Must see Maui sounds silly right? As if any place on the island of Maui isn't gorgeous. Everyone knows that Maui's beautiful. There’s simply no denying it. And no matter how many adjectives I use, there’s not much value I can add to Maui’s brand. You either want to visit or you don’t. I’m not here to tell you why Maui is worth seeing but rather where to go in Maui when you're there.
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Why Small Towns & Not Resorts
Destinations in Maui are primarily centered around beaches and points of interest. But Maui attractions are not the only thing worth seeing on your visit.
Maui has a fair number of small towns worth visiting to better understand the culture of the island. While there aren't a lot of streets to explore, architecture to admire or commercial centers, Maui's small towns can be fun to explore.
Simply put, the island of Maui is simple but in the best possible way.
Planning our Visit to Maui
We started planning our trip to Maui well in advance because knew we'd have to squeeze in all the best things to do in Maui. We had only four days to sightsee and relax, which is a pretty tall order. So we snatched up our Maui travel guide from Lonely Planet and got to work planning our dream trip to Maui.
Because of our excellent planning, we managed to see quite a bit of the small island. We put some miles on our rental, that’s for sure. We primarily explored the north and west coasts of Maui but did venture inland to some of the high-country towns in search of different terrain and tastes.
Below is a list of towns that made my Must See Maui list, along with tips and photos. While this list isn't comprehensive, it covers the best of the west, north and central parts of the island. Check it out!
One of the oldest settlements on the island, Lahaina is full of history and old-town charm. Once the primary whaling town of the Pacific, Lahaina’s port still bustles with tours boats eager to take visitors for fishing expeditions and sunset cruises.
Adjacent to the port is the city square, which houses the Old Lahaina Courthouse and Banyan Tree Court. This incredible tree looks more like a flaying creature than immobile vegetation. You'll find plenty of tourists and locals enjoying the shade of the giant tree. It's the perfect selfie spot and most definitely must see Maui.
Oh, Pa’ia, next time I’ll spend more time with you. I promise! From the moment we drove into this sweet little town I was in love. Pa'ia most definitely tops my list of must see Maui.
With a quaint main street full of shops, Pa’ia is exactly what I pictured when I imagined Maui. It reminded me of Oahu’s North Shore in many ways, with sandy, sunburned surfers walking the streets with their boards and dread-locked hippies hitching a ride to Hana.
Pa'ia seemed to offer the most original cuisine with many places offering vegetarian-friendly fare. It hosts the most amazing Paia Gelato, which serves up intense and oh-so-tasty local flavors. You can't go wrong with the Lilikoi, or yellow passion fruit. Don't be afraid to ask for a taste, too!
Pa'ia is also home to Mama's Fish House, the ideal setting for any celebratory dinner. We enjoyed our anniversary dinner complete with excellent service and special attention from all the staff. Our meal consisted of local delicacies and traditional Hawaiian fare unlike any other I've tasted. For those of you looking to splurge a little, this restaurant should definitely be on your must see Maui list.
Pa’ia is the perfect place (and maybe only place) to fuel up before setting off on the road to Hana, so be sure you stop for provisions and gas.
This historic town is nestled just inland in Northwestern Maui. It’s home to several must-see Maui attractions for history and culture buffs.
Don’t miss the wonderful Bailey House Museum which provides visitors with an authentic look at turn-of-the-century architecture in Maui. Full of artifacts, the small museum provides insight into what the native peoples of Maui valued and fought to preserve when white settlers came.
Duke's surf board is one of many cultural attractions at the Bailey House Museum.
Just down the road is the Iao Needle, one of the main natural attractions in Maui. As described in our Maui travel guide, a brief “hike” through the park provides you with some great views of sweeping vistas of the Iao Valley and the Needle itself. Although the trail is not exactly what we'd envisioned, the Iao Needle makes the must see Maui list because of the undeniable natural beauty of this historic place.
A shopper’s paradise, Makena offers tourists and travelers a taste of the high-life. Full of luxury resorts and high-end shops, it’s sure to please anyone looking to spend some cash while vacationing.
