You’ve decided to take a trip to Hawaii (great decision) and now you’re trying to figure out what island to visit. Everyone has their favorite island and will swear that island is absolutely the best. 

But let’s get one thing out of the way: there is no “best” island. 

Each island offers something different and you should decide what island to visit based on what you’re looking for. In this article I’ll give you a quick comparison of the four most-frequently visited Hawaiian islands and then we’ll dive deeper into each one. 

 

Hawaiian Island Comparison: A Quick Overview

Want a 30-second overview of the Hawaiian islands? Here you go:

  • Kauai is the lush Garden Isle. Known for its dramatic cliffs and coastline, hiking and outdoor enthusiasts will love this island.
  • Maui has a little of everything. Excellent and easy snorkeling, luxury resorts, plentiful vacation rentals, and the Road to Hana. 
  • Hawaii (the Big Island) is perfect for volcano enthusiasts and people who want plenty of space to roam.
  • Oahu is the big city and is known for Waikiki Beach, cultural sights, plenty of things to do, shopping, and an active nightlife. 

Need more than a 30-second overview? I don’t blame you. Here’s a more thorough explanation to help you make your decision. 

Who Should Visit Kauai?

Kauai is the second oldest and northernmost island. Called the Garden Isle, the island features a lush rainforest, jaw-dropping cliffs of the Na Pali coast, excellent hiking, numerous waterfalls, golden sand beaches, and stunning botanical gardens. 

Of the four most-visited Hawaiian islands, Kauai is the least populated and smallest — it’s home to just 72,000 people. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, in 2019 Kauai had fewer visitors than the other three main islands

which hawaiian island to visit kauai botanical gardens

Kauai’s Limahuli Botanical Garden on the North Shore is worth a visit.

Kauai Highlights

When you visit Kauai there are a few must-see and do things that should make your to-do list:

  • Visit Waimea Canyon: Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is a highly rated destination, worth a day trip. There are plenty of hiking trails and lookout spots to fully experience this natural wonder. 
  • Wailua Falls: Kauai has some of the best waterfalls and many of them, like Wailua Falls, are easily accessible. 
  • Poipu Beach: Once named one of the best beaches in the US, Poipu is one of the most popular beaches on Kauai. With golden sand and a reef that protects the bay, it’s an easy place for people of all abilities to swim and enjoy the ocean. 
  • Na Pali Coast: Accessible only by boat or foot, the Na Pali coast offers jaw-dropping views. Take a boat ride and you’ll be able to snorkel off the coast while enjoying the dramatic view. 
  • Kalalau Trail: This 11-mile trail leads you along the Na Pali coast and is one of the most beautiful — and possibly most dangerous — trails you’ll find in the US. 
  • Hanalei: On the north of Kauai you’ll find the picturesque town of Hanalei. With it’s laid back vibe, it’s perfect for hitting the beach, the shops, or one of the wonderful restaurants or food trucks. 

Things to Consider Before Going to Kauai

While Kauai is a fantastic destination, there are some things to know before you go:

  • A quiet island: If you’re looking for nightlife, Kauai is not the ideal island for you. It’s quiet and there is little nightlife that exists outside of the resorts (which are also quiet). 
  • More rain: Kauai is lush, but that jungle landscape also means that the island gets a lot of rain. More rain in fact, than any of the other Hawaiian islands. That doesn’t mean your beach days are going to be ruined, but just know to expect showers. If you’re heading to Kauai in the winter, be sure to check our rainfall chart below.
  • Winter waves: We love Hanalei Bay and Tunnels beach, but we stay far away from these places in the winter. The waves in the winter are big and unpredictable, which make swimming and snorkeling a bad idea. 
  • Traffic: All of the islands have traffic, but Kauai seems to get hit especially hard as there’s only one main road around the island. 

Who Should Visit Kauai?

Honeymooners, babymooners, and anyone looking for a romantic vacation will love Kauai because it’s quiet, less crowded than other islands, and romantic. Thrill-seekers will also find excellent activities with the Kalalau trail hike and watersports. And families with older kids will have access to most activities.

We love going to Kauai with our toddler but know that when he’s older we’ll enjoy going even more because he’ll be able to do more of the activities, like the Na Pali coast boat ride. 

Planning a trip to Kauai? Read our Kauai Travel Guide

which hawaiian island to visit kauai Princeville hideaway beach

Adventure awaits you on Kauai!

