Hawaiian Islands

What's the Best Hawaii Island to Visit?

Which Hawaiian Island to Visit

Updated for 2024 Visitors and beyond...

Like many (likely first-time) visitors to Hawaii, you're probably wondering which Hawaii island to visit and thinking about which one would be best for you and your travel party. Unlike many destinations, Hawaii is not really one destination - but six unique, eclectic, and diverse island destinations that all happen to be within the same state.

The six main islands, four of which we cover in detail on this site, are, from west to east, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island of Hawaii.

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Waimoku Falls at end of Pipiwai Trail on Maui

Waimoku Falls at end of Pipiwai Trail on Maui

The Best Hawaii Island for First-time Visitors...

If you’re a first-time visitor, deciding which Hawaiian island to visit can be as exciting as it is overwhelming. The islands are very diverse, and each one has its own unique offerings, making choosing an island rather difficult, especially for first-time visitors. And once you've started visiting the islands, coming back to a different island can often feel like a totally different place with a whole new set of experiences, sights, and attractions.

Imagine the vibrant energy of Oahu, where the iconic Waikiki Beach meets rich history at every turn. It’s a world where you can surf legendary waves in the morning and delve into Hawaii’s past at Pearl Harbor in the afternoon.

Or perhaps you’re drawn to the tranquil beauty of Kauai, the ‘Garden Isle.’ Here, time slows down amidst lush landscapes and dramatic coastlines, perfect for those seeking a peaceful retreat in nature’s lap.

For a blend of luxury and natural splendor, Maui beckons with its stunning beaches, world-class resorts, and the scenic Road to Hana. It’s an island where the spirit of aloha is as radiant as its sunsets.

And let’s not forget the Big Island, a haven for the adventurous at heart. From exploring the awe-inspiring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to experiencing the diverse climates and rich cultural tapestry, it’s an island where every day is a new discovery.

Kilauea Eruption inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Eruption inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Your perfect Hawaiian experience depends on what you seek. Whether it’s adventure, relaxation, culture, or luxury, each island offers a distinct flavor of paradise.

Additionally, one of the most common misconceptions about Hawaii is that it's all like Waikiki (on Oahu), Ka'anapali (on Maui), or Kailua-Kona (on the Big Island) - that is, developed and tourist-oriented. The reality could not be further from the truth, as there are plenty of non-developed parts of the island chain, including large ranches, farms, miles of wild coastline and untamed landscapes, and an abundance of verdant valleys bursting with waterfalls.

TL;DR - The Best Hawaii Island to Visit?

In our opinion, for most first-time Hawaii travelers, Oahu is often the best choice. Oahu offers a perfect blend of stunning natural beauty and vibrant urban experiences. Visitors can explore the iconic Waikiki Beach, hike to the top of Diamond Head for breathtaking views, and immerse themselves in Hawaiian/U.S. history by visiting historic sites like Pearl Harbor. With a wide range of accommodations, dining options, and activities, Oahu provides a well-rounded introduction to the Hawaiian Islands.

That said, there's still a lot more to consider, like which type of Hawaii traveler you are, before making a final choice. Let's dive into our comprehensive guide to find the island that resonates with your dream Hawaiian adventure!

Visiting Hawaii between 2024-2025

Visiting Hawaii within the next few months, between 2024 and early 2025, means avoiding the increased crowds projected to return by mid-2025 through 2026. So, if you're visiting Hawaii soon, you've selected a great time. 

Having been to all the major islands, we admit we have our own personal favorite. However, please know that each island truly is spectacular, and one is most certainly not "better" than another. That said, here we'll objectively tell you about the major islands in the Hawaiian chain so you can pick the island that's just right for you.

Like us, we’re sure you’ll soon have a favorite. Take the handy 'Which Island to visit Quiz' below and read our companion article, Selecting the Best Hawaiian Island, to find the best Hawaiian island for you. To get started, let's first review each major island and its highlights.

Kalalau Lookout on Kauai

Kalalau Lookout on Kauai

Take our Which Island to Visit Quiz

Discover the best island(s) for your travel party by scoring your personal interests. Our quiz will generate a private & personalized page, customized just for you.

Overview of Each Major Island

Kauai - The Garden Isle Image

Kauai - The Garden Isle

The oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian Island chain is graced with dramatic, natural beauty. Explore Kokee State Park's trails, see Waimea Canyon- the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"- or relax in one of the many beautiful gardens of the aptly named 'Garden Isle,' such as Limahuli Garden.

