Things to Do in Philippines
With its limestone cliffs, emerald green waters, and craggy karst formations, the Big Lagoon can almost seem fake—too beautiful to possibly be real. This isn’t some tropical dream, however, but an actual place with a placid lagoon that’s perfect for snorkeling and swimming.
From the moment you enter the Big Lagoon on an island hopping tour from El Nido, the rest of the world seems to fade away, unable to penetrate the cliffs, and there’s a moment of stillness, serenity, and calm as smooth as the tropical waters. If you choose to jump off the boat for a swim when visiting the Big Lagoon, take a second to look back at your boat and notice how small and toy-like it appears at the base of the towering cliffs. Everything here is grandiose, and it’s little wonder why the Big Lagoon is considered one of the most scenic spots in El Nido, the Philippines, and the world.
One of the most important sites for Philippine history in Manila, Fort Santiago was built by the Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi as a defensive fortress designed to protect the newly formed city. The fort is a key feature of the famous walled city known as Intramuros — a complex of manicured gardens, fountains, lily ponds, and sunny plazas, as well as the Rizal Shrine museum, located in the building where Dr. Jose Rizal (a Philippines national hero) was incarcerated during the late 19th century.
Much like the neighboring Big Lagoon, the Small Lagoon is a scenic cove where reality seems to meld with a place that’s out of a tropical dream. Unlike its larger cousin, however, the Small Lagoon offers added adventures like swimming in hidden sea caves, and squeezing through narrow holes in the rocks to access the placid waters. This spot is popular with kayaking tours since they can squeeze through the narrow openings, but it’s just as easy to swim through the channel and emerge in the tranquil lagoon.
Because of the shear, near vertical walls and towering karst formations, swimming or paddling through the Small Lagoon can make you feel like you’re on the set of a Hollywood action film. A place this naturally stunning, after all, couldn’t possibly be real, yet here it is just a boat ride away from impossibly gorgeous El Nido.
A new Seven Wonders of Nature, the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Puerto Princesa Underground River flows through a limestone cave system before spilling into the South China Sea. A paddle through this eerie ecosystem, filled with otherworldly cave formations and chattering bats, is one of the Philippines’ most unforgettable experiences.
The colonial heart of Manila, Intramuros—which means “within the walls”—is the capital’s oldest district and home to some of its most impressive historic monuments. Founded by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the gigantic stone citadel is surrounded by impressively preserved city walls, stretching for almost 3 miles (5 kilometers).
Step back in time and see how upper-class Filipinos lived during the colonial era at Casa Manila, a beautifully reconstructed traditional Spanish colonial home within the walls of Intramuros, in the heart of Manila. Casa Manila is filled with period furniture, furnishings, decorative objects, and artwork from the colonial era.
On the island of Bohol, the Chocolate Hills are hailed as one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the Philippines. The more than 1,260 mounds—which get their name from the rich, brown color they turn during the summer months—are a geological anomaly best seen from an elevated overlook in the town of Carmen.
Don’t worry—there aren’t any crocodiles cruising the waters at this popular Boracay island. Instead you’ll find schools of colorful fish and vibrant, healthy corals, that make this one of the best places to go snorkeling and swimming in Boracay. The waters here can be crystal clear—particularly in the peak season—and it’s a happening stop on island hopping tours that explore the Boracay coast.
It isn’t just snorkelers who flock here, however, as Crocodile Island is also one of the best spots to go scuba diving in Boracay. The wall here begins at 15 feet and it’s a relatively shallow dive, which makes it a good spot for intro divers or those who have just become certified. Watch as schools of silvery fish go flitting in front of your face, and corals waves in the gentle currents and spring up out of the reef. There’s even the chance of spotting a turtle at it lazily swims on by, before climbing aboard your Boracay boat and exploring the rest of the coast.
Focused on the art of Filipino sculptor Ramon Orlina, known for his glass sculptures, Museo Orlina sits atop Tagaytay Ridge with views across Lake Taal and its miniature volcano. Over five storeys and a sculpture garden, the museum explores Orlina’s work, including scale models of monumental pieces. It also displays other local artists.
The Philippines’ answer to the safari park, 62-acre (25-hectare) Zoobic Safari sits at the heart of Subic Bay. While the emphasis is on the tiger safari, attractions include a crocodile pit, a serpentarium, a train ride, and a petting zoo. In season, the park operates a night safari, which includes a drive through the tigers’ habitat.
More Things to Do in Philippines
Cebu's Basilica del Santo Niño (Basilica of Santo Nino) was born from fire. In 1565, the church was built on the site where one of conquistador Legazpi's men supposedly found a statue of Jesus in the burning ruins of a hostile native village. The statue—considered the country’s oldest religious artifact—was left completely unharmed.
Situated next to the walled city of Intramuros, historical Rizal Park is one of the largest urban parks in Asia and covers 140 acres (58 hectares). With lawns, gardens, walkways, ponds, museums, an observatory, a concert hall, and more, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Manila for locals and visitors alike.
One of Manila’s best-known streets, Roxas Boulevard hugs the waterfront for most of its length and includes Rizal Park, the historic Manila Hotel, and the popular promenade Manila Baywalk. It’s backed by the lively Malate district, with its open-air bars and restaurants, while Manila Bay sunset views make it a popular early evening stop.
