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What Are The Best Islands To Visit in The Philippines?

So you’re thinking about travelling to The Philippines? Brilliant. Keep reading.

“We want to backpack around the Philippines, but we don’t know where to start!”

“I’ve heard the Philippines is amazing, can you recommend anywhere for us to go and stay?”

“I’ve only got two weeks holiday, which are your favourite islands to travel around?”

These are the questions I’m most often asked by friends, family, and lovely strangers planning to visit The Philippines. Where to go? What to see? The sheer number of places, locations, and islands can be overwhelming – I totally get it!

As a UK-born Filipino who has also lived in The Philippines, I’ve been lucky enough to view the country both as a tourist and local. This dual perspective has given me an insight into the westernised areas as well as places off the beaten track.

In this post, I’m going to share my Top 5 Best Islands to Visit in The Philippines (2023) for those who have never been to the country before, and give some recommendations on what to do and where to stay. Make a cuppa and settle in.

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Mel (illumelation) in a yellow kayak, paddling in Secret Lagoon, Palawan, Philippines — photography by Jordan Hammond

Mel (illumelation) in a yellow kayak, paddling in Secret Lagoon, Palawan, Philippines — photography by Jordan Hammond 

What and where is The Philippines?

Based in Southeast Asia, in the Pacific Ocean, The Philippines is an amazing archipelago filled with stunning beaches, beautiful terraces, rich biodiversity and diverse culture. ‘Archipelago’ means that the country is made up of multiple islands (7,641 to be exact). Don’t be fooled by the use of the word ‘island’ either. Each main island in The Philippines is surrounded by its own little cluster of even smaller islands!

The Philippines has rapidly risen in popularity and, probably thanks to Instagram, TikTok, and Conde Nast Traveller, has shot to global travel fame over the past decade for its stunning islands and wonderfully varied cultures.

Every island I’m about to recommend you is genuinely filled with waterfalls, caves, lagoons and beautiful beaches, each with their own unique twist on nature. So when you start booking your trip, remember that you’ll be able to experience all of the above wherever you go.

Coconut trees, turquoise water and white sands: a slice of paradise at Naked Island, Siargao, Philippines

Coconut trees, turquoise water and white sands: a slice of paradise at Naked Island, Siargao, Philippines

First things first… should you visit The Philippines?

Like, dude, is The Philippines safe?

From natural disasters to whispers that it’s ‘unsafe’, there’s always so much controversy about travelling around The Philippines. But on the whole, it’s very safe, and Filipinos are some of the kindest, most generous cultures on the planet. Most of my travels around the country have been completely on my own. I’ve always felt comfortable.

There have been volcano explosions, typhoons and kidnappings in the news lately. But you’re about as safe there as you are anywhere. Crime rates in major cities are probably significantly higher than out on small tourist beach islands.

Basically: life is short, go and visit, you won’t regret it.

Hello Adventure

Philippine locals on a tricycle in Zambales smiling at the camera

Philippine locals on a tricycle in the province of Zambales, smiling at the camera

When is the best time to go to The Philippines?

When is The Philippines weather nice and warm?

The Philippines is generally warm and humid all year round. But there are two seasons: dry and wet! People always assume that the weather in the country is the same across all the islands. In actual fact, the weather varies from north to south, usually with the south in monsoon while the rest of the country stays dry. The climate differs wherever you are in the country. In Luzon, January to June is usually fairly dry, while monsoon season begins from July to December. During monsoon, expect rain!

Try to avoid travelling during local and domestic holidays.

Holiday season is super busy and filled with local travelers and families escaping city life in favour of a more… beachy location. The Philippines is also a deeply Catholic/Christian country, meaning Christmas and Easter are always teeming. Consider travelling in low season, though the monsoons can be unsettling if you’re not used to such heavy rain and thunder. I’ve found that travelling in monsoon season is still just as good as dry season — you can get lucky with the weather, plus there are less crowds.

Keep an eye on natural disasters that might occur.

Keep an eye on earthquakes and typhoons wherever you’re planning to go, and plan to avoid those as well. (typhoon2000.ph)If you’re travelling to areas or islands that have been affected by natural disaster, be sensitive and do your research before going. You might even be able to help in some way. Be open to the idea that certain travel plans may not happen because of natural disasters or weather issues.

Do you need to have a plan for travelling in The Philippines?

