Welcome to Kauai: the Emerald Isle of Hawaii and home to the Grand Canyon of the Pacific! Of the four main Hawaiian islands, Kauai is known for its lush, tropical landscape, epic beaches, and unmissable tourist attractions.
But which Kauai tourist attractions should you prioritize on your trip to Kauai? Let’s find out, but first we’ll answer a few commonly asked questions about Kauai.
Is Kauai very touristy?
Compared to the islands of Oahu and Maui, Kauai is not very touristy. It doesn’t have a big city, like Honolulu, and doesn’t see the same tourists flocking to famous places like the Road to Hana in Maui. In fact, Kauai is even quieter than the Big Island, which is known for being more remote and natural.
Despite being the least touristy of Hawaii’s four major islands, Kauai still has all of the infrastructure tourists need to enjoy a holiday there. You’ll find an international airport, lots of hotels and shops, and even a Target and Costco on the island.
How many days do you need to visit Kauai?
I believe five days in Kauai is the perfect amount of time. This allows you to explore Kauai’s tourist attractions, spend time at the beach, discover the best places to eat in Kauai, and maybe even go on an adventure or two. With five days, you would also have time to explore all sides of the island.
Do you need to rent a car to visit Kauai?
Yes, you do need to rent a car when visiting Kauai. Unlike some of the other Hawaiian islands, there is not extensive public transportation available in Kauai and most of the main tourist sites are driving-distance away from one another. So be sure to book your rental car in advance!
Driving around Kauai is fairly easy, as there’s only one main road that circles the perimeter of the island. Note that the road doesn’t fully circle the island; the Na’Pali Coast mountains on the northwest of Kauai prohibit a road from passing through. You’ll also want to stay alert for any road closures due to flooding.
Explore Kauai at your own pace with this narrated, self-guided driving tour.
If you’re not wanting or able to rent a car, join a guided bus tour to best explore Kauai.
Where should you stay in Kauai?
The most popular areas to stay in Kauai are Poipu in the south and Princeville in the north. While Princeville accommodation prices are slightly cheaper than Poipu’s, the area does see more rainfall and is farther from some of Kauai’s best tourist attractions. However, I believe the north shore beaches are better for swimming.
The south shore beaches around Poipu are rockier and hotel prices are higher, but you are closer to Kauai’s main sites. There’s also the option to stay in Lihue or Wailua on the east side of the island. Accommodation here isn’t as plentiful but it is cheaper.
Top 5 Kauai tourist attractions
Waimea Canyon State Park & Kokee State Park
The absolute can’t miss tourist attraction in Kauai is the Waimea Canyon. Heralded as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon State Park and the adjoining Kokee State Park will give you epic views of jagged coastlines, towering mountains, lush valleys, hidden waterfalls and gorgeous lookouts over the Pacific Ocean.
You’ll want to dedicate at least half a day to driving through these two parks. Note that there is only one road in and out, so you’ll be returning on the same road that you drove in on. The road can also get quite windy, so pack your nausea medication if you get carsick.
Along the way, there will be a number of official and unofficial lookout points. The official lookout points require paid parking, which acts as your entrance fee to the parks. There are also a number of hiking trails you can head out on to better explore the landscape.
Related tour: Waimea Canyon & Kokeʻe State Park Private Tour
Makauwahi Cave Reserve
Located down a dirt road on Kauai’s south shore, the Makauwahi Cave Reserve is home to Hawaii’s largest limestone cave and is the perfect place to discover Kauai’s diverse terrain. From the upper parking lot you’ll trek down a hill, stopping often to take in views of the ocean and jungle. Along the way, you can peel off the trail to hit the beach or visit the resident tortoises.
Once you’ve reached the cave, you’ll have to crawl on hands and knees to enter it. Don’t worry – the crawl is only a few feet long and there’s a tarp on the ground to protect your knees. If you time your visit right, you’ll be able to speak to one of the cave guides who can point out different rock formations and the home of the rare cave wolf spider.
Related tour: Private Tortoises, Caves, and Cliffs South Shore Hike
South shore beaches
Kauai isn’t just about hiking, jungles and mountains – you have to make time to hit the beach as well! On the south shore, you’ll be spoiled for your choice of beach to spend the day swimming, snorkelling and relaxing at. The top south shore beaches include Baby Beach, Kiahuna Beach, Shipwreck Beach and Poipu Beach.
