If there is one thing to know about a Hawaiian vacation, it's that there is no shortage of things to do and see. For this reason, planning a trip to the Aloha state can get a little overwhelming when it comes to choosing which island to visit, what activities to spend your time (and money) on, and sights to see. Whether you’re headed to busy Oahu, adventurous Big Island, lush Maui, or laid back Kauai, read on to find out the 20 best not-to-miss things to do in Hawaii.
Go Hiking Along a Volcanic Crater
It's no secret that hiking is one of Hawaii's favorite activities. Thanks to the year-round warm weather and acres upon acres of rainforests, beaches, and volcanic landscapes, there are almost too many hiking trails to choose from. If you can't decide which hikes to invest in, start with some of the most popular ones, like Diamond Head on the island of Oahu or the Kapalua Coastal Trail on Maui. These are bound to get your blood pumping and provide some incredible views along the way.
Snorkel in the Clear Hawaiian Water
Hawaii has some of the best snorkeling in the world, hand’s down. The crystal clear water throughout the islands is teeming with exotic tropical fish, lush coral, and all kinds of sea creatures. New to snorkeling? Take a dedicated tour with professionals, or check out a well-lifeguarded spot like Hanauma Bay. Not in the mood to get wet? Hit up the Waikiki Aquarium or the Maui Ocean Center to see Hawaii’s ocean life.
Lounge of One of the State’s Most Beautiful Beaches
So what do most travelers do on vacation in Hawaii? Sunbathe on one of its incredible beaches, of course. Explore our guides to the best beaches on Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island, and Maui to get a feel for Hawaii’s spellbinding beaches.
Eat Local Hawaiian Food
The traveler’s golden rule: eat as the locals do! Eating local food is the best way to get a real feel for the islands, especially considering Hawaii’s rich culinary and cultural diversity. Steer clear of the tourist traps by researching the best restaurants on Oahu, the best restaurants on Maui, the best cheap eats in Hawaii, and food to try on Kauai.
Tour Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor isn’t just the most famous attraction that Hawaii has to offer—it is also one of the most important. Located on Oahu just outside of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor is so much more than the legendary USS Arizona Memorial. There are multiple museums, a fully-functional battleship, and a World War II submarine onsite, as well. With all this historical information to soak up, a guided tour is the best way to go about it. Oahu-based Enoa Tours has some of the most exceptional guides on the island, but some companies will fly you to Pearl Harbor from the other islands as day trips, as well.
Experience an Authentic Hawaiian Luau
There aren’t many tourists who visit Hawaii without dedicating at least one night to an authentic Hawaiian luau. Look into getting tickets for the entertaining Chief’s Luau if you’re on Oahu, Old Lahaina Luau on Maui, the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai, and the Sheraton Keauhou Bay on the Big Island.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Kilauea and Mauna Loa, two of the most active volcanoes on earth, are located within the boundaries of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you’re on the Big Island of Hawaii, you’ll want to pay a visit to this unique and exciting highlight. Hike through dried lava fields, watch the eerie glow of an active volcanic crater, or even spend the night inside the park at a campsite or a hotel accommodation. Just be sure to check the website before you make the drive, as unexpected lava flow can sometimes shut down entire sections of the park.
Watch the Sunset on Mauna Kea
Not only is Mauna Kea a tremendously important place in Hawaii’s culture, history, and heritage, it is also a magical place to visit. It is the tallest mountain in the state at 13,796 feet above sea level, and the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the bottom of the ocean to the summit. While a four-wheel-capable vehicle (and a strong disposition) is required to make it to the observatory at the summit, more casual travelers usually make do with a visit to the visitor’s center at just 9,200 feet above sea level. On certain nights, the local astronomy center puts out telescopes for stargazing outside the center.
Take in the View at Waimea Canyon
The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is not to be missed on a trip to Kauai. At 10 miles long and over 3,500 feet deep, this canyon boasts a range of colors from pink to brown to green, campsites, hiking trails, and waterfalls. Pull over at one of Waimea Canyon State Park’s many lookouts to take in the sights, or spend an entire day exploring the rugged terrain below. Just don’t forget to bring your camera.
