The Hawaiian Islands are an island chain located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In total, there are eight Hawaiian Islands, but two of them, Niihau and Kahoolawe, are closed off to visitors. The remaining six islands of Oahu, Maui, the Big Island (Hawaii), Kauai, Lanai, and Molokai all have their own unique atmospheres, attractions, and overall experiences.

woman walking on path in Hoomaluhia botanical garden towards Koolau Mountains on Oahu, Hawaii

OAHU

Oahu is the most frequently visited islands out of all of the Hawaiian Islands, as it is the home of the famous cities of Honolulu and Waikiki. It’s a bit difficult to classify Oahu as an entire island, as it is very diverse. That said, the vast majority of visitors stay in the Honolulu and Waikiki area, which is filled with shopping, fine dining, and nightlife, three things that are hard to come by on the other islands. While the Honolulu area is very developed, the island of Oahu still has beautiful natural landscapes, amazing hikes, and stunning beaches (but don’t expect to see any colored sand beaches on Oahu).

black sand beach aerial view in Waianapanapa State Park Maui

MAUI

Maui is the picture-perfect island getaway that most visitors to the Hawaiian Islands picture. It is the island most visited by couples (especially for honeymoons). This island is filled with beautiful sunsets, stunning natural landscapes that can be seen without a ton of effort, and high-class restaurants. Basically, when thinking of Maui, think of 50 First Dates vibes (although, just for the record, 50 First Dates was filmed on Oahu, not Maui).

lava flowing into ocean in Hilo, Hawaii

BIG ISLAND (HAWAII)

The Big Island of Hawaii, officially known as simply Hawaii, is by far the most diverse out of all of the islands. This single island is larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined and is home to all sorts of natural landscapes from sunny beaches to wet rainforests to dry deserts to snow-capped mountains.

The easiest way to understand the Big Island is to divide it into two halves: Kona and Hilo. Kona is the West side of the island, and it caters more to tourists. It is filled with sunny skies and sandy beaches. Hilo, on the other hand, is a very different vibe. This side of the island rains the vast majority of the year, is home to thousands of little croaking frogs, and has very few accommodations. But don’t let those factors keep you away from Hilo! It is also home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, several stunning waterfalls, tons of black sand beaches, and even a green sand beach.

stretch of the Na Pali Coast on Kauai, Hawaii

KAUAI

To understand Kauai, one law in particular just about sums it up: no building can be taller than a coconut tree. This one rule encapsulates the sleepy vibe of the island while also including the respect for nature that comes with the more adventurous parts of Kauai.

Most Hawaii locals would describe Kauai as “country,” not in the filled-with-cowboys kind of way, but more in the rural, natural kind of way. If you’re headed to Kauai, be prepared to enter the world of Jurassic Park (minus the dangerous animals, except for a few wild pigs) and do quite a bit of hiking.

shipwreck in water at Shipwreck Beach on Lanai, Hawaii

LANAI

When you go to Lanai, you want to get off the grid, but still have the feeling of a luxurious vacation. With only three hotels on this 140-square-foot-island (and two of them being Four Seasons Resorts), you’re sure to be one of the only visitors on Lanai. But Lanai’s small size doesn’t prevent it from having a ton of fun activities for visitors. Snorkel with dolphins in Hulopoe Bay, discover the magical landscape of Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods), and even check out a real-life shipwreck at Shipwreck Beach.

Don’t worry. If you’re worried about the size of the island seeming a little too small, you can always hop on a quick ferry ride over to Maui.

aerial view of green mountain cliffs on Molokai, Hawaii

MOLOKAI

While Lanai is off-the-grid, it does cater to visitors to some extent. Molokai, on the other hand, does not. The locals of this off-the-grid island prefer to live life without catering to visitors. While they are welcome, don’t expect brand-name hotels or guided tours (except for the famous guided Kalaupapa mule ride). If you’re on Molokai, you should definitely be ready to explore this untouched island on your own.