Where to Go, What to See When Exploring the Philippines
The Philippines feels out of sync with the rest of Southeast Asia, and therein lies its charm. Set at a remove from the traditional backpacker circuit that runs from Thailand to Vietnam, the Philippines feels more Latin than “Oriental”, more earthy than spiritual, and certainly less bound by the usual tourist rules.
In recent years, the Philippines' top tourist spots have quietly become some of Southeast Asia's most popular. Scattered along the Philippines tourist trail lie not a few UNESCO World Heritage sites, some of the most romantic spots on earth, some of the world's best beaches, and almost more churches than you can shake a censer at!
You'll dig down deep through a Philippines itinerary that covers all these (and more besides) in the next few pages, but allow us to get a few basic Philippines travel tips out of the way first - covering transportation, accommodation, and serious advice on the quickly changing peace and order situation.
Philippines Travel Tips to Know Before You Go
If you're a first-time traveler to the Philippines, take note of these travel tips to ease your way through the islands.
Getting around. You need a boat to cover the Philippines' many islands from end to end, or several plane tickets.
- Air travel is the easiest (but priciest) mode of transport, with budget airlines like Cebu Pacific and AirAsia leading the pack ahead of carriers like Philippine Airlines.
- You can also ride a passenger ship from Manila or Cebu to other ports of call throughout the islands. 2Go is the dominant passenger ship line in the Philippines.
- Overland transportation in the Philippines blurs the line between land and sea travel: you can travel by bus from Manila (on Luzon Island) to Davao (down on Mindanao Island) via roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ferries that weave a “nautical highway system” across the seas. Philtranco runs a Manila-Davao bus route that makes two ferry crossings in between; the whole trip takes 48 hours to complete.
This itinerary treats the Philippines' two biggest metropolises – Manila (the capital) and Cebu – as hubs for other island destinations, where you'll circle back before heading to the next stop.
When to visit. The peak season occurs during the northeast monsoon season (Amihan in local parlance) between September to May, where cool winds and dry, sunny days predominate. The heat gets turned up to the max between March and May, then the rainy season begins when the southwest monsoon (called Habagat) begins in June.
Money and safety. Both issues come tied together in the Philippines. The careless traveler and his Philippine pesos are soon parted: tourists must pay heed to these safety tips if they want to avoid the usual scammers trying to deceive you into overpaying for their services.
The peace and order situation in the Philippines is hardly settled. A simmering Islamic insurgency in the Philippines' south sometimes spills over to tourist spots further north. And the police prosecutes a haphazard drug war with an excess of zeal. To avoid getting entangled in these troubles, do not get involved in illegal drugs while in the Philippines, and look out for US State Department warnings when planning your trip.
Arrive in Cebu: the Philippines' Central Island Hub
The crowded, traffic-choked capital Manila can be too much for the first-time traveler, so we're leaving it for last. Instead, we advise travelers to avoid Manila and fly into the secondary hub of Cebu instead.
Cebu is literally the oldest city in the Philippines; the Spanish conquistadores who built the Filipino nation first set up shop in Cebu before moving to Manila. Thankfully Cebu has avoided the insane levels of congestion found in the country's capital, giving first-time visitors a more favorable first impression of the country.
Old Catholic churches, cheap street food, and the Philippines' most happening festival/street party make Cebu an interesting place to visit. Outside the city, you can enjoy the white-sand beaches along Mactan Island, check out Carcar's old houses and delicious lechon (whole roast pig), go scuba diving in the clear coral reefs surrounding Cebu, even travel south to Oslob and you swim with whale sharks, among other things.
From Cebu, many of the Philippines' best beach and nature destinations can be reached in a single plane or boat hop.
Getting there, getting around: Built as an emergency air base for the U.S. Strategic Air Command, the Mactan-Cebu International Airport (IATA: CEB; ICAO: RPVM) now serves as Cebu's main air gateway and the Philippines' secondary air hub.
Visitors flying from the U.S., South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia can take a direct flight to Mactan Airport, skipping Manila's legendary congestion, and fly to the rest of the Philippines.
From the Cebu Port Area, travelers can also travel on ferries to the rest of the Philippines, from neighboring Bohol to Manila all the way north.
Jeepneys and taxis (including the Uber-like service Grab) allow you to zip around the city with ease; buses can take you to Oslob and other points in Cebu City.
Where to stay: Cebu's city center has no shortage of budget hotels, particularly around the Gen. Maxilom Avenue area. Five-star accommodations include the Marco Polo in the city and many five-star resorts clustered around Mactan Island's beaches.
