A Complete First Timer’s Guide to the Philippines

Are you planning to visit the Philippines for the first time? Here’s a short Philippines travel guide that covers a little bit of everything you need to know about this archipelago in Southeast Asia, also known as the Pearl of the Orient Seas, including a few personal tips from a local — yours truly!

Tips for first-time travelers

Research and reserve in advance

Reserve or book in advance for accommodations and local flights. This will save you a significant amount of money in the long run.

For many locations in the Philippines, there are homestays and commercial lodgings where you can simply walk-in or reserve through text or call. Small businesses don’t even ask for deposits, most of the time. This is especially true for budget accommodations. Oftentimes, what I do is just contact the business and they do pencil reservation.

However, if you’re going to mainstream tourist attractions, especially during summer, have a good sense to do advanced reservation.

This is also a good practice when it comes to local flights. Since the Philippines is an archipelagic country, most likely you’ll need to take local flights to go to different provinces. Direct sea or land travel isn’t always an option or may take too long. Local flights can be expensive. For instance, a ticket from Manila to Puerto Princesa can cost P7000 above if bought on the same day, whereas a discounted ticket costs only about P200-1000.

Check for online promos from budget airlines such as Airasia or Cebu Pacific. Websites such as Traveloka also offer good rates for flights and accommodations.

Planning your trip to the Philippines

When is the best time to visit the Philippines

As I live here, I can tell you that the weather in the Philippines is just plain crazy. That aside, December to February are the coolest months and experience few rainfalls, so it’s best to book within this period.

March to May comprises the summer months, so you’re guaranteed good weather all throughout as well as peak rates. June to November are the rainy months. I like traveling during off-season because it’s off-peak season, rates can be haggled down and there are few tourists, but of course there’s the risk of getting stranded due to typhoons.

How long to stay in a province?

I suggest staying about 5 days in one province. But again, it depends. Provinces such as Siquijor and Dumaguete can be explored in a 3-day trip. Palawan has a couple of destinations that deserve at least 5 days each.

So in the end it depends on where you’re going.

To get a good sense of what the Philippines is like, I suggest staying here for 3-4 weeks at least. Here’s a sample 3-week itinerary to the Philippines, covering provinces in Luzon and Visayas.

Best Philippine tourist attractions to visit

There are 81 provinces in the Philippines, so there’s actually a lot of places you can go to. Being an archipelago made up of 7000+ islands, this country naturally has a lot of great beaches, as well as snorkeling, diving and surfing spots. The most obvious thing you should do here is island hop!

That saying, there are also various mountains, waterfalls and lakes in the country. Provinces far from Manila have retained more of its local culture. You can see farming communities, rice terraces beside roads or on mountains, and residents living in traditional nipa huts.

So with all these options, where do you start exploring?

Main Tourist Attractions

Most likely, you’ll arrive in the airport of Manila, the country’s capital. From here, you can take a tour in Manila or proceed to connecting flights to other provinces. Manila has a bit of cultural sights, but because of its horrendous traffic and pollution, most people suggest — as I would — to spend the rest of your time in other provinces in the country.

View deck in Kayangan Lake, Coron. (Photo by Xiao)

If you’re going to visit the Philippines, you shouldn’t miss Palawan (El Nido, Coron, Puerto Princesa, Port Barton and a few low-key places). It’s a must-visit for its exotic lagoons, beaches and lakes as well as limestone rock formations. If you’re on a limited schedule, I personally recommend choosing Coron over the others.

Another must-see is Siargao in Surigao del Norte, for its virgin islands and lagoons. If you want to see greens and lush islets, head over here. As of this update (2017), we’d been here twice and it still remains as splendid as our first visit. Siargao is also known as the Surfing Capital of the Philippines and is often visited by surfers from all over the world. While you’re in Siargao, don’t forget to drop by Bucas Grande and see its amazing waterway jungle.

Here are the other famous tourist destinations in the Philippines.

Beach in Boracay. (Photo by Hali Navarro)

Boracay is a world-class island. Pretty much like other famous places, Boracay is a love-it or hate-it type. Boracay has beautiful tropical beaches and is considered a party summer destination. Go here if you’re the type who are into like pub crawls and nightlife. To be fair though, it also has many watersport activities that are not easily available in other places, from snorkeling and diving to unusual ones such as mermaid swimming lessons.

Bohol is a classic tourist attraction in the Philippines. It features the famous Chocolate Hills and endemic tarsier (Carmen) and some amazing quiet beaches (Panglao). Its nearby province Cebu is also a good choice. You can do canyoneering and chasing water falls in Oslob, beach bumming in Bantayan Island, diving and snorkeling in Malaspacua and Moalboal.

