Hawaii has six main visitable islands in its remote archipelago, and it can be hard to choose which one is right for you, especially if you're a first-time visitor.

Each island boasts its own atmosphere and attractions. Local food and sunny beaches are practically guaranteed on all of them, but that’s just the beginning. While some are lush and filled with top hiking routes, others are buzzing with clustered landmarks and nightlife.

Since there’s so much to see on each individual island – and inter-island transport is limited – many visitors often find themselves trying to narrow down their options. Of course, there’s no way to go wrong in Hawaii, but there may be ways to go a little more right,given each traveler’s particular interests and pace of travel. Here's our guide to help first-time visitors choose the right island for them.

A large seaside city with tall buildings and greenery-covered volcanic hills rising behind
If you want big city vibes, go to Waikiki or Honolulu in O'ahu © Perspectives / Getty Images


Best for city life, surf competitions, and historic landmarks

As the most popular Hawaiian Island – to visit and to live – O'ahu is bustling! In Honolulu and Waikiki, you’ll find skyscrapers and luxury hotels, traffic and nightlife, all of the hallmarks of a big city. But beyond that, O'ahu has verdant hikes in the East, sunny beaches in the West, and world-renowned surf competitions on the North Shore.

Top places to visit on O'ahu

Pearl Harbor National Memorial: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy Air Service bombed Pearl Harbor, prompting the US’ involvement in WWII. Visit this landmark to see both the USS Arizona Memorial and the Battleship Missouri Memorial.

ʻIolani Palace: Once the home of Hawaiian royalty, ʻIolani Palace later became the location for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the imprisonment of Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Hanauma Bay State Park: This protected bay offers some of the best and safest snorkeling on the island. Keep an eye out for honu (turtles), dolphins, heʻe (octopus), and the famed state fish: the humuhumunukunukuapuaa‘a (reef triggerfish).

Top things to do on O'ahu

Watch a North Shore Surf Competition: O'ahu’s North Shore hosts some of the most famous surf competitions in the world. Watch talented surfers do what they do best during winter events like the Vans Pipe Masters and the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.

Tackle the Lanikai Pillbox hike: Make the short, but steep hike to the first Lanikai Pillbox (abandoned military overlook point) for jaw-dropping views of Kailua, the Mokulua Islands, and the Pacific Ocean.

Savor authentic Hawaiian Food: From laulau and kalua pig to poi and ho‘io salad, traditional Hawaiian food is one of the best ways to experience Hawaiian culture. Oahu’s Waiahole Poi Factory and Helena’s Hawaiian Food offer some of the most authentic Hawaiian food in the islands.

Two hikers sit on the edge of a crater looking out at a volcanic landscape
Gaze over Maui's volcanic landscapes from the top of Haleakala © EpicStockMedia / Shutterstock


Best for a romantic atmosphere and scenic drives

When people picture the beachy side of Hawaii (as opposed to the volcano side), they often dream up beach bliss and resort luxury. Of all the islands, Maui fits this bill the best. This vibe is particularly alluring to couples for honeymoon, babymoon, or anniversary trips, but families, friend groups, and solo travelers will feel right at home as well.

Top places to visit on Maui

ʻIao Valley State Monument: Both a historic and natural landmark, ʻIao Valley (and the aptly named ʻIao Needle rock formation) is a must-visit stop in West Maui.

Waiʻanapanapa State Park: Located on the Road to Hana, this state park has historic heiau (ancient Hawaiian temples), sea arches, and the island’s only black sand beach. Advanced reservations required.

Aliʻi Kula Lavender: Stroll through rows of blooming lavender plants at the base of Haleakala, before popping into the gift shop to snag locally made lavender creations, like lavender tea and scones.

Top things to do on Maui

Catch the Haleakala sunrise: As the tallest peak on Maui at 10,023ft tall, Haleakala – which means “the house of the rising sun” – offers unobstructed views of the pastel-painted sunrise sky each morning.

Drive the Road to Hana: As the epitome of the phrase, “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” the Road to Hana is filled with cascading waterfalls, oceanfront state parks, and blood-pumping hikes.

Snorkel at Molokini: Dive underwater for a peek at Maui’s marine life. Many tour companies, including Four Winds and Maui Snorkeling, have incredible snorkeling tours to Molokini Crater, a thriving islet 2.5 miles off the Maui coast.

Keep planning your trip to Maui with one of these road trips 

People stand in the background as hot red lava flows through the cracks of black hardened lava
From the ocean to the volcanoes, Big Island has incredible natural landscapes to explore © Westend61 / Getty Images

Big Island

Best for volcanic activity and diverse natural landscapes

The Big Island of Hawai'i, officially known as Hawaii and colloquially known as the Big Island, certainly lives up to its informal name. Bigger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined, the Big Island manages to pack a lot of natural diversity into its 4000 sq miles — from golden sand beaches and flourishing rainforests to ash-based deserts and snow-capped mountains.

Top places to visit on the Big Island

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park: With two active volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea, this national park is filled with unique natural features like sulfur-smelling steam vents, lengthy lava tubes, and the occasional flowing lava stream.

Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach: Enjoy the long-lasting results of the Big Island’s volcanic activity at this black sand beach. With sand made from pulverized lava rock and lounging honu (turtles), Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach is a popular attraction.

ʻAkaka Falls State Park: At 442ft tall and surrounded by thriving plant life, ʻAkaka Falls is one of the most eye-catching natural features on the Big Island.

Top things to do on the Big Island

Summit Mauna Kea: As the tallest mountain in the world (from the seafloor to the peak), Mauna Kea is a special spot. Head to the summit for stargazing at night or snow (in Hawaii!) in the winter.

