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San Juan, Philippines: A guide to La Union’s surf town

By Mariel Abanes 10 September 2020

A five-hour drive up north from Manila brings you past idyllic towns, long highways, and postcard-perfect scenery, away from the traffic-induced roads of the country’s capital city to the millennial crowd’s favourite weekend escape—San Juan, in the province of La Union in the northern Philippines.

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Meet San Juan in the La Union province, known as the surfing capital of the northern Philippines. In this surfer’s paradise, days stretch pleasantly long—mornings are filled with beach-goers and surfers eager to paddle and catch big waves, while evenings welcome a crowd for both chill night-outs or energetic shindigs to remember.

This once-sleepy town—flocked with only a small community of surfers and a few tourists—soon learned to adapt to modern times. A few years later, the area’s commercial strip, Urbiztondo, is now lined with hip lodgings, cosy cafés, trendy restaurants, and cool hangout places, creating a buzz among travellers and thus growing a steady stream of visitors all year long. But this humble surf town has much more to offer beyond just riding out into the ocean and a lively party scene.

Where to stay

Around town, you’ll find several modern accommodations that suit every traveller’s tastes and needs. Budget-friendly bunk beds are available at aviation-themed hostel Charlie’s Hangar Surf Hostel and the laid-back, hammock-laden The Circle Hostel, which welcome you as soon as you enter the town border. A few steps away leads you to Vessel Hostel that attracts travellers to its mid-century modern lodging made from stacked repurposed shipping containers. For a stay that feels like you never left home, opt to check-in at Urbiz Garden Bed And Breakfast. A popular choice for the hip crowd, beachside social hostel Flotsam & Jetsam will lure you to their comfortable rooms, Instagrammable nooks and crannies, and easy access to where the hottest parties come alive at night.

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By Apple Mandy 31 December 2019

What to eat

More and more establishments add to the growing roster of great eats in this surf town. Get your taste buds ready for an exploration of flavours served by cafes and restaurants offering a wide range of cuisines.

In the Great Northwestern Philippines Travel Stop & Viewing Deck located at the heart of Urbiztondo, start off by lining up at San Juan’s famous coffee spot, El Union Coffee, and order a cup of hot latte or one of the must-tries—cold-brew mocha and dirty horchata. Sit down for lunch with a hefty serving of fried chicken with honey bagoong with kare-kare sauce (Philippine fermented seafood paste with a stew-like Philippine peanut sauce) at Sabong Fried Chicken or a platter of sashimi and other Japanese dishes in Chu’s Diner. For a taste of local, head upstairs to Layag Grille And Kilawen Bar for a plate of Honey Bagoong with Kare-kare Sauce liempo (pork belly) or petso (chicken breast) served with rice and sides. Give a sweet ending to your meal with a bowl of coconut ice cream at CocoMama.

You can also head out and hunt for diners along the road. There’s Olas Banditos for some Mexican fare—try their Ilocos Norte burrito, stuffed with your usual burrito fillings made special with Vigan longganisa (a Filipino pork sausage originating from Vigan City, Ilocos Sur). In Tagpuan, opt for a comforting bowl of pork bagnet rice (a deep-fried Filipino pork dish)—a popular choice for a savoury and crispy bite. Satisfy your craving for casual Italian food at Amare La Cucina, where you can even make your own pizza from scratch! And finally, never leave San Juan without stopping by Surf Shack and finishing a serving of their Bacnotan pizza.

What to do

Hop on the longboard, what else! For beginners, rent a board and an instructor (you’ll find a throng of surf schools along the beach) and spend an hour in the morning paddling out and catching your first wave. For pros, it’s well worth knowing that surf season begins in October until March, so expect a wild sea playground when you visit San Juan during those months.

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After a surf session, take a tricycle or jeepney and hike up to Tangadan Falls in the neighbouring town of San Gabriel. Unleash your inner adventurer and brave the jungle that leads to the majestic falls where you can plunge right into the cool freshwater pools for a rewarding cooldown.

As you wait for nightfall, head to 55 Tinta in the Great Northwestern Philippines Travel Stop & Viewing Deck to get inked. An amazing sunset awaits you before the day closes—painting the sky a flaming red, a vivid orange, a calming blue, a romantic purple, or a pretty pink, depending on the season. Grab a bottle of beer or a cocktail as you drink in the magnificent view of the sun bidding farewell to a great day.

Gather your friends and go bar-hopping as darkness blankets the sky. Restobars invite regular performers to play for their guests, while other establishments stage special gigs (often during weekends) with a roster of awesome local musicians. To cap off the evening, go to Flotsam & Jetsam, where the fun happens—and don’t forget to try the 5-minute drink (a special cocktail with seven to eight spirits) while you’re there!

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Mariel Abanes


Mariel Abanes is a writer/editor from Manila who constantly finds herself packing her bags and exploring places in and outside her country. Apart from juggling her day job and planning out her next itinerary, she spends time immersing in the indie music scene, finding the next great read, and hopping from one social or cultural gathering to the next.