There are many destinations in Asia that have become extremely popular in the recent years. When it comes to tropical getaways and exotic islands, however, the Philippines takes top spot in many lists. Conde Naste Traveler, a highly-esteemed publication, just released its Best Islands list for 2018, and the top 3 spots in Asia are all found in one country.
If you’re up for a memorable adventure, there’s no better time to head to the Philippines and discover what this very unique country has to offer.
While the Philippines is best known for pristine beaches and aquamarine waters, its topography is rich in very diverse landscapes. The main challenge is transportation. Not only are the major cities congested, the country is made up mostly of islands. Traveling around requires a lot of patience because it will take up a lot of your time.
This 2-week itinerary brings you to some of the country’s best sights, sounds, and eats through land, sea, and air. It will feel a little hectic transferring from one mode of transport to another, but the reward of the destination is worth it. If you’re up for something tranquil and adventurous at the same time, then you chose the right country for your next trip.
This itinerary covers the top 3 islands in Asia, namely Siargao, Palawan, and Boracay. It will bring you through calm waters, rough terrains, lush jungles, and amazing nightlife all in 14 days.
Day 1-3: Culture and Nightlife in Metro Manila with a day hike on the side
Day 4-7: Surfing and Adventure in Siargao
Day 7-12: Exploring the best of Palawan
Day 12-14: Rediscovering Boracay
The Philippines is a developing country that’s very dynamic and sometimes even chaotic. It’s usually compared to Thailand when it comes to Asian destinations, but there are very stark differences.
In a nutshell, the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, with a strong Muslim community in the southern part of the country. It’s made up of over 7,100 islands, making it home to some of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world. As a tropical country, temperatures are always around the 30 C range even around the rainy season.
Summer months are the busiest (and hottest) times in the country, which is from March to May. Rainy season lasts from June through September. November to January is also considered peak season in the Philippines because Christmas and New Year Celebrations are extremely big among Filipinos.
The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is located in Pasay City, one of the 16 cities that make up Metro Manila. Right outside the airport are casinos, high end hotels and some establishments. Unlike many other countries, NAIA is right in the heart of the city so it’s very near many city highlights. However, traffic is always a factor. Unless you’re arriving very early in the morning or very late at night, it’s always safe to allot at least an hour for travel time even if you’re coming from just 10 kilometers away.
Getting From The Airport
Right outside the airport are several transportation options. There are no trains, but you can have your pick among regular taxis, airport taxis, chartered vans, and Grab. As always, the best way to get to your hotel is via Grab so you won’t have to worry about directions. If you don’t have the app yet, you can head to Bay 4 where a Grab kiosk is available. The attendant can book a Grab car for you and you pay the driver in cash.
If for some reason you still cannot book a Grab, choose either the yellow taxis (airport taxis) or look for the sign that says “Coupon Taxis”. Airport taxis run by meter, but are always reliable and will never ask for additional payments. Coupon Taxis run on fixed rates depending on your destination.
Makati City is considered the central business district of Metro Manila. Many international offices are located here, but so are some of the capital’s best malls, bars, and restaurants. This is also the best place to stay throughout the first four days of the itinerary as it’s pretty easy to get to different places from here.
If you arrive in Makati fairly early, you can head to Greenbelt Shopping complex. It’s a collection of low-, mid-, and high-end stores from both local and international brands. It’s a good way to get accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the city as many locals spend time in Greenbelt. Unlike many malls in the Philippines, Greenbelt is nicely designed with open spaces, artwork and small parks for a more relaxed experience.
Within the mall is the Ayala Museum. It’s owned by the Ayalas, one of the most prominent families in the Philippines, with beautifully curated artwork and artifacts. It’s pretty small, but highly accessible. You only need to spend an hour or two to enjoy the whole space.
Within Greenbelt are also some of the best restaurants that offer good Filipino food. The most popular one is called Manam, offering a variety of classic Filipino dishes and a separate menu for “Filipino dishes with a twist”. You can also try other names such as Mesa, Fely J’s and Lorenzo’s Way for some quality Filipino food. The menus can be quite overwhelming, but must tries are sisig, Kare-Kare, Sinigang, and Adobo.
