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Vigan's Spanish Colonial Legacy: Exploring its History and Heritage Buildings

Located on a delta of the Abra River, and named after the gabi or taro plant known locally as biga, Vigan in Ilocos Sur was established asVilla Fernandina by Juan de Salcedo, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s nephew, in 1572.

In the colonial era, Spanish established separate enclaves for the Spanish and for other ethnicities. The Spanish enclave was called villa. The Fernandina was the villa for the north. For the south they were: Santisimo Nombre de Jesus in Cebu, 1565; the area around Fuerza de San Pedro; the Basilica of the Santo Niño and the Cebu Cathedral; and Villa Arevalo in Iloilo, 1569.

Calle Crisologo at Vigan’s Mestizo district
Calle Crisologo at Vigan’s Mestizo district, 2016 (Department of Tourism)

Vigan is the only Philippine town inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, where it is called the “Historic Town of Vigan.” The 1992 inscription cites Vigan as the best-preserved planned Spanish colonial town in the whole of Asia. It also notes that the architecture of Vigan reflects the mixture of local, Chinese, and European cultural elements resulting in a one-of-a-kind townscape.

The municipality is divided into nine urban districts and 30 rural villages, with close to half the total area still being used for agriculture. The historic core zone or heritage zone is defined by the Govantes and Mestizo Rivers.

Salcedo was assigned to the Ilocos as its encomendero. Salcedo’s choice was based on the potential of Vigan as an entrêpot or trading center for vessels coming from China. It was to serve as an alternate harbor to Manila, a backup in case Manila was compromised.

Salcedo came upon an indigenous settlement of bamboo and wood houses on stilts. He chose the site and designated it as the capital of the entire Ilocos. It was the northernmost city established by the Spanish.

Toward the end of the 17th century, the typical colonial dwelling made of a lower floor of stone and an upper floor of wood was brought to Vigan from Manila, where the first experiments on this mixed type of architecture, arquitectura mestiza, were made. The Augustinians, assigned to evangelize Ilocos, introduced bricks for their churches and conventos and others followed their example. A local brick-making industry developed as a result.

Because of its growth as a trading center, Villa Fernandina was raised in status to a ciudad or city in 1778. Decades earlier, in 1758, the diocese of the north, Nueva Segovia, which had been in Lal-lo, Cagayan since 1595, was moved to Vigan at the request of Bishop Juan de la Fuente Yepes, during the pontificate of Benedict XIV. Vigan was far more accessible to Manila by boat than Lal-lo, which could only be reached by sailing to Aparri and then navigating southward through the Rio Grande de Cagayan.

Although it is no longer navigable due to siltation, from the 16th to the 19th century, the Mestizo River allowed large sea vessels to berth in the delta, which was virtually an island. Direct trade with China developed and Vigan became an important waypoint in the Manila-Acapulco trade. While the Asian trade was the vehicle for Vigan’s progress, in the 19th century the extensive cultivation of tobacco, brought from the Americas, pushed Vigan’s economy to high gear. Ilocos-grown tobacco, cured in the fields, was brought to Vigan to be consolidated for shipment to Manila where they were hand rolled in fabricas de puros (cigar factories) like Tabacalera in Binondo and the vast Fabrica de Puros de Malabon. The government controlled the purchase of tobacco and manufacture of cigars, assuring a steady but reliable price for raw tobacco. This steady source of income made many mestizo chino middlemen quite wealthy. With the wealth they built their bahay na bato (stone house) in Vigan. Here they lived on the upper story and used the ground floor for storage of tobacco and merchandise, like clothing and farm equipment, which was sold to tobacco planters.

Plaza Burgos in Vigan
Plaza Burgos, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

Vigan’s historic core is defined as an L-shape. The longer arm, with Plaza Salcedo in front of the Cathedral of San Pablo, is defined by the cathedral to the east, the episcopal palace to the northeast and the munisipyo or municipal hall to the southwest and kapitolyo or provincial capitol to the west. Behind the capitol, and still part of the core is Burgos House, where one of the three martyred priests, Father Jose Burgos, a Filipino secular priest executed for alleged complicity in the Cavite Revolt of 1872, was born. The shorter arm which begins with Plaza Burgos opens to the Kamestisuhan district, named after the mestizos chinos or Chinese rather than Spanish halfbreeds, who in the 19th century built Vigan through trade.

