Ask Filipinos “What is the Philippines known for?” and you’ll only get either of two things. They wouldn’t know where to end, or begin.
Aside from sun-kissed beaches and idyllic provincial escapes, the Philippines is famous for its diversity. This makes perfect sense, considering that its archipelagic geography paves the way for its multitude of sights and experiences.
Curious for more? Let me give you a taste of what’s unique about the Philippines before even booking that trip.
Table of Contents
1. Islands and dreamy bodies of water
Since I’ve already mentioned it in the intro, might as well start from there. The Philippines is an archipelago with many islands. How many, to be exact? 7,641. They say with climate change and the world’s rising waters, though, that’s not a permanent number.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that the Philippines covers 7,000+ islands scattered across glittering bodies of water. And in case you’re in need of a geography refresher, I’ll answer the first question that might pop inside your head.
Where in the world is the Philippines? It’s in Southeast Asia right within the Pacific Ring of Fire a.k.a. the world’s Circum-Pacific belt! This simply means that all Philippine islands run across “a path along the Pacific Ocean” lined with active volcanoes.
Another fun fact: Aside from tropical weather, the Philippines is famous for breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. Why? Because it sits close to the equator (right above it!); the sunlight that hits these areas is more concentrated, hence tank-top temperatures and the daily light shows.
2. Three main island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao
Speaking of Philippine islands, knowing the country’s main island groups would do you well when planning a trip to any of its regions. Repeat after me: The Philippines is known for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao (pronounced min-da-now). There are only three major island groups in the Philippines, so it’s not that hard to remember.
If you want a visual reference, just think of it as Luzon at the tippy top of the archipelago, Visayas in the middle, and Mindanao as the far southern parts of the country.
Luzon is home to 38 provinces; Visayas, 16; and Mindanao, 27. That’s a total of 81 awesome Philippine provinces to choose from, for your next trip and the trips after that!
3. A capital that never sleeps
I won’t sugarcoat — most locals have a love-hate relationship with the Philippine capital, Manila. Its unending thrum is both a curse and a blessing. I daresay it’s even one of those cities that never sleep, and the Philippines is famous for it!
Manila houses central business districts (CBDs), tourist sights, and even university areas. It’s so populous that many deem it too dense, from its swanky neighborhoods and entertainment districts to the slums.
These days, though, Manila is certainly looking better. The current local government has been making an effort to turn the city back into the gem it was decades back. One thing’s for sure: Manila’s never a bore.
Find out what Manila is known and famous for.
Philippines fun fact: The city of Manila is different from Metro Manila. Metro Manila is actually an entire region also called the National Capital Region or the NCR. Here, you’ll find countless CBDs, entertainment complexes, and the seat of the government; it’s composed of cities that are major economic hubs. Manila city, meanwhile, is just one of these centers. It’s also the Philippine capital.
4. Ties to Malays, Spanish, Japanese, and Americans
Philippine history will tell you that our culture deeply mingles with others’. From the Filipino language alone, you can already tell that we bear similarities with Malays. Our salamat means the same thing as the Malaysian or Indonesian selamat; the same goes for masarap and mesarap.
For about 333 years, the Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards. In fact, the country was named “Philippines” to honor Spain’s then-ruling monarch, King Philipp II. A great way to know more about the Philippines’ Spanish past is by joining this small group bamboo bike tour in Intramuros.
The Philippines was also occupied, at various points in history, by the Japanese and the Americans, which is why the Philippines is also known for being very Western (for an Asian country. at least).
Long before the Spanish arrived on our shores, our rajahs (tribal kings) and datus (noblemen) established trade with foreign merchants who came by boat. Among these were the Muslims and the Chinese. Today, you’ll find many Filipino Chinese and Muslim Filipino communities scattered across the country.
Many in the Philippines come from lineages so mixed, that people tell us that “we don’t look Filipino”. Perhaps this is also part and parcel of the Philippines’ diversity!
5. Filipino people and language
Surely you know that Philippine locals are called Filipino, but did you know that the national language is also called Filipino?
You might have thought it was called Tagalog, but actually, Tagalog is an entirely different language widely spoken in various Philippine regions. It does sound a lot like Filipino, though; and it’s where formal, standardized Filipino was derived from.
