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Visiting Hawaii is high on the travel list of many. With its stunning turquoise ocean, family-friendly activities, and welcoming Hawaiian culture, it’s the perfect tropical paradise that doesn’t require a passport.
All the Hawaiian islands are unique and offer things to see and do. For example, you can snorkel with Manta rays off the coast of the Big Island, feel the power of the past at Pearl Harbor, or take a sunrise bike ride down a dormant volcano in Maui.
I’ve been blessed to call this beautiful place home since I was born, but I didn’t start appreciating it until my teenage years. Since then, I’ve tried to explore my home and all the different Hawaiian islands, no matter how “touristy” some activities seem.
This Hawaii travel guide will give you all my insider tips as a local to ensure you have the best time in this tropical island paradise. I hope this vacation guide takes all the stress out of planning for first-time visitors and gives new ideas and perspectives to those looking for a great time experiencing island life in Hawaii.
- Best Things to Do in Hawaii
- 1. Surf at the world-famous Waikiki Beach (Oahu)
- 2. Hike Diamond Head (Oahu)
- 3. Visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (Oahu)
- 4. Go on a whale-watching excursion (All islands)
- 5. Experience a traditional Hawaiian luau (All islands)
- 6. Swim with Manta rays at night off the Kona Coast (Big Island)
- 7. Explore the Napali Coast by sea (Kauai)
- 8. Go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (Oahu)
- 9. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Big Island)
- 10. Watch the sunrise from Haleakala National Park (Maui)
- 11. Drive the iconic Road to Hana (Maui)
- 12. Admire the waves on the North Shore of Oahu
- Where to stay in Hawaii
- How to Get Around in Hawaii
- Travel Tips for Visiting Hawaii
- Invest in travel insurance
- Be prepared for fun in the sun
- Friendliness and respect go a long way
Best Things to Do in Hawaii
1. Surf at the world-famous Waikiki Beach (Oahu)
Oahu’s nickname is The Gathering Place, and there’s no better place on the island to gather than Waikiki Beach. This beach has been a favorite surfing spot for Hawaiian royalty for centuries. Today, it’s known as the Mecca for tourism in Hawaii, with as many hotels as palm trees lining the shore.
Waikiki Beach provides a fantastic place for families to experience fun in the sun in Hawaii. The sea remains mostly calm here year-round (you’ll find the big waves on the North Shore in the winter), so it’s the perfect place for the whole family to swim, snorkel, and play on the sand. It’s also an awesome place to learn how to surf.
Taking a surf lesson on Waikiki Beach will make for memories that will last a lifetime. A two-hour beginner surf lesson in Waikiki will give you all the basics about catching your first wave.
Your professional guide will start with a short lesson on land before you head into the water. Once in the waves, you’ll learn about surf etiquette and be on your way in no time! Tailored surf lessons for kids are also available in Waikiki.
2. Hike Diamond Head (Oahu)
When flying into Honolulu, one of the first sights you’ll see is the magnificent Diamond Head right outside of Waikiki.
The stunning crater got its nickname when early Western explorers mistook its calcite crystals for diamonds when they saw the unmissable landmark from the sea. Its traditional Hawaiian name is Le’ahi, which means head of the ahi (tuna) fish, which it physically resembles.
Compared to other hikes on Oahu, Diamond Head features a moderately easy hiking path with views that far outweigh the work it takes to reach the lookout point.
Round trip, the hike takes approximately two hours and offers sweeping views of Waikiki, Honolulu, and the stunning Pacific Ocean. Wear comfortable shoes, sunglasses, and a hat; bring lots of water. Shady spots are limited, so you’ll be exposed to the sun for most of the hike.
The park is open daily, and as of May 2022, reservations for non-residents are required. Reservations can be made through the Hawaii DLNR Division of State Parks. There is also a parking fee, so you may want to take a taxi or Uber to and from the hike’s starting point.
3. Visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (Oahu)
Whether you’re a first-time visitor to Hawaii or have been to the islands numerous times, I highly recommend visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial at least once. Pearl Harbor was the site of a horrific attack on December 7th, 1941, which prompted the United States to enter World War II.
