Which Hawaiian island should you visit? If you’re a first time visitor, the best island to visit in Hawaii depends upon what you’re looking for. The good news is: You really can’t go wrong!
About a six hour flight from the west coast of the U.S., the Hawaiian archipelago actually includes 137 volcanic islands!
The four main islands most tourists visit, however, are Maui, Oahu, Big Island (also known as Hawaii), and Kauai.
Lanai and Molokai are more off-the-beaten path and typically visited by more seasoned Hawaii visitors.
Also, there’s not a lot to do on these two islands so only head here if you’re looking for miles and miles of pristine beaches.
- Map of Hawaii Islands
- Hawaii: Which Island Is Best?
- Maui is the Best Island for Resorts + an Epic Drive
- Kauai is the Best Island for Secret Beaches + Fewer Crowds
- Big Island is the Best Island for Visiting a Volcano + Waterfalls
- Oahu is the Best Island for Nightlife + Seeing Pearl Harbor
- The best island to visit in Hawaii depends on you.
- Hawaii FAQ
- 1. Which is the prettiest Hawaiian island to visit?
- 2. Which island is best for visiting Hawaii for the first time?
- 3. Which Hawaii island has the best beaches?
- 4. Which island to visit in Hawaii is best for couples?
- 5. Which is the best island for hiking in Hawaii?
- 6. Which island in Hawaii has the best restaurants?
- 7. Which is the best Hawaii island for activities?
- Hawaii FAQ
Map of Hawaii Islands
How to use this map: This map is an image. Click the map to open an interactive version of the map. From there, if you click “open in my maps”, you can add this to your Google maps. Just click the tiny transparent star to the right of the map description to save it in “your places.” Go to “your places” next and there it is!
Inter-Hawaii hopper flights are inexpensive, however, making it easy to add a few days on these two islands.
Lanai can be visited as a (very long) day trip from Maui as a ferry links them in a 50 minute ride.
Whichever Hawaiian island you choose, you can count on lush tropical foliage, bucket list snorkeling experiences, verdant green cliffs, and plenty of rainbows as tropical rains blow through.
You can easily book snorkeling cruises, sunset boat tours, and plenty of excellent day tours to see the highlights of every island if you’d rather skip the hassle of reserving tickets and driving.
In February 2021, under the strain of unprecedented over-tourism, the state of Hawaii introduced a reservation system to popular sights on every island as part of a plan for “regenerative tourism.”
The idea was to limit the flow of visitors to a manageable level and promote the idea of “Malama”, which means “to protect and conserve” in Hawaiian culture…to leave a place better than you found it.
This new reservation system is an excellent idea but it also means tourists need to be plan more closely than ever before.
To snorkel in Hanauma Bay near Honolulu, for example, visitors must book their tickets just 48 hours before visiting. (And tickets go fast!)
Tourism sites that will require reservations are still in flux so be sure, wherever you go, to double check before you head out.
Booking a guided day tour is one easy way to leave the organizing to someone in the know!
Hawaii: Which Island Is Best?
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.
Every island is stunning…with gorgeous beaches, excellent snorkeling, and sunset boat tours. It’s a tough choice but let’s explore the differences…
Maui is the Best Island for Resorts + an Epic Drive
Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian islands.
Known as the “Valley Isle'”, the island is actually two volcanoes with a bridge of land—or valley— between them. However, as sea levels have risen, Maui looks like one big island today.
Maui feels more upscale (in some parts) than other Hawaiian islands.
You’ll find the best Maui resorts and hotels in south Maui in Wailea and also in West Maui near Ka’anapali and Kapalua (home to fabulous golf courses, too).
Beach goers love the Maui food truck scene here, too.
In between the two is family-friendly Kihei…also home to great beaches. And honestly, beaches up and down the coast here are all great choices.
In South Maui, you’ll often spot Hawaiian green sea turtles lounging at Makena Beach State Park.
As you head towards West Maui, the coastline begins to look wilder and more dramatic as huge waves crash on volcanic rocks.
There’s plenty of lovely protected snorkeling coves to be discovered here, too though.
Any Maui itinerary should include at least a day trip to drive the world-famous Road to Hana. It’s 64 miles of absolutely gorgeous winding highway down the east side of the island.
The Road to Hana is all about the journey…not the destination. If you’d like to leave the driving to somebody else so you can fully take in these views, you can book a guided Road to Hana day tour here.
You’ll cross 59 bridges, pass black sand beaches, bamboo forests, and sooo many waterfalls. Get an early start because you’ll be stopping constantly!
Where to stay in Maui
With just a few days on Maui, base in Kihei, Lahaina or one of the gorgeous resorts in Wailea or Kapalua.
With 7 days or more, spend part of your time on the Road to Hana for waterfalls and stunning beaches after the day trippers head home.
