From gorgeous beaches to traditional luaus to top-notch surfing, Hawaii offers terrific experiences that should be on every traveler’s list. Here’s what you need to do and see for a memorable trip.
Hawaii is one of those amazing places that sits at the top of most people’s travel bucket list, with daydreamers picturing stunning sunsets and sand in their toes. But it’s not all beaches and umbrella drinks — the chain of islands is as diverse as it is beautiful, and the list of things to do in Hawaii is staggering. Hawaii’s eight primary islands, including Oahu, the Big Island, and Maui, (there are dozens more atolls and islets in the chain) have their own personalities and features, offering Hawaiian vacation activities for everyone from the beach bum to the foodie, from the surfer to the adventurer. So eat (here’s a list of the best restaurants in Hawaii), drink, and have fun, because once you arrive in Hawaii and have that lei around your neck, you’ll never want to leave!
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Hit the Road to Hana on Maui
Spectacular views of waterfalls, lush forests, and the sparkling ocean are part of the pleasure of the twisting drive along the North Shore to tiny, timeless Hana in East Maui. The journey is the destination, but once you arrive, kick back and enjoy. Wave to pedestrians, “talk story” with locals in line at the Hasegawa store, and explore the multicolor beaches. An overnight stay here allows for the most relaxed experience, though; a day trip is a big push. You may decide to drive just part of the way as an alternative.
Related: Fodor’s Maui Travel Guide
Visit Oahu's Pearl Harbor
Step Into the World of an Active Volcano
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, to see the aftermath (and occasionally the active flow that includes fiery red lava that pours, steaming into the ocean and nighttime lava fireworks) of one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea. The park includes many beautiful hiking options to explore the complex nature of volcanoes. The 2018 eruption has certainly changed the landscape of the park, so even if you’ve already visited, it’s a whole new destination!
Explore Kauai's Napali Coast
Experiencing Kauai’s emerald green Napali Coast is a must-do. You can see these awesome cliffs on the northwest side of the island by boat, helicopter, or by hiking the Kalalau Trail. Whichever you pick, you won’t be disappointed.
Related: Fodor’s Kauai Travel Guide
Hike Maui's Haleakala
Take time to trek down one of the trails into Haleakala National Park‘s massive bowl and see proof, at this dormant volcano, of how powerful the earth’s exhalations can be. The cinder cones have beautiful swirls of subtle colors that can sparkle in the sunlight. You won’t see a landscape like this anywhere, outside of visiting the moon. The barren terrain is deceptive, however—many of the world’s rarest plants, birds, and insects live here.
Related: The Best Restaurants in Maui
Surf at Waikiki Beach on Oahu
Waikiki, with its well-shaped but diminutive waves, remains the perfect spot for grommets (surfing newbies), though surf schools operate at beaches (and many hotels) around the island. Most companies guarantee at least one standing ride in the course of a lesson. And catching your first wave? We guarantee you’ll never forget it.
Catch the Views at Kauai's Waimea Canyon
From its start in the west Kauai town of Waimea to the road’s end some twenty uphill miles later at Puu o Kila Lookout, you’ll pass through several microclimates—from hot, desert-like conditions at sea level to the cool, deciduous forest of Kokee—and navigate through the traditional Hawaiian system of land division called ahupuaa.
Related: Top Things to Do in Kauai
Drive Big Island's Hamakua Coast
Whale Watch on Maui
Maui is the cradle for hundreds of humpback whales that return every year from late November through April to frolic in the warm waters and give birth. Watch a mama whale teach her one-ton calf how to tail-wave. You can eavesdrop on them, too: Book a tour boat with a hydrophone or just plunk your head underwater to hear the strange squeaks, groans, and chortles of the cetaceans. Tours are good, but you can also easily watch whales from the beach.
Take in a Show at a Luau
Many of the islands play host to a traditional luau, with dancers, music, and a large buffet of food. Most are found at resorts and offer a full night of fun. The Old Lahaina Luau on Maui has a warm heart—and seriously good poke (diced raw tuna tossed with herbs and other seasonings). Tuck a flower behind your ear, mix a dab of poi (taro-root paste) with your lomilomi salmon (rubbed with onions and herbs), and you’ll be living like a local. Different styles of hula are part of the performance. For any luau, you’ll want to reserve well in advance.
