The Ultimate Weekend Getaway in Luzon - San Juan, La Union

La Union Blog In Brief:

  • Known as the Surfing Capital of the North, La Union receives around 1 million visitors per year.

  • Easily accessible from Metro Manila, the best way to get to La Union is by Road.

  • Car hire in the Philippines is a simple and relatively inexpensive process. Most cars rent for 1,400 - 2000 pesos per day. 

  • Beach to visit in La Union - San Juan

  • Things to do in San Juan - Learn to surf, swim, join a beach volley ball match, explore the rock pools.

  • There are plenty of places to eat and stay and most are right on the beach.  Recommendations are: Flotsam & Jetsam, Lukbai Musika, Little Canggu and Little Surf Maid.

Surfing as the sun sets in La UnionPhoto by: China D

Looking for the ultimate weekend getaway? And by “ultimate”, we mean a destination that covers everything you need to escape the daily grind without quitting your job, somewhere that’s easy to get to, recharges your depleted batteries, indulges your passions and goes easy on the budget…syempre.

The province of La Union may just be the answer to your much-needed holiday prayers. There’s plenty of things to see and do in this province – a blogger could go on and on. Instead of bombarding you, we’ll make it simple and focus on one idea for your perfect weekend getaway that can easily be repeated and perhaps even become a go-to plan, especially when time and inclination to plan anything complicated is limited.

This ultimate weekend getaway idea is: San Juan.  

Why La Union?

Map of La Union Province, Philippines

In a nutshell:

  1. Convenient location - it’s just a few hours’ drive from Metro Manila

  2. Easy to get to - the roads of the Expressway are smooth as silk

  3. Beach – who doesn’t love a beach getaway?

  4. Activities to suit all tastes, moods and age brackets

  5. It has modern establishments that give the place a cool vibe, yet it retains characteristics of Filipino traditions that have been around since dalandan trees were the dominant structures of the area (that’s pre-Spanish era).  

I love ElYu, San Juan, Philippines

Photo by: China D

Ilocano locals have loved this slice of Luzon for centuries. They grew up breathing its fresh, mountain air and absorbing its salty waves – to them, its beauty and its restorative powers are beyond comparison. Inevitably, allure and value will attract visitors from far and wide. It can even leave some with little option other than to make a permanent home and set up a business in their favourite holiday destination. For the last 20 years, La Union has experienced an influx of entrepreneurs inspired by their stay in the region. They, along with the region’s natural attractive attributes, have significantly contributed to La Union developing into a tourist hot spot. Since 2000, the rest of the island, the nation and the world has caught wind of this sea-side province and all it has to offer, opening it up to around 1 million visitors per year.

Surfer, San Juan, Philippines

Photo by: China D

Whether you’re an international tourist keen to see the surfing capital of the north or a weary office worker from Metro Manila, La Union has consistently provided a refuge and remedy for frayed nerves, pale skin and overloaded minds. Here’s how and where you too can make the most of your visit to “ElYu”.  

Road Trip! How to Get to La Union Province

One of the best ways to travel to La Union province is via road. In fact, when it comes to a beach holiday it’s basically a pre-requisite that you arrive numb-buttocked and wind swept – it’s all part of the excitement. Your accommodation may ask you if this is the case before allowing you entry*, so get your vehicle sorted.

*Biro lang.

Don’t worry about driving in this part of the Philippines. Even if it’s your first time, the roads will pose no significant problems. Thanks to the TPLEX Expressway, it’s easier than ever to get to La Union from the areas south of Pangasinan province. Travel time from metro Manila to La Union for example, has been cut from 6 hours to just 3 and half since the opening of the completely domestically funded expressway.

Despite never having driven a left-hand drive vehicle before, even we made it without incident in a hire car. The uncongested, easy-to-navigate roads of the expressway absolutely deserve their place in the Project Finance Magazine archives as “Asia Pacific transport deal of the year”.

Car Hire in the Philippines

Hiring a car in the Philippines is very straight forward, requiring only a driver’s licence and your passport (or other form of ID if you’re a local). Unlike most hire car places elsewhere in the world, as long as the car is brought back in the same condition that it left (mud and dirt excluded) you won’t be charged for the number of miles - or even need to re-fill the tank for some hire car places. You’ll just be charged a flat rate based on the number of days you’re hiring the vehicle for – around 1,400 to 2000 pesos per 24 hours is standard. There may be a cleaning fee added, this will be around 200 pesos.   

San Juan – Sand, Sea, Surf

If surf, sand, sunsets over the water and tie-dye t-shirts are your thing, San Juan is an ideal place to call home for a few days and forget about city life. Known as the Surfing Capital of the North, even if you don’t participate yourself, you’ll definitely be entertained by regular surfers with some pretty impressive skills.

