People everywhere dream of Hawaii’s endless sunshine, warm hospitality, and unparalleled beauty. And for those lucky enough to visit the Aloha State, there are endless options for things to do and see. Of course, every island vacation should be filled with lots of relaxation, but you may also seek adventure, knowledge, and core memories that you can treasure for a lifetime.
We’ve hand-selected the top things to do in the Hawaiian Islands, so every kind of vacationer can have the ultimate trip. Ahead, we’ll outline the best activities on each island and help you plan your perfect itinerary.
So whether you’re visiting Hawaii for the first or fifteenth time, keep reading to learn about the islands’ unique sights and experiences. Here are 23 of the most amazing things to do in Hawaii that you won’t want to miss, from a local who knows!
(Heading to Hawaii? Check out these Hawaii podcast episodes from our friends at 2 Travel Dads!)
TOUR PEARL HARBOR
Pearl Harbor is a historical landmark and an important part of any Hawaii trip, and there is a lot to see and do there. The Oahu attraction is great for families, history buffs, and sightseers.
You’ll begin your Pearl Harbor experience at the Visitor Center, though you’ll need to schedule most of your tour online ahead of time. The main attraction is the USS Arizona Memorial, which serves as a gravesite and memorial for over a thousand servicemen who perished in the historic World War II attack.
But there is even more to see and do at Pearl Harbor, including the USS Bowfin submarine tour, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, and the USS Missouri, where World War II officially ended.
It takes 15-25 minutes to get to the Visitor Center from Honolulu. Plan to spend a couple of hours or an entire day at Pearl Harbor, depending on how many of the exhibits and museums you’d like to experience.
Read More: Hawaii Island Hopping Guide
SNORKEL AT HANAUMA BAY
If you want a quintessential Hawaii beach experience, you should go to Hanauma Bay on Oahu. The incredible spot features clear blue water that is perfect for snorkeling. Hanauma Bay is a nature preserve, and it requires a few steps and fees to access, but your visit here will be worth the extra effort. Snorkeling here is one of the best things to do in Hawaii.
Make your reservation online in advance. There’s a per-person entry fee plus a parking fee, and you must watch an orientation video before going onto the beach. These steps help protect the marine life in the bay, allowing visitors to fully enjoy their snorkeling experience.
Hanauma Bay is located in the Hawaii Kai neighborhood of Honolulu, about a half hour from Waikiki.
SEE THE SUNRISE FROM THE KAIWA RIDGE TRAIL
Hiking enthusiasts will love exploring the Kaiwa Ridge Trail. This 1.7-mile, out-and-back hike leads to a scenic peak overlooking the Ko’olau Mountains and Kailua Bay. The trail’s nickname is the Lanikai Pillbox, since it’s located in the Kailua suburb of Lanikai and features several World War II military bunkers.
We recommend hiking the trail at sunrise to catch an incredible view at the peak. Just be prepared to walk back in the sun – there’s no shade along the path.
Kaiwa Ridge Trail is considered an easy to moderate hike. Be prepared for a few steep spots and rocky terrain.
Access the hike on Kaelepulu Drive in Kailua. There’s no parking lot for the trail, so you’ll be parking in a residential area. Another option is to park at Kailua Beach Park and then walk about 20 minutes to the trailhead.
HIKE TO KOKOHEAD LOOKOUT FOR SPECTACULAR VIEWS
The Koko Head hiking trail is one of Hawaii’s most unique hiking experiences. While many of the islands’ trails will lead you along rocky rivers or jungle pathways, Koko Head has hikers ascend on old railway ties.
In World War II, trams used the railway to bring military supplies to bunkers. Today, the ties serve as staircases for adventurous hikers who want to get their steps in and snag incredible views of the island.
The trailhead for this hike is at Koko Head District Park on Anapalau St. It’s a pretty strenuous trek thanks to the steep ascent, but we see visitors of all fitness levels reach the top.
OR PICK THE DIAMOND HEAD SUMMIT TRAIL
It’s the view you’ve seen on TV and postcards: Diamond Head Crater standing tall over Waikiki Beach. But you can also get up close and personal to the iconic landmark.
The Diamond Head Summit Trail is about a mile and a half round trip, and the lookout features panoramic views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean. The hike can be crowded, since so many people want to experience this scenic gem. But it’s still a worthy way to spend a couple of hours: get active, catch some views, and experience one of the most popular hikes on Oahu.
Reserve your hike online in advance. The parking lot on Diamond Head Road is easy to find and located conveniently in Honolulu.
