Choosing the best Hawaiian island to visit is not an easy task. Every island has its own unique character, natural landmarks, exciting must-sees and style of accommodation. A Hawaiian island-hopping trip is ideal because it allows to explore the couleur locale of every island. But since a weeks long trip is not an option for most, it comes down to narrowing your search. But which is the best island to visit in Hawaii for you?
Choosing the best Hawaiian island to visit comes down to personal preference and is based on your expectations and travel style. Whether you’re an active traveler, a family with young kids, a bon vivant or a sucker for romance, we’re here to help you figure out the best Hawaiian island for you. Are you ready to discover your dream vacation? Let’s go!
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In a nutshell: Which Hawaiian island is best for you?
Before giving you a lay of the islands, an island by island outline as well as a comparison by interest. But finding the best island to visit on Hawaii essentially boils down to this:
- Oahu is perfect for cultural sights, hiking (check out our selection of waterfall hikes on Oahu), shopping and entertainment.
- Maui is our top choice for pampering, relaxation, soft adventure and luxurious accommodations.
- The Big Island is best for a variety of landscapes and climate zones, volcano territory, adventure, black sand beaches, a green sand beach and cultural explorations.
- Kauai is best for natural abundance, rural landscapes, a more intimate vibe, peace and quiet.
- Molokai and Lanai are rather remote and all-natural, making them the best Hawaiian islands for a second or third visit.
Let’s have a closer look at each of the islands individually.
Plan a trip to Hawaii like a pro
Map of the Hawaiian Islands
The Hawaiian archipelago comprises 137 islands but 6 of those – Maui, Oahu, Hawaii island a.k.a. Big Island, Kauai, Lanai and Molokai – are open to visitors.
There are direct flights from the mainland to Oahu, Maui and Big Island. Only some airlines fly directly to Kauai. Getting to Molokai involves taking an inter-island flight. Lanai is can also be reached by means of an inter-island flight but is also accessible by ferry from Maui.
When it comes to booking flights, we use Google flights and/or Expedia. Or, if you’re looking for a Hawaiian experience from the moment of take-off, you might as well book directly with Hawaiian Airlines.
Hawaiian islands compared
As mentioned previously, all the Hawaiian islands have something for everyone to enjoy. But the question is: Which one is calling you? Here’s an outline of every island to help you pick the best Hawaiian island to visit.
Is Oahu the best island to visit in Hawaii?
Oahu is the best island to visit in Hawaii if you love city life, dining options, exiting excursions, cultural sites, world-class shopping, beaches, water sport activities and hiking. Not only is it home to the capital city of the Hawaiian islands, Honolulu, it’s also the most populated island.
As the central hub of Hawaii, Oahu is nicknamed the “Gathering Place”. It’s also the best Hawaiian island to visit many tourist sites without the need to rent a car, thanks to a variety of excursion options and a solid public transport network.
Oahu resort areas
Waikiki, North Shore, Ko’olina, and Kailua are all different areas on the island of Oahu that each offer their own unique take on what it means to vacation in Hawaii.
Waikiki is located within Honolulu and the beating heart of Oahu’s tourism industry. It features some of the island’s best shopping and dining, as well as the world-renowned Waikiki beach that is perfect for swimming, surfing, and sunbathing. Stay at the Alohilani Waikiki beach, the classic Hilton Hawaiian Village or at this Ilikai condo.
Oahu’s North Shore is famous for its large waves and stunning beaches. If you’re looking for an authentic Hawaiian experience complete with oceanic adventures like surfing and snorkeling, then North Shore is the place for you. Stay at the Turtle Bay Resort.
Ko’olina is located on the west coast of Oahu and is known for its beautiful lagoons and beaches. It’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy the island at a more tranquil place. Stay at the Disnay Aulani Resort & Spa or at Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club.
Kailua is located on the east side of Oahu and known for its laid-back atmosphere and easy-to-access beaches. It’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and Honolulu, and enjoy some rest and relaxation. Stay at this gorgeous vacation home.
Activities on Oahu
Oahu is dotted with cultural sights such as the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, the Bishop Museum, the Queen Emma Summer Palace and the Byodo-in Temple.
No better place to take a surf lesson than at the world-renowned Waikiki beach. More experienced surfers will appreciate the monster waves of the North Shore.
From boogie-boarding to shark-diving, the island of Oahu offers a wide range of water activities.
The best snorkeling site is the protected reef at Hanauma Bay. (Make sure to pack a rash guard and a reef-friendly sunscreen approved for Hawaii.)
