7,107 islands, but sometimes all you need is one. So many places, so little time. That is the problem. And in an archipelago of immense beauty, it’s hard not to be torn on which island to cross off your list first. Not to be biased or anything, but the Philippines does have a lot to offer. It’s quite an incredible package that comes with gorgeous beaches, abundant jungle, amazing diving spots, world class mountain views, and even legitimate surfing. And because I know how hard it is to make a decision, I’ve narrowed down the best of the most popular islands in the Philippines, also classifying each by whom it would most likely sound more alluring to. For those not fortunate enough to visit all the best spots, this one’s for you.
Now first things first. Here’s some basic things you need to know: The Philippines consists of 7,107 islands, and in this list are just the most popular spots. The archipelago is divided in three major regions: Luzon, the biggest of all three, is the northern region; Visayas, the smallest, is right in the middle; and Mindanao as the southern region. The capital, Manila, is located in Luzon. As you probably may have heard already, there are some unsafe area down south. Many southern islands have been misconstrued to be danger zones, sadly, but you’d be surprised to hear that only a small part of Mindanao is of actual risk. I have not included any of those islands in this list. So now that you can relax, let’s get on with this list.
For the ones in search of unfathomable beauty: Palawan
For those who have pretty high standards and those who think they’ve seen it all, Palawan will most definitely blow you away. Comprised of plenty of beautiful islands and a home to a biodiversity of marine species, it doesn’t matter where in Palawan you go to– you’re bound to have your breath taken away. Found in the southwestern part of Luzon, Palawan is quite enormous to explore in a limited amount of time. That said, allow me to sub-categorize the MVPs.
- Puerto Prinsesa
Home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Underground River, Puerto Prinsesa happens to be one of the cleanest cities in the Philippines. Known for great island hopping and one of the world’s best reefs- Tubbataha reef, this island is great for those looking for clear blue waters and outstanding island experience. You may also find yourself entertained at a crocodile farm or firefly watching. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, crocodile meals and the eclectic ceviched wood worms are famous here. *You may take a direct flight to get here.
Ahh, possibly my favorite. From the most tantalizing beaches and the most enticing lake, I’ve had such a memorable time here! I’ll try to articulate it as good as I can, but I would probably fail. It’s that beautiful. Snorkeling was like no other. The water is incredibly blue. The sand is so virginal I feel like filth when I look at it. The limestone formations makes you really want to believe in a God or any higher power because there’s just no way it just serendipitously appeared. Just see it to believe it. *You may take a direct flight to get here (Busungua).
- El Nido
The crowd’s favorite. El Nido is indeed a wonder. Before, only the rich and the famous can reach this paradise. But thanks to new roads, cheap homestays, and the internet, it is possible to do El Nido on a budget. Truth be told, El Nido is one of the most expensive islands in the Philippines. I didn’t get to see all its beautiful islands, but I definitely intend to go back. Another place that I cannot eloquently describe, you’ve really just got to see it for yourself. But think hidden immaculate beaches, otherworldly lagoons, and limestones just like how I described Coron’s. *To get here, you may take a flight to Puerto Prinsesa and travel via van or bus for 7 hours, OR do a direct flight via a chartered plane.
For the young at heart in search of wild nights and unforgettable memories: BORACAY
Boracay needs no sugarcoating. Those who hate it must have not done their research correctly. This is the official party island of the Philippines, people. And it’s either you love it or you hate it. There is no in between. Expect young crowds, loud music, drunk pub crawlers, commercialized strip of stores, hotels, and restaurants, and early happy hours. One does not come here for the search of a quiet authentic tropical island R&R time. It caters to partiers and if you’re not okay with that, you probably shouldn’t come (although I really think you should). Despite all that, do expect a beautiful strip with white sand, strikingly clear water, and a sunset incomparable to any other part of the world. Although it may just be another tourist spot, there’s no such thing as generic adventures here because you’ll find an awful lot of things to do- from water sports to cliff diving to island hopping experiences, it’s not your ordinary party island. *To get here, you might want to check out this hack.
For the adventure seekers and underwater feen: CEBU
Not only is Cebu blessed with very attractive beaches, but what’s underneath the surface is actually world-class too. Many divers consider their dives in Cebu their best ones and it’s easy to understand why. A truly diverse marine life lies under the Cebu seas– from an extraordinary sardines run (with thousands of thousands of them!) in Moalboal, thresher sharks in Malapascua, and incredible whale sharks in Oslob, you are guaranteed to have an unrivaled underwater adventure. Cebu also has some of the most wonderful waterfalls I’ve ever seen and I wouldn’t miss a few of them if I were you. One way to get to one of their best waterfalls (Kawasan) is by canyoneering through Matutinao River. Not your ordinary river though! Imagine a three-hour trek through beautiful canyons and rocky terrains which is 80% water– expect jumping through waterfalls and sliding through boulders! The freshest blue water leads to an even more delightful treat once you reach Kawasan. Definitely not an adventure to be missed. But if you want to just relax on a quiet beach with Pinacoladas and Daquiris, Cebu has a great variety of beach resorts that would fit your needs. Cebu is also the perfect gateway to travel around Visayas and Mindanao. The international airport has plenty of cheap flights that goes in and out of the city, and there are a good amount of ferries that would take you to other neighboring major islands such as Dumaguete, Bohol, Zamboanga, etc. *There are direct flights going to Cebu City/Mactan. (READ: The 4 Towns You Must Not Miss In Southern Cebu)
For the vacationers and honeymooners: BOHOL
If what you’re looking for is a good turquoise beach with the right components of sand, guaranteed relaxation, and a side of nature– without an abundance of college kids, gap year travelers, and younger crowds in general, Bohol is your best bet. Another favorite of mine, Virgin Island took my breath away. The beautiful sand bar and swimming in the azure water in the middle of the ocean with no one else around is just the perfect setting to fall in love. Just as beautiful as Boracay but without the drunken crowds and the commercialized strip, Bohol offers not just the tropical paradise it advertises, but the island also comes with a generous amount of wildlife and nature. Home to the nearly extinct Tarsier monkeys and the world known Chocolate Hills, it’s hard to admire Bohol on just one dimension. Although I have heard it’s no longer the same as to how I remember it (completely virginal), I still think it’s worth vacationing to. *There is a direct flight to get to Bohol (Tagbiliran).
