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If you’re planning your first-ever trip to Hawaii, figuring out where to go can feel overwhelming with so many islands and options. But we’ll help narrow it down to the top destinations you shouldn’t miss for an incredible Hawaiian getaway.

If short on time, be sure to see Oahu’s famous Waikiki Beach, take in Maui’s Road to Hana, and visit Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii’s Big Island for a quick taste of the top sights.

In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know to plan your ideal itinerary, including the top beaches, natural wonders, historical and cultural sites, and activities across the most popular islands for first-time Hawaii visitors.

We’ll also offer sample one week itineraries to help you make the most of your vacation.

Start on Oahu for Iconic Hawaiian Sights

Waikiki Beach

Known for its pristine sand and prime surfing, Waikiki Beach is arguably Oahu’s most famous stretch of coastline. Over 2 miles long with views of Diamond Head crater, this iconic beach offers countless water activities like outrigger canoeing, catamaran rides, and snorkeling tours to see sea turtles and tropical fish.

When you’re ready for land, browse the high-end stores and dine at oceanfront restaurants in the adjacent Waikiki neighborhood. Don’t miss the free hula shows at the beach’s Duke Kahanamoku statue honoring Hawaii’s famous Olympic swimmer.

Pearl Harbor & USS Arizona Memorial

Pay tribute to the lives lost in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack at the USS Arizona Memorial. Managed by the National Park Service, this somber site lets you see the submerged wreckage of the USS Arizona battleship.

Combine it with the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and Battleship Missouri Memorial for a full perspective on the pivotal event that brought the U.S. into WWII. Ferry rides to the memorial depart every 15 minutes from the visitor center.

Hike Diamond Head Crater

A reminder of Oahu’s volcanic origins, iconic Diamond Head is a must-do hike offering sweeping panoramas. The steep 1.6-mile round trip pathway winds through tunnel openings and up staircases to the crater’s 761-foot summit overlooking Waikiki and downtown Honolulu.

Go early to beat the heat on this mostly exposed hike, packing plenty of water. If visiting with kids, be prepared to assist them on the climb’s steeper sections.

Check Out the North Shore’s World-Famous Surf

From October through March, massive swells roll onto Oahu’s famed North Shore, creating some of the planet’s best big wave surfing. Catch pros tackling legendary breaks like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay along the coastline dubbed the “Seven Mile Miracle.” When the waves mellow in summer, the North Shore transforms into a mecca for snorkelers and sea turtle viewers at spots like Shark’s Cove and Three Tables Beach.

Don’t skip the small surf towns like Haleiwa filled with shops selling surf gear and shave ice.

Relax and Recharge on Maui

As the second largest Hawaiian island, Maui is a magical place with lush rainforests, breathtaking waterfalls, stunning beaches, historic towns, and incredible whale watching. It’s the perfect destination to relax, rejuvenate, and indulge in the island life.

Take the Road to Hana

The spectacular Road to Hana winds along Maui’s northern coast for 64 miles passing waterfalls, swimming holes, scenic outlooks, hiking trails, and the iconic red sands of Kaihalulu Beach. This full-day adventure lets you experience the unspoiled beauty of east Maui with stops like the Haleakala National Park and the Seven Sacred Pools.

Just take it slow and watch for one-lane bridges along the way.

Explore Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park protects east Maui’s towering volcano rising over 10,000 feet high. Witness a breathtaking sunrise from the summit then hike trails through out-of-this-world landscapes dotted with silversword plants found nowhere else on Earth.

Or immerse yourself in the lush rainforest and waterfalls of Kipahulu near the famous Ohe’o Gulch with the Seven Sacred Pools.

Visit Secret Black Sand Beaches on the Way to Hana

Most visitors only experience the Road to Hana one way, but the drive in reverse offers several opportunities to discover beaches few people ever see. Waianapanapa State Park hides striking black sands between verdant cliffs while secluded Koki Beach requires a short hike through an enchanting bamboo forest.

And Wai’anapanapa’s legendary lava tube caves make for a memorable detour before stopping at standout sights on your return trip.

Check out the Whale Watching

Each winter between December to April, thousands of gentle humpback whales migrate to Maui from Alaska to breed, calve, and nurse their young. According to the Maui Whale Festival, Maui sees the most whale sightings of all the Hawaiian Islands with over 12,000 humpbacks spotted in 2022.

Grab some binoculars and scout for their tails, fins, and blows from scenic lookouts or hop on a whale watching cruise departing regularly from Lahaina and Ma’alaea harbors.