Hike to the Diamond Head crater or tackle one of the scenic waterfall hikes on Oahu, the one to Waimea Falls for example.
Get your dose of pineapple at the Dole Plantation, explore the breathtaking Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens or discover the Jurassic Park sites at the Kualoa Ranch by ATV tour.
Discover amazing performances while learning all about Hawaiian culture at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Attend a luau performance here or head to the Chief’s Luau or Paradise Cove Luau.
Tip: The Go Oahu Card might be interesting if you plan to explore the island and its many must-sees during your family trip. It’s an all-inclusive pass that allows you to visit as many attractions on the island as you wish within a certain number of days (choose between 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 days).
Best waterfall hikes on Oahu
Is Maui the best island to visit in Hawaii?
If you are looking for to relax under the swaying palms of a gorgeous resort, then Maui is the best island to visit in Hawaii. With its amazing beaches, most luxurious resorts and world-class spas, Maui is the perfect destination for any traveler looking to unwind and enjoy some quality time in paradise. Out of all major Hawaiian islands, Maui is also the best destination for families with little kids.
And if you’re interested in exploring the island’s natural beauty, you’ll be please to learn that Maui also offers a variety of outdoor activities that are sure to please any nature lover. This island features lush rainforests, dramatic waterfalls and incredible mountain peaks.
Maui resort areas
There are several different resort areas throughout the island, each with its own unique qualities.
West-Maui is a popular choice for many thanks to the beautiful sandy beaches. Especially Kaanapali, where a wonderful beach walk connects the beachfront hotels and restaurants, is a family-favorite. Stay at the recently renovated Kaanapali beach hotel.
Another popular resort area in West-Maui is Kapalua, which has some of the finest golf courses in the state and is also known for its golden beaches and amazing snorkeling spots. Whether you’re a golfer looking for a challenge or just want to enjoy the scenery, Kapalua is a great choice. Stay at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua for the ultimate pampering experience.
If you’re looking for a more laid-back atmosphere, Lahaina is the perfect spot. This historic town on the west side has a charming old-fashioned feel, and its beaches are some of the most beautiful on Maui. If you want to experience a lively and artsy vibe, Lahaina is a great place to start. Stay at this fabulous beachfront condo.
South-Maui is home to Kihei. This central resort location makes for a wonderful budget-friendly option thanks to a lack of hotels. It’s the best place to look for an affordable beachfront condo. Stay at this enchanting garden cottage.
One of the most popular spots on Maui is Wailea, which has miles of pristine beaches and excellent weather year-round. If you’re looking for a luxurious and relaxing vacation, Wailea beach is the perfect destination. Stay at the Waldorf Grand Wailea Resort & Spa with its awesome pool complex.
Some of the less-obvious places to stay on Maui include surfer hotspot Paia, legendary Hana town, the Kula mountains or the central town of Wailuku. Stay at this beautiful Paia beach cottage or at the Hana Maui Resort by Hyatt Residence (formerly known as the Travaasa Hana luxury hotel).
Here’s where to stay on Maui
Things to do in Kaanapali
Activities on Maui
There’s no shortage of things to do on Maui, from soaking up the sun on one of the island’s many beaches to hiking through its lush rainforests. But there are also plenty of unique activities that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Meet the humpback on one of the whale-watching tours. These gracious whales migrate here every winter to the warm waters of Maui. The whale-watch sail standard tour or whale-watch sail deluxe tour with the Pacific Whale Foundation include the company of a marine biologist. For that extra dose of adventure, go whale-watching by kayak.
Watch the sunrise from the volcano summit at Haleakala National Park, a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Optionally, book a tour that includes zip-lining or a volcano bike tour.
Experience the legendary Road to Hana, either on your own or by booking a tour such as this one which consistently gets glowing reviews.
Head to Ho’okipa Beach Park to catch a wave (experienced sufers only) or to see the Hawaiian green sea turtles basking in the sun.
Visit the sacred Iao Valley State Monument. Located in the lush green Wailuku Valley, Iao is a place of significant cultural and historical significance for Hawaiians.
Go boogie-boarding at Ka’anapali beach or go snorkeling at Black Rock or Kapalua Bay. Better yet, go on a snorkeling trip to the Molokini crater. Make sure to pack a rash guard and a reef-safe sunscreen.
Experience a Maui luau. Many resorts and hotels offer their own luau, but there are also several stand-alone luau companies on the island.
