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Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for First Time Visitors (2023)

palms trees by the beach in Hawaii

Visiting Hawaii is always a great idea, but If you are a first-time visitor, deciding which Hawaiian island to visit can be overwhelming. Choosing the perfect island for your first time in Hawaii is a big decision. 

The Aloha State is one of the best tropical destinations in the world. From pristine beaches and surfing to lush scenery and endless adventures.

Hawaii is like no other place on earth! While each of the islands are great to visit, it can be hard to decide on just one. 

Here is everything that you need to know about choosing the best island for you.

Islands in Hawaii

Hawaii is made up of eight main islands, but only six are open to visitors. They are Kauai, The Main Island, Maui, Oahu, Lanai and Molokai.

One great thing about the Hawaiian Islands is that they are all beautiful. Each island has incredible beaches, surfing, luaus, hikes, and tropical scenery. 

Don’t stress about choosing the wrong one because you are going to have a good time on any of the islands. 

However, each of the islands is unique. Some islands offer specific activities that others don’t, so you want to make sure that you do your research and pick the best island for you.

Map of Hawaiian Islands

You can open this interactive Google map above to see the locations of each of the islands.

How to Choose the Best Hawaiian Island to Visit?

When narrowing down which of the six islands to visit, there are different things you should consider.

Are you looking for the most luxurious resorts, or are you looking for islands with the most outdoor activities? 

Think about specific places or things that you want to see. If you are on a budget or traveling with a family then you should consider the most affordable islands. 

The best Hawaiian Island for you is going to be specific to your needs and the things that you want to experience during your vacation. 

Hawaii Islands With Direct Flights

There are many options for flights to Hawaii, but some islands only have regional airports, which require connecting flights. 

If you are short on time, or have kids and don’t want to deal with connecting flights then you should visit one of the islands that offer direct flights. 

Visiting Oahu or Maui will give you the most options of direct flights to choose from.

There are also a limited number of direct flights that are offered to Kauai and The Big Island. 

When visiting the smaller islands of Lanai or Molokai you must first fly to Maui or Oahu, and then take a connecting flight. 

view from plane flying over Honolulu

Cheapest Hawaiian Island to Visit

Many things in Hawaii are expensive. If you are planning your first trip to Hawaii on a budget, then you should consider the cost of visiting each island.

Out of all the islands, Oahu is the most affordable. Some of the other islands such as The Big Island and Kaui are comparable in price, but Oahu is the cheapest island overall. 

The most expensive island to visit is Maui. On average you will spend about $1000 more visiting Maui vs. Oahu.

Activities on The Islands

When choosing what island to visit in Hawaii you should first think about what specific things you want to do on your vacation.

All the Hawaiian islands are great tropical destinations, but only some islands offer specific activities. 

If you first figure out the things you want to experience on your vacation, this will help you choose the best island for you.

For example, if you want to swim with Manta Rays, you will have to visit the Big Island. Oahu is great for swimming with Sea Turtles and Maui is the best island for whale watching. 

small sea turtle swimming underwater

Tourist Attractions

The Hawaiian Islands offer some major tourist attractions. Such as popular waterfalls, hikes, national parks, and historic sites. 

If you are visiting Hawaii and want to see a specific attraction then you should make sure you choose the right island. 

If you want to visit Pearl Harbor or the famous Waikiki Beach, then you will have to go to Oahu. 

Want to see Volcanoes? Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located on The Big Island. 

If you have always wanted to see the incredible Na Pali Coast State Park, then you should plan a trip to Kauai. 

Best Island for Beaches

While all of the Hawaiian Islands have beautiful beaches, if your idea of the perfect vacation is spending your days relaxing on the beach, then you should consider visiting Oahu or Maui. 

Oahu is known as the island with the best beaches in Hawaii. It is home to the iconic Waikiki Beach. This white sand beach is located just steps away from hotels and resorts and is perfect for swimming and surfing. 

crowded beach with palm trees in hawaii

It is one of the most visited beaches in Hawaii, and there is no shortage of things to do. 

Another incredible beach in Oahu is Lanikai Beach. This is the kind of picture-perfect beach you imagine when visiting a tropical island. 

With soft sand, clear blue waters, and endless palm trees, this beach is a popular location for swimming. It is not only one of the best beaches in Hawaii but is also ranked as one of the best beaches in the world. 

view of a clear beach in hawaii from above

The beaches in Oahu are more developed and easier to access than on other islands, but since they are popular, they can get very busy. 