In our opinion, Kauai represents the most iconic view of Hawaii - lush surroundings, verdant valley, an abundance of waterfalls, and rainbows. This island is probably the most "rural" of the main Hawaiian Islands. It offers the perfect getaway for romantic trips, anyone seeking relaxation away from the hustle/bustle of everyday life, or those looking to explore the backcountry trails, of which Kauai has plenty (some of the best hikes in the state can be found on Kauai). Check out our Kauai Regions guide to learn more about the different parts of Kauai.

There is one main airport that services Kauai, in Lihue. There are also plenty of great places to stay on Kauai, including the North & Eastern Coasts and more recent property developments along the southern shore. Read our article on Where to Stay on Kauai to help you select the perfect location.

Tunnels Beach on Kauai

Tunnels Beach on Kauai

Waialeale Waterfalls in Central Kauai

Waialeale Waterfalls in Central Kauai

Kauai Highlights:
Kauai's Incredible NaPali Coastline

Kauai's Incredible NaPali Coastline

Oahu - The Gathering Place Image

Oahu - The Gathering Place

Home to the Hawaii state capitol of Honolulu and the majority of Hawaii's population, Oahu is a vibrant mix of natural and cultural wonders with the entertainment and amenities of the 21st century. Check out the waves on the famous North Shore, relive American history at the memorials and museums of Pearl Harbor, or soak up the sun and take a surfing lesson on Waikiki Beach.

Oahu is truly a hot spot for Hawaii activities, tours, shopping, surfing, nightlife, and dining. The island is the most developed of the major islands, and it'll feel like it - it's busy here, and unlike some areas of Hawaii, there's more hustle and bustle around the clock. But don't worry, there's plenty of natural Oahu to visit, too, including some amazing trails, incredible overlooks, and plenty of stunning coastal views to go around. Check out our Oahu Regions guide to learn more about the different parts of Oahu.

There is primarily one main airport that services Oahu, and it's located in Honolulu. Most of Oahu's accommodations are located in Waikiki, but there are other lodging gems scattered around the island. Check out our Where to Stay on Oahu article for more information.

View from Diamond Head on Oahu

View from Diamond Head on Oahu

Hiking on Oahu

Hiking on Oahu

Oahu Highlights:
  • Waikiki Beach - Iconic gathering place for visitors from around the world.
  • Pearl Harbor - Explore the historic sites recounting the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • Hanauma Bay & Nature Preserve - One of Hawaii's premier snorkeling sites.
  • Nuuanu Pali Lookout - Historic spot with fantastic mountain views.
  • North Shore - Legendary birthplace of big wave surfing.
Pali Overlook on Oahu

Pali Overlook on Oahu

Maui - The Valley Isle Image

Maui - The Valley Isle

The second-largest island is home to what some believe are the best beaches in the world. If you visit during the winter months, book a tour to see the majestic whales, as Maui has some of the world’s best whale watching. Wake up early to catch the sunrise at Haleakala, stroll through one of the many historic towns, or drive the majestic Road to Hana for spectacular scenery.

There's a reason many repeat visitors to Hawaii joyfully say, "Maui no ka oi" - which translates to "Maui is the best." Maui offers a little bit of everything in Hawaii, providing the best mix of nature and developed areas (towns), good snorkeling, great hiking trails, a volcano you can hike into, and so much more. Honestly, Maui makes a great island for first-time visitors, and it's probably why more people who take our quiz (below) are given the suggestion of Maui than any other island. Check out our Maui Regions guide to learn more about the different parts of Maui.

The main airport on Maui is in Kahului. Many of the best accommodations are on the West coastline (in Lahaina or Ka'anapali) or along the south shore (within Kihei and Wailea). Check out our Where to Stay on Maui article for more information.

