The islands in Hawaii are dream-worthy. The diversity of each isle is fascinating, from pristine beaches to snow-capped mountains and even active volcanoes. Hawaii has six major islands – Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, the Big Island, and Oahu. This can make it really difficult to choose just one.
Each Hawaiian island has a distinct character and different reasons to visit. For instance, Big Island is home to Volcanoes National Park, so if you want to hike an active volcano, choose this island. Others are better known for luxury beach resorts (Maui has particularly luxurious resorts). When selecting the best island to visit in Hawaii, you need to consider what kind of trip you want.
Hawaiian Islands to Visit in 2023
This guide will help you choose the best island to visit in Hawaii. All the islands in Hawaii are beautiful, but in a world that usually leaves us short on time and budget, chances are you need to narrow things down. Let’s find your match made in heaven.
One thing that has changed recently is the implementation of Regerative Tourism which went into effect in May of 2022. The idea behind this initiative is two-fold; to give back to the communities on the Hawaiian islands and to manage traffic and over-tourism challenges facing the state. What this means for foreign visitors is that you will now have to make reservations in advance when it comes to some of the most popular locations.
For example, if you want to visit The Diamond Head Monument for the amazing views over Waikiki Beach you will have to make a reservation for a 2-hour time slot. Or if you want to watch the sunrise at Haleakala National Park, you will also need a reservation which you can make up to 60 days in advance at recreation.gov. The cost for the reservation is $1 and is in addition to the per-vehicle fee of $30. But, other than the sunrise viewing period from 3-7 AM, reservations are not required. S
This just makes planning your trip to the Hawaiian islands a little more tedious but it also helps preserve these beautiful locations for future generations. So, make sure you check all of the main attractions to see if you need reservations so you don’t miss out. ee the Division of State Parks for openings and closures.
1. Big Island
The Big Island (or Hawaii Island) is the largest in the archipelago of Hawaiian islands. Many consider it the best Hawaii Island to visit for first-timers, and it is home to a host of beautiful natural spots. Despite being the youngest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, Big Island is a hub of action in Hawaii. And at twice the size of all the other islands in Hawaii combined, it’s easy to see how it got its nickname.
Big Island is known for its volcanoes and beautiful beaches. The island is home to Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park and two active volcanoes. If you are lucky, there’s even the chance to spot running lava. Furthermore, there are numerous green and black sand beaches to explore. Big Island has a generous sprinkle of everything that makes Hawaii famous, conveniently slotted into a single island. If you want somewhere with a ‘have it all’ vibe, this Island ticks many boxes. Plus, it is the most accessible island to get to, with plenty of direct flights from all over the world.
Things to do on The Big Island
At a quick glance:
- Go hiking in the Volcanoes National Park
- Walk through lava tunnels at the Kula Kai Caverns
- Go stargazing at Mauna Kea, the world’s largest observatory
- Snorkeling With the Manta Rays at Night
There are so many amazing things to do on the Big Island. As we said, this Hawaiian Island has a collection of all the best things to do across the archipelago, making it a great sightseeing and activity holiday. The first must-do on the Island is to visit the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. You can embark on amazing hikes in the park, see running lava (keep your fingers crossed), and attend educational event programs. It is worth mentioning that the hiking trails in this national park are some of the most beautiful in Hawaii, and some received a mention in our best hikes in Hawaii guide.
Next up, you should visit the Kula Kai Caverns. The caverns are a network of old lava caves where past eruptions have carved tunnels and passages through the rock. The caverns are an insight into the island’s geological history and cultural history – as indigenous people used to use the caverns for shelter and early survival. For a similar experience on the island’s east side, head to Kaumana Caves or Kilauea Caverns of Fire.
Finally, Mauna Kea is an excellent attraction on Big Island. Mauna Kea is the world’s largest observatory and has 13 different telescopes. There are many beautiful places on the ground, but don’t miss out on looking to the skies. Stargazing is a beautiful thing to do when visiting Big Island.
Intrigued by the Big Island? Our article has tons more activity ideas on the best things to do on Hawaii Island. Take a look for some more inspiration. Otherwise, let’s head straight onto your next big decision – where to stay on Big Island.
Where to stay on Big Island
It goes without saying that you are spoiled for choice when picking accommodation on this island. The Big Island is packed with different accommodation choices – from hostels to hotels and luxury resorts. These are our top suggestions.
Speaking of volcanoes, Volcano Inn is a fascinating spot to spend your time on Big Island. The four-star property offers cozy yet luxurious quarters on the outskirts of the Volcanoes National Park. The tiny property is entirely self-contained, guaranteeing you privacy and peacefulness. With all its wooden features, it blends prettily into its rainforest surroundings and even offers a hot tub outside.