Perfect-shaped Mayon Volcano. (Photo credit to Hali Navarro)

Albay in the Bicol province has the world’s perfect-shaped volcano, Mount Mayon. You can stay in a luxurious resort overlooking the mountain or do other activities such as ATV rides around the mountain.

Most foreign travelers plan their Philippine travel around these provinces, but I encourage you to also explore some off-the-beaten destinations in the Philippines. As a developing country, there’s still much more to see than listed here.

READ: A definitive list of the best tourist spots in the Philippines

Off-the-Beaten Destinations

Tikling Island, Sorsogon. (Photo by Hali)

If you’re looking for less touristy places, I suggest Sorsogon and Catanduanes. Sorsogon is a personal favorite, and you can do a lot of things here in a few days including island hopping in pinkish-sand beaches, visiting a marine sanctuary, kayaking in the lake near the active Mount Bulusan, among others.

Siquijor and Negros Oriental are other good options for some quiet, quality time.

Aside from these, Camiguin in the south also has wonderful features — hot springs, falls and a naked island. It’s visited less and seems to be a favorite of laid-back foreign travelers.

There are also areas in Palawan that are, as of this writing, undeveloped and visited less. There’s Linapacan Island — dubbed as having the world’s clearest waters by a website, Balabac islands in the southern tip of the island province and Port Barton.

Personal Recommendations

As for my personal recommendations, it would be Palawan (Coron in particular shouldn’t be missed), Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Surigao del Norte (specifically Siargao and Bucas Grande) and Negros Oriental (specifically Apo Island).

I also have heavy preference for Dinagat Islands, with its raw islands that might be comparable, if not better, than those in Palawan.

Unique sights and cultural experiences in the Philippines

Centipede – a traditional tribal tattoo, done by Apo Whang-od. (Photo by Hali Navarro)

Here’s a short list of places with some unique culturally experiences or sights you can find in the Philippines. This is especially helpful if you’re the type who wants more than island hopping.

  • See the rice terraces in Banaue or, even better, Batad; Maligcong also has majestic rice terraces
  • Meet the oldest mambabatok and have a traditional tribal tattoo in Kalinga
  • Enjoy a kawa hot bath in Tibiao, Antique
  • See historic churches in Bohol and other local attractions mentioned in the province above
  • Immerse in the T’boli community residing beside Lake Holon in South Cotabato
  • See the old stone houses and preserved culture of the Ivatan tribe in Batanes

Authentic Filipino dishes to try

Admittedly, Filipino dishes aren’t the best in the world. Although it’s an amalgation of Spanish, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, it has also adapted America’s preference for fast food and unhealthy ingredients. That aside, we do have some remarkable recipes as well.

Some of these include sinigang (stew with sampaloc flavoring), dinuguan (soup made of pig’s blood), sisig (a grilled dish made of pork head and chicken liver), kare-kare (stew with peanut sauce, oftentimes served with bagoong), kilawin (fresh fish marinated in vinegar), laing (gabi leaves cooked in coconut milk), among others.

For carbs, try the local versions of pancitpancit bihon and pancit palabok.

For desserts, try halo-halo (shaved ice), buko pandan (coconut strips with pandan-flavored gelatin), palitaw (flat rice cake), suman (rice cake wrapped in banana leaves) and fresh lumpia.

For the street food, try kwek-kwek and various inihaw or try balut (boiled duck embryo). See this video of Filipino street food shot in Cebu.

Each province has its own specialties as well, so don’t forget to ask locals for recommendations.

Whether you’re a fan of any of these or not, here’s one thing you need to try: buying seafood! This is one of the things I personally love about going to provinces out of Manila. Crabs, shrimps, squid and fishes are cheap in seaside communities. You can buy fresh catch from fishermen themselves early in the morning or in the market. For instance, lobsters can go as cheap as P50 each ($1) and scallops for P1 each ($0.05).

 

Have you been to or are you living in the Philippines? Do you have anything else to add to this Philippines travel guide?

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5 Comments

  1. Hello guys!! Thank you for all the details in your blog, we found details here about Phillipines that we did not see anywhere else 😀
    We came back like a month ago from our trip; we did Coron, El Nido and Boracay.
    We created a video with our drone with amazing shots of all the places we visited, it will also help you decide what you will like to see.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWo3i0OZBg4&t=1s
    Hope you like it 😀

  2. So glad I stumbled upon your site. I hear differing comments about safety in the Philippines regarding militant around the South. Your thoughts?

  3. I’ve only visited almost 20 provinces in the Philippines and I would love to explore some more. I don’t know how to possibly do it especially that I have a little toddler but I would love to visit each province in the future. Maybe I would travel together with my daughter. I’m a little apprehensive of being my husband because of his nationality but let’s see. Thank you for sharing this blog post.

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