The Hana Maui Resort and this Hawaiian Dream Temple make great choices.
While most visitors drive the Road to Hana in one long day trip, this doesn’t leave any time for exploring the area near Hana itself.
If you’re more of a “road less traveled” type of Maui tourist, consider booking a few nights near Hana instead. You’ll have it all to yourself after the day trippers head back!
Another popular thing to do here is to catch a sunrise in Haleakala National Park but you’ll need a ticket ahead of time to gain entrance due to the popularity of this experience. Or book a guided tour.
It can be crowded at sunrise so consider heading up mid-morning to explore the park instead.
Truth be told, it’s often seriously foggy at this elevation anyway—I’ve missed out on sunrise here on two different occasions—so consider skipping the early drive and just heading up mi-morning instead.
You’ll drive across the island and wind your way through the more rural upcountry area and then up switchback after switchback to arrive at Haleakala National Park.
Once you’re here, consider heading out on a hike.
While most visitors to Haleakla take in the sunrise and head back down the mountain, there’s 33,000 acres of wilderness to explore here.
Save one day on your Maui itinerary for a snorkeling tour to Molokini Crater. You can check price and availability on a Molokini day trip here.
This crescent-shaped volcanic crater just off the coast of Maui is like swimming in an aquarium.
There are plenty of guides who can take you out for a half day tour. Most tours leave from Maalaea Harbor, just north of Kihei.
I recommend choosing a small boat for a more intimate experience and a morning departure since waves pick up with the wind frequently in the afternoons, making snorkeling conditions less ideal.
In winter, Maui is a premier whale watching destination. Between December and March, more than 10,000 humpback whales head here to the Auau Channel near Lahaina on the west coast from Alaska.
Be sure to book a whale watching tour with an eco-friendly guide that includes a naturalist for the best experience.
My recommendation: Pac Whale Eco Adventures is a not-for-profit organization that supports the Pacific Whale Foundation.
Whale watching tours depart from Lahaina Harbor, making Lahaina the perfect half day place to relax after your whale watching tour.
While more touristed, there are plenty of cute boutiques and lovely little restaurants here.
So in summary, Maui is a great choice if you’re looking for top tier resorts, want to drive the Road to Hana, see Mount Haleakala, snorkel Molokini Crater or go whale watching.
Kauai is the Best Island for Secret Beaches + Fewer Crowds
Kauai is for nature lovers…those who aren’t looking for top tier resorts, restaurants or night life. Still, there are plenty of excellent activities on Kauai.
Come to Kauai if you love the idea of driving rural two lane roads to hike down muddy slopes to sugary sand beaches. Sometimes yours may be the only footsteps.
Known as “The Garden Isle”, scenes from the movie The Descendant were filmed here. You can get a feeling for some of its more scenic spots by giving it a watch.
It’s tops on any Kauai itinerary.
On Kauai, the North Shore is wild and scenic. It’s also very rainy here in winter!
With a week on Kauai in summer, divide your time between the north shore and south shore near Poipu which is more developed.
You’ll find a few resorts and lots of vacation rentals there, along with great snorkeling in shallow, easy to access beaches.
On the North Shore, you’ll want to take in the jagged, emerald Na Pali mountain range any way you can. A snorkeling or sunset boat cruise is a must here. Check price and availability on a snorkeling cruise here.
Where to stay in Kauai
With a week, divid your stay between two bases: (1) between Princeville or Hanalei on the north shore and (2) Poipu on the south shore.
This luxe oceanfront penthouse near Princeville makes a great choice. Or try the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas for all the amenities.
In Poipu, stay at the Kahuna Plantation in your own private condo just steps from the beach.
Visiting in winter? Stay south shore at Poipu to avoid the rainy north shore.
Be sure to hike at least a little of the famous Kalalau Trail.
The trailhead is at the northernmost tip of the island in the parking lot for Tunnels Beach, making it the perfect spot for a post-hike dip and snorkel.
The Kalalau Trail is 11 miles that seems to mostly climb up a muddy, rocky trail.
Hard core adventurers secure a permit months ahead of time and then make this a full day hike, camping at a remote beach, and heading back the next day.
Be sure to have a permit though as rangers monitor the camp area and will send you on your way!
But even if you’re not a hard core hiker, you can enjoy some truly once-in-a-lifetime views of the Na Pali Coast by just hiking the first half mile.
Bring hiking poles. It’s steep. Hiking even a little bit of this trail is my #1 recommendation on Kauai.
Queen’s Bath is another beautiful and adventurous hike on the North Shore to a scenic natural pool on a lava shelf. Head to nearby Hanalei Bay for kayaking.
Paddling the Wailua River and hiking to a swim in a waterfall is also a popular day trip in Kauai.
After you’ve moved your base to Poipu on the south shore, spend a day driving clockwise—from say numeral 6 to 12 on a clock face—to Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
As the crow flies, Waimea Canyon is quite close to the Kalalau Trail.