If you are looking for less crowded beaches, then you should visit Maui. Here you will find a variety of diverse beaches. There are white, red, and black sand beaches. 

Maui has beaches that are perfect for swimming and snorkeling and they are less crowded than the beaches on Oahu.

One of the prettiest and top-rated beaches in Maui is Makena Beach, also called Big Beach. It is one of the largest beaches in Maui. This beach has a golden sand shoreline and is known for being one of the most photographed and undeveloped beaches in Maui. 

golden sandy beach tourists in hawaii

Another amazing beach in Maui is Kāʻanapali Beach. This stunning beach has a little something for everyone. It is the ideal place for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, or cliff jumping. 

Kauai and The Big Island both have some beautiful beaches, but they are not as easy to access as the beaches on Oahu and Maui. 

If you want to find beaches not far from your hotel room or shopping centers that you can easily get to, you should visit Oahu or Maui.

Best Island for Hiking

Is your ideal Hawaiian vacation hiking to the tops of mountains or volcanos to see a more scenic view of the islands? 

If you are planning a trip to Hawaii and want to experience some of the best hiking trails then you might want to consider visiting Oahu. 

Maui, Kauai, and The Big Island also have some incredible hikes, but overall, Oahu offers the most options for hiking. 

One of the more popular hikes in Oahu is the Lanikai Pillbox hike. This short hike (1.5 miles round trip) offers some amazing ocean views of Lanikai Beach.

This hike has become popular as a sunrise hike. It is one of the best places to watch the sunrise in Hawaii. 

people hiking with ocean view in hawaii

Waimea Falls is located within Waimea Valley which is a Hawaiian botanical garden. This easy (1-mile hike) leads you through lush tropical jungles and ends at Waimea Falls. 

The Diamond Head Hike is another popular hike in Oahu. This 1.5-mile round trip hike leads up to the 760ft summit of Diamond Head Crater, a volcanic landmark that offers panoramic views of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. 

skyline and ocean view of Oahu hawaii

Kauai and the other islands also have some amazing hikes, but the selection and amount of hiking trails on Oahu make it the best Hawaiian island for hiking. 

Best Island for Snorkeling and Diving

Maui is one of the best islands in Hawaii for snorkeling and diving because it has more reefs, fish, and colorful marine life than the other islands. 

This island usually has clear blue water and offers year-round good weather.

One of the most popular snorkeling and scuba diving locations on Maui is Molokini Crater which is located about three miles offshore. Many snorkeling guide companies offer transportation by boat. 

people scuba diving next to a yellow fish

Ahihi Kinau Natural Reserve is another great snorkeling location in Maui due to the lava rocks mixed with coral. This area is shallow and is perfect for beginner snorkelers. 

If you want to swim with sea turtles, then you should check out Turtle Town. It is one of the best places to see turtles in Maui. 

While Maui comes in first for the best snorkeling in Hawaii, The Big Island also has some amazing snorkeling locations such as Kealakekua Bay and Kahalu’u Beach Park. 

There are not as many snorkeling options on Kaui, but a snorkeling tour of the NaPali Coast is an experience that you will never forget.

Best Island for Couples

Any of the islands are the perfect setting for a romantic getaway, but most agree that Maui is the best island for romance. Maui has some of the most romantic beaches, luxury adults-only resorts, and incredible tropical scenery.  

There are also endless options for couples to enjoy time together. Things such as sunset cruises, secluded beaches, and watching the sunrise at Haleakala, make Maui the perfect destination for couples. 

couple walking the beach in hawaii

The smaller island of Lanai, which is a 45-minute ferry ride from Maui is also another great island for couples. 

If you are looking for a less crowded destination, then Lanai might be perfect for you. 

This island also offers some of the best couples activities such as dinner under the stars, sunset evening catamaran cruise, and less crowded beaches that offer more privacy.

Kauai is another popular Hawaiian island for couples to visit. This island is green, lush, and filled with tropical flora. The dense rainforests, white sand beaches, and incredible views make Kauai the perfect backdrop for romance. 

couple watching the sunset on beach in hawaii

If your idea of the perfect romantic getaway is exploring a tropical island then Kauai is perfect for you. 

Ride on horseback to waterfalls, sail the incredible NaPali Coast together, or spend time on some of Kaui’s beautiful beaches. 

Maui, Lanai, or Kaui would all be great islands to visit for a couples getaway.

