Dreaming of palm trees, white sandy beaches and blue turquoise water? Hawaii is a destination known for all that and more. While each island is beautiful, there are important differences from one island to another. If you’re wondering “Which is the best island in Hawaii for me to visit” read on for a guide to choosing the best Hawaiian island for you.
For as long as Hawaii has been a state, there’s been the age-old question of “Which Hawaii island should I visit?”
While first time visitors to Hawaii may assume each island is similar, that’s far from true. Each island in Hawaii is as unique as it is beautiful, and — since no two islands are alike (or even remotely similar) — each island has its own pros and cons to consider.
I’ve been to all the main Hawaiian islands and I get asked all the time, which island in Hawaii is the “best”.
First of all, no single island in Hawaii is by default “better” than another. It all comes down to personal preference and what you’re looking for in a vacation (e.g. outdoor adventure, beaches, food, resorts, etc.). Since each island is unique, it’s important to do your research and choose your Hawaii vacation destination based off your interests and vacation style.
Most people who visit Hawaii choose between Maui, Oahu, Kauai, and the Big Island (Hawai’i Island). While there’s likely a “right” choice (an island that ends up being your favorite), there’s definitely no wrong choice. Any island you visit is sure to be an amazing experience, and the only way to really know which island is “right” for you is to visit them all, and then determine your favorite.
However, most people can’t visit every island in one trip, so I’ll lend you my island connoisseur insight (which is *almost* as good, right?) to help you decide which of Hawaii’s islands to visit. Below I’ll break down the pros and cons of each island, and why you may choose to visit that island over another.
Maui is probably the most popular Hawaiian island to visit (as far as tourism goes). That said, if you visit Maui, be prepared to be surrounded by a lot of other tourists (especially if you stay in the popular resort areas of Kaanapali and Wailea).
However, there’s a reason Maui is so popular, and that reason — in my opinion — is its beaches. Maui boasts the most miles of swimmable beach of any Hawaiian island. So if it’s beaches you seek, you can’t go wrong with this option. In addition to beaches, you can engage in almost every ocean activity imaginable here (thanks to the aforementioned beaches).
In addition to a plethora of beautiful beaches, Maui is one of the more accessible islands. It doesn’t take long to drive from town to town or attraction to attraction. One thing to note, however: there are no big cities in Maui, just small tourist towns. So if it’s a city you’re after, you may want to look elsewhere (like Oahu).
Below are some additional pros and cons of visiting Maui.
- Best Beaches (as mentioned above)
- World class whale watching from December to May (most island have good whale watching during this time, but Maui’s is some of the best)
- Popular, family friendly, attractions like the Road to Hana and Haleakala National Park (world’s largest dormant volcano)
- Good restaurants (not as good as Oahu, but better than most other islands)
- Maui has some of the most beautiful resorts, but it doesn’t have much by way of budget travel. Being one of the most touristy islands, restaurant and hotel prices in Maui are generally higher. If you’re on a budget, Maui may not be your best option
- No city center and therefore, minimal nightlife. Even its most lively town (Lahaina) shuts down around what locals joke as “Maui midnight” — aka, 10pm.
- Minimal public transportation. You’ll need a rental car (which, like everything else in Maui, will cost more than you would expect) and parking in most towns is hard to find and — you guessed it — expensive.
- Probably the most touristy island. If you want paradise without many people, it will be difficult to find.
Maui is perfect for: Honeymooners, resort-goers, beach lovers, upscale/luxury travelers, leisure travelers (Maui is more “outside-sy” than “outdoorsy” in terms of adventure), first-time visitors to Hawaii, and family vacations
Best known for its capital city (Honolulu) and bustling Waikiki, Oahu is a big city on an island. Therefore, it includes all the pros and cons of a big city: heavy traffic, crowds of people, but lots of great restaurants, shopping and accommodation options (not to mention a weekly firework show over the ocean every Friday night).
Oahu essentially offers a little of everything. You can stay in the city and enjoy Waikiki Beach during the day, then walk to the popular bars and restaurants at night. Or escape to the North Shore for a quieter, more relaxed getaway.
Despite the towering skyscrapers of downtown Waikiki, Oahu is a beautiful island. It’s more lush and green than Maui, but also boasts its share of beautiful beaches and some of the best hiking in Hawaii. Also, despite hosting 44% of the state’s visitors at any given time, I don’t think I would call Oahu the most “touristy” (that’s Maui). Yes, there are lots of tourists, but there’s a lot of locals too. People actually live in Honolulu, so most places you go will have a combination of tourists and locals.
If you’re visiting Hawaii, I would recommend trying to spend at least one or two nights on Oahu to see, first hand, the contrast between Honolulu and all other islands.
Some additional pros and cons of visiting Oahu:
- Oahu is one of the best islands for budget travelers, as there are more mid-range to budget options than other islands. Plus flights to Honolulu are generally cheaper than flights to other islands.
- Honolulu and Waikiki have the best nightlife in Hawaii. Also the best shopping in Hawaii (a lot of Asian tourists visit just for the shopping). I often tell people Waikiki is like Vegas on a beach.
- Oahu is probably the only island that doesn’t require renting a car, especially if you’re staying in Waikiki. There’s Uber and public transit that make getting around Honolulu fairly easy. Plus, Waikiki is only 20 minutes from the Honolulu airport, so you can be off the plane and on a beach in an hour.