Top things to do on Maui
Renting a car on Maui? Read this first!
Is the Big Island the best island to visit in Hawaii?
If you’re looking for an adventure-filled trip, then the Big Island is the best island to visit in Hawaii for you. With its active volcanoes, tropical rainforests, snow-capped mountains and black sand beaches, the Big Island is a nature lover’s paradise. And to top it off, the Big Island is home to the sensational Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Whether you want to hike through lava fields, snorkel in crystal-clear waters or go whale-watching from the shores, the Big Island has it all.
The island’s nature is so diverse because it accounts for 8 of the world’s climate zones. That’s right: from the hot desert zone to the arctic periglacial zone, you can find 8 of them on just one island.
Big Island resort areas
Because the climate is such an influential factor on the island, locals use other terms to indicate the coasts (no Hawaiian words but specific English terms). The east side of the island is called the windward side, because that’s the side where the wind comes, while the west coast is called the leeward side. It makes all the difference when packing for your vacation.
The windward coast is the lush side of Hawaii with waterfalls, lush tropical foliage and an authentic true Hawaiian vibe. Don’t expect sandy beaches on this part of the main island of Hawaii since the coastline is formed by black lava rocks. That’s one of the reasons why you won’t find any beach resorts here. Hilo is the main town on the east side of the island and a great base to explore the Hamakua coast. Stay at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo – a DoubleTree by Hilton or this spectacular waterfall retreat.
Instead of visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park from Hilo, you could stay at rustic Volcano Village. It’s located in the Puna region and right next to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve that encompasses both the Kilauea and Mauna Loa summit areas. This amazing rainforest retreat with its hot tub and fire pit makes for the perfect place to stay.
Located on the west side of the island, the Kona coast is a long stretch of coastline known for its sunny weather. The landscape is very different on this side of the island: less tropical vegetation, more dry landscapes. Bustling Kailua-Kona is the main town of the Kona region. Stay at the gorgeous boutique-style Holualoa Inn or this beautiful home with private heated pool in a gated community.
Just north of Kona is the South Kohala coast, this is where to go for rest and relaxation. Sunny weather is practically guaranteed year-round and the area is known for its gorgeous sandy beaches. Stay at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel.
Activities on the Big Island
One of the most popular things to do on Big Island is to explore the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are a number of different hiking trails to explore within the park, each with their own unique features and viewpoints. Our favorite is the Kilauea Iki trail which leads you right over the crater of an active volcano.
Visiting this Hawaiian island’s famous black sand beach called Punalu’u Beach. Dip your toes in the sparkling black sand while watching the turtles bask in the sun.
Learn about Hawaiian culture at the Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Park.
Dive or snorkel with manta rays. These majestic animals are active after dark when they feed on plankton. There’s a manta ray snorkeling tour, during which snorkelers hold on to a lit up flotation device and see the manta rays below the surface. The second option is a manta ray night diving tour for certified divers who can watch the manta rays from the ocean floor.
Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay and discover the underwater world of the Kona coast.
Chase the most spectacular waterfalls such as Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls.
Feel on top of the world by taking one of the amazing hikes on the Big Island. From waterfall trails to volcano and even valley trails, the diversity is incredible.
Visit the spectacular Papakolea green sand beach on the south shore.
Go stargazing at the Mauna Kea summit in a small group under the guidance of Hawaii Forest and Trail.
Best beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii
Hawaiian black sand beaches
Green sand beach of Hawaii
Is Kauai the best island to visit in Hawaii?
Kauai is the best island to visit in Hawaii for nature lovers seeking seclusion and relaxation. Lushness and tranquility are the norm on the “Garden Isle”. It’s the place to be for long and challenging hikes, thrilling adventures and remote beaches hidden in between rugged cliffs. If you’re looking for the best island of Hawaii to venture off the beaten path, unplug and eliminate all distractions, then Kauai guarantees a dreamy Hawaiian vacation.
Kauai resort areas
Just like all other Hawaiian islands, Kauai has a windward and a leeward side. Princeville and Hanalei Bay, on the north-side of the island, get most rain. The north shore is home to gorgeous beaches, luxury resorts and spectacular views over the Pacific Ocean. Stay at 1 Hanalei Bay, which is set to open in fall 2022, or at this beautifully remodelled condo.
Weather on the east side of the Garden Isle, near Wailua, Kapaa and Lihue, tends to be a bit drier. This area is ideally located to explore the island’s tropical heart with hiking trails, waterfalls, and swimming holes. Stay at the inviting Fern Grotto Inn.