Best Island for Families

Oahu is the best kid-friendly island in Hawaii. It’s home to some of the best resorts for kids, has some great beaches with calm waters, and there are endless activities for kids. 

Oahu is also the most affordable island, which makes it the perfect island for families since taking an entire family to Hawaii can get expensive. 

You will find everything you need in Oahu for a vacation with kids. Also, things in Oahu are much closer together, so you won’t have to do much traveling to get from your hotel to the attractions. 

Maui is also another great island for families. Maui is less crowded than Oahu, but you will have to do a bit more driving to get around the island. 

While Maui is a great option, it is also the most expensive island to visit. If your family is on a tight budget, it might not be the best destination for you. 

Maui has a ton of family-friendly resorts, and beaches for kids, and is the best island for snorkeling. 

The Big Island is also a great island for families. While this island can be harder to find direct flights, if you are willing to take your kids on connecting flights this can be a great destination.

The Best Islands to Visit in Hawaii

While everyone has their favorite island, finding the best Hawaiian island to visit depends on the experiences that you want to have during your vacation. 

Each of the Hawaiian Islands is an incredible place, but they are all different in their way, making each island a uniquely different experience. Here are the top-rated islands to visit in Hawaii.

1. Oahu

view of Honolulu city and Waikiki beach in hawaii

Oahu, also known as “The Gathering Place” is Hawaii’s most visited and populated out of all the Hawaiian islands. If you want to experience a little bit of everything on your first trip to Hawaii, then Oahu is the place for you. 

This island has world-class beaches, some of the best hiking in Hawaii, and endless tourist attractions. Oahu is home to Hawaii’s capital city Honolulu.

Oahu has that classic Hawaiian vibe that you would expect from Hawaii. It also has the ideal mix of city life and beaches. 

Many of the beaches are within walking distance of amazing restaurants, shopping, and resorts. While you might choose to rent a car, you don’t have to, because most attractions are close together, so you can just walk or take public transportation. 

wakiki beach in hawaii covered with tourists

This island has been called the “Heart of Hawaii” because there are just so many incredible activities, and things to see all in one location. 

Some of the more popular sights include the famous Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor National Memorial, and Diamond Head Crater. 

The Lanikai Pillbox hike is a great place to see some incredible Oahu views. It is also one of the best spots in Oahu to watch the sunrise.

ocean views and hiking trail on Oahu

Oahu is the easiest island to travel to as it has the most direct transpacific flights out of all the islands. 

It is not only the island where you will have the best chance of enjoying warm sunny weather, but it is also the cheapest Hawaiian Island to visit. 

If you do visit Oahu, then you will want to be sure to visit Lanikai Beach. With white powdery sand and clear blue waters, this is not only one of the of the prettiest beaches in Oahu, but many consider it one of the top beaches in the entire world!

Oahu also has more outdoor adventures than any of the other islands. You can do everything from swimming with sea turtles, watching dolphins, parasailing, bus and boat tours.

surfboards and people on Waikiki beach in Oahu

You will find that Oahu is more crowded than the other islands, but it’s also a smaller island so it doesn’t take too long to explore the entire island.

Oahu is one of the best islands for families, as the beaches are very swimmable, and there are many kid-friendly activities. 

If you are looking to save some money and see some touristy sights then you should consider visiting Oahu for your first trip to Hawaii. 

Read Next: 25 Top Things to do for Your Oahu Bucket List

2. Maui

lush greenery next to the ocean in hawaii

Maui is the second largest of the Hawaiian Islands and also the second most visited island. 

It is known as “The Valley Isle”. This island is not only one of the top-rated islands to visit in Hawaii, but it has been voted as one of the best islands in the United States. 

Many people travel to Hawaii again and again just to visit Maui. This island offers the best of everything. It’s more rural like The Big Island, but not as busy as Oahu. It is also one of the islands with the best chance of nice weather. 

If you are looking to spend your vacation in a true Hawaiian Paradise, without major cities, and crowds, then Maui might be the perfect island for you. 

Maui represents everything you think of when you imagine Hawaii. Palm trees, white sand and black sand beaches, volcanoes, and lush tropical scenery. 

a palm tree lined beach in hawaii

It is known as one of the most romantic islands in Hawaii for couples. It has honeymooners’ vibes and expensive luxury resorts. 

With endless things to do and some great kid-friendly resorts, it’s a popular destination for families. 