Related: Hawaiian Greetings and Phrases
Discover the Joy of Snorkeling on Maui
Snorkeling in Maui is a must, either on your own with a buddy or on a snorkel cruise. Maui has snorkel boats of all sizes to take you to spots such as the Molokini Crater. Wherever you duck under, you’ll be inducted into a mesmerizing world underwater. Slow down and keep your eyes open; even fish dressed in camouflage can be spotted when they snatch at food passing by. Some great spots to try right near the shore are Honolua Bay and Kekaa (known as Black Rock, it’s in front of the Sheraton Maui) in West Maui. There are also good spots on the rocky fringes of Wailea‘s beaches on the South Shore.
Stretch Out on Makena
This South Shore beauty is the sand dreams are made of: deep, golden, and pillowy. Don’t be discouraged by the crammed parking lots; there’s more than enough room. Makena (Oneloa in Hawaiian) is still relatively wild. There are no hotels, minimarts, or public restrooms nearby—instead there’s crystal-clear water, the occasional pod of dolphins, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery (including the sunbathers). You can grab a fish taco and a drink at a nearby truck for a tasty lunch.
Buy Tropical Fruit at a Roadside Stand
Your first taste of ripe guava or mango is something to remember. Delicious lychee, mangoes, star fruit, bananas, passion fruit, pineapple, and papaya can be bought on the side of the road with the change in your pocket. Go on, let the juice run down your chin. Farmers’ markets are another place to seek out taste treats—just be sure to ask if what you crave is, indeed, local.
Visit One of Hawaii’s Amazing Resorts
Hawaii is home to many beautiful resorts that cater to the needs of visitors who want to have a luxurious vacation. Indulge your inner rock star at the posh, pampering resorts and spas around the islands. Sip a “Tommy Girl” in the hot tub at the Four Seasons or get massaged poolside at the Grand Wailea on Maui. Enjoy live jazz and tropical cocktails at Halekulani on Oahu and swim with a Spotted Eagle Ray in a private lagoon at the Four Seasons Hualalai on the Big Island. Even if you don’t stay the night, you can enjoy the opulent gardens, high end restaurants, art collections, and perfectly cordial staff. For pure relaxation, book a spa treatment from the extensive menus.
Green Sands Beach
Exploring Waipio Valley
Stargazing at Mauna Kea
Snooze with a Sea Turtle at Punaluu Black Sand Beach
Hang out at Punaluu Black Sand Beach, fringed with coconut groves, where sea turtles surf the waves and nap on volcanic black sands. If you don’t happen to see any of the beloved honu relaxing on the beach, take a look out into the waters, particularly the waves breaking on the beach — they’ll be there! Just don’t get too close and definitely don’t touch these protected and revered creatures.
A Kona Coffee Farm Tour
Spend an afternoon discovering why Kona coffee commands those high prices. Visit a working estate and watch as “cherries” become beans, enjoy the smoky aromas of the roasting process, and then indulge in the smoothest cup of coffee you’ll ever taste. Did we mention that it’s all free? Our favorite: Lions Gate Farms in the heart of Honaunau’s coffee belt. The annual ten-day Kona Coffee Cultural Festival in November celebrates coffee with tours, cupping contests, tastings, and special events.
A Swim Through Coral Gardens on the Kona Coast
Diving or snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters off the Kona Coast is like being let loose in your very own ocean-size aquarium. Bright yellow, purple, and rose-colored coral create surreal kingdoms ruled by octopi, turtles, rays, dolphins, and fish in every color of the rainbow.
Related: What to Do on Hawaii’s Big Island
This ten-mile stretch of road starting at the Hanalei Scenic Overlook in Princeville rivals all in Hawaii and in 2003 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of only about 100 roads nationwide to meet the criteria. Indeed, the road itself is said to follow an ancient Hawaiian walking trail that skirts the ocean. Today, Route 560 includes thirteen historic bridges and culverts, most of which are one lane wide. Be patient.
