History of the Philippines and its most popular tourist attractions

The history of the Philippines is a rich and diverse narrative marked by waves of migration, colonization, resistance, and transformation.

Here is an in-depth exploration of this vibrant history, from its earliest inhabitants to the contemporary era.

Also, World History Edu explores some of the top-rated tourist attractions in the Southeast Asian country. Many of those destinations offer a glimpse into the country’s ability to balance preservation with welcoming tourists from around the globe.

Pre-Colonial Period (Before 1521)

The Philippines’ history begins with the first humans using rafts or boats that crossed the seas surrounding the archipelago. There is evidence of human presence in the Philippines from as early as 709,000 years ago.

The first known inhabitants, the Negritos, were followed by successive waves of Austronesian peoples who brought with them influences from Malay, Hindu, and Islamic cultures. These communities traded with each other and with the rest of Asia, particularly China, India, and the Malay archipelago.

Several competing maritime states came into existence during the pre-colonial period, including the Rajahnates of Butuan and Cebu, the Kingdoms of Tondo and Maysapan, and the Sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao. These polities were noted for their gold work, weaving, and complex societal structures including class systems.

Negritos were first, followed by Austronesian migrants. They brought Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Islam later emerged, forming kingdoms ruled by datus, rajas, and sultans. Trade with Asian empires introduced Chinese merchants. Spanish colonization began with Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival. Image: Portrait of Magellan.

Spanish Colonization (1521-1898)

The Philippines’ colonial period began when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, landed in Homonhon Island in Eastern Samar in 1521. Magellan claimed the islands for Spain, but was killed by local chieftain Lapu-Lapu during the Battle of Mactan. Spanish colonization began in earnest when Miguel López de Legazpi arrived in 1565 and established the first permanent Spanish settlement in Cebu.

Over the next several centuries, Spain consolidated its control over the archipelago, converting Filipinos to Christianity and ruling through a centralized government based in Manila, which became the capital in 1571. This period saw the establishment of the Galleon Trade, which linked the Philippines with Mexico and facilitated the exchange of goods between Asia and the Americas.

The colonial era was marked by both resistance and accommodation to Spanish rule. Numerous revolts took place, including the Dagohoy Rebellion in Bohol which lasted for nearly 85 years, and the more widespread Philippine Revolution of 1896, sparked by the execution of Filipino nationalist and reformist José Rizal.

American Occupation (1898-1946)

Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Initially, the change in colonial rulers was met with resistance, highlighted by the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in which Filipino revolutionaries fought for independence, but were ultimately defeated.

The American period introduced widespread changes, including the establishment of a public education system, improvements in infrastructure, and the introduction of new agricultural technologies. Politically, the Philippines moved toward self-governance, with the Philippine Commonwealth established in 1935 as a transitional administration for independence, promised in 1946.

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World War II interrupted these plans when Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941. The resulting occupation led to fierce resistance from both Filipino and American forces. The most brutal episode was the Battle of Manila in 1945, one of the deadliest battles of the war, which resulted in massive Filipino civilian casualties and the virtual destruction of Manila.

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The 1896 Philippine Revolution intertwined with the 1898 Spanish-American War. Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S., leading to the Philippine-American War. Image: A Monument located at University of the Philippines Diliman, marking the Philippine Revolution.

Independence and Modern Era (1946-Present)

The Philippines finally gained independence on July 4, 1946. The post-war era was challenging, marked by rebuilding efforts, dealing with collaborators, and fixing a ruined economy. Various administrations focused on industrialization, land reform, and education, but were often marred by corruption and inefficiency.

The period of the late 1960s to the 1980s was dominated by Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected president in 1965 and subsequently declared martial law in 1972. His regime was notorious for its human rights abuses, corruption, and the imposition of martial law. Resistance to Marcos’s rule culminated in the People Power Revolution of 1986, which was a peaceful demonstration that led to his ousting.

The subsequent years saw democratic restoration and economic improvement under leaders like Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, and Benigno Aquino III. However, the Philippines continued to face challenges including political instability, natural disasters, and persistent poverty.

The Philippines is an archipelago in Southeast Asia, made up of over 7,000 islands. Its map showcases a diverse geography with Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao as the three main island groups. Image: The Philippines’ flag.

Did you know…?

  • The Philippines is an emerging market shifting from agriculture to service and manufacturing. A member of the UN, WTO, ASEAN, APEC, and East Asia Summit, it’s also part of the Non-Aligned Movement and a major non-NATO U.S. ally.
  • Positioned on the Pacific Ring of Fire near the equator, it faces frequent earthquakes and typhoons. Rich in natural resources, the Philippines boasts significant global biodiversity.