LOUNGE AWAY THE DAY ON WAIKIKI BEACH
Waikiki will be one of the least serene beaches you’ll find in Hawaii, yet a day there can still be a relaxing experience. The water is calm and clear, and so many shopping and dining options are steps away.
Waikiki is a bustling neighborhood in Honolulu, and it’s where most of Oahu’s resorts and hotels are. There are several stretches of sand along its coastline, all of which offer excellent conditions for a laid-back beach day.
Bring a towel, a beach chair, and a float. As your worries wash away, you’ll discover why Waikiki was a destination of physical and spiritual healing throughout history.
ENJOY THE SUPER AMBASSADOR POLYNESIAN CULTURAL CENTER TOUR
Immerse yourself in the culture of Hawaii and beyond at the Polynesian Cultural Center. The Oahu attraction highlights six island nations and thousands of years of history through its exhibitions, shows, and shopping.
During the day you can peruse its villages, and then in the evening, a luau brings the entire center together with an incredible show.
The best way to experience this unique place is through the Super Ambassador Tour. This splurge-worthy ticket option includes a private guided tour, multiple lei greetings, a reserved canoe ride in the onsite lagoon, premium buffet and luau seating, and a 3-day pass to return to the villages again.
Reviewers say the Super Ambassador tour is worth the price, but you can also experience the Polynesian Cultural Center at various price points.
The Polynesian Cultural Center is located in Laie, near Oahu’s north shore.
SEE THE SUNRISE AT HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK
Even if you’re not typically an early bird, watching the sunrise from the top of Haleakala is a must-do experience on Maui. The summit is 10,000 feet above sea level and sits above the clouds, creating a stunning show as the sun rises.
It could take a couple of hours to reach the summit of Haleakala, and be sure to go to the Recreation.gov site to get the reservations required to see the sunrise.
Plan time to stay a while in the park after daylight. The clouds typically lift, and you can catch incredible views of Maui. Then enjoy a scenic drive around Upcountry, where Hawaii’s paniolo (cowboy) culture is a way of life and gardens blossom with year-long blooms.
Not sure you can handle the early start? The summit is also beautiful at sunset. Bring a picnic dinner and stay a while to stargaze.
WATERFALL HOP ALONG THE ROAD TO HANA
Once you return home from a Maui vacation, people will surely ask you if you drove the Road to Hana. The scenic highway tops most people’s vacation list, thanks to its adventurous nature and lush jungle sights.
But the real attraction along the Road to Hana is its many waterfalls. From popular Twin Falls to remote Punalau Falls, there’s an experience here for anyone. Dip your toes in the cold fresh water, jump in from a rope swing, or simply admire the view from land.
As you explore Maui’s beauty, remember to park legally and entirely off the road, avoid streams if there’s any recent or upcoming rain, and adhere to any warning or kapu (keep out) signs. And have fun! Hana Highway features some of the world’s most beautiful and prolific waterfall areas.
WHALE WATCH IN THE AUAU CHANNEL
December through March is a magical time on Maui. That’s when the already beautiful waters become teeming with Humpback Whales. The majestic creatures migrate to Hawaii’s warm, shallow waters to give their calves a safe place to explore and learn.
While you can likely spot whales throughout the state, The Auau Channel is the best place to view them. That’s the area between West Maui, Lanai, and Molokai, and it’s the ultimate destination for Humpbacks looking for great water conditions.
The mother whales, their calves, and their male escorts often hang out not far from shore, and you can see them breaching from Maui’s beaches and lookouts. But the best whale watching will be from the water.
Catamarans, Zodiac rafts, and kayaking tours all take visitors out into the water to see Humpback whales up close. Book an adventurous excursion, a leisurely sail, or combine whale watching with a snorkel trip.
The peak time for whale watching is in February, though anytime from January through mid-March is an ideal time to take a tour.
SEE THE FISH AT MOLOKINI CRATER
Molokini Crater offers some of the best snorkeling conditions you’ll ever find. The water near the atoll is typically calm and boasts an amazing array of marine life.
Molokini Crater is a crescent-shaped land mass located off Maui’s southern coast and stretches about a half mile long. The water around it is a preserve, but visitors can snorkel among the fish there.
The best way to get to Molokini is to book a spot on a sailing tour or other commercial excursion. The tour will typically provide snorkel gear, floatation, and beverages. Some stay a couple of hours, while others offer all-day adventures that include several different snorkeling spots.
You can find tours leaving from Makena, Maalaea, and Lahaina on Maui.
