Best Things to do in Hawai‘i

Hawai‘i is the 50th state, but really it’s its own planet. Soar above hot lava in a helicopter, surf waves as tall as your house, or take a music lesson from a member of the Ukulele Hall of Fame! These are just a few of Hawai‘i’s top attractions.

75- 5660 Palani Rd, #304 Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
A great introduction to the ocean floor for non-divers, this 48-passenger submersible dips down to 100 feet off the Big Island. It explores 25 acres of vibrant coral gardens that have bloomed on ancient lava formations. Highlights include two shipwrecks: A WWII landing craft and a sailboat nicknamed “The Naked Lady.” (Legend claims its female owner set it on fire to purge “little green men” and wound up swimming ashore with her clothes slung off.) The hour-long excursion departs from the Kailua-Kona pier and remains a popular way to share the sea’s beauty safely and comfortably for kids and less mobile travelers (the roomy sub even has air-conditioning!). Look for combo deals that include a dive on the submarine plus snorkeling or a luau.
Holoholokai Beach Park Rd, Puako, HI 96743, USA
Around 11,000 humpbacks—a quarter to a third of the global population, by some estimates—visit Hawaii from November until early May. They migrate here to mate and give birth. Intensely focused on procreation, these marine mammals don’t eat and can lose up to a third of their body weight while frisking in warmer waters. Nonetheless, the gray giants remain impressive, reaching 52 feet long and weighing up to 40 tons. That bulk doesn’t deter them from spectacular aerial displays of breaching and slapping the surface with their heads, fins, or tails, though! Boat tours like Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watch Learning Adventures remain popular, but you can also spot these amazing creatures off the western Kohala Coast or Holoholokai Beach Park, and from campgrounds in Waipiʻo or Pololū valleys.
1525 Bernice St, Honolulu, HI 96817, USA
The largest museum in Hawaii studies and preserves the history of the islands and the Pacific—for those interested in local culture, it’s a must. The Victorian building originally housed family heirlooms from Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I, including her ancestor’s royal feathered cape. Today the Bishop teems with more than 24 million artifacts, documents, and photos about Hawaii and other Polynesian cultures. Other highlights include everyday items, like combs made from coconut-leaf ribs, and extraordinary ones, like the leiomano (a shark-tooth-studded weapon kept hidden until battle). Don’t miss the 55-foot sperm whale skeleton and other natural-history exhibits, along with a planetarium showing how voyagers navigated the Pacific, guided by the stars.
1151 Punchbowl Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813
One of the most recognizable sites in Hawaii, this volcanic ash cone overlooks Waikiki’s coastline—a tectonic memory from an explosion half a million years ago, measuring almost 3,500 feet across. British sailors named it Diamond Head in the 1800s, mistaking calcite crystals in the crater’s soil for jewels. Despite its volcanic grandeur, the ascent takes most hikers an hour or so, clocking in at 560 feet of elevation gain and 1.6 miles round-trip. At the top, on a clear day, you can see all of Oahu’s south shore, from Koko Crater and Waikiki to the mountains of the Wai’anae Range.
Hawaii, USA
Haleakala, a huge and dormant shield volcano, forms more than 75 percent of Maui’s landmass. As such, it pretty much demands you ascend its slopes and peer into its crater—the island’s very soul. Legend claims the demigod Maui snared the sun here, freeing it only after it swore to inch more slowly across the sky.

The 38-mile, two-and-a-half-hour drive up Haleakala climbs from sea level to 10,023 feet through several different ecological zones. One of the most popular ways to experience the volcano remains cycling down from the summit at sunrise. Do it yourself if you’re confident, or join a guided tour (Skyline Eco-Adventures offers one that includes a zip-line ride). Once you’ve mastered the motion—and the 21 switchbacks along the road—effortless downhill freewheeling rewards you with unsurpassed views of the island. If you’d rather savor the vistas from a lofty perch, drive to the top for the sunset or book an overnight at one of the park’s wilderness cabins, accessible only by hiking trail.
The heartbeat of the Hawaiian people, hula tells stories, backed by music or oli (chanting). Years of practice allow dancers to depict crashing waves or a breeze riffling the trees with simple, graceful gestures. You can get private and group lessons in this local art form, as well as workshops in the Tahitian style. Instructors will come to you—anywhere on Maui, Oahu, or the Big Island—bringing flowers and costumes to share. After a discussion of hula’s history, they’ll review the basic steps and hand motions, then teach choreography to a Hawaiian song. Students can add on a half-hour class on making leis.
