All Articles 7 perfect days: an island hopping guide in the Maldives

7 perfect days: an island hopping guide in the Maldives

Diane Selkirk
By Diane Selkirk18 Dec 2023 14 minutes read
Aerial view of overwater bungalows at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

With more than a thousand small islands scattered across 500 miles in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is a dream getaway—the land of private islands and overwater bungalows. But all the luxe resorts sometimes overshadow the country’s other side, one that highlights the rich Maldivian culture.

Drawing on insights from in-the-know Tripadvisor users, we’ve curated the ultimate weeklong island-hopping itinerary. Over the course of seven days, you’ll start in the vibrant capital of Male and then head to an under-the-radar island where you’ll stay in a local guesthouse, sample Maldivian cuisine, and try your hand at a few traditional skills like rope-making. From there, you’ll be off to experience a stunning private-island resort. To round out your visit, you’ll have plenty of time for exploring the Maldives’ stunning undersea world.


Vendor at fruit market in Male, Maldives
Image: subman/Getty Images

MORNING: Dive into bustling streets

With its tall apartment buildings and narrow streets, the island city of Male is very different from the small villages and tropical resorts that you’ll find in the rest of the country. One of the most densely populated places in the world, Male’s maze of streets are perfect for exploring by foot—you can walk across the island north-to-south in just 20 minutes and along the way you’ll pass through busy shopping streets and leafy residential neighborhoods.

Start your day by shopping like a local. Located on the pier on the north side of the island, the vegetable and dry fish market is where you’ll find the freshest regional fruits and vegetables, spices, nuts, and smoked fish. It’s also a great place to try some new flavors: Tuna chips, sea almonds, dried mango, and coconut sticks are all popular. From here, head across the street to the fish market, which is located right next to the harbor where fishermen pull up in their wooden dhoni boats to unload their catch. By midmorning the market is packed with locals bargaining for the biggest tuna. If you’re staying in a hotel with a kitchen, pick out a piece of fish to take back—you may even get a few recipes. Otherwise spend some time exploring—most of the locals speak English and will tell you about their catch. Before you leave this area don’t miss a walk to the outer edge of the vegetable market’s pier, a popular place to spot wild stingrays.

Travelers say: “Located across the road from the fishing boats, the fish market is full of fish of all sizes and various colors. Along the right hand side, fish is filleted expertly as you watch. It's a small market so plan about 15 minutes here.”—@ohiowanderer

AFTERNOON: Experience the culture

For your next stop, you’ll need to be dressed appropriately—long trousers for the men, skirts past the knees and covered shoulders for women. From the fish market, it’s a short walk to the Old Friday Mosque, which was built in 1656. Check out the delicate carvings and text inscribed into the building’s coral stone. Non-Muslims require permission from an official from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to enter, but many of the mosque staff are licensed, so they’ll usually let you in if you visit outside prayer times.

Next, head down the street to the newer Grand Friday Mosque: With its dramatic golden dome and vast hall, it’s a grand sight. Visitors are allowed to visit outside of prayer times, as long as they’re modestly dressed. Right across the street is the Seagull Cafe, built around a large leafy tree. Grab a seat on the upper floor, which has open-air views of the mosque’s golden dome and is the perfect setting for a shady and lazy lunch. The tuna steak and biryani are fan favorites.


  • Covering all the highlights, this walking tour pairs you with a local guide who will tell you all about the history of the city and the country.
  • This tour takes in the fruit and vegetable markets, historical landmarks, and includes a break from the city with a quick boat ride to the pedestrian-only island of Vilimale. Here, you’ll get a sense of island culture with an afternoon tea served with hedhikaa (short eats), which includes a number of savory pastries.
  • This private tour is excellent for going at your own pace, allowing you to customize according to your interests.

EVENING: Wind down in nature

In the evening, take a stroll down the shady paths of Lonuziyaaraiy Park—where the secluded benches and flower gardens are a welcome respite from the bustle of the city. If you venture to the edge of the park, you’ll get a good view of Sinamalé Bridge, which links Male to Hulhule and Hulhumale. While you’re there, check for the wave break: You may catch sight of a few surfers. For dinner, it’s a 10-minute walk to the family-owned Sala Thai; highlights include the green curry and chicken satay, and mango sticky rice for dessert. Male’s restaurants are usually busiest right after evening prayers, which happen at sunset, so either make a reservation, or plan to eat a little before or after the sun goes down.

