Composed of over 7,000 islands, the Philippines is an archipelago nation that shares the South China Sea with neighbors Indonesia to the south and Borneo to the southwest. With Taiwan to the north and Vietnam to the west, the Pacific Ocean stretches to the east.
This country has a long history with foreign powers; following centuries of trade with India and China, it was first colonized by Spain in 1543. Short-lived independence led to American and brief Japanese rule in the first half of the 20th century. Today, the influences make this Southeast Asian nation a vibrant place to visit; a place where hectic cities contrast with white-sand beaches for a memorable assault on the senses.
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Metro Manila is a megalopolis of an urban area. It is composed of 16 cities all converging into one: City of Manila, Quezon City, Caloocan, Las Piñas, Makati, Malabon, Mandaluyong, Marikina, Muntinlupa, Navotas, Parañaque, Pasay, Pasig, San Juan, Taguig, and Valenzuela (and one municipality: Pateros).
Located on a narrow isthmus between Central and Southern Luzon, Metro Manila is the center of culture and government for the Philippines. The collection of settlements is pockmarked with Spanish colonial architecture, like Fort Santiago mixed with skyscrapers; the City of Manila itself is the most densely populated city proper in the world.
Though the vast green space of Rizal Park with its lawns and gardens is a tranquil oasis in the city, it’s also on the shores of Laguna Lake – the Philippines’ largest freshwater lake – and Manila Bay in the east. The riverside forest park of Arro Cerros and Ayala Triangle Gardens make for good urban retreats, too.
The northern region of the most populated island in the Philippines is where you’ll find mountains, coastlines, tropical forests, and rivers.
No sight in this area is more famous than the stunning Banaue Rice Terraces; located near the popular, relatively cool-weather city of Baguio, these terraces are like emerald steps down the hills of the Cordillera Mountains. These share their name with the fascinating and diverse Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).
Further north, in the same mountains, is the area of Sagada, famous for its caving – such as at Sumaguing Cave – and hiking trails amidst misty mountain villages. Find more hiking opportunities in Kalinga Province, with its tattooed, machete-wearing tribespeople; headhunting ceased here just decades ago.
Flung off the northern coast of Luzon, nearer to Taiwan than the Philippines, are the Batanes Islands. Here you’ll find rugged cliffs, green hills and half-subterranean, typhoon-proof houses on the main island of Batan.
Just north of Metro Manila, the region of Central Luzon is known as the rice granary of the Philippines. It’s the largest flat plains area in the country, so there’s plenty of room for agriculture here.
There is some elevation, however. The active volcano of Mount Pinatubo in the Zambales Mountains provides hiking opportunities, where keen trekkers can reach the summit and catch sight of its crater lake. Minlungao, with its winding river, is a popular spot for cliff diving or laid-back rafting.
On the west coast, the city of Balanga, Bataan province, boasts colonial architecture, old-world splendor at The Plaza Hotel, and a festival to honor the hatching of baby sea turtles at the Pawikan Conservation Centre.
Once the capital of the Philippine Republic, Angeles is comparable to Manila, with shopping, nightlife, and colonial history; it’s also the gateway to the Mount Arayat National Park. Surrounded by rice paddies, Mount Arayat boasts valleys and rivers.
The southern end of the island of Luzon is made up of two regions: Calabarzon, bordering Metro Manila to the north and east; and the Bicol Region, comprising offshore islands, too.
Calabarzon is popular thanks to its proximity to Minla. At Laguna Lake, you can find hot spring resorts, particularly around Mount Makiling. To the south, Batangas province is where you’ll find many beachside resorts and towns scattered with colonial-era churches and buildings. In Batangas, the town of Tagaytay is home to Taal Lake, in the middle of which is Taal Volcano, whose crater hides yet another lake!
Made up of six provinces, Bicol is where you’ll find limestone caves, beaches and a whole host of islands to explore. The symmetrical, almost perfectly conical Mount Mayon, near Legazpi City, is a sacred, active volcano. Elsewhere you’ll discover rough, jagged terrain on the Caramoan Peninsula, the gateway to beaches and lush scenery.
A large island to the south of Calabarzon, Mindoro is an unspoiled place to explore in easy reach of the Philippine capital. It’s made up of Mindoro Oriental in the east and the more rugged Mindoro Occidental in the west, both separated by towering mountains in its center.
On the east side, the most popular place on the island is Puerto Galera, home to resorts and beaches galore. There are also dive sites and forest trails to places like the famous Tamaraw Falls, where you can swim in its cooling pool. Just north of here is Sabang Beach, whose coral-filled waters are brimming with marine life.
The more remote west side of the island is home to places like Sablayan, where almost no tourists go. It’s the place to go to feel a particularly untouched natural side to the Philippines.
Set between Luzon in the north and Mindanao to the south, the Visayas region is characterized by being home to many, many islands; stunning white sand beaches and blooming corals are par for the course here.
Eastern Visayas is where you’ll find the cosmopolitan Cebu City. Situated on the island of the same name, it’s the most important city in a region not known for its urban centers. Instead, nature abounds.
Bohol, for example, is known for its picture-perfect Chocolate Hills – a landscape of relatively small, brown conical hills. Here is also where you’ll find easygoing beaches and coastal dive spots.
Western Visayas, Boracay, with its white beaches, resorts, and fiesta atmosphere, is a simultaneously lively and stunning place to visit. There’s also Romblon Island and Apo Island, with their world-class diving sites, and Malapascua – a tiny paradise island perfect for getting away from it all.
The island of Mindanao (the Philippines’ second-largest) is home to a sizeable Muslim population, the skyscraper-clad city of Davao, the highest peak in the Philippines – Mount Apo, at 2,954 meters above sea level – and a lack of development that makes this diverse region perfect for the intrepid traveler.
Keep in mind however that Western governments all advise caution anywhere on Mindanao and suggest avoiding several areas.
Keen surfers can head to the stunning island of Siargao, off the north coast of Mindanao, where you’ll find the Cloud 9: a world-renowned reef wave known for its thick hollow tubes. It’s because of this that the annual Siargao Cup is held here. Other beautiful islands include Camiguin, with a turquoise lagoon, flour-white sand, colonial ruins, and even a hot spring.
The city of Zamboanga, on the peninsula of the same name, has colonial history and – of course – beaches under its belt. Just offshore is the intriguing island of Santa Cruz, famous for its pink sand beach.
Arguably the most famous vacation destination in the Philippines, the long island of Palawan stretches from Mindoro in the northeast to the shores of Northern Borneo in the southwest. This region is all about its spectacular seascapes and abundant underwater wildlife; it’s an enticing destination.
One of the most well-known spots, El Nido works as a popular base and gateway to Bacuit, the northernmost archipelago of islands. Here, limestone-cliffed islands jut out of the sea in a super-tropical version of Ha Long Bay.
While many travelers choose to base themselves in El Nido or the rightly popular spot of Coron Island – complete with jungle interior and lakes – there’s more to discover to the southwest. Midway down, Puerto Princesa is home to the cool Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, home to the world’s longest navigable underground river.
But Tubbataha Reef National Park takes first place. Whale sharks, hammerheads and manta rays mingle amongst this coral shelf in the middle of the Sulu Sea.