Dreaming of a tropical Hawaiian vacation? Maybe it’s your first time planning to visit the islands, or perhaps you’re a seasoned visitor looking for more to explore. In any case, this article is a perfect stepping stone to figuring out which is the best Hawaiian island to visit for you.
The main islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island each have a multitude of things to do and see, but also consider the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai to find the real hidden gems of the Hawaiian islands.
Show Table of Contents
- Oahu – The Gathering Place
- Top Attractions on Oahu
- Where to Stay on Oahu
- Hawaii – The Big Island
- Top Attractions on Hawaii Island
- Where to Stay on Hawaii Island
- Kauai – The Garden Isle
- Top Attractions on Kauai
- Where to Stay on Kauai
- Maui – The Valley Isle
- Top Attractions on Maui
- Where to Stay on Maui
- Molokai – The Friendly Isle
- Top Attractions on Molokai
- Where to Stay on Molokai
- Lanai – The Pineapple Island
- Top Attractions on Lanai
- Where to Stay on Lanai
- What are the best Hawaiian islands?
Oahu – The Gathering Place
Oahu is the main island of the Hawaiian island chain and is home to the state capital, Honolulu. I think Oahu is an excellent island to visit in Hawaii for first-time visitors because there are beautiful beaches, scenic hikes, and fantastic shopping. If you’re planning to see just one island, I recommend Oahu.
The Downtown Honolulu area features urban living influenced by a melting pot of Pacific Rim cultures. You can always find a new restaurant or cafe to check out. It’s also home to ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States.
The island’s North Shore is famous for its laid-back surfer lifestyle and stunning beaches like Waimea Bay.
While the west side is home to Ko Olina, a resort area that includes Disney’s Aulani and the Four Seasons Resort, perfect for relaxing beach days. Oahu’s east side has some great beaches to spend the day at, like Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach Park.
Oahu is also a convenient option if you’re interested in some Hawaiian island hopping. There are many daily flights out of Honolulu to the other major islands, so it should be easy to find one that’s convenient for you.
Check Kayak.com to find the best flight deals to and from Honolulu International Airport. Oahu might be the best island for you if you are a first-time visitor to the islands or just want a completely relaxing vacation.
See Related: Things to Do in Oahu, Hawaii
Top Attractions on Oahu
Waikiki beach is arguably the most iconic symbol of the Hawaiian islands. The white sand contrasts with the turquoise blue waters as the Diamond Head crater stands out on the coast, and the most luxurious resorts line the shore.
Waikiki is an excellent place for relaxation, nightlife, and luxury shopping all in one. Check out this Glass Bottom Waikiki Beach Sightseeing Boat Tour to get out on the water and enjoy the marine life.
Hanauma Bay is the best spot on the island for snorkeling. It is conveniently located just 20 minutes away from Waikiki, so it’s super convenient if you’re staying in the area.
Pearl Harbor National Memorial
Pearl Harbor is considered to be the most important landmark on Oahu. It is a military base and the site of an attack by the Japanese military in December 1941, which pushed the United States into World War II.
Take this Half-Day Pearl Harbor Tour to see the USS Arizona, which is still sunken today, along with several brave sailors in their final resting place. It is a truly sobering experience.
Polynesian Cultural Center
The Polynesian Cultural Center is a great place to learn about Hawaiian culture and other Polynesian cultures found throughout the Pacific.
Check out the island villages to learn about the culture and history of Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. There is also a great luau to enjoy live entertainment and delicious traditional Hawaiian food.
Oahu’s North Shore
The iconic North Shore is known for its great surf and chill vibe. Local residents and visitors flock here in the winter to watch the various professional surf competitions held throughout the season.
Where to Stay on Oahu
- Budget: Mountain View North Shore Studio – This lovely studio in Waialua is a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki with beautiful views of the Ka’ala Mountain Range. It’s close to Haleiwa town, where you can find the best restaurants and boutiques the North Shore has to offer.
