Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for First-Timers

Table of Contents

Hawaii is a destination you’ll no doubt want to visit more than once. From world-class snorkeling and surfing spots to tropical beaches and fiery volcanoes, this collection of islands is amongst the finest in the world.

Whether you’re a history buff, a nature lover or simply looking for blissful relaxation — you’ll find a treat for all your senses.

Be beach bums on the many miles of beaches, indulge in the most luxurious resorts, and have a dream vacation.

With limited time during your stay, you might just want to know which is the best island to visit in Hawaii.

There’s such an incredible range of great options to choose from — it’s tough to choose just one island!

But don’t stress, this article does the heavy lifting for you.

Here are some things to consider when choosing which Hawaii island to visit.

How to Choose Which Island to Visit in Hawaii

Hawaiian Fire Dancer

First off, it helps to know that you can never go wrong no matter which island you choose.

Yeah, Hawaii is that awesome.

But of course, there’s nothing wrong with squeezing all that you can out of your trip.

The best island to visit in Hawaii is highly subjective and really depends on what type of activities you like.

Surfing, snorkeling, diving, sea salt in your hair and beach sand in all your nooks and crannies…

…that’s what most of us imagine when thinking of Hawaii.

What you might not know is that’s pretty far from the limit of what the Hawaiian islands have to offer.

There's a few things to consider when choosing an island to visit in Hawaii, so it pays off to have a clear picture of what you want to experience since each island is unique in its own right.

But if you just want an answer that most people would agree on, the best island in Hawaii for first-timers would be Oahu.

tip

Hawaii is dotted with eight striking islands but only six are major tourist destinations.

They’re Hawaii (the Big Island), Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Lanai and Molokai.

map of hawaiian islands
Map of the hawaiian islands

Flight Schedules

If you have young kids or you dread the thought of connecting flights, you might want to fly direct instead.

If you’re coming from the United States, Oahu and Maui are the most popular islands in Hawaii and more likely to have direct flights.

Check out Hawaiian Airlines for flights to every major Hawaiian Island.

Desired Activities

There are so many things to do and see in all the Hawaiian islands so make sure you know your options when it comes to available excursions.

If unwinding and having the beach a stone’s throw away sound like the perfect dream vacay to you, then you may want to consider either Lanai or Maui.

On the other hand, if you’d rather be out exploring and overturning every stone and pebble you come across, the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai would be your best bet.

You’ll easily fill your daily itinerary with kayaking, waterfall hikes, and volcano climbing.

Attractions, Restaurants & Shops

If your idea of the best island to go to in Hawaii is being close to all amenities and tourist attractions, you may want to stay in Wailea or Ka’napali in Maui, and near Waikiki in Oahu.

If you prefer a more laid back atmosphere in a secluded location, Lanai is a little bit sleepier so you’re likely to enjoy a more peaceful retreat here.

Best Hawaii Island for Beaches

waikiki beach, oahu

Oahu is the most developed out of all the Hawaiian Islands and is home to some of the most beautiful and easy to access beaches.

The most famous one is Waikiki Beach and this is where you’ll find most of the tourists – it’s busy all the time here!

The North Shore of Oahu is also famous for its big waves, great for experienced surfers.

Need a break from the crowds? The beaches in Maui, particularly in Wailea, have amazing beaches with sandy bottoms. They’ve been rated some of the best beaches in the USA.

You’ll also find some great snorkeling spots on Maui. Black Rock Beach, located on the north side of Ka’anapali Beach, is a top pick for your snorkeling adventures due to the calm waters. Keep in mind, the beach is pretty rocky and has steep drops so it’s not a good beach if you want to just play along the shore.

There are a lot of sandy beaches in Kauai but not really easy to get to – there will most likely be some hiking involved. If you’re the type of person that wants to just check-in to your hotel and immediately head to the beach, Kauai is not the island for you.

The Big Island has the fewest beaches and isn’t a good choice for you if bumming around the beach is on your “must” list.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Beaches?

The Hawaiian island with the best beaches is a tie between Oahu and Maui.

Pick Oahu if you want easy access to beaches and love being around people and a lively atmosphere.

