13 of the best things to do in the Philippines

From hiking picturesque UNESCO-listed rice terraces to partying at a fiesta, these are some of the top things to do on your next trip to the Philippines…

Sarah J C Gillespie
04 July 2024

1. Visit José Rizal’s prison at Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago (Shutterstock)

Intramuros, a 16th-century walled city of stone villas and churches, sits incongruously among the neon-streaked skyscrapers of Metro Manila. It stands as testament to the Philippines’ Spanish colonial period, which lasted from 1565 to 1898. At its heart is Fort Santiago, best known as the prison in which Philippine national hero José Rizal spent his final days. Rizal was a writer and all-round polymath who campaigned for greater representation of Filipinos in the Spanish-dominated parliament, a campaign that led to him being charged with sedition and executed by firing squad in 1896. His statue now stands in his former cell, dressed in the suit and derby hat he wore on the day he died.

2. Swim with whale sharks at Donsol

Whale sharks can be spotted in Donsol (Shutterstock)

The Philippines was once an American experiment in empire: following the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US occupied the country until 1946. Remnants of that time include widely spoken English, a love of beauty pageants – and the malls that hulk over every city. On stifling days, Filipinos flock to the mall to get their air-con fix: as a result, they’ve grown from simple shopping centres to nexuses of Filipino society. Fashion shows, live art demonstrations, martial arts tournaments and even Catholic masses are held here. They’re also where you’ll find some of the Philippines’ best food: Bacolod-style barbecue chicken at Mang Inasal, crispy pata (pig trotters) at Kuya J and lechon kawali (crispy pork belly) at Lechon Haus. The granddaddy of all Philippine malls is the SM Mall of Asia in Manila: the fifth-largest mall in the world.

4. Party at a fiesta

Dinagyang Festival (Shutterstock)

Philippine towns hold so many fiestas that you’ll likely stumble upon one without even trying. The smaller ones have plenty of drinking, music, dancing and food, as well as videoke: karaoke with accompanying video backing (the video rarely matches the song, but that’s half the fun). The bigger fiestas are weeks long, and blend indigenous animistic rites with Catholic piety. At Iloilo’s Dinagyang festival, communities form ‘tribes’ and compete for huge cash prizes with intricate choreographed routines inspired by indigenous traditions. Cebu’s Sinulog is an all-day costumed street carnival, and Bacolod’s Masskara sees troupes of dancers don elaborate beaded masks. At the Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, Quezon, locals decorate their homes in paper flowers and fruits to mark harvest season.

5. Hike the rice terraces of the Cordillera

Cordillera rice terraces (Shutterstock)

Over 2,000 years ago, the Ifugao people of Luzon used basic tools to hack 10,360 square kilometres of stepped rice terraces out of the Philippine Cordillera. Today, the Banaue Rice Terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and deservedly one of the Philippines’ most-photographed attractions – but few venture into the world behind that photo. Step beyond the viewpoint on a multi-day trek, taking time to savour mist-wreathed mountain views and explore indigenous villages. You’ll get to meet and stay with the Ifugao people, who still speak their mother tongue. Be sure to try baya – the native rice wine – and indigenous dishes such as pinikpikan (chicken stew). Contact Intas to arrange a guided trek.

6. Dive the reefs at Tubbataha

A green turtle swimming in Tubbataha Reef National Park (Shutterstock)

Even in a country teeming with magnificent dive sites, divers speak of Tubbataha Reef National Park in reverential tones. This 97,030-hectare Marine Protected Area in the Sulu Sea is tricky to get to – accessible only via a liveaboard dive boat from Puerto Princesa, booked months or even years in advance – but worth the wait. Due to the reefs’ distance from land, they’re virtually unspoiled, save for a few shipwrecks that are now home to schools of barracudas and jacks. In total, the reefs support over 360 species of coral and over 700 species of fish – biodiversity that was pivotal to their inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Larger species here include tiger sharks, white tip reef sharks, whale sharks, manta rays, green turtles and hawksbill turtles.

7. Cruise down a subterranean river

A boat of tourists visiting Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (Shutterstock)

In 2000, Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Bernard Weber launched the New7Wonders Project, a worldwide vote to determine the modern-day successors to the Ancient Wonders of the World. Two Philippine sites made the list: the city of Vigan (below) and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. On its inscription as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO named it ‘one of the world’s most impressive cave systems’, totalling 8.2km; small boat tours explore up to 4.3km, cruising from an impossibly blue bay into toothy limestone caves that echo with the squeaks and flutters of bats. Tours run from Puerto Princesa: choose one that includes spelunking and ziplining at Ugong Rock, a thrilling cave system that’s en route to the national park.

