fine print in order to decipher which travel insurance company is the right fit for you and your trip!

Looking for more travel tips for the Philippines?

Check out my other detailed Philippine travel guides!

• • •

Sinulog Festival

Overall

Vibrant, lively, and meaningful, the Sinulog Festival is, without a doubt, a unique experience… a must-do and a must-see! Of course I can’t deny the fact that it can possibly ‘mortify‘ you given the millions of attendees during the grand parade; but for the most part, I believe that the effect will be different, and a positive one at that!

Besides, I’m sure that like me, after being bitten by the Sinulog fever, you’re bound to look forward to attending it again for the next year!

• • •

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Solo Female Travel Blogger: Aileen Adalid

Hey there! I am Aileen Adalid.
At 21, I quit my corporate job in the Philippines to pursue my dreams. Today, I am a successful digital nomad (online entrepreneur, travel writer, & vlogger) living a sustainable travel lifestyle.

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40 Comments

1 3 4 5
  1. Festivals

    There are so many cool festivals in the Philippines. Well, not this year I guess. I wanna see this one, the Sinulog Festival too!

    Reply
  2. KEITH D BAER

    Maraming Salamat, Aileen, the presentation was wonderful – very special and professional. When I return to the Philippines, later this year, I will be looking to see the next celebration in person.

    Reply
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