Let’s talk about Hawaii. I’m pretty sure this archipelago of eight main islands surrounded by 129 smaller ones in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the closest we can get to paradise on Earth. But what is Hawaii famous for?
Hawaii is known for its 750 miles of spotless coastline dotted with volcanoes, its ancient culture that includes icons like the hula dance and lūʻaus, as well as for its rich cuisine that gave us poke bowls.
Ready to dive into the breathtaking sights and marvelous culture that Hawaii is known for? Because I can’t wait!
Here are all the things that Hawaii is known and famous for:
First things first
Let’s track down a few basic items Hawaii is known for — well, except for cultural traditions, which rightfully got a dedicated section.
1. 50th state
Before becoming the latest state admitted to the United States in 1959, Hawaii had had quite a hectic history. King Kamehameha the Great conquered the rest of the archipelago from the island of Hawaii in 1795 and formed the Kingdom of Hawaii.
It started to flourish economically and consequently attracted American businesses and settlers. Then in 1893, a U.S-backed coup ousted the dynasty that had deposed Kamehameha’s successors (the irony), and five years later the islands were annexed to the country as a federal territory.
But the turbulence was far from over: in 1941, the Japanese attack on the naval base of Pearl Harbor in Honolulu prompted the U.S. to declare war against Japan and formally enter World War II.
Home to a population of about 1 million, the capital of Hawaii is located on O’ahu, the third-largest island of the archipelago. The importance of its natural port is reflected in Honolulu’s very name, which means “sheltered harbor” in Hawaiian.
Honolulu is where you’ll find landmarks like the Iolani Palace, in which the last monarchs of Hawaii lived, the volcanic-craters-cum-parks of Diamond Head and Koko Head, and the State Capitol, where the bicameral Hawaii State Legislature is headquartered.
3. Aloha shirts
Aloha shirts are thought to have been created in the 1930s with prints imported from Japan. Though they were initially perceived as tacky, movies set in Hawaii helped them gain popularity on the mainland beginning in the 1950s.
Back then, an aloha shirt wasn’t really something locals would wear too often. But a lot has changed since they were first introduced, and today they’re one of the main things Hawaii is known for. Hawaiians will don finer of these shirts even in informal business settings or at a nice dinner.
A lei is a loose necklace, a wreath to be more accurate, that native Hawaiians give away to express friendship, love, peace, and related values. Coupled with an aloha shirt, it makes up the quintessential Hawaiian outfit (or, to be fair, that of tourists in Hawaii).
Lei originated elsewhere in Polynesia and were normally worn by Hawaiians to signify their social standing.
In our time, it’s commonly gifted to visitors as a welcoming gesture. While materials vary widely, flowers and leaves are typically used to assemble lei.
5. Yellow hibiscus
Seven species of hibiscus are endemic to Hawaii, and the yellow flower of one of them (Hibiscus brackenridgei) is the state’s official flower.
Ironically, the red-flower-bearing Chinese hibiscus is more often grown for ornamental purposes on the islands than the native ones.
6. Cost of living
If you haven’t already noticed, take a look at the map above and you’ll realize how isolated Hawaii is; California is about 5.5 hours away by plane, and Australia is 11.
And since other than food and clothing Hawaii doesn’t produce much of anything, virtually everything else has to be shipped over from the mainland or “neighboring” countries.
So it’s not really shocking that Hawaii has the highest cost of living of all 50 states, though Honolulu itself is slightly cheaper than New York City and San Francisco. Couple that with high taxes and lower-than-average wages and you have an explosive combo.
Visiting is obviously not necessarily a bankruptcy-triggering affair. Yet be aware meals and lodging can cost more than you expect and save up a few extra bucks to fly between the islands.
Hawaii is known for its imposing nature
The islands’ combo of jagged coastline, lush forests, and majestic volcanoes feel almost otherworldly.
7. Stunning beaches
A tropical vacay worthy of the name without awe-inspiring beaches, and of course Hawaii is known for having countless of those.
The top-notch infrastructure of Waikiki, near downtown Honolulu, is perfect for families; the rugged beauty of Makapu’u Beach will cast a spell on anyone.
Among the 100+ beaches across the archipelago, you’re guaranteed to find your own private paradise. Some of the best beaches (maybe even on Earth) are hidden in Hawaii, accessible solely by boat or through hiking trails.
It’s not so accurate to say Hawaii has tons of volcanos as it is to describe it as made up of volcanoes. The islands are part of a long V-shaped chain of volcanoes formed around 47 million years ago.
While the majority of them are underwater, fifteen volcanoes at the southeastern tip have reached above sea level and should be thanked for giving us Hawaii.
Six Hawaiian volcanoes are still active, yet only three have erupted in the last century. Mauna Kea, the tallest and arguably most famous of them, has been dormant for 4,500-6,000 years.
In case you want to play the game “The Floor is actually Lava”, tour Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the island of Hawaiʻi for lava tubes, fuming craters, one-hour-old land, and a simply breathtaking adventure.
Native Hawaiians treat the environment as sacred and see themselves as part of a whole encompassing the natural world.
So it’s not exactly surprising that Hawaii is home to one of the largest protected areas on the planet to the northwest of the main islands, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Surely, the entire archipelago is teeming with wildlife, particularly in the Hawaiian rainforests. That’s awesome considering Papahānaumokuākea (which spans ten islands and atolls) is currently closed to the general public.