Start your visit at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, where you’ll learn about the various galleries and activities available at the memorial. I recommend first going to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater, which shows a short and informative documentary on the Pearl Harbor attack.
The main place to visit in Pearl Harbor is the USS Arizona Memorial, which you can visit via a short boat ride from the welcome center.
The USS Arizona was one of the ships that went down during the attack. Today, it remains the final resting place for over 1,000 brave soldiers.
Their names, along with the names of all who perished on that day, are etched into the memorial, which sits above the ship. You can still see the oil slowly leaking out of the ship.
If you’re renting a car, visiting Pearl Harbor is no issue. If you’re not renting a car during your trip to Oahu, many tours like this one are available. They’ll take you from Waikiki and through downtown Honolulu to get to Pearl Harbor and back to Waikiki after your visit.
4. Go on a whale-watching excursion (All islands)
Whale-watching season in Hawaii happens in winter, typically from November until March. During this time, Humpback whales migrate south to the warm tropical waters of Hawaii and the South Pacific to breed and give birth to their young. You can catch these majestic creatures breaching and playing in the ocean if you’re lucky enough.
While whale watching is possible on every Hawaiian island, Maui is the best place to admire these gorgeous giants. Maui has a long history of whaling, which has since transformed into love and protection for the species.
This two-hour whale-watching excursion takes you to sea from the adorable seaside town of Lahaina in West Maui. While cruising out of the harbor, an expert naturalist on board will explain the history of Humpback whales in Hawaii and the different behaviors you may see.
If you don’t see any whales on your excursion, your next time is free! This family-friendly activity is generally affordable, so it’s the perfect addition to any trip to Hawaii.
5. Experience a traditional Hawaiian luau (All islands)
I’m certainly a little biased, but I think Hawaii has some of the world’s most delicious and unique cuisine. And there’s no better way to try Hawaiian food while learning about Hawaiian culture than by going to a luau. A luau is traditionally a party with food, dancing, and singing.
I’ve been to plenty of luaus throughout the years, but my favorite one is at Paradise Cove, located in Ko Olina on the west coast of Oahu. A visit to Paradise Cove includes a welcome mai tai, fun traditional Polynesian games, a buffet of traditional Hawaiian food, and authentic entertainment by locals.
Here are some traditional Hawaiian dishes that you MUST try:
- Kalua Pork – Pulled pork cooked in an imu (underground oven)
- Haupia- A firm coconut pudding dessert
- Squid luau – Stewed taro leaves mixed with coconut milk and squid
- Poke – cubed raw fish (usually tuna) mixed with different seasonings
- Lomi salmon – tomatoes, sweet Maui onions, and salted salmon
- Pipikaula – smoked beef
6. Swim with Manta rays at night off the Kona Coast (Big Island)
Hawaii is filled with so much glorious flora and fauna. From majestic sea creatures to fascinating plants only found in the Hawaiian islands, this tropical paradise offers many new things to see and do for visitors. One thing that should be on everyone’s bucket list of Hawaii experiences is swimming with manta rays at night. The best place to do this is off the Kona Coast of the Big Island.
The manta rays come out to feed at night when the plankton they feed on are attracted to the light on the surface of the ocean. This is why the best time to view them is at night. Your tour will put out a big floating platform that you can hold onto to safely enjoy snorkeling at night amongst the giant manta rays as they enjoy a tasty meal.
I highly recommend this once-in-a-lifetime activity when visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s fun and super special. Make sure to bring an underwater camera as well as a towel and jacket to wear, as it might be a little chilly on the boat.
7. Explore the Napali Coast by sea (Kauai)
Kauai, nicknamed the Garden Isle, is one of the most scenic and rugged Hawaiian islands. Most activities on Kauai revolve around the outdoors, from admiring Waimea Canyon to hiking the arduous Kalalau Trail. One of the most untouched areas of the main Hawaiian islands is Kauai’s Napali Coast, located on Kauai’s scenic North Shore.
This stretch of coast is only accessible by boat or multi-day hiking down the Kalalau Trail. When exploring this part of the island, you’ll find cascading waterfalls, towering sea cliffs, lush green valleys, and untouched beaches. It’s really up to you how you’d like to explore the Napali Coast, but by far, the easiest and most relaxing way is by going on a full-day boat tour.