Maui is home to some of the best beaches in the United States and is a great pick if you want a quieter time lounging under the sun.

tip

Best Island for Hiking in Hawaii

hiking in hawaii

If you live and breathe hikes, Kauai is the island for you. This piece of Hawaiian paradise is home to a plethora of long hikes that take you through breathtaking terrain.

Moving on to Oahu, there are numerous trails scattered across the island and the lush tropical scenery is a great chance to escape the city beach scene.

Being the most popular island in Hawaii, the trails you find in Oahu will definitely be busy.

You might even be able to claim bragging rights if you make it to the top of Diamond Head Crater!

This hike isn’t necessarily challenging, but many people underestimate the heat and humidity in Hawaii so make sure you stay properly hydrated.

Hiking in Maui isn’t as good as Oahu, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any good trails! Cruise down the Road to Hana and you’ll soon discover many smaller trails that lead to waterfalls.

Or sign up for a sunrise hike to the summit of Mount Haleakalā, a dormant volcano that makes up more than 75% of Maui’s landmass.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Hikes?

Kauai has the best hiking trails in all of Hawaii.

From easy walks along the shore to highly intense trails that get your heart pumping, this island offers something for everyone.

No other Hawaiian island can make an impression on hikers the way Kauai can!

tip

Best Hawaii Island for Activities

Snorkeling in Maui

If you’re the type of person that likes to tick things off the bucket list, Oahu has the most tourist attractions out of all the islands.

Visit Pearl Harbor for a dose of history, hike the Diamond Head Crater, or learn how to surf at one of the best surfing spots in Hawaii, the North Shore.

If you’re into snorkeling, Hanauma Bay is a popular spot but can get super busy.

The Big Island is great for water activities such as fishing and is the best place to go snorkeling, specifically along the Kona Coast.

You’ll find the clearest water visibility here and lots of opportunities to spot honu, Hawaiian sea turtles. Note, it’s illegal to come in contact with the sea turtles so try to keep your distance!

The Big Island is also home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes – Mauna Loa and Kilauea (last erupted in December 2020). If you live for the adrenaline rush, consider joining a group tour.

You won’t find many touristy attractions in Maui. The main reason you’d want to stay in Maui is to relax, suntan on the beach and enjoy the resort amenities.

There are many fancy restaurants here, so plenty of opportunities to dress up for the night.

Maui has the most whale watching tours and a lot of the tour operators offer a secondary cruise if you don’t spot any whales the first time.

If you’re a huge Jurassic Park fan then head to Kauai, most of the Jurassic movies were filmed here. Nature lovers rejoice because this island isn’t as developed as the others and it’s all about the outdoor activities.

Things to do in Kauai include: taking a boat tour or kayak along the Na Pali Coast, go for a hike at Waimea Canyon, or explore the undeveloped side of Kauai that’s accessible by helicopter (or a really long hike).

Molokai is the perfect island for you if you want to take things slow and embrace the local Hawaiian culture. Beach resorts are non-existent here and so are touristy attractions. The most popular thing to do here is to hike (or ride a mule) to Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

And if you really want to avoid the crowds and spend most of the day lost in your own thoughts, head to Lanai. On this quiet and sleepy island, off-roading adventures are very popular.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Things to Do?

Oahu has the most tourist activities, perfect for group tours and checking things off the bucket list.

Big Island for water activities and volcanoes.

Kauai for hikes, waterfalls, and all the outdoor activities you can ever dream of.

Maui, Lanai, and Molokai aren't really known for the big attractions, these islands are for relaxation.

tip

Best Hawaii Island for Food

ahi tuna poke bowl

When it comes to dining, Oahu has a lot of really great options if you want a bit of everything. From high-end restaurants to cheap eats, Oahu has a nice mix of them all.

The garlic shrimp dish at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is a fan favorite – make sure to grab a bite there if you’re in the North Shore!

If you have a taste for the finer things in life, you’ll be pleased to know that Maui is really good for high-end restaurants.

lso known as the honeymooner’s island, you won’t find many budget eateries on this island.

One of the best fancy restaurants in Maui is Mama’s Fish House – get ready to feast on fresh local seafood with a million-dollar view that’s overlooking the ocean.

Kauai has a lot of hole-in-the-wall eateries, where many people prefer to just get takeout and eat at home. If you’re staying on this island, a great option would be to get groceries from a local supermarket and make your own meals.