Pele’s Hana ‘Ana Hostel is relatively new on the scene, but it has been blessed with glowing reviews. The interior is bright and comfortable, and prices are incredibly reasonable. The hostel is ideal for anyone wanting a budget-friendly place to stay on Big Island. The property is right next door to a cafe, so you can quickly treat yourself to a few meals. It is also ideally located on the east side of the island, just a twenty-minute drive from the volcanoes and the most beautiful hikes.
As the second largest island in Hawaii, Maui is a popular choice for its lively tourist scene and exciting attractions. The island is nicknamed ‘The Valley Isle’. It has been voted the ‘best island in Hawaii’ by the luxury travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler for over 20 years. Maui is widely hailed as a fantastic place to visit – a reliable indicator that you’ll have a dreamy experience visiting Hawaii if you choose Maui.
Maui has some spectacular attractions on land and excellent hiking trails. It is home to Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Haleakala, the Hana Highway, and a selection of serene waterfall hikes. However, its real beauty is in its beautiful beaches, wildlife-filled oceans, and idyllic coastal views. Maui has some of the best beaches in Hawaii and is a whale-watching hotspot. Maui is the place to be if you are interested in whale-watching tours. The island’s surrounding waters contain the world’s densest humpback whale population. Each year sees over 10,000 whales migrate to the island’s waters. You’ll also see false killer and pilot whales if you are lucky.
Things to do on The Valley Isle
At a quick glance:
- Go whale watching
- Witness sunrise at Haleakala National Park
- Drive the Road to Hana Highway
It goes without saying that one of the top things to do in Maui is to go whale watching. You should visit between November and May to catch a glimpse of whales. And in this period, January to March is the optimal window. Most whale-watching tours embark from West Maui, dotted along the west coast in areas like Kaanapali. Make sure to bring a camera, as spotting a humpback whale is truly spectacular and a moment you’ll want to cherish forever.
Next up is hiking in Haleakala National Park. Haleakala National Park is located in South Maui and is famed for Haleakala. This 10,023-foot dormant volcano marks the highest point in Hawaii. From this volcano summit, the most ambitious hikers can enjoy sunrise views. It is one of those things you will not forget and this tour is a great way to do it. It even includes breakfast.
Driving the Road to Hana Highway is another amazing suggestion from our list of things to do on Maui. The highway takes around 10 to 12 hours to drive. We suggest renting a car with multiple drivers on the insurance so that you can rotate drivers as you go. Alternatively, choose to drive one way and spend the night in Hana before returning the next day. The Hana Maui Resort is a good option Check rates and availability.
The Road to Hana is the most famous drive in Hawaii and one of the best road trips in the world. The route cuts along Maui’s north coast, hugging a coastal highway that twists and turns through jungles, bamboo forests, and past waterfalls. All the while treating you to stunning ocean views. Many stop-off points along the way include botanical gardens called the Garden of Eden Arboretum, Waikani Falls, Hana Lave Tube, and a zipline. We have written a complete guide on driving the Road to Hana Highway, so feel free to get more inspiration from there.
Where to stay on Maui
Maui is known for its luxury accommodation and classic resort, so those with an expensive taste have come to the right place. Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea doesn’t disappoint and boasts three outdoor swimming pools, three restaurants, tennis courts, and a spa and wellness center. The rooms are decorated with sublime taste and plenty of natural features like wood paneling and stone worktops. For a deluxe experience of staying in Maui, we think the Four Seasons is your best bet.
There are many options for those wanting mid-range to budget accommodation. The island has two main hostels –Howzit Hostels and Tiki Beach Hostel. Howzit Hostels is slightly cheaper but located out of the city center, while Tiki Beach Hostel is more expensive but located in the center of Lahaina.
Check out our complete guide on Where to Stay in Maui: The Best Areas and Hotels
While not as large as the other Hawaiian islands, Kauai makes up in natural beauty what it lacks in size. Kauai is like the supermodel of the islands in Hawaii, and this island has been featured in countless Hollywood movies – mainly thanks to its stunning Na Pali Coast. Apart from amazing beaches perfectly suited to relaxing beach days, Kauai has characteristic dramatic cliffs and coastal scenery. The crinkled cliffs of north shore Kauai are world-famous and iconic in their cloaked layer of green vegetation.
Kauai is nicknamed ‘the Garden Isle’, and judging by the stunning natural views, it is clear to see why. Kauai has jaw-dropping natural scenery for those who want a real wow factor when visiting Hawaii. It suits visitors wishing to spend time outdoors and explore the most beautiful hiking trails.