Learning to speak Filipino is pretty easy since it’s a very phonetic language. Here are a few words to get you started: Salamat (thank you), masarap (delicious), oo (yes), hindi (no), kaibigan (friend), tara (let’s go!).
Interestingly enough, the wordplay doesn’t stop there. The country is called the Philippines, but when something is from or of the country, we also describe it as “Philippine”. For example, did you know that Philippine mangoes are among the sweetest in the world?
Alternatively, there are times when the word “Filipino” is more apt. For instance, Filipino food is often an explosion of flavors, while patterns you’ll see in Philippine weaves vary from region to region.
Confused? You’ll get the hang of it!
6. English as a second language
Many who travel to any part of the Philippines are surprised to find that most locals speak basic, if not fluent, English. For many Filipinos, English is their second language.
Rest assured tourists of all nationalities need not worry about the language barrier; chances are even street food vendors and tricycle drivers can give you directions in straight English! If you make friends with them, they might even teach you a few Filipino words.
7. Expressions you’re likely to hear: Psst, po, uy, mabuhay!
While we’re on the topic of language, we might as well cover some expressions and language nuances the Philippines is known for.
Some don’t even qualify as real words, such as psssst! Admittedly, I find this very rude and irritating, but understand that for most Filipinos, it’s really just a way of calling your attention, especially on the streets. While it’s used around the world, Filipinos have a word for the sound pssst; it’s called sitsit.
In the Philippines, you’ll also hear the word “po” a lot. It’s a sign of respect that can be attached to any statement, even those in English (or Taglish, an informal combination of Filipino and English). Often, you’ll hear it spoken out for respect for elders. Think of it as the Singaporean lah, but used out of courtesy.
Another thing that Filipinos say a lot is “uy”. Simply put, it means hey. Also, don’t be surprised if Filipinos refer to something by pursing their lips and pointing them in whatever direction. It’s just something that locals do.
Another word you’ll probably hear a lot is, “Mabuhay!” It’s a greeting that simultaneously means “Welcome to the Philippines!” and “Long live!” I don’t know about you, but there’s just something deeply touching about greeting someone while wishing them good fortune.
Philippines fun fact: COVID-19 brought about new ways of greeting each other, with social distancing and all. The Philippines Department of Tourism promoted the “Mabuhay greeting-gesture”, which supposedly embodies Filipinos’ warm wishes, albeit contactless. Want to try it? Simply place your right hand over your heart and slightly nod while facing the person you’re greeting.
8. More than 150 languages
I already told you that the Philippines is known for diversity. If the existence of more than 150 languages isn’t proof enough, then I don’t know what is. It makes complete sense if you think about it. The Philippines, after all, is an archipelago with various provinces.
Many culture vultures will tell you that even heritage in the Philippines is very regionalistic, and this includes languages. They say there are around 175 languages spoken in the country, with each province boasting a dominant native tongue.
This shouldn’t be a concern for travelers, though. Like I said, English is like a second (or third!) language to most Filipinos. In Asia, the Philippines is famous for English language learning opportunities, whether online or on an actual campus. You could say that mastering a lot of languages comes naturally to us.
9. Center for Catholic faith in Asia
Remember that bit where I mentioned how the Spaniards ruled over the Philippine islands for 333 years? That kind of centuries-long immersion is bound to leave behind cultural influences. This might get a tad too historical (again), but humor a Philippine heritage geek, won’t you?
The Spanish conquistadors primarily took interest in the Philippine islands for two things: its strategic location (either as a military base or for trade) and to evangelize the word of God. It isn’t surprising then that the Philippines is largely Catholic.
And as a center for Catholic faith in Asia, it has enjoyed quite a number of papal visits; the most recent being Pope Francis’ Philippine trip in 2015, when a whopping six million people attended an outdoor mass held in Rizal Park, a popular picnic spot and biking area in Manila.
10. Festivals and fiestas (and yes, beauty pageants)
You can’t talk about Philippine culture without highlighting fiestas and a wide variety of festivals! Going back to the large Catholic population in the Philippines; every town founded during the Spanish occupation was assigned a patron saint. And for every patron saint’s feast day, there’s a corresponding celebration or fiesta!
Philippine fiestas are like those in other countries that have them — colorful, loud, with lots of food, parades, and banderitas (decorative flaglets). Add to that festivals that celebrate any Philippine destination’s crops, founding anniversary, historical commemorations, and even well-loved products, and you’ll have what’s essentially a very explosive calendar of events.