This boat tour will take you on an epic adventure on a luxurious catamaran around the Napali Coast. It’s not uncommon on these boat tours to run into some locals (meaning dolphins and green sea turtles). You’ll stop at several amazing snorkeling spots before heading to Niihau, the Forbidden Isle.
This island is home to a small population of Native Hawaiians and strictly limits visitors (including those from the other islands), so your captain will find the perfect spot off the coast to snorkel.
8. Go snorkeling at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve (Oahu)
If you’re looking for one of the best and most family-friendly places to snorkel in Hawaii, you must check out Hanauma Bay.
The bay is less than 30 minutes from Waikiki and is a protected nature preserve. Because Hanauma Bay is protected, it is closed every Monday and Tuesday to let the water naturally filter and give the marine life a break from all the visitors.
Reservations are also required and can be made through the Honolulu Parks & Recreation website. While this is one of the only beaches in Hawaii that tourists must pay to visit, it’s well worth it. Hanauma Bay is home to an incredible coral reef and stunning marine life.
Colorful reef fish, Hawaiian green sea turtles, and even sometimes Hawaiian monk seals will be swimming by as you snorkel around the reef. Be sure to use reef-safe sunscreen to protect you and the environment.
There is a limit of only 1,400 guests allowed in the bay per day, so make sure to make your reservations early. Snorkel gear is available for rent in the bay, but you can also bring your own. Upon arrival, all visitors to Hanauma Bay must watch a nine-minute video about the bay and how to preserve it for the next generations.
9. Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (Big Island)
The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest Hawaiian island and the land of volcanoes. It comprises five major volcanoes: Kilauea, Kohala, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, and Hualalai.
Mauna Kea is a popular spot to visit during the winter, as it’s one of the only places where it snows in Hawaii (its name even translates to ‘white mountain’). But if you want to experience active volcanoes up close, a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must.
Volcanoes National Park comprises two of the Big Island’s active volcanoes: Mauna Loa and Kilauea. You can admire the desolate volcanic landscape throughout the park, explore hollowed-out lava tubes, and even see the lava flowing when the volcanoes erupt.
While visiting Volcanoes National Park does not require a guide, I highly recommend a guided tour to learn more about the volcanic activity, different kinds of lava, and how the islands were formed.
This full-day tour includes a guided tour of Volcanoes National Park and several other stops, including a Kona coffee farm and a black sand beach. Your guide will take you to the Halemaumau Trail, Thurston Lava Tube, and Chain of Craters Road in the park.
10. Watch the sunrise from Haleakala National Park (Maui)
Haleakala National Park is another incredible national park to visit while in Hawaii. While Haleakala is also a volcano, it offers a different vibe than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This massive shield volcano towers over the rest of Maui and is the perfect place to watch the sunrise.
Most of the resorts on Maui are located in West Maui, so keep that in mind if you want to watch the sunrise from Haleakala. For example, driving from Ka’anapali to Haleakala takes about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on traffic. Depending on the time of year, sunrise can be anywhere from 5:45 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., so you might have to plan to be up around 3:30 a.m.
If you don’t feel like driving early in the morning, I highly recommend booking a sunrise tour to relieve stress from this exciting excursion. This Haleakala sunrise tour will pick you up directly from your hotel and take you on a fully guided tour of Haleakala National Park.
After sunrise, they’ll take you down to Kula Lodge on the slopes of Haleakala for a delicious breakfast. Make sure to dress warmly; Haleakala is much cooler than the rest of the island.
11. Drive the iconic Road to Hana (Maui)
Driving the Road to Hana is one of those things where the journey is the destination. This iconic 64.4-mile drive connects the remote town of Hana in east Maui to the island’s main town, Kahului. The road is known for its harrowing hairpin turns and scenic surroundings.
Along the way, you‘ll see breathtaking waterfalls, lush rainforests, and even a black sand beach. You can either do the drive yourself or go on one of many offered guided tours. The advantage of driving yourself is going at your own pace and making as many stops as you’d like.
You can even stay overnight in Hana if you please. The advantage of being on a tour is that you can stop at the best spots. And you don’t have to worry about driving. The disadvantage is that you’re tied to a specific schedule.