Things to do in Kauai
At a quick glance:
- Hike the Kalalau Trail
- Visit Waimea Canyon State Park
- Cross the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge
You can’t visit Kauai and not see the Na Pali Coast. There are multiple viewpoints along this coastline; you can even take a helicopter tour if you want an exciting experience and aerial view. However, the Kalalau Trail is a perfect way to see the Na Pali Coast for outdoor lovers who like staying active. The trail is approximately 11 miles long and is rated as a challenging hike, best suited to experienced hikers. Because of the terrain, allowing a whole day to complete the Kalalau Trail is recommended. You won’t mind, trust us. The views are so good you could stop for breaks every 30 seconds.
The Kalalau Trail is one of our top recommendations in our guide to the 16 beautiful and best hikes in Kauai– which you can check out for more inspiration.
Waimea Canyon State Park is the next must-do attraction on Kauai. The park is home to the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ and the word Waimea means ‘reddish water’. The colossal canyon is made up of red rock and patches of lush rainforests, stretching over ten miles and dropping 3,000 feet in depth. There is a network of trails around Waimea Canyon, so you can take your pick from numerous hikes and experience it on foot. If you prefer to drive, there are also many drive-up lookouts to enjoy the scenery.
Finally, crossing Hanapepe Swinging Bridge should be on your itinerary when visiting Kauai. The bridge was constructed back in the early 1900s as a functional solution to allow residents to easily cross the river. However, the rickety suspension bridge has become an iconic landmark on Kauai. You can immerse yourself in nostalgia by crossing the narrow bridge and snapping pictures as you go.
Where to stay on Kauai
Kauai is best suited to those on a mid-range to luxury budget. There are a couple of hostels, like the Kauai Beach House Hostel, but mainly three to four-star hotels with rates of around $200 per night. We suggest booking in advance for accommodation on Kauai, as it can quickly sell out and leave you stuck if you are reliant on snagging bargains.
For those wanting luxury accommodation, though, there’s no rush. Kauai has plenty of five-star properties to choose from, including Koloa Landing Resort at Po’ipu, by the Autograph Collection. Koloa Landing Resort at Po’ipu is situated on Kauai’s south shore and features two huge swimming pools with gorgeous views. The resort is laid out beautifully with torch-lit stone walkways and landscaped gardens with ponds. And the interior is just as stunning, with floor-to-ceiling windows in most rooms. Kauai is definitely a beautiful corner of the world, o it makes sense to book accommodation that maximizes the good views and fits in with the natural beauty.
Oahu is a metropolis; there are no two ways about it. The island’s capital city is Honolulu (on the South Shore), which is suitably nicknamed ‘the Gathering Place’. Oahu is the most populated island in the Hawaiian archipelago, with a residential, more citified atmosphere. Oahu is an action-packed and built-up choice for those interested in politics, history, and modern-day Hawaii. It is also home to the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport the first point of contact for many visitors to Hawaii.
Despite being Hawaii’s’ boss’, Oahu also has time for downtime. There are plenty of sandy beaches and beautiful scenery dotted around the island. And while the south shore is largely citified, Oahu’s north shore is much more tranquil – consisting of a few coastal towns and Turtle Bay. Oahu is home to lots of historical and political attractions. Plus, if you want to escape for a few days of tranquility, the north coast provides a refuge from the metropolis of Honolulu.
Things to do on Oahu
At a quick glance:
- Pay your respects at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial
- Relax on Waikiki Beach
- Learn about Hawaii’s monarchy at Iolani Palace
As we said, Oahu is packed with political and historical things to do. One of the island’s major attractions is visiting the Pearl Harbor memorial. The site commemorates the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941 when Japanese planes rained bullets and bombs down on the ships docked below. The result was catastrophic. Over 2,403 U.S. personnel died during the strike on Pearl Harbor, and around 21 U.S. warships were sunk or damaged. Now at Oahu, you can visit a museum and learn more about the tragedy. It is a must-visit in Oahu, and it speaks to Hawaii’s involvement in WWII. Definitely plan to visit Pearl Harboor when you visit Oahu.
As a bit more of a light-hearted attraction, Waikiki Beach is a definite for your itinerary when visiting Hawaii. The iconic beach is backed by rows of palm trees and glitzy high-rise hotels and resorts. It is a revered surf spot in Hawaii, and you can spot the massive statue of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku along the beachfront. It is a great spot to sit and watch the surfers or get involved yourself by renting a board or booking a surf lesson. If you are more of an advanced surfer then we suggest the North Shore.
