Hawaii Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

One of the most beautiful states in the US, Hawaii has an interesting blend of tropical culture with the flare of the large American cities. Though it was recognized as an American state only in 1959 (it’s the most recent one to have joined USA), Hawaii has a very long and interesting history.
Hawaii Travel Guide
Table of Contents

Thanks to its location, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii’s culture has received many influences from all over the world, transforming its native culture into an even richer one.

Though the state has about a million permanent residents, hundreds of thousands of tourists choose Hawaii as their vacation destination every year thanks to its dazzling beaches and beautiful natural landscapes.

Hawaii encompasses over 19 volcanic islands, many of which are inhabited. However, there are eight major islands and six of them are opened for tourism. The Big Island or Hawaii Island is the largest one and it houses some of the largest volcanoes in the US, while Oahu is the most popular island particularly since the state capital of Honolulu is located on the southern shore. The second largest island in Hawaii is Maui, mostly known for its massive volcanic carters, while Kauai is home for many breathtaking natural parks.

As far as tourism goes, Hawaii has something for any visitor. From beautiful beaches to gorgeous natural reservations, and impressive volcanoes, many of which can be reached by car. What is more, Hawaii is also a skiing destination. As strange as that might seem, for a Polynesian region, Mauna Kea’s 1769- feet high peak is always covered in snow, and tourists can even ski here during the six-months skiing season.

Another way to discover the treasures hidden on the islands of Hawaii is simply by driving. There are several highways through the mountains from where tourists are treated with amazing views over the small towns nestled by the beach. Many of them even have special lookouts, from where visitors can admire the unique views for hours on end.

Hawaii has a very interesting culture that can be experienced in every corner of the state, from the busy Honolulu to the quiet little towns in Maui. Since the Polynesian culture is so vast and eclectic, it would be a shame not to learn more about it once you arrive in Hawaii, and the best place to do so is the Polynesian Cultural Center – a large park where visitors are treated with performances and exhibits featuring displays from different Polynesian tribes from all over Oceania.

In the end, the main reason for which tourists pick Hawaii as their vacation spot is the sweeping beaches. Whichever island you might choose one thing is for sure – your sunbathing needs will be completely satisfied. What is more, the beautiful warm waters of the Pacific Ocean are the perfect sport for diving and snorkeling, thanks to the rich underwater ecosystem completed with beautiful coral reefs and thousands of colorful fish.

All in all, Hawaii is the perfect destination no matter what kind of vacation you’re planning. If you are interested in exploring a new metropolis filled with luxurious restaurants, museums and cultural activities, then Honolulu is a surprisingly interesting choice, while nature enthusiasts will have more than enough natural parks and monuments to discover, from active volcanoes to beautiful lush rainforests. And, of course, those who simply want to enjoy their free time in the sun, the Hawaiian beaches are famous for their beauty, natural wonders and, of course, their skilled surfers.

1. Honolulu

The state capital of Hawaii and the largest city on the islands is Honolulu which is also a major tourism destination in the United Stated of America. The tropical climate, amazing beaches and interesting history make this city one of the most exciting vacation spots in North America.

However, Honolulu is not just a tropical place for beach lovers, but also a large metropolis with an eclectic culture. In fact, about 80 percent of the population in Hawaii lives in the metropolitan area of the city, which lies on the southern tip of the island of Oahu.

There are five districts, each with interesting landmarks and their own charm. However, Downtown and Waikiki are the most popular areas and they should not be missed.

The best way to explore Honolulu is by staring with its city center – Downtown. The most important touristic attractions in the entire city are crammed here, all in walking distance. The most well-known symbol of the city is right here in the heart of Honolulu – the gold leaf statue of Kamehameha the Great. The statue was erected in honor of Kamehameha I, the monarch who founded the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The statue is located in front of Aliiolani Hale, a beautiful Renaissance style building, built in 1874, and now used as the home of the state’s Supreme Court.

Not too far from Aliiolani Hale, another breathtaking building awaits its visitors. The Iolani Palace was the official residence of the Hawaii’s royalty until they were dethroned by the first American settlers at the end of the 19th century. Today, this impressive neo-classical building is a museum where tourists can learn more about Hawaii’s history particularly about King Kalakaua who built the palace in 1882. Visitors can still marvel at the original decorations, including the throne room where the original carved throne is still in its rightful place.