Once you’ve had your fill, head to any of the exits of Greenbelt and book a Grab to I’m Hotel. You can start the night with a few drinks at the hotel’s rooftop bar, Antidote, where you can also enjoy the city lights of Makati. This is already the Poblacion area, a small community known for hole in the wall restaurants and bars. Everything is pretty casual here so there’s no need to dress up.
From I’m Hotel, head towards the area behind the hotel towards what first looks like a residential area. Once you get closer, you’ll see small bars and quirky restaurants along the many streets that criss-cross in Poblacion. Take your time and walk around – get lost in the maze and enter any bar that tickles your fancy. Some of the more popular ones are Pura Vida, a reggae bar that’s always filled with travellers, Polilya for their local craft beers, and El Chupacabra, a Filipino-Mexican joint that serves cheap beer and good bar food.
If you feel that the night is still young, head over to The Island in Bonifacio Global City (BGC). BGC is a huge business and lifestyle complex located in another city called Taguig, but it’s just across Makati. BGC is known to be more fancy and high-end, and many expats choose to stay here. The Island is part of The Palace, a trio of clubs including Revel and Valkyrie. Door fees vary depending on the access you want – if you only want to go to one club or to all. All three clubs are interconnected and you can while away the night with party music, strong drinks, and big crowds of local and foreigners having the time of their life.
The Philippines was a Spanish colony for 300 years. It was then taken over by the Japanese and then the Americans, the latter of which having a tremendous impact on culture and lifestyle. The Philippines also has a long history for barter and trade with China and Malaysia. In a nutshell, this country is a mix of everything, and its history will tell you why.
Start your day with a visit to the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila City (not to be confused with Metro Manila). It was founded in 1901 and houses some of the most important anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological collections of the country from the prehistoric to the modern era. It also has a collection of some of the most important artists in history, including the famed Spolarium by national artist Juan Luna. It’s open everyday except Monday from 10:00AM to 5:00PM and also offers free admission. Early in 2018, the Natural History section also opened its more modern doors and new collections. It’s a stone’s throw away from the National Museum.
Once you’ve had your fill, head over to Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. It was the seat of power by the Spanish for hundreds of years. There are many tours you can take to know about Philippine history, but the best one by far is done by Carlos Celdran. Celdran is a performance artist who has a passion for Filipino culture. His tour is engaging, entertaining, and heartbreaking at times, but reveals many sides of Philippine history that not even Filipinos are taught in school. His tours are usually done in the afternoon, and you can reserve your slots through his website. It’s a walking tour so you can get up close and personal with the many exhibits and areas of Intramuros. It can get pretty hot, though so dress accordingly.
When the tour ends, cap your day off with a nice relaxing dinner at the Sky Deck at The Bayleaf Intramuros. It’s also within Intramuros and offers a grand view of the Manila skyline. The restaurant serves good Filipino food and has live music for guests to enjoy.
Metro Manila isn’t always a forgiving place and can be very chaotic. Fortunately, there are several day trips you can do to get away from the chaos and pollution of the congested city.
Rizal Province is a great destination for easy trips outside the city. Its location and topography make it a favorite for many locals when they need a quick escape. We’ve written about a complete guide to two of the most popular Rizal itineraries: Daranak Falls and Mount Pamitinan.
Consequently, if you don’t want to be too adventurous, you can also choose to go to Tagaytay. It’s a 3-hour drive outside of Metro Manila and a very popular holiday town all throughout the year. The best part about it is it’s at an elevation of 634 meters. If you can’t take the tropical heat, Tagaytay will give you cooler weather.
If you’re commuting, head to the bus terminal at the LRT Gil Puyat Station and board a bus headed towards Nasugbu. Inform the driver to drop you off at Tagaytay Junction. Once in Tagaytay, you can take a jeepney, a tricycle, or a cab to where you want to go.
There aren’t a lot to do in Tagaytay other than relax, have a nice meal, and take in the view of Taal Volcano. Some of the best restaurants with a view are Balay Dako, RSM Lutong Bahay, Josephine’s, and Buon Giorno. On the way back, you can also make a stopover at Nuvali in Santa Rosa, Laguna, for outlet shopping.
Once back in the Makati, make sure to try a massage at the many spas around the city. You can also download the Zennya app, which functions like Grab except you call for a massage therapist to your hotel. Massages in the Philippines are affordable and always a good end to an adventurous day.