Related: Kauai’s Best Hotels
River Kayaking in Kauai
The best part about kayaking Kauai’s rivers is that you don’t have to be experienced. There are no rapids to run, no waterfalls to jump and, therefore, no excuses for not enjoying the scenic sights from the water. On the East Side, try the Wailua River; if you’re on the North Shore, don’t miss the Hanalei River. But if you have some experience and are in reasonably good shape, you may choose to create a few lifetime memories and kayak Napali Coast.
Bananas. Mangos. Papayas. Lemons. Limes. Lychees. The best and freshest fruits, vegetables, flowers—and goat cheese—are found at various farmers’ markets around the island. Just don’t get there too late in the day—much of the best stuff goes early. Aside from the county-affiliated venues, a number of community-based markets have sprouted on church grounds, small parks, and other non-traditional venues. To find one near you, just ask the concierge or any local person—chances are they frequent one nearby. If you want to slide in as a local, wear flip-flops and a T-shirt and maintain a cool attitude.
Related: Kauai’s Restaurant Guide
Kailua is the beach you came to Hawaii for—and the reason why many have never left. This popular stretch of white sandy beach on Oahu’s windward side is wide and inviting, with several small offshore islands perfect for exploring on kayaks. The waves are gentle and forgiving, and the beach is within walking distance of small convenience stores and friendly eateries.
Finding Shangri La in Diamond Head
Built atop the cliffs of Diamond Head, Shangri La is the lavish oceanfront home of American philanthropist Doris Duke. It houses an extensive collection of Islamic art, much of which was collected during her world travels. But the sprawling five-acre estate—with its sweeping views, exotic gardens, and seventy-five-foot saltwater pool—is an architectural wonder in its own right. It’s open to the public for small group tours.
Hiking to Kaena Point
On the westernmost point of the island, magical Kaena Point is one of the last intact dune ecosystems in the Hawaiian Islands and is home to a growing population of wedge-tailed shearwaters and other rare and endangered seabirds. Hawaiian green sea turtles and monk seals often rest along the shore, and in winter you can often see migrating humpback whales offshore. While you can’t access all 850 acres of this culturally significant place—this area has long been known as the leaping place of souls—you can walk or bike along the coastline. A trek through this protected area may change your mind about Oahu being “too crowded.”
Related: Hawaii Travel Guide
Over the past few years, Chinatown has been transformed into the center of Oahu’s arts scene. This vibrant neighborhood, which pours into downtown Honolulu, boasts art galleries, eclectic restaurants, hip bars, trendy boutiques, and the historic Hawaii Theatre. There are a few guided tours of the cultural attractions, but you can easily wander the area on your own. Every first Friday of the month there’s a block party of sorts, when art galleries and restaurants stay open late and bars feature live music. It’s well worth the cab fare.
A Sail on the Wild Side
Who wouldn’t want these memory snapshots to take home: the unblinking and seemingly amused eye of a spinner dolphin as it arcs through the wake of the catamaran in which you’re riding; the undulating form of an endangered Hawaiian green sea turtle swimming below you; the slap and splash and whoosh of a humpback whale breaching in full view on indigo seas. Wild Side Specialty Tours can’t promise these specific encounters, but its ecologically conscious daily excursions in a quiet, uncrowded catamaran do guarantee good memories.
A Day on the North Shore
Head north along Oahu’s eastern coastline toward the famed North Shore, where professional surfers nab some of the world’s best waves. You’ll pass through quaint residential areas and fruit stands on the side of the road. (Stop and buy bananas in Kahuku.) While you’ll be tempted to try one of the famous shrimp trucks—plates of garlic shrimp hover around $20—consider the variety of eats on the North Shore, from old-school bakeries to burger joints to sit-down restaurants. In Haleiwa, cool off at Matsumoto Shave Ice. If you’re visiting in the summer, head to Three Tables or Shark’s Cove for some stellar snorkeling. Or spend a lazy day at Sunset Beach, good book optional.