Honolulu boasts amazing views and the vest place to take it all in is from the top of Aloha Tower, right in the harbor. Built in the 20’s, the tower used to be the tallest building in the city, welcoming visitors on the island of Oahu. Nowadays, it is used as a control center for the harbor, but it’s also as a great spot for tourists to admire the beautiful island.

Another beautiful building in Honolulu that should not be missed is the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, a Romanesque style church, completed in 1843, the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States of America. Today thousands of people gather in this Catholic cathedral every week to attend the mass.

However, just like most cities and towns in Hawaii, the most popular part is Waikiki, which also happens to be the area where the best beaches in Honolulu are. The beautiful beaches here are a magnet for tourists in search for some down time. The warm waters are great for snorkeling and diving, and the many restaurants and shops which line the ocean front are also a great source for entertainment.

Hawaii has no shortage of amazing natural reservations filled with tropical flowers and thick rainforest. But, if you don’t have the time to roam the grounds of every island, then you should at least pay a visit to Lyon Arboretum, a 150 acre botanical garden surrounded by rainforest just outside Honolulu. The park boasts a fantastic collection of over 5000 tropical plants form the region and an impressive collection of palm trees. Less than 2 miles away from the park, the Manoa Falls are another great place to explore the great outdoors. The falls feature a 160 feet droop and is a great place for swimming.

One of the most historic landmarks on the island of Oahu is Queen Emma Summer Palace, a beautiful retreat just a few minute drive from Honolulu’s downtown. This white colonial estate was built by King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma in 1848 and was used as a summer retreat for their family. Today, the mansion is a museum, where visitors can admire several gifts the royal family has received from all corners of the world, but also Queen Emma’s wedding dress. Though the royal family had several houses this is one of the only two that remain standing.

2. Pearl Harbor

Right on the west side of Honolulu lays one of the most famous ports in the whole world – Pearl Harbor. This harbor is not only infamous for its role in history, but it is also one of the most important ports in the Pacific and the center of operations of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet.

Since the area around the harbor is mostly flat, visitors who travel on the freeway can get a great view over the impressive vessels.

Pearl Harbor became a symbol of the Second World War when it was bombed by Japan in December 7, 1941, a moment which marked the official entrance of the US in the Second World War.

However, the harbor was used since the 19th century, though only for small ships due to its shallow entrance. However, by the end of the century the interest of the US Government in the area grew and after the overthrow of the Hawaiian royal family, the US navy established a base in the harbor, in 1899.

A little over four decades later, the harbor was attacked by Japanese airplanes and submarines. The harbor was severely damaged, and thousands of Americans were killed during the attack. Today, the Pearl Harbor remains one of the important harbors in the world and a strategic military point for the US Navy.

Nonetheless, parts of the port are opened for public, and visitors have the great opportunity to see firsthand and learn more about that faithful day in the American history. In 1980 a visitor center was built on the grounds of the harbor, while several of the sunken ships can also be visited.

In fact, the harbor is a massive space and it will take about a day to explore every part of the area that is opened for general public. The first place you must see is definitely the USS Arizona Memorial, which is also one of the most visited landmarks in Hawaii. The building was erected in 1962 and is dedicated to those killed during the December 7 attack. The bright white building was built on top of the sunken battleship, and at the very end there’s a shrine with the name of the 1177 people who died here.

Battleship Missouri is another important landmark in Pearl Harbor. The battleship is known as the official spot where World War II ended and where the Japanese military surrendered to the Allied forces. The ship arrived in the harbor in 1998 and it has been a popular touristic attraction ever since.

Right next to USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin Submarine is another beloved spot, which also houses a museum and a park. The submarine was built during the World War II and it is known to have sunk over 40 Japanese ships. Today it houses one of the most extensive naval museums with displays featuring the lives of marines living on such ships. Tourists can wonder around the ship unattended and they also get to take a look at the harbor thorough a periscope.

3. Mauna Kea

Though Hawaii is usually a vacation destination for tourists in search for sun and lazy days by the beach, this state is also a skiing destination. Surprisingly, right? Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano but also the highest point in the entire state, with a height of 13,796 feet above the sea level. What is more, the mountain is also 18,050 feet submerged underwater, which makes Mauna Kea the highest mountain in the world.

Thanks to its great height, its peak is covered in snow year round, even though Hawaii boasts a tropical climate. In fact, visitors who dare to limb this magnificent mountain are rewarded with the magnificent opportunity to ski right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The skiing season starts in December and it lasts for six months.

