Best places to visit in Hawaii - Lonely Planet (2023)

Isolated, volcanic, beautiful, culturally significant. Hawaii is many things. From soaring over scalloped mountains to strolling along iconic beach resorts, or from learning to hula to exploring the fiery legends of Pele, each island has its own unique charms and experiences.

Whatever island you decide to visit, Hawaii's charms are plentiful and profound. Here are the Aloha State's top experiences.

Best places to visit in Hawaii - Lonely Planet (1)

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Big Island

Set on the sloping flanks of the world’s most active volcano – whose latest eruption ended in 2021 – this extraordinary park is a dramatic reminder that nature remains very much alive and in perpetual motion. Incredible hiking trails take in lava flows and tubes, steam vents and wild beaches, while a long, winding downhill drive leads past several major sights.

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Na Pali Coast, Kaua‘i

The Na Pali Coast deserves to top every Kaua‘i visitor’s to-do list. Admire it from a cruising catamaran, or pit your paddle and kayak against the elements. Hikers can see it close-up on the demanding 11-mile Kalalau Trail. Whether you’re on a day hike or a backpacking expedition, you’ll encounter a place like no other, where verdant cliffs soar above the waterfalls of wilderness valleys.

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Road to Hana, Maui

A white-knuckle roller-coaster of a ride, the Hana Highway in Maui twists through dense jungly valleys and skirts beneath mighty cliffs, curling around 600 twists and turns along the way. Fifty-four one-lane bridges cross nearly as many waterfalls ­– some eye-popping torrents, others soothing and gentle. Driving is only half the thrill. Get out and swim in a Zen-like pool, hike a ginger-scented trail and savor fresh guava and coconuts.

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Waikiki, O‘ahu

Hawaii's most famous resort, adjoining Honolulu, had become a haven for tacky plastic lei, coconut-shell bikini tops and motorized, hip-shaking hula dolls. But real aloha and chic-modern style have returned. Beach boys and girls surf legendary waves by day, and after sunset tiki torches light up the sand. Every night hula dancers – backed by slack key guitars and ukuleles – sway to ancient and modern rhythms at oceanfront hotels, open-air bars and even shopping malls.

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Haleakalā National Park, Maui

As you hike into Haleakalā, the first thing you notice is the crumbly lunar landscape. Then comes the eerie quiet – the only sound is the crunching of volcanic cinders beneath your feet. The trail continues through a tableau of stark lava, rainbow-colored cinder cones and ever-changing clouds. In the park’s coastal section, waterfalls tumble into brilliant pools flanked by trails, viewpoints and a bamboo forest.

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Merrie Monarch Festival, Big Island

Ever seen a resort luau (Hawaiian feast) show? Entertaining, for sure. But, to see authentic hula – performed to invoke gods and legends through chant and dance – attend this prestigious hula competition held in Hilo every Easter week. The catch? You must book tickets a year in advance. Fans fly in from around the world for this one. Even without tickets, you can enjoy a parade, craft fair and free performances.

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Pearl Harbor, Oʻahu

Pearl Harbor is best known for the 1941 attack on the USS Arizona, now a sobering memorial that still draws many veterans, tourists and military history buffs to Oʻahu. But the history of this place, and many of Hawaii's active US military bases, goes back much further, even before the colonization and annexation of the islands in the 20th century as a growing United States flexed its imperial muscle. The very name "Pearl Harbor" is a translation of the Native Hawaiian name Wai Momi. Nearby, military history buffs can clamber around inside the USS Bowfin submarine, tour the aircraft hangars of the Pacific Aviation Museum and stand on the decks of the "Mighty Mo" battleship, where Imperial Japan formally surrendered in 1945.

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Hanalei Bay, Kaua‘i

Repeatedly voted among the USA's very best beaches, this crescent-shaped bay on Kaua‘i’s North Shore delights lazy sunbathers and active beachgoers alike. Surfers can charge massive (and some beginner) waves, while onlookers amble along the golden sands. Surf lessons take place near the pier, and every afternoon locals and visitors fire up barbecue grills, crack open cold brews and watch the daylight fade.

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Molokini

Hawaiian legend says that Molokini was a beautiful woman turned to stone by a jealous Pele, goddess of fire and volcanoes. Today Molokini is the stuff of legends among scuba divers and snorkelers. The crescent-shaped rock, only a few miles off the South Maui coast, is the rim of an ancient volcanic crater that has eroded over eons and sunk back beneath the ocean's surface. The shallow waters cradled within are a more than hospitable spot for coral and a calling card for more than 250 species of tropical fish.