Getting in and out of the country

You’ll need to check whether you need a visa to enter the Philippines. There are 151 nationalities that can enter the country without a visa and stay for a maximum of thirty (30) days, as long as their passport is valid at least six (6) months beyond the period of stay in the Philippines. You might also need to have a return or outbound ticket back home or to another destination as they can be strict about this. Plan everything as much as you can to avoid any hassle at the airport.

Booking tours in advance

The Philippines is perfect for spontaneous plans. I wouldn’t worry about booking tours in advance, unless you want to be very organised and plan a detailed itinerary. You can look up tours to go on – like SUP stand-up paddle boarding tours which look very zen, or Tao where you’ll be with other folks and sail around sipping beer (though I’m not sure how much local exposure you’ll get). I personally prefer arranging things myself on the fly depending on time frames and budget!

Booking flights or ferries in advance

If you’re flying to Manila, you’ll have to fly to Cebu internally from there to go to other islands as that’s the connector island 🙂 flights are relatively affordable and there are quite a few per day, depending on where you’re flying to. Ferries are fairly frequent too, though they can be a little bit unreliable sometimes, so make sure you leave plenty of travel time.

Turtle swimming underwater in the ocean with coral reef below

What are the Best Islands To Visit in The Philippines for First Timers?

Top 5 Islands To Visit In The Philippines

Aerial shot of traditional boats at a lagoon in El Nido, Palawan in the Philippines

1. Palawan – Voted World’s Best Island

Beautiful archipelagic Palawan, with its clear turquoise waters and diverse seascapes, was voted World’s Best Island not once, but twice. No big deal!

If there’s only one island you start with… make it Palawan. Home to a rich biodiversity of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, this special place has boomed in travel popularity in recent years. I feel a special affinity with Palawan because my great-grandma was from a small town called Cuyo there. I’d love to spend a few months there someday… sorry, I digress.

Fun fact about Palawan

Palawan is the island that Alex Garland originally based his novel The Beach on. The movie adaptation of The Beach starring young Leonardo DiCaprio became one of the most popular travel-based Hollywood movies ever — and they moved the film location to Thailand. Which was great, because it meant that Palawan stayed secret for a little bit longer.

What is Palawan known for?

  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkelling
  • Island hopping
  • Stand-up paddleboarding
  • World class pearls
  • Rich biodiversity
  • Turquoise lagoons

 


Where should you stay in Palawan?

There’s a huge variety of accommodation options in Palawan, especially in the bustling main northern town of El Nido, where nightlife and food options abound. From off-track luxury sea bungalows to budget hostels, you’ll be able to find a place that suits your travel style.

El Nido is a chaotic and lively town, so if you want a relaxed and quiet experience, consider accommodation outside of the main city. Maybe a beautiful Maldives-style hut on the water? Or a room in a house on a remote island?

Top Spots to Visit In Palawan

  • Coron Island
  • Nacpan Beach
  • El Nido
  • Port Barton
  • Bacuit Archipelago
  • Calamian Islands
  • Long Beach
  • Kuyawyaw Falls
  • Miniloc Island
  • Cadlao Island
  • Puerto Princesa National Park

Mel’s #1 Palawan Tips:

Palawan is for explorers and beach lovers. If you’ve got two weeks to spare, consider spending all your time on Palawan. You can start in the North and travel down South, stopping by places like Buena Vista or Port Barton, or vice versa. You might want extra time to visit Coron, too.

Rent a motorbike if you can, as some of the best beaches (Nacpan Beach, for starters) are a little bit out of the way.


Palm tree lined river in Siargao Island, Philippines - paddling on a yellow canoe whilst local kids climb the trees behind me!

Palm tree lined river in Siargao Island, Philippines – paddling on a yellow canoe whilst local kids climb the trees behind me!

2. Siargao

Siargao, an island almost entirely covered in coconut trees. This surfing mecca was voted World’s Best Island 2019. It’s the definition of island life.

Siargao (pronounced sharg-ow) is one of my favourites. I first went in 2015 before the development boom, and last visited in 2018. It was originally best known for its world class surfing in warm clear waters, but now it’s “The New Bali”.

Flying over the island of Siargao is like watching Earth’s green lungs breathe. Trees are in luscious abundance. People call Siargao the ‘Bali of the Philippines’ because of the waves, the surf, the sea, and the westernisation. But it’s more than that.

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Siargao - Naked Island.jpg
Sunset surf-spotting at Cloud 9 in Siargao, Philippines

Sunset surf-spotting at Cloud 9 in Siargao, Philippines

Fun fact about Siargao

In 1992, a surf photographer named John Callahan published images of the then-unknown island with famous surfers riding waves in Cloud 9. Since then, tourists have been flooding in.

