Whether you crave a relaxing retreat or heart-pounding adventure, Hawaii offers something for everyone. And with several unique islands to explore, expect soft-sand beaches, active volcanoes and some of the world’s best surfing for starters.
Top Hawaii landmarks and attractions
Hawaii’s islands — including the “Big Island,”, Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Molokai — boast tourist attractions, national landmarks and awe-inspiring parks and nature preserves. We list a few of the most popular destinations and must-dos in this unique state.
Snorkel in Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
Explore Hawaii’s wildlife in Hanauma Bay, a protected marine life conservation area and underwater park on Oahu island. Snorkel with sea turtles, see natural coral reefs up close and catch a glimpse of Hawaii’s state fish, the humuhumunukunukuāpua — or reef triggerfish.
Visitors are required to watch a nine-minute video about marine life preservation and park rules in the marine education center prior to entering the park. Locals with a Hawaii state ID, active military members and children 12 and under can enter the park for free. Otherwise, expect to pay a $7.50 entry fee per person. Hanauma Bay is closed on Tuesdays, so plan your trip accordingly.
Another of Oahu’s attractions known for its beautiful white sand, Waikiki Beach remains the most visited beach in the state. If you’re new to surfing, this spot can be a great place to learn, thanks to its smooth rolling waves. You can also snorkel here or simply take in the natural landscape and catch a glorious sunset.
Parking in Waikiki can be pricey, but there are free spots farther away, like near the Ala Moana Regional Park and behind the Illikai Hotel near the Ali Wai Boat Harbor. Just pay attention to time limits for free parking spots — some areas may enforce a six-hour time limit and don’t allow overnight parking.
This World Heritage Site is home to two of the planet’s most active volcanoes: Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Kilauea’s May 2018 eruption changed the landscape of the park, so even if you’ve already visited, there’s always something new to see! There are 150 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.
When exploring, stay on marked trails and avoid restricted areas. The land here can be unstable, so staying on the beaten path is a must for your safety.
Located in West Kauai, Waimea Canyon State Park is home to a range of microclimates. Experience both desert-like conditions and dewy forests on your way to the breathtaking Puu o Kila lookout overlooking the canyon. Seasonal trout fishing and pig and goat hunting are also available. But camping, ATVs and pets are prohibited.
Green Sands Beach, also called Papakōlea Beach, is one of only four green-sand beaches in the world. Yep, you read that right. The green hue comes from olivine, a mineral found in an old cinder cone from the Mauna Loa volcano that the beach was carved from.
The beach can get crowded, especially on weekends. There’s no shelter from the sun, so visit before noon if you plan to do some hiking. And be sure to pack snacks — there are no lifeguards or food or drink stands either!
This 10-mile stretch of scenic road runs along the shore of Kauai, following a historical foot trail used by native Hawaiians. In 2003, the route was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It starts at the Hanalei Scenic Overlook in Princeville and dead-ends in Ha’ena State Park.
Along the way, you’ll pass through the town of Hanalei and have an opportunity to stop at lookout points and cross 11 one-lane bridges — five of which were built back in 1912. Be careful as these bridges are narrow, and you’ll have to yield to oncoming traffic.
Kailua Beach might be what comes to mind when you think of Hawaii’s crystal-clear white sand beaches, even if you’ve never visited the state before. This spot attracts thousands of tourists each year and is ideal for kayaking and wading, thanks to its gentle waves. It’s within walking distance of several small stores, markets and restaurants — perfect because there aren’t any concessions on the beach itself. Keep in mind you can’t rent chairs or umbrellas here, and many locals say snorkeling is better at other spots like Hanauma Bay.
This National Historic Landmark is a must-see on Oahu, honoring the 1,177 servicemen killed aboard the USS Arizona during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Today, the World War II Valor in the Pacific Monument floats atop the remains of the sunken USS Arizona, and tours of the monument are free and open to the public. Tours run every 15 minutes from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. This spot can get busy, so you might want to make a reservation.
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center also has free admission and parking. Bags are not permitted inside the sites. For a $5 fee, you can leave your bags in a storage center at the front of the visitor center.
The only living history coffee farm in the US, this unique experience offers insight into the life of a Kona coffee farmer in the early 1900s. Costumed performers demonstrate the everyday lives of the farmers and their families, as well as the intricate processes that go into making this world-famous coffee. You can also explore the grounds of the modern coffee plantation that still produces Kona coffee today.
Glimpse unique marine species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Just a few of the aquarium’s biggest attractions include its Living Reef,which houses more than 40 species of Pacific coral, its 750,000-gallon Open Ocean exhibit and Turtle Lagoon, where visitors can spot green sea turtles above and underwater.
The center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $34.95 for adults, $31.95 for seniors and $24.95 for kids. Check the Maui Ocean Center’s website for deals and discounts before your visit — you could save 15% on some admission packages when you book online.
All of the islands have plenty to do and lots of beautiful nature to see, so you really can’t go wrong. If you’re looking to kick back and relax on the beach, Maui could be a good choice. Alternatively, The Big Island and Kauai can be perfect for the avid adventurer looking to hike and sight-see.
Flights to Hawaii are usually cheaper in January and February than the rest of the year, and hotels are often cheaper in September through December.
December and July are the busiest times of year for tourists to flock to the islands, so these months can be the most expensive.
December tends to be one of the wettest months across all islands of Hawaii, with June being one of the driest months.
Gabrielle Pastorek is a staff writer at Finder, helping readers to round up the best deals, coupons, retailers, products and services to make sound financial decisions. She's written more than 800 articles on the site and is a quoted expert in Best Company and DealNews. She earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, with essays and short stories published in The Collagist, Blue Monday Review, Blotterature and others. When she’s not writing, Gabrielle can be found out in the barn with her horse, Lucy.
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