Speaking of events, did you know that the Philippines is known for being a pageant-crazy country? Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Earth, and all the local pageants across the archipelago — Filipinos seem to lap it all up! The Philippines boasts of four “Miss Universes”. We took home the crown in 1969, 1973, 2015, and 2018!
One of the stereotypes about Filipinos is that we are good at singing. Ask David Foster or Ellen DeGeneres and they will probably agree.
While not everyone is good at singing, I can affirm that everyone either loves singing or has participated in any “community singing” (including in aforementioned festivals) at one point in their life. Not surprising when our national pastime is karaoke, better known in the Philippines as videoke.
The first karaoke machine was invented in Japan in 1971 but it was Roberto del Rosario, a Filipino entrepreneur, who developed the karaoke’s sing-along system in 1975 and had it patented. Way before the 1970s though, Filipinos already enjoy singing along to instrumental music (widely called minus-one) via casette tapes.
Today, karaoke is integral to Filipino culture. You’ll see stand-alone karaoke restaurant-bars (KTV bars) where you can rent a room and sing to your heart’s content while eating and drinking with friends. There are also karaoke booths in malls.
Filipinos even go so far as to rent karaoke machines for house parties and gatherings. Some opt for VCD or DVD players. Recently, more and more people are using microphone-based karaoke players that only need to be connected to a TV or mobile phone via Bluetooth.
12. Bayanihan, hospitality & family first
Filipinos go all out when trying to introduce the Philippines to foreign visitors. We pull out all the stops!
Call it hospitality or friendliness — call it whatever you want. But I’ve heard again and again from foreign friends and colleagues that Filipinos are some of the warmest, most accommodating people they’ve met. Modesty tells me not to agree too heartily, but I can’t say I haven’t experienced that warmth myself on my domestic trips. *wink*
But don’t think that we only treat foreigners that way! In the Philippines, there’s a thing called bayanihan, which roughly translates to a spirit of communal cooperation. You see, bayan means nation. So bayanihan would refer to action for the nation, or something in that sense. In other words, we like helping each other, especially in times of need.
Early on in Philippine history, houses were made of light materials. A form of bayanihan then was to help neighbors transfer (more like, carry) their entire house when it was time for them to move. Now that’s what you call cooperation!
Filipinos are also generally very family-oriented. It’s normal for us to maintain close relations with our family members, extended or immediate! Maybe that’s why we have the constant urge to treat visitors like family, too.
13. Identities as multifaceted as their regions
Pop quiz! How many main island groups does the Philippines have? Just kidding, you can just backtrack to #2 in case you already forgot. Reread the entire section if you need to, because this next entry just supplements all those fun facts!
With so many provinces and islands, it’s hardly surprising that Filipinos across the country have varied cultures and traditions. People from the north don’t share the same local language and customs with residents of the southern Philippines. In fact, you might even notice that they don’t look alike at all!
I guess this isn’t uncommon in larger countries with different regions; note that the Philippines is an archipelago. Sometimes, it takes more than just an overland trip to get to certain parts of the country!
That said. its people are as multifaceted as its regions. In fact, once during a trip to Cebu, a lady at a fast-food restaurant tried to take my order but I couldn’t understand a word she said! Surprising — considering that Cebu province is just a one-hour flight away from Manila.
14. Mouthwatering Filipino food
Ahh, onto the portion that makes mouths water and tummies grumble!
Asia boasts of iconic cuisines that catapult entire nations into gastronomic fame, and Filipino food is no different. It might have boomed later than its more well-known counterparts (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai), but that doesn’t mean it lacks in flavor and culinary style.
From our history alone, you can already tell that Filipino food is fusion. We take influences from the Chinese (we have siomai) and Spanish. (Lechon or roasted pig is Cebu’s specialty, while Negros Occidental offers a local take on paella called arroz valenciana.)
But we also have some delicacies that you won’t find elsewhere! Anthony Bourdain was deeply impressed by sisig, a sizzling pork dish that’s served with a raw egg that cooks as you mix it into the still-sizzling plate. We have rice cakes (puto, kutsinta, and bibingka), shaved or crushed ice desserts (halo halo), and exotic snacks (balut or duck embryo) that’s sure to etch Filipino food forever in your mind!
I could on, but the best way to fully understand is to sink your teeth into these goodies yourself!