Three Days in Bohol: Nature from Tip to Tip
Take a fast boat from Cebu's Port Area to Tagbilaran, capital of the neighboring island of Bohol, and see Mother Nature's artistic side take over.
Eons of weathering have carved areas of Bohol into interesting shapes, among them the exquisitely-rounded-out Chocolate Hills, the pristine Abatan River, and the mysterious Lamanoc Island on Bohol's far east.
On the western end of Bohol, you'll cross a short causeway to Panglao Island, where the long white-sand stretch of Alona Beach harbors an interesting collection of beach resorts and a surprising food scene. For an extra fee, you can hire a boat to visit “Virgin Island” (pictured above) and go dolphin-watching around Panglao Island.
Read about things to do in Bohol for a more detailed overview.
Getting there, getting around: Sea and air travel can be undertaken from Tagbilaran city: the port connects to nearby Cebu, while the airport (IATA: TAG, ICAO: RPVT) connects to Manila and Cagayan de Oro in the south. Read about Bohol transportation.
Where to stay: For beach accommodations, stick to Panglao Island to the west of Bohol. Compare rates on Panglao Island resorts.
You can also stay on Bohol Island itself; the capital Tagbilaran offers a good selection of accommodations for all budgets. Compare rates on Tagbilaran City hotels.
Optional Detour: Two Days Surfing in Siargao
Take another side trip from Cebu, this time to the Philippines' top surfing island.
After going back the way you came, take the single daily flight from Cebu to Siargao. The island's east coast directly faces the Pacific Ocean, and gets the full effect of its waves – to the delight of surfers everywhere.
Siargao's rocky beaches may not appeal to regular sunbathers and swimmers – for those you'll need to take a short boat to one of Siargao's offshore islands – but the surfing here is world-class. The powerful waves off Cloud 9 present a formidable challenge to expert surfers, who fly in from all around the world to compete in one of the local surf competitions.
For more about Siargao and its unique appeal, read our travel tips relating to Siargao, from tourists who never left.
Getting there, getting around: Siargao's Sayak Airport (IATA: IAO, ICAO: RPNS) services direct flights between either Cebu or Manila. Car rentals and habal-habal (motorcycle taxis) bring travelers to their resorts and to other points around the island.
Where to stay: The accommodations around General Luna town – the settlement closest to Siargao's top surf spots – cover a range of budgets and comfort levels. Compare rates on Siargao Island hotels via TripAdvisor.
Three Days in Boracay: Party on Both Coasts
From Cebu, take another short flight to Kalibo Airport (IATA: KLO, ICAO: RPVK), then board a van or (via prior arrangement with your hotel) an airport service for an hour's drive to the port town of Caticlan, from which the island of Boracay is just a short ferry ride away.
The long white-sand stretch called, appropriately, White Beach, is Boracay's golden goose, the basis of a billion-dollar hospitality, food, transportation and party industry that little resembles the sleepy, laid-back beachfront that it was in the 1980s, before backpackers found it and spread the word.
In the summer months, Boracay's broad white sands make for several days' worth of lazy sunbathing, swimming, or beach volleyball and other sports. As night creeps over the island, the crowds turn to White Beach's bars and restaurants to unwind and dance to the thumping music blaring from every establishment.
Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island obliges sports-minded travelers with watersports options like windsurfing, kiteboarding, and skimboarding.
For more details on these Boracay diversions, read: Eight Awesome Activities in Boracay.
Getting there, getting around: Two airports service Boracay travelers: Godofredo P. Ramos Airport (IATA: MPH, ICAO: RPVE) in Caticlan itself, much closer to the ferry but more prone to cancellations; and the aforementioned Kalibo Airport. The latter is 90 minutes away from Caticlan by bus, but handles bigger airplanes from Manila, Cebu and international points of origin.
From Caticlan, travelers take a ferry across the Tabon Strait to Cagban Port on the southeast end of Boracay. Jeepneys and motorized tricycles then cover the last leg from the port to the hotel.
Where to stay: White Beach has been taken up by three- to five-star resorts, with budget accommodations taking up the interior or Bulabog Beach on the other side of the island. Compare rates on Boracay Island hotels via TripAdvisor.
Optional Detour: Three Days Lazing About in El Nido
If Boracay's party-hearty energy leaves you cold, we suggest you detour to a less crowded, more naturally spectacular beachfront in the Philippines. It'll take a while to get there, but it's worth the wait.
