Aerial view of Hilo, Hawaii.

7 Hawaii Small Towns With Rich History

Aloha! Hawaii is known as a tropical paradise, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Its landscape, scenery, and breathtaking views envelop visitors in a unique atmosphere not found anywhere else. Millions of tourists from various countries continue making Hawaii a top vacation destination. Choose from 6 major islands to visit! Kaua'i, O'ahu, Moloka'i, Lana'i, Maui, and the island of Hawai'i. The sacred stories and history of many towns in Hawaii are among the most appealing reasons for people to travel here. The rich cultural heritage found within these islands is a mosaic of beautiful treasures!


Aerial view of Kalaupapa, Hawaii.
Aerial view of Kalaupapa, Hawaii.

The historic settlement of Kalaupapa is on the island of Moloka'i. Known as "The Friendly Isle," Moloka'i is the best Hawaiian Island for experiencing Native Hawaiian culture. Kalaupapa Lookout at the Pala'au State Park features a fantastic view of Moloka'i's north shore. Located at the base of the world's highest sea cliffs, the town of Kalaupapa has been home for over 100 years for people once banished from society due to Hansen's disease, more commonly known as leprosy. Despite the past segregation, the town has endured and even flourished in recent history. The rebuilding of this town included The Moloka'i Light, a lighthouse used to help guide vessels into Honolulu Harbor. Now visitors can experience Kalaupapa National Historical Park, but the only way into this remote town is by small propeller airplane or on foot, and with an entry permit. No roads lead here! True to its island roots, a high percentage of its population are of Native Hawaiian ancestry. Kalaupapa is now a place for education and contemplation, and visitors can take in the beauty of Awahua Beach and St. Philomena Church via guided tours. A very spiritual place, you can feel the mana of Kalaupapa during community-wide dinners serving traditional Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino cuisine.


The marina at Lahaina, Hawaii.
The marina at Lahaina, Hawaii.

The stunning town of Lahaina is situated on the northwest coast of the island of Maui. One of the most popular spots for a summer vacation, this town has a rich, historic past. Home to some of the most beautiful beaches and delicious dining, the cultural attractions add to the serene ambiance of Lahaina. Tourists can visit this town's historic district, which was designated in 1962 and encompasses most of the community. In the 2023 Hawaii wildfires, some of the historic structures were unfortunately destroyed. However, many still remain intact and are a wonderful way to experience the cultural heritage of Lahaina. These include Old Spring House (used for freshwater by the community), the ruins of Court House (a former palace used for government offices), Old Prison (the main cell block called Hale Pa'ahao), Hale Aloha (a meeting place completed in 1858, then restored in the 1980s), the ruins of United States Marine Hospital, and Maria Lanakila Catholic Church. Maria Lanakila means "Victorious Mary," and the parish of this church has a mission titled the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Lahaina was also recognized as an important social and economic area in the 19th century as a major whaling center of the Pacific. Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina's most enchanting experience is the Old Lahaina Luau. It is the best experience of Hawaiian dance across all the islands. So take a seat, enjoy the amazing feast of Hawaiian food, and be mesmerized by the Luau of Hawaiian culture!


Coffe plantation in Kualapu'u, Hawaii.
Coffe plantation in Kualapu'u, Hawaii.

Also located on the island of Moloka'i, the town of Kualapu'u is translated to "hill overturned" or "sweet potato hill." The present settlement is a former pineapple cannery village. Now, Kualapu'u is home to Coffees of Hawaii, a large coffee plantation that produces and distributes 100% Moloka'i coffee! Tourists can also venture to the Moloka'i Museum and Cultural Center experiencing the history of Kualapu'u's sugar mill. Here, you can experience the cultural heritage of the entire island through a personal tour and accompanying videos. Also located in Kualapu'u is a 1.4 billion gallon freshwater reservoir! At the Kualapu'u Lookout, tourists can take in the sweeping views of the scenic Kualapu'u Peninsula and the ocean beyond. Looking for relaxation? The Molokai Lomi Therapeutic Massage and Healing Center offers natural remedies and traditional Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage. In addition, hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, and essential oils therapy. Healing is at the core of Hawaiian culture, and visitors can experience this first-hand through Kualapu'u's therapeutic spa.


Traditional boat in Hanalei, Hawaii.
Traditional boat in Hanalei, Hawaii.

