Southeast Asia may be known for its idyllic tropical beauty, but the Philippines is in a league of its own. While it’s completely separate, physically, from its neighbours, it’s also unusually diverse. Scattered across the western Pacific, these 7,641 islands offer visitors an astonishing amount of variety; whether you’re after a lazy beach break, an action-packed adventure, or a cultural escape.

There’s so much to see and do here – and so many islands to choose from – that planning a trip can become overwhelming. Do you want to surf, dive, and island-hop; trek over mountains and swim in waterfalls; explore colonial towns and bustling metropolises; or soak up the culture while feasting on delicious food? Or perhaps all of these?

To help keep your itinerary simple yet bursting with highlights, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of the best things to see and do in the Philippines – so read on for inspiration.

1. Discover Manila

Discover Manila

Almost all visitors to the Philippines will pass through the capital, Manila. Like many capital cities, Manila is very different from the rest of the country – so if you aren’t enamoured with this huge city, that doesn’t mean you won’t fall head over heels for the rest of the Philippines! However, if you’re a fan of sprawling cities that pulse with energy, there’s a good chance Manila is for you.

Try not to be deterred by its size. While vast, most must-see attractions are found within the old walled city of Intramuros. Established in the 1570s by the Spanish, this colonial city-within-a-city is packed with old churches, pretty plazas, cannon-topped walls, and soaring stone arches. Manila also boasts some of the best bars in Southeast Asia, so there’s always somewhere to go in the evening.

2. Explore Coron Island

Explore Coron Island

The Philippines is famous for its fabulous diving, and Coron Island is an amazing place to explore the depths – especially if you like the idea of wreck-diving. Located in the popular Palawan province, Coron Island boasts dreamy coves, secret bays, and blissful beaches fringed by mangrove trees, so if you’re looking to relax on the sand or snorkel in warm, turquoise waters, you’re in the right place.

But beneath the waves, you’ll find the best wreck diving in Southeast Asia. The WWII wrecks here are some of the best-preserved in the world, and you can swim through huge wartime vessels, including 170-metre ships. Some of the kitchens in these ships are still strewn with pots and pans, and the workshops cluttered with tools, giving you a truly unique and fascinating glimpse back in time.

3. Feast on Filipino cuisine

Feast on Filipino cuisine

If you’re a fan of fusion food, you’re in for a real treat in the Philippines. The country’s colonial history and immigration saw traditional Filipino food become influenced by all kinds of different cultures. And, today, the food is a unique and mouthwatering blend of Malay, Spanish, Chinese, and American cuisines: think indigenous produce and local flavours seasoned with foreign influences.

Must-try meals include pancit guisado (a popular noodle dish); and, adobo, made by stewing meat in vinegar, soy sauce, peppercorns, and bay leaves. Sinigang is also a delicious sour broth filled with veggies and/or meat. Meals are typically washed down with San Miguel, the local beer! Plus, wherever you go, there’s plenty of fresh seafood, and fruit like mango, coconuts, and calamansi (native lemons).

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4. Visit the Chocolate Hills

Visit the Chocolate Hills

The landscape of the Philippines is incredibly diverse. But few places are as otherworldly as Bohol’s Chocolate Hills. At least 1,260 of these strange, conical brown-green mounds are spread over an area of around 20 square miles – and, in the dry season, the grass turns brown and the hills look like pieces of chocolate. According to local legend, they’re the calcified tears of a broken-hearted giant.

Hiking through this surreal landscape is a real experience, particularly if you go at sunrise or sunset – and, as the hills range from 30-50 metres high, climbing them is a decent workout. There’s a great viewpoint on top of one of the hills too, and plenty in the surrounding area to keep you occupied: why not visit the tarsier sanctuary, where you can get close to the smallest primate in the world?

5. Hike Mount Pinatubo

Hike Mount Pinatubo

Another spectacularly beautiful part of the country is Mount Pinatubo, which is situated on the island of Luzon. Nothing has been the same here since this volcano erupted back in 1991, in what was one of the most powerful eruptions of the 20th century. The volcanic debris that spewed down the mountain has transformed this area into a strange, lunar-like landscape.

While independent hikes to the summit aren’t allowed, there are organised hikes you can go on, and on these trips, you can admire incredible views of the volcano, as well as its stunning crater lake. The emerald-green waters are astonishingly photogenic, and a day trip here is the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs, appreciate the power of nature, and relax with a lovely lakeside picnic.

