Hawaii

25 Things First Time Visitors to Hawaii Must Do

Hawaii is a magical place and with so many things to see and do here across the eight islands, it can be difficult to choose the ‘best’ things to experience.

I’ve lived in Oahu for three years now and have had a number of friends come to visit me during that time. I’ve always tried to tell them my favorite things to do (or show them if I’m luckily enough to be off work) and I thought it may be easier to compile a list to share.

Note: most of these will be Oahu based; it’s where I’ve spent most of my time and also where most of my friends have visited. A number of these points will transfer to other islands though.

(Pin this pin here)

  • Eat an acai bowl

I came across acai bowls for the first time in Hawaii in 2012 and fell in love. I wondered to myself “why are these not everywhere in the world?!” and seriously contemplated opening up a store in New Zealand that sold them. Fast forward five years and acai bowls are now at almost every café, health store and brunch spot around. But I still feel like is an important part of a visit to Hawaii. I’m a sucker for plain jane things; it doesn’t need to be fancy! My favorite places are Haleiwa Bowls and Banzai Bowls on the North Shore, and Lanikai Juice for when I’m in Waikiki. Add peanut butter to the blend for an extra tasty treat!

  • Swim with dolphins/sharks

Seeing these beautiful animals in the wild is one of the most incredible things I’ve done. There are a number of reputable companies that do cage and cage-free shark diving on the North Shore and also swimming/snorkeling with dolphins on the West Side of Oahu. For the dolphins, I recommend going to Makua Beach early (7-8am) and swimming out from the shore towards the boats and you’ll see dolphins! They come fairly close to shore but if you are not comfortable in the ocean, this isn’t the activity for you.

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We didn’t need to pay a company to see these amazing creatures up close… simply swim out from shore!
  • Skydive

In full disclosure, I haven’t done this one. I wouldn’t say I’m terrified of heights…but I’m most definitely terrified of throwing myself out of a plane and free falling down to the ground. I don’t think anyone could even pay me to do this. BUT, I have been told my friends that skydiving in Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to do it. I’ll take their word for it…

  • Experience a surf contest

If you visit Hawaii in the winter season (November-February), make sure you head up to the North Shore for a surf contest and a chance to see Kelly Slater, John John Florence or Mick Fanning surf. If you’re lucky enough to be on the island when The Eddie is called on, drop anything and head to Waimea Bay to see history being made.

  • Hike to a waterfall

Oahu offers hundreds of waterfall hikes and they are all very serene. My favorite ones for tourists would be Lulumahu Falls or Manoa Falls. My favorite waterfall for more adventurous visitors would be Sacred Falls (although it is highly illegal!).

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When it rains in Hawaii, we chase waterfalls
  • Eat poke and spam musubi

Vegetarians, this ones not for you. Poke is raw tuna, often cut into cubes. It can be served with no dressing or with dressings such as wasabi and shoyu (soy sauce). On the other hand, spam is a very processed meat and is a staple of a lot of Hawaiians diets. Spam musubi is like sushi, but with spam (rice and spam wrapped in a nori wrapper) and is available at most 7/11 making it a quick, easy snack on the go! Locals and tourists alike both swear on it.

  • Visit Waikiki, but don’t spend your entire vacation there.

I think this may be the number one tip I tell friends and family visiting Oahu; locals HATE Waikiki. I believe that visiting Waikiki for a day or two to experience the world famous Waikiki beach, check out the shops and eat at some of the delicious restaurants is necessary. But spending any longer than that, is a waste of your vacation! With the ease of AirBnB these days, hotels and resorts are not the only accommodation options anymore. Rent a car and head to another spot on the island for cleaner beaches, less crowds and more of a local experience.

  • Snorkel at Hanauma Bay

Often described as one of the best spots for snorkeling in the world, a visit to Hanauma Bay is a must do. Full disclosure: I don’t like it here! It’s very crowded, and you have to pay $7.50 to get in (and we all know I’m a cheap ass!). But some of my friends swear by it, so I included it. Let me know what you think after you’ve been.

  • Visit famous surf beaches on the North Shore: Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay & Sunset Beach

In summer, it’s hard to believe these beaches have any sort of sized waves; but in winter, you can easily see 15ft waves at any of these shorelines. Pipeline is the most famous surf beach in the entire world, whereas Waimea Bay holds the most prestigious surf contest of all time. Either way, visiting all of these beaches is a definite must do. Tip: adventurous visitors should jump off the rock at Waimea Bay for bragging rights!