LOUNGE AWAY THE DAY ON HULOPO’E BEACH
On the quiet island of Lanai, you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most beautiful beaches. Hulopo’e Beach is located by the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, not far from the ferry landing. Island locals and resort guests primarily enjoy the park, but many visitors take a day trip from Maui just to see the beach.
You may spot spinner dolphins or humpback whales off the coast, and the water is often great for snorkeling. Relax on the sand or take on one of the hiking trails. No matter how you enjoy a day at Hulopo’e Beach, it’s sure to be one of the most memorable parts of your Hawaii adventure.
SCUBA DIVE THE LANAI CATHEDRAL CAVE
If you want a unique, memorable scuba experience, consider venturing to the Lanai Cathedral Cave. The underwater lava tubes are home to tropical fish and small caves waiting to be explored. The roof of the caves features holes where light streams in, creating an altar-like effect that lends the area its name.
Many Maui-based tour companies offer dive trips to the Lanai Cathedral Cave. Experienced divers will love the exploration and adventure there, along with the scenic boat ride you’ll take to the spot.
The Lanai Cathedral Cave is located off the coast of Lanai, not far from Hulopo’e Beach. Your diving tour will probably launch from Lahaina on Maui, though.
HAWAII ISLAND ( THE BIG ISLAND)
SEE THE LAVA FLOW AT HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
One of the biggest highlights for Big Island visitors is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It offers incredible sightseeing anytime, but it’s especially impressive when the lava is flowing.
The National Park includes two Volcanoes: Kilauea and Maunaloa. Most visitors go to Kilauea to see the glowing lava in Halemaʻumaʻu crater. Visit the park’s website to get an update on the lava viewing opportunities. If it’s flowing, you’ll want to plan a nighttime visit to see the unique glow.
Even when the lava isn’t flowing, a visit to the park can include interesting lava formations, natural steam vents, and unique wildlife. There’s also lodging and a restaurant near the crater, along with many hiking trails.
You’ll drive about 45 minutes From Hilo to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and then you’ll spend at least a couple of hours driving and sightseeing once you’re there.
Read More: HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK – EPIC GUIDE
STARGAZE FROM ATOP A VOLCANO
Mauna Kea offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in the world, so Big Island visitors should plan to include this evening spectacle in their itineraries.
Wondering how to stargaze at Mauna Kea? You can drive your rental car to the visitor center (9,200ft) and enjoy the sites from there, or take a professional tour to the summit (13,796ft).
For a self-guided trip, you’ll want to plan on stargazing at the visitor’s center, which the University of Hawaii at Hilo manages. The lack of oxygen at the summit can make it hard to see up there, so you may catch better nighttime views at the lower altitude anyway.
If you do want to reach the summit at nighttime, you’ll need to arrange that with a permitted private tour. They’ll take you on a memorable experience with a professional guide, plus you won’t need to do any driving.
There are usually telescopes set up at the visitor’s center, or private tours often bring ones with them. Remember to dress warm and rest during the day for this incredible experience.
SNORKEL WITH MANTA RAYS ON THE KONA COAST
Kona is one of the best places to view Manta Rays in the wild. The incredible sea creatures feed on plankton near the shore each night, and lucky visitors can book a snorkeling trip to swim among them.
Tour guides will provide lights to attract the Manta Ray, along with floating devices so you can feel comfortable in the water. Your tour will probably take you to the Manta Village in South Kona, the viewing area at the Sheraton Kona Resort, Manta Heaven in North Kona, or the Kohala Coastline near Waikoloa Village.
For the safest experience for you and the Manta Rays, go with a reputable tour company. They’ll be knowledgeable about the creatures and have all the best equipment so you can fully enjoy the experience.
SAIL THE NĀ PALI COAST
Exploring Kuai’s Na Pali Coast is a unique Hawaii experience. The rugged mountain terrain seems untouched by time and isn’t accessible by car. Some adventurers hike along the coast (the state park there offers camping permits), but most take in these unique sights by boat.
There are many options to see the Nā Pali coastline by boat, from small, speedy rafts to large, leisurely catamarans. Many morning sails will include dolphin sightings and snorkeling opportunities, while afternoon bookings may feature spectacular sunset views.
The Na Pali coast spans about 16 miles along Northwest Kauai, and its cliffs reach over 4,000 feet high. Conditions are best for boat rides from April through October, though most boat operators offer tours year-round.