The ire of Mount Kilauea reforges the world before visitors’ eyes. Nicknamed “the World’s Only Drive-In Volcano,” it’s produced serious lava every day since 1983 with no signs of stopping. Pele—the fire goddess who lives here, according to Hawaiian lore—is on a roll. Occasionally the lava flows spill into the sea, releasing stunning plumes of steam. Don’t miss the petroglyphs, lava tube, lush rain forest, and more than 150 miles of trail, including the four-mile Kilauea Iki loop. The drive here from Kona or Kohala can take two and a half hours, a bit of a long day, so consider reserving accommodations in the town of Volcano. You’ll have plenty of time to explore this otherworldly landscape, and even see the lava glowing in the dark!
600 Imiloa Pl, Hilo, HI 96720, USA
NASA-funded ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center brings the wonders of space down to earth on the Big Island with a mix of Hawaiian culture and modern, whiz-bang science. It includes a state-of-the-art planetarium, a replica of Mauna Kea’s summit, and a 3-D room that surrounds guests with stars. The facility sits below Hilo’s so-called Astronomy Row, which boasts a number of world-class observatories, so the information presented is very up-to-date—plus, you’ll probably be able to ask local scientists wandering around on their lunch breaks any burning questions you may have. It’s a great alternative for visitors unable to stargaze at Mauna Kea’s actual summit, which has a steep, winding gravel road that requires a 4WD with good brakes.
Waialua, HI 96791, USA
Ancient Hawaiians believed their souls would leap into the spirit world from this lava shoreline on the western tip of Oahu. These days, people jump off here in gliders instead, soaking up views of the Waiʻanae coast to the south, Mokuleʻia to the north—and the glorious, denim-blue Pacific stretching from here to eternity. Take a 5.4-mile round-trip hike and check out the albatross sanctuary on Kaʻena’s wild coastal acreage (free to visit). Keep an eye out for monk seals, one of the world’s most endangered species, found only in Hawaii. Watch for their silvery-gray sausage shapes as they lounge on the beach, but give them space. Always retreat if a seal awakes, vocalizes, shies away, or tries to shield a pup.
74-4968 Queen Kaahumanu Highway
Hawaiians once lived in harmony with the land: farming, fishing, and harvesting fruit. Today, the state imports 80 to 90 percent of its food. Visit Kaloko-Honokōhau to catch a glimpse of the Big Island’s ancient agricultural traditions, which residents are working hard to revitalize. The park’s landscape of rugged rock contains more than 200 archaeological sites, ranging from fishponds and elevated planters to petroglyphs, lava-tube shelters, and hōlua (toboggan-like slides). Watch for native species like the fragrant pua pilo flower and the endangered Hawaiian stilt, a subspecies of the black-necked stilt. A sugar-white beach stretches north from Honokōhau’s boat harbor and often attracts sea turtles.
Laniakea Beach, North Shore, HI 96712, USA
More commonly known as Turtle Beach, this Oahu North Shore cove often attracts honu, aka Chelonia mydas, the largest of the hard-shelled sea turtles. These big, friendly giants can reach 400 pounds as adults and are herbivorous, feeding primarily on algae and seagrasses, abundant year-round in the warm, shallow waters. Summer’s gentle surf—swells averaging just two feet—increase your odds of quality turtle time. Cross the road carefully and keep at least six feet away from the endangered turtles as they sunbathe onshore (mind any “no-go” zones maintained by volunteers). Avoid swimming here: The currents and beach rocks make it challenging.
Hawaii, USA
One of Maui’s best hikes, this trail climbs 800 feet through the lush Kipahulu area of Haleakala National Park. Half a mile from the visitor center, an overlook provides sweeping views of the gorge and the almost-200-foot-long “horsetail” of Makahiku Falls. Continue on past a sprawling banyan, stopping to marvel at the sunlight trickling through the dense bamboo forest. Here, you’ll also find the even more dramatic cascade of Waimoku Falls, which plunges 400 feet down a sheer-walled lava amphitheater. If you’re wary of tackling the four-mile round-trip hike by yourself, know that park rangers offer guided tours every Sunday at 10 a.m. Reservations are available at 9 a.m. a week ahead of time.
130 Iolana Pl, Honolulu, HI 96819
Aerial tours loft guests high over Oahu, arcing over Pearl Harbor and its World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Other highlights include Waikiki; the volcanic cone of Lēʻahi, aka Diamond Head; and the stunning red-earth fields of the island’s leeward side. A helicopter remains the best way to see Kaliuwa’a (the Sacred Falls), which have been closed since a tragic 1999 landslide. Hikers still sneak in, despite the danger and further damage. The park has been taking an increasingly hard line about trespassers, issuing hundreds of citations annually.
