Isolated white-sand beaches, reefs teeming with marine life, cascading rice terraces – it’s no wonder that the Philippines is thought of as paradise. And there’s even more than meets the eye, from the world’s smallest primate to the unique hanging coffins of Sagada. Yet, with well over 7,000 islands you can get overwhelmed by what’s on offer. Whatever kind of trip you’re after, here’s our guide to the best islands in the Philippines.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to the Philippines, your essential guide for visiting the Philippines.
The Philippines’ eco-island remains a firm backpacker favourite. Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa is carbon-neutral, while the island and its beaches have collected countless accolades – particularly for the jaw-dropping Nacpan Beach near El Nido. For many, a visit to Palawan is all about getting out on the water.
Once there you can go island-hopping between hidden coves and deserted beaches, and snorkelling in the coral reef-filled waters. For many, the island’s main attraction is the famous Puerto Princesa Underground River. One of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature' – the river runs for 8.2km underneath the St Paul Mountain Range.
A fascinating underwater world is ready to be explored. Coron is known for its wreck diving while El Nido has one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines, hidden lagoons, and hundreds of species of coral and marine life. This tailor-made diving adventure in Palawan allows you to discover both places, above and below the water.
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While many islands in the Philippines are full of excellent snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities, Mindoro goes the extra mile. Some 30km off the coast lies the Mindoro. It's one of the world’s most spectacular and important reefs, with over 450 different species of coral.
Once you're at the reef you'll see all sorts of marine life, from giant schools of tuna to barracudas, sharks, sea turtles and manta rays. Other top dive sites around Mindoro can be accessed from the popular town of Mindoro, which is situated on the north side of the island.
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Part of the Visayas group of islands in the Philippines, Bohol is a nature paradise packed with national parks, spectacular beaches and cascading waterfalls. Many people visit to see the famous Chocolate Hills – over a thousand rounded hills, that turn chocolate brown in the dry season.
Bohol offers numerous encounters with wildlife – the highlight being a chance to see tarsiers. These tiny, saucer-eyed creatures are the world’s smallest primates.
On this tailor-made Total immersion in Visayas you will get to know Cebu with its waterfalls and some of the best islands in the Philippines before heading to Dumaguete to swim with turtles and over to Bohol: known for its chocolate hills and tarsiers, this island never ceases to amaze. A few more beach days in Siquijor conclude this trip.
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One of the Calamian Islands, Coron is known for its diverse opportunities for shipwreck diving. If you're a scuba diving fan Coron should be on your list of the best islands in the Philippines. You'll get the chance to explore World War II-era Japanese ships. Besides wreck diving, other top dive sites in and around Coron include the jungle-encircled Lake Barracuda and Siete Picados Reef.
At the reef, you can see everything from sea turtles to staghorn coral. Snorkellers can also explore these sites, as well as the eerie Kayangan Lake, where strange rock formations and bizarre needlefish lurk just beneath the surface.
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Located in the central Visayas region, Boracay is one of the smallest islands in the Philippines on our list. The island hit the headlines in 2018 when the Philippines government announced it was 'closing' the island. Tourists were banned from visiting for 6 months while the island's infrastructure and ecosystem recovered. Now, the island is welcoming tourists again, albeit with stricter rules in place.
Here you’ll find many of the top international chains of hotels and resorts. On top of that, there are plenty of beach bars and clubs – especially around White Beach and Bulabog Beach. Adrenaline seekers will be spoilt for choice here with a range of water sports and other adventures on offer. Options range from windsurfing, kitesurfing and parasailing to cliff diving, horse riding and sailing.
Discover two paradise islands in the Philippines with our tailor-made trip to Boracay & Palawan. Enjoy luxurious hotels, white sandy beaches, a fascinating underwater world and the hospitality of the local population.
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The Philippines’ biggest and most densely populated island, Luzon, is home to the nation’s capital Manila, with its bustling traffic-clogged streets and swanky shopping malls. North of Manila, this vast island unravels a range of sights. You can see everything from 2,000-year-old rice terraces and Sagada’s hanging coffins to the historic colonial city of Vigan.
Meanwhile, Southern Luzon is known for its coconut-infused cuisine, wild windswept eastern coastline and the perfectly conical Mt Mayon – the Philippines’ most active volcano.