ʻIolani Palace, Oʻahu

No other place evokes a more poignant sense of Hawaii’s history. The palace was built under King David Kalakaua in 1882. At that time, the Hawaiian monarchy observed many of the diplomatic protocols of the Victorian world. The king traveled abroad, meeting with leaders around the globe, and received foreign emissaries here. Although the palace was modern and opulent for its time, it did little to assert Hawaii’s sovereignty over powerful US-influenced business interests, who overthrew the kingdom in 1893. Two years after the coup, the former queen, Liliʻuokalani, who had succeeded her brother David to the throne, was convicted of treason and spent nine months imprisoned here, her former home.

Best places to visit in Hawaii - Lonely Planet (10)

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Surfing Oʻahu's North Shore

When giant rollers come crashing in, head to Oʻahu's North Shore for a glimpse of Hawaii's surfing rock stars (you can also spot them riding pro-worthy waves at Maui's Hoʻokipa Beach and Kauaʻi's own North Shore). No need to pull out a camera lens larger than a howitzer – you can practically look these surfers in the eye as they paddle into monster surf. Or experience the adrenaline rush for yourself by learning to ride da kine (the best kind of) waves. Hang loose, brah!

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Waimea Canyon, Kauaʻi

Carved by aeons of erosion and the collapse of the volcano that formed Kauaʻi, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" stretches 10 miles long, 1 mile wide and more than 3600ft deep. Roadside lookouts along the sinuous scenic drive survey russet cliffs, towering waterfalls and endless abysses. Steep trails lead hikers down to the canyon floor, out to coastal headlands, and deep into the mountaintop swamps.

Best places to visit in Hawaii - Lonely Planet (12)

Waipiʻo Valley, Big Island

A mysterious green bowl filled with ghosts and legends. A sacred site. A retreat from the outside world. Waipiʻo's special distillation of all these makes it irresistible. Some simply snap their photos from the panoramic overlook, one of the Big Island’s most iconic views. Others trek down to the valley floor with a local guide to stroll a black sand beach and peer at distant waterfalls while hearing the stories and legends of the surrounding region.

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Best places to visit in Hawaii - Lonely Planet (13)

Night Diving & Snorkeling with Mantas, Big Island

The alien wonders of the ocean become accessible to all on the Big Island. Take a night snorkeling or scuba diving trip near Kailua-Kona and come face to face, eye to eye and sometimes belly to belly with enormous Pacific manta rays. These graceful giants glide like dark angels beneath you, dancing a shadowy ballet that is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and utterly fascinating. Best of all, you don't need to be an expert in the water to enjoy this unforgettable adventure.

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Mauna Kea, Big Island

In Hawaiian tradition, the summit of the islands’ tallest mountain, Mauna Kea on the Big Island, is the point where the earth and the heavens meet. Contemporary astronomers feel much the same way, and have in the last fifty years taken advantage of the clearest air on the planet to erect ever more powerful observatories – in many cases meeting with hundreds of Native Hawaiian protestors, who hold the mountain sacred. While science and spirituality remain at loggerheads, visitors can still join mountaintop stargazing sessions.

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Honolulu, O‘ahu

In Hawaii's cosmopolitan capital on O‘ahu's southern shoreline, you can eat your way through the pan-Asian alleys of Chinatown, gaze out to sea from the landmark Aloha Tower and explore the USA’s only royal palace, where Hawaii’s last monarch languished under house arrest. Browse at the world's largest open-air shopping center, then pay your respects at Pearl Harbor.

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Moloka'i

More than half of Moloka‘i’s people have Indigenous heritage, and locals favor preservation of land and culture over schemes promoting tourism. Yet visitors find a genuine welcome, and the aloha spirit is everywhere. As well as the forbidding, spectacular Kalaupapa Peninsula, island sights include the end-of-the-road Halawa Valley, home to hundreds of sacred taro patches, ancient temples and waterfalls pounding into swimmable pools.

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Kihei & Wailea, Maui

Famed for phenomenal swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing and sunny skies, the beaches of South Maui are world class. In winter, whales congregate immediately off shore, while snorkel cruises head out year-round. The further south you go, the more magnificent the beaches become, culminating in superb, mile-long Big Beach. If you’re not staying in exclusive Wailea, thank Hawaii’s beach-access laws, which allow you to visit these beautiful strands anyway, with dedicated public parking lots.

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FAQs

What is the number 1 attraction in Hawaii? ›

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head State Monument, Oahu

Waikiki, with its beautiful stretch of oceanfront beach, is Hawaii's biggest tourist attraction.