Surfing, San Juan, Philippines

Photo by: China D

Things to Do

  • Learn to surf

    If, after watching the experts over a few cocktails on your deckchair, you think, I could do that, but you have little or even no experience, don’t lose hope. Those that do have the skills and experience have got you covered. Just go for a walk along the beach and you will find a number of surf schools with instructors and boards ready to show you the ropes. The good thing about learning this trickier-than-it-looks skill in front of a crowd of strangers is that you won’t be the only one. It’s a standard activity tried by many new comers when in San Juan, so feeling self-conscious is rendered unnecessary.  

    Beach San Juan, Philippines
    Photo by: China D
  • Swim

    Although surfing is popular, and a great way to entertain any children that you may have had to pack with you, it isn’t everyone’s idea of a good holiday. There’s a reason close to 1 million mga tao visit this part of the Philippines per year - San Juan has more to offer for those searching to embody the regular-beach-goer vibe without the thrill seeking and excessive swallowing of sea water. San Juan waters are safe enough for all members of the family to take a leisurely dip, from small children going for their first paddle to adults brushing up on their cardio.

    San Juan, Philippines

Photo by: China D
    • Join a volleyball Match

      The beach is big enough to accommodate many friendly volleyball tournaments. Have a game with friends or sit back and watch. Just like the surfing, skill levels vary widely and no-one takes it too seriously.

      Volleyball, San Juan, Philippines

    Photo by: China D
      • Just chill

        Grab a bite or have a drink at the many bars and restaurants that line the beach. Unfurl a beach towel or pull up a deck chair and soak in the beach side atmosphere. Take a leisurely walk along the sand or explore the rock pools. You never know what you’ll find. If you look hard enough, nestled behind a row of sari sari stores like it was meant to be there, you’ll even see an ex-commissioned plane that, as it turns out, no-one wanted to pay the tax for storage on - so by the beach in San Juan it stays.

        Is that an actual plane? Photo by: China D

      Where to Sit, Eat and Drink

      By day, along a strip of beach named Urbiztondo, you’ll find waters for paddling, surf instructors and friendly volleyball tournaments, the teams of which are composed of people who usually wear shirts and ties. But by night, your senses will be inundated with the lights and sounds of many bars and restaurants, all offering libation, pulutan or more substantial meals while entertaining the masses with music from a live band.

      The most well-known and notable are:  

      • Flotsam & Jetsam

        Flotsam and Jetsam El Union
        This place looks as though it was made of things washed ashore in a storm – perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of some ship filled with art and Turkish lamps. The Flotsam & Jetsam hostel and restaurant, plus its quirky and appealing (totally Instagram-able) design, was created by three friends - Mia Sebastian, Carla Suiza, and Joncy Sumulong – “who love travel and travellers”.

        While it definitely screams “Millennial”, catering to a crowd that enjoys buckets of beer, posh cocktails and sitting on scatter cushions at ground level, there is enough variety and substance in this place to pull a crowd consisting of many generations – old, new and emerging. Their establishment is indeed an informal friendly place that celebrates laughter and music, design and parties.

        Along with hostel-style rooms, there are a number of seating areas for use of both hostel guests and the general public which spread throughout the beachside beer garden in a well-planned out way. You can order off their restaurant menu or enjoy a drink with friends or the whole family.

        Be sure to get there early if you plan on hanging out after dark, especially on a Friday or Saturday. Otherwise you’ll be standing in a line that snakes down the MacAurther Highway for hours – such is the popularity of the vibe, music and people of the place.     

      Little Canggu, San Juan, Philippines

      Rice and Noodle bowls. Photo by: China D

      • Great for lunch, this small café style restaurant churns out some delicious Balinese fusion meals. Sit inside or take advantage of their sizeable deck outside which overlooks the beach. Their coffee is pretty good too.

      • Lakbai Musika

        Lakbai Musika, La Union, Philippines
        The Entrance of Lakbai Musika. Photo by: China D

        An absolute hidden gem in every sense - a place that is rare, sought-after and alluring, plus the closely shaved head of the owner positively glints in the light.

        Ok, the cool reggae theme décor may not be that rare for a beach-side joint. However, what is rare is the way this place has taken something so common and twisted it into a shape that is their own. And anything "Reggae" is basically guaranteed to pull in the punters. Like moths to a flame, we were uncontrollably attracted to the green, yellow and red lights illuminating this small building, otherwise hidden from street view. 

        Although it was already quite late, immediately we were greeted by a competent young lady who helped adjust the menu according to our plant-based wishes. She showed us up a narrow set of wooden stairs and to a tiny table that was the perfect size for the close quarters.

