The Visayas, a collection of jigsaw-shaped islands in the heart of the Philippines, are considered the cradle of the country. Comprising thousands of islands and atolls, this relaxing region is a bounty of tropical sands and coral reefs; everywhere you turn, there seems to be another beach or dive site. There are four major island groups in the east – Cebu, Bohol, Samar and Leyte – but it’s the hundreds of tropical enigmas in between that make this part of the Philippines so irresistible. The western half, whose highlight is Boracay, offer opportunities for everything from diving and snorkelling to great hiking.
The best travel tips for visiting Visayas
Boracay is indeed captivating; with its pristine beach, it is on almost everyone’s itinerary. But if Boracay is too touristy for you, try laidback Siquijor or tiny Apo Island near Negros, a marine reserve where the only accommodation is in rustic cottages. For even less developed spots, head over to the Eastern Visayas for Panglao Island off Bohol, or the tantalising beaches and waters of Malapascua off the northern tip of Cebu Island.
For trekking and climbing make for Mount Kanlaon National Park on Negros, one of the country’s finest wilderness areas. The largest city in the Visayas is Cebu City, the arrival point for a limited number of international flights – as well as a major hub for domestic airlines – making it a good alternative base to Manila. It’s friendly, affordable and has a buzzing nightlife scene, with great restaurants and live music.
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Best things to do in Visayas
Visayas is perhaps the most alluring region of the Philippines, a sunbleached concentration of islands littered with beaches, crumbling churches, sugar plantations and untouched reefs. Here are some of the best things to do in Visayas.
#1 Kick back on picture-perfect sands at Boracay
Though overdeveloped, Boracay’s picture-perfect White Beach is still one of the best anywhere. Discover also a quality dining and wild nightlife scene, plus activities from scuba diving to kitesurfing.
It may be only 7km long and 1km wide at its narrowest point, but Boracay has over thirty beaches and coves, and enough accommodation options to suit all budgets. Watching the graceful paraws (sailing boats) setting sail at sunset is worth the journey on its own.
Though Boracay is popular with domestic tourists, they are outnumbered by foreigners, both on package and independent holidays; this gives the island a strong international feel.
#2 Head off the beaten track in Romblon
Off the northern coast of Panay, between Mindoro and Bicol, the province of Romblon consists of three main islands – Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan, plus a dozen or so more smaller islands.
The province is largely overlooked by visitors because of limited transport connections, and once you’re here, to put it simply, there’s not that much to do.
However, as Boracay becomes increasingly crowded, Romblon makes an ever-more appealing option, and little by little it is making its way onto travellers’ radars, aided by the opening of new resorts and activities, particularly on the southernmost island of Carabao.
For now, though, most of Romblon remains wild and untouched and is home to some beautiful and rarely visited beaches and coral reefs, making it an excellent off-the-beaten-track destination for scuba diving.
Mount Guiting-Guiting, on Sibuyan, also offers one of the country’s most challenging hikes.
#3 Keep on partying at Ati-Atihan Festival
Ati-Atihan is the biggest bash in the Philippines, with wild costumes, outdoor partying and copious food and drink. This quasi-religious mardi gras is held every January in Kalibo.
The culmination of the two-week event is a procession through the streets on the third Sunday of the month, a sustained three-day, three-night frenzy of carousing and dancing.
Cross-dressers bring out their best frocks, and schoolgirls with hats made of coconuts join aborigines, celebrities and priests in fancy dress.
Throw in the unending beat of massed drums and the average Filipino’s predisposition for a good party, and the result is a flamboyant alfresco rave that claims to be the biggest and most prolonged in the country.
The Ati-Atihan mantra Hala Bira, Puera Pasma translates as “Keep on going, no tiring.”
#4 Live like a sugar baron in Silay
The elegant town of Silay, about 15km north of Bacolod, is an atmospheric relic of a grander age when Negros was rich from its cultivation of sugar cane.
In the late eighteenth century it was talked about as the “Paris of Negros”, with music performers from Europe arriving by steamship to take part in operettas and zarzuelas.
This passion for music and the arts gave Silay – and the Philippines – its first international star, Conchita Gaston, a mezzo-soprano who performed in major opera houses in Europe in the postwar years.
Today, Silay’s major tourist draw is its ancestral homes, most of them built between 1880 and 1940. Some of the best are open to the public or have been converted into hotels, offering a glimpse of what life was like for the sugar barons.
#5 Extreme trekking in Mount Kanlaon National Park
At the centre of the forested park is Mount Kanlaon (2435m), the tallest peak in the central Philippines and one of the thirteen most active volcanoes in the country.
