Stretching across the Indian Ocean just southwest of Sri Lanka, the Maldives is renowned for countless paradise isles ringed by silky white sands, swaying palms and waters too clear to be true.

Lounging at a lavish resort here takes self-care to new heights, but venture beyond your sunbed and you’ll be rewarded with cultural wonders, fiery-hot local food and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters. Once you've found your perfect island in the Maldives, it's time to be inspired with our picks for the ten best things to do there.

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Experience local island life

Shopping street with typically colourful house facades on Maafushi island in the Maldives
To experience authentic Maldivian culture, visit a so-called ‘local island’ such as Maafushi ©Tobias Helbig/Getty Images

Luxury resorts may be utterly blissful, but they exist entirely within their own private-island bubbles. To experience authentic Maldivian culture, you’ll need to visit a so-called ‘local island’ such as Huraa, Hithadoo or Maafushi, where you can stay at family-owned guesthouses, buy fresh mahi-mahi direct from fishermen and wander whitewashed streets as the call to prayer summons mosque-going crowds. Remember – Maldives is a Muslim nation; bikinis and speedos are fine at many hotels, but modest clothing is the norm elsewhere. 

If you are keen to island hop and explore, it's worth planning ahead to find the best ways to get around the Maldives.

Relax and unwind

If you’ve chosen to travel to the Maldives, chances are you’re looking to do some serious chilling. If the chalk-white sands and pastel-pink sunsets aren’t enough to soothe away your stress, an exceedingly indulgent massage certainly is. The sleep-enhancing treatment at Huvafen Fushi resort is like a lullaby for frazzled grown-ups, and takes place in the world’s first and only underwater spa.

Not on a budget? It doesn’t get more opulent than the spa at Cheval Blanc Randheli, which occupies its own private island and can only be reached by dhoni (traditional boat). From deep-conditioning Parisian coiffeur–approved hair treatments and four-hand massages to meditation and ocean-view aerial yoga classes, a day here is like having a vacation within a vacation. For more fun in the sun, check out the best beaches in the Maldives.

Swim with whale sharks

If swimming with whale sharks is on your travel bucket list, you’re in luck. The Maldives is one of the best places in the world to spot them year-round – especially if you make Alifu Dhaalu Atoll (Southern Ari Atoll) your base. Most resorts and guest houses offer whale-spotting snorkel trips and dives; choose a reputable operator that puts the wellbeing of the whales first and remember to keep a good distance away from the gentle giants if you have the good fortune of spotting one.

Try Maldivian cuisine

Step away from the continental buffet. Don’t you dare order a steak. Traditional Dhivehi (Maldivian) cuisine deserves your tastebuds' attention. Little produce grows here – pineapples and coconuts, primarily – and the dominant protein is tuna, but the limit on local ingredients has led to much invention.

You’ll find mas huni – a cold breakfast dish consisting of chili peppers, coconut, onion and tuna with roshi flatbread – everywhere, and spicy fish curries abound. But don’t miss a visit to a local cafe or teashop to sample hedhikaa (‘short eats’) such as kuli boakiba (spicy fish cakes), gulha (fried fish dumplings) or bis keemiya (tuna- and egg-filled pastry).

People buying fruit and vegetables at an island market in Male.
Linger awhile in the Maldives capital and you'll be amply rewarded ©Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

Explore the capital, Male

Most people who visit the Maldives completely bypass Male, perhaps due to the fact that it’s the antithesis of the typical tropical island aesthetic – the capital is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, cramming more than 200,000 people into just 3.2 square miles. But linger a while and you’ll be amply rewarded. Artificial Beach offers the chance to see how urban Maldivians do beach days; the guts-and-all fish market is a sucker punch to the senses and the ancient Old Friday Mosque captivates all those who enter with its intricately carved coral stone.

See bioluminescence

We’ve all seen the photos – nighttime beach shots where the surf glows neon blue. Vaadhoo is commonly named as the place to witness this nocturnal phenomenon, which occurs when bioluminescent organisms in the water are disturbed, but the truth is it can happen all over the Maldivian archipelago. Much like spotting the northern lights, you simply need good timing (come between June and October for the best chance) and a big dollop of luck. 

Female scuba diver swimming among a school of silvery fish and colorful coral in the Indian ocean.
Scuba divers from all over the world come to the Maldives ©Jag_cz/Shutterstock

Go scuba diving

Clear blue water is the Maldives’ defining feature – and scuba divers from all over the world come here for the chance to spot hawksbill and loggerhead turtles, manta rays, whitetip reef sharks and more. Unfortunately, rising sea temperatures lead to a devastating coral-bleaching event in 2016, which affected some 70% of the Maldives’ coral. While diving here remains far from the kaleidoscopic explosion of color it once was, the precious seascapes are slowly recovering.

Read more: Maldives on a budget

Never dived before? Local island Fulidhoo is a laid-back spot to learn, but you’ll find PADI-certified instructors at practically every resort and guest house. Scuba-focused travelers might even prefer to skip dry land altogether in favor of a liveaboard dive trip or research expedition. The best time to travel to the Maldives for scuba-diving is between January and April for the best visibility, or opt for October or November when plankton levels are high and larger fish come out to feed.

Stay in an eco-conscious resort

Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world, making it particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Given the environmental impact of flying to these far-flung isles, it’s important to choose a hotel that prioritizes sustainability. That doesn’t mean you have to give up that opulent water villa you’ve been dreaming about, though – some of the most luxurious resorts are leading the pack when it comes to green initiatives.

For example, Soneva Fushi is carbon neutral and home to one of the largest solar power plants in the Maldives. The hotel is 90% waste-free, and you can take part in a glass-blowing workshop upcycling discarded drinks bottles from the restaurant. At Gili Lankanfushi, marine biologists run a substantial coral restoration project, and if you’re PADI-certified you can take part in a ‘dive against debris’ – the underwater equivalent of a beach clean.

A spinner dolphin leaping in the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean
Spotting dolphins on a sunset cruise is a classic Maldives experience ©Pete Atkinson/Getty Images

Spot dolphins on a sunset cruise

Free-flowing champagne, fresh sea air and a candyfloss-colored sky – you’ll never regret splashing out on a luxury sunset cruise in the Maldives. It’s a classic experience for honeymooning couples, but even if you’re not celebrating recent nuptials, you may find you get caught up in the romance of the moment when you spot a playful pod of spinner dolphins surrounding your boat. They’re plentiful in Maldivian waters and will often pursue boats, corkscrewing out of the water seemingly just for the fun of it.

Go parasailing

The Maldives is pretty much pancake-flat (its highest ‘mountain’ on Villingili is just 5m high), and beyond the odd rooftop pool and seaplane flight, there are few means of getting a bird's-eye view of these turquoise-trimmed islands in all their glory. Despite being touted as an adrenaline sport, parasailing above the Maldives’ dreamy atolls is actually utterly peaceful – just remember to hold on tight to your camera.

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This article was first published October 2021 and updated December 2021

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