For those seeking for mystical, off the beaten paths: SIQUIJOR
Siquijor (see-keeh-whore). Such a mysterious name that perfectly matches this mystical island. Dubbed as Isla del Fuego by the Spaniards in the 1500’s (because of the fireflies that light up the entire island), Siquijor is rumored to be the home of witches and dark magic, which is exactly what attracts AND repels tourists when it comes to this island. I, however, instantly fell in love with this island before I even hopped off the ferry. The pier itself had one of the clearest blue waters I’ve ever seen. When it comes down to it, there isn’t much to do. But that’s exactly what I loved about this island the most! It’s as rustic and authentic as you can imagine. There are no 7-11’s or McDonald’s (two very clear things that signify modern days), there are barely any jeeps, and everything is just pure and simple. There are bunch of places to see here of course, but all in all, it’s a sleepy beach town. The people of Siquijor are also one of the nicest people I’ve met here in the Philippines. People on the streets are just simply kind. It’s so hard not to fall in love. I almost did not want to divulge this place because I’d really hate for Siquijor’s OG charm to get ruined by everything it doesn’t have right now, but I just had to- it’s too beautiful not to share. *There are no direct flights to Siquijor. To get here, you may either fly to Dumaguete and take a ferry here, or fly to Cebu and then find your way to Dumaguete. I did the latter which happens to be the longer route.
For the avid divers: MINDORO
Out of all these islands, Mindoro is probably the cheapest island to reach via Manila as you can travel by land and then by boat to get to this island. Mindoro isn’t as beautiful on the surface as the ones previously mentioned. But they are a hit for divers. For instance, I was told that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia have about over 600 different types of coral reefs. You can find 400 of those in Verde Island right there in Mindoro. Further down south, Apo Reef, named as the second largest contiguous reef, is also here in Mindoro. Now I haven’t actually scuba dived yet, but I’m waiting for the monsoon season to be over so I can finally get a start on my future hobby, and I plan to test the waters right there in Mindoro. There also plenty of unknown virgin gems around this huge island. If the rain would only stop so I can get back to my adventures already. Other than diving, Puerto Galera is also a famous spot for both locals and travelers alike for the parties. Dubbed as the poor man’s Boracay, Puerto Galera is a great fix for the beach. *To get to Mindoro, take a bus bound to Batangas Port. Once at Batangas Port, there are many boats and ferries that head to different parts of Mindoro.You may also take a direct flight to San Jose airport.
For the ones seeking majestic landscapes, ocean view, and a different Philippines experience:
The northernmost province of the Philippines, Batanes is a unique experience on its own. With a beautiful landscape views of hills and the ocean, it’s like a mix of Scotland mountains meets California coast meets New Zealand. It’s absolutely gorgeous! The island is completely authentic with no sitings of fast food chains or 7-11s. Because it cost a bit more to reach this arcadia, there’s a lot less tourist around. Even at peak season, it felt like we were on our own. It’s incredible and definitely a must see place!
For the history buffs, mountain climbers, and overland journey travelers: MAINLAND LUZON
Now if you’re a little tight with money and can’t afford flights, but you are gifted with enough time, you may still enjoy Luzon. Take note that this is the biggest region of the Philippines, so don’t underestimate what it has to offer. Beautiful beaches are scattered all over the island. Go on a road trip to Zambales, Pangasinan, or Pagudpod to satisfy the beach bum in you. You can camp at most spots so it will definitely be an experience. If you fancy a hike, there are many great mountains to hike near Manila, unless you’re feeling more adventurous and prefer a volcano instead, then you can head to Mt. Pinatubo or Taal Volcano to hike to the crater instead. Head up to Sagada mountains for a beautiful yet adventurous retreat; you can go spelunking, see rice terraces, and go on different amazing hikes. History buffs would be taken back in time walking down to streets of Vigan or this unknown little town. Corregidor Island is also not to be missed if you fancy learning a thing or two about World War 2. If you’re into surfing, take the bus to Baler or La Union to get your fix. And if you do not have a limited time, go on a road trip to Bicol to enjoy great food, more hidden islands, and perhaps swim with whale sharks as well. Calaguas may just be the best island camping experience I’ve ever had. There are PLENTY of things to do and plenty of ways to indulge in Luzon’s best. You just got to figure out which one interests you the most.
On my list:
For the surfers and beach bums: SURIGAO/SIARGAO
- Not to be mistaken as the same islands, Surigao and Siargao are about 2-4 hours boat ride away from each other. They’ve been on my list for the longest time now. I’m hoping to go by next summer to experience everything this island has to offer. From what I’ve read, this place is a hit for the surfers. The gorgeous beaches, a beautiful enchanted river, and a jelly fish lake are enough for me to make sure I go. *To get here, you may take a direct flight to Surigao. You may also fly to Butuan and take a bus from there.
I do plan to write about these places I mentioned in this article so watch out for an even more intensive guides and more detailed travel tales.
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