But you should go discover all that asap, as many endemic species are threatened with extinction.
10. Flawless weather
Because of winds that constantly blow from the east, temperatures in Hawaii are milder than in most of the tropics; they average between 24-31°C (75-88 F) during summer and 18-28°C (65-83 F) in the colder seasons.
Also unlike elsewhere in the tropics, Hawaii’s wet season is actually the winter, which means there’s hardly any chance the weather will bum you out if you visit in the summertime. While surfers will want to seek out the winter’s impressive waves, they’re already used to getting soaked anyway.
Its cultural icons are instantly recognizable
Hawaii is known for giving off relaxing vibes, which is pretty much what Hawaiian culture is all about.
Surfing was practiced by indigenous nations throughout Polynesia and as far as the coast of Peru, yet nowhere else did it persist for so long or develop as much as in Hawaii. On the islands, surfing had more to do with tradition and spirituality than fun.
But they already competed back in the day; winners earned respect and had a better chance with ladies — not that different from our time, huh?
Though Hawaii has surfing spots galore, surfers flock to the North Shore of the island of O’ahu. The waves on the North Shore are famous for breaking evenly (which apparently is the very definition of surfers’ heaven) and are huge, especially in wintertime.
12. Hawaiian language
Despite being phonetically simple — it has only eight consonants — Hawaiian almost went extinct in the mid-twentieth century, as English became the first language of virtually all locals.
Luckily, it’s been revived in the past decades, though a creole language that emerged since is now way more common.
On the remote Ni’ihau, however, knowing just aloha and ohana won’t get you far. The island is the sole location within Hawaii where the native language is still spoken daily by residents.
In the absence of writing, the Polynesians who settled in Hawaii danced and sang to preserve their history and culture. That’s why hula is in fact a complex art that further evolved since the earlier contacts with Westerners in the 18th century.
Hula would be performed both informally at family gatherings and more elaborately to entertain tribal chiefs.
While much of the tradition was lost (or turned into a mere touristic performance) over the last 100 years, more and more Hawaiians have been reviving it in the past few decades in an attempt to connect with the culture of their ancestors.
The most traditional Hawaiian feast synthesizes the amazing vibes Hawaii is known for. Kamehameha II, son of the kingdom’s founder, (sort of) created lūʻaus when he abolished kapu, the intricate system of rules and taboos that, among other things, prevented men and women from eating together.
At a lūʻau, Hawaiians will have poke and kālua meat (check out no. 17 and 19), dance to the hula, and celebrate their beautiful culture.
Ukuleles were developed in Hawaii in the late 1800s from string instruments brought over by Portuguese immigrants. Yet we might never have heard it (as legend has it) if King Kalākaua hadn’t taken a fancy for its sound.
Now, ukuleles come in many sizes and tones, but all have four nylon strings over a wooden body. Oddly — or maybe not so much if you’ve ever heard a ukulele —, its name means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.
Hawaii is known for a colorful and delicious cuisine
In addition to being a top exporter of coconuts and macadamia nuts, Hawaii is the birthplace of a few delicacies and even a cooking method of its own. Hawaiian food is the bomb!
Pineapples are actually from South America, but they adapted incredibly well to Hawaii when the Spanish introduced them to the islands in the 1700s.
Hawaii would go on to become a leading exporter of the fruit (especially canned) for the best part of the 20th century.
Although the industry is no longer so big as it once was, pineapples remain one of the enduring symbols of Hawaii and are used in local dishes like the Hawaiian haystack (besides the controversial Hawaiian pizza, which is in fact Canadian).
17. Poke bowls
I was quite convinced poke was as phony as a tiki bar in New York, which does seem to be the case of bowls mixing in avocados, mangos, and other trendy ingredients. The original recipe is mainly eaten as an appetizer and made with either raw tuna or octopus, which are seasoned and served with seaweed.
Poke was invented by fishermen who would slice the cut-offs of their catch (which kind of sounds like how cioppino was born). Yet like much of the cuisine Hawaii is known for, the seasonings they added were influenced by the Japanese (or Asian in general) culinary tradition.
18. Spam musubi
Spam, aka canned pork, is wildly popular in Hawaii, to the point that even McDonald’s and Burger King serve it.
So it’s no wonder the so-called “Hawaiian steak” has been turned into a sort of sushi, as the long-established Hawaiian custom of fusing East Asian and American cuisines demands.
Nowadays, spam musubi can be purchased at basically any convenience store across Hawaii (and Guam).
Kālua is the customary way of preparing food at a lūʻau. The word is Hawaiian for “cooking in an underground oven”.
A large pit is dug, and whatever is to be barbecued goes inside of it and cooks for up to three hours before it’s ready to go. Kālua pig and turkey are the most typical dishes made using the method.
20. Hawaiian plate lunch
Farmworkers coming from East Asian countries throughout the 19th century didn’t immediately take up local eating habits. They’d usually eat leftover rice with some protein instead. With the passing of time, macaroni salad started being added to the combo.
Today, as the dish can be found in restaurants chains across the U.S., there are many variations on the Hawaiian plate lunch, yet they normally include the meat+rice staple.
Coming from a beachside town myself, I don’t get folks who act “seen one, you’ve seen them all” when it comes to beaches — they clearly haven’t been to Hawaii!
Now that you’ve discovered everything Hawaii is known for, what are you waiting for to start packing? And in case you feel like exploring the closest thing in the mainland United States, head to California next.