Unfortunately, you can only drive here by heading clockwise around the entire island which is two hours from the North Shore!
So this makes the perfect day trip from Poipu instead.
Again, even if you’re not a hiker, you can step out of your car and look out over the cliffs at the Kalepa Ridge trailhead for another unbelievable panoramic ocean view.
If you’ve got an afternoon flight stateside, a morning stop at Wailua Falls and Opaeka’a Falls makes a great last morning as they’re not far from the airport.
Big Island is the Best Island for Visiting a Volcano + Waterfalls
The island of Hawaii is also known by locals as Big Island because—you guessed it—it’s the biggest of the Hawaiian islands…and also the most southeastern.
It’s the perfect place to visit if you’d like to sample a little of everything—a few resorts, plenty of lovely beaches, and excellent snorkeling. Plus, possibly see lava flowing from a volcano!
You’ll find all of the beaches on the western side of the island, fanning out from Kona which is the hub here for tourists.
The other major area is Hilo, on the eastern side of the island. By comparison, Hilo feels untouristed.
It’s rainy—and lush—on this side of the island. And in between Kona and Hilo in the middle of the island is the breathtaking Volcanos National Park.
The best Big Island itinerary samples all of these things.
If you’re mostly here for beach time, you’ll want to weight most of your itinerary on the west side, staying near Kona.
The coast here is rocky and volcanic but with plenty of soft sugary beaches nestled in and around the rocks.
Head north from Kailua-Kona and explore Maua Kea Beach and Hapuna Beach.
Where to stay on Big Island
With just a few days, stay in Kona for lots of beach time. With a week or more, you can reduce drive time by basing part of the time in Kona, at least one night near Volcanos National Park, and a few days near Hilo.
My recommended stays are:
• A vacation rental near Kona. (These are my favorite picks.)
• Near Volcanos, stay at the Volcano Village Lodge. It’s surrounded by rain forest, koi ponds and garden waterfalls.
• Near Hilo, stay in an oceanfront condo where the terrace dangles over the scenic coast. Watch morning sunrises from your own bed!
Be sure to reserve a boat tour to explore the sea caves on the dramatic volcanic Kona coast with a stop in Kealakekua Bay for snorkeling. (A tour is the only way you can snorkel here.)
Place of Refuge—Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park— is a beautiful historic place to visit, once home to Hawaiians who broke a kapu (ancient laws) before the 19th century.
Today, you can snorkel the beautiful bay here while explore the beautiful preserved settlement.
The number one experience you don’t want to miss on Big Island (aside from Volcanoes National Park) is the opportunity to do a night swim with manta rays.
The rays have been visiting the shore of the Sheraton Kona Resort ever since the 1970’s when the hotel decided to illuminate the waves to create a bit of ambiance for guests. This attracted plantkton which attracted manta rays.
And today, you can float on a noodle in the water with these gentle giants or do a group dive if you’re SCUBA certified. You can check price on the night swim with manta ray tour here.
An overnight at Volcanoes National Park makes an ideal stop if you spend part of your time near Kona and part near Hilo.
And if you’re very lucky, you might have the opportunity to see actual lava flowing. The lava flows on and off in different places around the coast.
As of March 2022, the eruption that began in September 2021 at the bottom of Halema’uma’u crater was still occurring, making for a spectacular night sky as the sky glows orange from the molten lava lake below. You can check the latest info here.
Even if the lava’s not flowing, don’t miss the opportunity to spend at least one day hiking the moonscape of a volcano and touring a lava tube.
Steam rises from steam vents all around the park which is amazing.
Many tourists never make it to the east side of the island. And it’s true that there’s not a lot of beaches here.
However, the waterfalls are incredible! Akaka Falls plunges 422 feet!
I recommend also spending a day driving the Hamakua Coast north from Hilo. This is the gateway to the wild Waip’o Valley, an especially scenic area.
Stop en route at the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden. It’s one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen.
Oahu is the Best Island for Nightlife + Seeing Pearl Harbor
Oahu, the third largest of the islands, is known as “The Gathering Place.”
That’s because it’s where the majority of Hawaiians live and it also sees the highest number of tourists.
Oahu is where travelers around the world think of when they think of Hawaii.
Most likely, they’ve seen an iconic photograph or postcard with the epic view of Honolulu and its spectacular coastline shot from the top of Diamond Head.
(Just one of the many excellent hikes on Oahu!)
Famous Waikiki Beach is here, just across the street from Honolulu skyscrapers, bucket list hotels and stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Jimmy Choo.
Honolulu is an easy destination for a girl’s weekend for shopping, dining, and beach time without a car.
You’ll find plenty of swank bars to taste-test Mai Tais here, too, from the Mai Tai Bar at Royal Hawaiian Hotel to Wang Chung’s Karaoke Bar.