Here are some of the best places to stop along the Road to Hana:
- Ho’okipa Beach Park (close to the famous Mama’s Fish House restaurant!)
- Hanawi Falls
- Twin Falls
- Hana Farms Fruit Stand
- Waianapanapa State Park (this is where you’ll find the black sand beach)
- Wailua Falls
- Pipiwai Trail & The Seven Sacred Pools
12. Admire the waves on the North Shore of Oahu
Being born and raised in Oahu, I have to say it is my favorite island. And my favorite place to be on the island is the North Shore. The North Shore offers many different kinds of beaches to suit your needs.
Check out Shark’s Cove if you’re looking for a calm place to snorkel. If you are looking for a long stretch of sand to lay out and tan all day, Ke Iki Beach and Sunset Beach are my favorites.
If you want to admire gorgeous green sea turtles, Haleiwa Beach Park and Laniakea Beach are the best beaches to visit.
And finally, if you’re in Hawaii in the winter, you can’t miss the surf competitions that run all season. Pipeline Beach features one of the most iconic waves in the surfing world and is truly a sight to see in real life. If you visit North Shore in the water, you definitely shouldn’t be swimming.
Even the most experienced surfers and lifeguards get injured in the massive waves. Instead, enjoy the vibes and energy at the surf competitions and some ono grindz (amazing food).
My favorite places to eat on the North Shore include Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, Island Vintage Coffee, Sunrise Shack, and Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.
Where to stay in Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands offer a variety of hotels, from romantic luxury resorts to fun and welcoming family-friendly hotels. Each island offers hotels for all budgets and travel styles, so it’s one less thing to worry about when planning your Hawaiian vacation.
The only island with luxury resorts is Lanai, so you can either plan to be in full luxury mode or combine your trip to Lanai with a few days on Maui or Oahu. With that said, here are some of the best hotels and resorts in Hawaii:
- Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort
- Embassy Suites By Hilton Oahu Kapolei
- Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa
- Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa
- 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay
- The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
- Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
- Hilton Waikoloa Village
- Four Seasons Resort Lana’i
- Hotel Molokai
How to Get Around in Hawaii
It is user-friendly and compares car rental prices at the largest brands like Sixt, Budget, Hertz, and Avis. If you’d only like to spend a day or two of your trip exploring the island, there are circle island tours available as well as tours to specific attractions, like a Road to Hana day trip.
Travel Tips for Visiting Hawaii
Hawaii is such a special place to visit, but of course, there are a few things that visitors should know before getting to the islands.
The islands are stunning, but you should come prepared since you’ll enjoy many outdoor activities. Here are some of my top travel tips to help ensure that your Hawaii visit goes smoothly.
Invest in travel insurance
Be prepared for fun in the sun
I’ve said this a lot, but be prepared to spend much time outside in Hawaii! The stunning beaches, breathtaking hikes, and amazing outdoor adventures will wear you out, but content at the end of each day. Here’s a packing list of all the essentials to keep the fun lasting all day:
- GoPro HERO11 Black
- Hydro Flask 32 oz. Water Bottle with Straw Lid
- Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion (Vegan and Reef Friendly)
- Traditional Oval Single Lens Mask
- Quiksilver Men’s Bushmaster Sun Protection Floppy Visor Bucket Hat
- Quick Dry Water Shoes
- Adidas Women’s Qt Racer 2.0 Running Shoe
- Adidas Men’s Ultraboost 22 Running Shoe
- Dock & Bay Quick Dry Towel
Friendliness and respect go a long way
While you’re on your dream vacation in Hawaii, it’s important to remember that Hawaii is home to real people. Additionally, the ecosystem is extremely fragile, so it affects the whole environment whenever something happens. Here are a few ways to be a gracious guest:
- Bring out what you take in. Trash and pollution negatively affect native species and take away from the islands’ natural beauty.
- Opt for reef-safe sunscreen!
- Take time to learn about the Native Hawaiian culture.
- Have a good time! Good vibes and a positive attitude will be reciprocated.
- 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 – even though she hates flying. Her favorite destinations have one thing in common: they’re warm. With expertise in French Polynesia, Hawaii, and the Mediterranean, you can follow along as she checks out the cleanest beaches and clearest water on the planet. Brittney is currently based in the South of France.