Speaking of political history in Hawaii, Iolani Palace is an important tourist attraction. The 19th-century palace was home to Hawaii’s last monarch. In 1893, U.S. troops overthrew Her Majesty Queen Lili’uokalani and brought an end to Hawaii’s royal line. You can learn more about the country’s rightful monarchy at her old palace, which has been transformed into a museum for educational purposes.
Would you like some bonus recommendations? We have an entire article on Oahu’s best things to do here. Jot some down, and you’ll have a full itinerary in no time.
Where to stay on Oahu
Halepuna Waikiki by Halekulani is a fantastic hotel if you are chasing luxury. The four-star property is partnered with the Honolulu Museum of Art and displays beautiful artwork throughout the property. The hotel further features an infinity lap pool, hot tub, pool bar, and even a garden with a reflexology path. Fitness enthusiasts will love the on-site gym and weekly classes. At the same time, spa lovers can rejuvenate at SpaHalekulani, just across the street.
Polynesian Hostel Beach Club is a good option for more budget-conscious guests. This hostel offers dormitory rooms for competitive prices and is ideal for solo travelers wanting to make new friends. Guests can enjoy a common room, barbecue, and laundry facilities. While a little dated in sections, the hostel is a great ‘what you see is what you get’ place to stay on Big Island. The location is fantastic, too – you are just minutes from Kuhio Beach.
Lanai is one of the smallest Hawaiian islands. Nicknamed the ‘Pineapple Island’ after its plantation history, Lanai once produced 75% of the world’s pineapples. The island is 98% privately owned by Larry Ellison – making it largely a private area of Hawaii. Visitors can still plan trips to Lanai, though. The island has a handful of luxurious resorts with world-class facilities, including a championship-level golf course. It is ideal for those wanting a quiet but luxurious resort atmosphere.
Apart from being an almost entirely privately owned resort island, Lanai has a beautiful selection of wildlife. You can spot spinner dolphins and turtles along its shores. Of course, this is helped by the island’s limited population and capped number of visitors. Lanai is just a short journey from Maui (the islands are nine miles apart), so it is easily accessible. Additionally, you can book excursions with your resort, so there are always activities and things to do and see.
Things to do on Lanai
At a quick glance:
- Be wowed at the Garden of the Gods
- Go snorkeling at Hulopoe Beach
- Take a helicopter tour
Lanai might be almost privately owned, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t loads of things to do on the island for tourists. In fact, resorts go out of their way to provide special tours and experiences – so you won’t miss out. You’ll probably have to stop in Maui or Oahu on the way to Lanai anyway, so think of staying on Lanai as a bonus adventure.
The most impressive landscape on Lanai is the Garden of the Gods. This tiny desert area is like something out of Monument National Park or Death Valley; you’ll find red rocks and sand everywhere. The Garden of the Gods is based near Lanai’s north shore and is best explored by 4WD. Just check out if your resort excursions include this trip.
For a more classic Hawaiian experience, Hulopoe Beach offers that tropical paradise vibe. The calm beach has a quiet atmosphere and serene waters that are perfect for snorkeling or swimming. As a protected marine reserve, it is also a hotspot for spotting wildlife – including green turtles if you are lucky. Hulopoe Beach is where to go and relax on Lanai.
Finally, for the ultimate splurge, book a helicopter tour. You can sightsee the landscapes of Lanai and its neighboring islands, enjoying an unrivaled view from the skies. You can check out a range of different tours here. While for more inspiration about things to do in Lanai, check out this guide.
Where to stay on Lanai
So, where should you stay in Lanai? Your main option is the Four Seasons Resort Lanai. This is for visitors that don’t shy away from splurging on luxury accommodation, and it is a top-tier, five-star accommodation choice.
Four Seasons rarely lets you down when it comes to high-quality resorts, and the Lanai chain is no different. The property has two outdoor pools with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean (keep your eyes out for whales) and private tropical gardens.
The resort also features a championship golf course, three tennis courts, and a private observatory for stargazing. The thoughtfulness even begins before arrival, as Four Seasons has a private lounge for its guests at Honolulu Airport. You can enjoy food, beverages, wifi, and concierge services while you wait for your connecting flight.
Would you prefer a more mid-range stay? Tucked away in the center of Lanai is Hotel Lanai – a simplistic but pretty, reasonably priced accommodation choice. The hotel has plantation-style rooms and a continental breakfast to enjoy each morning. It is a humble retreat with a peaceful atmosphere, unlike the giant resorts nearby.