Adobo deserves its own spot in this list simply because it’s one of the most popular Filipino foods outside of the archipelago.
The word adobo comes from the Spanish word adobar, which means “to marinate”, but the cooking method wasn’t introduced by the Spaniards. In fact, according to the food historian Raymond Sokolov, adobo had already existed in the Philippines way before the Hispanic period.
Filipinos would cook their meat by immersing it in vinegar and salt, most likely as a way of preservation. But because the dish’s original name was never recorded, the Spanish label “adobo de los naturales” (adobo of the native people) stuck.
Adobo can actually refer to two things: the dish and the cooking method. Traditionally, adobo involves braising meat in a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, black peppercorn, bay leaves, and garlic. The meat is left to simmer over low heat until it becomes tender and soaked in flavor.
Chicken or pork (or a combination of both) are commonly used but you can also cook adobo with beef, fish, squid, or even vegetables like kangkong. There are also variations without soy sauce (adobo sa gata, adobong dilaw, adobong puti).
In recent years, this dish has made waves outside the Philippines as more Filipino restaurants opened in the US and it began appearing on shows like Top Chef and Selena + Chef.
16. The symmetrical Mt. Mayon
Have you ever seen a volcano that’s perfectly shaped? The Philippines is known for one and it’s quite the spectacle to behold!
In Albay province lies the Philippines’ perfect cone, Mt. Mayon. Albay is within Bicol, a region known for spicy food, luscious pili nuts, and underrated beaches.
Mt. Mayon is an active volcano and it has been known to light up at night when its lava subtly makes its crater area glow. Fret not, though. The country’s volcanology department constantly monitors this temperamental beauty’s activity, ensuring travelers’ safety for daily tours. In case you were wondering, Albay is in Luzon!
17. Chocolate Hills
From a perfect cone to hills that resemble chocolate kisses!
During the dry season from November to early May, the Chocolate Hills in Bohol are covered in dry grass — so the terrain turns into a chocolatey brown. When this happens, the hills look like chocolate pieces you can pluck off the ground! The rainy season, meanwhile, marks the grass’ transformation into a verdant green.
But there’s more to Bohol; the province is home to pristine beaches and the Philippine tarsier, the smallest of its species! It’s endemic to the country, so don’t miss the chance to see it in the wild. In fact, the Philippines is famous for this tiny primate. Before I forget, you’ll find Bohol in Visayas.
18. Palawan’s seascapes
There’s one foolproof way of positively introducing the Philippines to foreign travelers, and it’s by showing them our world-class beaches!
Palawan boasts several of these spread across destinations like Puerto Princesa, El Nido, and Coron. What’s more, these spots are adorned with limestone cliffs gracefully jutting out of cerulean waters.
Palawan is also home to a UNESCO World Heritage site that the Philippines is known for, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Take a full-day tour of the underground river to see Palawan’s natural beauty, spot many protected species of flora and fauna, and enjoy the local cuisine.
19. The Cordilleras, home to a living tradition
If you’re interested in UNESCO World Heritage Sites then you should also head to the province of Ifugao in the Cordillera mountain range, home of the Igorot people.
Here, you’ll witness the grandeur of the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Philippines’ own version of raised rice paddies like those in Vietnam and Thailand. The Igorot’s ancestors carved these terraces around 2,000 years ago into the mountainside; they were passed down from one generation to the next.
To step on these agricultural marvels is to tread the path of Filipinos long gone. The Banaue Rice Terraces tell the story of an indigenous people whose way of life is threatened by the digital revolution and industrialization that does not care for heritage.
20. Boracay’s fine, sandy shores
For the nth time, I just want to affirm that the Philippines is popular for its beaches. So much so that they regularly place on lists of the best beaches in the world!
Take Boracay, for example. It’s well-loved for its long shores lined with powdery-soft, white sand that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. You can soak up the sun at Boracay’s famous beaches and snorkel in clear waters with this Boracay beach hopping tour.
There are plenty more destinations to keep under your radar if you’re still deciding where to go. The Philippines is also known for Cebu, a province famed for good grub and historical tours. Don’t forget Mindanao, of course. To get a taste of the southernmost island group, head to Siargao — the Philippines’ surfing capital!
So what are you waiting for? Tick these destinations off your list one by one and tell us if the Philippines met your expectations. Ingat sa biyahe! That roughly translates to safe travels!