Climbing it offers a potentially dangerous challenge, with the real possibility of violent eruptions – climbers have died scaling it – and the crater’s rim is a forbidding knife edge overhanging an apparently bottomless chasm.
The dense surrounding forest contains all manner of wonderful fauna, including pythons and tube-nosed bats, and locals believe the mountain is home to many spirits.
There are three main routes up the volcano itself. The Guintubdan trail is the easiest and most common ascent.
The 14km-long Mananawin trail works best over three days and offers the chance to really get to know the region, while the short, steep Wesey trail is very exposed and only for experienced tropical mountaineers. Whichever route you choose, you’ll need a guide.
#6 Laze beneath swaying palms on Sugar Beach
Negros’ most delightful strip of sand is a superb place to unwind and a good jumping-off point for magnificent Danjugan Island.
Resorts can arrange boat transfer, picking you up from Poblacion Beach in Sipalay; a cheaper, less direct alternative is to take a tricycle to Nauhang, then a small paddle boat across the creek, and walk around the headland – better still, ask to be let off the bus in Montilla, 5km northeast of Sipalay, only a short tricycle ride from Nauhang.
Although it’s just 5km as the crow flies from Sipalay, the absence of road access to beautiful Sugar Beach, cut off by knobbly green hills, makes it feel more like an island.
While it may not have the white sand and azure waters of Boracay, it offers a relaxed vibe, plus a good selection of small resorts ranging from ultra-budget to mid-range.
#7 Delve beneath the waters surrounding Apo Island
This Robinson Crusoe-esque hideaway off Negros has become a prime destination for divers, most of whom head out for the day from Dumaguete, Dauin or Siquijor.
Site of one of the Philippines’ first and most successful marine reserves, Apo has a series of reefs teeming with marine life, from the smallest nudibranch to the largest deepwater fish.
The sanctuary area is on the island’s southeast coast, while much of the flat land to the north is occupied by the only village, home to four hundred fisherfolk and farmers.
Non-divers needn’t be bored; Apo has some fantastic snorkelling and it’s a great little island to explore on foot.
#8 Take a tour of Siquijor
Small, laidback Siquijor lies between the islands of Cebu, Negros and Bohol. The island is a peaceful and picturesque pleasure to tour, whether by bike, tricycle, motorbike or jeepney – the entire 72km coastal road is paved (a rare delight in the Philippines) and traffic is light.
The beaches alone make it worth a visit, but there are also mountain trails, waterfalls and old churches to explore as well as decent scuba diving. The island is gradually becoming more popular, but for now it remains relatively unexplored by tourists.
Most places to stay are within half an hour of the port towns of Siquijor and Larena, notably around San Juan, south of Siquijor, and at Sandugan, north of Larena.
A number of resorts have certified dive operators who will take you on trips to places such as Sandugan Point and Tambisan Point, both known for their coral and abundant marine life.
At Paliton Beach there are three submarine caves where you can see sleeping reef sharks, and at Salag-Doong Beach, on the eastern side of the island, divers have occasionally reported seeing manta rays and shoals of barracuda.
Where to stay in Visayas
Visayas offers something for everyone in terms of accommodation, whether you’re looking to blow the bank on luxury or go as pared back as possible. Here’s where to stay in East and West Visayas.
Accommodation on Biliran Island is relatively limited. Head to Bohol for reliable hotels and guesthouses. There are also a few beachfront resorts, and some homestay options.
Accommodation on Camotes Islands is relatively affordable and ranges from budget-friendly guesthouses and hostels to several upscale resorts. Travellers find their main options around Santiago Beach in southern Pacijan.
Cebu has a wide choice of accommodation, with chic waterside resorts and guesthouses, reliable backpacker spots and some boutique rooms in the city.
The mainstay of accommodation is in Tacloban. Accommodation ranges from quirky budget rooms to affordable mid-range places; along the coast find a few more fancy resorts and dive-focussed accommodation.
Dive resorts take centre stage along several beaches. The two main cities, Dumaguete and Bacolod, offer decent midrange choices, and those heading to the mountains will find a scattering of peaceful getaways.
In Bacolod there are three main areas to choose from: foodies will relish the uptown choices around the northern section of Lacson St.
There are over three hundred places to stay on Boracay, which means that except at peak times (Christmas, Easter and Chinese New Year, when prices can rise by as much as fifty percent) you should be able to find a room simply by taking a stroll down White Beach.