The southernmost city of Poipu and the western coastline near Waimea are the sunniest parts of the island. The south shore offers excellent beaches, world-class resorts, plenty of restaurants and activities such as surfing and kayaking. Stay at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort, the Koala Landing Resort (Autograph Collection) or this enchanting Baby beach bungalow.
Kauai’s west coast is very remote. It’s no resort area whatsoever but home to Waimea Canyon, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Activities on Kauai
There are plenty of unique things to do in Kauai that will make your trip memorable. Here are some ideas:
Take a boat ride along the jaw-dropping cliffs of Na Pali Coast State Park. Follow up with some snorkel time at Tunnels beach a.k.a. Makua Beach where the waters are teeming with marine life and beautiful coral reefs.
Explore the quaint surfer’s town of Hanalei.
Watch the dolphins play in the ocean near the historic Kilauea Lighthouse and discover the tropical flowers in the Na Aina Kai Botanical Garden.
Take an airplane or helicopter tour above Waimea Canyon State Park nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.
Explore Wailua River State Park with its fern-lined grotto and sparkling waterfalls. Take one of the scenic hiking trails or discover the area by kayak.
Explore the Kilohana plantation by train or go river tubing on the grounds of an old sugar plantation.
Learn about Kauai’s coffee history and sample some of the delicious brews at the Kauai Coffee Company.
Is Molokai the best island to visit in Hawaii?
While the main Hawaiian islands are perfect for first-time visitors, Molokai is the best island to visit in Hawaii for veteran travelers. Adventures guaranteed at this remote at this off-the-beaten-path destination.
Molokai resort areas
This is not your average Hawaiian island so don’t expect anything close to a resort-style setting on Molokai. What you will find is authentic culture and rural charm. Central Molokai is the best place to stay, not just because of its location but also because it’s where you’ll arrive by inter-island flight. Stay at the Polynesian village-style Hotel Molokai.
Attractions on Molokai
There’s plenty to do on Molokai but it’s essential to do your research before you arrive. Here are the highlights:
You should not miss Kalaupapa National Historical Park which was built as a tribute to the surviving lepers. Some residents remain here (all of whom are cured of leprosy). You can hike to this special place or hitch a ride on a mule. Do note that you need a permit to visit.
Join a guided tour to see Moaula Falls or go snorkeling at the secluded Moomomi Beach.
Spend the day at Halawa beach or watch the sunset at Papohaku Beach.
Is Lanai the best island to visit in Hawaii?
Lanai is the best island to visit in Hawaii to get away from it all. It’s the smallest inhabited Hawaiian island and located across the Auau Channel from Maui. Lanai is less developed than the other islands, making it perfect for relaxing beach days.
Lanai has been privately owned since 1922, when the Dole Corporation developed it to the world’s largest pineapple plantation. To this day, Lanai is nicknamed The Pineapple Island. In 2012, Oracle Corporation cofounder Larry Ellison purchased the island. He’s been making investments in Lanai’s infrastructure and facilities and he’s looking to further develop the island in a sustainable way.
Lanai certainly isn’t the most obvious Hawaiian island to visit but it may be perfect for a second visit or for relaxing break in between your visit to other islands. It also makes for an excellent day trip from Maui.
Lanai resort areas
Lanai City is located at the heart of the island and accounts for most of its population. It may be called city but it’s actually a charming rural town dotted with mom and pop stores. Stay at Hotel Lanai, a lodge that dates back to the pineapple plantation days, or at the stylish Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort in the rolling mountains overlooking Lanai City.
Alternatively, you could stay at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Hulupoe beach. This Manele Bay location is just steps away from the ferry port where the Lahaina-Lanai ferry from Maui arrives.
Lanai airport is located in between both Lanai City and Manele both but more to the west. If you’re looking to rent a car, then you most definitely need a 4WD to get around the island.
Activities on Lanai
Explore Lanai City with its olympic-size public pool, verdant Dole Park, intriguing Lānaʻi Cultural & Heritage Center and the beautifully restored historic Hale Keaka movie theater with its state-of-the-art audiovisual equipment.
Challenge your fear of heights ziplining over the Kaiholena Gulch at the Lanai Adventure Park.
Relax and snorkel at Hulopoe beach.
Tee off at one of the island’s three golf courses.
Book yourself a half day of pampering at the luxurious Four Seasons Spa.