Both branches of the L-plan are laid out following the cuadricula or the Renaissance grid plan of the Leyes de las Indias, a codification of Spanish urbanization laws beginning with the Leyes de Burgos in 1512, and the new laws of Carlos I in 1545. The plan called for a grid pattern of streets, which defined town lots. These lots were designated as open space or built space, and as private or public lots. In the areas designed as public were the Church and civic structures. While the plan of Vigan followed the Leyes, the dwellings and buildings fuse hispanic traditions and techniques with Asian traditions. Wood, capiz shells, bamboo, stone and lime, all procured from the surrounding area, were used in construction.

Plaza Salcedo Zone, East-West Arm

Large, open spaces such as Plaza Salcedo was standard in the Spanish colonial plan. Plazas were a concourse intended for public recreation, and an area for large assemblies. In 1763, Plaza Salcedo was the site of the execution of Josefa Gabriela Silang (1730-1763), wife of Diego Silang y Andaya. She succeeded Diego after his death as the leader of a revolt against taxation and Spanish abuse and injustice. Diego took advantage of the British Occupation of the Philippines from 1762 to 1764 to launch his revolt. But his close companions, Miguel Vicos and Pedro Bebec, were bribed by the Spanish to assassinate him. Diego’s wife Gabriela was executed on 20 September 1763.

Plaza Salcedo, with Salcedo Obelisk, fountain, and Vigan Cathedral
Plaza Salcedo, with Salcedo Obelisk, fountain, and Vigan Cathedral, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

In the plaza is a late 19th-century obelisk commemorating Juan de Salcedo, which replaced an obelisk erected a century earlier but apparently damaged by earthquake. In the 1970s, a reflecting pool was built around the obelisk, which had the added function of a water container for use in emergencies. Fountains were added to the pool. More recent additions to the plaza are the monuments of national hero Jose Rizal and former president Elpidio Quirino.

The Vigan Cathedral Complex

The Vigan Cathedral Complex is unusual for having two plazas: Plaza Salcedo, which is directly in front of the cathedral; and Plaza Burgos to its epistle or south side. Complementing these open spaces are the built spaces for the cathedral, the detached bell tower, arsobispado or episcopal palace, and the diocesan seminary.

Cathedral of San Pablo

What began as an Augustinian mission became the seat of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia, when the center of the diocese was moved from Lal-lo to Vigan. The present Cathedral of San Pablo began construction on 31 June 1790. Work continued for a decade more or less. A report sent to Spain in 1799 contained sketches of the cathedral indicating that the construction was almost done at the time.

Most likely built at the same time as the cathedral is the detached campanario or bell tower, built at the epistle side of the church and near the facade. Bell towers as separate structures are found throughout the Ilocos. Believed to be a precaution in times of an earthquake, the bell tower is placed at a distance from the church so that should it topple, falling stone, bricks, or tiles will not hit the church. This practice is also seen in the San Guillermo Cathedral, Laoag, and Bantay church, which is next-door neighbor to Vigan, located on the northern bank of Govantes River.

Arsobispado de Nueva Segovia

The Arsobispado de Nueva Segovia, Vigan’s episcopal palace, is an oversized bahay na bato. Its date of construction is uncertain but it was most likely built around the same time as the cathedral. It functions as archdiocesan office, museum, and residence.

The diocesan seminario or seminary of Vigan occupied a lot across the episcopal palace. It was, for a long time, unused after it was burnt. The diocesan seminary transferred to the outskirts of the city: the major seminary north to Burgos Street, near the Govantes River and the minor seminary south to Katipunan Street. The seminary ruins were razed and Plaza Maestro Commercial Complex, rented by Grupo Bonito, was built. This strip mall is in the ersatz colonial-style.

Vigan City Hall

The Munisipyo or Vigan City Hall, along Burgos Street is an American period building. It has undergone renovations and repainting and at one time blue. It is now a light ochre, a color preferred in Vigan.


Interior of the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail, adjoining the house of Father Burgos, now a branch of the National Museum
Interior of the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail, adjoining the house of Father Burgos, now a branch of the National Museum, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

The Kapitoloyo, also known as the Ilocos Sur Executive Government Offices of the Provincial Capitol, is an American period building in the neoclassical or Federal style. Its center is accentuated by a colonnade, through which the building is entered. From the central bay are flanking bays. In the Kapitolyo area is the provincial jail which has now been turned into a museum.

Padre Jose A. Burgos House

Ancestral house of Father Jose Burgos
Ancestral house of Father Jose Burgos, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

Martyred priest Father Jose Burgos was born in the bahay na bato now known as the Padre Jose A. Burgos House. Characterized by austerity in style, the house has no eye-catching features but all speak of functionality, practicality, and solidity—characteristics of the Ilocos colonial house. Presently a branch of the National Museum of the Philippines, the house went through extensive restoration in 2014. The 14 panel paintings depicting the Basi Revolt painted in 1807 by local artist Esteban Pichay Villanueva, which were donated to the house after being purchased from the descendants of Villanueva, were restored by the National Museum and have been returned to the house upon the completion of the restoration. The paintings were temporarily housed at the National Museum in Manila for the duration of the restoration.