Siargao is now recognized as the best island in Asia, and for good reason. It’s long been famous for some of the best surfing across the region, but travellers have finally discovered the exotic beauty the rest of the island holds.
From Manila, take a flight via Cebu Pacific to Siargao Island. The flight takes a little over an hour and costs approximately Php 5,000 (USD 90). There are plenty to do for surfers and non-surfers alike, and even more excellent accommodations around the island. You can take your pick between hotels, hostels, and even AirBnB. One thing you should do is to rent a scooter if you know how to use one. This is the best way to explore as much as you can.
Surfers can go straight to Cloud 9 in the town of General Luna. It has great waves all year round. Surfers from all over the world ride the waves here. If you’re lucky, you might even spot pro surfers training or showing off their tricks. Beginners are also welcome as the waves don’t tower too high at certain times of the day. You can bring your own board or rent one with a trainer for Php 500 (USD 10) per hour.
Don’t forget to reserve one day for island hopping at the beautiful islands of Daku, Guyam, and Naked. Each island has its own charm, great snorkeling spots, and beautiful white sand beaches. The best part is the water, which is crystal clear and bright blue. Boat rentals cost around Php 1,300 (USD 30), and snorkeling gear can also be rented for Php 100 (USD 2) per person. You can head to the boat pier at General Luna and look for boatmen offering these tours. You can also arrange them with your hotel or hostel. Locals in Siargao pretty much know each other, and they will sure be able to connect you to someone. Before you head out, you can buy fish and meat in the public market and ask your boatman to help you cook lunch at one of the islands or on the boat.
Set another day for a trip that’s more relaxed. Take your scooter or rent a van and head first to Magpupungko Tidal Pool. It’s 45-minute drive from General Luna. When the tide is low, rock pools emerge and can be a great spot for exploring and cliff diving. Timing is crucial, however, so make sure you check the daily tides for the town of Pilar. If you arrive during high tide, it’s still very beautiful but you no longer enjoy the beauty of the rock pools. After enjoying the rock pools, you can head down to Magpupungko Beach where a row of small restaurants offer local fare. In the afternoon, you can then head to Del Carmen Port and ride a pump boat to Sugba Lagoon. You can rent standup paddle boards or jump off a diving platform. The water here is calm and surrounded by cliffs and lush forests.
When it comes to meals, the best places to grab a bite are local stores you can spot along the rode. These are called “carinderia”, where food is cooked in large pots or grilled on the side of the road. It’s the cheapest meal you’ll get on the island, which will cost just around USD 1. When it comes to restaurants, some popular haunts are Kermit for the best pizzas, Shaka for healthy Smoothie Bowls, Maya Siargao for Israeli cuisine and an awesome pool bar, or Harana for modern Filipino food.
Palawan has always been a favorite for locals and foreigners in the Philippines. It’s a province located in the Luzon group of islands, and is often called as “the last frontier” thanks to the many almost untouched and wild parts of the province. There are too many places to visit in Palawan, but let’s focus on the easiest route given a week in the island.
Take a flight via Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines from Siargao to Puerto Princesa. It will take around 3 hours since you’ll have to make a quick stopover at Cebu. Puerto Princesa is the capital of the province and is also considered as the cleanest and greenest city in the country.
First thing to do is book a tour or a van to see the Underground River. It’s considered a UNESCO world heritage site and the most famous tourist destination in Palawan. It will take a 2-hour van ride and a 15-minute boat ride to reach the jump off point of the Underground River, but the trip itself gives you a nice look at rocks and cliffs sitting on a UNESCO protected area. Once there, you’re given a life jacket and a helmet and loaded into a small row boat to float slowly into the entrance of the caves. The tour takes 45 minutes, through stalactites and stalagmites and under colonies of bats.
The following day, take an island hopping tour to Honda Bay, another popular activity at Puerto Princesa. It’s a mere 30 minutes away from the city. The boat rentals are around Php 1,300 (USD 30). You can go at your own pace and visit 3 or 4 islands, all of which boasting long stretches of clean beaches and clear waters.
