You don’t even have to fly out of Luzon to feel overwhelmed by choices: The ten activities we’ve listed below barely scratch the surface where fun and adventure on the island are concerned. From hiking to a volcanic lake to riding through UNESCO World Heritage Sites, arrange your Philippines itinerary around the activities listed below.
The Spanish conquistadors knew a good site when they saw one, and the native fort at the mouth of the Pasig River was it. Fort Santiago and the walled city of Intramuros eventually rose from this spot, and stood for centuries as the center for Philippines’ trade and culture.
Intramuros is the oldest part of Manila, and it shows. Devastated by World War II, Intramuros has been under a constant state of reinvention since. A walking tour of the walled city will take you to Fort Santiago, a citadel-turned-museum; the neo-Romanesque Manila Cathedral; and the San Agustin Church, a stone baroque church constructed in the 1600s.
Museums like Fort Santiago, Bahay Tsinoy (dedicated to the Chinese community in the Philippines) and the Destileria Limtuaco Museum (dedicated to the Filipino love of strong drink), show visitors different facets of Filipino culture.
Getting there: Intramuros is accessible by taxi, bus, jeep, or LRT. Read about getting around Manila, Philippines.
Filipino food will feel strangely familiar to Mexican food fans. As you’ll find in Pampanga, Spanish rule (by way of Mexico) influenced local dishes, later evolving to accommodate local ingredients and cooking techniques.
Thus you get tsokolate, a thick hot chocolate drink laced with crushed peanuts; chicharon, pork rinds fried to a crisp; turones de kasoy, a rice paper-wrapped nougat adapted from the Spanish turron de Alicante; and plantanillas, a candy made from slow-boiled water buffalo milk.
You’ll experience these and more as you work your way through Pampanga’s scattered towns, many of which were half-buried by the 1991 Pinatubo volcanic eruption. The town of Guagua is buried ten feet deep, whereas Bacolor Church was inundated with 20 feet of mud, though it remains in use today.
Getting there: Pampanga is a two-hour drive north of Manila, and can be accessible by bus or rented car. Use the places mentioned in our Pampanga food tour and Philippines food safari articles as a handy reference. Reliable guides include OuterEater and Mangan Kapampangan.
Ride an ATV up Mount Mayon’s Perfect Cone
The pride of the southwestern province of Albay, the active Mount Mayon volcano has one of the world’s most perfect cones, equaling Japan’s Mount Fuji.
You can see Mayon from almost any point in the nearby city of Legazpi. On good days, you can ride an all-terrain vehicle from Legazpi up Mayon itself. Several trails criss-cross the lower slopes, including a short ride that tours the ruins near Cagsawa and a longer one that ends at the “Green Lava Wall."
You can’t go wrong with the six-mile-long “basic trail,” which ends at a lava field. It’s sufficiently challenging for a beginner ATV-rider, with the trail crossing streams and mud-caked fields until you reach the lava field, its rest stop, and helipad.
Getting there: From Manila, you can ride a bus or fly to Legazpi City via Legazpi City Airport. Several reliable providers offer ATV rides from the city to the volcanic slopes, including Your Brother Travel and Tours, Mayon SkyDrive, and Bicol Adventure ATV.
The rice terraces of Banaue were recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and you’ll understand why once you hike through.
The challenging Batad Rice Terraces circuit takes three hours to fully complete. This most breathtakingly beautiful trail will send you through a natural amphitheater into which flat, evenly spaced platforms have been carved out of the slopes.
The terraces change through the seasons, following the local Ifugao’s rice planting schedule. From April to June, the terraces are green from growing rice, and from June to July, the terraces turn yellow as harvest season nears. Visit during December to see the “mirror type” terraces, when the water-filled terraces reflect the blueness of the sky.
Getting There: Ohayami Bus and Coda Lines bus services connect Manila to Banaue. From the Banaue tourism office, arrange for a chartered jeepney to take you to Batad Saddle, where you can begin your trek. Hire a guide at the Batad jump-off point to take you around.
Explore Sagada’s Caves and Culture
Despite its remote location in the shadow of the Cordilleras in Northern Luzon, Sagada has become a hot adventure-seeker's getaway to caves, rice terraces, and ancient cultures.
Adventure-minded travelers will love Sagada’s caves. The Sumaguing-Lumiang Cave Connection is the most popular spelunking experience; taking you into Sumaguing Cave, this three-hour trip will lead you through a strenuous gauntlet past some truly gorgeous limestone formations before exiting Lumiang Cave on the other side.
The mountain trails lead through some of the Philippine mountains’ most scenic sites, including Echo Valley, Lake Danum, Bokong Falls, and Bomod-Ok Falls. The culture of the local Igorot community is never far from view, whether you’re visiting the Demang cultural village or seeing the Hanging Coffins, a burial tradition reminiscent of the Toraja in Indonesia.