However, in order to reach the summit visitors must rent a four-wheel drive vehicle because the terrain is rugged and very steep. The height and the very thin air make the ascent a very difficult one, so visitors should also take that into account. However, those who make this trip will be rewarded with some of the most enchanting views in Hawaii. What is more, the trail towards the summit leads past one of the highest lakes in the US, the Waiau Lake.

The mountain is about a million years old so expect to encounter lava and barren land as you reach the summit. Near the top pf Mauna Kea, tourists can visit one of the best observatories in the world, the Mauna Kea Observatory. This is also a research center for NASA, thanks to its near perfect location and the dry area above the dormant volcano.

Because of its rough conditions, the slopes have no facilities. Despite that fact, Mauna Kea remains a popular spot for locals and tourists alike in search for a different attraction.

4. Polynesian Cultural Center

Tourists who want to find out more about the fascinating history of Hawaii should not miss the opportunity to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center. Located on the island of Oahu, about an hour drive from Honolulu, this remarkable theme park and living museum is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the compelling culture of Hawaii.

The 42 acres park was opened in 1963 in order to provide jobs for students at the nearby Brigham Young University–Hawaii and to preserve the authentic culture of the Polynesia region. Since then it became one of the most popular tourist destination in Hawaii, and two thirds of the employees are student at the university.

The Polynesian Cultural Center features eight simulated tropical villages, while performers demonstrate arts and crafts from different areas of Polynesia region. That way, visitors get a sneak peak of the daily lives of the Polynesian islanders from places like Hawaii, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Marquesas Islands and even New Zeeland. The park is divided into several sections, each dedicated to a certain island and centered on a traditional village. In each section there are hourly performances and different cultural experiences specific to each island.

Apart from these exhibits and demonstrations, the Cultural Center hosts several evening shows which feature songs and dances from throughout the region.

What is more, many performers from all of these islands come to the Polynesian Cultural center and put on special shows.

Visitors can also enjoy signature dances form different areas of the region. Dancers perform on canoes in the Lagoon part of the Cultural Center.

Near the park, tourists can also admire Laie Hawaii Temple, a Mormon church on the northeastern shore of Oahu. The actual temple sits on a small hill on a former sugarcane plantation, near the Pacific Ocean and it is the most important Mormon temple outside of Utah.

The beautiful building also offers great views over the ocean and the surrounding town of Laie.

5. Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve

If you prefer a more relaxed time at the beach, Hawaii offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful beaches and the blue waters. One of the most popular spots is a curved bay on the southeast coast of Oahu – the Hanauma Bay. This area has been a famous touristic spot for decades and because the bay has suffered from overuse, the entire region was declared a nature preserve.

Hanauma Bay has been renowned for its beauty and diverse ecosystem. However, in the 50’s a large portion of the reef alongside the coast was destroyed with dynamite in order to make room for telephone lines. Tourists and locals alike loved to spend their free time by the water, but the area was so overused, that it became bare. In the 1990, Hanauma Bay was turned into a protected area, and even today new visitors must watch a short film and receive instructions about the conservation of the bay, before they can reach the actual beach. Despite that fact and the entrance fee, thousands of visitors flock to Hanauma Bay in order to enjoy the shallow waters and the beautiful natural surroundings.

However, the area is closed every Tuesday so that the fish can feed without interruption for the entire day.

Thanks to its curved shore, the waters are shallow and it is very easy to swim in them. That is why the bay is very popular among divers and snorkelers. The bay’s floor is actually a crater of a very old volcano that was flooded many centuries ago. There are hundreds of colorful fish species swimming at any moment of the day, and the peculiar geology makes for an interesting diving experience. What is more, the bay is well-known for its large number of green sea turtles, known by the locals as honu, and many parrotfish.

The area is perfect for beginners, but experienced divers will definitely enjoy the beautiful marine life.

If you get tired of the dazzling beach and turquoise waters, you can take a little hike alongside the bay and simply admire the breathtaking views over the entire Hanauma Bay.

6. Poipu

Some of the most incredible beaches in Hawaii can be found in the little town of Poipu on the southern part of the island of Kauai. With a little over 1000 inhabitants this little town boast many high end hotels and restaurants, making it one of the most luxurious resorts in Hawaii.

However, decades ago, before Poipu became a popular touristic destination, the main source of income was the sugarcane plantations. Today this small town has the largest number of hotels in Kauai and has become a pristine vacation spot. What is more, despite its tourism boom, Poipu has managed to keep its rural feel and tourists love to experience the local culture and customs.

