A map of the Philippines can look daunting to travelers, with more than 7,000 idyllic tropical islands to choose from scattered across its archipelago. Its warm waters and vibrant coral reefs host an incredible diversity of marine life, while a lush, forested interior is home to towering volcanoes and rice paddy landscapes carved by ancient tribes. There are countless opportunities to go ‘island-hopping’ to remote offshore islets, where pristine beaches and turquoise lagoons depict paradise beyond the imagination, while whale sharks migrating along the coastlines offer once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters.
But the Philippines is not just abounding in natural beauty, but also rich in culture and history. Venture into its remotest corners to visit ethnic minority groups living as they have for centuries, or wander the streets of Manila’s Intramuros, where crumbling Spanish colonial architecture stands as a legacy of the country’s road to independence.
The Filipino people themselves are famously friendly and their bayanihan or ‘spirit of kinship’ is infectious, enduring long after you leave the islands.
When to travel/weather
The Philippines tropical climate brings warm, but often extreme, weather throughout the year. March through to May are the hot, dry summer months, often prone to drought conditions, while the mountainous regions around Baguio offer some cool respite at this time. Temperatures soar during May in the build up to the ‘wet’ season, which begins in June and extends through to October, and is marked by heavy downpours and the possibility of strong typhoons. From November through to February temperatures cool, with rainfall gradually diminishing towards the end of the season.
This marks the peak tourist season in the Philippines, with visitors from across Asia and Europe escaping the cold back home. Visiting in the hot summer months between March and May is a good alternative if you want to avoid the heaviest rainfall and crowds at the country’s most popular islands and attractions.
Food and drink
Filipino cuisine may have its roots in Austronesia, but the influences from Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine, together with that of its Spanish colonists and American presence, is evident in the food seen today.
Rice is the staple at most meals, often accompanied by both a sweet and salty dish, served and eaten all together. While spices play a major role in many Asian cuisines, visitors may be surprised by their lack of use in the Philippines. Vinegar is a more common ingredient and was originally used for its preservation qualities. Dishes such as adobo (meat cooked in vinegar, oil, garlic and soy sauce) and kinalaw (fresh fish ‘cooked’ in vinegar and lime juice) are good examples of this and make popular appearances on tourist restaurant menus.
Meat and fish both feature heavily in Filipino cuisine, and finding vegetarian dishes in local restaurants can be difficult. Meat lovers should try try kare-kare (a hearty oxtail stew made from peanut sauce and shrimp paste), afritada (chicken in a tomato-based sauce), or hamonado (pork in pineapple sauce). Whole roasted pig known as lechon is commonly prepared for fiestas, while celebrations of Spanish origin (such as religious Saints days) often feature paella and cocidos.
Local buffet style restaurants known as turo-turo (‘point-point’) are a good opportunity to sample a selection of local dishes, or there are plenty of American chain restaurants and convenience stores where you can buy fried chicken, pizza and hamburgers. For those craving spicy cuisine, visit the southeastern Bicol region, known for their use of chilli and coconut milk.
Fresh fruit ‘shakes’ are found on menus at both local and tourist restaurants while the (very cheap) local San Miguel beer or Filipino rum are found throughout the archipelago.
Popular vacation spots
The Philippines most popular holiday island is Boracay, home to stunning stretches of pristine white sand and coral reefs teeming with marine life. Above the water there are plenty of adrenalin sports like kite surfing and parasailing on offer, as well as day boat trips to explore the surrounding lagoons and caves. Boracay has an excellent choice of hotels and international restaurants, while its nightlife is famed throughout the archipelago.
Banaue Rice Terraces
Boasting a stunning setting within the Cordilleras Mountains, the Banaue Rice Terraces are a series of spectacular emerald rice paddies that were hand-carved by the Ifugao tribes during the last 2,000 years. They are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for their outstanding cultural significance and hikes throughout the area offer stunning mountain scenery within the cool, mountain air.
The Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park within the Sulu Sea includes two atolls, divided by a deep channel, that has some of the best diving in the Philippines, and its uncrowded sites are home to an incredible diversity of marine life. From April through to June the waters are relatively calm and clear, with live aboard dive cruises accessing its remotest corners.
The beautiful historic center of Manila, Intramuros, is an oasis within the chaos of its surrounding mega-city, easily explored on foot or by traditional horse-and-carriage. Built by the Spanish Colonialists from the 16th century, its crumbling architecture and spectacular churches are ringed by fortified defensive walls, overlooked by the impressive Fort Santiago. Its most famous building is the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin Church, one of the Philippines oldest churches, with an elaborately decorated interior that is open to visitors (outside of mass times).
The Philippines most active volcano, Mayon, is a perfectly symmetrical cone that towers over the island of Luzon. When safety conditions allow, you can hike the volcano and bird watch on its lower slopes, or see the destruction caused by its most famous eruption in 1814 at the Cagsawa ruins.
Palawan is making a name for itself as the adventure capital of the Philippines. Its lush, unspoiled jungle interior meets a stunning karst limestone coastline, dotted with islands and pristine turquoise lagoons. Explore the world’s longest navigable underground river at the Puerto Princesa Subterranean Park, or go island hopping and sea kayaking at the beach resort of El Nido or Coron off the far northwest tip.
The Chocolate Hills on the island of Bohol are a series of more than 1,000 perfectly symmetrical geological formations that turn a rich brown during the dry season. You can take in views across this intriguing landscape from a number of viewpoints or venture into its heart on treks throughout the region.
The small fishing village of Donsol has become a major Filipino tourist destination due to the whale sharks that visit its coastline between November and June. Whale shark watching tours explore its surrounding waters throughout the season, while waterfalls and stunning stretches of beach are reason enough to visit outside of these months.
Malapascua Island has become a ‘must visit’ for divers to the Philippines as one of only two places in the world where thresher sharks ascend to shallow enough depths for recreational exploration. In addition to early morning thresher shark dive trips, the surrounding reefs offer excellent macro life dives, and there are plenty of white, sandy beaches for non-divers to enjoy.
While English is one of the official languages of the Philippines and most locals you encounter will speak it, the local language spoken throughout the archipelago differs depending on where you go. Around Manila and central Luzon Tagaolg predominates, while in the north of Luzon Ilocano is widely spoken. Cebuano is common throughout the Visayas and Mindanao while both Hiligaynon and Waray are spoken across the south of the Philippines. The Spanish influence can also be seen in local language, with a few Spanish words commonly used, and many Filipinos will understand some Spanish.
The currency of the Philippines is the Philippine peso (PHP), although US Dollars are accepted at some hotels and duty free stores. Throughout most of the major tourist destinations and Manila you can easily change Euros, Pounds and US Dollars and you will get a more favorable rate the more currency you exchange.
ATMs are widespread and accept both Visa and MasterCard, while credit cards are accepted at many hotels and restaurants, although purchases usually require a minimum amount and there is often a hefty surcharge. Be aware that some tourist islands, such as Malapascua, are yet to install ATMs and visitors should ensure they have enough cash for the duration of their stay.
Tipping is usually expected in restaurants, although sometimes a 10% surcharge is automatically added to the bill.
Health and Safety
Those visiting the Philippines are recommended to have both Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations before departure. Depending on where in the archipelago you are traveling, consult your doctor about taking anti-malarial pills as malaria is a problem in some remote regions.
While the Philippines is a relatively safe country to travel around, there have been recent reports of kidnappings in the central Mindanao region by extremist groups. Travelers should take care in the streets of Manila, particularly at night, where petty crime can be a problem