Narrowing down the best islands in the Philippines is a difficult task. There are thousands to choose from, each offering something different. You can reach most by air, making island hopping in the Philippines a popular pastime amongst travellers.
For many people, a Philippines island is all about sand beaches and snorkelling. Yet there’s so much more to discover if you venture beyond the hotspots. Some islands have bustling cities with world-class restaurants, whilst others focus more on heritage and wildlife.
One thing to note is that the country is becoming increasingly popular, so booking a hotel in the Philippines well ahead of your visit is super important. This is especially true if you have your eye on some of the famous beach resorts and want to come during peak season.
Best islands in the Philippines – how to choose
People often ask what is the most popular island in the Philippines? The answer to that really comes down to personal preference, and whether you’re looking for barefoot beach bliss or a bit of culture and history. Out here, there are no such thing as best islands. Philippines holidays are all very different, so it’s important to pick your locations according to your interests. From the tiny volcanic Apo island to the vast Luzon, there is a lot to whittle down but it’s not hard so long as you have an idea of the activities you want to experience.
If you’re wondering what are the top 5 islands in the Philippines, you’re in the right place. In fact, in this travel guide, we’ve added a couple of bonus islands to give you a bit more choice. For dreamy pictures of the Philippine islands and advice on where to find the most scenic spots, read on.
What islands make up the Philippines?
Wondering how many islands are in the Philippines? This southeast Asian nation is made up of over 7000 individual islands, handily divided into different archipelagos or areas to make it easier to understand.
In a nutshell, the three main regions are Luzon, which is the biggest island of the pack; the Visayas, which include favourites like Cebu and Bohol; and finally, Mindanao, down in the south. The popular Palawan lies over in the wests of the Philippines, which is also where you’ll find El Nido and Coron.
Known for: Beaches, Caves and Cliffs
Palawan Island is famous for its secret lagoons and beautiful beaches. Easy to reach from Manila, Palawan is probably the first place that visitors consider when coming up with their Philippines itinerary, and it’s a popular spot with honeymooners.
El Nido is the shining star of Palawan and is a whole archipelago in itself! It’s made up of over 40 islands with towering limestone cliffs clad in jungle foliage lining turquoise lagoons. When you think of the best islands in the Philippines to visit, this is it! The ideal way to explore the secret coves and hidden islets is on a boat tour, many of which last for several days to fully immerse you in the landscape. We’re often asked, “what is the best island hopping tour in the Philippines” and the answer is nearly always the ones here in El Nido.
Adventure junkies should head to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Park in Palawan to explore the mysterious limestone caves by boat. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with ethereal karst landforms and ancient forests making you feel like you’re travelling back through time. The Puerto Princesa national park is also a great place for wildlife spotting, with everything from monkeys to starfish just waiting to be spotted. Snorkelling is world-class, with Honda Bay being the cream of the crop. The coral reef here is colourful and accessible, with no deep diving required.
You might want to shy away from visiting one of the most famous islands in the Philippines because everyone else will be there too. Yet Palawan deserves a slice of your holiday time, and despite it being popular, there are always secluded spots and remote discoveries to be had.
Known for: Diving, Sandbars and Shipwrecks
Island hopping tours around beautiful Coron Island are all about pristine sand and crystal clear water, with dramatic cliffs making the scene feel a little Jurassic. This spot is far off the beaten track, which makes it all the more worthwhile to visit. If you’re not a fan of rubbing shoulders with hordes of other tourists, Coron hits the right notes.
Coron is similar in appearance to El Nido, but here you’ll feel like a true explorer, venturing through fields and over hills in search of the sublime. In fact, many people think it’s one of the best islands to visit. Philippines tours don’t get more picture-postcard than here in Coron.
The snorkelling and scuba diving in Coron is some of the best in the Philippines, and even better than in El Nido. There are sunken shipwrecks from World War II for experienced divers, and plenty of coral reefs and marine life for everyone to explore.
The iconic highlights of any trip here are the Kayangan Lake and the Twin Lagoons, which frequently pop up in glossy travel magazines. Kayangan Lake boasts some of the clearest water in the country, and there’s a popular viewpoint that’s a must for Instagram fans. Meanwhile, the Twin Lagoons offer quintessential Philippine island scenery, with karst cliffs plunging into the aquamarine coves.
Known for: Beaches, Water Sports and Bars
The gleaming turquoise jewel of Boracay is known for having some of the world’s most idyllic beaches. It’s one of the most visited resort islands in Philippines with easy access and a range of hotels and guest houses to suit all budgets. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday with all the amenities you could wish for, Boracay is the real deal. The nightlife scene is vibrant too, so if you want to party this is a great place to come. The scenery on Boracay isn’t bad either, so you’re really onto a winner with this idyllic Philippine island whatever you’re looking for in a holiday.
The main draw on Boracay is the sand, with the famous White Beach enticing visitors from near and far. Restaurants and bars line this long stretch of coast, although there are quieter sections too for those who prefer a more tranquil vibe. Crystal Cove is another superb spot for swimming, while windsurfers should head to Bulabog Beach for some serious fun in the sun.
Boracay is pretty popular so is often quite busy compared to some of the other Philippines islands, but there are always hidden beaches and pockets of calm to be found if you look for them away from the main resort sites.
Known for: History, Rice Terraces and Hanging Coffins
Home to the capital city, Manila, Luzon is the largest island in the Philippines. The landscapes and experiences here are varied, and you could easily spend your whole holiday just focusing on this island alone. The inland scenery is largely agricultural, with swathes of rice terraces and fields of maize lining the roads. The Batad Rice Terraces are amongst the most famous – and the most photogenic. You can enjoy hikes through the valleys for a closer inspection and visit rural settlements and meet some of the friendly locals. There are lots of homestays here, so if you’re after a culturally immersive experience, this is a great place to come.