- Mid-Range: The Modern Honolulu – The Modern is found right at the entrance of Waikiki from Downtown Honolulu. The beautiful pool area is perfect for enjoying a mai tai and the sunset.
- Luxury: Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina – The Four Seasons is known for its luxury appeal and unbeatable hospitality. Guests can enjoy two pool areas, the beautiful lagoons of Ko Olina, and the best restaurants on the island’s west side.
See Related: Best Snorkeling Spots in Hawaii
Hawaii – The Big Island
When determining the best island to visit, Hawaii island probably comes to mind. It’s the biggest island in the Hawaiian archipelago and is full of adventure!
There are three active volcanoes on the island: Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Locals and newcomers consider the Big Island to be the best island in Hawaii to live on because of its lower cost of living compared to the rest of the state and multitude of outdoor activities.
The island has eight climate zones, so you can go from trekking up snow-capped mountains to snorkeling alongside Hawaiian green sea turtles, all on the same day.
The island is pretty huge, as its nickname suggests, so most visitors choose to visit either the Kailua-Kona side or the Hilo side.
Kailua-Kona is on the west coast and is known for its sunshine and pristine beaches. Hilo is on the east side, and while it also boasts some amazing beaches, it is prone to a lot more rain, so waterfall hikes through tropical rainforests are more popular on this side of the island.
Depending on which side of the island you’d like to visit, look for flights to either Kona International Airport or Hilo International Airport
Hawaii’s Big Island is the best island to visit if you’re looking for a lot of outdoor adventure and unique experiences in different climates.
See Related: A Guide to Hiking Oahu’s Stairway to Heaven
Top Attractions on Hawaii Island
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Looking to visit one of the most active volcanoes in the world?
Look no further than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. The stunning active volcano is a natural beauty and is just 45 minutes south of Hilo.
Drive Along the Hamakua Coast
The Hamakua Coast is on the northeastern part of the island and sees an average of 84 inches of rain per year. All this rain makes for lush rainforests and beautiful scenery. On your drive, stop at Akaka Falls, a colossal 442-foot-tall waterfall.
Punalu’u Beach is the most famous black sand beach in the state. The gorgeous beach is just as popular with green sea turtles as it is with people. There are several black sand beaches throughout the islands, but this one is certainly unforgettable.
Visit South Point Park
South Point is not only the southernmost point of Hawaii, but it’s also the southernmost point in the entire United States! It’s a scenic drive from both Kona and Hilo, and there’s a cool jump spot from the cliffs into the deep blue ocean.
Take a Night Swim with Manta Rays
One of the most unique experiences that I recommend to everyone who visits the Big Island is to do a nighttime snorkel with Manta Rays along the Kona coast. These breathtaking creatures gracefully glide through the sea while feeding on plankton.
This Eco-Friendly Twilight Manta Ray Adventure is 75-minutes long and will provide all the gear you need to safely get up close to these beautiful animals.
Where to Stay on Hawaii Island
- Budget: Lava Tree Tropic Inn – This adorable bed & breakfast is a hidden gem in the quaint town of Pahoa, just south of Hilo. Continental breakfast is included in all stays, and there is live entertainment every Friday afternoon.
- Mid-Range: Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel – This hotel offers stunning views of the Kona Coast and a wonderful pool area. Paddleboard and kayak rentals are available on the property.
- Luxury: Hilton Waikoloa Village – The Hilton Waikoloa is a stunning property spanning over 62 acres right on the water. One of the most fun experiences for the whole family is taking a boat ride within the canals of the property to get to your room.
See Related: Best Islands to Visit
Kauai – The Garden Isle
Kauai is a bit smaller than Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island, but it has so many outdoor activities to offer.
It’s a favorite weekend getaway for Oahu residents because it’s just a short 30-minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue Airport.
I personally think it is the most beautiful island in Hawaii because of the sheer amount of natural beauty you will find. There are canyons, rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, and, of course, beautiful beaches all together on this one island.
There isn’t significant nightlife on Kauai, unlike the other Hawaiian islands, beyond the bar of your hotel – assuming it has a bar!