You should know that Maui is the most expensive island to visit in Hawaii, so it might not be the best island for you if you are on a tight budget. 

If you are able to spend the extra money, then you will get to experience a true paradise of lush green jungles, and an abundance of incredible beaches, hikes, and waterfalls. 

If going whale watching is on your vacation bucket list, then Maui is the perfect island for you. It has some of the best whale watching in the world. Just make sure you visit from December through May during the whale-watching season. 

grey whale jumping in ocean while people watch from boat

Out of all the islands, Maui is also the best island to visit for snorkeling. There are dozens of incredible places to snorkel on Maui, but one of the best is the Molokini Crater. 

Maui also has some of the prettiest sunrises and sunsets. Make sure that you visit Haleakala National Park, as it is one of the best places to watch the sunrise in Hawaii. 

Other popular attractions in Maui include the famous Road to Hana, Wai’anapanapa State Park (which has a unique black sand beach), and the Kapalua Coastal Trail. 

small boats in a blue ocean cove in maui

There is no shortage of gorgeous beaches in Maui. Some must-see beaches include Makena Beach, Ka’anapali Beach, and Honolua Bay. 

Maui offers a little bit of each island all in one. If you can only visit one island, and Maui is within your budget, then this would be the best island to visit on your first trip to Hawaii. 

3. The Big Island

large mountain next to the ocean on the big island of hawaii

The Big Island also called “The Island of Hawaii” is bigger than every other island put together. You won’t find large crowds or big cities on The Big Island because it’s not as developed as Oahu and Maui.

Since The Big Island is larger than other islands, you will need to rent a car to explore everything there is to see. The Big Island has two main sides (Hilo & Kona), and each has a very different climate. 

The Kona side of the island has sunny dry temperatures. This is where you will find some incredible beaches such as Hapuna Beach and Manini’Owali Beach which is also called “The Caribbean of Hawaii” due to its soft white sand and crystal clear waters. 

people enjoying a golden sandy beach in hawaii

Kealakekua Bay near Kona has an amazing coral reef that is one of the best Big Island snorkeling spots.

If night swimming with Manta Rays is on your Hawaii Bucket list, then you will have to visit Kona on The Big Island, because this is the only place that offers this experience in all of Hawaii. 

While you are more likely to experience sunny weather due to the dry climate on the Kona side of the island, if you drive just a few hours to the Hilo side, you will find a much wetter climate. 

While there is more rain on the Hilo side of the island, it is also home to lush green jungles and botanical gardens, incredible waterfalls, and some beautiful views. 

Popular attractions near Hilo include Akaka Falls (Hawaii’s most famous waterfall), Rainbow Falls, and Waipio Valley.

tall waterfall surrounded by greenery

Hawaii Tropical Botanical Gardens is another great place to see, it is one of the best tropical gardens in Hawaii and it has amazing ocean views. 

While there aren’t as many swimming beaches on the Hilo side, some great beaches include Richardson Beach Park (a black sand beach) and Carlsmith Beach Park which is a great place for snorkeling.  

If you want so see black sand beaches on your vacation, you should visit Hawaii Island, because it is home to the most black sand beaches in Hawaii.

The Big Island is also the best island to visit if you want to see volcanoes. It is home to the popular Hawaii Volcano National Park. Since there is the most volcanic activity on this island, many of the beaches are black sand beaches. 

If you are looking for an island that feels more scenic and rugged, yet is filled with incredible adventures and endless exploration, then The Big Island is perfect for you. 

4. Kauai

a view of kauai island from above

When you imagine what Hawaii offers, then Kaui is robably what you have in mind. Also called “The Garden Isle”, Kauai is known for its dramatic beauty and untouched nature.

Compared to the other islands, Kauai is much less touristy. You won’t find packed resorts and crowds on this island. Instead, you will enjoy a more relaxed and secluded Hawaiian vacation. 

It is the perfect island if you are looking to get away from a busy life or just want a romantic getaway. There are no tall buildings or large cities in Kauai. 

In fact, 97% of the land on Kauai is undeveloped, so you will have a very different experience than on some of the other islands. 

Kauai has an abundance of natural uninterrupted beauty. It is known for its pristine beaches, incredible hikes, and iconic cliffs of the Napali Coastline. 

looking down on the napali cliff in kauai hawaii

It might even be the best place in the world to experience a helicopter ride. This is one of the most incredible islands for hiking. Unlike other islands, you might not even see many people on the trails. 