A Trip to Japan in Oahu
Little known outside Oahu’s growing community of Japanese nationals is a class of small restaurant-bars called izakaya, or Japanese taverns. Grilled, fried, and raw dishes are perfect with beer, sake, or shochu (a liquor distilled from barley, sweet potato, or rice). Even newer on the scene are okonomi, hip spots that specialize in Osaka-style grilled omelets and potent Japanese spirits. Both are like a visit to Japan, minus the long plane ride. They are a must-notch in any foodie’s belt.
Eat Delicious Food in Maui
“Ono kine grinds” is local slang for the delicious food you’ll find at dozens of restaurants island-wide. Maui chefs take their work seriously, and they have good material to start with: sun-ripened produce and seafood caught the very same morning. Try a plate lunch, that reminder of the state’s cultural mix, at a casual spot. Sample as many types of fish as you can and don’t be shy: Try it raw. And try shave ice flavored with tropical fruit syrups.
Walking in the Rainforest or To a Waterfall at the Aiea Loop Trail
Wend your way through the hillside neighborhood of Aiea, northwest of Honolulu, and suddenly you’re in a cool green park, scented with astringent eucalyptus. This is the three-and-a-half-mile Aiea Loop Trail, and if you’re committed to squeezing a hike into a short Oahu stay, you couldn’t do better for glimpses of hidden valleys and the experience of an island forest.
If waterfalls are more your speed, then head straight to the back of Manoa Valley, three miles mauka (toward the mountains from Waikiki) and you’ll find a one-and-a-half-mile trail along a well-worn path following Manoa stream through native trees and flowers to the Manoa Falls.
Hula with Heart
Professional hula dancers—the ones in poolside hotel shows and dinner extravaganzas—are perfection: hands like undulating waves, smiles that never waiver. But if you want to experience hula with heart, scan the newspapers for a hula school fundraiser or ask the activities desk about local festivals. You may see some missteps and bumbles, but you’ll also experience different hula styles and hear songs and chants deeply rooted in the culture, all the while surrounded by the scents of a hundred homemade leis.
Hawaiian Music at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center
Before his untimely death in 1997, Israel Kamakawiwoole, or “IZ,” woke the world to the sound of modern Hawaiian music. Don’t leave without hearing it live. The Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului has top Hawaiian entertainers regularly and so do many island bars and restaurants. The Wednesday-night George Kahumoku Jr.’s Slack Key Show: Masters of Hawaiian Music concert series at the Napili Kai Beach Resort in West Maui is excellent. The Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival features guest performers who play Hawaii’s signature style.
Tee Off in Paradise at the Kapalua Resort
Spectacular views, great weather year-round, and challenging courses created by the game’s top designers make Maui an inspiring place to play golf. The Kapalua Resort on West Maui and the Wailea and Makena resort courses on the South Shore offer memorable rounds. Check about twilight fees to save some money.
Beach lovers might need some arm-twisting to head up the mountain for a day, but the views and the fresh-smelling countryside are ample reward. On the roads winding through ranchlands, crisp, high-altitude air is scented with eucalyptus and the fragrances of the forest. Stop for an agricultural tour and learn about where the island’s bounty comes from; you can sample it, too.
Windsurf at Kanaha
You might not be a water-sports legend, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a try. In the early morning, this renowned windsurfing spot is safe for beginners. Don’t settle for the pond in front of your hotel—book a lesson at Kanaha and impress yourself by hanging tough where the action is.
Take a Deep Dive With Atlantis Submarines
Atlantis Submarines gives visitors the chance to see some of Hawaii’s most amazing features through the portholes of a submarine. After riding a boat out to the docking station, guests descend into a submarine that then drops to the bottom of the ocean, allowing guests to see a variety of ocean life set among crystal blue waters. Sadly, the reefs of Maui and Waikiki have been decimated by tourism, so Atlantis has had to put millions of dollars into building artificial reefs by bringing in and sinking retired ships. It’s a wonderful experience, dropping to the lowest points that visitors can reach, and a reminder of the importance of caring for delicate ecosystems. The reef in Kona is still in tact, a 25-acre garden of coral where marine plants and animals flourish, but is always being closely monitored to ensure its health.
