There are so many phenomenal activities to do on the Hawaiian islands, and perhaps that’s why people of all ages are drawn here. Hawaii is a true paradise with its own unique culture. From lounging on its black-sand beaches to touring downtown Honolulu to seeing the only palace in the United States, here are the top things to experience in the Aloha State.
Swim with sharks in Haleiwa, North Shore Oahu
Nothing gets your heart pumping with adrenaline more than swimming and freediving with apex marine predators. Take a 3mi (5km) boat trip out to a natural shark aggregate site with One Ocean Diving for this experience of a lifetime. On your way, learn about the biology, physiology, culture and role of sharks in their environment, and how to interact with them – all while looking for dolphins, whales and turtles in the distance. You never know what you’ll encounter during this experience, whether it’s 50 Galapagos and sandbar sharks or the majestic lone tiger shark.
Take a tour of the Nā Pali coast, Kauai
Take a picturesque boat ride to see the spectacular Nā Pali (many cliffs) coast on the island of Kauai. Learn about the culture and geographical landscapes that make the North Shore of Kauai so magnificent and special as you take in the beauty all around you. On your tour, you will zoom through caves, drive through waterfalls, watch for dolphins and whales, snorkel with turtles and more. This adventure is mostly a summer activity as the North Shore can get rough in the winter.
Tour Iolani Palace
Get to know about the powerful Hawaiian monarchy by visiting the only palace in the United States, Iolani Palace, which was completed in 1882 by King David Laʻamea Kamananakapu Mahinulani Naloiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua (say that three times fast). The splendid palace was also home to Queen Liliʻuokalani, the first reigning queen, and the last monarch, of the Kingdom of Hawaii (sister to King Kalākaua). Visiting the historic site is a great way to enjoy one of the most spectacular living restorations in all of Polynesia while educating yourself on Hawaii’s royal heritage.
Shop at Ala Moana
The Ala Moana Center is the largest shopping mall in the Hawaiian Islands and attracts veritable boat loads of people. It is a magnificent mall and has an outdoorsy feel as most of the complex is below an open roof. Listen to the tranquil sounds of the wind blowing, the waves crashing and birds singing all around you while shopping at your favorite stores. From fancy designer boutiques to shops selling local clothing, and high-end restaurants to fast food courts and game centers, you’ll find it all at Ala Moana.
Hike to the top of Diamond Head
Take in spectacular sweeping views of Waikīkī on top of Diamond Head Crater. This hike is short and maintained, so even the faint at heart can still enjoy this experience. At the top, you can see idyllic golden beaches to your left and bustling Waikīkī to your right. Just because it’s not extremely physically challenging don’t underestimate the trail. Make sure to pack water, wear sunscreen and bring a hat to shade from the Hawaiian sun. Your camera will be a must as well – you do not want to miss a photo at the top.
Learn at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Learn about different Polynesian and Pacific Island cultures at the Polynesian Cultural Center, located in beautiful Laie, Oahu. There are many activities to engage in here, whether you want to be creative or just eat. Whatever you choose, you’ll be immersing yourself in a new and authentic cultural experience. Take an explorative journey through nearby villages, learn to make leis and other traditional floral headpieces, dig into a flavorful barbecue at a Hawaiian luau, and watch the incredible art form that is a traditional hula show.
Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
Swim among colorful, intricate reef fish, turtles and a wide diversity of marine life in a protected cove on the southeast coast of Oahu. No photo can prepare you for this once-in-a-lifetime experience and the immediate increased bond with nature it inspires. Hanauma Bay is picture-postcard beautiful, with turquoise-blue waters and bright, white sand. Marine life thrives here as it is a protected area, where fishing and removing of wildlife is strictly prohibited. You will definitely want to pack your underwater camera.
Visit the Waimea Canyon
Visit the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, locally known as Waimea Canyon, for jaw-dropping views of the 10-mi (16-km) natural phenomenon formed by millions of years of steady rainfall, which eroded the land. Waimea is Hawaiian for reddish water, a reference to the erosion of the canyon’s red soil. Waimea Canyon Drive leads visitors to a lower-level lookout point, as well as to the main Waimea Canyon Overlook, which boasts magnificent views. The road rolls on into the mountains, finally ending at Koke’e State Park. Beginner and seasoned hikers alike will love hitting the trails.
