Cebu Or Manila? Philippine Capital Or Sunny Island?

Cebu or Manila
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If you’re planning a Philippine escape and can’t decide whether Cebu or Manila should be on the itinerary, you’ve come to the right place. Yep, this guide will dig down into both destinations to help you get an idea of what they offer, how they’re different, and which is better suited to you and your travel crew.

The truth is there’s a lot that sets them apart. Manila is an electrifying Asian metropolis with colonial-era relics at its heart and buzzy Chinatown areas filled with enticing eateries and exotic shops. Cebu, on the other hand, is a whole island. It’s known mainly for its gorgeous beaches, which string down the western coast in a run of turtle-filled reefs and white sands, but there are also dive towns and waterfalls to get through.

Here, we’ll break the decision between Cebu or Manila down into bite-sized chunks. We’ll take a look at all the different aspects of each place to help you pick one based on the array of things there are to do, the lively nightlife scene, or just how simple they are to get to. Let’s begin…

Cebu or Manila for ease of travel?

Photo by xavier summer/Unsplash

There’s an easy winner here since there’s really nowhere in the Philippines that’s easier to get to than Manila. Yep, the capital is home to the largest airport in the country. It hosts the majority of the international arrivals on major airlines, which means you can get on the ground from all over the globe – the US, Europe, elsewhere in Asia. You’re likely to land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which is on the south side of the city, about 20 minutes’ drive from Fort Santiago (the main historic center).

Getting to Cebu also usually involves a flight, although there are some inter-island ferries that connect it to the other popular destinations in the Central Visayas chain. The airport here is actually quite large. It’s the Mactan–Cebu International Airport and it hosts upwards of 35 international connections, coming in from destinations as varied as Shanghai and Doha. The thing is that Cebu’s airport is actually on a small separate island off the east coast. That means getting to the beach towns out west involves a hefty transfer or a bus ride that can take 2-4 hours depending on where you’re going. 

Winner: Manila.

Cebu or Manila for things to do?

Canyoneering in Cebu
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Both these spots are up there with the most popular in the country, so there shouldn’t be a shortage of things to do. Manila is especially well-suited to culture buffs who want to unravel the history of the Philippines. For that, be sure to hit the Intramuros district. It’s the oldest part of the metropolis, largely dates to the 1600s, and contains iconic relics like the UNESCO San Agustin Church. But don’t stop there, because there’s shopping and dining to be done in Chinatown and oodles of people watching on the Manila Baywalk.

Still, those urban enjoyments don’t really trump what Cebu has up its sleeve. Why? Well…This one comes with white-sand beaches in the form of Tulang Diot and Basdaku. It’s also got long runs of protected marine reef habitat, where snorkelers can meet rare sea turtles in the wild. This is also one of the most popular places in Asia to come and swim with whale sharks, which happens in Oslob (though there are questions over the ethics of that), while countless waterfalls and traversable canyons await inland (more on those below).

Winner: Cebu.

Cebu or Manila for nature?

Nature in Cebu
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Manlia is not the place to go in the Philippines for nature lovers. Sorry, but it’s a city. And it’s one of the largest darn cities on Earth at that – home to a whopping 24 million people in the extended urban area. Getting out to see some wilder corners of the country isn’t impossible, it just requires a little extra determination. That said, Manila is the prime jump-off point for seeing Lake Taal and the soaring Taal Volcano, along with the highlands of northern Luzon around Baguio and the UNESCO rice terraces of Banaue.

Nature lovers will feel way more at home on Cebu. Just an hour in a taxi is enough to leave behind Cebu City and get out into the backcountry of the island. There are endless draws, too. Check out the Kawasan Falls, a striking turquoise waterfall that’s hidden deep in the jungles. The journey there can be done on a challenging canyoneering course that involves a 50-foot jump! There are also waterfalls at Aguinid and Dao, along with highland treks to the summit of Pico Osmeña for stunning 360-degree panoramas. That’s really just scratching the surface, too.

Winner: Cebu.

Cebu or Manila for nightlife?

Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Manila is surely going to come up trumps on the nightlife front. It’s probably the most hedonistic spot in the country, save perhaps for Boracay (although that’s gone straighter edge in recent years). Here, you can hit the bar-filled district of Makati to hop beer joints and karaoke venues with the locals. Then there’s chicer Malate, which hosts clubs like Exklusiv and bouncing Club ZZYZX. Ermita is another area that’s close to that, offering waterside restaurants and a grid of craft-beer places and hipster drinkeries.