Learn About the Diversity of the Pacific at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Hawaii is just one of many members of the Pacific island chain, an area of the world with a rich, unique culture. The Polynesian Cultural Center brings the cultures and traditions of the Polynesian people to life in a variety of ways. The 42-acre complex allows guests to visit six different island communities through displays and cultural presentations (some with hands-on activities and chances to participate). There’s also a large marketplace, a Polynesian luau with incredible performances and a beautiful buffet of food, and the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, among other attractions.
Go Mountain Tubing with Kauai Backcountry Adventures
The Garden Island is known for its natural beauty and adventurous activities, and Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers one of the most memorable days of fun that visitors can find. It all starts with a four-wheel-drive through Kauai’s interior with a bit of education about the island from guides. At the launch site, guests jump in a tube, strap on a headlamp, and set off for an exciting float through flumes and tunnels that originally served as an irrigation system for Lihue Plantation. At the end of the float, which includes passing through some of the most remote areas of the island, guests enjoy lunch and a dip in a natural swimming hole.
Camp at an Old Fishing Village at Ho'okena
If beach camping is on your Hawaii itinerary, you can’t go wrong with Ho’okena Beach on the west side of Hawaii Island. It’s classic beach camping like you imagine, but with gorgeous gray and coral sand and a beautiful sunset view. Cook your dinner on the standing grills, wake up early to try to catch a pod of dolphins swimming by, and enjoy a swim among breaking waves. Even if you’re not a seasoned camper, this is the perfect spot — it has restrooms, port a potties, and a daytime snack/ice stand that also rents kayaks and other equipment. This spot is a favorite among locals, as it’s the site for one of the last small canoe fishing villages on the island, and it’s still a fishing favorite for many.
Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is one of those large, touristy places that is a large, touristy place for a very good reason. The abundance of reef life that lives in the bay and waits for visitors to admire it is staggering. Here you’ll find colorful parrotfish nibbling on coral, vibrant angelfish gliding by, and the awkwardly beautiful humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, Hawaii’s state fish, as well as green sea turtles, among many other types of wildlife. Before heading down to the water, guests need to spend a little time at the marine education center to learn about marine life and preservation, as well as safety rules for the park. Don’t worry about bringing gear — you can rent snorkels, fins, and everything else you need (including snacks) right there in the bay. Be sure to wear reef-friendly sunscreen to help make sure that the reefs are there for plenty of years to come.
Taste Your Way Through Hawaii's Breweries and Distilleries
Hawaii is home to a large variety of breweries and distilleries, most of which allow visitors. On the Big Island popular Kona Brewing Co. is a great destination thanks to its seasonal beers that aren’t in stores and great restaurant. Pair it with new brewery Ola Brew Co, a community owned brewery and a fun visit. On Maui visitors won’t want to skip Hali’imaile Distillery to taste Pau Vodka, Paniolo Whiskey, Mahina Rum, and Fid Street Gin. On Oahu, Ko Hana Rum welcomes visitors in the center part of the island, including a tour of their operation and tastings of their rum that is (unlike most others) created from pure sugar cane juice and not molasses. Kauai Beer is also a nice stop, some visitors say it’s even better than Kona Brew, and you’ll want to grab a growler to go!
Try a Malasada
This Portuguese donut that Hawaiian’s have adopted is a must-try, no matter what island you’re on. The malasada can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, based on where you pick it up. Some come plain, some filled with jelly, while still others filled with cream. Flavors range from tropical haupia (coconut) or guava to traditional flavors like chocolate or Bavarian cream, with just about everything in between. On Oahu, you’ll definitely need to get a pink box full at Leonard’s Bakery or at Liliha Bakery. On the Big Island a drive along the Hamakua Coast must include a stop at Tex Drive In or head south to Punalu’u Bake Shop (the southernmost bakery in the United States). Home Maid Bakery and Sugar Beach Bake Shop are where to stop on Maui.