Jump off Waimea Rock, Oahu
Waimea Bay, located in Haleiwa, Oahu, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. On the left side of the bay is the famous Waimea Rock, where both locals and tourists love to jump into the glittering waters. It is an easy climb up the rock, and the jump is just 33ft (10m). Let the fearless child within you emanate joy as you free-fall into the refreshing ocean – this experience will leave you grinning from ear to ear.
Lounge on Maui’s black-sand beach
Towards the end of the road to Hāna in Maui, there is an otherworldly volcanic beach called Waianapanapa. The water is a deep-blue hue, and the sand is midnight black. One of the most impressive views in Hawaii is this beach with the mountains in the background and the sea scattered all over the beach. This area is steeped in legends, including the tale of a princess who was murdered by her cruel chief husband in one the caves.
Take a guided tour at Kualoa Ranch
Learn about the culture of the Kaʻaʻawa Valley and ahupuaʻa Kualoa on a guided tour of the area. Choose your mode of transport from horseback riding to an ATV tour, cycling or a jungle jeep. During this spectacular adventure, you can also visit several famous filming locations of Hollywood blockbusters, including Jurassic Park, King Kong, Godzilla, Lost, and many others. A highlight of the experience is the zipline across the Jurassic Valley, where you’ll take in views of magnificent Oahu as you fly through the skies.
Take a helicopter tour of any island
See the island from a different perspective – in the sky. Get a bird’s-eye view of all the remote valleys, waterfalls, steep mountain cliffs and secluded beaches on a guided helicopter tour with the trained professionals at Paradise Helicopters. If you’re a photographer, do yourself a favor and please pick a tour with the ‘doors off’ option, as this will greatly enhance your experience and the quality of your photos. Soar through the sky on what will surely be the adventure of a lifetime.
See Akaka Falls on the Big Island
Drive a short while past Hilo to a town called Honomū, where you’ll find Akaka Falls State Park. Akaka Falls is an easily accessible, over 440ft (134m) waterfall that will take your breath away. It is quite a sight to behold, and you can feel the sheer power of it all the way from the viewing area. Here, you will be able to enjoy the peaceful sounds of nature, birds singing, the sweet smell of flowers and the roaring sounds of rolling rivers. There is nothing quite like getting up close and personal with a waterfall.
Swim with turtles on the North Shore of Oahu
The North Shore of Oahu is a haven for sea turtles, and they make their homes there on almost every beach in the summer. These curious and gentle sea creatures are usually very friendly to humans and will often approach you, as long as you make sure to swim slowly and calmly around them. Some favorite destinations to see the amazing turtles include Haleʻiwa Beach Park, Laniakea Beach, Waimea Bay, Shark’s Cove and Turtle Bay. Please be sure to respect Hawaiian laws and wildlife, as honu (green sea turtles) are federally protected.
Paddleboard to the Mokulua Islands in Lanikai
Lanikai Beach is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular beaches in Hawaii. The water is a pale bluish-green color, and the sand is pure white. Perhaps the most impressive attributes of this beach are the incredible “twin Islands” (the Mokes), which rise from the water in the background. Grab your board and paddle yourself over to Moku Nui, the larger of the two islands. Then spend your day lounging on an island off an island. If this isn’t the true definition of paradise, we don’t know what is.
Swim under the waterfalls
There are numerous waterfalls located all along the winding road to Hāna. Waikani Falls are not only easily visible from the road, but they are easy to get to. Don’t be scared to swim under the falls in the refreshingly cool pool below. It can be hot and sticky on the east side of Maui, but this waterfall will definitely cool you down. Another must-see waterfall on the Road to Hāna is Wailua Falls, Maui’s most photographed waterfall. The falls tumble 80ft (24m) down the side of a rich jungle. They can be admired from the road, but Culture Trip recommends taking a dip in the plunge pool below.