What is Siargao known for?

  • Surfing
  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkelling
  • Kite surfing
  • Island hopping
  • Yoga
  • Rich biodiversity

Where should you stay in Siargao?

From the bustling, jam-packed main town of General Luna to the remote paradises that can be found in the North and South, you’ve got plenty of options. There’s budget, mid-range and luxury accommodations galore.

If you’d like to be close to everything on foot (or you’re planning to avoid renting a motorbike), stay in General Luna. It’s buzzing with cafes, restaurants, yoga spots, tours, market stalls and nightlife (Jungle Disco!), so you’ll be all set.

If you want a more ‘unplugged’ experience, then research accommodation that is a little bit more remote. I’d recommend renting a vehicle, though, as General Luna is a solid hour’s drive if you’re staying somewhere like Allegria.

Top Spots to Visit In Siargao

  • Magpupungko Rock Pools
  • Sugba Lagoon
  • Cloud Nine
  • Naked Island
  • Guyam Island
  • Secret Spot

 

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Mel’s Top Siargao Tips:

Siargao is for slowing down and reconnecting with yourself. If you have time in your schedule, try to stay on the island for as long as possible. Rent a motorbike or, if you don’t drive, hire a tricycle to take you all around the island on the days you feel like exploring. Schedule in a day or two to do nothing but exist and enjoy your surroundings.

The sunsets here are amazing and watching the surfers catch waves is a beautiful experience. In terms of tours, I recommend island hopping with lunch and drinks included. If you’re planning to visit Sugba Lagoon, save money and ‘carpool’ by sharing a boat with other passengers. Sharing not only saves energy and fuel, but it’s cheaper and you’ll have fun striking up a friendship with strangers. There’s always someone to share a boat with, so don’t worry if you’re alone.


A bahay kubo hut on stilts along Loboc River in Bohol, Philippines - image by @karenaileen

A bahay kubo hut on stilts along Loboc River in Bohol, Philippines – image by @karenaileen

3. Bohol

Ready to live that jungle life? Head to Bohol, full of incredible biodiversity, tropical beaches and rivers, chocolate hills, and groves waiting to be explored.

An oldie but a goodie: Bohol, home to the tiny nocturnal Tarsier monkey and legendary chocolate hills. I first visited Bohol when I was ten-years-old and fell in love with the tiny Tarsier monkeys after visiting a sanctuary. Cute!

Bohol is one of the best islands in the Philippines. From its winding green Loboc River, stunning terrain with hiking opportunities, to clear blue waters filled with marine life, Bohol has so much to offer.

 

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Fun fact about Bohol

The Philippine Tarsier monkey, one of the smallest primate species in the world, is endemic (uniquely located in) to the southern Philippines — and Bohol is best known for them.

What is Bohol known for?

  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkelling
  • Loboc River cruises
  • Stand up paddleboarding
  • Tarsier monkeys
  • Kite surfing
  • Island hopping
  • Yoga
  • Rich biodiversity
Sailing down the blue-green Loboc River in Bohol, with coconut tree jungles lining the riverside - photo by Karen Aileen

Sailing down the blue-green Loboc River in Bohol, with coconut tree jungles lining the riverside – photo by Karen Aileen

Where should you stay in Bohol?

There are plenty of private island resorts here. Bohol tends to get very touristy, especially in local holiday seasons, so it’s worth paying to get away from the crowds if you can afford it.

Top Spots to Visit In Bohol

  • Chocolate Hills
  • Loboc River
  • Panglao Beach
  • Dimiao ‘Twin’ Falls
  • Cadapdapan Rice Terraces
  • Anda Cave Pools
  • Balicasag Island

 


Swingin’ into 2020! Frolicking at Cambugahay Falls in Siquijor Island, near Cebu, Philippines

Swingin’ into 2020! Frolicking at Cambugahay Falls in Siquijor Island, near Cebu, Philippines

4. Cebu

Discover life underwater in Cebu, the central hub for the Visayas region. From white-sand beaches to world-class diving and waterfalls, this island and the smattering of smaller islands around it can give you some of the best experiences in the entire the country.

 

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Cebu, as a main island and the flight connector for all southern travel, can be a little bit of a tourist trap. In the region of Cebu there are loads of other islands which offer different experiences – people often pass through Cebu to go whale shark spotting (which can be unethical) and diving.