The house has a historical marker from 1939. It is classified by the National Historical Institute (NHI) as a Level II historic site (with marker).

Kamestisuhan (North-South zone) Plaza Burgos Zone

Plaza Burgos

This is the area that in popular imagination is conjured when the name Vigan is mentioned. Dedicated to the memory of Father Burgos, Plaza Burgos is located next to the bell tower. It has a statue of Padre Burgos on a plinth. The plaza leads to the Kamestisuhan zone, enclave of the mestizo-chino, the Filipino-Chinese whose enterprising ways built Vigan as an economic force, a trading center, and an engine for the economic growth of Ilocos.

In this area is a collection of some 120 bahay na bato. Most are two stories, the lower story used as storage space, offices or stores. A few are one story; these are usually a kamalig or camarin, a storehouse for rice or tobacco. There are also three-story structures. Because of their number, only a few houses will be cited as representative of the Vigan colonial house. These are also generally open to the public.

Pedro Singson House

Restored by Julie Singson-Manahan, a descendant of the clan, the Pedro Singson House is now called the Vigan Heritage Mansion. It was built in 1885 as a two-story structure with a tower. In this house, Pedro Singson was born on 5 February 1904. Popularly known as Apo Pedring, he was governor of Ilocos Sur from 1937 to 1941, from 1945 to 1946, and from 1956 to 1959. He also became a representative of the first district of Ilocos Sur.

Syquia Mansion Museum

Syquia Mansion in Vigan’s Mestizo district
Syquia Mansion in Vigan’s Mestizo district, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

Built in 1830 by Justo Angco, the Syquia Mansion Museum was given by Angco as dowry for his daughter Estefania who was to marry Gregorio R. Syquia, a landowner. Tomas Syquia descended from this couple, and Tomas and his wife Conchita Mijares-Jimenez, a Spaniard, in turn begot Alicia who married Elpidio Quirino, sixth president of the Philippines. Alicia died during World War II and Quirino did not remarry, choosing instead his daughter Victoria “Vicky” as First Lady. When traveling to Ilocos, the house was the president’s official residence.

From the outside, the Syquia Mansion is a typical bahay na bato with a lower floor of masonry and an upper floor of wood. Its volada (protruding galleries) cantilevers over the stone on the first story, giving it distinction, while providing shade from rain and sun for pedestrians. The house is embellished in the neoclassical manner with arched windows on the ground floor and Tuscan pilasters defining the vertical sweep. The house is externally ochre and white but its lower story was, at one time, light blue rather than ochre.

Typically, this house is furnished with local and European decor. Noteworthy are three smaller copies of Juan Luna’s works: Spoliarium, the original now in the National Museum in Manila, El Pacto de Sangre in Malacañan, and the vanished canvas with the subject, “The People and the King.” These are the works of Juan Luna’s Spanish assistant Respal, who came to the Philippines in the early 1900s. NHI marked the house as a heritage house through Board Resolution No. 1, of 18 January 2002. The house had earlier received in 1951 a historical marker in Spanish from the Philippine Historical Committee.

Quema House

Built in the early 1830s by descendants of mestizo-chino traders, the Quema House is in classic, austere bahay-na-bato style, characterized by stateliness, sobriety, and restraint. The interior is likewise styled—straightforward and simple. It has a good collection of 18th and 19th century furniture, among them the butaca or lounging chair, the high chair used beside an open window to view the street scene, Viennese bentwood chairs and rockers, and divans with rattan caning.

Crisologo House

Crisologo House in Vigan’s Mestizo district
Crisologo House in Vigan’s Mestizo district, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

Now a museum, the Crisologo House was the residence of politician Floro Crisologo. The house keeps his memorabilia, and that of his family. Crisologo was the victim of a politically-motivated assassination.

Villa Angela

Villa Angela, built 1859 by Agapito Florencio y Bonifacio, was the first Vigan house to be reused as a pension after it was restored. The house is furnished with etched mirrors and hanging lamps of wrought iron and glass, imported from Europe. The bedrooms are furnished with hardwood poster beds and the kitchen, although non-functional, has been restored to its 19th century look.