The Philippines in the 21st century

The Philippines is known for its vibrant democracy, growing economy, and its influential overseas workforce.

The nation grapples with issues such as governmental corruption, infrastructure needs, environmental preservation, and national security, particularly in its ongoing conflict with insurgent groups in the southern regions.

Despite these challenges, the Philippines has maintained a resilient and dynamic society, reflective of its complex and diverse history.

How did the Philippines get its name?

The Philippines got its name from the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. During his expedition in 1543, Villalobos named the islands of Leyte and Samar “Las Islas Filipinas” in honor of Philip II of Spain, who was then the Prince of Asturias. Philip later became the King of Spain and Portugal, and the name eventually came to refer to the entire archipelago.

This naming was part of the broader Spanish practice of naming territories in honor of royalty and other significant figures, which was common during the era of exploration and colonization. The name “Philippines” stuck through the centuries and was retained even after the country’s independence from Spanish rule in 1898.

In 1543, Ruy López de Villalobos named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas after King Philip II. Starting in 1565, Spanish colonization lasted over 300 years, making Catholicism dominant and Manila a key trans-Pacific trade hub. Hispanic settlers also arrived. Image: Portrait of Philip.

Most popular tourist attractions in the Philippines

The Philippines, an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, is a treasure trove of stunning landscapes, vibrant cultures, and historical sites.

Located in the western Pacific Ocean, the country offers a range of attractions catering to various tastes, from pristine beaches and magnificent marine environments to picturesque mountain ranges and culturally rich urban centers.

Below is an exploration of some of the most popular tourist attractions in the Philippines.

Palawan: Island Paradise

Palawan is often described as the “last frontier” of the Philippines due to its unspoiled natural beauty. The island province stretches from Mindoro to Borneo and is dotted with rugged cliffs, dense forests, and a labyrinth of stunning islands. Its crown jewel, El Nido, offers dramatic rock formations and turquoise waters filled with diverse marine life, making it perfect for snorkeling and diving.

Another highlight is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, featuring one of the world’s longest navigable underground rivers, which flows directly into the sea and is surrounded by impressive limestone karst landscapes.

Boracay: Beach Bliss

Despite its small size, Boracay is a powerhouse of tourism, famous for its white, powdery sands and vibrant nightlife. White Beach, the island’s main stretch, is lined with resorts, shops, restaurants, and bars.

Boracay underwent a major cleanup and a six-month closure in 2018 to address environmental concerns but has since reopened with regulations aimed at sustainable tourism. The island remains a favorite for both relaxation and parties, with water sports such as kiteboarding and windsurfing being extremely popular.

Banaue Rice Terraces

Often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Banaue Rice Terraces are a stunning example of human ingenuity in harmony with nature. Carved into the mountains of Ifugao by the ancestors of the indigenous people over 2,000 years ago, these terraces are still used today, showcasing a traditional way of life largely unchanged by modernity. The terraces are also a gateway to various trekking opportunities within the region, offering interactions with local communities.

Chocolate Hills of Bohol

The Chocolate Hills are perhaps the most famous geographic feature of the Philippines, known for their unique and mysterious landscape. These symmetrical mounds turn brown during the dry season, resembling endless rows of chocolate kisses.

Numbering over 1,200, these hills are spread over an area of more than 50 square kilometers in Bohol and are best viewed from an observation deck at Carmen. Bohol is also home to the Philippine tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates.

As of the latest estimates, the Philippines has a population of over 110 million people. The country is predominantly bilingual, with Filipino (based on Tagalog) and English as the official languages. Additionally, there are over 175 spoken languages across its islands. Image: A bird’s-eye view of the Chocolate Hills.

Intramuros: Manila’s Walled City

Intramuros, located in the heart of Manila, is a fortified area rich with history. Built by the Spanish in the late 16th century, this district is home to ancient walls, churches, museums, and ruins. Key attractions include Fort Santiago, a citadel used as a defensive fortress and later as a prison; and San Agustin Church, the oldest stone church in the country, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking tours of Intramuros offer deep dives into the complex colonial history of the Philippines.

Cebu: The Queen City of the South

Cebu is the country’s oldest city, offering a blend of urban vibes and rich history. It is famous for its Sinulog Festival, a lively and colorful event held every January in honor of the Santo Niño (Child Jesus). Historical landmarks include the 16th-century Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, Magellan’s Cross, and the Lapu-Lapu monument on Mactan Island, celebrating the local chieftain who defeated Magellan in 1521. Cebu is also a gateway to nearby waterfalls and white sand beaches, making it a perfect combination of cultural and natural attractions.