177 Makaala St, Hilo, HI 96720, USA
Winter snow can frost the tallest peak in Hawaii, technically measuring 13,800 feet. In fact, Mauna Kea holds the world record at 33,500 feet tall when measured from its submerged base to its summit (compared with Everest’s 29,000 feet)! The dormant volcano is home to the native gods and ideal for stargazing, either with the naked eye or the summit’s Subaru Telescope (book ahead). Go earlier and you’ll get an orange blaze—and maybe an elusive green flash—during sunset, too. Note that the high altitude poses serious health risks: Stop for a half hour at the visitor center to acclimate. Plan for steep, winding roads passable only via 4WD. Do not visit the mountaintop within 24 hours of scuba diving.
76 Kamehameha Ave, Hilo, HI 96720, USA
Explore the coral-reef wonders of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands at this free and incredibly family-friendly center on the Big Island. Interactive displays include a volcanic exhibit, a submersible with robot arms, and a huge 3,500-gallon saltwater aquarium that showcases the incredible diversity of fish found in one of our last truly wild places. The displays go a long way toward understanding why the spectacular waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, also known as the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, this downtown Hilo highlight also includes ample information about monk seals, one of the most endangered marine mammals. Only about 1,400 remain, and their population continues to decline.
Maui, HI 96708, USA
An ancient atoll, Molokini lies 2.5 miles off Maui’s south coast, where the water is calm, clear, and teeming with marine life. Here, snorkelers and scuba divers can expect up to 150 feet of visibility, allowing for perfect views of yellow tang, parrot fish, black triggerfish, bluefin trevally, and even moray eels. To explore it for yourself, book a tour with Maui Classic Charters, which sails to Molokini in a 55-foot catamaran with a glass-bottomed viewing room. Choose one of the early-morning trips for a better chance of calm seas and bigger sea creatures like octopus and eagle rays, and bring along snacks, sunscreen, and, for those who run cold, perhaps a rash guard or thin wet suit, especially in the winter months.
Kapaʻa, HI 96746, USA
Swift streams and waterfalls continue to carve these vertiginous and rugged valleys as they pour into the sea. One of the most stunning wilderness areas on earth, it also contains ancient Hawaiian ruins of graves, temples, house platforms, and terraced fields. The fear factor increases past the initial two-mile path to Hanakāpīʻai Beach (best visited in summertime, as winter swells tend to wash it away). Only experienced hikers in good condition and with proper gear should venture further along the famous 11-mile Kalalau Trail. Check for path and park closures before making plans and don’t forget the $20/night permit to crash at a campsite. However long you trek, stay on the main path and pack out what you brought in.
Haleiwa, HI 96712, USA
One of surfing’s most famous sites, the North Shore churns out giant walls of water for world-class riders each winter. When the wave faces loom to around 30 to 40 feet at Waimea Bay, the Super Bowl of surfing kicks off. The Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational honors the area’s first official lifeguard, a waterman who died trying to save his crew members when the voyaging canoe Hokule’a overturned in 1978. From May to September, beginners can book lessons and venture into smaller, gentler swells to join the Hawaiian heartbeat. Don’t despair during calmer periods: The bay still has good snorkeling and a popular cliff-jumping spot (signs warn against taking the plunge, but enthusiasts—sometimes dozens at a time—cheerfully ignore it, making for a dramatic spectacle).
2699 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA
Ease into the wave-riding scene with this uniquely soulful surf school on Oahu. Sean Anderson had been teaching for 20 years when he saw the family of a deceased surfer struggling to get into the water. With Susan Geraci he launched the Ohana Surf Project to help people who need a little extra TLC to overcome fear, grief, infirmities, and the challenges of aquatic adventures for those with physical or mental disabilities. The school also caters to tourists with lessons on surfing (board and body) and stand-up paddleboarding in Waikiki; its tiny bus makes pickups at five nearby hotels. The family package offers great deals for children under 12, who have to book private instruction elsewhere.
Olowalu Beach, Hawaii 96761, USA
If you snorkel only once, make it at Olowalu, home to Maui’s most diverse marine populations. Slap on some reef-friendly sunscreen and explore more than 100 acres of some of the healthiest coral structures in Hawaii. Watch manta rays and green sea turtles rock up to cleaning stations, or peer inside a nursery for blacktip sharks among the 500-year-old coral formations. Less of a swimmer? Then try a stable wide-bottomed ocean kayak for a different perspective. The tiny town also contains the island’s best petroglyphs, as well as a haunted past: Here, trader Simon Metcalfe massacred more than a hundred innocent Hawaiians in 1790. This outrage spurred King Kamehameha I to defeat his neighbors, using Western weapons and tactics; after 20 years, he succeeded in unifying all Hawaii.