Expect beachfront resorts with pools, bars, restaurants, and water sports, comfortable hotels with basic amenities such as air conditioning, TV, and hot and cold showers, smaller and more affordable guesthouses, and homestays for those keen to experience local culture and hospitality.
Much of the best accommodation is around the San Juan area – from budget through to high-end – though also look to Larena and Solangon for plush leafy resorts.
Best restaurants and bars in Visayas
The food scene in Visayas varies greatly between towns and islands but the best restaurants and bars are generally on the most popular destinations for travelers like Boracay, which serves up plenty of local and international fare. In the west, try inasal (marinated grilled chicken with anchiote, calamansi, garlic and lemongrass).
Bacolod’s dining scene has moved uptown and upscale in recent years, with a cosmopolitan range of trendy cafés and restaurants along northern Lacson St, while time-tested favourites still hold their own in the old city. It’s also worth checking out the row of identikit chicken restaurants at Manokan Country. Dumaguete also has an expanding food scene that features everything from fresh seafood stalls to quality international cuisine.
Across the river from the Iloilo City centre, Smallville Commercial Complex has everything from coffee shops and restaurants to bars featuring live bands, and full-blown clubs like Aura, Ice and MO2. Coffeebreak is a citywide chain that does good coffee and cakes. There are a surprising number of Mexican places in Roxas City; Eleckuisine is probably the best. Baybay Beach has some retty beachside restaurants selling good quality seafood.
Boracay has a more diverse dining scene than most cities in the Philippines, and even in a two-week stay you can only sample a fraction of the options. There are also plenty of local vendors who set up barbecues on the beach at sundown to cook everything from fresh lapu-lapu and squid to tasty local bananas sprinkled with muscovado sugar. Conversely, the big international chains also have a noticeable presence.
There is a good Italian in Romblon Town. Of the nearby islands, Tablas has pizzerias and other simple restaurants, whilst Carabao has some beautiful beaches with half-decent places to eat along the sand.
Eating is almost exclusively in the resorts, apart from some humble local joints, mainly in San Miguel, serving lechon and the like.
The main drag in Siquijor Town, Rizal St, is chock-a-block with cheap canteens and bakeries selling fresh pan de sal. On the North Coast, expect more Filipino specialties and traditionally local cooking.
Cebu’s cosmopolitan dining scene is seriously on the up, offering everything from excellent snack joints to Michelinstar restaurants. Though there are places to eat all over downtown, many of the best options are to be found in the city’s malls, notably The Terraces at the Ayala Center, a tastefully designed food court overlooking atmospheric gardens.
North of the centre, the malls Crossroads and Banilad Town Center (BTC) are also home to the city’s best international restaurants. Fast-food chains and coffee shops are so commonplace that it can feel as if there’s one on every corner.
Panagsama and Alona beaches has a number of good cafes and coffee shops as well as laidback place rustles up tasty international dishes and top-notch wood-fired pizzas. Nightlife mainly revolves around resort and dive-shop bars, but there are a few independent party places by the beach. Don't miss BBQ served upstairs at The Garden Café and Montana Restaurant.
The Balicuatro Islands has family-run places and good cafes, it's all fast-food favourites in Calbayog, and Borongan’s dining options are limited aside from at the hotels.
These days Tacloban has a pretty sophisticated restaurant scene, including weekend pop-ups and American-style smokehouses. In between meals, there are plenty of local specialities to snack on – binagul, a hot sticky concoction made of coconut and nuts, and chocolate meron can be bought freshly made every morning from hawkers along Rizal Ave.
These are the best restaurants and bars in Visayas.
- 21, Bacolod. Popular with Bacolod’s elite and middle classes, this institution dishes out amazing batchoy (noodle soup with crispy pork) and excellent seafood, from blue marlin with herb butter to good oldfashioned fish and chips. White tablecloths and attentive service complete the picture.
- Chicken House, Bacolod. An oldie but a goodie, Chicken House has been serving up sumptuous roast chicken and other grilled meat for three decades and continues to draw in the local crowds with its distinctive flavours and low prices.
- Casablanca, Dumaguete. Movie-themed, Austrian-owned restaurant which offers fine European cuisine to a mainly expat clientele. Most dishes such as pasta and Indian chicken curry are good, though it’s worth splashing out for the undeniably excellent signature Brazilian beef tenderloin. Casablanca also has its own bakery and deli, a decent wine list and a changing daily menu.
- The Garden Café and Montana Restaurant, Bohol. Established by the Bohol Deaf Academy and providing training for up to forty deaf students, The Garden Café has a menu mixing Mexican and Filipino dishes. You can communicate with the staff in writing or with sign language (a few basic signs are listed on the menu).
