Putting the finishing touches on a trip to Hawaii is a dream come true for most travelers, and crossing that destination off your bucket list wouldn’t be complete without catching some of the best destinations the state has to offer.
History buffs won’t want to miss the iconic Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, as well as the Polynesian Cultural Center, Bishop Museum, and Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai. Hike through jungles and botanical gardens to view the waterfalls at Manoa Falls, or book a thrilling zip line tour at Kualoa Ranch, also on Oahu. The famous Road to Hana road trip on Maui attracts visitors from all over the world, and the majestic Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island are unlike anywhere else on earth. For nature-lovers, head to Haleakala National Park on Maui to witness a unique blend of different climates ranging from tropical to arid. Check out the scene on the popular Waikiki Beach and Kaanapali Beach, or hike to the top of Diamond Head to catch unrestricted views of the Pacific Ocean. On Kauai, the sea cliffs along the Na Pali Coast are unparalleled, and on Maui, the views from the top of Waimea Canyon will take your breath away.
When it comes to choosing which island to stay on, there are no bad choices. Each island brings its own unique flavor to the table, whether you’re into shopping, the outdoors or a fun foodie scene.
One of the most defining moments in United States and world history took place right on the island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Japan’s military airstrike sunk four of the eight battleships present in Pearl Harbor at the time and destroyed more than 180 aircrafts that were on the ground, killing more than 2,000 American sailors, soldiers, and marines. Pearl Harbor remains a military base to this day, and visitors are welcome to come pay their respects. There are four main attractions at Pearl Harbor: the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine, the USS Missouri Battleship, and the Pacific Aviation Museum, and you’ll need to secure tickets for each either online or on-site. Tourists short on time can visit walk-through museums at the visitors center, which is free to enter. Not staying on Oahu? Since Pearl Harbor is arguably the most popular activity in the entire state, multiple tour agencies offer one-day tours from Big Island, Maui, and Kauai that include airfare and transportation.
Na Pali Coast
Along the coastline of Kauai’s northwestern shore, the giant cliffs of the Na Pali State Wilderness Park absolutely stun everyone who sees them. The famous Kalalau Trail is one of the most famous hikes in all of Hawaii, and the five valleys that make up the area are full of dense vegetation, lush jungles, and hidden waterfalls. Experience the Na Pali Coast by land, air, or sea and see for yourself why this majestic corner of Kauai island holds a special place in Hawaii.
Mauna Kea on the Big Island is considered a very sacred place for the Native Hawaiians and should be treated as such. Additionally, it is the home for a variety of rare plant and animal species, some of which can only be found on the unique climate of the mountain. In addition to regular star-gazing programs, the Visitors Center hosts local community speakers to lead discussions and speeches about Mauna Kea from a cultural perspective on the fourth Saturday of each month. The Visitor Station is located at 9,200 feet above sea level and the summit is 13,796 feet, so altitude sickness may be a cause for concern for visitors with health issues.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an Oahu tourist who hasn’t set foot on Waikiki Beach; it is hands-down the most popular and famous beach in the Hawaiian islands. A majority of visitors to the state stay within this 2-mile stretch of coastline on Oahu’s south shore. It is a shopping destination for both international and domestic travelers, a foodie destination for restaurant enthusiasts, and overall the most happening spot in Hawaii. Stay at the legendary pink-colored Royal Hawaiian Hotel or the oldest resort in Waikiki, the Moana Surfrider. There are also more budget-friendly options further inland because let’s face it, you won’t be spending too much time in the room with a beautiful beach just steps away.
The most iconic landmark on the island of Oahu is hard to miss when flying into Honolulu. Diamond Head was formed by a volcanic eruption more than 300,000 years ago and was historically used by the American military as a lookout to defend the island. Hike the Diamond Head Summit Trail to view the beach below and the surrounding Pacific Ocean from the edge of the crater—it is one of the most trafficked hikes on Oahu.
Driving the Road to Hana along Maui’s famed Hana Highway is a rite of passage for any Hawaii tourist. The narrow, winding road contains one-lane-bridges, numerous switchbacks, and sheer cliffs, so caution is key. The reward, however, is a once-in-a-lifetime road trip with pull-outs to adventurous hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, stands of locally grown fruit, and more. The town of Hana (where most drivers choose to make their final destination) doesn’t have a lot to see, but this drive is about the journey, not the destination.
