Everyone books a ticket to somewhere for a reason: adventure, escape, the philosophy of YOLO, or bragging rights on Instagram. But Bacolod as a destination is a different story—it’s a place one doesn’t seem to rush to, so much as take a leisurely flight. It’s where the word tawhay—laid-back—seems to have been invented. One hears this in the lilt and honeyed tones of the local Hiligaynon language, where a monosyllable like “tî” can mean many things, the most emphatic of which seem to be: so?, and then?, and see?
The main attractions for travelers to Bacolod inevitably include heritage houses—a good portion of which are situated in neighboring Silay and Talisay (which, together with Bago, Murcia and Bacolod City, form Metro Bacolod). You see these grand homes done in the traditional bahay na bato style with stone foundations leading up to hardwood second floors, and mother-of-pearl windows. In the old days, these opened out into hectares of sugarcane.
Metro Bacolod is a millennial’s dream—it’s photogenic, and shots of the place lend themselves nicely to various social media platforms. In the meantime, older folk grumble about traffic if there are three cars ahead of them at a stoplight, while the younger generation zips around in pickups, American country music blasting from their radios.
Welcome to the City of Smiles
Visitors to the city treat food as a tourist attraction, with chicken inasal and sweet flatbreads called piaya figuring among Bacolod’s more famous exports, and oysters counting among its many open secrets. Every October, tourists flock to the city for its famous MassKara festival, a Mardi Gras-inspired affair where dancers strut and jive through major thoroughfares, decked out in elaborate smiling masks.
Small wonder then that Bacolod is known as the City of Smiles—this seems less a touristy slogan than a testament to the kind of people that populate the city. The festival came about during the sugar crisis of 1980, following the US quota system for sugar importation. Allocations from the Philippines were cut to half of what they had been in the ’70s. This surplus resulted in an unprecedented drop in sugar prices. Bacolod, the Philippines’ sugar capital, was hit—and it was hit hard.
It goes without saying that it was a brave time to throw a party. While it found itself in the throes of a major crisis, the city didn’t fold up or lick its wounds. Instead, it thought up a celebration featuring spangled sequins and primal drumbeats.
Forty years later, this tenacity lives on. Bacolod may be an old city, but it is determined to not be left behind. Negros Occidental, where it belongs, has been a consistent top revenue earner among the provinces of the Philippines. In this highly urbanized town, it’s not just sugar money that fuels its economy, but also the IT and operation-management industries. Now, you’ll find business parks and co-working spaces where students and free agents collect in small humming crowds, powered by coffee and neon slogans.
Young people are shaking things up here, changing the status quo with vibrant contributions in the fields of business, food, conservation and art.
The Negrense palate
Perhaps one of the best ways to know a city is by the nuances of its flavors. Bacolod may be well-loved for its grilled delicacies and caramelized desserts, but the Negrense palate is venturing into new tastes and experimenting with less mainstream flavors.
A checklist of the many foodie destinations in Bacolod involves all the staples: burgers and waffles at Bob’s Restaurant and Pastry Shop; a local take on La Paz Batchoy noodle soup from Café 21; or an ube-and-flan confection from Felicia’s Pastry Shop. But true aficionados will take you to Sherly’s Chicken Pork BBQ. This is where you’ll find what’s arguably Bacolod’s best kansi—a deeply comforting broth made of tender beef shanks and jackfruit, quite unlike the versions that show up in Manila. The roadside stall has been open for around half a century now—and that broth has possibly been boiling away nonstop since then.
But while everyone, locals and visitors alike, will swear by their generations-old favorites, there is always a place for newcomers hoping to win their loyalties. A case in point is Berbeza Bistro, a hopeful new Southeast Asian fusion restaurant on Lacson Street. The snappy café is owned and helmed by the young Don Angelo Colmenares, who also happens to be councilor of Hinigaran, a municipality about 55km away from Bacolod.
The bistro aims to open up the Negrense palate to regional tastes, and it is also a case study in millennial entrepreneurship. “Our generation can be very experimental—we take risks,” says the chef, who’s in his twenties. “When it comes to business, our mentality is very different but there are still many millennials who are into traditional ways of making money.”
By “traditional,” he means running fish farms and harvesting sugar—the usual provincial enterprises passed down through generations. But Don isn’t one to follow a tried-and-tested template. Instead, he sought to pursue his dreams of opening a restaurant: “[It finally materialized] after a lot of hard work. I showed my parents that I was ready to embark on a venture no one in our family has tried before,” he says.
The result was Berbeza Bistro, perhaps the best place in town for a modernized, refined version of laksa—admittedly, not the most friendly dish to what Don calls a predominantly “umami-inclined” Negrense palate. “I try to stay true to [Southeast Asian] flavors, but I also [temper the tastes] so that people in Bacolod can appreciate them.”
Berbeza also shows its connection with the land—not through the sugary treats that other places have built their reputations on, but through the use of homegrown ingredients from Hinigaran.
Coming from the food industry, Don saw the agricultural potential of the town, and being elected into office gave him a wider influence and perspective. His focus is on farm-totable fare, using local ingredients, with a touch of classic Southeast Asian flavors—as good a metaphor as any for old-school Bacolod moving into the future.
Home is where the art is
While strides in the local food industry are being made one new dish at a time, Negrense art is in full flush—and it’s not just found in the hallowed halls of museums and ancestral homes.