        There was something to excite the senses everywhere your eye wandered, all set against a distressed wood base. The more you looked around the top floor of Lakbai Musika, the more little nooks and crannies, filled with impressive artwork or a tipsy patron sporting a massive smile, you saw. From the duyan (traditional woven hammock) precariously hung over the roof outside a window, to the small balcony you didn’t realise was there until someone yelled their approval of a song performance from it, you felt like you were hanging out in the coolest, most creative treehouse ever.

        The vibe only grew with the music of the guitarist, perched in the corner, happily strumming out Filipino classics, Western jams or taking requests. We enjoyed all of this while munching on masarap dishes from the kitchen downstairs and pouring our own drinks straight from the bottle (pre-purchased) – life definitely seems more lively at Lakbai Musika.

        Lakbai Musika, La Union, Philippines

        Upstairs where the vibe is amazing. Photo by: China D

        Then, as a bonus, our waitress took to the small stage next to the guitarist. She then belted out the most impressive set, which included songs from the likes of Adele, Kris Kristofferson, Taylor Swift and Moira. We later found out that she is the guitarist’s daughter and the skilled chef downstairs is her mother. Talk about a talented family! Yet another quirk that makes this place truly unique and a must visit in San Juan.   

        Check out their YouTube page here:

      • On the Beach

        You’ll have no problem finding a spot to sit and enjoy the ambience, day or night, in San Juan. Aside from the few mentioned above, there are a number of establishments both on the beach (like on the sand) or at street level. If you’re feeling lucky (remember that Google option?) just go for a wander and possibly the first place on your search will have seating, staff ready to serve and even a live band. 


      For the most part, you could probably wing it and find a place by the beach that appeals to you upon arrival. However, if you’re planning to have your weekend getaway during a peak time, booking ahead is essential. You do not want to be faced with sleeping in a 50°C tent on the beach or in the car during Holy Week because all accommodation has been fully booked…we say this from experience.

      La Union, PhilippinesThe Holy Week crowd. Photo by: China D

      Although there are worse places you could be stuck without a roof over your head, it’s a stress you could more than likely do without.

      During our first La Union experience (which was during Holy Week) we wandered for kilometres with the sun blaring and the humidity ridiculously high, asking at every hotel along the way for a room - with no luck. They had all been booked out for months in the lead up to the Holy Week holiday. It was a lesson learned for us.

      While laying back on one of the wooden recliners outside of Flotsam & Jetsam, sipping on San Mig Light and listening to the baklas next to us rate the beachgoers, we kept our lack of accommodation problem in perspective. Look where we are!

      Surfer, San Juan, Philippines

      Photo by: China D

      Although a make-shift room made by a hotel owner erecting as many tents as they could on the top floor of their otherwise fully booked establishment was an option, we held off. Worst case scenario, we thought, we sleep in the hire car (which thankfully was a brand-new Toyota Echo, so we wouldn’t be slumming it). And it would be more private than the temporary shanty town in a cheap hotel.  

      After walking along the beach as evening began to set in, occasionally stopping to admire a tie-dye t-shirt for sale, we found ourselves outside of Little Surfmaid. Their wooden deckchairs and simple menu attracted us, so we sat and listened to their live band while watching the silhouettes of surfers riding the waves as the sky reddened.

      Little Surf Maid, San Juan, PhilippinesLittle Surfmaid - We get to sleep in a bed tonight. Photo by: China D

      Our last chance to snag a room would only come from a last-minute cancellation – it was a long shot but still a possibility. Bearing this, and the fact that it was now early evening in mind, we asked at Little Surfmaid if they had an available room. To our delight, the manager came bounding out with the good news – there was a room and, not only that, breakfast was included. You had us at room available. Whatever it is, we’ll take it. He seemed almost more grateful than us at the serendipity of the situation.

      Surfers, San Juan, Philippines

      Photo by: China D

      With our accommodation finally sorted, we were able to enjoy the ambiance of the beach at evening, which, thanks to the periods of fairly high stress earlier in the day, felt as though no worry could now penetrate. There's just something about the gentle rhythm and crash of ocean waves and a sinking sun that's reassuring and restorative - no matter where you're from. 

      Project Goals Recommends:   

      • Lakbai Musika   

        For all your reggae needs.

      • Flotsam & Jetsam

        The chill vibe of this place takes some beating. There’s a variety of rooms to suit a variety of needs and consistently rates very high with guests.  

      • Little Surfmaid

        We will always have a soft spot for this place as it provided us refuge on a busy Holy Week night when no other place had room. Rooms are big and clean and there’s a balcony with a great view to the beach.   

      Project Goalers! Tell us, have we missed anything? What's your favourite thing to do in San Juan or anywhere in the fabulous La Union Province. Leave a comment below or on our Instagram or Facebook pages X

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