It's a long slog from Cebu to the sleepy town of El Nido (read about transportation further below). It doesn't look like much when you get there (notwithstanding the giant limestone cliffs behind the town) but you understand, once you see the beach, why it's so special.
The white sand beach bordering El Nido opens to Bacuit Bay and more than forty limestone islands beyond. The islands hold dive spots, beaches, mangrove forests, and caves, enough to drive any adventurer to distraction.
From El Nido town, you can hire a boat to explore the islands off El Nido in Bacuit Bay, Palawan, Philippines - a field of limestone islands and some of the most breathtaking beaches on earth. The town's dive shop and rental places can help you explore the local seas at your own pace – above or below the surface.
Even if you stay on dry land, you'll have the time of your life. The countryside adjacent to Bacuit Bay is riddled with hiking paths that lead to hidden treasures, like waterfalls and a cave housing evidence of prehistoric human life!
Getting there, getting around: At Palawan island's northern reaches, El Nido lies at the end of an eight-hour drive from the capital Puerto Princesa. From Cebu, you'll need to take a flight to Puerto Princesa, then take a van or bus several hours north till you get to El Nido town. Read about El Nido transportation to get a grip on the route.
Where to stay: For a sleepy backpacker town, El Nido offers plenty of beds for all budgets. Read about El Nido's backpacker/budget accommodation options, or if you've got more money to burn, go for El Nido's mid-range to high-end resorts.
Three Days in Manila: History, Culture with a Heavy Helping of Traffic
From Cebu, Boracay or El Nido, you can take a direct flight to Manila: the Philippines' capital is an energetic, crowded megalopolis with plenty of surprises (more good than bad) waiting for the traveler.
Spread out over an area roughly the size of Delaware, Metro Manila can be confusing to navigate, but travelers need only remember a few key neighborhoods:
- Makati, the financial district and home to most of Manila's classiest hotels alongside a growing hipster district;
- Intramuros, the old quarter of the capital founded by the Spanish;
- Bonifacio Global City, the newest financial district and home to a dazzling cultural and culinary scene, along with a few innovative hotels and Asia's version of Arlington Cemetery; and
- Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in Southeast Asia.
It's a lot to take in, and hard to see without also experiencing the capital's horrendous traffic, pollution and poverty. While three days is enough to take in the capital's sights, you can also treat Manila as a stopover and proceed to other travel hotspots on the island of Luzon.
Getting there, getting around: Visitors to Manila fly in via the capital's Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA: MNL, ICAO: RPLL). Manila's traffic is famously horrible, but taking the capital's commuter train system allows you to get from place to place reasonably fast. For more information on getting around, check out our explainer on Manila's transportation.
Where to stay: Metro Manila's two backpacker areas – the Ermita district closer to the old city and Poblacion District in Makati – compete for the budget end of the accommodation spectrum. The financial districts – Ayala Center in Makati, BGC and Ortigas Center – take care of the upper end of the price range.
Three Days North of the Capital: Rice Terraces and Food Tours
Luckily the traffic and congestion clears up just a couple of hours' drive past Metro Manila's boundaries. Bus stations in Quezon City and Pasay City connect Manila visitors to the rest of Luzon Island; the smart ones brave the long slog up to Benguet Province (the “Mountain Province”) for a chance to hike among the Banaue Rice Terraces.
There's some debate on whether the Rice Terraces are over 1,000 years old or less than 500, but no matter: that the spectacular ricefields carved out of Benguet's mountains look absolutely spectacular is not under dispute.
The American-founded city of Baguio – Benguet's biggest metropolis – is certainly worth a detour, but you'll be better served heading to Sagada, a mountain town famous for its laid-back culture, its hanging coffins, and its mysterious caves.
On the way back, you might make a detour off of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) that partly connects the northern provinces with the capital, and visit Pampanga, a province on a rice-growing plain that's long been famous for serving up some of the Philippines' best food (a side-trip to Pampanga is an essential part of any itinerary relating to the local cuisine).
Getting there, getting around: It takes nine hours to cover the distance between Manila and the Banaue bus terminal (serviced by Ohayami Bus and GV Florida bus lines). From either the Banaue tourist office or your Banaue hotel, you can hire a chartered jeepney to take you to any of the Terraces. Guides can be hired at the entry points of each terrace.
Where to stay: Accommodations in the vicinity of the Banaue rice terraces range from budget to three-star; read our list of best lodgings in the Banaue area for more information.