Explore the island’s more remote sights by 4WD. Visit Kaunolu, King Kamehameha’s summer fishing retreat, or explore Keahiakawelo, the windswept Garden of the Gods with its mysteriously scattered earth-toned rocks. Finally, head to Shipwreck beach on the north shore to see some of the wrecks that stranded along this hazardous coastline, including a ferro-cement self-propelled navy fuel tanker and a remaining Pearl Harbor era vessel.
Best Hawaiian island to visit by interest
By now you have some idea as to which island is best for the Hawaiian vacation of your dreams. Here’s a small overview of the best island in Hawaii to visit by interest to validate your idea.
Best for beautiful beaches
You can unwind and relax at the beach on any Hawaiian island. The perfect beach destination depends more on what you’re looking to experience in between moments at the beach and in the evening.
Oahu is perfect if you’re looking for a combination of beach life and city life, including great food and entertainment.
Maui is best for family-friendly beaches and resorts, coastal walks and charming towns. You’ll find plenty of golden beaches close to all amenities.
Big Island’s South Kohala is the perfect destination to alternate time at the beach and time in the Kohala mountains.
Lanai is where to go for beach time at one of Hawaii’s most exclusive resorts, especially if you’re looking for a castaway island experience.
Kauai is home to some beautiful beaches as well but many are a bit more difficult to get to. This is a go-to destination for a captivating combination of beaches, spectacular hikes and verdant cliffs.
Best for hiking
For easy and family-friendly hikes, choose Maui. Whether you’re into coastal walks or easy waterfall hikes, there’s plenty of variety on the Valley Isle. Popular ones ones are the stroller-friendly Kapalua Coastal trail, the ‘Iao Needle Lookout trail, the Twin Falls hike and the Pipiwai trail.
Beautiful hikes for all kinds of fitness levels can be found on Oahu and on the Big Island. Some of the most popular hikes on Oahu are the Manoa Falls waterfall hike, the Diamond Head crater hike, the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse trail, Koko staris and the Lanikai Pillbox hike. Our favorites on the Big Island include the ‘Akaka Falls trail, the Pololu Valley hike and the Kilauea Iki trail in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Kauai is the place to be for more challenging hikes. The 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coast is the island’s signature hike.
Best for snorkeling
You’ll find excellent snorkeling on all islands. Of course, the number of beaches for snorkeling on Lanai and Molokai is rather limited. But apart from these two islands, all other islands have something to offer in terms of snorkeling.
Oahu’s most popular snorkel spots include Hanauma Bay, Kuilima Cove, Makana beach park and Sharks Cove (but only in the summer months).
Maui is home to Turtle Town, the Molokini Crater, Black Rock at Kaanapali beach, Kapalua Bay and Honolua Bay. For novice snorkelers, this is the island we’d personally recommend.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, you can’t go wrong with Kealakekua Bay, Kahaluu beach Park, Two Step beach and Magic Sands.
The best snorkel sites on Kauai are the inner reef of Tunnels beach, Anini beach and Kee beach.
Of course all depends on the weather and currents obey warnings and know your limits.
Best for activities
In terms of activities for families with little kids, Maui would be our pick. We dedicated an entire article on the most family-friendly Maui activities, be sure to check it out. And have a look at our overview of Maui activities in general.
Oahu is great for a wide range of activities with that beautiful island scenery in the back drop.
Big Island offers the a similar variety in activities, albeit more nature-focused, but also features a spectacular variety in landscapes. Check out our Big Island bucket list for more information.
The other islands are perfect for more off-the-grid adventures.
Best for foodies
Oahu is the number one island for foodies. With so many amazing restaurants, cafés and food trucks to choose from, the number of dining options is downright dazzling.
Maui is home to some wonderful restaurants too but many of them require advance reservations (like, way in advance) and that kind of spoils the fun.
Best for entertainment
When it comes to entertainment, three locations fit the bill. Waikiki is the obvious one, the shopping, drinking, dining and dancing options in this central hub are pretty much endless.
Lahaina on Maui is pretty bustling as well. Especially Front Street, which is lined with restaurants, cafés, art galleries and specialty shops. This former whaling town is also home to the renowned Old Lahaina Luau.
Kailua-Kona is the place to be for entertainment and nightlife on Big Island. Especially lively Alii street is a popular place to spend the evening and night.
Which island in Hawaii will you visit?
Well, have you figured out which island in Hawaii is best for you? We sure hope so! Now, we can’t wait to hear all about your travel plans. The comment box is all yours!