8. Discover ancestral homes in Vigan

Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Shutterstock)

As well as being one of the New7Wonders, Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the finest examples of a Spanish colonial town in Asia. Vigan was established as a trading post in the 16th century, in the Ilocos Sur region of northwestern Luzon. Homes fuse Asian and European styles in a way that is quintessentially Filipino: a brick lower storey, a wood upper storey with capiz-shell shutters, and a pitched, Chinese-style roof. A highlight of any Vigan trip is a ride in a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) along photogenic Calle Criologo, the best-preserved of all Vigan’s streets. Don’t miss the evening light show at Plaza Salcedo, where you’ll also find the Baroque Vigan Cathedral.

9. Join a Holy Week procession

Moriones Festival is held during Holy Week (Shutterstock)

Within moments of arriving in the Philippines, Spanish conquistadors set about converting Filipinos to Catholicism – today, 86% still practice. Each province has its own Holy Week traditions: perhaps the best-known is Pampanga, where, on Good Friday, devotees known as mandarame are nailed to crosses using real (sterilised) steel nails. A less gory alternative is the Moriones festival on Marinduque, where celebrants dress as Romans to honour St Longinus, the centurion who pierced Jesus’ side with a lance. And any major Filipino city is ideal for attempting Visita Iglesia – the Filipino practice of visiting seven different churches on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

10. Witness WWII history at Corregidor Island

Corregidor Island (Shutterstock)

Unknown to many, the Japanese invaded the then US-held Philippines on 8 December 1941, ten hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that triggered World War II in the Pacific. They swiftly overran Luzon, and in 1942 the combined Philippine-American forces made their last stand on Corregidor Island, a 5-square-kilometre slip of land in Manila Bay. Today, travellers can take a one-hour ferry from Manila to tour the island and view the massive cannons, the mile-long barracks, and the Pacific War Memorial Museum filled with photos and relics. Underneath it all runs the Malinta Tunnel: once a hospital and military headquarters, now the site of an audio-visual presentation on World War II history.

11. Taste the world’s finest mangoes on Guimaras

A mango market display in Guimaras (Shutterstock)

Mangoes from Guimaras have a reputation for being the sweetest not only in the Philippines, but in the world: they’ve even been served at Buckingham palace. Mango lovers will find plenty to do on this beach-ringed Visayan island: wander the plantation at the National Mango Research Station, taste mango cakes made by monks at the Trappist Monastery or try the mango-topped pizza at the Pitstop restaurant in Jordan, the island’s capital. The best time to visit is during the two-week long Manggahan Festival in May: Guimarasnon (people from Guimaras) celebrate the mango harvest with all-you-can-eat events and a tribal competition, involving dancing, props and people dressed as giant mangoes (yes, really). Get here via a short boat ride from Iloilo City.

12. Take unique public transport

Ride in a jeepney (Shutterstock)

When the Americans vacated the Philippines after World War II, they left their army jeeps behind, which the Filipinos appropriated as public transport. These formed the blueprint for today’s Philippine jeepneys: long, steel buses covered in glitz and spray paint. And until you’ve sat in one – knee-to-knee with Filipino families, bumping along a pot-holed road – you can’t really say that you’ve visited the Philippines. To catch a jeepney, flag it down, climb in the back and pass your fare along, shouting “Bayad!” (fare) so that the driver knows to intercept it. To stop the jeepney, tap the roof. The routes can be difficult to navigate, but if you end up miles away from your destination you can always commandeer a tricycle (a motorcycle with attached passenger cab) to drive you back.

13. Dig into spicy, coconut-heavy cuisine in Bicol

Bicol Express (Shutterstock)

Tell any Filipino you’re going to Bicol, and you’ll get an envious look: this peninsula off the south end of Luzon is the birthplace of some of the country’s most delicious dishes, and is distinct in being the only part of the Philippines that uses chillies in its food. Classic Bicolano plates include Bicol Express (pork belly with coconut milk and chilli) and laing (taro leaves with shrimp paste). Try both at the perennially popular 1st Colonial restaurant chain, known for its fiery chilli ice cream. Or, for a truly local experience, sit down for a meal at a karenderia: the family-run roadside restaurants that you’ll find just about anywhere.

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