The most important tourist attraction here is, without a doubt, the gorgeous beaches. The white sand is an invitation for long days relaxing by the beach, while the clear blue waters are a hot spot for surfers everywhere. One of the most popular spots is Mahaulepu Beach. The area is great for swimming thanks to small coves which offer protection from the surf. However, tourists are more interested on the treasures which can be found on the land. Many fossils of extinct birds have been found in the sand dunes along the coast, and even today visitors love to search the fine white sand for the remains of long lost species.

Nearby, the largest limestone cave in the state is another great attraction for tourists in search of a little adventure. The Makauwahi Cave can be reached through a sinkhole and is one of the richest fossil sites in the Pacific region. The remains of more than 40 bird species have been found in the cave, many of which are now extinct.

Another great beach in the area is Poipu Beach Park, which is also the first choice for most tourists. Here, the shallow waters are great for diving and snorkeling, while wide beaches can be a little crowded, especially during weekends.

Around Poipu there are also several beautiful gardens that are well worth the trip. The 80-acres Allerton Garden, near Lawai Bay, was designed by philanthropist Robert Allerton on the grounds of Queen Emma’s plantation. Today, the park features several pools, fountains and miniature waterfalls and it is a great spot for a relaxing walk, away from the torrid sun.

Inside the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation, tourists can visit the Moir Gardens, which houses one of the largest collection of cacti and succulents, but also an ample collection of orchids, bromeliads and water lily ponds.

A very interesting spot near Poipu is the Spouting Horn – a narrow opening in the coastline where the waves shoot upwards and create a hissing noise. The spray of water can reach a height of 50 feet and this is one of the most photographed locations on the island of Kauai.

Local legend says the area used to be guarded by a giant lizard which used to scare away any visitors, until one day a young man challenged the beast. During their battle the man plunged a sharp stick into the lizard’s mouth and dived into the ocean trying to lure the beats away, swimming through a blowhole. But, the lizard got stuck and to this day visitors can hear the beast hissing every time the water blasts into the air.

7. Volcanoes National Park

Apart from its gorgeous beaches and spectacular wildlife, Hawaii is also known for its volcanoes, which many of them are still active. The most interesting volcanic area is the Volcanoes National Park in the Big Island. Established at the beginning of the 20th century, the national park encompasses two active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Kilauea. The 21 square miles park also covers the Puna Coast.

A series of eruptions took place in 1986, which spewed large quantities of lava and as a result, the island actually grew and continues to grow in size.

One of the world most active volcanoes, Kilauea’s activity can be observed from every place in the park. Though witnessing an actual eruption is highly unlikely, the volcano is quite fascinating and it can be visited. However, the Halemaumau crater nearby, right in the middle of Kilauea Caldera, is a lot more active. The eruptions only take place on the slopes and though it is not as impressive as a summit eruption, the view can be quite breathtaking.

The Halemaumau is 2625 feet wide and, according to local legend, it is inhabited by Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. The crater filled up with lava twice in the last century, and it is monitored permanently.

Around Kilauea Caldera, the Crater Rim Road takes tourists through some of the most important highlights of the park, including the Halemaumau Crater. Moreover, the 11 mile long road leads to the Devastation Trail, a small trail filled with thick recent lava layer which was formed as a result of the eruption of a small lki crater. The landscape looks quite strange, lunar like, and right after the eruption, the only thing left was the bare ohia trees. However, years after the eruption, flowers and sapling started to grow again in the area, thus demonstrating the importance of volcanoes in the ecosystem.

On the eastern side of the Crater Rim Road, a smaller trail leads curious visitors through enormous trees right to a lava tunnel, formed by lava cooling off at different times. The tunnel is 492 feet long and 20 feet high and the path through the tunnel is lit and it can be visited.

The Chain of Craters Road is another scenic route which leads visitors from the Crater Rim Road to the coastline where they can walk across the lava that has covered the road and admire up close the steam where the lava falls into the sea. The entire area around the water has many intriguing lava formations and several spots form where visitors can take in the entire area. However, those who want to really enjoy the gorgeous views should take the trip at night when the lava is glowing in the pitch dark.

8. Maui Ocean Center

Tourists who choose Hawaii as their destination will definitely expect to enjoy the wonderful marine wildlife in this region. And the perfect place to get a closer look at the fascinating underwater world is the Maui Ocean Center on the island of Maui.

This is one of the largest tropical aquariums in the world and thousands of visitors come here, every year, to admire the vast collection of green turtles, corals, sting rays and reef fish in several interestingly designed aquariums.