The towns on this island are quite small, and there aren’t even any high rises on the entire island. It’s a great opportunity to really get away from a city if that’s what you’re used to and immerse yourself in the outdoors.
Kauai is the best Hawaiian island for you if you’re looking for rugged adventure during the day and quiet, relaxing nights.
See Related: Best Beaches in St. Thomas for Snorkeling
Top Attractions on Kauai
Na Pali Coast
While you may have heard of the North Shore of Oahu, the north shore Kauai has to offer is arguably even more breathtaking. The north shore, also known as the Na Pali Coast, is a stunning combination of towering sea cliffs, deep valleys, and hidden beaches.
This part of the island is only accessible by boat or multi-day hiking and camping. I recommend this half-day morning snorkel and sailing tour to explore the pristine waters of this part of Kauai.
Kōkeʻe State Park
Koke’e State Park is conveniently located right on the top of the Na Pali Coast. It’s very easy to get to by car, and you can walk out just a few hundred feet from the parking lot to get a stunning look at the valley below and the gorgeous waters of the Na Pali Coast.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Waikiki
Waimea Canyon State Park
Waimea Canyon is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” It truly is a sight to see, and the soil even has the same burnt-orange color as the real Grand Canyon.
It is about 10 miles long and over 3,000 feet deep. There are several lookout points at the top of the canyon and several hiking trails through the canyon.
Sightseeing Flight Around the Islands
Sightseeing flights are the best way to see a whole island in a short amount of time. There are many remote parts of the island that are only accessible by multi-day hiking over difficult terrain, so it goes without saying that a flight is an easier and safer way to see these parts of Kauai.
I recommend this scenic sightseeing flight.
A few months into dating my now-husband, he surprised me with tickets to Kauai for the weekend of my birthday! It was a lovely trip, and he took care to plan many activities, even though we were both broke college students at the time.
One of my favorite things we did was kayaking on the Wailua River. The river is just 15 minutes from Lihue and is remarkably peaceful.
Check out this highly-rated Wailua River and Secret Falls Kayak and Hiking Tour to be immersed in the natural beauty of Kauai.
Where to Stay on Kauai
- Budget: Poipu Condo at Prince Kuhio – This condo is just a short two-minute walk from the beautiful Poipu Beach, a fantastic spot for snorkeling. Guests can also enjoy the resort’s pool and restaurants.
- Mid-Range: Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort – The Sheraton is conveniently located close to Kapa’a town but still feels perfectly secluded. The hotel features three dining options and a beautiful infinity pool where you can lounge all day.
- Luxury: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa – This Grand Hyatt features several pools, including a lazy river and seven different restaurants. It is the most stunning resort on the island.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Oahu
Maui – The Valley Isle
Maui is nicknamed the “Valley Isle” for a good reason. Maui is known for its lush rainforests and waterfalls found throughout the valleys of its two mountain ranges, namely the West Maui Mountains and the famous Haleakala.
South Maui is known for its long, beautiful sandy beaches like Makena. Snorkeling along these stunning coastlines can allow you to view colorful reef fish that call the island home.
In the winter months, whale watching tours are popular and a great way to see the majestic Humpback Whales up close. Maui has a long history of whaling culture and today is known as a top spot in the world for conservationists to help Humpback Whale populations.
Maui is the perfect island if you’re planning a vacation for the whole family. I think it flawlessly combines leisure and adventure without a lot of the hustle and bustle you’d find on Oahu.
See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World
Top Attractions on Maui
Haleakala National Park
Haleakala is still considered to be an active volcano today, but don’t worry; it isn’t currently erupting and hasn’t in over 400 years. The name Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, which is completely fitting.
It’s the best place on the island to watch the breathtaking sunrise and sunset. Check out this Haleakala Maui Sunrise Tour that also includes breakfast and pick-off/drop-off at your hotel.