Paia, HI 96779, USA
The final stop before the Hana Highway, Pā'ia was once a plantation town; today it’s a boho enclave full of galleries, independent boutiques, lazy cafés, and a Tibetan Buddhist stupa (place of meditation). Stock up on fuel for exploring at Mana Foods: Like Doctor Who‘s TARDIS, this indie health-food store is bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. (It also has a shockingly vast selection at reasonable prices.) Other highlights include Mahina, often voted Maui’s best boutique, and the funky soaps, jewelry, clothes, and Hawaiiana of Alice in Hulaland. Downshift at Baldwin Beach Park, the best for bodyboarding and swimming. Then drive out to Ho’okipa Lookout (before the Mile 9 marker) to marvel at the massive breakers in winter or advanced windsurfers streaking across the sea almost all year round.
1 Arizona Memorial Pl, Honolulu, HI 96818, United States
Once an oyster-farming backwater, this area was held sacred to the shark goddess Ka‘ahupahau. But it’s forever etched into America’s psyche due to the 1941 Japanese surprise attack on the naval base, which launched the U.S. into WWII’s Pacific theater. Today, more than a million visitors pay their respects annually at the museums and memorials, which include the USS Bowfin, the USS Missouri, and the wreck of the USS Arizona. Buy tickets online to avoid the inevitable long wait. Ford Island also houses the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum here: Historic hangars showcase vintage aircraft like a Japanese Zero and a Curtiss P-40E Warhawk. Plane buffs should add on a $10 combat-simulator flight.
Lower Saki Mana Rd, Waimea, HI 96796, USA
Spectacular sands—making up the longest stretch of beach in Hawaii—sweep for 15 miles starting here, fringed by postcard-perfect turquoise water. This patch of ocean is rough, rowdy, and perilous: Watch for sneaker waves as you stroll along the coast. Swimmers should stick to the Queen’s Pond, an area girdled by a protecting reef. But the big attraction at Polihale Beach remains the dunes, which can pile up to 100 feet high. In summer, hot sand can slip into your shoes, causing burns; savvy beachgoers wear only wool socks, according to Andrew Doughty, author of the excellent Ultimate Kauai Guidebook. Make sure to pack plenty of water—and also an umbrella, if you plan to linger.
State Highway 160
Catch a glimpse of what Hawaii looked like before European contact. An unmissable destination for culture buffs, this sacred area stretches along the lava flats of the Big Island’s western coast. Behind a massive wall stands an ancient pu’uhonua (place of refuge)—where defeated enemies and those who violated the kapu (laws) could seek pardon. The park also shelters the Royal Grounds, a residential and ceremonial epicenter, and the 1871 Trail that takes in the shoreline. Tip: This is a religious site, so be respectful and don’t smoke, picnic, play sports, take wedding photos, or carry beach equipment (including towels) here. Just north of the boat launch outside of the park you can find Two Step, a phenomenal scuba and snorkeling spot.
1, Keomoku Highway, Lanai City, HI 96763, USA
Wide-open expanses and breathtaking scenery make the Pineapple Isle ideal for horseback riding. Hop in the saddle and wind along trails through the rustling ironwoods and red hills of Lanai. These excursions—available at all skill levels—often pass deer and quail rustling in hidden, verdant valleys. One of the highlights: clopping past the island’s signature Cook pines. Each one spins the highland fog into 200 gallons of water daily! This equestrian program has exceptional guides, gear, and horses, as might be expected from the Four Seasons Lanai. Ask about lessons if you don’t feel ready for the mellow 90-minute ramble for novice riders.
Waianapanapa State Park, Hana, HI 96713, USA
This lovely state park stretches along the rugged volcanic shoreline of western Maui, three miles from Hana. It’s best explored on the 2.2-mile hike that starts at the black-sand beach and follows the dramatic coast, passing lava tubes, rock arches, blowholes, and Polynesia’s largest heiau (an ancient Hawaiian temple) along the way. Avoid standing too close to the geysers as well as the lava benches near the ocean, which can crumble easily, and watch out for high surf. If you’re looking to cool down after your trek, take the loop trail to the park’s freshwater caves, where you can explore two separate chambers (the first tends to be clearer and more inviting).
