Most other countries in Southeast Asia are connected by road and rail to each other. Not the Philippines - it is the only country in the region with neither land borders nor road links to any of its neighbors. But don't let that stop you from flying in anyway: as you'll see in the destinations listed below, many of this country's attractions are worth the special trip.
01 of 08
Manila: Heart of Empire
Most travelers skip exploring Manila at length, preferring to jet in and out to the rest of the Philippines without delay. They're missing out on a lot: the conglomeration of Metro Manila has more partying, culture, history and entertainment than all the other spots combined. (Shhh, don't tell the people from Cebu.)
Manila served as the seat for two successive colonial rulers. Spain's presence can still be felt in the old walled city Intramuros and its feared bastion Fort Santiago; the American presence manifests today in the Beaux-arts government buildings around Rizal Park. During World War II, in the face of Japanese invasion, the American forces retreated to Corregidor Island; traces of their former idyllic island camp in the mouth of Manila Bay can still be explored to this day.
Once you get the hang of Manila's transportation system, you can then move all around the city to see its top sights. And you get a real potpourri - Bonifacio Global City's hypermodern... streets, museums and shopping malls; Binondo's ancient higgledly-piggledly of Chinese-Filipino businesses and eating places; and Makati's two worlds of businessmen and backpackers.
02 of 08
Cebu: Queen City
The "Queen City of the South" vies with Manila for recognition as the Philippines' Number One City. But in terms of ease of transport, access to the great outdoors, and more fun per square mile, Cebu has the capital beat. (Shhh, don't tell the people from Manila.)
The Spanish came here to Cebu first via Mexico, and remade the place and its people in their image. Their influence can still be felt in the Basilica Minore de Santo Niño, where a glass-covered niche holds a precious statue of the Christ Child that commands countless devotees throughout Cebu. This devotion reaches its peak during the Sinulog Festival (pictured here) that takes place in the middle of January every year.
The rest of the city overlays 21st-century modernity (new hotels and shopping malls) onto an older stratum of churches, ancient museum-lined streets like Calle Colon, and street food stops like Fuente Osmeña.The waters around Cebu are known for their biodiversity; famous dive spots around the... area, like Sumilon Island and Moalboal, attract thousands of experienced divers every year. And you don't even need a PADI certificate to experience the swim of a lifetime; the far-flung town of Oslob lets you snorkel with the whale sharks.
03 of 08
Boracay: Beach Party Bingo
If you're in the Philippines to party, then head straight to Boracay. The island's famous White Beach - its 2.5 miles of powdery white sand lined with a raucous collection of resorts, restaurants, bars and one shopping center known as "D'Mall" - reaches a massive party frenzy during Christmas, Holy Week (!), and the International Labor Day weekend referred to by Filipinos as "LaBoracay".
Practically unknown and inaccessible prior to the 1980s, Boracay is now easily reached via plane and boat from around the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia. If you're looking for something else to do than gulp down shots into the wee hours, Boracay obliges with plenty of other activities, from ATVing to parasailing to golf. In the low season between June to October, windsurfing fanatics take over the other coast's Bulabog Beach, turning the skies above it into a flurry of color.
At any time of the year, you'll have plenty of accommodation options on the... island - backpackers can try Boracay's budget and mid-range hotels and resorts, while travelers with cash to spare can check out these luxury hotels & resorts in Boracay.
04 of 08
The Cordilleras' Rice Terraces: Mountain Magic
The mountainous terrain of the Philippines' Cordilleras kept the Spanish colonizers away, allowing the Ifugao of these parts to keep their unique culture alive. Today, buses regularly ply the treacherously curvy roads leading into Banaue - you can now take a nine-hour bus ride from Manila into the mountains, going where conquistadores feared to tread.
Hiking around the UNESCO World Heritage sites in these parts - the rice terraces carved out of the mountains some 500 years ago - you'll find a way of life that revolves around rice. You'll also walk some pretty challenging hiking trails that plunge steeply down mountainsides and right alongside sheer cliff faces.
Don't forget to look around you (when you're not watching your step) - the sight of the rice terraces surrounding you will be one for the books. Read our account of exploring the Philippine Cordilleras' Rice Terraces for a more comprehensive view.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08
Bohol: Nature, Churches, Beaches
Long known for the subtly erotic "Chocolate Hills", the sleepy island of Bohol has managed to develop a travel reputation of its own that not even a massive earthquake could topple. The karst limestone that gave Bohol its Chocolate Hills also gave it its clean, winding rivers; its gorges made for ziplining and rappelling through; and the white-sand beaches of nearby Panglao.
Transportation to Bohol is easy - one can either fly into Tagbilaran Airport or take the SuperCAT ferry from Cebu. Once you arrive, you'll have your choice of adventures before you. Meet the freaky-looking tarsier? Visit the ancient Baclayon Church, an ancient earthquake survivor? Or go island-hopping from Panglao in the hopes of meeting the dancing spinner dolphins of the Bohol Sea?
It's all up to you - just make sure you've found a place to stay. Divers and beachcombers will find a pleasing assortment of Panglao Island resorts (like the Amorita - read our review); inland adventurers may prefer... one of these Bohol hotels (including the Peacock Garden - read our review).
06 of 08
El Nido: Art of Karst
The town of El Nido lies on the lip of Bacuit Bay, a protected natural preserve filled with over 40 breathtakingly beautiful limestone islands. Due to the unique properties of karst, the islands look almost otherworldly - with steep walls, winding caves, hidden lagoons and sharp-tipped spires all shaped by the elements.
It takes some dedication to get to El Nido - after all, the town is about six to eight hours' drive from the Palawan capital of Puerto Princesa - but its isolation is part of its charm. Insulated from the modern world, you can simply let yourself go - try island-hopping through Bacuit Bay, or explore the area's many beaches, or even go hiking among El Nido's cliffs.
07 of 08
Davao: Adventure Travel Hotspot
The Philippines has three major island groupings - Luzon (with Manila at its head); the Visayas (with Cebu as its biggest city); and Mindanao at its southernmost end, Davao City being its main gateway and major metropolis.
As the youngest city among the three, Davao stands next to a largely unspoiled marine and forest habitat; this access to the mountains and the sea makes Davao one of the Philippines' top spots for adventure travel.
A number of animal reservations also maintain communities of endangered species, and are well worth a visit - the Philippine Eagle Center breeds and maintains a population of Philippine Eagles (Pithecophaga jefferyi), and the privately-owned Monfort Bat Sanctuary on Samal Island maintains a community of fruit bats.
08 of 08
Legazpi: Mayon Volcano Sights & Sounds
The city of Legazpi is a short air hop from Manila, but could not be more different in character. With a surfeit of wide-open spaces, access to the sea, and endless avenues to adventure, Legazpi makes the most out of its proximity to Mayon Volcano, whose perfect cone can be seen from anywhere in Legazpi.
Spend half the day ATVing up Mayon's slopes, splashing through creeks and past massive boulders set down by recent Mayon eruptions. You can then spend the rest of your stay exploring the other side of Legazpi - eating their famously spicy food or gazing at centuries-old churches that have somehow survived Mayon's fury over the ages.