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. (Check out this two-week Philippines-centered itinerary that puts a timetable to many of the destinations we've listed below.)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Its short coastline facing the Pacific Ocean has few family-friendly beaches, but that doesn’t stop international travelers from converging on Siargao and its challenging surfing spots.
Siargao was “discovered” by the outside world in the 1970s, and has long been a “secret” known only to locals and surfers till very recently. The surfing spot known as Cloud 9 boasts a ferocious reputation, its powerful waves and rocky bottom shredding backsides and egos on a regular basis. (This writer experienced Siargao’s tamer surf spots first-hand.)
The island’s taken a more family-friendly turn as of late, helped along by a hit movie and breathless word-of-mouth. While this 170-square-mile island denies “the next Boracay” title, the new resorts and tours around the island capitalize on other fascinating features such as the Magpupungko tidal pool and the white-sand beaches on outlying islands – Naked Island (actually a sandbar); Guyam Island and Daku Island.
Iloilo was once the Philippines’ richest city, and the sugar trade that powered its rise in the early 20th century left an indelible mark. Visiting Iloilo today feels like entering a genteel bubble, one where a riverside esplanade, a UNESCO-recognized stone church, and tree-shaded parks feels like the status quo the Philippines deserves to be.
The main city of Iloilo rewards visitors willing to wander around: Molo Plaza and its nearby mansions; the Calle Real and its stately buildings; and the hidden food stalls at the Central Market await travelers willing to see local culture up close.
Faith is a big draw for Iloilo visitors, beginning with the tropical motifs carved in stone on the historic (and UNESCO-recognized) Miag-Ao Church; and culminating in the kitschy hilltop heavenly replica at Garin Farm (wear your sunglasses).
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.
The “world’s best island” makes up the “arm” of the Philippines, a 260-mile sliver running southwest to northeast along the archipelago’s western flank. Wherever you land on that “arm”, you’ll find Paradise, though expressed in different ways.
At the capital Puerto Princesa, you’ll find an abundant spread of local food, and one of the Philippines’ best craft beer shops. Fly or drive up to the town of El Nido, and you’ll discover an archipelago filled with over 40 breathtakingly beautiful limestone islands ripe for island-hopping and hiking around the cliffs.
Then there’s Coron at the northern extreme of the island: site of a World War II wreck dive site and bucket-list worthy beaches and lagoons. For more on Palawan, read our list of not-to-miss experiences on the island.
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.
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.
The province of Pampanga north of Manila once had a reputation for being more Spanish than the Spanish. As a result, their embrace of the colonial way of life led to their unique architecture, cuisine, and culture: distinctly Latin with a local twist.
This makes Pampanga a must-see stop for foodie travelers, who can make the province one stop in a culinary itinerary of the Philippines’ top eats, or as part of a dedicated trip to eat the best of Kapampangan food.
Pampanga is also (in)famous for Mount Pinatubo, which exploded in 1991 and buried several towns in ash. The volcano has since fallen dormant, and locals now manage treks up to the crater and its scenic crater lake.
One of the last frontiers of the Philippines, the island of Siquijor benefits from gorgeous beaches, verdant jungle and a reputation for witchcraft.
The beaches don’t have the crowds of Phuket or Boracay, but they’re amazing sights nonetheless: Kagusuan Beach and Paliton Beach offer white-sand swimming and excellent snorkeling with less beach touts to worry about. Other natural features abound on the island, such as the cascading Cambugahay Falls and the mysterious Llihan Cave.
Siquijor’s culture remains devoutly Catholic with an occult underside. After visiting the 200-year-old coral churches like the San Isidro Labrador Church in Lazi, you can visit a local “mambabarang” (witch doctor) who can brew love potions and curses on demand.
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.