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When friends come to visit me, this is a mandatory activity… I safely play the photographer

 

  • Pay your respects at Pearl Harbor

One of my favorite tourist attractions on the island (I’ve even been twice!), Pearl Harbor is an amazing memorial for those who lost their lives in 1941. Tip: go super early to get your tickets. They won’t allow bags in, but do have a bag check. Also, it’s free. Who doesn’t love that?!

  • Eat a malasada from Leonards

Now, I understand that malasada’s are not Hawaiian, but I’d never experienced one before living in Hawaii and now I can’t imagine my life without them! Think a warm donut, often filled with filling (custard is my favorite, but chocolate, haupia or macadamia nut are delicious also). There’s a few places on the island to get them but Leonards is the most famous one (and also the best).

  • Visit the Napali coast on Kauai

The Napali Coast on Kauai is often described as the most beautiful place on earth; and I can see why. A boat tour gives the best views of the dramatic cliffs from the ocean, while an 8 mile hike (the Kalalau Trail) from the North Shore of Kauai means you end up on the deserted beaches below the cliffs. The hike is not for the faint hearted though; trying to do this hike at the wrong time of year can result in injuries and even death. It’s even been named one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in all of America. Enter at your own risk!

  • Experience a sunrise hike

There’s something very calming about hiking in the darkness and sitting on the side of a hill while watching the sun arrive for the day above the ocean. I’d recommend either the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail or Lanikai Pillbox hikes for the best sunrise views on Oahu.

  • Try shaved ice

Shaved ice, aka snow cones, are welcomed with open arms on hot, humid days in Hawaii (which is almost every day!). Try local flavors such as li hing mui (a sweet and sour flavor that compliments fruity flavors), lilikoi (passionfruit), and of course, pineapple and coconut. Tip: add a scoop of icecream to the bottom or a drizzle of condensed milk over the top for an extra sweet treat!

  • Watch a sunset from the beach

I would recommend doing this every night that you can; each sunset is different and all of them are picturesque. In the summer time, the best sunsets can be seen from the North Shore, and in winter, the best ones can be seen from Waikiki.

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My two favorite things… sunsets and palm trees.
  • Have a go at surfing

If you’re visiting Hawaii in the winter season (December/January) then the places to learn to surf will be limited (e.g. you will die on the North Shore), but not impossible. Waikiki beach is calm almost all year round, but you’ll be amongst hundreds of others. Summer time brings smaller swells and a number of beaches to choose from.

  • Eat a delicious plate lunch

Plate lunch is a staple Hawaiian take-out meal that is simple, but delicious. Your choice of meat, 2 scoops rice and one scoop macaroni salad. And that’s it. The meat can be anything from poke, to fried chicken, beef curry or ribs. No matter what you pick, it’s going to taste ono (delicious).

  • Hike Diamond Head

Yes it’s filled with tourists. Yes it costs $1. Yes it’s so easy I once did it in flipflops. But it does give the best view across Honolulu and Waikiki Beach so spare a couple hours and do it.

  • Swim with a sea turtle

There’s a particular beach on the North Shore where you are guaranteed to see turtles, but it’s a sore spot with locals because of the backed up traffic, tour operators parking illegally and tourists jaywalking in front of cars. So for the sanity of the locals of my favorite place on the island, I’m not going to name this spot. However, turtles hang out at almost any beach you can swim at; just keep an eye out when you’re underwater and have that GoPro handy for the perfect selfie shot! Tip: do not touch the sea turtles at any point, they are an endangered species and it is highly illegal.

  • Have a fruity cocktail at a bar that overlooks the ocean

Because, well, why not? My favorite is Lava Flow – a pina colada but with strawberry sauce swirled throughout.

  • Visit the flowing lava on the Big Island

If your visit allows, I would HIGHLY recommend going to see the lava on the Big Island. There are a few different ways to see the lava, and I explain all of them in my other blog post (A Beginners Guide to Visiting the Big Island). It’s by far the most amazing, incredible and mind-blowing thing I’ve done in my entire life and I cannot recommend it enough!

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Just me with some lava flowing behind me, no big deal
  • Scuba dive

Some of the best things you can see in Hawaii, are under the sea, including some amazing ship wrecks. Many companies offer a beginners dive course so no certification is needed. My favorite companies would be Honolulu Scuba Company and Island Divers Hawaii.

  • Climb the Stairway to Heaven/Haiku Stairs

Now this is a tricky one – it’s highly illegal doing the stairs one way, but legal doing them from the back way. I’ll let you research this hike yourself if you dare; it’s often named one of the most dangerous hikes in the USA (along with the Kalalau Trail which I mentioned earlier).