Explore the coconut groves in Waialua
Travel back in time to old Hawaii and explore the incredible coconut groves at Dillingham Ranch in Waialua on Oahu. There are thousands of coconut trees all over the property, and even horses roam freely in the landscape. The best time to go is around the golden hour, when the sun illuminates the coconut fronds in a rosy glow. Visitors to the ranch can also enjoy horseback riding, surfing, hiking and parasailing, while simultaneously experiencing local history and culture. The estate also boasts polo grounds and a premier equestrian center.
See the glass-sand beach on Kauai
Remember being a kid on the beach and carefully scanning the sand for the magic that is sea glass? Well at the beach in Eleele, Kauai you won’t have to look very hard. Thousands of pieces of tiny sea glass actually make up the ‘sand’ at this one-of-a-kind glass-sand beach. An old bottle factory used to operate on the beach, and they used to empty their bottles into the ocean. This practice, in turn, created the beautiful and unique shoreline that you certainly won’t want to miss visiting.
See the waterfalls at Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
It would be an understatement to say there is no shortage of rain on the east side of Oahu, and when it rains, something magical happens. The mountains cry as tiny waterfalls fill the crevices, creating a truly sensational sight unique to Hawaii. There is a saying in Hawaiian, Uē ka lani, ola ka honu, meaning “when the heavens cry, the earth grows.” If there is no rain on your visit, don’t let that stop you from exploring this beautiful garden. It has thousands of Hawaiian flora and fruit trees.
Take a ghost tour on Oahu
If you are looking for a truly unique experience in Hawaii – something that’s unlikely that your friends who’ve traveled here have done –try a ghost tour. Hawaii is known for its various legends and superstitions, so you’ll also be leaning into that aspect of the islands’ culture. Oahu ghost tours promise a one-of-a-kind experience for adults only, transporting participants to explore Oahu’s most haunted spots. Visitors will be taught about Oahu’s most sacred grounds and burial sites. Checking out the locations where sacrifices were made to the gods and goddesses is also on the itinerary.
Visit Gilligan’s Island
If you’ve ever seen the show Gilligan’s Island, you’ll remember the island being visible in the opening credits. As it turns out, that island is located right off the coast of Kaneohe Bay on Oahu. Known locally as Moku o Loe (Coconut Island), this place is now used by world-renowned institution the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) for multi-disciplinary research and marine biology education. View the island from a distance from the shores of Kaneohe Bay or explore on a three-hour boat tour around the Kaneohe Sandbar.
Check out the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet
For cool art, jewelry, clothing, unique homeware, amazing street food and everything in-between, head to the Swap Meet at the Aloha Stadium, 20 minutes from Waikiki. Three days a week, this stadium is transformed into the state’s biggest open-air flea market. Launched in 1979 for locals to share their unique cultural diversity, the market now boasts 400 local merchants. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled, because there are serious deals to be had on a wide range of merchandise including vintage pieces, original artwork, tasty local snacks and more.
Visit the Lava Tree State Monument
Forty minutes south of Hilo on the Big Island’s Puna District stands the Lava Tree State Monument. Only instead of trees, we’re talking about a forest of lava shaped like tree trunks. These real-life sculptures were formed when lava flow tore through the forest back in 1790. Visitors can walk the 0.7-mi (1.1-km) loop, but make sure to watch your step as the trail is uneven and laden with uprooted trees and tree trunks. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy this free slice of Hawaiian history.
Dive with manta rays
For the ultimate Big Island experience, try snorkeling or scuba diving with the manta rays. Just north of Kailua-Kona lies a bay frequented nightly as a feeding ground by the manta rays. With a wingspan up to 18ft (6m), they are the largest of the ray family. Local dive/snorkel professionals set up spotlights on the ocean floor to attract plankton, which attracts the rays. When the sun sets, the ocean goes dark apart from the divers’ flashlights and the spotlights. This is truly a magical environment in which to sight a ray.
Fancy a great base for your Hawaiian vacation? Book one of the best places to stay in Oahu now via Culture Trip.
Additional reporting by Alice Johnston
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