Learn Hawaiian History at Kaloko-Honokohau National Park: Learn all about ancient Hawaiians’ way of life through the centuries-old ruins of heiau (temples), kiʻi pohaku (petroglyphs), and fishponds.

Snorkel with manta rays: Hundreds of manta rays have made their home on the Kona Coast. Get an up-close look at these friendly creatures with an after-dark snorkel with Manta Ray Dives of Hawaii or Kona Snorkel Trips.

Three woman hiking in Hawaii with a big waterfall in the distance
If you're keen on hiking to see waterfalls, Kaua'i is the right Hawaiian island for you © Jordan Siemens / Getty Images


Best for hiking and waterfalls

Nicknamed The Garden Isle, Kaua'i certainly lives up to the title. There’s lush greenery around every mountain nook and cranny! While this sleepy island does get more rain than any other, the flora-filled hikes, parks, and botanical gardens are more than worth it.

Top places to visit on Kaua'i

Na Pali Coast: This beautiful old mountain range boasts deep, lush ridges and cascading waterfalls. It’s only accessible on foot (via the 22-mile round-trip Kalalau Trail), by boat or by air.

Waimea Canyon: Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this stratified natural landmark is filled with challenging hikes and breathtaking viewpoints.

Hanalei Bay: This North Shore bay is ideal for a beach day, thanks to its calm waters, lengthy shoreline, and beautiful sunset views.

Top things to do on Kaua'i

Bike the Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path: This in-progress bike path runs along Kaua'i’s East Side, passing beautiful beaches, adorable eateries, and the occasional historical landmark.

Go chasing waterfalls: As the rainiest Hawaiian Island, Kaua'i boasts dozens of waterfalls. Drive up to Wailua Falls and Opaekaʻa Falls or hike to Waipoʻo Fall and Hanakapiʻai Falls.

Stroll through Hanapepe: Known as Hawaii’s “biggest little town,” historic Hanapepe is bursting with adorable eateries, shops, landmarks, and festivals. Don’t miss out on the Talk Story Bookstore, the Taro Ko Chip Company and the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

Continue planning your trip to Kauai with these itineraries

A father and son walk hand in hand through a red, sandy landscape
Lana'i's Keahiakawelo, or Garden of the Gods, is an otherworldly landscape © Aleksei Potov / Shutterstock


Best for luxurious relaxation

At 140 sq miles, Lana'i is the smallest of the six main Hawaiian Islands. Even though it has no roads and a population of just 3000, it’s still home to two luxurious Four Seasons Resorts, making it ideal for off-the-grid, laid-back luxury.

Top places to visit on Lana'i

Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods): Once upon a time, the islands’ introduced goats, sheep, and deer ate all of the vegetation in this area. Now, this otherworldly, foggy, boulder-dotted landscape is all that remains. It's only accessible by 4WD.

Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach): Admire two big ol’, rusty WWII shipwrecks from the shore – but don’t get in the violent water! It's also only accessible by 4WD.

Lana'i City: Nestled in the center of the island, the “downtown” Lana'i City is home to adorable restaurants, shops, and art galleries.

Top things to do on Lana'i

Snorkel in Hulopoe Bay: Strap on your snorkel gear and dive into this calm South Shore bay filled with tropical fish and the occasional spinner dolphin.

Test your swing at Manele Golf Course: Part of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, this challenging golf course is best known for its sweeping cliff and ocean views.

Hike the Munro Trail: This 12-mile path offers breathtaking views of Lana'i, the Pacific Ocean, and beyond. It's only accessible by 4WD.

A single distant figure on a large sandy beach that's completely empty of people
Enjoy the peace and quiet found on Moloka'i's Papohaku beach © Westend61 / Getty Images


Best for an undisturbed Hawaii experience

The little island of Moloka'i offers an untouched taste of old Hawaii. Of the six main islands, Moloka'i has the largest percentage of Native Hawaiians, at about 62% of residents. While larger than Lana'i, Moloka'i doesn’t really cater to visitors. There are a couple of small local hotels, but beyond that, there aren’t many guided tours, souvenir stores or grand restaurants. Plan to be on your own on Moloka'i for the most part.

Top places to visit on Moloka'i

Papohaku Beach: Given that this West Side beach is 2 miles long, every beachgoer is practically guaranteed to have a slice of sunny shoreline all to themselves.

Moaʻula Falls: Located in Halawa Valley, this 250ft waterfall is the most easily accessible cascade on Moloka'i. Do note that the trail goes through private property, so you’ll have to take a guided tour (or get permission from the owners) to access it.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park: Once home to a remote leper colony, this remote part of Moloka'i (now only accessible by air) now serves as a historic park that tells the story of this lore-rich region.

See more of Hawaii's national parks, memorials and historic sites

Top things to do on Moloka'i

Explore Kamakou Preserve: Home to the 2-mile Pepeʻopae Bog Trail, this preserve – complete with thriving native plant life and gorgeous viewpoints – is an all-day adventure. It's only accessible by 4WD.

Take a fishing charter: Since Moloka'i is mostly undisturbed, its waters are teeming with fish. Book a charter with Hallelujah Hou Fishing and reel in a few ʻoʻio (bonefish) and ʻomilu (bluefin trevally).

Take a farm tour: Much of Moloka'i is agricultural land, and a few local farms are open for tours. Learn more about Moloka'i’s agricultural practices at Molokai Plumerias, Molokai Flowers and Purdy’s Natural Macadamia Nuts.

Ready to plan your trip?

Decide on the perfect week for you with the  best time to visit

Start crafting your budget with these tips 

Save this transportation guide for  how to get around between the islands

This article was first published May 2016 and updated March 2024

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