The island of Kauai definitely won’t make it on any “top eats” list. If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in for a disappointing stay since there’s not that many options and many restaurants are closed by 9 PM.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Restaurants?

Oahu definitely takes the cake for this one! Overall, Oahu has a really wide variety of dining options.

Whether you’re looking for cheap eats or something fancier, you’ll find it here.

tip

Best Hawaii Island for Nightlife

Dancer performing at the Polynesian Cultural Center

Around Oahu, you’ll find plenty of things to do once the sun sets. The main street that runs through Waikiki is almost like the Las Vegas strip of Hawaii, there’s tons of shops, lively restaurants and small bars.

There’s no shortage of luaus and live shows here – catch the night show at the Polynesian Cultural Center, you won’t be disappointed.

While the nightlife in Maui doesn’t come close to Oahu, most of the action can be found in Lahaina and the neighboring town of Kaanapali. You’ll find a few bars and lounges that open ‘till about midnight.

On Kauai and the Big Island, when the sun goes down your best bet would be to go back to your hotel and call it a night.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Nightlife?

Oahu is the best island for nightlife. Honolulu, the capital of Oahu, has the best nightlife options in all of Hawaii.

tip

Best Hawaii Island for Hotels

aerial view of honolulu, oahu

Oahu is home to two-thirds of all the hotels that are found in the state of Hawaii. It’s safe to say that there’s plenty of options here!

However, if you love 5-star resorts, being pampered and the whole nine yards, Maui would be the island for you.

Being home to some of the best high-end hotels in Hawaii, Maui is the best island to book your stay if romance is in the air or you’re celebrating your honeymoon.

If you’re picking your island based on budget, Kauai or the Big Island are going to be the cheapest islands to stay on.

Hotel choices are more limited, you’ll find most of the accommodations here are 3 or 4-star resorts. Homestays and condo rentals are a popular budget-friendly option here.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Accommodations?

Hands down, Oahu has the most choices when it comes to picking a hotel to stay in. No matter if you’re looking for a budget-friendly hotel or a resort that’s borderline 6-star, you’ll find it here.

tip

Best Hawaii Island for Shopping

shops in Lahaina

The Hawaiian Islands are home to a number of great places to shop, but if you really want to Indulge in some retail therapy, head to the Ala Moana Center in Oahu, Hawaii’s biggest shopping mall.

With over 350 retail shops, you’re sure to find the perfect souvenir to remember your trip.

Maui offers so much more than just beaches. Front Street in Lahaina is a must-see with its beautiful waterfront views and shopping options ranging from big names to souvenir shops.

Some tourist favorite shopping centers in Maui are Whalers Village in Kaanapali or The Shops at Wailea. These two malls offer a good mix, you’ll have no trouble finding something you love here.

Kauai isn’t really the best for shopping and only has one major mall and it’s the Kukui Grove Center. You’ll find small stores that sell Hawaiian souvenirs, if you’re looking for high-end shopping, you’re out of luck here.

Which Island in Hawaii Has the Best Shopping?

Oahu has all the shopping you could ever want – whether you love high-end shopping or just want to buy some local Hawaiian souvenirs, this is the island for the overall best shopping experience.

tip

Oahu

honolulu, oahu

Oahu is the third-largest island in Hawaii and home to Honolulu, the capital city.

Being the economic and cultural heart of all the islands, Oahu is the most popular for tourists, drawing in over 6.2 million visitors per year.

This Hawaiian island is known for its amazing selection of things to do — with endless mountain trails and monster waves breaking on sandy beaches, to luxury shops, tasteful clubs, and drool-worthy restaurants.

It’s the best Hawaiian island for first-timers and family vacations.

You’ll find tons of activities to satisfy any traveler’s wanderlust, giving a great balance between stunning natural landscapes and unique historical sites such as the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

If you love outdoor adventures, try hiking up to the edge of the iconic Diamond Head Crater, spend the day at the infamous Waikiki Beach, or head to the laid-back North Shore to surf some big waves.

If you’re looking for a new adventure that’s fun, educational, and excitingly beautiful, then Hanauma Bay is the perfect place for you!