What is the prettiest Hawaiian island to visit? ›

Kauai offers up pure paradise to anyone who loves the great outdoors. Kauai is the oldest of the major Hawaiian Islands and has certainly earned its nickname of the "Garden Isle." Beautiful flora and fauna abound around the island. As the oldest Hawaiian Island, Kauai is also home to some of the world's best beaches.

Where should I go in Hawaii for the first time? ›

Usually, I recommend that first timers start off with a trip to Oahu. It's the most popular Hawaiian island, as well as the cheapest. Plus there are tons of attractions, activities, great food, and shopping. That's why I think it's the best island to visit in Hawaii for the first time.

What is the most affordable Hawaiian island to visit? ›

Oahu is the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit, with a total cost of $2,625. A Ko Olina Resort lagoon on Oahu. Maui is the most expensive island to visit, coming in nearly $1,000 more expensive, with a total cost of $3,600.

How many days in Hawaii is enough? ›

How many days are enough in Hawaii? While you might never want to leave Hawaii, usually people plan to stay 7-10 days during their vacation to Hawaii. That gives enough time to get over jet lag, participate in a few scheduled activities, explore the Hawaiian island a bit, and have time to relax and unwind.

Is Oahu or Maui better? ›

Maui vs Oahu: Oahu is right for you if you want more of a cosmopolitan vacation, enjoy the nightlife, are excited about historical and cultural activities, or want to travel on a budget. Maui is right for you if you're looking for a romantic island, great snorkeling, a relaxing vacation, or more outdoor activities.

Is Maui or Kauai better? ›

If you're ready to trade the hustle and bustle for variety and adventure in your life, Maui probably sounds like the perfect escape. If you're looking for something quieter and family-friendly, with plenty of outdoor activities and natural beauty, Kauai is the ideal island paradise.

Which is better Maui or Honolulu? ›

Maui is more tranquil, romantic, and less crowded than Honolulu. As compared to Honolulu, Maui has great beaches, stunning landscapes, and plenty of outdoor activities. Honolulu is more populous and metropolitan, while Maui is more Hawaiian. So, for a tranquil family holiday, choose Maui over Honolulu.

What time is best to visit Hawaii? ›

The best time to visit Hawaii is between March and September. This is when the islands see the highest temperatures and the lowest amount of rain. It's the perfect time to enjoy the beach or the water.

What is the most popular destination in Hawaii? ›

Oahu is the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands, at nearly 4.7 million visitors annually. Oahu is primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, as well as Pearl Harbor and the famous beach known as Waikiki. These areas attract tourists by the thousands daily.

What is the cheapest month to go to Hawaii? ›

The cheapest time to fly to Hawaii is during February and March. The most expensive month to fly is December when the holiday period falls, with January being very expensive as well. The peak travel months of June and July are surprisingly not the most expensive months for flights, with middle figure prices.

How much money do you need for Hawaii? ›

How much money will you need for your trip to Hawaii? You should plan to spend around $274 per day on your vacation in Hawaii, which is the average daily price based on the expenses of other visitors. Past travelers have spent, on average, $61 on meals for one day and $29 on local transportation.

What part of Hawaii should I visit? ›

The short answer: Go to Maui if you want to be pampered at a resort with all the amenities. Book Oahu if you want to see Pearl Harbor and famous Waikiki Beach. Visit Big Island if you want to hike Volcanos National Park (and maybe see flowing lava). Head to Kauai if you want to experience wild, untamed Hawaii.

What is the number 2 attraction in Hawaii? ›

2: Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

Located in Oahu near Honolulu, it's one of the best Hawaiian destinations to enjoy swimming with some of the most colorful fishes, gorgeous coral reefs, and exotic marine life in the bay's pristine blue waters.

What is the most popular destination in Hawaii? ›

Oahu is the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands, at nearly 4.7 million visitors annually. Oahu is primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, as well as Pearl Harbor and the famous beach known as Waikiki. These areas attract tourists by the thousands daily.

What is Hawaii famous for? ›

Hawaii is known for its beautiful beaches—some of them with unusual colors. Many beaches are filled with white sand, but other Hawaiian shores are covered with green, red, pink, and even black sand. Whether you like hiking, biking, kayaking, sailing, swimming, or just sitting on the beach, Hawaii is the state for you.

What is the most famous landmark in Hawaii? ›

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor is one of the most important Hawaii landmarks to visit. After all, the surprise attack by Japanese bombers in December 1941 changed the course of history. It's a moving experience to pay your respects here.

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