Garden of Eden along the Hana Highway on Maui

Garden of Eden along the Hana Highway on Maui

Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach on Maui

Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach on Maui

Maui Highlights:
Waterfall along the famous Road to Hana

Waterfall along the famous Road to Hana

Big Island of Hawaii - The Orchid Isle Image

Big Island of Hawaii - The Orchid Isle

Larger than all of the other islands combined, the island of Hawaii, also known as Big Island, encompasses most of the world's climate zones - from white sand beaches to snow-capped mountains. See waterfalls, rainforests, and botanical gardens near Hilo; explore the historic PuuKohola Heiau, north of Kona; or view Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The sheer size of the Big Island of Hawaii also gives it a 'rural' feel, much like Kauai has, but so much larger! Plus, the island's diversity is truly astounding; there's nothing else quite like it; Hawaii Island is as eclectic as they come; from lush and verdant rainforests to barren black lava fields that stretch for miles. Check out our Big Island of Hawaii Regions guide to learn more about the different parts of Hawaii Island.

Two airports service the Big Island, one in Kailua-Kona (on the west side of the island) and the other in Hilo (on the east side). Most visitors will fly into Kona's airport, as most accommodations are located on the western side of the island. Don't forget to read our Where to Stay on the Big Island to get an overview of all the major accommodation locations on the island.

Akaka Falls State Park on the Big Island

Akaka Falls State Park on the Big Island

Green Sand Beach on the Big Island

Green Sand Beach on the Big Island

Big Island of Hawaii Highlights:
Lava Tube on Hawaii's Big Island

Lava Tube on Hawaii's Big Island

Take our Which Island to Visit Quiz

Discover the best island(s) for your travel party by scoring your personal interests. Our quiz will generate a private & personalized page, customized just for you.

'Best Hawaii Island for...' FAQ

By Interests, Traveler Types, & more...

Best Island for Adventure Seekers?

The Big Island of Hawaii is a treasure trove for adventure enthusiasts. With its unique topography, the island presents a thrilling mix of outdoor activities. Adventure seekers can explore the awe-inspiring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where Kilauea, one of the world's most active volcanoes, offers a rare glimpse into the Earth's core. The island's diverse landscape ranges from black sand beaches to snow-capped Mauna Kea, ideal for stargazing. Activities like hiking through lush rainforests, night diving with manta rays, and witnessing the majestic waterfalls make the Big Island an adventurer's paradise.

Best Island for Couples?

Maui is often hailed as a romantic haven for couples. With its picturesque sunsets, stunning beaches, and luxurious resorts, it provides the perfect backdrop for a romantic getaway. Couples can indulge in a sunrise viewing at Haleakala, a drive along the scenic Road to Hana, or a relaxing day at the tranquil Wailea Beach. The island’s intimate luaus, sunset cruises, and fine dining options amidst breathtaking views create an atmosphere of romance and intimacy, making Maui an ideal destination for lovebirds.

Best Island for Families?

Oahu is a family-friendly destination that offers a blend of entertainment, history, and natural beauty. It is home to the bustling city of Honolulu, where families can explore iconic Waikiki Beach, the educational exhibits at the Bishop Museum, and the historic Pearl Harbor. The island’s diverse attractions, including interactive wildlife experiences at the Honolulu Zoo and Sea Life Park, ensure that there’s something enjoyable for every member of the family. With its variety of accommodation options and child-friendly beaches, Oahu stands out as a top choice for family vacations.

Best Island for Relaxation Seekers?

For those looking to unwind and relax, Kauai, known as the Garden Isle, is the quintessential escape. Kauai’s laid-back atmosphere, coupled with its natural splendor, offers a peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The island boasts serene beaches like Hanalei Bay and Poipu Beach, perfect for sunbathing and gentle ocean swims. Visitors can rejuvenate amidst the tranquil settings of the Na Pali Coast, enjoy leisurely walks through tropical botanical gardens, or simply relax to the soothing sounds of nature in this verdant paradise.

Best Hawaii Island for each Type of Traveler

Best Island for Eco-Tourists?

Kauai, with its pristine natural landscapes and commitment to environmental preservation, is a paradise for eco-tourists. The island offers lush rainforests, the serene Na Pali Coast, and the breathtaking Waimea Canyon. Eco-tourists can indulge in nature walks, wildlife spotting, and exploring botanical gardens, all while learning about conservation efforts and the island’s unique ecosystems.

Best Island for Cultural Enthusiasts?

Oahu is rich in cultural heritage, making it ideal for those fascinated by history and traditions. The island’s highlights include the historic Iolani Palace, the vibrant cultural festivities in Honolulu, and the Polynesian Cultural Center. Oahu offers a deep dive into Hawaiian history, art, and living traditions.

Best Island for Wellness Seekers?