Poipu Beach is consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the world and is certainly one of the busier beaches in Kauai. But there is no better place to watch the sunset! Plus, if you’re lucky, you may spot a monk seal lounging on the sand.
Note: In my experience, the south shore beaches seemed rocky and the waves were not so calm. If this is your experience too, I suggest wearing water shoes and only venturing further out if you’re a strong swimmer.
North shore beaches
We can’t let the south shore have all the fun! Of course, you’ll want to spend some time on the north shore of Kauai and give their beaches a try too. I found the northern beaches to be more calm, sandy and family-friendly than the southern ones. At many I found I could walk out over 100 feet from the shore and the water would still only be at my hips.
The most popular beach on the north shore is Hanalei Beach, featuring a long pier that juts out into the water and features on many Kauai postcards. Nearby is Anini Beach, a more peaceful spot known for great snorkelling. Tunnels Beach is another one that snorkellers will want to hit up. And if you’re looking for a beach off the beaten path, check out Hideaway Beach, accessible only by a steep trail.
Related tour: Private Wildlife, Beach Hike with Snorkel Option
Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls
As you prepare to depart Kauai, there’s one final stop you need to make on your way to the airport. You can’t leave Kauai without checking out a few more epic waterfalls! Both Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls are nearby the airport and definitely worth the detour. These were some of the most beautiful and lush waterfalls I saw on the entire island.
If you’re just in it for the views, both waterfalls have designated parking areas where you can pull up and enjoy the scenery from a lookout point. However, if you want to get up close and personal, you can also hike to the falls and experience them from a whole other level.
Bonus: Exploring the Na’Pali Coast!
After Waimea Canyon, the Na’Pali Coast might be the most popular and must-see tourist attraction in Kauai. But getting to the coast can be difficult. If you’re not able to visit the Na’Pali Coast, there is still plenty to see and do in Kauai that will blow you away.
One option for visiting the Na’Pali Coast is to hike the Kalalau Trail through Haena State Park. The only way to access this trail is on-foot and advanced reservations and permits are required. If you want to do the entire trail, it’s a 22 mile round trip hike that requires an overnight camping stay.
If you’re not up for a long hike or didn’t get a reservation in time, you have a few more options for exploring the Na’Pali Coast. You can take a boat, small plane or helicopter. Boats leave from the south or north of the island, depending on the time of year, and are out on the water for a few hours.
Note that these waters are notoriously rough and if you’re prone to seasickness like I am, a Na’Pali Coast boat tour might not be a fun option. The Na’Pali Coast plane and helicopter rides can also be a little bumpy and are, as expected, quite costly.
Other Kauai tourist attractions you’ll want to visit
Of course, there’s so much more to see and experience in Kauai than just the five sites above. If you have time, here are a few more Kauai tourist attractions to add to your itinerary:
- Kauai Coffee Company: Go on a free independent walking tour to learn about coffee production in Kauai and then sample some of their favourite brews!
- Hanapepe: Kauai’s biggest little town, Hanapepe is a great place to discover local shops and restaurants, as well as walk across the swinging bridge.
- Spouting Horn: Check out this blowhole on the south shore that erupts like a geyser every time a wave crashes into the shore.
- Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail: For those who don’t like to hike, this coastal walking trail is the perfect option to explore the seaside views of the south shore.
- Tree Tunnel: As you drive along the island, you’ll inevitably drive through the Tree Tunnel, a canopy of Eucalyptus trees that give Kauai a Middle Earth feel.
- Kilauea Lighthouse: A beautiful spot on the north shore to look out over the coast and maybe spot a whale. It’s also home to a bird sanctuary, which you can pay to enter.
- Smith’s Family Garden Luau: One of the most popular luaus on Kauai offers a delicious Hawaiian feast, impressive luau dance show and a 30-acre garden you can explore before showtime.
- Ziplining or mountain tubing: If you’re feeling adventurous, why not swing along the trees or go tubing down some mountain passes? Kauai has lots of options for thrill seekers!
With this list in hand, I’m sure you’re getting excited for your trip to Kauai. Make sure to tick off as many of the above Kauai tourist attractions as you can!