Hanauma Bay is located on the east side of Oahu, Hawaii. It’s one of the best snorkeling spots in the entire state, with coral reefs and a popular underwater volcanic crater that boasts sunfish, parrotfish, and occasionally sea turtles.

Hanauma Bay is not only for tourists though; you’ll find a lot of local residents hanging around here too! There are picnic areas and a large concession stand where you can enjoy a variety of delicious food as well.

Not only is Oahu known for its outdoor activities, but it’s also known for its diverse city experience and thriving nightlife.

Living up to its nickname “the Gathering Place”, you’ll have no problem finding a tasty eatery to fill your bellies before heading off to dance the night away.

If you’re on a budget, Oahu is the cheapest island in Hawaii to visit since you don’t have to take extra inter-island flights to get to the other Hawaiian islands.

No matter what your travel style is, you’ll certainly find a piece of Oahu that’s perfect for you.

Fun Fact: Hollywood blockbuster movies were filmed in Oahu including Jurassic Park, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and 50 First Dates!

The Big Island

Waipio Valley, big island

The Big Island (Island of Hawaii) is the youngest and largest of all the Hawaiian islands and is known for its striking contrast in terrain.

The Island of Hawaii is formed by the eruption of five volcanoes, nearly entirely made up of the world’s largest shield volcano, Mauna Loa.

It’s also home to the most active volcano in the United States, Kilauea (last erupting in 2018).

Thanks to its sheer size and having 10 of the 13 climate zones in the world, there’s no other place on Earth where you can witness flowing lava fields and snow-capped mountains against a spectacular backdrop of pristine coastlines and lush green jungles.

The diverse landscape of the Big Island is definitely a haven for nature lovers.

Famous for some of the most beautiful hiking trails and endless lush valleys, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and the Hamakua Coast is a must-visit on this island.

Have you ever seen a gorgeous beach with green sand? Most likely not since there are only four in the entire world.

Take a hike to Papakōlea Green Sand Beach, it’s well worth the effort.

This beach is a secluded and beautiful place to spend an afternoon listening to the ocean and watching the plan trees gently swaying. For first-time visitors, this is definitely a must-visit location.

Need more beach time? Check out Hapuna Beach.

It’s popularly known as one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. The white sand and turquoise blue waters create a paradise setting for people of all ages.

Hapuna Beach is also home to beautiful oceanfront properties such as Westin Hapuna Beach Resort and many other beautiful resorts.

After a day of sightseeing, head over to Kona to lounge and snorkel alongside Hawaiian green sea turtles.

If you’re looking for even more things to do, the Big Island is also home to world-class golf courses, deep-sea fishing adventures, and rare black sand beaches.

We can all agree that this is the best island in Hawaii for outdoor adventures!

Maui

The valley isle, hawaii

Located between the Big Island and Oahu, Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii and is increasingly gaining in popularity — with good reason!

Maui was formed by lava flowing from two volcanoes that are now dormant, resulting in jaw-dropping peaks and valleys.

Because of the diverse landscape, this island is an excellent choice for outdoor enthusiasts.

Maui is known for some of the finest beaches in the world with amazing snorkeling spots and sailing adventures, drawing in over 3 million visitors per year.

Although many would consider the beaches to be the highlight of the island, this isn’t all that Maui has to offer. You’ll find an endless selection of things to do in Maui that’s suitable for all ages.

The Haleakala National Park is home to the largest dormant volcano in the world — simply a sight you can’t miss!

You can choose to come here solo or hire a tour guide to learn about the history and significance of the famous Haleakala Crater. Either way, you’ll have the option to explore this park by foot, bike, or car.

How about going for a cruise down a 52-mile long road that winds through all the breathtaking scenery Maui has to offer?

The Road to Hana is a day-long driving adventure through the rainforest where you can marvel and soak up some spectacular eye-candy.

Looking to have some relaxing beach days? Voted as one of the top five beaches in the world, Wailea Beach is definitely worth a visit.

It’s home to some of the most luxurious family-friendly resorts, including the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea.

Wailea Beach’s pristine coast stretches for nearly a mile, featuring calm lagoon swimming areas, shaded areas to cool off from the sun, and a marine conservation area that consists of more than 1,200 acres offshore.

The lagoon features a designated kite surfing area and offers incredible snorkeling opportunities.