Worthy detours along the way


Rooftop dining at The Red Snapper & Coffee Beans
Lunch at The Red Snapper & Coffee Beans
The Red Snapper & Coffee Beans
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

MORNING: Start strong

Start your day like a local, and seek out one of Male’s hotaas, a typical tea shop that opens early and closes late and serves a wide variety of Maldivian foods. One popular spot is Magukolhu Hotaa, a crisp blue and white building with a simple interior located near King Salman Mosque. Be sure to try the local favorite mas huni, a spicy, flavorful blend of tuna, grated coconut, and chilis, scooped up with warm rounds of fresh chapati.

After breakfast, rent a car, scooter, or bike to head across the nearly one-mile-long Sinamale Bridge to Hulhumale, a reclaimed island that was built in phases to accommodate Malé’s ever-expanding population.

AFTERNOON: Dive into the Indian Ocean

With its white sand, beachside swing seating and floating swimming pool, Hulhumale’s public beach is a lively spot to experience local culture and take a dip in the sea (be sure to wear a cover-up over your swimsuit out of respect). From there, wander over to Hulhumale Water Sports Club. Here, local guides rent watercraft like jet skis and kayaks or will work with you to design a surfing, snorkeling, or sandbar expedition that matches your interests and comfort level (these are great guides for beginner or nervous snorkelers).

To refuel, head down the road to the Red Snapper & Coffee Beans, a rustic beachside establishment where you’ll find tasty fruit-based mocktails (Banana Mia, anyone?) and a menu that includes fresh salads, seafood, and burgers.


  • Departing from Hulhumale, this boat tour visits two nearby islands and allows visitors to learn about daily life in the Maldives, as well as the country’s rich culture.
  • This snorkeling tour includes a stop at a small island for lunch and a tour.
  • Snorkel off a sandbank and keep an eye out for dolphins, before relaxing on this sunset cruise.

EVENING: Live like a local

Go from the seaside to a green oasis with an evening stroll through Central Park. Here, you’ll see plenty of local families enjoying the cooler evening temperatures and admiring the colorful water fountain in the center of the park. For dinner, the casual Pilawoos restaurant serves up Sri Lankan favorites like kottu (chopped roti mixed with curry) and string hoppers (nests of noodles and curry).

Travelers say: “Cozy restaurant on the back-street of our hotel (Planktons Beach) where we sampled lip-smacking Sri Lankan cuisine. The price is reasonable, and portions generous! Our steward Kumar was very helpful with the menu. We'll certainly come back!”—@Udayadittya

Worthy detours along the way


Bikini Beach on Dhigurah, Maldives
Bikini Beach
Image: arthur enselme/Getty Images

MORNING: Head to an atoll

It’s time for adventure, as you leave the busy streets of Male and hop on a ferry for the 2.5-hour trip to the island of Dhigurah, one of over a dozen islets that make up the Alif Dhaal Atoll—a ring of coral islands and reef that enclose a protected lagoon. Until 2010, local islands like this were off-limits to international travelers, apart from day trips. Visitors were only allowed to stay at the Maldives’ opulent (and expensive) private resort islands. Since then, the laws have changed, and tons of guesthouses and affordable boutique hotels have popped up where you can immerse yourself in Maldivian culture and experience the wonderful warmth of the locals. Just be aware—at these locally owned spots, you won’t find alcohol or pork, and your beachwear might need to be more conservative.

There are several options on the tear-drop shaped island of Dhigurah, a fishing village of 600 inhabitants with two miles of beach stretching along a sheltered blue lagoon. Our pick is TME Retreats Dhigurah. This charming (and affordable) beachside hotel has a restaurant, foosball, pool, beach volleyball, and the occasional local music performance and is located near the island’s “bikini beach” (where guests can relax and sunbathe without needing to cover up). Staff can also set up excursions, including snorkeling and dive trips to see whale sharks and manta rays.