Maui is a haven for those seeking wellness and rejuvenation. The island offers numerous wellness retreats, yoga studios with ocean views, and tranquil spas set amidst exotic landscapes. The soothing atmosphere of Maui provides the perfect setting for relaxation and self-care.

Best Island for Foodies?

Oahu is a culinary hotspot, offering a fusion of international cuisines and traditional Hawaiian dishes. Honolulu’s thriving food scene, from fine dining to local food trucks, provides a diverse gastronomic journey. Foodies can enjoy fresh seafood, farm-to-table experiences, and authentic Hawaiian flavors.

Best Island for Budget Travelers?

The Big Island offers a range of affordable travel experiences without compromising on adventure and beauty. With diverse landscapes, from volcanoes to beaches, and a variety of free natural attractions, budget travelers can enjoy an enriching Hawaiian experience at a lower cost.

For budget travelers, Oahu also presents a surprisingly affordable Hawaiian experience. The island is home to a variety of cost-effective accommodations, from budget hotels and hostels in the heart of Honolulu to affordable beachside rentals. Public transportation on Oahu, including TheBus system, offers an economical way to explore the island. Visitors can enjoy free attractions like hiking up Diamond Head for panoramic views, relaxing on the iconic Waikiki Beach, and exploring the bustling streets of Chinatown. The island also hosts numerous free cultural events and festivals throughout the year. Additionally, food trucks and local markets provide delicious yet inexpensive meal options, allowing travelers to savor Hawaiian cuisine without breaking the bank. Oahu’s blend of urban experiences and natural beauty, all accessible on a budget, makes it an ideal destination for cost-conscious travelers.

Best Island for Photography Enthusiasts?

Kauai’s dramatic landscapes offer endless opportunities for photography enthusiasts. From the soaring cliffs of the Na Pali Coast to the colorful Waimea Canyon and tranquil Hanalei Bay, photographers can capture stunning natural scenes and the island’s diverse wildlife.

Best Island for Active and Sporty Travelers?

Maui is a playground for active and sporty travelers. The island’s varied landscape offers excellent surfing, windsurfing, hiking trails like the Haleakala Crater, and world-class golf courses. Maui’s natural terrain provides the perfect setting for a variety of outdoor sports. 

Best Island for History Buffs?

Oahu is steeped in history, making it ideal for history buffs. Key historical sites include Pearl Harbor, the Bishop Museum, and the historic district of Honolulu. The island offers a deep and varied historical narrative, from ancient Hawaiian history to modern American military history.   

Best Island for Nightlife Seekers?

Oahu, particularly Honolulu and Waikiki, is the center of Hawaii’s nightlife. With an array of clubs, bars, and live music venues, the island caters to those looking for vibrant nightlife. The diverse entertainment options ensure an exciting evening out for every taste.  

Best Island for Nature Lovers?

The Big Island appeals to nature lovers with its diverse natural wonders, from the snowy peaks of Mauna Kea to the lush rainforests and black sand beaches. The island’s vast landscapes offer everything from hiking and stargazing to exploring unique geological formations and observing rare wildlife.

Best Island for Luxury Travelers?

Maui caters to luxury travelers with its high-end resorts, exclusive golf courses, and upscale dining experiences. The island combines luxury with natural beauty, offering sun-kissed beaches and private tours like helicopter rides over the island or luxury sunset cruises.

Best Island for Solo Travelers?

Oahu is perfect for solo travelers, thanks to its blend of friendly locals, diverse attractions, and easy navigation. From the bustling streets of Waikiki to the surfing spots on the North Shore, solo travelers can find a mix of adventure, social opportunities, and safe exploration.

Take our Which Island to Visit Quiz

Discover the best island(s) for your travel party by scoring your personal interests. Our quiz will generate a private & personalized page, customized just for you.

Hawaii Driving Tour Apps

Location-Based Applications

It's like having a tour guide in your car! Listen to stories, legends, history, and what to do and see, at the right place and time.

Shaka Guide uses your GPS to guide you to interesting places along the way on each of the main Hawaiian islands. Automatic audio tours with turn-by-turn directions mean all you need to do is to turn on the tour and drive. Check out driving Tours for Circle Island Oahu, North Shore Kauai, and Waimea Canyon & Na Pali Coast.

Makalawena Beach on the Big Island's West Coast

Makalawena Beach on the Big Island's West Coast

Relaxing on Oahu

Relaxing on Oahu

Recommended Hawaii Tours
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