- Geographically speaking, Oahu is a fairly small island, so it’s easy to escape the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and experience more serene, quintessential Hawaii scenery — like North Beach, Diamond Head (hiking), Hanauma Bay (snorkeling), Kualoa Ranch and Waimea Valley. This ability to easily experience both city and laid-back coastal towns make Oahu perfect for first-timers who want a little of everything.
- Lots of events and concerts.
- Honolulu is crowded and there’s almost always traffic. Since it’s a city, there’s more crime here than other islands, and the homeless population is largest in Oahu (and much more evident than other islands).
- Limited Hotel options outside of Honolulu.
- Since Honolulu is so commercialized, you won’t be able to see/feel/experience much traditional Hawaiian culture. One thing that sets Hawaii apart from the beach and beer nowheres or Fort Lauderdale or Cancun is its culture, history and “Mana”. However, in Honolulu — with its high-rise hotels and chain restaurants — the “real Hawaii” has been lost to time and capitalism. In order to truly appreciate a place, I think it’s important to understand its history and culture. Unfortunately, In Oahu this requires getting out of Waikiki.
Oahu is best for: budget travel, Nightlife (and therefore bachelor/bachelorette parties, and similar celebrations), girls’ trip, shopping, dining/foodies, leisure travelers, first-time Hawaii visitors, family travel (thanks to the new Aulani Disney Resort)
Kauai, in my opinion, is the most beautiful island in Hawaii. It’s the oldest, and therefore the smallest, and most lush/green of the islands (Kauai’s impressive foliage and greenery has earned it the nickname “the Garden Isle” ). If you’re looking for a relaxing, tropical getaway centered around outdoor experiences, Kauai is the perfect choice. However, on the flip side, Kauai is the least developed of the Hawaiian islands, and therefore lacks much nightlife, dining, or shopping options.
Kauai’s lush Mountainous terrain boasts the best hiking in Hawaii, along with a plethora of easily accessible natural wonders (like the Na Pali Coast, the 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon, numerous waterfalls, Queen’s Bath, Spouting Horn, etc.). This makes Kauai an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Some additional Pros and Cons of Visiting Kauai:
- Quintessential “Hawaii” with no skyscrapers, cities, or crowds. Extremely laid-back and impossibly beautiful. If you’re able to visit multiple islands, consider including Kauai in your itinerary. It has a wild, rugged beauty that’s unlike any other island.
- Though it doesn’t have beaches like Maui and Oahu (a lot of Kauai’s beaches are rocky or narrow), most of the island’s beaches are uncrowded or isolated.
- Despite being the most undeveloped island, Kauai has its share of large resorts and stunning golf courses.
- As I mentioned earlier, there’s virtually no nightlife in Kauai (even by Hawaii’s standards). The island’s few bars are empty by 9pm. Restaurant options are also limited outside of Lihue and resort dining.
- The weather in Kauai can be unpredictable. Kauai is green and lush and beautiful for a reason: rain. Some places of the island are wetter than others, but most experience daily passing showers (don’t let this deter you, by “passing shower” I mean it *may* rain for 15 minutes then be sunny again).
- Though there are sandy beaches, a lot of Kauai’s coastline is rocky. Therefore not all the surfing and swimming options of the other island. (But, as I mentioned earlier, what this island lacks in sand it makes up for in mountains and hiking).
Kauai is best for: Outdoor enthusiasts, slow travelers (or anyone wanting to escape crowds), nature lovers, hikers, babymoons, retirees, adventure travel.
Hawaii’s Big Island
(Hawai’i Island or the Island of Hawai’i)
I live in Kona, so I may be a bit biased, but I think the Big Island is a great place to visit — especially if you want to escape the hordes of tourists that inundate the rest of Hawaii.
The Big Island, as the name suggests, is the largest island in Hawaii. Boasting 63% of the archipelago’s combined land mass, but only 13% of the state’s population, the Island of Hawai’i is also the least crowded.
Home to 11 of the world’s 13 climates, two of the world’s greatest mountains, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the wettest city in the US, and 266 miles of amazing coastline with white, black and green (yes, green) sand beaches, Hawai’i Island is unlike any other. With all these, the Big island offers visitors a variety of options to fit any vacation style.
Most people who visit the Big Island choose to stay on the West side in Kona (ocean-front town with bars and restaurants that are walking distance from the two main hotels) or Waikoloa (resort-area).
Some additional Pros and Cons of Visiting the Big Island (Island of Hawaii / Hawaii Island)
- The Big Island hasn’t been overly commercialized so it’s one of the best islands to get in touch with Hawaiian culture. Here, traditional Hawaiian culture isn’t only seen, but lived (and felt). It’s a great place to learn about the history of Hawaii and experience local culture.
- People actually live here. Most places restaurants/bars you visit will have a good combination of locals and visitors (which I think helps maintain its authenticity). Plus people who live here are, for the most part, very friendly.
- None of the beaches are crazy crowded like other islands, and there’s wildlife everywhere. Dolphins, sea turtles, and whales (during whale season), are easy to spot from the shore, or while snorkeling.
- A variety of accommodation options to fit any budget.
- Kona even has a pretty active “nightlife” scene. Several bars in Kona are open until 2am, and most are pretty full any given weekend.
- It really is a BIG island. If you’re not careful with your planning, you may end up spending most of your time in the car driving from one place to the next. That said, a rental car here is absolutely required if you want to experience everything the island has to offer
- Unlike Waikiki or Maui, where there’s a white sandy beach next to your hotel, most beaches on the Big Island require you drive to them (unless you stay in Waikoloa).
The Big Island is best for: Outdoor enthusiasts / adventure travelers, family travelers, slow travelers, history buffs, family travel, leisure travel