Which Hawaii Island to Visit?
Which Island to Choose in Hawaii...
Updated for Fall 2023 and future 2024 - 2025 Visitors
Like many 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.
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. Additionally, one of the most common misconceptions about Hawaii is that it's all like Waikiki (on Oahu), Lahaina/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.
Visiting Hawaii within the next few years, between 2024 to early 2025, means you'll avoid 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. And, 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.
— article continued below —
Overview of Each Major Island
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 in 2023 to help you select the perfect location.
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 in 2023 article for more information.
- 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.
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 historic Lahaina town, 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 in 2023 article for more information.
- Lahaina Town - Whale watch, shop, and dine in this historic hot spot.
- Makena Beach State Park (Big Beach) - One of Maui's largest beaches.
- Iao Valley State Park - Historic site home to the iconic Iao Needle.
- Haleakala National Park - Scenic home of Maui's highest peak.
- Hana Highway - Famous for the scenery, twists, and turns on the way to Hana town.
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 in 2023 to get an overview of all the major accommodation locations on the island.
Big Island of Hawaii Highlights:
- Historic Kailua-Kona Town - Historic seaside hot spot.
- Waipio Valley - Hawaii's largest isolated inhabited valley.
- Downtown Hilo - Discover local treasures in the island's capital city.
- Ka Lae (South Point) - The southernmost point in the United States.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Home of one of the world's most active volcanoes and otherworldly scenery.
Hawaii Driving Tour Apps
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.
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.