In grilled-meat eatery Ribshack, located in Ayala Capitol Mall, diners can appreciate murals by young artist Anika Loquite. Using a soft pastel palette, she delights viewers with her figures’ Fernando Botero-inspired roundness and flushed cheeks. While working in Manila-based brand Apparel in Bacolod City, the young creative dabbled in art but soon realized that it wasn’t just a hobby—it was a career. She soon found a mentor in artist Charlie Co, and credits him for motivating her when she first started out. It was this mentorship that opened Anika’s eyes to the creative community’s give-and-take mentality, which has resulted in an environment where old masters can educate younger artists. This harmony is how Negrense art remains relevant to all generations.
For her, the key is a joyful sense of community. “It’s happy here,” she says. “Everyone is connected.”
Anika is hopeful about the future of Negrense art and believes that there’s only room to evolve and improve. “There are still many younger artists who are very shy, and who can only grow more confident [in their craft],” she says. “Even the older ones who are more reserved will evolve, and we’ll get to know each other better.”
Another venue where Negrense art is taking joyful strides is deep in the metro. New art can be found in the oldest places, should one be adventurous enough to look. Contemporary canvases can be seen, for example, in the Lizares mansion in Talisay—a grand bahay na bato home built in 1872 by sugar baroness Enrica Alunan-Lizares.
Old meets new in Kapitana Gallery, a contemporary art space named for the Lizares matriarch in the stone basement of the grand old house—not ten paces away from where a silver carroza carriage made its way through various religious processions over the years.
The gallery is filled with works completed in an artist’s residency established by heir Adjie Lizares. A short walk from his own residence is the artist’s home he established in a wide-roofed bungalow surrounded by lush foliage. Here, Adjie has built a haven for artists looking to be inspired by the breezy tawhay of Negros.
The residency takes place over two months—a period in which Manila-based galleries send emissaries to be inspired by the full Negrense experience. Art created during the residency will eventually be showcased in the old house; this Manila-Bacolod exchange makes for a diverse and rich artistic experience.
“We’re here to complement each other. What we’d really like to do is to provide a venue for diversity, [so] it’s good to keep an open mind,” he says.
No rest for the wasteful
It seems Bacolod is an open-minded city, as both its palate and palette prove. But its openness doesn’t end with its food or its art.
Towards the northern end of Lacson Street, one can find Wala Usik: Kapehan + Tiangge, the first zero-waste café on the island. Good intentions can be felt all around—the shop is decked with a community chalkboard filled with inspirational messages. Shelves are lined with aromatic shampoo bars, biodegradable soap, metal straws and bamboo mugs.
For the shop’s founder, biologist and conservationist Kaila Ledesma Trebol, the shop’s Ilonggo name is a lesson in mindfulness. “Wala usik means ‘nothing is wasted’. We wanted a different term because the concept of zero-waste can sometimes be intimidating.”
Kaila is fully aware that eco-living isn’t the easiest message to preach in Bacolod, and conservation pursuits—along with the kind of extreme lifestyle it may encourage—seem to be at odds with a mindset fostered by living in a land of plenty. She is convinced, however, that the local folk will come to appreciate this new concept of living green. She has faith in the younger generation’s eco-consciousness. “They’re not afraid to try,” Kaila says. “If you look at social media trends now, it’s all about the environment and how to live clean. This eco-guilt makes us think twice about ordering something in plastic.”
Unlike her predecessors, perhaps, there’s less fear of the future in Wala Usik, and more hope in the present. Kaila advocates a very accessible and achievable idea of mindfulness: “As long as we’re aware and mindful, we’re already making changes in our lives,” she says. Whether it’s using metal straws instead of plastic ones, or buying snacks in paper bags instead of plastic sachets, small steps make a difference. “We don’t need a few people practicing the zero-waste lifestyle perfectly. We just need the whole nation doing it, even if it’s imperfectly.”
It is in the frisson of these contradictions that Bacolod thrives — it’s a place of plenty that can inspire a green movement today in much the same way a crisis could inspire the invention of the province’s biggest festival almost forty years ago.
Moon over Lacson Street
Ask for a specific destination where old meets new in Bacolod and you’ll be told it’s the city’s main artery, Lacson Street, where one can find both traditional and modern restaurants and bars.
There, you can check out Portiko Café & Lounge, a charming pre-70s home that was repurposed by chef Nico Millanes and his partner, Amrit Gidwani, into an after-hours bar in 2016.
“Guests at Portiko are treated to a laid-back ambience with a touch of Negrense sophistication,” Nico explains. It caters to a steady local crowd as a venue for milestones, and as a fixture in the city’s nightlife scene—but it’s also played host to curated dinners for foreign dignitaries, and sizzling salsa nights to young party-goers.
“The younger Negrenses are definitely making waves in Bacolod,” he says. “New concepts have sprouted recently, adding to the diverse dining known for.”
Lacson Street is also where the most spirited MassKara proceedings take place. Ending this full city experience in Bacolod’s beating heart is fitting—it’s a reminder of the town’s past, present and future. It’s where you’ll find yourself, far from the fitful pace of Manila, dreaming of a few more tawhay days.
More to see
Take a trip from past to present in just a few well-chosen stops!
- German Unson Heritage House — Built in 1938, this heritage house has been a bed-and-breakfast since 2016. This charming and picturesque property has maintained Art Deco touches with its capiz windows and plush furnishings. 5 Zamora St, Silay City; fb.com/germanunsonheritagehouse
- Negros Museum Café — Chef Guido Nijssen and his wife Gemma serve up freshly made, responsibly sourced food from scratch using local ingredients. The preparations are simple but sophisticated—aged Negros beef tenderloin with reduced coconut wine sauce, Moroccan-style Negros sardines and sarali (Indian coffee plum). Gatuslao St; fb.com/naturalculinaryarts
- Cocreate City Coworking Spaces — On a working holiday? Cocreate City Coworking Spaces offers a hip hangout for digital nomads. 13th Lacson St