Bathe Like a Queen at a Queen's Bath
There are a few places on the islands referred to as a Queen’s Bath, but the most well known ones are found on the Big Island and Kauai. These small, secluded watering holes served as private bathing spots for Hawaiian ali’i (royalty), and others were forbidden to use them. The Big Island bath is a small, open lava tube that is fed by a cold spring, which is a refreshing dip when hiking around Kiholo Bay. It’s fun to jump in and out, but it‘s very small so you won’t be lingering too long. The Kauai Queen’s Bath is not for the faint of heart, and should only be visited by those who are physically fit enough to handle very tough, muddy trails. But visitors say that once they’ve made the trek, the dip in the tide pool and the incredible views are fully worth it.
Rent a Beach Bungalow
Many visitors to Hawaii picture a beachfront bungalow as their ideal way to take in the islands every day, but finding those types of accommodations outside of privately owned homes can be difficult to find. However, if you’re just dying to stick your toes in the sand when you first wake up in the morning, there are some options to do so. Lava Lava Beach Club’s cottages in Waikoloa (Big Island) are chic and give a great beach vibe with gorgeous outdoor showers, large decks right on the beach, and a quick walk straight into the water of Anaeho’omalu Bay. Turtle Bay gives the bedroom to beach option on Oahu, with a small bit of manicured grass separating guest cottages from the sand. These cottages are bright and inviting, reflecting the aloha spirit, and sit just outside of ocean waters that serve as a refuge for whales, seals, and turtles.
Visit the Filming Locations From Some of Your Favorite Movies
Luscious tropical backdrops in films could be made with special effects, but that would get a bit pricey and disingenuous, so naturally many film productions flock to Hawaii for lovely jungles and sandy beaches. Oahu is the most popular filming spot, with huge blockbusters like Jurassic Park (multiple films) and Hunger Games: Catching Fire and cute comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and 50 First Dates. One of the most classic movie moments, the beach kiss in From Here to Eternity, can be found at Halona Beach Cove and is a popular view for tourists. The other islands have certainly had their fair share of movies filmed on them, as well, and many of the specific locales can be visited by doing a little research or finding a tour guide.
Try Your Hand at Making Your Own Lei
Wearing a lei, the Hawaiian symbol of affection, is a must during a visit to Hawaii, and being able to make your own is a wonderful treat. Many hotels and resorts offer opportunities to engage in cultural activities, and creating a lei is almost always one of the choices. Some are as simple as stringing flowers into a chain, a nice activity for kids, while others can be more advanced. Making a braided ti leaf lei can be challenging to do and a difficult activity to find, but making one is a special experience. For those not staying at a hotel, look for activities at local libraries, cultural centers, or special events.
Shop for Handmade Souvenirs at Farmers Markets
The farmers markets of Hawaii are a stop that every visitor needs to make. Not only are these bustling shopping areas full of farm stands overflowing with locally grown produce, they’re also a great place to find lunch and get some souvenir (or personal) shopping done. Stock up on fresh fruits to snack on during your road trips or back at your hotel, and don’t be shy when you find something that looks like it’s from another planet — just ask the stand owner what it is and how to eat it so that you get a sample before making a purchase. Handmade goods are usually in their own section of the market, and typically include a variety of jewelry, clothing, art prints, and lots more.
Try One of Hawaii's Staple Foods, Poi
Poi, made from the corm of the kalo (taro) plant was one of Hawaii’s original canoe plants — a variety of plants that came over with the Polynesian seafarers who settled the islands. These canoe plants were fundamental to the survival of early Hawaiians, and still today the cooked and mashed root of the plant is an important part of Hawaiian life. Poi can be an acquired taste, but visitors should definitely give this staple a try before leaving the islands. Order a side of it as part of a plate lunch, get a bowl of it served sour (fermented), or find it reinvented in a new way (poi donuts are fun and incredibly delicious). If you’re attending any sort of cultural event, you may also have the chance to try “pounding poi” yourself with a traditional pounder and board.
Related: Big Island Restaurant Guide