Iao Valley State Park
See why Maui is nicknamed the Valley isle by visiting the Iao Valley State Park. The main site to see here is the Iao Needle, a stunning 1,200-foot tall rock formation. There are also several marked hiking trails in the area for visitors to enjoy.
The crescent-shaped Molokini crater is not to be missed if you’re interested in snorkeling or scuba diving. Hundreds of species of fish and other marine life calls this crater home. Check out this half-day Snorkeling and Sailing Tour on a luxury glass-bottom catamaran.
Road to Hana
The Road to Hana is an unbelievably scenic drive through Maui’s east side. On this drive, you’ll see countless waterfalls and sandy beaches. Stop frequently along the drive at places like Twin Falls, Hana Lava Tube, Waianapanapa State Park, and the Halfway to Hana fruit stand.
Humpback Whale Watching
Whale watching season in Hawaii is from mid-December to mid-May, though some whales can be spotted starting in October. Maui is arguably the best Hawaiian island for whale watching.
Although it’s possible to see whales while on land, the best way to see them is to go on a whale-watching tour like this one, where you can get up close and personal to these gentle giants.
Where to Stay on Maui
- Budget: Romantic Private Garden Cottage – This highly-rated cottage is conveniently located in Kihei and just a few minutes from Wailea Beach.
- Mid-Range: Courtyard by Marriott Maui Kahului Airport – This hotel, located just a few minutes away from Maui’s main airport, is a convenient spot to base yourself on Maui. It’s also less than 10 minutes away from the beach and features a great pool and hot tub area.
- Luxury: Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa – The beachfront Grand Wailea is a fantastic property that the whole family will enjoy. The property has 9 outdoor swimming pools and includes a water park and swim-up bar.
See Related: A Complete Maui Itinerary You’ll Want to Copy
Molokai – The Friendly Isle
Molokai is the second largest island in Maui County. It’s a terrific place to completely disconnect from the rest of the world; life just seems to slow down here.
The people are super friendly, and everyone seems to know everyone. If you look lost or in need, I can almost guarantee that someone will stop what they’re doing to help you!
To get to Molokai, you must take a flight from either Oahu or Maui to Molokai Airport (MKK). There is also a limited ferry service between Maui and Molokai. Public transportation is very limited here, so consider renting a car to visit the top attractions on the island.
Molokai is the best Hawaiian island to visit for you if you’re looking for something totally off the beaten path that transports you back to a Hawaii of long ago.
Top Attractions on Molokai
Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Kalaupapa was once a settlement where individuals with Hansen’s disease were exiled from the late 1800s.
Today, it is a preserved site where visitors can learn about the residents of Kalaupapa and what they went through. The park is only accessible via an organized hike or donkey ride down a 2.9-mile-long trail. For more tour information, check the official Kalaupapa National Historical Park website.
Halawa Bay has a unique mix of golden and black sand. The beautiful bay is located just outside sacred Halawa Valley, one of the earliest settlements in Hawaii. It’s about a one-hour drive from Kaunakakai, so it’s most likely that you’ll have the beach all to yourself.
Papohaku Beach Park
Papohaku Beach is one of the largest beaches in all of Hawaii. The golden sands seem to go on for miles, and you can even see the south shore of Oahu on a clear day. You can usually find the beach empty or close to it, making it an excellent place to search for beautiful seashells.
Snorkel Hawaii’s Longest Continuous Fringing Reef
Molokai’s south shore is home to a 28-mile-long fringing reef, the largest found in the Hawaiian islands. A fringing reef is the most common type of reef and is found close to the shore. Murphy’s Beach is a great place to snorkel the reef alongside colorful, tropical fish.
Stroll Through Kaunakakai Town
Kaunakakai is the quaint main town of Molokai. You can find great mom-and-pop shops selling clothes, food, and local products. Kanemitsu’s Bakery’s freshly baked sweet bread is a local favorite and one of my favorite things to bring back home with me.
Where to Stay on Molokai
- Budget: Ocean Front Luxury Condo at Wavecrest – Wavecrest is a luxury condominium that offers great views of the Kaunakakai area and a lovely pool. It’s just a short walk away from Murphy’s Beach, the best place to snorkel on the island.
