Hawaiian Islands

Which is the Best Hawaii Island to Visit?

An overview of each island 

Picture this: you're sipping a mai tai, toes in the sand, watching the sun dip into the Pacific. Sounds like heaven, right? Well, that's just a typical evening in Hawaii. But with so many incredible islands to choose from, how do you decide which one to visit first?

We've been lucky enough to explore every corner of this tropical haven, and we're here to spill the beans on the best Hawaii island to visit. Whether you're a beach bum, an adventure junkie, or a culture vulture, there's an island that's perfect for you. So grab your sunscreen and let's dive in!

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

Your perfect Hawaiian experience largely depends on what you seek. Whether it’s adventure, dining, relaxation, culture, or luxury, each island offers a distinct flavor for visitors to experience. Most of us have a favorite island, and below, we'll briefly introduce you to each island.

Oahu

Oahu is the most popular tourist destination and the most easily accessible of the Hawaiian islands. It's home to the state capital, Honolulu, and the famous Waikiki Beach. This island offers a perfect blend of city life and natural beauty. You can shop, dine, and enjoy nightlife in Honolulu, then take a short drive to stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and scenic hiking trails.

Maui

Maui is another great choice for first-timers. Known as the "Valley Isle," Maui boasts stunning beaches, world-class resorts, and a laid-back vibe. Some of the top attractions include the Road to Hana, a scenic drive with waterfalls and black sand beaches, and Haleakala National Park, where you can watch the sunrise above the clouds.

Big Island

The Big Island, officially named Hawaii Island, is the largest in the chain and offers incredible diversity. Here, you can visit active volcanoes, hike through lush rainforests, and stargaze atop snow-capped mountains. Highlights include Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see lava flows and steam vents, and the observatories on Mauna Kea, one of the best places in the world for astronomy.

Kauai

Kauai, nicknamed the "Garden Isle," is a nature lover's paradise. With its lush landscapes, pristine beaches, and laid-back atmosphere, Kauai offers a true escape from the hustle and bustle. Must-see spots include Waimea Canyon, often called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," and the rugged Na Pali Coast, which you can explore by boat, helicopter, or on foot. After all, the Hawaiian Islands are some of the most beautiful islands in the USA. You really can't go wrong with any of them.

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!

Key Takeaway:

Choosing the best Hawaiian island for your first visit? Think about what you love. City vibes and famous beaches? Oahu's your spot. Crave stunning drives and sunrises above clouds? Maui calls. If active volcanoes and stargazing are up your alley, Big Island awaits. Love lush landscapes and quiet escapes? Kauai is perfect.

Kalalau Lookout on Kauai

Kalalau Lookout on Kauai

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 Ka'anapali) or along the south shore (within Kihei and Wailea). Check out our Where to Stay on Maui article for more information.

Please also remember, portions of Maui experienced some devastating wildfires in August 2023; and Lahaina town remains closed.

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

Kilauea Eruption inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Kilauea Eruption inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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.

Enjoying Hawaiian Culture and Cuisine

No trip to Hawaii is complete without immersing yourself in the rich culture and delicious cuisine of the islands. From ancient traditions to modern twists on classic dishes, there's so much to discover.

Learn about Ancient Hawaiian Traditions

One of the best ways to connect with Hawaiian culture is to learn about its ancient traditions. Many resorts and cultural centers offer classes and demonstrations in things like lei making, hula dancing, and storytelling. I once took a lei making class at a local cultural center, and it was such a fun and informative experience. As we wove the delicate flowers together, our instructor shared stories and legends associated with each bloom. It gave me a whole new appreciation for these beautiful garlands and their significance in Hawaiian culture.

Taste Authentic Hawaiian Food

Hawaiian cuisine is a delicious fusion of flavors from around the world, reflecting the islands' diverse cultural heritage. From classic dishes like kalua pork and poke to local favorites like plate lunches and shave ice, there's no shortage of tasty treats to try. One of my favorite food experiences in Hawaii was attending a traditional luau. The spread of food was incredible - succulent kalua pork, fresh poke, lomi lomi salmon, and so much more. And the entertainment, with hula dancers and fire twirlers, made for an unforgettable evening.

Experience the Unique Culture of Each Island

While all of the Hawaiian islands share a common cultural heritage, each one has its own unique flavor and traditions. From the bustling streets of Honolulu to the laid-back vibes of Kauai, there's so much diversity to experience. I love how each island has its own distinct personality. On Oahu, you can immerse yourself in the history and culture of the islands at places like Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum. On Maui, you can explore the charming towns and learn about the island's history. And on the Big Island, you can witness the power of creation at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and learn about the ancient Hawaiian goddess Pele.

Planning Your Perfect Hawaiian Getaway

With so much to see and do in Hawaii, planning the perfect trip can seem daunting. But with a little research and some insider tips, you'll be well on your way to the vacation of a lifetime.