Siargao: Surfing Capital

Siargao has gained fame as a surfer’s paradise, with its iconic Cloud 9 surf break offering some of the best waves globally. Beyond surfing, Siargao appeals with its relaxed lifestyle, coconut woodlands, and beautiful lagoons. The island also offers opportunities for island hopping, with nearby islands featuring pristine beaches and crystal-clear waters.

Mount Mayon: Natural Beauty

Mount Mayon, known for its perfectly symmetrical cone shape, is the most active volcano in the Philippines. Located in Albay, Bicol, this natural wonder attracts tourists for its breathtaking scenic views and thrilling activities like hiking, bird watching, and photography. The surrounding landscape, devastated by past eruptions, has its own stark beauty, offering a unique ecological adventure.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Philippines is endowed with natural beauty and a diverse cultural heritage, making it a compelling destination for travelers seeking comprehensive experiences. Image: Mount Mayon.


These FAQs offer a snapshot into the rich culture, diverse environment, and vibrant social structure of the Philippines.

What is the size of the Philippines?

The Philippines, officially known as the Republic of the Philippines, is an archipelagic nation in Southeast Asia situated in the western Pacific Ocean. It comprises 7,641 islands totaling an area of 300,000 square kilometers, structured into three main geographical divisions: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Who are the neighbors of the Philippines?

This country is encircled by the South China Sea to the west, the Philippine Sea to the east, and the Celebes Sea to the south. It shares maritime borders with several countries including Taiwan, Japan, Palau, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China.

What is the capital of the Philippines?

The capital of the Philippines is Manila.

What languages are spoken in the Philippines?

Filipino (based on Tagalog) and English are the official languages. However, there are over 175 spoken languages in the Philippines, with major regional languages including Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, and Bicolano.

As one of the world’s most populous country, the Philippines boasts a rich tapestry of ethnicities and cultures. Manila serves as the national capital, while Quezon City is the largest city, both located within the bustling Metro Manila region. Image: A picture of the Philippines’ capital, Manila.

When does the Philippines celebrate its Independence Day?

The Philippines celebrates its Independence Day on June 12, commemorating the declaration of independence from Spanish rule in 1898.

What is the flag of the Philippines?

The flag of the Philippines features two horizontal bands of blue (top) and red with a white equilateral triangle at the hoist; inside the triangle is a golden-yellow sun with eight rays, each representing a province, and three five-pointed stars, each standing for one of the three main geographical regions – Luzon, Mindanao, and Visayas. The white triangle stands for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Another interesting aspect of the flag of the Philippines is its adaptability to signify a state of war by displaying it with the red band on top, effectively achieved by flipping the flag upside-down. This feature is unique and underscores the flag’s significance in representing national pride and sovereignty.

What is the currency of the Philippines?

The currency used in the Philippines is the Philippine Peso (PHP).

What is the climate like in the Philippines?

The Philippines has a tropical maritime climate, characterized by a relatively high temperature, high humidity, and plenty of rainfall. There are three seasons: Tag-init or Tag-araw (the hot dry season or summer from March to May), Tag-ulan (the rainy season from June to November), and Tag-lamig (the cool dry season from December to February).

What are some popular tourist attractions in the Philippines?

Popular tourist attractions include Boracay, Palawan, the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and historic sites in Manila like Intramuros and Rizal Park.

What is the political system of the Philippines?

The Philippines is a democratic republic with a President as both the head of state and the government. The government is divided into three branches: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.

Image: Philippine cultural Dance group.

What are some traditional Filipino foods?

Traditional Filipino foods include adobo (a meat dish marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic), sinigang (a sour soup made with tamarind), lechon (roasted pig), and halo-halo (a shaved ice dessert with mixed fruits and sweet beans).

What are the main economic activities in the Philippines?

The Philippines has a diverse economy with agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and services sectors. Major exports include electronic products, machinery, and transport equipment.

What are some cultural practices unique to the Philippines?

Filipinos are known for their hospitality, strong family ties, and religious traditions. Festivals, or fiestas, celebrating patron saints and harvests are common. The country also celebrates unique traditions like Sinulog and Panagbenga festivals.

How do Filipinos typically greet each other?

Common greetings include a smile and a verbal greeting such as “Kumusta?” (How are you?). Handshakes are common for first meetings, while friends and family might greet each other with a beso-beso (cheek to cheek kiss) or a hug.

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