  • Island Divers offers a whale shark safari, so you can have the best chance at viewing these gentle giants.
  • Parasail over the clear waters of the Indian Ocean—the clouds will cast mesmerizing patterns on the ocean floor, and you may even spot whale sharks or manta rays from above.
  • Learn to scuba dive and gain a deeper appreciation of the underwater world as you explore the dive sites of Alif Dhaal Atoll.

AFTERNOON: Beach time

Grab a Maldivian or western-style lunch at the hotel’s open-air restaurant, or walk down the beach to Hermit’s, which is known for its fresh coconut ice cream. It’s a small island, and TME Retreats is near the middle, so after lunch stroll through the village and get your bearings (the village is on the north end of the island, while the southern part is known for its gardens and more resorts). Then head back to bikini beach for a swim in the clear water or join a snorkeling tour to see whale sharks, manta rays, and turtles.

Travelers say: “Our recommendations: spend a whole day on Dhigurah's sandbank, day visit to other local island Dhangeti (with local ferry), snorkeling and diving with Island Divers and day visiting at local resort island (you can arrange it with guys from TME.)” —@DejanK

EVENING: Sunsets over the ocean

If you’re in the mood for adventure, book a sunset fishing tour on a wooden dhoni. You’ll be taught traditional Maldivian fishing techniques and anything you catch will be barbecued for a delicious dinner. If you don’t have any luck, head to the village for dinner. The island is small, but there are several options. For a casual meal, Shell Cafe serves noodles and fried rice, while Malaveli Restaurant has ocean views and an extensive menu that runs from the ever-popular grilled tuna to nasi goreng, veggie chop suey, and (if you are craving a taste from home) hamburgers with fries.

Worthy detours along the way


Diver climbing up to a boat after finishing a dive in the Maldives
Image: Henn Photography/Getty Images

MORNING: Move at your own pace

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel, it’s time to explore more of the atoll. Many of the privately owned resort islands in the area sell day passes, which gives you the chance to experience the opulence of a luxury hotel (or just get to relax by a pool with a cocktail). Depending on the day pass that you purchase, you’ll typically get access to a variety of amenities at the resort. Our pick for a day trip: Boutique Beach, which offers Maldivian cooking classes and diving trips.

Travelers say: “Many people stay on more than one island during their stay. I’ve done it a couple of times. I’d want, though, to be on an island at least five days before I considered a move. Some would be happy with less time though. If you pair up islands on the same atoll, it’s easier and cheaper to do a speedboat inter island transfer.” —@Kim_sunseeker

AFTERNOON: Explore an underwater world

Most resort day passes will include a lunch buffet—make sure you check with staff as to what time the buffet opens, and what your pass includes. The resort islands tend to import most of their food, so there might be more offerings than you’d find on local islands (even alcohol). After lunch, spend some time exploring the resort, and make sure to check out a set of snorkeling gear to explore the coral reefs surrounding the island. Alif Dhaal Atoll is renowned for its megafauna, including manta rays and whale sharks, but there’s lots of intricate coral and colorful fish to see as well.

In the Maldives, the reefs are threatened by the warming and acidification of the ocean, so various resorts have started coral propagation and nursery initiatives to help rebuild their house reefs. We’re also fans of LUX South Ari Atoll, which offers guests the chance to plant their own coral.


  • During this bucket list experience, you’ll get picked up on Dhigurah island and head out into the South Ari atoll to go snorkeling with whale sharks.
  • Or maybe you want to go private: On this eight-hour boat charter, you will explore the magnificent area of South Ari national park for whale sharks, manta rays, and dolphins.

EVENING: Learn about Maldivian culture

Head back to Dhigurah after a day of relaxation. Sports are often played in the central square of the villages once the temperature begins to drop, so make like a local and watch a spirited game of bashi—a game played by Maldivian women where a ball is hit backwards with a tennis racket. Soccer, volleyball, and badminton are also popular. You might get a chance to take in a boduberu performance, which combines drums and dancing.

