Putting the finishing touches on a trip to Hawaii is a dream come true for most travelers, and crossing that destination off your bucket list wouldn’t be complete without catching some of the best destinations the state has to offer.
History buffs won’t want to miss the iconic Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, as well as the Polynesian Cultural Center, Bishop Museum, and Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai. Hike through jungles and botanical gardens to view the waterfalls at Manoa Falls, or book a thrilling zip line tour at Kualoa Ranch, also on Oahu. The famous Road to Hana road trip on Maui attracts visitors from all over the world, and the majestic Volcanoes National Park and Mauna Kea on Hawaii Island are unlike anywhere else on earth.
For nature-lovers, head to Haleakala National Park on Maui to witness a unique blend of different climates ranging from tropical to arid. Check out the scene on the popular Waikiki Beach and Kaanapali Beach, or hike to the top of Diamond Head to catch unrestricted views of the Pacific Ocean. On Kauai, the sea cliffs along the Na Pali Coast are unparalleled, and on Maui, the views from the top of Waimea Canyon will take your breath away.
1. Pearl Harbor
One of the most defining moments in the United States and world history took place right on the island of Oahu at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Japan’s military airstrike sunk four of the eight battleships present in Pearl Harbor at the time and destroyed more than 180 aircraft that were on the ground, killing more than 2,000 American sailors, soldiers, and marines. Pearl Harbor remains a military base to this day, and visitors are welcome to come to pay their respects. There are four main attractions at Pearl Harbor: the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine, the USS Missouri Battleship, and the Pacific Aviation Museum, and you’ll need to secure tickets for each either online or on-site. Tourists short on time can visit walk-through museums at the visitors center, which is free to enter. Not staying on Oahu? Since Pearl Harbor is arguably the most popular activity in the entire state, multiple tour agencies offer one-day tours from Big Island, Maui, and Kauai that include airfare and transportation.
2. Na Pali Coast
Along the coastline of Kauai’s northwestern shore, the giant cliffs of the Na Pali State Wilderness Park absolutely stun everyone who sees them. The famous Kalalau Trail is one of the most famous hikes in all of Hawaii, and the five valleys that make up the area are full of dense vegetation, lush jungles, and hidden waterfalls. Experience the Na Pali Coast by land, air, or sea and see for yourself why this majestic corner of Kauai island holds a special place in Hawaii.
3. Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea on the Big Island is considered a very sacred place for the Native Hawaiians and should be treated as such. Additionally, it is the home for a variety of rare plant and animal species, some of which can only be found on the unique climate of the mountain. In addition to regular star-gazing programs, the Visitors Center hosts local community speakers to lead discussions and speeches about Mauna Kea from a cultural perspective on the fourth Saturday of each month. The Visitor Station is located at 9,200 feet above sea level and the summit is 13,796 feet, so altitude sickness may be a cause for concern for visitors with health issues.
4. Waikiki Beach
You’d be hard-pressed to find an Oahu tourist who hasn’t set foot on Waikiki Beach; it is hands-down the most popular and famous beach in the Hawaiian islands. A majority of visitors to the state stay within this 2-mile stretch of coastline on Oahu’s south shore. It is a shopping destination for both international and domestic travelers, a foodie destination for restaurant enthusiasts, and overall the most happening spot in Hawaii. Stay at the legendary pink-colored Royal Hawaiian Hotel or the oldest resort in Waikiki, the Moana Surfrider. There are also more budget-friendly options further inland because let’s face it, you won’t be spending too much time in the room with a beautiful beach just steps away.
5. Diamond Head
The most iconic landmark on the island of Oahu is hard to miss when flying into Honolulu. Diamond Head was formed by a volcanic eruption more than 300,000 years ago and was historically used by the American military as a lookout to defend the island. Hike the Diamond Head Summit Trail to view the beach below and the surrounding Pacific Ocean from the edge of the crater—it is one of the most trafficked hikes on Oahu.
Driving the Road to Hana along Maui’s famed Hana Highway is a rite of passage for any Hawaii tourist. The narrow, winding road contains one-lane-bridges, numerous switchbacks, and sheer cliffs, so caution is key. The reward, however, is a once-in-a-lifetime road trip with pull-outs to adventurous hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, stands of locally grown fruit, and more. The town of Hana (where most drivers choose to make their final destination) doesn’t have a lot to see, but this drive is about the journey, not the destination.
7. Bishop Museum
With a sharp focus on history, science and Hawaiian culture, The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is a great choice for those who only have time for one museum in Hawaii. It has become the official (and largest) state museum of natural and cultural history since opening in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop (late husband of Bernice Bishop, a descendant of the royal Kamehameha family). Visit their signature galleries, special exhibits and planetarium daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.