There’s so much to do on this little piece of paradise that boredom will be the last thing on your mind!

Kauai

Na Pali Coast, Kauai

Kauai (the Garden Isle) is the oldest and fourth-largest out of the main Hawaiian Islands.

With acres of tropical rainforests, mountain ranges and breathtaking waterfalls, it’s easy to see why this island is nicknamed “The Garden Isle”.

Kauai is the most northern of the Hawaiian Island chain and gets a lot more rain compared to the other islands, attributing to the vibrant green vegetation.

Much of this Hawaiian island can only be explored by foot which means you’ll have an unlimited number of hiking trails and land activities to enjoy.

The western side of Kauai is where you’ll find many of Hawaii’s most stunning scenery and the best lookout points.

Go for a hike through the colorful gorge at Waimea Canyon, also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, or witness the beauty of the iconic Na Pali Coast, famous for its towering cliffs overlooking the sea.

Being an island, Kauai is home to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and boasts more beaches along its coastline than any other Hawaiian island.

This island also has one of the best scuba diving spots in Hawaii. It’s the perfect spot to see sea turtles!

Kauai is full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered — go for an adventurous hike through the rainforest and chances are, you’ll discover your own little slice of heaven where you can kick your heels up for the day!

Fun Fact: Kauai was the filming location of many Hollywood movies, such as Jurassic World and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Lanai

rocky lookout, lanai island

If you’re itching for a peaceful getaway with your family or a romantic rendezvous, the secluded shores of Lanai is your best option.

This tiny Hawaiian island only spans 141 square miles and is located 9 miles from Maui, with a small population of 2,800 residents.

In recent years, Lanai has grown in popularity with high-end vacation rentals lining the coast.

The island of Lanai was once used solely for pineapple farming by the Dole Food Company. Make sure you set aside time to drop by the vintage pineapple plantation and learn about the history of pineapples that were once grown here and supplied to the rest of the world!

There isn’t much of a selection when it comes to excursions and activities, which adds to the appeal if you want to relax in complete privacy.

Hulopoe Beach is often an overlooked spot when planning your Lanai vacation. It’s one of the few beaches that is quiet, secluded, and undeveloped.

This beach is sometimes referred to as “hidden treasure” because of its great location.

The most notable things to do in Lanai are: working on that golden tan at the beach, getting the royal treatment at a luxury resort, going for a round of golf, or touring around the island on a 4×4 vehicle.

Only a tiny fraction of tourists vacationing in Hawaii will visit Lanai, making it the perfect spot for travelers seeking a private retreat.

Molokai

kepuhi bay, molokai

Molokai is one of Hawaii’s smallest, habitable islands and shares a lot of similarities with Lanai. Combined, these two islands only account for 1% of people that travel to Hawaii!

You won’t find any luxury hotels or resorts here — the locals like to embrace a laid-back lifestyle and this island is ideal for those seeking a relaxing vacation.

You’ll discover uncrowded white sand beaches that seemingly stretch on for miles, most notably the infamous Papohaku Beach.

The most unique attraction on this island is Kalaupapa National Historical Park.

From 1866 to 1969, 8,000 people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were exiled to the remote Kalaupapa peninsula to isolate themselves from the rest of the Hawaiian population.

Today, the secluded peninsula is a culturally significant destination, serving as a place where the people of Hawaii can honor the memories of past ancestors.

Home to some of the highest sea cliffs in the world, Kalaupapa can only be reached by air, riding mules, or joining a hiking tour.

Have some spare time? Go for a scenic drive to Halawa Valley. You know the saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”.

Here, you can have both!

Take a moderate hike to the breathtaking Halawa Falls, it’s an incredible experience.

Molokai is the perfect destination for people that just want to get away from the fast-paced journey called life.

Final Thoughts

Hawaii is home to a cluster of eight islands famous for its dramatic landscapes and breathtaking beaches, so choosing which Hawaii island to visit for the first time can be a nail-biting decision!

Each of the Hawaiian Islands has something unique to offer so it’s important to take the time to do your research.

Whether you’re looking for a vacay filled with excitement or maybe you just want a bit of peace and quiet, there’s an island that’s right for you.

Have you decided which island you’ll be staying on?

Share
Pin
WhatsApp
Email