Cebu City might seem like the obvious place to go for nightlife on the island, but it’s not guaranteed to be the scene you’re after. There is a good nightlife area strung down Banilad Road, home to dance bars like Morals and Malice and whiskey hotspots like The Distillery. However, many tourists prefer the more chilled after-dive scene that’s on offer in Moalboal town (check out Pacita’s Disco Bar) and the open-air dining and drinking on Panagsama Beach.

Winner: Manila.

Cebu or Manila for hotels?

Manila vibes
Photo by Lyman Hansel Gerona/Unsplash

The capital of the Philippines is riddled with hotels. But, because it’s not usually top of the list for folks on the hunt for those famous white-sand beaches, you don’t get the big, sand-side resorts that fill the travel brochures. What you do get is chic, urban stays run by famous chain hotels, along with a few boutique options close to the historic sites. Here are some of the top picks:

  • Hilton Manila – Multiple Use Hotel ($$$) – Hilton offers some serious luxury in contemporary suites, along with a gorgeous pool that has inset seating areas.
  • Conrad Manila ($$$) – An all-new hotel that looks like a UFO, only a super-stylish UFO with noir interior bars and a lovely pool. Conveniently close to the airport.
  • The Bayleaf Intramuros ($$) – A rare hotel in the historic center of the city, this one has a lovely rooftop terrace and a homier feel.

Where Cebu excels on the hotel front is in coastal stays with views of the glistening turquoise water. Yep, this is the one to pick if you’ve been dreaming of waking up and walking out of the room onto white sands. We especially like the look of:

  • Badian Island Wellness Resort ($$-$$$) – An eco-friendly health resort where you can channel Richard Branson vibes, this hotel has traditional architecture and opens onto a secluded white-sand beach.
  • Cebu Seaview Dive Resort ($$) – There are unrivaled views of the sea here, and you can be diving just minutes after leaving your suite.
  • Crazy Bears Hostel ($) – A budget-friendly accommodation choice for backpackers looking for a slice of the beach life on Cebu.

Winner: Cebu.

Cebu or Manila for food?

Manila food
Photo by Alessandra Sio/Unsplash

Manila is famed around the Philippines as the most multicultural foodie hotspot of all. The fusion of peoples and creeds in the city means that the gastronomy runs the gamut from Korean BBQ joints to proper Italiano trattoria with wood-fired pizza ovens. We’d say the best place to go a-hunting for dishes is the Chinatown district. Also known as Binondo, it’s packed with dumpling shops and teahouses. Alternatively, head down to Ermita, where East Asia cookhouses blend almost seamlessly with fast-food joints. Basically, you can get just about anything in this sprawling capital.

The food scene on the island of Cebu is much more local. It’s a gem of a place for adventurous foodies – we remember a travel pal of ours chowing down on a grilled chicken foot in these parts! Seafood is big, especially on the western coast. However, be sure to check reviews for the restaurants that display fish out front to ensure it’s all freshly caught (or, to put it another way, won’t make you ill!). You’ll also want to sample regional staples like Puso rice, which is served wrapped up in coconut leaves, and ngohiong rolls made with bamboo shoots.

Winner: Cebu, for the local eating.

Cebu or Manila for price?

Fruit in a market
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Although Cebu is probably the more touristic of these two destinations, it still comes in as the cheapest. In fact, Manila is up there with the most expensive locations in the whole country, as the cost of living is driven up by the presence of big industry. Expect to pay something in the region of 60-80 USD per night for one of the top-rated hotels in the capital, but just 10-15 USD per night in the more budget spots. Eating out should cost about 200 PHP ($4) a head in a midrange restaurant, while a large domestic beer is about 80 PHP ($1.50).

Prices are similar in Cebu but perhaps just a touch lower. You can score hotels for $30 a night in popular resort areas like Moalboal, although there are also stunning island hotels on Zaragosa and Bantayan that can cost over $100 a night for the luxury level. Beer is estimated to cost a little less here on average, at about 77 PHP per bottle, while eating out is also less, at an estimated 150 PHP ($3) per person.

Winner: Cebu.

Cebu or Manila – the verdict

If you’re deciding between Cebu or Manila, then you’re actually in luck. These two Philippine destinations are very different. One, Manila, is the colossal capital of the country. It’s a great place to get a feel for the local culture and history, and as a base for trips throughout Luzon Island (think rice terraces and big volcanos!). However, for the beaches and the coral reefs that this part of Southeast Asia is most famous for, there’s nothing for it but Cebu, where you can swim with whale sharks, meet sea turtles, and trek to paradise waterfalls in the jungle.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.