6. See the hanging coffins of Sagada

See the hanging coffins of Sagada

Also on the island of Luzon is the mountainous inland Cordillera region, where one of the highlights is the mist-shrouded mountain village of Sagada. If you like hiking, many fabulous trails weave over these peaks and around the stunning rice terraces around Banaue. But Sagada itself has plenty going for it, including adrenaline-pumping activities you can do in its deep, mysterious caves.

However, this tiny village is most famous for its fascinating hanging coffins. Members of the Igorot tribe have buried their dead in hanging coffins nailed to the sides of sheer limestone cliffs – a tradition that can be traced back more than two millennia. This ancient burial practice is still occasionally practised today, and seeing these coffins hanging on the rocks is a uniquely mystical sight.

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7. Stroll around Vigan

Stroll around Vigan

If you love exploring historic towns, you can’t miss Vigan, which is one of the oldest towns in the Philippines. As one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Site towns in Southeast Asia, Vigan was an incredibly important political, military, cultural, and religious hub during the Spanish times and, today, it’s home to some of the most beautifully preserved colonial architecture in the country.

Strolling along these old cobbled streets is hugely enjoyable, and many of the historic buildings have been converted into museums, or shops selling handicrafts, antiques, and ornaments – so it’s a great place to pick up souvenirs. The local food here is delicious, there are plenty of great restaurants to choose from and, in the evenings, there are often atmospheric light shows at bustling Plaza Salcedo.

8. Admire the beauty of Banaue

Admire the beauty of Banaue

The Banaue region of the Philippines is home to one of its most iconic features: the spectacular rice terraces, which are viewed as the eighth wonder of the world by many Filipinos. Carved into the mountains nearly 2,000 years ago, these terraces would stretch a staggering 20,000 km if laid out end to end – so it’s no wonder they were called the ‘stairway to heaven’ by the local Ifugao people.

Today, the rice terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Philippines’ most visited and photographed attractions – but the region has much more to offer. The mist-wrapped mountains here are perfect for hiking, there are natural springs where you can bathe, waterfalls to discover (and swim in), and indigenous villages where you can learn more about local life.

9. Enjoy a beach break on Panglao Island

Enjoy a beach break on Panglao Island

Graced by beautiful beaches, year-round sunshine, and hundreds of opportunities for island-hopping, diving, and surfing, the Philippines has long been considered a paradise for beach lovers. Bohol Island is one of the most popular spots for a beach break. But, located just a stone’s throw off is the sun-baked Panglao Island, where you’ll find some of the very best beaches in the Philippines.

On the south of the island, there’s Alona Beach, a bustling holiday resort that’s renowned for its nightlife. Though, if you’re looking for peace and tranquillity, head to the East Coast, where you’ll find some truly idyllic, undeveloped beaches. Bikini Beach, San Isidro Beach, and Libaong Beach are among the best. Hinagdanan Cave – a limestone cave lagoon with dramatic stalactites – is a must-see too!

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10. Marvel at the beauty of Cebu

Marvel at the beauty of Cebu

As the oldest city in the Philippines, it’s no surprise that Cebu is such a tourist hotspot – but this dreamy destination has more to offer than its history. Known for its sugar-white beaches, sparkling cerulean waters, and pristine coral gardens, it boasts a lush tropical setting, rich culture, fabulous food, buzzing nightlife, and intoxicating, invigorating energy.

Everything is within easy reach from here too, from thundering waterfalls like Kawasan Falls, where you can go swimming, rappelling, climbing, and canyoning, to mountain trails where you can spot all kinds of wildlife. In the city itself, there’s also a distinctly Latin flavour, and the street food is a gastronomic delight – from local Filipino staples to Chinese-inspired dishes.

Final thoughts…

Due to its diversity – and thousands of different islands – exploring the Philippines independently can be tricky. Sticking to just one island means you’ll miss many of this beautiful country’s most unique and fascinating sights, but planning transport and itineraries can also be overwhelming.

That’s why the Philippines is one of the best places in the world to join a tour. Discovering the beauty, culture, history, and nature of Southeast Asia’s lesser-visited gem is easy when everything is organised for you, and you have local experts leading the way. Free from the stress of planning, you’re able to kick back and relax, and make the most of your dazzling surroundings.

Wendy Wu’s 14-day Philippines Discovery tour takes you to nearly all of the sights and attractions listed above, from the beautifully bizarre Chocolate Hills to the captivating, colonial Vigan, and the white sand beaches of Panglao Island. Plus, there are plenty of other sights on the itinerary, too, from the sweeping dunes of Laoag to the charismatic city of Baguio.

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Have you been to the Philippines? Or are you thinking about going? What’s on our must-see list? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.