Getting there: Coda Lines services the only bus service from Manila to Sagada. You can make a side trip to the city of Baguio first, then take a jeepney or van that will take another six hours to get to Sagada.
Go Surfing in La Union & Baler
A scene from "Apocalypse Now" was shot in the remote town of Baler, which had seen few foreigners until Francis Ford Coppola set up camp. As local lore has it, the children in the area learned to surf on the boards left behind by the crew, spurring Baler’s transformation into one of the Philippines’ hottest surfing spots.
La Union’s San Juan town has since joined Baler as a top Luzon surfing destination. Both enjoy quick bus access from Manila, both are relatively laid-back towns that cater to world-class surfers, and both are at their best between October and March (schedule your trip to La Union to coincide with their namesake Surfing Break in late October).
The collection of breaks between San Juan and Baler cater to surfers of all abilities. Their sandy bottoms are kind to beginning surfers, and experts can find more challenging reef breaks to test their skills on.
Release Rare Turtles into the Sea at Bataan
From November to February, giant sea turtles—pawikan in the local language—lay their eggs on the beaches of Morong, Bataan. The Pawikan Conservation Center, a local community-based program, transfers these eggs to a hatchery to safeguard them from predators and help conserve the endangered turtle species.
Visitors from Manila can help the cause by staying overnight at the Center, then waking up early in the morning to deposit the hatchlings on the beach. Watching these cuties waddle off to sea is the most fun you can have saving an endangered species from extinction.
An entrance fee of 20 Philippine pesos ($0.40) and turtle release fee of 50 Philippine pesos ($1) will be charged.
Getting there: Morong, Bataan is located some four hours’ drive from Manila. You can ride a bus from Cubao in Manila to Balanga, then transfer to a minibus heading to Morong. Once there, take a tricycle to the Center.
Explore Anilao’s Underwater Beauty
Anilao was first discovered by foreign divers in the 1980s, and has gone from strength to strength since. Thanks to its proximity to Manila, its comfortable boutique resorts, and its breathtaking dive sites, Anilao has become one of the Philippines’ must-visit dive sites.
During diving season from October to June, scuba divers here can explore the waters around Sombrero Island as they visit coral gardens and their colorful residents: red toothed trigger fish, nudibranch, pufferfish, and sea turtles.
Even non-divers can get in on the fun at Anilao. Try stand-up paddleboarding in the bay’s calm waters, or sun yourself on Sombrero Island’s white-sand beaches. Finally, you can climb a gently sloping trail up Mount Gulugod Baboy that overlooks Balayan Bay.
Getting there: The Jam Liner bus service connects Manila to Batangas City. When you reach the Batangas terminal, you can ride a jeepney to Mabini, which will pass by Anilao Port. From there, tricycles can take you to your chosen Anilao resort.
Visit Pinatubo’s Volcanic Lake
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo ejected so much ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that the average global temperature dropped by about one degree F (0.6 degrees C) for 15 months. Pinatubo has since quieted down, with a beautiful crater lake forming in its caldera.
During the Philippines’ dry season (between October and May), tourists can take a combined four-by-four ride and hike from the town of Capas in Tarlac Province or Botolan in Zambales Province.
From either location, off-road-capable transportation will take you to the Pinatubo trailhead. Two hours of hiking will lead you to the scenic caldera, a vibrantly colored lake that shows no sign of its violent origins.
Getting there: Both Capas and Botolan are immediately accessible from Manila by bus (see “Surfing in La Union and Baler” for bus services). The tour is short enough to make a day trip of it, with a same-day return trip to Manila or another destination in Luzon. Camping at Pinatubo may be prearranged.
Dig Vigan & Taal Towns’ Colonial Vibe
Over 300 years of colonization left the Philippines with a heavily Spanish-accented culture. While Mother Spain may be all but forgotten in most places, the old ways still live on in two well-preserved colonial towns: Vigan in Ilocos Sur, and Taal in Batangas. Towering churches, narrow streets, ancient houses, and hyperlocal historical experiences await visitors to either town.
Vigan (recognized as a World Heritage City by UNESCO) offers horse-drawn rides on Calle Crisologo, Ilocano food at Cafe Leona, and tours through old houses like the Syquia Mansion and Padre Burgos’ House. Taal Town offers walking tours through Taal landmarks like the Goco Ancestral Mansion; the Agoncillo Mansion; and the Taal Basilica, Southeast Asia’s largest Catholic Church.
For souvenirs, Vigan offers inabel cloth blankets and miniature furniture, whereas Taal sells burda (embroidery), and balisong (butterfly knives).
Getting there: both Vigan and Taal are immediately accessible from Manila by bus (see “Surfing in La Union and Baler” for available bus services). Tours can be arranged at any of the guesthouses in Taal.