Another reason for Luzon being one of the best islands in the Philippines is the Hanging Coffins of Sagada. Anyone wanting to explore beyond the beaches and experience something unique should come up here to this remote mountain province. Rather than burying their dead, the people of Sagada used to hang coffins high up on the cliff faces so that their ancestors are closer to the spirits. Today, the tradition is dying out, but curious visitors can still walk up the valley from the town and see this strange sight for themselves.
In the centre of Luzon Island, the city of Bataan is a prime spot for history buffs to discover more about the country’s heritage. This is where the infamous Bataan Death March occurred during the Second World War, and there’s a museum dedicated to the prisoners who suffered here. There are also churches to visit, as well as a heritage park focusing on the island’s Spanish heritage. Bataan is an affordable place too, so ideal for those on a budget. If you’re looking for the cheapest island in the Philippines, you can’t go wrong with Luzon. Having said that, the country as a whole is relatively cheap compared to other places in southeast Asia and even around the world, so wherever you end up will be fairly easy on the wallet.
Luzon is also known as the best island to live in the Philippines, thanks to its infrastructure, amenities, and scenery. If you’re considering stopping by on your digital nomad journey, then Luzon Island is a popular place to base yourself.
Known for: Chocolate Hills, Wildlife and Diving
Is Bohol the best Philippine island? Maybe, if you like a bit of variety in your holiday itinerary. Shimmering seas and deserted beaches are all well and good, but some of the Philippines top islands offer something a little different. Located in the central Visayas region, Bohol is one such island and a must for nature lovers and explorers who want to experience the unusual. The main event here is the Chocolate Hills site, where otherworldly conical mounds burst from the forest like giant green molehills. It’s bizarre yet beautiful, and you won’t find anywhere else like it on earth.
There are lots of waterfalls and remote rivers to explore, where wildlife rules the roost. It’s the sort of place best seen on a guided tour, so you can make the most of your experience and discover places far from the crowds.
Found just off Bohol, Panglao Island is a popular spot for scuba diving. The biodiversity here is staggering, and it’s another of the beautiful Philippine islands that have made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage list. Sunbathing and snorkelling are the order of a day at the beach here, which is easily accessed by boat or bridge from Tagbilaran City on Bohol.
Known for: Mangroves, Wildlife and Rock Pools
One of the most eastern Philippine islands, Siargao is less developed than some of the other locations, which means it’s less crowded too. Siargao Island is the spot to go if you’re wanting to surf – it’s the best place in the Philippines to catch a barrel wave and show off your moves. Yet there’s more to Siargao than surfing. You can also take a tour into the mangroves and discover a miniature paradise at Sugba Lagoon, where the colour of the water matches the trees.
If you want to get your palm tree fix, Siargao might just be the best island in Philippines. The palm swathes stretch as far as the eye can see, with the famous Palm Road being a must if you’re on a driving tour. There are viewpoints and coconuts along the way, so don’t forget your camera.
The Magpupungko Rock Pools are another top attraction on the island. Philippines scenery so often concentrates on cliffs and lagoons, but these emerald pools are a way to get even closer to nature. Make sure you time your visit for low tide otherwise you might be disappointed!
There are several tiny islets dotted around the coast, which make for great picnics and offer excellent swimming. Visit the Naked Island sand bar for those Robinson Crusoe feels, or head over to Guyam Island for palm trees and your own private stretch of beach.
Best for: Whale Sharks, Heritage and Water sports
Cebu ticks all the boxes when you’re searching for the best islands to visit in the Philippines. Nestled in the heart of the archipelago, Cebu has all the elements of a well-rounded holiday. In Cebu City, you’ll find historical sights dating to the 16th century when Spanish colonial rule was in full flow. Don’t miss exploring the 18th-century Fort San Pedro in the Plaza Independencia, which tells stories of local conquest and revolution.
Cebu Island is a great place for water sports and is geared up for international favourites like parasailing and banana boating. There are heaps of superb snorkelling sites and hidden cascades like Tumalog Falls where intrepid adventures can enjoy a jungle dip. Hiking to scenic viewpoints is another fun activity here in Cebu, with Busay Hill being one of the most famous locations. Make sure you pack the sunscreen!
When it comes to wildlife, Cebu comes into its own. If you’ve ever wanted to swim with a whale shark, visit Oslob beach and snorkel alongside these majestic marine giants. Manta rays and thresher sharks are regular visitors too.
Travel around the Philippines Islands
On your search for the best islands in Philippines it’s important to take transport into consideration. If you look at a Philippines island map, you’ll notice that these destinations are strung out across the sea, so it’s not possible to just hop from one to the other without some careful planning.
Luckily, Philippines travel is well established and geared to tourism, with flights and ferries connecting all the major islands. Just remember to factor in a little extra time when arranging your itinerary in case transport schedules change or boats are delayed due to the weather. The Philippines is all about slow travel, which gives you the opportunity to do more than just scratch the surface during your visit.
So, which are the best islands to visit in the Philippines for you?
There are lots of different islands in the Philippines so it can seem a little daunting trying to whittle down your options into one manageable itinerary. Hopefully, we’ve given you some food for thought by highlighting some of the top Philippines vacation islands beloved by visitors from around the world.
Whether you want to swim with whale sharks in Cebu, admire the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, or snorkel with Nemo in Coron, the beautiful islands of the Philippines are waiting to welcome you.