The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan led the first expedition to sail around the earth but never made it home, dying in Cebu. Today, a tall wooden cross known as Magellan’s Cross (Cruz de Magallanes) commemorates his memory—and supposedly contains relics of the original crucifix Magellan planted in Cebu in 1521.
Located in the historic Walled City of Old Manila, the beautiful baroque Church of San Agustin is both the oldest church in the country and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Highlights include the tombs of several historical figures—including conquistadors, statesmen, and artists—as well as the adjoining San Agustin Museum.
The Baclayon Church, sits atop the original site of the first Catholic mission to Bohol and dates back to the 16th century. The simple cross-shaped church facing the Bohol Sea that visitors can see today is one of the oldest churches in the Philippines. It is fashioned from coral-stone block and was completed in 1727.
The church and its adjacent bell tower suffered major damage in the 7.2 earthquake that shook the region in 2013. A new red roof has been added and visitors can once again wander inside, taking in the ceiling frescoes around the altar, tiny saint figures tucked into its nooks, and a handful of glass-enclosed statues from the earliest days of the church. Renovations are ongoing.
Behind the church in the old convent, the Church Museum houses many of the building’s artifacts including gold-stitched vestments, hymnals bound in water buffalo skins and inscribed with plant-based inks, as well as additional saints, iconography and relics.
Set in landscaped gardens just back from the waterfront in the heart of Cebu City, Fort San Pedro (Fuerte de San Pedro in Spanish) is a postcard-perfect colonial fort. First built in the 16th century, the triangular structure dates mainly from the 18th century. It houses a little museum devoted to Spanish colonial times.
Hinagdanan Cave can be found on Panglao Island in the Philippines’ Bohol Province. Made from limestone, Hinagdanan Cave is naturally lit by sunlight filtering in through holes in its rocky ceiling, which in turn creates some interesting lighting effects.
Concrete steps lead down into the cave from the entrance. The stalactites and stalagmites here are particularly impressive, protruding from both the ground and the ceiling, and
surrounding an underground lagoon, which is warm enough to swim in (although costs extra). The cave is also a place for nesting swallows, which sweep into the cave and sleep in the tiny holes in the ceiling.
Hinagdanan Cave has become a popular attraction since its accidental discovery by the land’s owner some years ago, and there is now a firm holding of souvenir shops and stalls that need to be navigated before visitors can reach the cave’s entrance.
Conceptualized by local award-winning sculptor Eduardo Castillo and unveiled in 2000, Cebu Heritage Monument is a brass, bronze, and steel monolith that showcases the country’s history in giant form. Telling a story of colonization and occupation, visit the monument to learn about the Philippines’ centuries-long struggle for freedom.
Dominating the heart of the monument is the sculpture of the Spanish galleon ship that carried explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew to 16th-century Cebu. Magellan’s arrival marked the beginning of the colonization of the Philippines, though on the night of April 21, 1521, local chieftain Lapu-Lapu ended up killing him in the Battle of Mactan, and Cebu Heritage Monument depicts this event too.
From Spanish sailboats to men preparing for battle, Cebu Heritage Monument is hyper masculine, though there are touches of color, with the red, white, and blue of the Philippine flag splashed across one corner of the monument.
Based in Plaza Parian in front of the Chapel of San Juan Bautista, the Philippines’ religious history is also carved into this monument. See the the conversion of Rajah Humabon — one of the first indigenous converts to Roman Catholicism — to Christianity. Spot a statue of the blessed Saint Pedro Calungsod, a giant cross, a representation of Cebu City’s first Mass, and depictions of Cebu City’s Basilica del Santo Niño, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, and San Juan Bautista Parish Church.
A bronze statue on a hilltop fronting the sea commemorates The Sandugo, a traditional tribal trust ceremony shared by regional chief Datu Skiatuna and Captain General Miguel López de Legazpi of Spain shortly after his arrival in Bohol in 1565. The symbolic gesture formed the foundation for lasting peace between the Spaniards and the Island residents.
The statue, near the site of the original ceremony, sits on small raised pedestal and depicts the two men seated in their period regalia and clanking glasses while three Spaniards look on approvingly. The blood compact required both men to create a small incision in their forearms, sprinkle blood in a glass of wine, exchange cups, and drink, thus solidifying the compact.
An ever-popular retreat from Manila, Villa Escudero Plantations and Resort is a historic hacienda and working coconut plantation. Attractions here run from a restaurant set in a waterfall, where you dine with water running over your toes, to swimming pools, a river, a museum, buffalo-cart rides, bamboo rafts, and cultural dance shows.
Established in 1901, the National Museum of the Philippines is a vast complex of museums and a planetarium located next to Rizal Park. Immerse yourself in the artistic, historical, and cultural heritage of the Philippines through the museum’s expansive collections covering fine art, ethnography, anthropology, archaeology, and natural history.
Amid the crystal waters and vibrant reef of Cebu’s Sumilon Island Marine Sanctuary, tiny Sumilon Island offers secret caves, hiking trails, colorful marine life, a lighthouse, and a brilliant white sandbar that’s an Instagram favorite. It’s home to the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, with pools, water sports, restaurants, and stylish bungalows.
About 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Manila, a visit to the 33-foot-high (10-meter-high) Pagsanjan (Magdapio) Falls delivers an epic thrill ride. First, paddle upstream in a small boat. Then ride a bamboo raft under the cascade itself into Devil’s Cave. Finally, race down the jungled gorge through a series of adrenaline-pumping rapids.
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