Tahiti! Just the sound of that name stirs up exotic images in your mind. If you’re visiting French Polynesia, there’s no way of avoiding the big island. But ‘the Queen of the Pacific’ offers so much more than just last minute shopping. Home to the only big city in French Polynesia – Papeete, you’ll love strolling through its colorful market and busy waterfront. Dig a bit deeper and head out of town to discover the famous black sand beaches, ancient archeological sites, surf spots & laid back seaside villages. Looking for that postcard view? Venture into the uninhabited interior on a hike or 4X4 adventure, get up close and personal with giant volcanic peaks and cascading waterfalls coming out of everywhere. The best part? You might be the only one there! This Tahiti Travel Guide will help you make the most of your time on the big island.
About This Tahiti Travel Guide
Tahiti is often the name used for the entire 118 islands and atolls that make up French Polynesia, though it is an island on its own. I spent three months in French Polynesia and over two weeks in Tahiti, as part of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands. During the following years, I have since returned several times to Tahiti both as a traveler and group leader. This travel guide to Tahiti was written based on my experiences and is meant to help you make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime destination. The Tahiti Travel Guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it useful. In this article, we’ll explore the island of Tahiti.
Heading off to French Polynesia? In-depth island guides to all 5 archipelagos await you, including sample itineraries and essential travel tips & tricks.
Why Should You Visit Tahiti?
The fact is there is no way to avoid setting foot in Tahiti. It is French Polynesia’s international gateway and all visitors arrive and depart from Faa’a International Airport. However, Tahiti is totally worth a few days. The big island may feel out of place at times, but nothing beats the vibe of the Papeete Market, the dramatic interior that so few explore, the hiking, and the opportunity to head out on a proper road trip. If you’re looking for something beyond the white sand beaches, spend a few days exploring Tahiti.
What’s Included In This Tahiti Travel Guide?
- Background, map & where to stay in Tahiti [This Page]
- Essential Tahiti travel tips [Skip to Page]
- Things to do & places to eat in Papeete [Skip to Page]
- Things to see & do in Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti [Skip to Page]
- Hiking & guided excursions in Tahiti [Skip to Page]
- Top 10 things to do in Tahiti
- Tahiti sample itineraries: 1 day, 3 day and 5 days in Tahiti
Tahiti Travel Guide Map
Click on the image to open in Google Maps. This map features all the Papeete and Tahiti highlights mentioned in this guide.
Where To Stay In Tahiti?
Most of the recommended places to stay in Tahiti are in and around Papeete, except for Vanira Lodge for those who wish to experience solitude in Tahiti Iti (the “far side” of Tahiti). If you’re staying outside of Papeete and not in one of the places listed below, double and triple check the location of the accommodation as some places are located in the mountains. Such accommodations might have great views but will require having a car.
For a luxury stay in Tahiti, the best resort is the InterContinental Tahiti Resort which is not too far from the airport in Fa’a. It’s perfectly situated to offer the best sunset views in Tahiti with a breathtaking panorama of Moorea. Next door, the Sofitel Tahiti Ia Ora Beach Resort and the Manava Resort in Punaauia are good options, and the Hilton Tahiti is set to open soon. On the other side of Papeete, en route to the east coast, the Le Tahiti by Pearl Resorts is another solid option.
If you prefer to stay at hotels in Papeete, the Tahiti Nui Hotel or the Sarah Nui Hotel are your current options. The former is the best hotel in the city, located within a short walk of the central market and evening food market in Place Vaiete.
For a pension stay, the best in Papeete is by far Fare Suisse. They offer free transfers to/from the airport or ferry terminal, the breakfast is amazing, and the rooms are very well-furnished. Slightly out of town, along the west coast, Pension de la Plage and Relais Fenua are recommended options.
Here’s a list of all Tahiti accommodations that can be booked online.
Facts & Brief History
Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia, home to the capital Papeete and the economic & political center of French Polynesia. Roughly 70% of French Polynesia’s total population resides in Tahiti (~ 180,000). Tahiti is shaped like a ‘figure eight’, consisting of two islands connected at the hip like Siamese twins. The bigger of the two is Tahiti Nui and the smaller sister is Tahiti Iti. Tahiti Nui is home to the bulk of the population, living on the scarce flat land by the beach and even on the mountain slopes around the capital. Tahiti is a high island with a coral reef present around most parts. It was formed by a now extinct volcano, whose crater forms the island’s uninhabited interior, circled by massive peaks – of which the highest of which is Mount Orohena (2,241 m).
Tahiti is part of the Society Islands and was not the first island to be settled in French Polynesia. It is believed that it was one of the last to be colonized by the ancient Polynesians, on their incredible voyage across the South Pacific Ocean which probably started from somewhere in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. Pioneers arrived on giant double-hulled outrigger canoes – with one section devoted to plants, animals, and tools, while the other served as housing for the sailors and their families.
Contact with Europeans started in 1767, with the arrival of British captain Samuel Wallis. Other maritime ‘celebrities’ to visit Tahiti include Captain James Cook, Bounty captain William Bligh and even famous ‘mutineers’ – who returned here after taking over the ship from Bligh. With the Europeans, arrived the missionaries. First, it were the British Protestants, followed by the French Catholics. The expulsion of two French missionaries in 1836 sparked the beginning of a French takeover of the island, with its annexation to France from the Kingdom of Tahiti in 1880.
In 1946, Tahiti and French Polynesia became a French overseas territory. These days, Tahitians enjoy somewhat of a cosmopolitan life – with easy access to the big city of Papeete and all it has to offer. While traffic is bad and housing is scarce around Papeete, the further you travel out of town – life becomes more traditional and easy going.