- Mid-Range: Hotel Molokai – Hotel Molokai is the only full-service hotel on the island and my top recommendation for accommodation in Molokai. Most rooms have a beautiful view of the island’s south shore, and the property features an oceanfront restaurant and pool, often with live entertainment. The staff of Hotel Molokai is super friendly and helpful as well.
Lanai – The Pineapple Island
Lanai, nicknamed The Pineapple Island, is the smallest of all the Hawaiian Islands on this list. As the nickname suggests, it was formerly filled with pineapple plantations before it was settled by the LDS church. Controversially, billionaire Larry Ellison “owns” 98 percent of the island.
The island is known for being a playground for the rich and famous due to its seclusion and privacy from the rest of the state. There are only two hotels on the island, both very expensive.
This contributes to Lanai being one of the least visited islands in the state, but don’t let that stop you. The island is absolutely beautiful, and the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Lanai is 100 percent worth the high price tag.
To get to Lanai, you can take a flight from Oahu or Maui to Lanai Airport (LNY). You can also take the ferry from Maui to Lanai, which I recommend if you don’t plan to stay overnight on the island.
If you plan on staying on Lanai, I highly recommend renting a Jeep (you can do this directly from the Four Seasons) to access beaches on all sides of the island.
Because of all the off-road driving, consider purchasing travel insurance. A website like InsureMyTrip will allow you to compare hundreds of travel insurance plans to find one that perfectly fits your needs. One of our trusted favorite travel insurance providers is VisitorsCoverage.
Lanai is the best island for you if you’re looking to stay in absolute luxury – off-road adventuring optional.
See Related: Best Beaches in the US to Visit
Top Attractions on Lanai
Just a short jaunt away from both the Manele Boat Harbor and the Four Seasons Lanai lies Hulopo’e Bay. The wide beach is perfect for relaxing all day on a beach chair. The tide pools and reefs are great places to spot some tropical fish. Dolphins are often seen playing in the bay.
Garden of the Gods
Also known as Keahiakawelo, the Garden of the Gods is an impressive red rock garden found 45 minutes from Lanai City.
The spiral rock formations were naturally created by erosion over hundreds of years. On a clear day, you can see Oahu and Molokai from this spot, which is only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle or mountain bike.
While you could spend your entire vacation at a secluded, luxury resort, if you’re looking for a bit of adventure, consider renting a jeep and going off-roading. Kaiolohia, also known as Shipwreck Beach, is a great picnic stop with a unique view of a beached oil tanker from the 1940s.
Lanai Cat Sanctuary
My personal favorite attraction on Lanai is the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. Over 600 cats and kittens call the sanctuary home. You can really tell how well taken care of and happy the animals are by how easily they warm up to strangers.
Manele Golf Course
The Manele Golf Course offers some of the most spectacular views on the island. Besides playing the full course, the golf course also offers a special sunset nine, where guests can play the back 9 while enjoying stunning sunset views and cocktails.
Where to Stay on Lanai
- Mid-Range: Hotel Lanai – Hotel Lanai is the only other hotel on the island besides the Four Seasons. It’s beautifully designed to imitate the plantations of old Hawaii and is a relaxing location to spend your vacation.
- Luxury: Four Seasons Resort Lanai – The stunning Four Seasons Resort is my favorite hotel in all of Hawaii. I’ve never experienced a property so luxurious in my life. Each room feels like its own private villa. The staff is incredibly friendly and the food is next level. It is a splurge but certainly worth it, in my opinion.
What are the best Hawaiian islands?
Ah, come on, don’t put me in that position!
In my opinion (and you can trust it) is that there is no best island to visit in Hawaii. They each have their own unique beauty, vibe, attractions, culture, history, and activities. It really depends on what you want to do when visiting Hawaii!
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- About the Author
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Brittney is a lifelong traveler from Oahu, Hawaii. She has visited more than 35 countries and is continually researching new places to explore!