SOAK IN THE VIEWS AT WAIMEA CANYON
Kauai is a treasure trove of scenic views, and few places in the state are as breathtaking as Waimea Canyon. The gorge is 3,000 feet deep and a mile wide, measurements that earned it the nickname “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
The state park features unique wildlife, sweeping views of the canyon, and a chance to see the island of Niihau in the distance. Kokeʻe State Park is next to Waimea State Park – their hiking paths connect, and one entry fee grants access to both parks.
Multiple hiking trails will take you around or into the canyon, or you can take a driving tour to its scenic lookouts. Access the park via Waimea Canyon Road or Kokee Road. Waimea Canyon Road is more scenic, and many visitors arrive via that route and then take Kokee Road out.
Waimea Canyon State Park is on the west side of Kauai. Drive carefully and try to go on a clear day for the best views.
ROAM HAWAII’S ‘JURASSIC’ BOTANICAL ROOMS
The National Tropical Botanical Garden is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and studying tropical plants, and its gardens feature some of the largest collections of Native Hawaiian species.
Two of their most visited gardens are located on Kauai: the Allerton and McBryde botanical gardens, which are located right next to each other on the island’s south shore.
The Allerton Garden may be the more popular tour – it focuses on landscape art and features fountains and sculptures. You may recognize some of the landscaping there – the garden rooms and iconic Moreton Bay fig trees have been featured in Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The McBryde Garden is dedicated to plants native or culturally significant to Hawaii, including the Hawaiian Coral Tree and Breadfruit (Ulu) Tree.
You can book various tours at the gardens, and there is also an intimate luau at Allerton Garden twice a week.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden also has locations in Hana, Maui; Hanalei, Kuai; and Coconut Grove, Florida.
ACROSS THE ISLANDS
VISIT ONE OF SEVERAL BLACK SAND BEACHES
Many of Hawaii’s beaches are lined by dramatic black lava rock, but have you ever seen a Hawaii beach with all black sand? At some spots, erosion has turned the black volcanic rock into fine, pebbly sand, giving beachgoers a unique view and experience.
Don’t be surprised if you see green sea turtles on the shoreline at Punalu’u Beach, and Waianapanapa State Park is a beautiful spot near Hana that features walking trails and a blowhole.
SWIM WITH THE SEA TURTLES
It’s typically easy to catch a sea turtle sighting in Hawaii, as long as you know where to look. The Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle (Honu) is native to the islands and is often found swimming leisurely near shorelines or basking in the sand.
Here are some of the best beaches to swim near sea turtles or watch them come onto shore:
- Ho’okipa Beach on Maui
- Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii
- Laniakea Beach on Oahu
- The Tunnels Beach (Makua Beach), on Kauai
The major islands also feature snorkel tours that stop at turtle hotspots. Keep your distance if you see a Sea Turtle in the water or on land. It’s illegal and disrespectful to touch, feed, or interact with turtles. Some popular turtle areas will have on-site volunteers to answer questions and ensure everyone keeps a friendly distance from the stunning creatures.
SEE THE ISLANDS FROM THE SKY
Hawaii is full of epic locations that are inaccessible and completely remote. If you want to discover the islands’ hidden sights or get a unique vantage point of often-visited beauties, a helicopter tour could be your ultimate activity.
Witness the lava flow on the Big Island, see tall waterfalls on Maui, fly among the sea cliffs of Kauai, or get a birds-eye view of Oahu’s most famous attractions.
Helicopter tours are some of the priciest Hawaii adventures, but that makes the experience even more special. Most tours last roughly an hour, though you can charter full and half-day excursions if you want a truly luxe option.
CATCH A WAVE WITH A SURF SCHOOL
The Hawaii surfer lifestyle is easy to idealize. Head out early to catch a wave, then come to shore sunkissed and tired. You can get a taste of surfer life for yourself by booking surfing lessons on any of the major islands.
Hawaii is a destination for big-wave surfers, but there are also calm areas perfect for beginners. A professional teacher can take you on group or private lessons, with many schools guaranteeing that they’ll have you standing on the board by the end of the day.
Visitors of all ages and skills take surf lessons in Hawaii, so why not hang ten and discover why so many people become drawn to the unique sport?
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO HAWAII
- YOUR HAWAII VACATION
- WAIKIKI: 24 Best Things To Do In Waikiki You’re Gonna Love
- KONA: 16 Things To Do In Kona Hawaii
- HILO: 16 Spectacular Things To Do In Hilo, Hawaii
- BEACHES: 14 Best Beaches In Hawaii For Fun In The Sun
- BEST HAWAIIAN ISLAND FOR FAMILIES: All The Info So You Can Make The Best Choice In 2023
WHERE TO STAY IN HAWAII
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