With many top-end retailers, Makena provides tourists with an opportunity to snag the perfect polo shirt or leather bag. But don't go looking for souvenirs here unless you're willing to fork over some serious cash.
While Makena offers several dining options, most are either chain restaurants or are associated with resorts. We typically prefer locally owned and operated establishments, so we steered clear of this area when dining.
Makena makes the list of must see Maui primarily because of the beautiful beaches. We stayed at a beach-front resort (now closed) which provided access to the pristine Malu'aka Beach just south of Makena Bay.
The Makena State Park is home to the most popular public beach on the island: Big Beach. Although the sands were perfect, the swell was too rough for us. So, we opted to drive further south to visit Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve, the beautiful black lava beaches along the southern-most tip of West Maui. Must see Maui, indeed.
Known mostly for the Kahului International Airport, Kahului is the heartbeat of Maui's commercial industry. It's also a great place to please your palate. This coastal city is full of highly recommended eateries, like Tom’s Mini-Mart, Tasaka Guri-Guri and Da Kitchen just to name a few. Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to try any of these, but maybe next time!
For folks taking an extended trip to Maui, this is where you want to stock up on food and supplies for your condo rental! Kahului is the most commercial area of the island, with many large retailers and much of Maui's industry.
One unique shopping experience that some may appreciate is the Fabric Mart, a wholesale market for Hawaiian print fabrics. Or, better yet, check out the Maui Swap Meet on Saturdays to get local crafts and foods straight from the source.
Home to most of the independent condo rentals on the island, this small town seemed to be the most residential and the most populated. It offered some great dining options and a great Foodland grocery (mmmm, Foodland poke...).
Kihei is also home to quite a few public beaches, many of which are situated across the street from equipment rentals (think surf boards, stand-up paddleboards, etc). For people into water sports, this might be the perfect destination. A quick exchange of coin and you're off to the beach to have some fun.
We found ourselves in Kihei quite a lot during our short stay, as it was the closest place to our resort that offered locally owned dining options. We enjoyed some local fare, some better than others. Overall I'd say we enjoyed the atmosphere of Kihei much more than other parts of the island. It was laid-back, relaxed and family-friendly
Nestled in the highlands of Maui, this artsy residential town is surrounded by farmland, making the drive unbelievably scenic. Once you're there you can't help but get sucked into the creative atmosphere and the great gift shops.
Makawao seems to be the creative heart of Maui, with shops full of arts and crafts. The local restaurants serve locally-sourced meals inspired by the beautiful countryside surrounding. Enlightened living is the theme in this small town; it's home to an abundance of hypnotherapists and a local labyrinth walk.
Nature is the center of attention in this part of Maui, and Makawao hosts several Maui attractions which showcase the natural beauty of the island. Ziplining, farms, and nature trails can all be found in Makawao. Although we didn't have time to try any, rest assured they'll all be on my next must see Maui list.
When leaving Makawao be sure to stop at the Pukalani Foodland (mmmm Foodland poke) on your way back to your lodgings!
Areas We Avoided
I know I may ruffle some feathers here, but Ka'anapali seemed banal. Apart from the sparkling resorts and pristine golf course, it didn't have much character. The beaches are supposedly spectacular, but we didn't want to stick around long enough to find out!
Known for the manicured lawns and campy bungalows of the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua resort, this area also seemed to lack any real charm or character. It seemed like a great place to stay if you want schedules to follow and an abundance of activities, provided that you have the dough to spend. We did stop by the Honolua Store for some tasty spam masubi after our drive along the Kahekili Hwy, but we promptly left once the last bite was gone.
Let's Stay in Touch
As you can tell, we only scratched the surface of must see Maui during our 4-day stay. We didn't have the time to drive the Hana Hwy in search of tide pools and rainbow trees, but we found killer views on the Kahekili Hwy. I'm looking forward to returning in the future to add to my must see Maui list 🙂
Have you been to Maui? What was your experience like? I'd love to hear all about it! Be sure to comment below!
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