Climb the Aloha Tower for a bird’s eye view of the Carribean blue shoreline here. Have a meal in Chinatown.
Pearl Harbor is also nearby on Oahu’s South Shore.
It’s a memorable experience touring the USS Arizona Memorial here and paying your respects to the more than 2,400 Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941.
Pearl Harbor is one of the top things to see on Oahu.
There’s so much history here that the best way is to see Pearl Harbor with a guide on a tour, especially if you’re someone who wants to appreciate the full experience.
For example, the Battleship Missouri Memorial is on Ford Island…and that’s an eight minute drive from the USS Arizona. A tour handles organizes your whole visit.
However, you can also visit on your own and just make reservations directly at Pearl Harbor. Be sure to get the audio guide!
Other top experiences you won’t want to miss on Oahu’s south shore are hiking Diamond Head State Monument and snorkeling Hanauma Bay.
Both of these popular experiences require advance reservations and require careful planning.
Where to stay on Oahu
With just a few days, stay in Honolulu (central but more crowded) or Ko Olina (peaceful resort area 30 minutes from Honolulu) on the south shore.
With more time, add days on the wild and funky north shore.
We loved our stay at the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club. The four lagoons are epic here!
North Shore Oahu is mostly ramshackle vacation rentals. However, I never wanted to leave our luxury studio across from Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline.
For north shore luxury, you can’t beat Instagrammable Turtle Bay Resort. Check price and availability here.
Again, if you don’t have a car or would prefer to just skip the ticket hassle, book a day tour to Hanauma Bay.
(Hanauma Bay requires you to secure the ticket 48 hours before you visit and tickets go fast.)
My favorite part of Oahu is the North Shore as it’s wild and untouristed…much like Kauai. Again, you can see it as a day trip on a guided tour if you don’t have a car.
Otherwise, I recommend you spend part of your time on the south shore and then move your base to north shore.
The windward coast is an extraordinary scenic drive with some of the most beautiful beaches on the island.
You can make it an excellent self-guided day trip as you head north with a few strategic stops.
The Byodo-In Temple is replica of a famous temple in Uji, Japan and is stunning nestled up against the green, green Ko’olau mountains.
The Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is also a short but must-see drive with easy hikes through extraordinary botanical gardens themed from around the world.
Once you’re on the north shore, you’ll find plenty of excellent snorkeling and beaches to keep you entertained.
Be aware though that in winter this is Big Wave country. The Bonzai Pipeline is here!
There’s only one major resort up here, however, and the restaurant scene is also nothing like it is on south shore.
The North Shore food trucks keep everyone fed instead.
Spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center where you can tour three villages, enjoy a buffet dinner and a flower lei greeting.
Or head to Kualoa Ranch, a 4,000 private nature reserve and popular filming location on Oahu.
The best island to visit in Hawaii depends on you.
As noted above, every Hawaiian island is truly a delight! There are no “bad” Hawaiian islands so try not to stress too much while you make a decision.
Hopefully, after reading about the highlights on every island, you’re finding that one of them is calling you!
1. Which is the prettiest Hawaiian island to visit?
Every island has its own unique beauty. The Road to Hana on Maui is spectacular. Volcanos National Park on Big Island is otherworldly.
The clear Caribbean blue water all over Oahu is stunning. But I vote for the wild pristine beauty and lush green coast of north shore Kauai.
2. Which island is best for visiting Hawaii for the first time?
I’d recommend Maui equally, however, with its golden beaches and upscale resorts.
Maui is probably what you’re dreaming of when you think about Hawaii. Unless you’re looking for pristine nature only. Then go to Kauai.
3. Which Hawaii island has the best beaches?
Oahu’s beaches are easiest to access with lots of protected shoreline. Visit Maui for abundant beaches with fewer people. Go to Kauai if you don’t mind a muddy steep hike to a secret beach. Skip Big Island if you’re mainly looking for beaches.
4. Which island to visit in Hawaii is best for couples?
Maui is best for a honeymoon in a resort with amenities. Oahu is a great alternative with the best restaurant and bar scene.
5. Which is the best island for hiking in Hawaii?
Hiking in Oahu offers the largest number of trails and diverse experiences.
The Kalalau trail on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai is known as one of the most beautiful and difficult hikes in the United States and is a destination for adventurers. (Hiking permit required.)
6. Which island in Hawaii has the best restaurants?
Oahu. Stay in Honolulu for easy access to great bars and restaurants. Maui is a runner-up.
7. Which is the best Hawaii island for activities?
Oahu is the most famous Hawaii island when it comes to what to see. You can tour Pearl Harbor, hike Diamond Head, and snorkel Hanauma Bay.
The good news is that there are many great day tours available on every Hawaiian island for boat tours, snorkeling, kayaking, zip lining, and scenic drives.