Hawai’i is a land of contrasts. The archipelago has 750 miles of combined coastline. Visitors can explore a rainbow of different beaches, from black to orange to rare green sands.
However, these postcard-perfect tropical beaches are just the beginning. The tallest peaks get snow-dusted in the winter. Hikers can then soak off the chill in mineral-rich warm springs.
Along with its stunning natural beauty, Hawai’i has a rich history stretching back to when it was settled over a thousand years ago.
It has evolved from its Polynesian roots to a major tourist destination in modern times. Over ten million visitors a year come to learn, explore, and adventure on these islands.
Famous Landmarks in Hawaii
1. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is one of the biggest attractions of the state. It protects Mauna Loa, the largest shield volcano on Earth, and Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
In fact, Kilauea rumbles and erupts so frequently that vacationers should check the park’s website before making plans.
Legend has it that these volcanoes are the sacred home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. It became a tourist attraction around the 1840s. The national park itself was signed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, becoming the 11th national park in the USA.
People exploring its 505 square miles can enjoy hiking trails, camping opportunities, and unsurpassed views of the Hawaiian wilderness. Because there’s such a range of elevations (sea level to 13,679 feet), you can experience everything from tropical rain-forests to mountainous climate to a desert.
2. Pearl Harbor National Memorial
On December 7, 1941, an attack on Pearl Harbor naval base changed the course of history. The United States left its neutral position and joined World War II, turning the tides of the globe-spanning conflict.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a world-famous landmark in Hawai’i that commemorates this event.
The visitor center has educational galleries about the Pacific theater portion of World War II. There are several nearby memorials that are an easy walk away. One of them is the USS Missouri.
This museum ship was the last battleship commissioned by the United States. It participated in key battles throughout the Pacific Theater during WWII and the Korean War. Her quarterdeck is where the Empire of Japan surrendered.
3. Polynesian Cultural Center
If you’re visiting the northern shore of Oahu, this is a great attraction for families with a free afternoon. It started as an LDS Church-sponsored nonprofit center in 1962.
The center was created to generate student scholarships and preserve and share Polynesian culture. It has since grown to eight simulated tropical villages. Each village is centered on a different corner of the Polynesian culture, ranging from Tahiti to Aotearoa (New Zealand).
Performers there demonstrate Polynesian arts and crafts. Visitors can take boat rides, watch dance productions, and attend Lu’aus. These feasts have traditional Polynesian fare such as pork roasted in underground ovens, taro rolls, ahi poke, and fresh pineapple.
The center also hosts year-round holiday specials and events like the World Fireknife Championships.
4. Iolani Palace
The ‘Iolani palace was the royal residence for the last rulers of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. After the monarchy was overthrown, this stately building became the capitol for the provisional government and eventually the new state.
It was used for official business until 1969, and then restored and opened as a museum in 1978. Visitors can marvel at the throne room, antique furniture, paintings, and other artifacts that history buffs will love.
‘Iolani Palace is built on land near a sacred burial site for the ancient ruling class. The original Palace was constructed starting around 1844, but had to be demolished due to extensive termite damage.
The building you see now was built starting in 1879. It’s considered by many to be the hallmark of the Hawaiian renaissance architecture style.
5. Waimea Canyon State Park
Kaua’i is home to the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific.’ This ten-mile long, 3000 foot deep canyon was formed when the Waimea River carved through the softer red soil of the area.
The extreme rainfall on Kauai’s highest peak, Mount Wai’ale’ale, has helped accelerate this beautiful process.
The state park packs a number of attractions into 7.5 square kilometers. Verdant green plants crawl up the striped-rock sides of the cliffs and mountains.
There are numerous waterfalls that hikers can visit. Keep an eye out for rainbows thanks to the area’s frequent rainstorms.
This is a great place to visit in connection with one of the other natural attractions in the area. These include Koke’e State Park, local wilderness preserves, multiple beaches, and Na Pali Park (see below).
6. Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park
The stunning views of Waimea Canyon are rivaled by the Na Pali coastline. This state park is on the northwest coast of Kaua’i and protects the Kalalau Valley. Its na pali, or high cliifs, stretch up to 4,000 feet above the shoreline.
The dramatic and rugged landscape is inaccessible to vehicles. However, there are hiking trails you can take. The main one is the Kalalau Trail, an 11 mile trek that crosses five major valleys.
You can take side paths to experience viewpoints and nearby waterfalls. It’s an amazing, though challenging, hiking experience.
Fortunately, you can also take in these stunning views by water. Charter a boat tour, or take a kayak or paddleboard along the coastline. For a higher vantage point, helicopter tours are available from multiple places, such as Lihue.
7. Haleakalā National Park
This park on the island of Maui is named after the dormant volcano at its heart. Visitors come to see this attraction. They stay to experience 38 square miles of rugged wilderness and coastal areas.
Haleakala was originally part of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, but was split into another park in 1961. There’s a visitor’s center near the summit and an observatory. In fact, this park has one of the clearest views of the night sky and you can see a lot with just a simple pair of binoculars.
Large swaths of this landscape are rocky and barren, with little to distract from the painted beauty of the earth itself. However, once you move away from the summit, a tropical paradise flourishes on the rich soil.
Hosmer’s Grove in the park is worth a visit. This forest has a mix of trees including eucalyptus from Australia, spruce from North America, sugi from Japan, and more.
8. Hanauma Bay
This stunning, semi-enclosed bay is on the southern coast of O’ahu. In its heyday, about a million visitors yearly got a look at one of the most famous landmarks in Hawai’i. However, all the sunscreen left in the waters of this relatively small bay damaged the marine ecosystem.
The park has started to sharply limit the number of visitors per day. It requires online reservations for non-residents. These fill up quickly, so it’s best to book in advance when you’re planning your trip.
Hanauma Bay isn’t just an amazing photo opportunity; it’s also a Nature Preserve and Marine Life Conservation District. You can enjoy an amazing variety of marine life from a respectful distance.
The shimmering turquoise waters of the bay abound with green sea turtles and 400 species of remarkable and colorful tropical fish.
9. Bishop Museum
The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum on O’ahu has the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and numerous specimens of natural history. The building features multiple halls detailing the myths, legends, and history of the Polynesian people.
There’s also a library, personal papers from Hawaiian royalty, and a collection of 19th century Hawaiian art. Head outdoors to explore interpretive gardens and murals.
Until fairly recently, the Bishop Museum owned the Falls of Clyde, the world’s last surviving sail-driven oil tanker. However, the deteriorating ship became too expensive to maintain.
In 2008, a non-profit group, Friends of Falls of Clyde, got ownership and have been restoring the vessel. This famous relic of the bygone era is not yet available for tours.
10. Diamond Head
This is a cone of volcanic tuff that stands guard over the Waikiki neighborhood. Native Hawai’ians called it Le’ahi, or ‘tuna ridge’ because the shape resembles a tuna’s dorsal fin. ‘Diamond Head’ was a name given by British sailors, inspired by the glittering calcite crystals in the nearby sand.
Diamond Head was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1968. Parts of the area are closed to the public for governmental and military use. Other sections can still be visited.
This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hawai’i for its historic significance and proximity to local resort hotels and beaches. It was famously the site of multiple all-day music festivals in the 1960s and 70s.
Bands like the Grateful Dead and Journey came to play at the ‘Hawaiian Woodstock.’ At times, over 75,000 attendees would squeeze into less than one square mile of land. However, these festivals came to an end due to concerns about the environmental impact.