With a sharp focus on history, science and Hawaiian culture, The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is a great choice for those who only have time for one museum in Hawaii. It has become the official (and largest) state museum of natural and cultural history since opening in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop (late husband of Bernice Bishop, a descendant of the royal Kamehameha family). Visit their signature galleries, special exhibits and planetarium daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you’ve ever seen photos of visitors horseback riding, ziplining, or ATVing with the most epic backgrounds behind them, chances are they were at Kualoa Ranch on the northeast side of Oahu. The privately owned nature reserve is home to a working cattle ranch, fishery, and garden producing some of the finest ingredients that the island has to offer, but the 4,000-acre space doesn’t stop there. There are a number of exciting and unique expeditions offered by Kualoa Ranch, from jungle expeditions to ultra-terrain vehicles to electric bike-riding.
Haleakala National Park
Perhaps one of the most scenic areas in the state, and spanning more than 30,000 acres of Maui land, Haleakala National Park encompasses a famous dormant volcano rising more than 10,000 feet above sea level. You’ll find important cultural sites all throughout the park in both the summit and Kīpahulu district of the park. Haleakala translates into “house of the sun” in the Hawaiian language, and it is easy to see why. Most visitors experience the park through sunrise by waking up early to drive all the way up the mountain to the Haleakala Visitors Center, undoubtedly a once in a lifetime experience. Don’t worry if you’re not a morning person, Haleakala can be experienced any time of the day through its various hiking trails—some people even drive up to the Visitors Center in the evening to catch the sunset and do some stargazing.
Polynesian Cultural Center
Get a feel for the history of the Pacific Islands at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Oahu. The 42 acres cover simulated villages representing six different islands: Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Aotearoa, Fiji, and Hawaii. Their evening luau has been rated one of the best in the state, and it is certainly one of the most popular.
Volcanoes National Park
Ever wanted to witness new Hawaiian land being created right in front of your eyes? Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Island celebrates everything that makes Hawaii what it is, literally. All of the islands were formed from volcanic activity, and the Big Island is still growing. Schedule an unforgettable helicopter tour to fly over the active lava flowing into the ocean, explore the park on foot through lava tubes and volcanic lava rocks, or complete a scenic drive around the grounds. Make your first stop the Kīlauea Visitor Center to get information and plan your visit.
One of the most beautiful hikes on Oahu is located just beyond the outskirts of Honolulu. Hiking Manoa Falls Trail is like stepping straight into the past; you’ll almost expect to see a dinosaur trekking through the distance. At the end of this journey through a lush tropical rainforest you are rewarded with a beautiful 150-foot waterfall surrounded by streams and rocks. Along the way, look out for bamboo forests, native plants, birds, and hau trees. As with any hike in Hawaii, be sure to be respectful of the land, bring out what you brought in, and do your best to keep this beautiful, sacred area in great condition.
Also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon provides breathtaking views on the island of Kauai. Choose to experience the canyon through short scenic trails or longer day hikes that take you into the bottom of the vibrant gorge. The red-colored soil and Hawaiian flora here makes for some unparalleled and unforgettable views. The waterfall flowing into the canyon, which is 3,000 feet deep in some spots, can be seen from numerous lookout points throughout the area.
While Waikiki offers a more robust, party-like atmosphere, Kaanapali Beach is known for a more laid-back vibe—it was even named “America’s Best Beach” by Dr. Beach. Water sports such as surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding are available along the shore and snorkeling is very good as well. Head to the north side of the beach towards Black Rock for the best snorkeling, and you might even spot a turtle or two munching on algae or seagrass.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park
Hidden away on the smaller island of Molokai, Kalaupapa National Historical Park holds a lot of history within its borders. Hawaii’s King Kamehameha V made the decision to turn the Kalaupapa region of Molokai into confinement for those suffering from leprosy after the disease was introduced to the Hawaiian islands. Since the year 1866, more than 8,000 patients have died there, and there are still fewer than a dozen living inside Kalaupapa in isolation. Tours are available through select companies only.