Other houses have been restored and reused, and are presently known by a trade name. Cafe Leona is associated with poet, satirist, and playwright Leona Florentino who was born in Vigan on 19 April 1849 and died there on 4 October 1884. The daughter of Marcelino and Isabel Florentino, mother of nationalist writer Isabelo de los Reyes and a distant cousin of Rizal, Leona is remembered with a monument located in a small plaza in front of Cafe Leona.

Other heritage houses that have been restored and reused are known as Hotel Felicidad, and Annex, Cordillera Family Inn, Gordion Inn, and Vigan Hotel.

Other Heritage Sites

Vigan poblacion is more than the historic core defined by the two plazas. It includes two other important heritage sites: Campo Santo and Burnayan.

Campo Santo

Campo Santo also known as the Catholic Cemetery of Vigan is located at the end of Quezon Avenue, a few blocks southwest of Kamestisuhan. The location of this cemetery was dictated by law in the 19th century, when burial within a church or its immediate vicinity was prohibited because of a better understanding of disease and how it spreads. Many outstanding cemeteries were built in the 19th century, like La Loma and Paco in Manila, and the cemeteries in Iloilo Province. A typical cemetery has a grand entrance, a perimeter wall which also serves as niches, and a mortuary chapel. There are two types of niches in a cemetery, one for the newly buried and one for secondary burials of bones known as osario or ossuary.

The mortuary chapel of the Catholic cemetery is known as Simbaan a Bassit or the small church, and it functions as a church with regular services. It was blessed on 9 November 1852 by Father Vicente Barreiro y Perez, OSA, bishop of Vigan from 1848 to 1856, with the assistance of the juez provisor or ecclesiastical judge and rector of the cathedral, the secular priest, Bachiller Pedro Vicente Abaya. The townspeople of Vigan were in attendance during the blessing. Represented were the guilds of the Filipinos by Pedro Alcantara de la Cruz, and of the mestizos sangleyes by Estanislao Singson.

Facade of the Simbaan a Bassit, a mortuary chapel with espadaña belfry
Facade of the Simbaan a Bassit, a mortuary chapel with espadaña belfry, 2016 (Photo by Jesse Alegre, Government of Vigan City)

The facade of Simbaan a Bassit is one of a handful of the type called espadaña. This refers to a facade where the highest register serves as a bell tower. The facade combines elements from the neoclassical, like the simplified Tuscan pilaster, and the baroque like the volute and ornamental cherubs. Divided into three parts, by pilasters, the central part for the main portal being the widest, each of the three parts terminate in arches where bells are hung. All in all there are four bells for the espadaña, two in the center and one each on the flanking sides. Graceful volutes connect the outer pilasters with the gates flanking the facade; these are the entrances to the cemetery. The facade has been painted a brilliant yellow ochre with the embellishments in white.


Although outside the historic district of Vigan, and located along Liberation Boulevard, southwest of Plaza Salcedo, Burnayan is an important area in Vigan. There are several factories here that make pots of terra cotta or stoneware. Burnay is the Ilocano word for pottery and refers specifically to the large, dark brown or black, stoneware jar, used for storage. It is uncertain when the burnay pottery began in Vigan, although it is assumed to have started during the Spanish colonial era.

What makes Burnayan truly part of Vigan’s heritage is the uniqueness of the burnay as the only local stoneware pottery, as well as the kiln used to fire it. Both pottery and kiln show Chinese influence. The pots are fired in a dragon kiln, which is a longitudinal kiln of Chinese origin. It is usually built on a natural slope so that one end is higher than the other. On the higher end is the chimney, on the slope are the stacking floor covered with silica sand. The lower end is for stacking fuel, traditionally wood. The body of the kiln is a series of vaults or shallow domes made from refractory bricks. The sides of the kiln are pierced by doors used for stacking bone-dry pottery and for controlling the flow of air, hence, the temperature of the kiln. This kind of kiln is known throughout Asia; in Japan, it is called anagama. Its longitudinal plan has earned it the name “dragon.” The shape and clay composition of the Ilocos burnay are similar to the large Chinese storage jars called dragon jars because they usually have a dragon design, or to the Martaban-made in Indochina. Burnayan also manufactures floor tiles similar to those used in colonial construction. These are marketed as Vigan tiles.


  • Reyes, Elizabeth V., and Luca Tettoni. 2013. Philippine Style: Design and Architecture. Mandaluyong City: Anvil Publishing.
  • UNESCO World Heritage Centre. 2014. “Historic City of Vigan.” Accessed 10 July.
  • CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art . Title: Vigan Poblacion Authors: René B. Javellana (2018). Publication Date: November 18, 2020

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