The most popular attraction here is the glass tunnel through a 750,000-gallon tank, called Open Ocean, filled with sharks and sting rays. Here curious visitors can admire these magnificent creatures swimming around them.

The ocean center also boasts dozens of educational displays meant to teach its visitors more about the reclusive hunchback wales and other amazing underwater creatures.

Maui Ocean Center also boasts one of the largest collections of live corals in the US and a beautiful aquarium that replicates the natural ocean ecosystem in Hawaii, with thousands of fish and mammal species, some of which can only be found on these islands alone. In fact, this exhibit demonstrates the close relationship between the Hawaiian people and the ocean, and how the marine ecosystem has influenced their culture and customs.

Those who want to get a closer look at some of the animals at the outdoor touch pools and learn everything there is to know about the intriguing world which lies beneath the ocean’s surface.

However, by far the most interesting experience here is the night visit of the aquarium. After dark, certain animals come out of hiding and visitors can get a rare look at the habits of turtles or sharks, and even help the staff with the feeding of come animals. At the ends visitors can even spend the night, in sleeping bags while admiring the incredible views over the Open Ocean or the Sea Jelly exhibit.

9. Diamond Head

One of the most recognizable landmarks in Hawaii is without a doubt the Diamond Head Crater locally known as Le’ahi. Right at the eastern end of Waikiki Beach, this 475 crater is a must see for any traveler.

The saucer-shaped natural monument is not only a great place to admire the beautiful surroundings of Honolulu, but also an interesting hiking spot, right in the middle of a former volcano tuff cone.

The English name of the area – Diamond Head was given by British sailors two centuries ago, when they thought they found diamonds on the beach near the crater, though they were only crystals. The actual volcano was formed about 300 000 years ago and today the crater is over 760 feet high.

Just like some of the most well-known cities in the world have a very distinct skyline, with either a popular building like Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Jesus Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, Honolulu is mostly associated with the peculiar outline of this crater. It can be seen from every spot in the city, while the actual crater offers unbelievable views over the sun drenched beaches of Waikiki and the shining buildings of Honolulu.

Visitors who can take a less than a mile hike until the edge of the crater. Though the trail is not very difficult, it’s mostly unpaved and leads through a tunnel and ascends on more than 150 steps.

However, visitors who are brave enough to walk all the way to the top are rewarded with a great viewing point overlooking Waikiki and the Pacific Ocean.

10. Nu‘uanu Pali

Hawaii has no shortage of incredible views and thanks to its diverse landscapes; tourists have a great opportunity to admire the islands form different vantage points. One such place is a particular section of Koʻolau mountain in Oahu, named Nu‘uanu Pali.

The Pali Highway, that connects the Downtown district of Honolulu with the city of Kailua, passes through several tunnels bored into the edge of the mountain.

Above the tunnels there’s also a lookout from where tourists and locals alike flock to admire the panoramic view over Oahu. The highway is over 1160 feet high and visitors can admire 3000 feet high peaks, the city of Kailua, Kāneʻohe Bay and even Coconut Island and Mokolii, a small island which is known by the locals as Chinaman’s Hat.

This highway is one of the most important and scenic routes in Hawaii, which dates back to ancient times, since it is the lowest part of Koʻolau mountain range, making it a lot easier to cross. In fact the name Pali means “cliff”. The area also has an important historical significance – this is where, at the end of the 18th century, Battle of Nuuanu took place, and King Kamehameha I managed to unite all the Hawaiian islands under his rule.

If you have a good physical condition, you can even hike on the trail to Nuuʻuanu Pali from Kalanikahua. Though it is not for the average couch potato, this trail leads through some marvelous landscapes, ponds and fresh water streams.

The area is surrounded by several local legends and superstitions. For example, locals leave flowers near two large stones, Hapuʻu and Ka-lae-hau-ola, located near the road. Legend says the stones are two goddesses who protect travelers who choose this trial.

What is more, locals usually avoid carrying pork while travelling through Nu‘uanu Pali. It is said that the goddess of fire, Pele, one of the most powerful goddess in Hawaiian folklore, od the enemy of Kamapua’a, a half hog half human god, and because of that she doesn’t allow him, in the form of any kind of pork, to trespass on her side of the island. There are also many stories of ghosts and spirits which attack travelers for their food, particularly during the night.

Nevertheless, if you are not frighten by these legends, a drive through Nu‘uanu Pali, though more difficult, will reward you with even more incredible views of the coastline at night and the city lights.