The most popular hikes include the Awa’awapuhi Trail and the Kalalau Trail which has some stunning views of the Napali Coast. 

When visiting Kaui, you should know that it does rain here more than on other islands, that is why Kaui is so lush and green. 

Kauai isn’t the place where you will find fancy restaurants and shopping like you would on Maui or Oahu.

However, you will find some breathtaking waterfalls such as Wailua Falls, and incredible untouched Hawaiian scenery. 

two waterfalls cascading into pool of water

This island is also known for the popular Waimea Canyon (The Grand Canyon of Hawaii) and the Coconut Coast where you will find beautiful white sand beaches, turquoise blue waters, and groves of coconut palms. 

One of the most popular beaches on Kauai is Hanalei Beach Park and Bay. Another great beach is Poipu Beach, one of the best snorkeling beaches on Kauai. You will probably even see some sea turtles! 

people surfing and relaxing on beach in kauai

If you are looking for a more secluded island where you will find less development and plenty of adventure, then you should go to Kauai. 

5. Lanai

people enjoying a large beach cove in hawaii

Visiting Lanai is a truly remote experience. There are no large airports or direct flights to this island. You will have to take a boat or a small plane from one of the more populated islands. Many people take a ferry from Maui, which takes about 45 minutes. 

This Hawaiian island isn’t visited as much as the more touristy islands, and it’s very undeveloped. It is home to about 3,000 residents, and it’s one of the most remote islands you can explore. 

Visiting Lanai is a truly private experience that can be hard to find on the more populated islands. Lanai is sometimes called “Pineapple Island” because of its past pineapple farming. 

Most people visit this island as a day trip destination, however, there are three hotels if you want to stay longer. 

Since there is no public transportation on the island you will have to rent a car or book a tour company to take you around the island. 

Popular destinations on Lanai include Garden of the Gods, Shipwreck Beach, Sweetheart Rock, and Munro Trail. 

One of the best beaches on the island is Hulopoe Bay which has incredible reefs and is the perfect spot for snorkeling. In the summer you will also sometimes spot dolphins out in the water. 

While this island isn’t the most convenient to visit and probably not ideal for your first trip to Hawaii, if you do decide to visit, you will feel like you are on your private island. 

6. Molokai

sandy secluded beach next to mountains in hawaii

Molokai is the least-visited of the Hawaiian islands. With only one hotel and limited things to do, it’s not a very popular destination. 

However, if you do visit this little island, you will find that it’s an incredible and unique experience. 

It is not easy to access, you will have to take a small charter plane from Maui or Honolulu. Once you arrive, you will have to rent a car to explore the island. 

While you won’t find endless tours, activities, and things to do in Molokai, you will find an uncrowded and relaxing getaway. This island offers that true experience of what Hawaii was like 50 years ago. 

Molokai is home to some amazing stretches of white sand beaches including Papohaku Beach. 

While most of the beaches in Molokai are incredible, due to the very strong currents they are not safe for swimming. 

There are some one-of-a-kind experiences that you can only find on this island including a cultural presentation and hike through the Halawa Valley that ends with a swim in a private waterfall. 

You can also participate in the Post-a-Nut service where you get to decorate and mail a coconut anywhere in the world. 

With the true aloha spirit and friendly locals, Molokai gives visitors a chance to see the “real Hawaii” and experience true Hawaiian culture. 

Molokai isn’t the ideal island for the first trip to Hawaii, but if you have been to the other islands, and you are looking for more, then this island is an amazing experience. 

Final Thoughts

While many of the Hawaiian islands would make for an amazing vacation, overall the best island to visit in Hawaii for first-time visitors would be Oahu or Maui.

Either of these islands is a great choice for your first time in Hawaii. They both offer direct flights, beautiful scenery, and endless adventures to keep you busy. 

While these islands are a close tie for first place, Maui is more expensive, which makes Oahu the best choice for many. 

However, if affordability is not a concern, then the best island to visit would be Maui. 

Each of the Hawaiian islands offers a completely different experience. If you ask anyone what the best island is in Hawaii, they will all have their favorite.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice, and what island is best for you and your lifestyle. 

Hawaii is a place that you want to return to again and again, so chances are once you visit for the first time, you will already be trying to decide what island to visit next.

If you are looking for more information about visiting Hawaii, check out these posts. 

If you’ve already been to these islands and have your own favorite, feel free to leave a comment below.

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