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The little island of Ticao is part of the Masbate Province and it lies just off the tip of Southern Luzon. Home to just two resorts, a smattering of tiny villages and one small town, the landscape here consists of isolated golden beaches, rainforests and waterfalls. Here you’re unlikely to meet other travellers and you’ll often the beaches deserted.
The excellent snorkelling spots are often quiet too. The waters off the coast are a favourite for a variety of manta rays and sharks, including blacktip reef sharks, whale sharks and even hammerheads.
Five kilometres east of Mactan Island, Olango Island supports the largest concentration of migratory birds in the country. About 77 species, including egrets, sandpipers, terns and black-bellied plovers, use the island as a rest stop on their annual migration from breeding grounds in Siberia, northern China and Japan to Australia and New Zealand.
Declared a wildlife reserve in 1998, the island is also home to about 16,000 resident native birds which live mostly in the northern half; the southern half of the island is made up of a wide, shallow bay and expanses of mudflats and mangroves. The reserve is at its best during peak migration months: September to November for the southward migration and February to April northbound.
The island of Panglao is a tropical diving paradise with some lovely sandy beaches and a friendly little capital with an old Spanish church. The best quiet, undeveloped stretches of white sand on the east coast are Bikini Beach, San Isidro Beach and Libaong Beach – this is an ideal place to relax if you want to get away from it all.
The reef at the western end of Panglao, a few minutes by banca from Alona Beach, is in good condition, with healthy corals, a multitude of reef fish and perpendicular underwater cliffs that drop to a depth of 50m.
Between the islands of Panay and Negros is the small island province of Guimaras, known in the Philippines for the sweetness and juiciness of its mangoes. Separated from the Panay mainland by the narrowest slither of the ocean, Guimaras is a gentle island of few hassles, where the people depend largely on agriculture for their livelihood and treat tourists with a mixture of kindness and curiosity.
You get the feeling that while tourism has begun to get its claws into Guimaras, it still can’t quite hold on. In the hinterlands and most of the barangays, life continues to revolve around the harvesting of citrus fruit, coconuts and rice. Other industries are equally rural, including fishing, charcoal production, basket making and mat weaving.
The substantial, vaguely triangular island of Panay has been largely bypassed by tourism, perhaps because everyone seems to get sucked towards Boracay off its northern tip instead. There’s room enough on Panay, though, for plenty of discovery and adventure: the island has a huge coastline and a mountainous, jungled interior that has yet to be fully mapped.
Looking for some more exotic destinations for your trip? Read our guide about the best things to do on the Fiji islands or explore the most exotic places to travel in the world.
Dominated by the ragged saw-like bulk of Mount Guiting Guiting (an unforgettable sight), the isolated Sibuyan Island is the easternmost of the Romblon group and has everything an adventure traveller could dream of. Sibuyan is known for its sparkling coastline, thickly forested interior and a couple of daunting mountain peaks.
This magnificent emerald isle, covering 450 square kilometres, has one of the most intact natural environments in the entire country, a fact that was recognized in 1996 when a large part of Sibuyan was declared a reserve.
Eight kilometres off the northern tip of Cebu, the island of Malapascua has been touted as the next Boracay, largely because of Bounty Beach, a blindingly white stretch of sand on the island’s south coast where a dozen simple resorts have sprung up offering a good choice of accommodation.
The beauty of Malapascua is that while it’s every bit as scenic as Boracay (and, at 2.5km long and 1km wide, even smaller), it has none of the cosmopolitan development, with no big hotels, no fashionable nightclubs and only a handful of beach-style bars frequented largely by divers.
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Off the northeastern tip of Mindanao lies the teardrop-shaped island of Siargao, a largely undeveloped backwater with Boracay-type beaches and dramatic coves and lagoons. Siargao has got everything, with a typically tropical coastal landscape of palm trees and dazzling seas, and a verdant hinterland of rustic little barrios and coconut groves.
Some of the first tourists here were surfers, who discovered a break at Tuason Point that was so good they called it Cloud 9, and though it’s still off the tourist trail, word-of-mouth is bringing an increasing number of surfers from around the world.
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Bantayan Island, just off the northwest coast of Cebu, is quiet and bucolic, flat and arable, without the moody mountains of mainland Cebu. It’s a great place to explore, though divers will be disappointed with the lack of coral left along the shore. Most of the island’s resorts and beaches are around the attractive little town of Santa Fe on the southeast coast, which is where ferries from mainland Cebu arrive.
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Top image: Beautiful scenery of Coron, Palawan, Philippines © Kasia Soszka/Shutterstock