Best Time to Visit Hawaii

One of the most common questions I get asked is, "When is the best time to visit Hawaii?" The truth is, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on your preferences and priorities. If you're looking to avoid crowds and score some deals on accommodations, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons of April-May or September-October. The weather is still pleasant, but the peak summer and winter crowds have thinned out. That being said, there's really no bad time to visit Hawaii. The islands enjoy warm, sunny weather year-round, with average temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to mid-80s. Just be prepared for the occasional rain shower, especially if you're visiting during the wetter winter months.

Choosing the Right Island for Your Interests

With six main Hawaiian islands to choose from, it can be tough to decide which one is right for you. Here's a quick breakdown: - Oahu: Best for first-timers, history buffs, and those seeking a mix of city and beach life - Maui: Best for beach lovers, snorkelers, and those seeking a laid-back vibe - Kauai: Best for hikers, nature enthusiasts, and those seeking a more remote, untouched experience - Big Island: Best for adventure seekers, stargazers, and those interested in geology and volcanoes - Lanai: Best for luxury seekers and those looking for a secluded, upscale experience - Molokai: Best for those seeking a glimpse of old Hawaii and a slower pace of life Of course, you can't go wrong with any of the islands. Each one offers its own unique charms and attractions.

Getting Around the Islands

Once you've decided which island(s) to visit, you'll need to figure out how to get around. Renting a car is the most popular option, as it gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace. If you're planning to stick to one island, you can easily get by with a rental car. But if you're island hopping, you'll need to factor in the cost and logistics of inter-island flights. Another option is to book guided tours or use public transportation, like buses or shuttles, when available (mostly on Oahu). This can be a good choice if you're not comfortable driving or if you want to sit back and let someone else handle the navigation.

Accommodations and Budgeting

Hawaii offers a wide range of accommodations to suit every taste and budget, from luxury resorts to budget-friendly vacation rentals. When deciding where to stay, consider your priorities and what kind of experience you're looking for. If you're dreaming of a posh resort with all the bells and whistles, expect to pay a premium. But if you're willing to forgo some amenities and stay in a more modest hotel or rental, you can save a significant amount of money. Another way to stretch your budget is to book accommodations with a kitchenette or full kitchen. This allows you to save money on dining out by preparing some meals yourself. Plus, there's nothing quite like enjoying a home-cooked breakfast on your own private lanai (balcony). As for budgeting, it's no secret that Hawaii can be an expensive destination. But with some careful planning and savvy choices, you can make your dream trip a reality without breaking the bank.

Some tips:

  • Travel during the shoulder season for lower rates on flights and accommodations
  • Look for package deals that bundle flights, hotels, and car rentals
  • Take advantage of free activities like hiking, snorkeling, and beach hopping
  • Eat like a local at food trucks, farmers markets, and hole-in-the-wall joints
  • Use credit card points or airline miles to offset the cost of flights or hotels

At the end of the day, the memories you'll make in Hawaii are priceless. So don't let the cost deter you from experiencing all that these magical islands have to offer.

'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 of Hawaii 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.

Makalawena Beach on the Big Island's West Coast

Makalawena Beach on the Big Island's West Coast

Relaxing on Oahu

Relaxing on Oahu

FAQs in Relation to Best Hawaii Island to Visit

What is considered the best Hawaiian island to visit?

Oahu shines for first-timers with a mix of history at Pearl Harbor, bustling Waikiki Beach vibes, and epic hikes like Diamond Head.

Should I go to Oahu or Maui?

Pick Oahu for iconic sights and city life; choose Maui for stunning beaches, Haleakala National Park sunrises, and quieter adventures.

What is the prettiest place to go to in Hawaii?

Kauai's Na Pali Coast offers jaw-dropping scenery with its emerald cliffs plunging into azure waters—true paradise found.

Which is better Maui or Kauai?

If you're after vibrant beaches and volcanic wonders, hit up Maui. For lush trails and dramatic landscapes, Kauai's your spot.

Conclusion

So, which Hawaiian island should you pack your bags for? The answer is, it depends on what kind of vacation you're dreaming of. Oahu is perfect for those who want a bit of everything, from city life to stunning beaches. Maui is a nature lover's paradise, with its lush rainforests and jaw-dropping coastlines. The Big Island is an adventure seeker's dream, with active volcanoes and rugged landscapes to explore. And Kauai? Well, it's the ultimate escape, with its laid-back vibe and secluded beaches.

Hawaii is calling, and it's time to answer! Whether you're drawn to the bustling beaches of Oahu or the serene landscapes of Kauai, an incredible journey awaits. The islands have a unique charm that will captivate your soul and leave you with a lifetime of cherished moments. Don't hesitate – make those travel plans, pack your sunscreen, and prepare to fall in love with the beauty of the Pacific. Trust your instincts; you'll be glad you did!

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.

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