Spend Some Time at Na Pali Coast National Park
Just under ten miles from Waimea Canyon, another breathtaking wonder of Kauai can be found in the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. Where Waimea is known for its rocky and desert-like landscape, Na Pali is home to 4,000-foot ocean cliffs, hidden sea caves, verdant rainforests, and pristine coastline. For experienced hikers, look into the notorious 11-mile Kalalau Trail, though more novice hikers often choose to hike a shorter portion of the trail to Hanakapiai Beach. Or, take a helicopter tour or a boat tour to experience the landscape from an entirely different perspective.
Check Out a Hawaiian Waterfall
Some of the most beautiful waterfalls in Hawaii include Manoa Falls on Oahu, Akaka Falls on the Big Island, Waimoku Falls on Maui, Papalaua Falls on Molokai, and Wailua Falls on Kauai. You can hike in to discover one of these majestic waterfalls, take a guided tour, or book a helicopter ride to get up close and personal. Hiking is the more common mode, though keep in mind that some falls may only be accessed via helicopter, such as Manawaiopuna Falls (aka Jurassic Park Falls) on Kauai.
Drive the Road to Hana
This road trip is full of twists, turns, and stunning views, all packed into a popular portion of Maui’s Hana Highway. Take the 52-mile drive past rainbow eucalyptus trees, botanical gardens, rocky coastlines, flowing waterfalls, and dark lava tubes on your way to quiet Hana town. Be sure to allow the majority of the day for this adventure, and be sure to fill up on gas before hitting the road.
Go Whale Watching
If you're traveling to Hawaii during the late winter months from December to May, you'll be sharing the island waters with its biggest annual visitors, playful humpback whales. Each island has its own special relationship with these gentle giants, so each island has its own best spots to see them. During the whale-watching season, there are also several boat tours available throughout the state to give people the best possible views.
Explore Hawaii’s Rich History
Did you know that Hawaii is home to the only royal palace in the United States? Iolani Palace was the official residence of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani, the Hawaiian Kingdom's last two monarchs. Take a walking tour through historic downtown Honolulu to see Iolani Palace, the Hawaii State Capitol, and more. After that, head to Bishop Museum to see the most extensive collection of Hawaiian artifacts in the state.
Go Surfing, SUPing, or Kayaking
Surfing is an integral part of Hawaiian culture and really just a huge part of Hawaii life in general. Stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking are close seconds. Many of Hawaii’s famous beaches, especially in tourist-heavy Maui and Oahu, will have lessons and rentals available for all three.
Take a Sunset Booze Cruise
There’s nothing more relaxing than ending your day with a casual sunset cruise on a Hawaii catamaran. Kauai Sea Tours is always a great time on Kauai, or you can go with Sea Maui on Maui or Hawaii Nautical on Oahu. If drinks aren’t included, they are typically sold for cheap, and some boats even let you bring your own cooler aboard.
Hit Up the Farmers Market
Support local farmers and get to try some truly unique Hawaiian fruits and veggies? That’s what we call a win-win! Farmers markets in Hawaii are always a fun, free activity, and give visitors the chance to see some of the exotic foods that the state is known for (such as dragonfruit, papaya, and guava) straight from the source. There’s the massive KCC market on Oahu, the Lihue market on Kauai, and the Kona market on the Big Island, to name a few. Most of the markets have started, including crafters as well, so you can do your souvenir shopping at the same time.
Visit Haleakala National Park
A visit to the summit at Haleakala National Park is on almost every Maui traveler’s bucket list. This dormant volcano and tallest peak on Maui stretches 10,023 feet above sea level and is often a full 32 degrees colder than the beaches below. Most visitors come to see the sunrise at the summit in the early morning hours (it does translate to “The House of the Sun” in Hawaiian, after all). Still, many others use it for more adventurous activities like downhill bike riding or hiking.
Discover Hawaii’s Chocolate and Coffee Farms
Seeing as Hawaii is one of the only American states with the climate for growing both chocolate and coffee, it would be a shame to visit without trying a taste of at least one. Especially on the Big Island, where the world-famous Kona coffee reigns supreme, or on Oahu, where Manoa Chocolate is grown and processed straight from the source. Of course, there are always chocolate macadamia nuts from local companies such as Hawaiian Host, which attract visitors from all over the world.
Enjoy Nature in a Botanical Garden
Due to the Hawaiian government’s interest in keeping Hawaii’s native flora as protected as possible, there are a great deal of quality botanical gardens scattered throughout the state. Lyon Arboretum and Foster Botanical Garden on Oahu are some favorites, as well as Garden of Eden on Maui and Allerton Garden on Kauai.