On day 9, make your way to El Nido, a first-class municipality known for limestone cliffs and some of the best luxury resorts in the Philippines. There’s a small notion that El Nido is an expensive place, but the town has many cheap accommodations a little away from the beach. Nevertheless, it’s one of the most unbeatable island experiences in the Philippines.
Head back to the airport terminal and book a van to El Nido. There are many operators that offer this, but watch out for the 4 most prominent ones: Eulen Joy Express, Lexxuss Shuttle, Fort Walley Travel and Tours, and DayTripper Palawan. It’s also worthwhile to book this trip beforehand or as soon as your arrive at Puerto Princesa airport. Travel time takes 5-6 hours and costs around Php 500-600 (USD 10-12).
The key attractions in El Nido are grouped into different tours. This is regulated and standardized by the local government so tourists are assured they get the same rates wherever they look. If you’re alone or a small group, you’ll be grouped with other tourists to fill a boat. You also have the option of chartering a private boat.
For first timers, take Tour A that takes you to the limestone cliffs of Miniloc Island and its iconic lagoons. It also brings you to two other islands and two beaches, all of which are iconic landmarks of El Nido. Tour B visits caves, Tour C visits farther islands and lagoons, and Tour D explores the mainland of El Nido, and Tour E explores inland El Nido.
While there are a lot of tours to choose from, choose one or two that interests you. Island tours take the whole day and can get really exhausting. Some of the locations also look similar, so it’s not necessarily worth taking all tours. You can check all the tour details in their official website.
Spend 4 breathtaking days in El Nido, and don’t forget to allot one day of just lounging around the beach, sipping on cocktails or freshly picked coconuts.
Check out the best places to stay in Palawan to know the best accommodations.
Who doesn’t know Boracay by now? It’s the Philippines most popular party island, knowing for its unique powdery white sand and crystal blue waters. It used to be one of the liveliest islands in the country with parties running along the beaches day and night. However, it was closed to tourism for 6 months in 2018 for rehabilitation. It became so popular that Boracay became a cesspool, exhibiting the damage that overtourism can do. In October 2018, Boracay was reopened with a fresh new face and a new lease in life.
The only direct flight from El Nido to Boracay (Caticlan) is via AirSwift. They only have one flight everyday that departs at 1:25PM. Otherwise, you’ll have to travel back to Puerto Princesa and book a connecting flight via Manila. So if you want to head to Boracay, make sure you catch the flight via AirSwift. From Caticlan airport, take a tricycle to the jetty and take a boat ride to Boracay Island.
With the new Boracay, expect a more peaceful experience on the island. Gone are the troves of tourists, blaring music, and rowdy crowds. After the rehabilitation, certain restrictions have been placed to ensure that the island doesn’t deteriorate once again.
Only 19,000 tourists may stay at the island at any given time. Some hotels have been banned from operation as well due to non-compliance with environmental regulations. Smoking, drinking, and dining at the beach are all prohibited now. This means you can do these things at proper restaurants and bars fronting the beach or inland. Hawkers, which have become a nuisance, are also now banned from walking down the beach with their trinkets and other items for sale.
Nevertheless, Boracay has only become a lot more beautiful. Even at its worst, Boracay remained breathtaking, and now that it has been restored to its original beauty, the allure of the island has become much stronger.
Despite the restrictions, there are still plenty to do. If you get tired of just enjoying the soft sand and the warm sun or the cool waters (which is close to impossible), you can go to Station 1 or Station 3 on White Beach and hire a boat for island hopping. There are several around Boracay, most popular of which is Magic Island where you can go cliff diving.
You can also take a tricycle and head to Mount Luho. It’s a very easy hike up to the observation deck where you can take in a panoramic view of the island. There’s also a small zoo with exhibits of exotic and local birds found on the island.
There are different areas in Boracay, and the most popular is White Beach where you can enjoy the famous white sound. At the tip is Diniwid Beach, a more rocky area and cliffside waters. On the other side of the island is Bulabog Beach, now becoming known as a great place for kitesurfing. It’s a very small island so rent a bike, a scooter, or hire a tricycle and work your way around to discover all the island can offer.
When you’re ready to head back home, go back to Caticlan airport and connect to your international flight via Manila. You also have the option of heading to Kalibo International Airport, a 3-hour van ride from the Caticlan jetty. It has international flights to Malaysia and Korea that can connect you to your next destination.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.