 

Should You Visit Maui?

Maui, the Valley Isle, is the second-largest island in size and third largest in population with 145,000 residents. When you visit Maui, you get three islands: included in Maui county and just a ferry ride away is the islands of Lanai and Molokai. 

Maui is the second most popular island to visit and it’s easy to understand why. Maui is known for whale watching, world-famous beaches, excellent snorkeling, the Road to Hana, and more. 

which hawaiian island to visit maui wailea luxury resorts

South Maui has some of the nicest resorts in all of Hawaii.

Maui Highlights

When you visit Maui there are some must-see and do things to add to your list:

  • Road to Hana: It’s truly about the journey and not the destination. This full-day drive includes 620 curves, 59 bridges, countless waterfalls, and takes you to the quieter, more lush side of the island. We highly recommend staying a night (or more) at the Waianapanapa State Park Cabins or the Hana Maui resort.
  • Haleakala Park: Experience sunrise or sunset from the top of the volcano. Reservations (and a very early wake up) are required for the sunrise tour only. After your visit to the Volcano, spend your day exploring upcountry and see another beautiful side of Maui. 
  • Whale watching: If you visit Maui between December and April, plan to spend some time on the water whale watching. Tours range from large boat tours to kayak tours and provide an amazing (and sometimes up close) experience with Humpback whales. 
  • Historic Lahaina Town: Previously the capital of Hawaii from 1820 – 1845, Lahaina now features a charming main street (Front Street), shopping, lively restaurants and nightlife, and activities that leave from the Lahaina harbor.
  • Snorkeling: Call us biased, but we think Maui has the best snorkeling of any Hawaiian island. There are plenty of spots to snorkel all over the island, bays that make it easy to snorkel in calm waters, and a rich variety of sea life. 
  • Day trip to Lanai: If you’re really looking for a full-day trip, consider a sailing trip to Lanai. Snorkel, see dolphins, enjoy the beach, and a small hike on another island before returning to Maui. 

 

Things to Consider Before Going to Maui

Maui is a popular destination loved by many, but there are some things you should know before you go:

  • It’s expensive: Maui is the most expensive island to visit, which means that if you’re looking for a budget-friendly trip, you’ll find better options with the other islands.
  • A lot of tourists: Maui can get a bad rap for being a touristy island. It’s true: there are a lot of visitors to Maui. So if you’re wanting to steer clear of the crowds, Kauai or the Big Island would be a better bet. But if you come to Maui and want to escape the crowds, there are plenty of places to visit that are off the beaten path and away from the resorts. 

Who Should Visit Maui?

If you’re seeking an adults-only vacation (like a honeymoon), Maui is your stop with the only adults-only resort in Hawaii. Bringing a family? Maui also has a huge number of family-friendly resorts and activities that make it an easy vacation. Maui is great for beach bums, adventure seekers, and people looking for a luxurious vacation experience. 

In addition, we think Maui is a great place for first time Hawaii visitors because you get to experience a little bit of everything — there is something here for everyone. 

Heading to Maui? Read our Maui Travel Guide

which hawaiian island to visit Maui sea turtles

 

The Big Island (Island of Hawai’i)

Calling all volcano and geological enthusiasts — the Big Island is where you want to be. Technically called the Island of Hawaii and also nicknamed the Orchid Isle, the Big Island is the largest island. It also has the second-largest population, with 200,000 residents. Because the Big Island is so big, it often feels empty, leaving you plenty of space to roam and explore. 

Another cool fact about the Big Island: it encompasses 11 of 13 of the world’s climatic zones. Come to the Big Island for outdoor activities, Manta Ray night snorkeling, an up-close look at a volcano, and some world-famous Kona coffee. 

which hawaiian island to visit hawaii beaches

 

Big Island Highlights

The Big Island has unique opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else:

  • Volcanoes National Park: Any geology or volcano enthusiasts will love this park. You can spend days hiking on the hiking train, walk through lava tubes at the Thurston Lava Tubes or drive the crater road to spend a full day visiting sites. 
  • Visit historic Hilo and Kailua-Kona towns: Visit two historic towns on different sides of the island.
  • Mauna Kea Observatory: Watch a sunset or go stargazing at the Mauna Kea Observatory and get the views from nearly 14,000 feet in altitude. 
  • Kona coffee: Visit the many Kona coffee farms and sample the different beans and blends.
  • Manta Ray night snorkeling: When the sun goes down don your suit and head out onto a boat and get an up-close view of these big creatures.  