  • Get a plate of garlic shrimp at a food truck

A visit to the North Shore of Oahu is not complete without a plate of garlic shrimp from a food truck that looks like it has seen better days. Giovanni’s in Kahuku and Haleiwa is the most famous one yet a number of them offer just as delicious shrimp. Tip: if you go to Giovannis, make sure you get a pen and sign the truck.

  • Extra bonus point just for fun: the Polynesian Cultural Centre

Voted the number one tourist attraction on Trip Advisor, the PCC is a tourist hot spot. And even so, it offers a truly amazing and authentic cultural experience. Coming from New Zealand, I wasn’t that interested in visiting an attraction that showcased a culture I grew up with. But when you’re offered free tickets by a fellow Kiwi and your mom is in town then strange things happen. And I was pleasantly surprised. The authentic-ness of each village, the delectable food for dinner and the absolutely incredible show at the end all make for one wonderful day.

Please let me know if you think I nailed it, or if I missed anything crucial.

Courtney xo

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36 thoughts on “25 Things First Time Visitors to Hawaii Must Do

  1. This a great list of things to do in Hawaii. We visited Oahu and Maui 10 years ago on a holiday and enjoyed most of the things on this list. The highlight for me was swimming with the Green Turtles and snorkelling at Molokini.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment! Maui is one of my favorite islands. I wrote another blog post on Maui – you should check it out and let me know what you think! I also love swimming with turtles and am very jealous you got to snorkel at Molokini 🙂

  2. These are such great tips! I hope to go one day. My parents went a couple of years ago, and they basically island hopped. That’s what I would want to do. I definitely want to see the waterfalls, Pearl Harbor, the lava, and the sea animals!

    1. Thank you! Island hopping is definitely a good way to do it. Maui and Kauai are my favorite islands but I’ve done the most on Oahu. The lava is my absolute favorite thing I’ve ever done in my whole life! I hope you get a chance to visit Hawaii soon 🙂

  3. One of my close friends is from Hawaii and lives there and I don’t know why I still haven’t been to visit her. I really need to do that. It looks like there is so much to do! 🙂

  4. The last time I was in Hawaii I was 13 years old. Although I was a total angsty teen, I do remember some of the amazing things I did and saw. The volcanos on the Big Island definitely stick out! As does a sunrise hike over a volcano. Hawaii has so much to offer it’s really hard to choose!

    1. Hahaha I feel the same when I went to Fiji when I was 10. I was totally obsessed with hanging at the pool with my cool new friends. I wish I could go back and shake myself and say explore the island with your family!

  5. Pearl Harbor was moving. I took the bus around to see USS Missouri as well. You’re right about the tickets: go early!

    Duke’s at Waikiki is a personal favourite. Hard to go past a couple of beers and those waffle fries, and that postcard view.

    Must go back and spend more than a couple of days.

  6. Great list. I love that there are almost all kind of beach activities on your list. When I go to hawaii this will definitely help me make the most of my time on the beaches. I would definitely want to try the big island as well

  7. This is a pretty huge and comprehensive list! What I don’t understand is how people keep successfully hiking these illegal areas. How didn’t you get caught going to the waterfalls? What about people who attempt stairway to heaven?

    1. I could’ve written more too! I say they’re illegal but only one hike on the island has a guard 24 hours a day and that’s Stairway to Heaven (Haiku Stairs). I know a couple people who have been cited and had to pay $500 each and others who have bribed the guard with money/food and others who have hid from the guard all together and been successful! So it completely depends on the day and how lucky you are. Sacred Falls is a different story. It’s highly illegal but is not monitored. We looked out for guards the entire time and it was pretty nerve wracking but we were lucky!

  8. These look like some really fantastic experiences! Some of them I’d heard of and are on my bucket list, but I’ve just had to expand that list yet again 🙂

  9. Nice read Courtney✨✌🏾. I like your cheap must-do list, though i’ll totally go skydiving (sorry but that is so on my bucket list)😂😂 i’ll prefer that to trying spam anytime. I heard that flights to Hawai are getting cheaper of late, so my hopes are still high to make it there at some point. I definitely bookmarked your article and subscribed to your blog.

  10. What an extensive list!! I would love to swim with dolphins and check out the beautiful destinations you mentioned! Poke is something I’d eat – it’s so good. Now I know why my parents went to Hawaii for their honeymoon.

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