Things to do in Hawaii

Must-see Hawaii sights

Smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the volcanic islands of Hawaii rise from the sea like desert oases. And for many - including the Polynesians who discovered them - they are paradise on earth, with big waves, big whales, big volcanoes and even bigger heart.

  1. Soak up sun in style on Waikiki beach
  2. Have a blast on Big Island
  3. Discover sacred history and mystery
  4. Go wild on Kauai
  5. Watch wild-wave-surfing at Waimea Bay
  6. Encounter humpback beasts from Ka‘anapali Beach
  7. Ramble a rainforest to Akaka Falls
  8. Gawp at the Garden of the Gods

With eight major islands to choose from - each of them dancing to a unique beat - Hawaii has a version of paradise for everyone.

In collaboration with
Rough Guides

1. Soak up sun in style on Waikiki beach

Aloha! With crystal waters, fine white sand, and immortalised by Elvis movies (the King stayed at Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village a whopping seven times), Oahu‘s Waikiki Beach is a definite contender for Best Beach on Earth. Being one of this island nation’s most iconic spots, strutting the luxury-hotel-lined strip after a hard day lounging is among the best things to do in Hawaii.

Best for: Sposing and people-watching.

Top alternative: Kailua Beach, Oahu, where turquoise waters lap the island’s Windward shore.

2. Have a blast on Big Island

There aren’t many places on Earth where you can see new land being born. That – and the mass of ancient lava flow – is what makes the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii Island (also known as Big Island) a must-see sight. The main attraction is Kilauea, an active volcano that’s been regularly erupting since 1983. Elsewhere in the park you can see misty rainforests and windswept deserts. In fact, it’s so big, you could visit every day for a week and still not see everything on your list. The Big Island sure does nothing by half.

Best for: explorers

Top alternative: if you’ve seen Kilauea, try hiking Mauna Loa.

3. Discover sacred history and mystery

History buffs wondering what to do in Hawaii mustn’t miss Pu‘uhonua ‘O Honaunau National Historical Park. This religious site on the South Kona side of Hawaii Island once was a place of refuge and reform for criminals. Today it’s a living museum where visitors can learn about ancient Hawaiian laws and rituals. Extending along the lava flats of the Kona Coast, the park includes the historic 1871 Trail, the remains of an abandoned village, and the Great Wall - a massive 965-foot-long structure that once served as a sanctuary for defeated warriors and those who violated the kapu (sacred laws).

Best for: culture vultures.

Top alternative: Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Oahu - it holds the biggest collection of artefacts from pre-contact Hawaii.

4. Go wild on Kauai

Colossal Waipo’o Falls canyon. Cathedral-like Hanakoa Falls. Awe-inspiring emerald valleys - the island of Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian archipelago, is all about in-your-face nature. A highlight here is Kalalau Trail in Nā Pali Coast State Park. Beginning at reef-protected Ke’e Beach, then criss-crossing streams, jungles and secret sea caves, this is one of the world’s most spectacular - and dangerous - trails. For Hawaii holidays with a wilder (and less touristy) vibe, the Garden Isle of Kauai is the place for you.

Best for: off-the-beaten-track nature.

Top alternative: when you’re adventured-out, Hanalei Town on Kauai’s north shore is a pretty spot to unwind in.

5. Watch wild-wave-surfing at Waimea Bay

We say “watch” because only the bravest and best surfers can handle Waimea Bay’s bad boys. Legends are born (and crushed) here on Oahu’s North Shore, where winter brings some of the biggest waves in all Hawaii, and the biggest rideable waves you’ll see anywhere in the world. No surprise, then, that hundreds of gasping spectators line the road to watch surfers do battle with the thundering swells.

Best for: world-class waves.

Top alternative: Banzai Pipeline (Pipe to its friends) - a reef break off Ehukai Beach Park, also on Oahu’s North Shore.

6. Encounter humpback beasts from Ka‘anapali Beach

Not only is Ka‘anapali Beach Maui’s most famous white-sand stretch, but it also happens to be one of the best places on earth to watch humpback whales from shore. Better still, take a boat trip. Peak season is December to April, when over 5000 of these magnificent mammals journey from Alaska to Hawaii’s warm waters.

Best for: animal-lovers.

Top alternative: your best bet for spotting whales on Big Island is along the Kohala Coast and Hilo Bay.

7. Ramble a rainforest to Akaka Falls

Hawaii Islands towering Akaka Falls has more sparkles than the Queen’s coronation crown. And - lucky for the lazier among us - it’s reached by a short hike deep into the rainforest of the Big Island’s Hamakua coast. At 442 feet Akaka is definitely the main attraction here, but don’t miss its little sister, Kahuna Falls, on your way, or soaking up the rainforest vibe. Surrounded by dazzling wild orchards and tickly ferns, with the scent of tropical plants hanging thick in the air, you really will feel like you’re in paradise. Easily one of the most exhilarating things to do in Hawaii – you’ll ramble on about it for years.

Best for: back-to-nature beauty.

Top alternative: ‘Iao Needle on Maui – a velvet-coated pinnacle buried deep in the West Maui Mountains.

8. Gawp at the Garden of the Gods

Lanai island’s eerie Garden of the Gods (otherwise known as Keahiakawelo, or The Fire of Kawelo) look more like Wild West badlands than lush Hawaii. Red desert, red rock towers and windswept Martian terrain rules here. Legend has it that the burnished landscape came as a result of two priests trying to keep a fire burning for the longest. Only accessible with a four-wheel drive or mountain bike, this is a must-see Lanai sight.

Best for: epic eerie landscapes.

Top alternative: Halawa Valley, Molokai. Deep, fertile and teeming with flowing fresh water.

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