2777 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815, USA
The second-oldest public aquarium in the United States, this classic attraction dates back to 1904 and has amassed 3,500 marine animals since then. The emphasis remains on aquatic life in the Pacific, including seahorses, giant clams, and deeply endangered monk seals, as well as propagation of corals like the rare Montipora dilatata. A 7,500-gallon tide pool offers a hands-on experience where you can interact with tropical fish, sea urchins, and tubular sea cucumbers. Once a month—tides permitting—the aquarium is open for visitors to explore nocturnal activity by torchlight. Water babies will especially appreciate the aquarium’s box jellyfish calendar online, which charts when the fierce, stinging animals are most likely to surface in shallow waters alongside swimmers, snorkelers, and divers.
Best known from the opening credits of the 1970s TV hit Fantasy Island, this graceful 173-foot ribbon of whitewater remains one of the most accessible cascades on Kauai. While visible from the roadside, it’s worth the third-of-a-mile trek to the overlook. When conditions are just right, a rainbow arcs from the falls’ base into the mist. While the pool below can fill to 30 feet deep, dives have proven fatal here, so keep your feet planted solidly on the ground....and not just any ground! The county advises against hiking the steep and often muddy trail to the bottom.
Often described as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, this 10-mile-long Kauai valley is a kaleidoscopic array of scarlet earth, verdant valleys, and raw volcanic crags. Bands of color streak the corrugated landscape, each representing a different eruption and layer of lava. Waimea Canyon Drive has a series of lookouts; among the most popular is Waimea Canyon (past the Mile 10 marker on Highway 550), where a number of rivers once cascaded down the gently sloping shield volcano. When part of its flank collapsed, the rivers combined with dramatic results. Continue into the mountains to explore Koke’e State Park beyond. Its small, free museum contains a 3-D map, which sheds light on the canyon’s wild beauty, while the gift shop specializes in local art, crafts, and Niihau shell jewelry.
78-128 Ehukai St, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740, USA
The ancient Hawaiians revered mantas in very high regard. With up to 25-foot wingspans, these majestic sea creatures feed on some of the sea’s smallest organisms: zooplankton. Strap on a snorkel to watch them dine at night, doing slow, gape-mouthed barrel rolls as they swallow copepods, mysid shrimp and arrow worms. The two most popular Big Island sites—off Kona International Airport and near the Outrigger Kona Resort and Spa—have suffered overcrowding lately, which is terrible for both the rays and the people who love them. Try Jack’s Diving Locker for a scuba descent and Eka Canoe Adventures for snorkeling, after checking out guidelines from the Manta Pacific Research Foundation.
116 Halewili Road
The largest coffee farm in the U.S., this estate sprawls over 3,100 acres and nurtures four million trees. Its roots stretch back to the early-1800s McBryde Sugar Company. Today, it uses the Pacific sun, rich volcanic earth, and ample mountain rain to produce smooth, delicious blends. Stop by its orchard and tasting room on the southwest side of Kauai, not far from the Russian Fort. Kauai Coffee offers free guided walking tours daily at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. Or book a more detailed Coffee on the Brain experience, which includes a sample and traces beans from the branch to the cup (make sure to reserve ahead).
Keanae Rd, Hawaii 96708, USA
The world-famous Road to Hana hugs a jagged black lava shore. Just past mile marker 16 lies the Keanae Peninsula, where visitors can explore a traditional village, a stone church from 1856, and vast taro fields. The peninsula itself was formed by a massive lava flow from Haleakala, then softened by native Hawaiians, who carried soil down basket by basket to blanket the young rock. Today, the area is covered in lush greenery, which makes for an impressive sight against the turquoise sea and Maui’s famous North Shore waves. Before getting back on the road, be sure to stop at Aunty Sandy’s, one of the best banana bread stands along the Hana Highway, for a slice, a shaved ice, or a pork sandwich if you’re hungrier.
1120 Maunakea Street #200, Honolulu, HI 96817
Shops, a market, and a truly pan-Asian food court wrap around a busy plaza at this classic Chinatown stop on the corner of Hotel and Maunakea streets. Note: Don’t even try to enter the Maunakea Marketplace during Chinese New Year—a 15-day festival that starts on the new moon between January 21 and February 20—unless you’re agile and adept at navigating tight-packed crowds.
Kapaa, HI 96746, USA
Take a riverboat up the Wailua—which translates as the “river of the great sacred spirit"—fed by the Mount Waialeale shield volcano, one of the wettest spots on the planet. Seven temples once stood along Hawaii’s longest and only navigable freshwater passage. Today, the remains of four are still visible, alongside petroglyphs and rocks where the island’s alii (royalty) would give birth. Stretch your legs at the stunning Fern Grotto: Verdant plants blanket the roof of the volcanic-rock cave there. Smith’s offers 80-minute tours there on open-air boats, which include the songs and stories of ancient Hawai’I, plus a bonus hula lesson (smithskauai.com).
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