Worthy detours along the way


Ithaa Undersea Restaurant at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island
Ithaa Undersea Restauran
Image: Courtesy of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

MORNING: Luxury without limits

Directly across Alif Dhaal Atoll from Dhigurah is the kind of private island that made the Maldives famous. What many people don’t realize is it’s possible to book short, two or three night stays at these luxury resorts–which is the way local Maldivians do it.

For those who want to wind up the week with something special, Conrad Maldives Rangali Island offers everything you could dream of (and some things you wouldn’t think to dream of). For those traveling with children, their family island of Rangali-Finolhu includes activities for kids and teens, including ocean excursions, cooking workshops, and sports. The neighboring Rangali Island is adult-only.

Travelers say: “What an unforgettable experience to dine under the Indian Ocean watching all the sharks and fishes swimming around you. A must go attraction if staying in the resort . Expensive for dinner ($400+/person) and lunch ($200+/ person.) But you can do the 1 hour cocktail hour too ($120/person) for a drink and appetizers. Make sure to make reservations 1 week before your arrival as they only have limited business hours.” –@KelvinA

AFTERNOON: Treat yourself

Begin your stay with pampering at one of the resort’s two spas—the smaller, Over Water Spa offers a series of rituals in accordance with the time of day and the state of mind you’re seeking. If you’ve been over-exposed to the tropical sun, indulge in the Sun Soother; a body wrap, facial and scalp massage, and serum application work to calm and heal your skin. Their expansive Spa Retreat offers more traditional spa services, including deep tissue massages and haircuts. Afterwards, keep the relaxation going at the Mandhoo Spa Restaurant, where you’ll find an organic menu inspired by the four elements (and plants).

EVENING: Back below the water

The resort is home to 10 different restaurants, with something to appeal to everyone. The prize for novelty goes to Ithaa. The first underwater restaurant in the world, it’s located 16 feet below sea level, where guests dine in a reverse aquarium. For dinner, the restaurant offers a set menu which changes frequently, but they always work to incorporate local flavors within the meal. While you dine, watch as fish and other aquatic life glides by. If you can’t get enough of being underwater, consider the wild opulence of the Muraka—an underwater residence where the master bedroom has a 180° view of the ocean above.


The Quiet Zone Pool at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

MORNING: Don’t fill up at breakfast–there’s plenty more to do!

Head to the breakfast buffet at Atoll Market, where you’ll dine on the beach, surrounded by the soft scent of frangipani blossoms. Besides the live cooking stations where you can fill up on waffles or omelets, you’ll also find a featured curry-of-the-day, a sushi bar, and plenty of pastries, fruit, and hot dishes. If you’re not too full, take advantage of one of the daily yoga sessions.

AFTERNOON: Artistic education

Visit the newly launched Nerulhu Auah cultural village; established on Rangali Island, the cultural village gives guests a sense of life in a traditional Maldivian village. Local women prepare a buffet of Maldivian specialities, including fish curries and grilled seafoods, and showcase Maldivian artworks. Maldivian artwork typically works with natural materials, so you’ll see coral carvings and reed weaving. Later, take a break from the salty sea with a visit to one of the several pools on the property—the Quiet Zone pool is actually set into the ocean, so you can feel as if you’re swimming in the lagoon.

EVENING: A whole new world

There are a few options for dinner—if you’re in the mood for decadence and innovation, Koko Grill offers an (expensive!) multi-course, Japanese menu. The menu takes advantage of the wealth of fresh seafood that you can find in the Maldives, serving up sashimi, teppanyaki, and tempura. Watch your meal be prepared at your table, while the Indian Ocean stretches out in front of you. For a more laid-back experience, Rangali Bar has classic—yet still luxurious—beach bar vibes, and a Mediterranean-inspired menu.

Once the sun sets, you can head out for some nighttime snorkeling. In the darkness, coral blooms, and eels and octopus emerge. You’ll find a wildly different environment, and get to see a side of the reef that most people never experience.

