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The second-largest archipelago in the world, made up of more than 7,000 tropical islands, has depths most travellers don’t realise when they idly picture the golden beaches and azure waters of the Philippines. But there is culture, wildlife, natural wonders and history to be found here too, from giant underground rivers and pristine reefs to Spanish colonial towns and Indigenous villages where life hasn’t changed in generations. And when you’re done, there’s always the next horizon to explore.

Most journeys begin on the main island of Luzon in capital Manila, a sprawling modern metropolis whose heritage can still be traced in the city walls of its historic centre and the world’s oldest Chinatown. Beyond, Luzon’s volcanic landscape unravels in one dramatic moment after another, taking in treks among the 2,000-year-old rice terraces and Indigenous villages of Ifugao, the perfectly preserved Spanish colonial streets of 16th-century Vigan and the hanging coffins of Sagrada that still cling to the cliff faces high in the Cordillera mountains and offer a glimpse of an altogether older way of life.

Ferries and flights connect the islands that scatter this corner of the Pacific, and often it’s the water that takes centre stage. Second World War-era wrecks (Coron Bay) and pristine reefs (Apo, Tubbataha) home to 75% of the world’s coral species make its seas irresistible. You can swim with whale sharks in Donsol and flickering sardine shoals off the coast of Cebu, or paddle your way deep into the caves of Palawan or around the karst islands of the Bacuit Archipelago. And when you’ve dried off, set your compass for islands such as Camiguin, where there are more volcanoes than towns, or head to Bohol and the grassy ‘Chocolate Hills’ that bubble up from the jungle.

The beauty of the Philippines is that no matter where you go and what you do, there’s always another island with something unique to see.

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Island adventures, an incredible culture, tasty food and pristine natural beauty awaits in the Philippines. Discover all this and more with our full travel guide…
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Dive Wrecks. Second World War naval battles played out in the seas around the Philippines, as Japan tussled with America for control of the Pacific. Countless battleships were sunk in the shallows, forming a modern playground for divers, with perhaps the best examples found off Palawan, the Philippines’ ‘wild west’ island

Trek a Volcano. The 1991 eruption of hot-tempered Mount Pinatubo was the second-largest in the 20th century and saw villages and towns buried in mud. A trek to the hot core gives a vivid glimpse of the earth’s power as well as the resourcefulness of the locals, who use the mud to make plates to sell.

Go to Church. While some minorities cling to animism, urban Filipinos are overwhelmingly Christian. Watch out for Saints Days and Fiestas, as all are celebrated in style. San Agustin in Manila’s Intramuros District is the oldest – and, perhaps, the grandest – church.

Climb the Chocolate Hills. The heart of the island of Bohol is covered in limestone bumps, said to be the tears of a broken-hearted giant, whose grassy surface is scorched a chocolately brown by the sun. It’s a good excuse to visit this island, as it has beaches to match any other.

Trek the rice terraces. Ifugao’s 2,000-years-in-the-making amphitheatre of rice terraces has rightly been listed by UNESCO and rivals any modern architectural achievement. Best of all, you can explore by yourself on foot, meeting the farmers and Indigenous communities who call this area home.

When to go

The best time to visit the Philippines is between December and February, when temperatures tend to be at their coolest (as low as 24ºC) and the rains drop off.

More broadly speaking, November to April is the dry season, with temperatures rising to 35°C-plus in March/April; however, it is always around 10°C cooler in the mountains. This is also peak season for diving, as summer’s cyclonic conditions (Jun–Oct) can affect visibility later on in the year.

Whale shark-watching season at Donsol runs from November to June. In May, Flores de Mayo fiestas are commonplace across the country.

May to October is the wet season, which is both humid and hot. Regular tropical downpours can cause road closures, but travel is still possible.

International airports

The main international airports are Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL), which is 7km from Manila on Luzon Island, and Mactan-Cebu (CEB), 15km from Cebu City on Cebu Island.

Getting around

Private bus companies leave from stations in Manila or can be hailed from the highway between cities. In Manila, many of the main tourist locations are linked by the underground Metro and Light Rail Transit. Ferries vary hugely in quality but most services around the southern Visayas from Cebu City are well maintained seacat-style vessels. Internal flights are good value.

Health & safety

Mountain or volcano trekking is hazardous during the wet season because of landslides. Speak to your GP or travel health clinic before departure, as you will need to be up to date on your jabs. Dengue fever and typhoid are particularly problematic. Malaria is also present in certain locations, so seek advice on prophylaxis before travelling and take precautions to avoid mosquito bites.