Hanalei is a small town on the north shore of the island of Kaua'i. It is known for its striking natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and a wide range of outdoor adventures. Hanalei Bay is Kaua'i's picture-perfect beach, perfect for surfers, paddlers, and bodyboarders. Coral reefs occur at the edges of the bay, with the Pu'u Poa Reef and Waikoko Reef to the left and right, respectively. This town is known for the rainbows that color the valley and encircle Hanalei like a wreath! Missionaries arrived in this town in 1834. The Waioli Mission House now serves as a community center and was built of New England-style coral limestone blocks with Hawaiian porch features known as lanais. This merging of construction led to a strong influence on subsequent Hawaiian architecture. Hanalei Valley is one of the state's few rice-producing regions, and the area also grows much of Hawaii's taro crop. Taro has been grown in Hanalei for more than 1,000 years! Hanalei also has a vibrant arts scene and is home to many artists and art galleries showcasing the island's culture and history. Hanalei means "lei making" in Hawaiian and is also translated to "crescent bay." The bay is a long half-moon of golden sand with a backdrop of 4,000 ft high lush, green mountains. 


A sign welcoming visitors to Koloa, Hawaii.
A sign welcoming visitors to Koloa, Hawaii.

Koloa was one of the state's first places to open a sugar mill. Located on the south shore of the island of Kaua'i, the town opened its first sugar cane plantation in 1835. Known as Old Koloa Town, visitors can tour the Koloa History Center and walk the Koloa Heritage Trail. This walk provides you with insight into the sugar cane industry. Old Koloa Church has been a place of worship since the mission began in 1834 and is currently run by pastors native to the islands. Aloha Ke Akua means "With the Love of God." The original chapel was built in 1837 on the same land where the current church still stands. On high ground, this landmark can be seen from far out to sea, which traditionally ships used for navigating as they approached port. The town is Kaua'i's fastest-growing tourist destination, with many villas and cottages available for vacation rentals!


King Kamehameha Statue in Hilo
King Kamehameha Statue in Hilo, Hawaii.

Hilo is the rainiest place in all of the United States, with an average rainfall of 128 inches annually. Located on the Big Island of Hawai'i, this town is known for its abundance of waterfalls, lush vegetation, and stunning natural beauty. It is the most tropical location in all of Hawaii, and exotic flowers can be found all over its landscape! Polynesians who lived along the shores of Hilo Bay first inhabited the area in 1100. They traded goods along the Wailuku River as farmers and fishermen. Throughout the years, the rise of the sugar industry led to the construction of wharves, a breakwater, and a railroad connecting Hilo to other parts of the island. The area was hit by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960, which led to Hilo's bayfront today being occupied by shops, parks, and open space, but no residents. As one of the state's oldest settled towns, the town hosts the week-long celebration of ancient and modern hula, known as the Merrie Monarch Festival! Other attractions include Rainbow Falls and Boiling Pots (naturally bubbling whirlpool tubs), located in Wailuku River State Park. 'Akaka Falls State Park is another location where you can see two gorgeous waterfalls along the northeastern Hilo Coast. Hiking this trail, you will also see bamboo groves and wild orchids! Known for its rainforests, Hilo is home to Lili'uokalani Gardens and Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo, where you can watch the beauty of two Bengal tigers. Downtown Hilo is where you can find several museums and cultural centers, namely the Lyman Museum. Exhibits on Hawaiian geology and anthropology in Hilo are a must-see!


Cattle pastures outside Waimea, Hawaii.
Cattle pastures outside Waimea, Hawaii. Image credit: Bonus Onus via Wikimedia Commons.

Waimea is a tranquil town also on Hawaii's Big Island. It is also known as Kamuela to distinguish itself from the towns in Oahu and Kaua'i of the same name. Located in the interior of the Big Island at an elevation of 2,670 feet, the town is also called paniolo country (Hawaiian cowboy) due to the rolling, green pastures home to cattle, cowboys, and ranches. Want to experience this town's cowboy culture? Visitors can stop at Kahua Ranch, where you'll learn about the paniolo lifestyle at this working sheep and cattle ranch. Explore the scenic landscapes of Waimea by horseback or ATV. For a beautiful drive, head onto Kohala Mountain Road, which showcases breathtaking ocean views! Waimea is where you can find many restaurants, a large shopping center, theaters, museums, art galleries, and boutiques! The historic New England-style Imioloa Church was built in 1857. Here, a memorial is dedicated to a priest known for translating English hymns into Hawaiian songs. In addition to its history, Waimea is home to Merriman's Restaurant. The owner, Peter Merriman, is a three-time finalist in the esteemed James Beard Awards for Best Chef. He is also one of the founding members of Hawai'i Regional Cuisine. Definitely a place worth dining at!

Hawaiian Islands are picturesque locations to experience a diverse range of culture, food, and history. The towns hold deep spiritual roots and continue to grow in population and popularity. From lush rainforests to historical churches to museums, boutiques, and restaurants, there is something for all types of travelers! Immerse yourself in the spectacular scenery and communities, and discover why Hawaii is always on everyone's bucket list!

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