Travelers say: “Love this place! We had our cocktails served here before dining at the Koko Grill! We tried the sparkling sake which was a first for us! Service is amazing.” –@sophiewise


Whale Shark at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

MORNING: Get ready to glow

For those who want to keep trying new things, head to Vilu Restaurant and Bar for breakfast—it has a quieter feel than Atoll Market, and offers an excellent a la carte breakfast menu with both Western and Japanese options, as well as a breakfast buffet with cold options. At the Spa Retreat, refresh with a facial (the Hydration of Bisses option is perfect for emphasizing that post-vacation glow).

AFTERNOON: The sweetest sharks around

If you haven’t seen a whale shark yet, choose the Whale Shark Talk and Tour excursion that the resort offers. After an educational discussion, you’ll head out with your guide to search for the massive creatures, and have the chance to swim alongside them. If you’d rather spend more time in the water on your own, grab some snorkeling gear to check out the house reef—depending on your flight time, you won’t be able to scuba dive, as you need 24 hours of surface time before your flight. Say goodbye to the resort with a delicious lunch at Ufaa, where traditional Chinese cuisine, including hand-pulled noodles and flavorful hotpots, is served in a cozy teahouse.

EVENING: Say goodbye in style

Fly back to Male, and watch the glittering expanse of the ocean, far below. Once you arrive, take a stroll to Sultan Park to visit the National Art Gallery. It’s a small gallery, but features work from Maldivian artists who highlight the country’s vulnerability to climate change and other natural disasters. Grab a relaxed dinner of dosa and biryani at Khalids Biriyani before your flight. Hail a taxi and head to the airport to bid farewell to the Maldives.

Travelers say: “Taxi fares in Malé: within Malé 25Mrf, within Hulhumalé 25Mrf, Malé to airport or vice versa 65Mrf, Malé to Hulhumalé or vice versa 75Mrf, Hulhumalé to airport or vice versa 65Mrf.” –@SilentHunter_mv

Worthy detours along the way

Know Before You Go

The resort islands are open year-round, welcoming visitors to the perpetual warmth of the Maldives. Although the country stays hot all year, the rainy season runs from May to November. There will be more clouds, but it’s also a much more affordable time to visit. September sees the most rain, but also the lowest prices—if you’re looking to experience life in a quiet village, this is an excellent time to visit. If you visit during the month of Ramadan (which falls in March and April), be aware that many restaurants will be closed on local islands and on Male, but resort islands will be unaffected.

Visitors typically stay at least a week in the Maldives, due to its remote location. If you’re not staying on a resort island, you’ll notice a slightly different weekly schedule—the weekend is Friday and Saturday, with a business week of Sunday to Thursday. Many businesses will be closed on Friday for the afternoon prayer hours between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Banks and businesses typically close by 2 p.m., but shops and other retail stores stay open into the evening. They’ll often close for 15 minute intervals around prayer times, but it’s easy to know when prayers are happening—you’ll hear the adhan (call to prayer) from the muezzins echoing through the streets.

Near Male, there are several atolls with places to stay that will suit your interests and budget.

Alif Dhaal Atoll: Want to get a deep insight into Maldivian culture and relax in a peaceful village? Head to a local island. Alif Dhaal Atoll has several inhabited islands with guesthouses, and is popular with divers who come to search for whale sharks.

Haa Dhaalu Atoll: You could also head north to this remote atoll where colorful traditional fishing boats fill the clear water.

Baa Atoll: Those in search of luxury will find it in the Baa Atoll region, with plenty of private resort islands.

Due to how spread out the Maldives is, getting around can be a little confusing. You’ll arrive at Velana International Airport, the country’s main airport, before you can transit anywhere else. If you’re heading straight to a resort, staff will coordinate with you to arrange travel via a short flight, or a speedboat. There are also local ferries which can transport you to inhabited islands (they don’t serve resort islands). Be aware that their schedule can be unreliable, and they are a slow way to travel. For getting around the main island of Male, the small size means it’s convenient for walking, or you can easily find a taxi.

Diane Selkirk
Diane Selkirk is a Canadian travel writer based in Vancouver. She's a strong advocate for sustainable tourism and her goal is to share her adventures and to inspire others to explore the world and make a positive impact through responsible travel. Selkirk has received numerous awards and accolades for her work and has been featured in publications both in Canada and internationally.