See Volcanic Sights on the Big Island

Marvel at Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a must-see for those making their first trip to Hawaii. Spanning over 300,000 acres, this park is home to the world’s most active volcanoes including Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

Visitors can drive the scenic Crater Rim Drive and hike across volcanic landscapes down to where flowing lava spills into the ocean. According to the National Park Service, “even today, few destinations feel as dynamic as the landscape here”.

It is undoubtedly a geological and ecological wonder to marvel at.

See the Lava Flowing into the Ocean at Night

One of Hawaii’s most mesmerizing sights is seeing bright red lava meet the sea at night. On a moonlit evening, visitors can witness lava streams flowing from Kilauea volcano into the Pacific Ocean. The sight of the 2,000°F molten rock oozing into the water, setting off bursts of steam, and forming smoldering black ledges is simply amazing to behold.

Relax on the Black Sand Beaches

Black sand beaches formed from lava are prevalent on the Big Island. A standout is Punaluʻu Beach near Naʻalehu town. Its jet black sands and gentle waves make it a peaceful spot to unwind. Green sea turtles can also be seen basking on the beach.

For stunning views, head to Pololū Valley Lookout to gaze upon the steep cliffs dropping to a secluded black sand beach.

Check out the Waterfalls in Waipio Valley

Waipio Valley is home to many cascading waterfalls including the magnificent Hiʻilawe Falls dropping over 1,200 feet. Guided tours take visitors down into the valley where taro fields, horses and the area’s falls come into stunning view.

According to Hawaii Revealed guidebook, “Waipio Valley on the Hamakua Coast offers some of Hawaii’s most beautiful waterfall scenery”. It’s easy to lose track of time while taking in the serenity and beauty here.

One Week Sample Itinerary

Days 1-3: Oahu Highlights

No trip to Hawaii is complete without visiting Oahu. Spend your first three days exploring this vibrant island’s gorgeous beaches, iconic landmarks, and captivating culture. Stay in Waikiki to be close to top attractions like Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head State Monument, Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and great shopping and dining on Kalakaua Avenue.

Must-see stops include snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, one of Oahu’s most spectacular nature preserves, hiking up the ridge of the crater at Diamond Head for sweeping views, learning about World War II history at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and Museum, exploring Polynesian villages and experiencing dances and music at the Polynesian Cultural Center, and strolling down Waikiki’s famous beach lined with hotels, shops and restaurants.

Be sure to sample local flavors like fresh pineapple, shrimp trucks and shave ice!

Days 4-6: Road to Hana & Haleakala National Park

Next, fly over to Maui and spend three days taking in the island’s lush rainforests, breathtaking waterfalls and winding coastal vistas along the renowned Road to Hana. Stay in Paia or Hana towns to be closest to the sights.

The narrow, twisting Hana Highway has over 600 curves and 59 bridges, including majestic manmade and natural wonders. Must-see Road to Hana stops include the Twin Falls, Waikamoi Ridge Trail, Hana Lava Tube, Wailua Falls, Pools of Oheo, and red sand beach at Kaihalulu.

Cap off your time in Maui with the drive to the otherworldly summit of Haleakala in Haleakala National Park to watch a dazzling sunrise or sunset. At 10,000 feet elevation, the volcanic crater offers out-of-this world panoramic views.

Keep an eye out for the unique Haleakala silver sword plant found nowhere else!

Day 7: Volcanoes National Park

On your last day, take a quick flight to Hawaii’s Big Island. Spend it exploring the raw volcanic landscape in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to walk across steaming craters and see Madame Pele’s lurking lava.

Don’t miss seeing the red glow at the Halema’uma’u crater at night, admiring the rainbow colored volcanic glass at Keanakāko’i Crater, hiking through the fern and ohia tree forest on the Kilauea Iki Trail, and learning about Hawaiian mythology and culture at the Jaggar Museum.

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience to top off your trip, consider taking a helicopter tour for a bird’s eye view flight over active volcanoes and lava flows. Seeing Hawaii’s geothermal phenomenon from the sky offers a jaw-dropping perspective you’ll never forget!


With so much natural beauty, culture, history, beaches, and adventure, Hawaii offers something for all interests and styles of travel. Use our guide and sample itineraries to help plan out your stops for an incredible first visit you’ll never forget.

The hardest part will just be choosing which islands and sights to see when you undoubtedly start planning your return trip as soon as you get home!

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