How to get here
Being a collection of islands, getting to the Visayas is best done by air or sea.
Reaching the Visayas by plane is easy. There are several airports in the region that cater to both domestic and international flights.
Mactan-Cebu International Airport (CEB) is the main gateway to the Visayas region and is located in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu. It has direct flights from major cities in Asia as well as domestic flights from Manila, Davao, and other cities in the Philippines.
Other airports in the Visayas receiving flights from the region are Iloilo International Airport (ILO) in Cabatuan, Iloilo, Bacolod-Silay International Airport (BCD), Tagbilaran Airport (TAG) on Bohol and Dumaguete-Sibulan Airport (DGT).
Several ferry companies operate routes to the Visayas region from different parts of the Philippines. Popular routes include Manila to Cebu, Dumaguete to Cebu, and Iloilo to Bacolod.
Ferries offer different classes of accommodation, ranging from economy to first class. Fastcraft is faster and more expensive than regular ferries, but they offer a more comfortable and convenient option for travellers. They operate shorter routes and can take you from one island to another in a shorter amount of time. Some popular fastcraft routes include Cebu to Bohol and Iloilo to Bacolod.
Roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) vessels transport vehicles, goods, and passengers. They operate between different ports in the Visayas region and are a popular option for travlelers who want to bring their own vehicles. Some of the popular Ro-Ro routes include Cebu to Bohol, Dumaguete to Siquijor, and Bacolod to Iloilo.
How many days do you need in Visayas?
If you want to explore several islands and visit popular tourist destinations like Boracay, Cebu, Bohol, and Palawan, you’ll need at least two weeks in Visayas.
Spend 1-3 days in Cebu City, exploring the historic sites of such as Magellan's Cross and Fort San Pedro. Head to Bohol for days 4-6 to tour the famous Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Sanctuary, and Man-made Forest.
Visit the beaches of Panglao Island and enjoy water activities such as snorkelling and diving. Don’t miss a scenic cruise along the Loboc River. Days 7-9 aim for Siquijor to explore beaches like Salagdoong Beach and Paliton Beach.
Visit the Cambugahay Falls here too and enjoy swimming in the natural pool. Take a tour of the island to see attractions such as the Old Balete Tree and the San Isidro Labrador Church.
Days 10-12 go to Dumaguete for Apo Island and enjoy snorkelling or diving with sea turtles. Also explore the Silliman University and the Dumaguete Belfry. Take a food tour of Dumaguete and try local delicacies like budbud kabog.
Finally on days 13-14 finish in Boracay. Relax on the white-sand beaches and enjoy water activities such as parasailing.
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Tips for getting around
The Visayas region is composed of many islands, and there are several ways to travel around the region depending on budget and time. Here are the best ways for getting around Visayas.
Several airlines offer flights in the Visayas region, such as to Cebu, Bohol, Iloilo, and Dumaguete. This is the fastest and most convenient way to travel around the region, especially if you are short on time.
Ferries and bangkas – wooden outrigger boats – were once the bread and butter of Philippine travel. Though most routes have been made redundant by budget air travel, they are still important in the Visayas.
For shorter inter-island trips, ferries remain the only form of transport available, and in the Visayas island-hopping by boat can be an enjoyable and rewarding part of your trip.
If you prefer land travel, you can take a bus to different destinations in the Visayas region. This is a good option if you want to travel at your own pace and explore the different towns and cities along the way.
By rental car or motorcycle
Renting a car or motorcycle can be a good option if you want to explore the region independently. However, be aware that road conditions can vary, and traffic can be heavy in some areas.
By tricycle or jeepney
Tricycles and jeepneys are common forms of transportation in the Philippines, and they can be a fun way to get around. However, they may not be the most comfortable option for longer journeys.
Best time to visit Visayas
The best time to visit Visayas is during the dry season, which runs from November to April. During this time, the weather is generally sunny with occasional rain showers, making it a great time for outdoor activities like island hopping, snorkeling, and diving.
However, if you are specifically looking to go whale shark watching in Oslob or go diving in Malapascua Island, the best time to visit would be from December to May. This is when the waters are the clearest and most suitable for these activities.
On the other hand, if you want to experience the region's colorful festivals, like the Ati-Atihan Festival in Aklan or the Sinulog Festival in Cebu, plan your visit during January. If you're interested in seeing the famous MassKara Festival in Bacolod, visit in October.
It's also important to note that Visayas is prone to typhoons, which can occur between June and October. So, if you plan to visit during this time, be sure to check the weather forecasts and plan accordingly.
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