Don’t let the traffic and the cars of Cebu city fool you, though – just hours away are some of the most beautiful natural phenomenons in the country. From here, you can explore other islands and regions such as Oslob, Dumaguete, Siquijor, Mactan Island, Malapascua, Poro Island, Moalboal and more.

Fun fact about Cebu

Cebu is home to one of the oldest schools in the Philippines – and the whole of Asia! University of San Carlos (USC) traces all the way back to 1595 when it was founded by Spanish Jesuits.

Cebu is known for…

  • Whale sharks
  • Hiking
  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkelling
  • Kite surfing
  • Island hopping
  • Yoga
  • Rich biodiversity

 

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Where should you stay in Cebu?

It really depends on where you go and what your budget is. Cebu is one of the main islands in the Visayas region, and it’s absolutely teeming with accommodation, hotel, homestay and tour options to suit your needs.

Top Spots to Visit In Cebu

  • Kawasan Falls
  • Mactan Island
  • Malapascua
  • Siquijor
  • Dumaguete
  • Poro Island
  • Guintacan
  • Pescador
  • Carnaza Island
Fiery sunset over the ocean and floating boats in Anilao, Mabini, Batangas - Luzon Island, Philippines / image by @karenaileen

Fiery sunset over the ocean and floating boats in Anilao, Mabini, Batangas – Luzon Island, Philippines / image by @karenaileen

5. Luzon

Manila isn’t the only place in Luzon, you know. This main heart island is full of amazing beaches, from Baler to Batangas, and is home to some of the most stunning geographical phenomenons on Earth.

Luzon is where capital city Manila is, but venture just two hours out and you’ll find yourself near to dormant volcanoes like Taal Volcano (which recently exploded in January 2020) and Mount Pinatubo. Drive further north and you’ll be in the famous Banaue and Sagada Rice Terraces, home to the world’s oldest tattoo artist, Whang Od.

There are hundreds of beaches and waterfalls too. You won’t even need an airplane to get there. Luzon has got some incredible oceanscapes, and whilst they might not all be white sand, even the rockiest ones can offer you some of the richest marine life and geographical phenomenons like sandbars. Plus there are fabulous resorts to chill out at.

Admiring Taal Volcano and Taal Crater Lake in Tagaytay, Cavite, Luzon

Admiring Taal Volcano and Taal Crater Lake in Tagaytay, Cavite, Luzon

Fun fact about Luzon

Some of the country’s most popular and most active volcanoes are located in Luzon, including: Mount Pinatubo, Mount Mayon, Mount Bulusan, Didicas Volcano, Babuyan Claro, Deguey Volcano, and the recently erupted Taal Volcano.

What is Luzon known for?

  • Scuba diving
  • Snorkelling
  • Surfing
  • Island hopping
  • Yoga
  • Waterfalls
  • Hiking and trekking
  • Rich biodiversity

Where should you stay in Luzon?

This one is hard to answer, because it’s like asking where to stay in a whole country. My advice is, research where you want to visit and what kinds of things you want to see first. Then get granular and start researching places. I’m happy to recommend some places if you need advice on Luzon!

Top Spots to Visit In Luzon

  • Zambales
  • Baler
  • Pagudpud
  • Banaue
  • Sagada
  • Tagaytay / Cavite
  • La Union
  • Subic

 

White bangka boat floating in a crystal clear sea in Siargao Philippines

Which Philippine island should you start with?

It’s tough to choose the best island in the Philippines to visit, I know!

There are literally thousands of islands to choose from, but the islands I’ve shared above — Palawan, Siargao, Bohol, Cebu and Luzon — are the ones I think that first-time visitors usually enjoy and appreciate the most.

Each of these islands will give you a fantastic mix of island life, local culture, adventure and watersports, and the feeling of discovering something amazing.

If you’re only going for a week or two, then you will have an amazing time on any of these islands. That’s the beauty of the Philippines. Everything is guaranteed to be beautiful – no matter what your itinerary.

Two Filipina girls in flip-flops on Islas de Gigantes in the Visayas, Philippines

Need some advice about travelling to The Philippines?

No matter which island you choose, you’ll have an enriching and unique experience. Do your research, learn about local politics and sustainability issues, and when you’re ready – book your flights! Jump into it with both feet first.

Where in The Philippines are you travelling to next?


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Mel Legarda

Melissa Legarda is the founder of illumelation. She has worked as a travel blogger, creator and writer since 2015, and has collaborated with well-known brands worldwide. She has helped over 1,100+ students improve their travel photography skills since launching her creative courses. Her mission is to encourage and empower others to travel and create more. Find her on Instagram.