Molokai is one of the main Hawaiian islands if you want to invest in volunteering and helping in conservation. If you are looking to get involved with Hawaii’s sustainability programs, not just visit for a holiday, Molokai is a perfect choice. The island is mainly uninhabited and has some of the most remote, isolated areas of nature in Hawaii. It takes its conservation extremely seriously and has designated ‘tourist-friendly’ areas to limit the damage of over-tourism. We experienced how fragile the Hawaiian ecosystems are, and it is hugely impactful learning more about the islands’ battle for conservation. Environmental awareness is essential to sustainable tourism in Hawaii, and Molokai is a great place to embrace that.
Molokai has an interesting, if upsetting, history. The island was once a place of isolation for those suffering from leprosy disease. And in 1966, a formal leprosarium was established for affected residents in Hawaii. Nowadays, you can learn more about Hawaiian history, culture, and sustainability initiatives on Molokai. It’s perfect for those wanting a more ethical experience of the Hawaiian island chain.
Things to do on Molokai
At a quick glance:
- Go hiking in the Molokai Forest Reserve
- Learn at the Molokai Museum and Cultural Center
- Go for a beach walk at Papohaku Beach Park
Molokai is packed with things to do. While it is primarily a countryside island, it has some cultural and natural attractions. Molokai Museum and Cultural Center is a fantastic place to get more cultural insight into the island. The small museum offers a history of Hansen’s disease and the tragedy of leprosy on Molokai. It additionally details the history of the sugar industry on the island, with preserved machinery and industrial areas for you to explore. The Molokai Museum is budget-friendly, too, costing just $5 per adult and $1 per student.
Of course, you don’t go to Molokai if you don’t want to immerse yourself in nature. Molokai Forest Reserve is the large jungle expanse on the island’s east side. Visitors can go hiking, take a guided tour, and admire protected flora and fauna. Molokai Forest Reserve is a really special piece of protected land. It holds many of Hawaii’s cherished species of plants and animals.
Papohaku Beach Park is located far away on the opposite side of Molokai. While it is still isolated and peaceful, this park has several more facilities. You’ll find picnic tables, campsites, and a comfort station. The area is just over 10 acres in size. While it is usually too windy for swimming, it is perfect for long beach walks. If you are lucky, you can also spot whales from the shore.
Where to stay on Molokai
Molokai is a little limited in accommodation options. This is primarily because the island is not designed to cater to tourism. In fact, it takes a more sustainable stance towards avoiding over-tourism. Therefore, the island offers a selection of mid-range hotels, not large five-star resorts.
Hotel Molokai is a traditional accommodation choice well-suited to a mid-range budget. The hotel sits on Kamiloloa Beach with oceanfront rooms – be prepared to be blown away by the views. While if you want to spend time outside, the property has a large outdoor swimming pool. Or alternatively, you can rent scuba diving and snorkeling gear and head to the beach.
Another option in Molokai is Castle Molokai Shores. Castle Molokai Shores offers a selection of oceanfront apartments. It is ideal for those wanting self-catered accommodation. Each apartment has a fully equipped kitchen with all the utensils you need. Outside are additional dining facilities, barbecues, and scenic picnic tables. Each apartment comes with a balcony or patio with ocean views as well.
Best Hawaiian Island: FAQs
Now that you’ve found your best island to visit in Hawaii let’s look at some common FAQs. This section will provide answers to your most burning questions.
What is considered the best Hawaiian island to visit?
Kauai is considered the best Hawaiian Island to visit usually. The island has tons of natural beauty and even has the nickname the ‘garden isle’.
Where should I go for the first time in Hawaii?
You should visit Big Island for the first time in Hawaii. The island has the most variety of things to do and see, like the Volcanoes National Park. Alternatively, visit Oahu, which is home to Hawaii’s capital city and Kona International Airport.
Which Hawaiian island is the most beautiful?
Kauai is the most beautiful Hawaiian Island. It is full of dramatic green cliffs, valleys, and stunning hiking trails.
Which is better, Oahu or Maui?
Oahu is best if you want a busier atmosphere, while Maui is best if you want a quiet, peaceful experience.
We hope that you’ve found the best island to visit in Hawaii. You could visit Pearl Harbor, swim with Hawaiian green sea turtles, or sunbathe on the famous Waikiki Beach – Hawaii is your oyster. The Hawaiian islands make a fantastic holiday destination.
Even though you’ve chosen the best island to visit in Hawaii, it doesn’t mean you can’t see other Hawaiian islands. Check out day trips from your island of choice if you feel extra adventurous. For more inspiration about where to stay on your island of choice, you can also take a look at our detailed guide to the best accommodation in Hawaii.