which hawaiian island to visit big island manta ray snorkeling

Things to Consider Before Going to the Big Island

  • It’s a big island: The Big Island may be big, but it’s easy to get around. You’ll find that beaches and activities are spread out and you may spend a little extra time in your car, but the driving is easy. 
  • Hilo is a rainforest: If you’re planning to visit Hilo (which we recommend!), know that it’s a rainforest and you might encounter a lot of rain. It adds to the charm and the lush scenery, but it can put a damper on your vacation if you’re not prepared.

Who Should Visit the Big Island?

Volcanologists, astronomers, cowboys, and adventure seekers will find the Big Island has more than enough to offer. If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, you’ve not forgotten: the luxury resorts on the Kohala Coast offer a wonderful stay. 

Ready to pack your bags? Read our Big Island Travel Guide

which hawaiian island to visit big island black sand beaches

 

Oahu

Welcome to the state capital and the most populated island, with more than 1 million people. Oahu has everything: every armed force has a base on Oahu, they have triple crown surfing competitions, famous Waikiki Beach, and more. The island is full of culture, nightlife, things to do, and visitors. Oahu is the most visited of the Hawaiian islands. So yes, this island is crowded.

Oahu is actually the cheapest island to visit so it tops our list as a great island for a family vacation. Not only are there tons of activities for kids, but you’ll be able to stretch your travel budget. 

which hawaiian island to visit Oahu waikiki beach and diamond head

 

Oahu Highlights

  • Waikiki Beach: Iconic Waikiki Beach is crowded but beautiful. Two-miles of white sand beach flanked by hotels and restaurants with a view of Diamond Head in the distance, this is the image most people think of when they picture Oahu. 
  • Pearl Harbor: The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a historic landmark on Oahu, approximately 30 miles west of Waikiki. Immerse yourself in one of the five historic sites that make up the memorial.
  • Culture: Take a walk through Honolulu Chinatown, tour the Bishop Museum, and visit Iolani Palace. There’s more than enough to see to immerse yourself in the culture and the history of the island. 
  • North shore: Get away from the bustling downtown and head to the North Shore for hiking, surfing, and countryside feel. 
  • Disney’s Aulani Resort: Die-hard Disney fans will enjoy the only Disney resort in Hawaii.

Things to Consider before going to Oahu

  • The cheapest Hawaiian island: Oahu is actually the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit, so if you’re looking to stretch your travel dollars, this is where you want to be.
  • Traffic: Honolulu is a proper city, which means it comes with a lot of traffic and high rises. We’ve heard Honolulu referred to as LA of the Pacific, so if you’re looking to avoid large buildings, traffic, and people, this might not be the best spot for you. 
  • Nightlife: Most of the other islands get quiet when the sun goes down. But Oahu has a real nightlife scene.
  • Wide range of hiking: Oahu offers the most hiking options. From steep ridge hikes to simpler waterfall walks, Oahu has it all.

Who Should Go to Oahu?

Oahu is best for people looking for a lively vacation, historians looking to learn more about Hawaii’s history, singles and others looking to enjoy the nightlife, and anyone looking for a slightly less expensive Hawaii vacation.

Off to Oahu? Read our Oahu Travel Guide

which hawaiian island to visit oahu disney aulani ko olina

Oahu is home to Disney’s only Hawaii resort, Aulani.

 

But Really, Which Hawaiian Island Should You Visit?

I know it’s difficult to choose just one. We recommend that first-timers visit Maui because it has something for everyone. You have your choice of accommodations — from luxury resorts to budget-friendly options. There are activities for everyone and you’ll generally have the best chance of sunny days at all times of the year. 

Whatever island sounds appealing to you, make planning your trip better (and easier) by using one of our free itineraries to help you plan your trip. 

Get a free itinerary for any island and get planning!

which hawaiian island to visit oahu family resorts

Erica Gellerman

Erica Gellerman

Author

I'm the co-founder, with my husband Jordan, of The Hawaii Vacation Guide. We live on Maui with our toddler Henry and our sweet but quirky dog Hattie. You will most likely find me on the water on a SUP or swimming in the waves.

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