The Philippines is a country in Southeast Asia that’s comprised entirely of islands. In fact, the nation is home to about 7,500 islands, making it the largest archipelago on earth.
But as much as it’s characterized by small tropical islands and white sandy shores, it’s really anchored by its major cities. Not only are they huge population centers (there are about 110 million or more in the Philippines, making it the 12th most populated country on earth) and insanely densely packed, but cities are much-needed bastions of modern infrastructure, business, and telecommunications. (Or, at least, semi-modern!)
I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Philippines on and off for almost twenty years and now live there. Here are the major cities and my thoughts on those I’ve visited:
The capital city of the Philippines is Manila, of course, and for those who live there, it’s usually a love-hate relationship. Manila is the most densely populated city on earth, with some of the worst pollution and traffic in the world, too – not exactly what you want to be known for! In total, the greater Metro Manila area is home to about 23 million people – a quarter of the country’s entire population! Manila is so big that it’s broken up into 17 separate cities and municipalities, even though it’s really just the same big place. They are all conjoined (there are no real “suburbs” or expanses of rural areas in between them, and you certainly don’t need highways to travel between them – just a lot of patience!).
In fact, Quezon City has nearly 3 million people, Manila itself has about 2 million, Caloocan has 1.5 million, Taguig, Antipolo, and Pasig have near one million each, etc.
Makati in central Manila is the mini-city that’s also the business center of the entire Philippines – and home to some seriously amazing nightlife.
The city of Davao is home to about 2 million people, making it the largest city in the Philippines outside of Manila. It’s the capital of the southern islands of Mindanao, where there is a large Muslim population and many other differences from the rest of the country. President Duterte was Major in Davao for a long time, making it one of the cleanest and safest cities in the world.
Cebu is called The Queen City of the South and was once the capital during Spanish rule. Located in the central Visaya grouping of islands (with some of the best beaches and islands in the country!), Cebu city is now the industrial and shipping capital. It’s also polluted, at a standstill with traffic, and devoid of all nature, culture, or redeeming qualities, in my humble opinion!
A port city on the island of Panay known for its Spanish colonial churches and old houses, there’s really not much for tourists here – although it is the halfway point between the incredibly cool Isla de Gigantes and the #1 tourist spot in the country, Boracay Island to the north.
The biggest city on the charming, green, and laid back large island of Negros, Bacolod is a pocket of old money since it was the hub for the sugar cane trade for centuries.
On the other side of Negros island sits the small city of Dumaguete, which feels more like a small town, but with plenty of nature and named one of the best places for expats to retire.
Cagayan de Oro
A livable, smaller city in the northern part of Mindanao, it’s safe enough for tourists and has some cool attractions in the mountains nearby, like the longest zip line in Asia.
Also located in Mindanao, this is home to one of the most amazing beaches in the world, with bright pink sand (from crushed up pink coral)! But it’s also a great place to go if you want to be kidnapped by Muslim extremists and beheaded, so it’s just about off-limits for foreigners.
This far-southern city in Mindanao is also pretty dangerous now for foreigners to travel to, but it’s best known for being the birthplace of Manny Pacquiao.
Only about one and one half hours north of Manila (or five hours with regular traffic!) is Angeles City. Located in the green province of Pampanga, Angeles is small in size but big in reputation since it’s called “Sin City,” as it was once a hotbed of bars, drinking, and girls of the evening for American military on leave. Some of that still exists, but it’s grown into a modern and convenient alternative to Manila, including with its own airport.