One of the most difficult parts of planning a trip to Hawaii is deciding which island to visit. In an ideal world, you’d have enough time to see three or four of them. But, when reality strikes and time becomes an issue, sometimes you are forced to narrow it down to two, or even one.
In this series, we hope to give you a better idea of how the islands compare to each other to help you decide which is the best fit for your interests. We kick things off with a breakdown of Oahu versus the Big Island, but also see our follow-up post on Oahu vs. Maui for more comparisons. Which island you choose will depend on what you are looking for.
This article is broken down into the following chapters:
Oahu and the Big Island in a nutshell:
While it is unfair to summarize any of our paradise-like islands in a few paragraphs we are giving it a shot because it will help you focus your trip planning. We want to start by saying that this article is written to highlight relative differences between the islands but that, as you’d expect from Hawaii, both islands are perfect for exploring and kicking back with a cocktail after a day on the beach.
Having said that, here are the main things to know about Oahu and the Big Island when making a choice between visiting one of them:
Oahu is the most diverse of the islands, with a wide-range of people, landscapes, and lifestyles. From the city streets of Honolulu to the surf-inspired shores of Haleiwa, it is possible to experience a little bit of everything Hawaii has to offer on Oahu. If you’re looking for a mix of city and outdoor opportunities, Oahu is your island. (Curious? See our complete O’ahu overview for more teasers.)
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Oahu: It is tempting to stay in Waikiki for its convenience (it is, after all, where most of the hotels are), but Oahu has so much more to see. Its windward side is full of beautiful mountains and local beaches; its west side a hub for small communities and culture. Get around when you’re on Oahu – you will be surprised by how diverse it is outside the big city.
Don’t miss these 3 things: Big waves on the North Shore (winter); Sunrise hike at the Lanikai Pillbox; Sunset sail in Waikiki.
The Big Island
With 8/13 climate zones you can find an immense diversity on the Big Island. From the snowy peak of Mauna Kea to the breathtaking white, black, and green sand beaches along the coast. This is your island if you like volcanoes, outdoor adventures, open spaces, and LOTS of nature. In summary: the Big Island is perfect if you want an adventurous vacation and you’re willing to get out and explore.
Recommended minimum stay: 7 days
Good to know for the Big Island: Also called the island of Hawai’i, Big Island is known as such for a reason and renting a car is essential if you want to get around. Try spending your time in at least two different locations: On the western coast (e.g. in Kona or on the Kohala coast) and the south/eastern side (in Hilo or Volcano Village).
What island should you choose if you like…
We have found that the best way to make a difficult choice is to base your decision on just one or two factors that are most important to you. These are our suggestions of what you should base your choice on for Oahu and the Big Island:
Outdoor Adventure: Big Island
The type of outdoor adventures you’ll find on the Big Island are unmatched throughout the state. Comprised of five volcanoes and about the size of Connecticut (all the other islands could fit inside the Big Island), it has a population of less than 200,000, meaning there’s more open space and opportunity for outdoor fun than any other island.
Convince yourself by checking out our list of 29 outdoor activities on the Big Island.
The downside of the Big Island being a young, jagged, rocky island is that it lacks a large number of white sandy beaches (*), and Oahu is, arguably, the best place to find one. There are not many memorable white sand beaches on the Big Island (Hapuna Beach being an exception) but Oahu, by comparison, has dozens. So if you’re looking for that idyllic version of Hawaii, with long days on the beach, Oahu is your best bet.
(*) However, the upside of the Big Island being so young is that we have some amazing black sand beaches and an unique green sand beach! These beaches are not your typical “lounge all day and swim” kind of beaches but they are very special in their own right.
Volcanology: Big Island
While Oahu is a beautiful, eroded island with much to learn and observe about volcanic history, the Big Island has two obvious advantages:
- It is made up of five volcanoes instead of just two for Oahu, and
- The Big Island has active volcanoes, whereas Oahu does not.
The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is the gateway to the surface of Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano. Here you can peer into a volcanic summit crater, explore its underground lava tubes, and learn more about shield volcanoes and how they form islands.
Volcano lovers and those interested in geology should head to the Big Island.
Food, drinks, and nightlife: Oahu
No question here. Oahu is the seat of food, drink, and nightlife in Hawaii, and no other island in the state can compare.
Honolulu is the only place where restaurants and bars will even consider being open past midnight, with lots of late-night events and happenings taking place in Waikiki, Kakaako, and Chinatown. Even in the sleepier towns on the island, like Kailua, you can find places open past ten.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to do on the Big Island – it’s just that options are limited, and things will close earlier. Kona is your best bet for nighttime entertainment, although you won’t find nearly the range of options or local authenticity you see on Oahu. Those looking for a bite to eat in Hilo will do just fine, but any plans for a “night on the town” should be quickly erased.
For nightlife, choose Oahu.
Variety: Big Island
Oahu might have the most extreme demonstration of variety with Waikiki on one end and Waianae on the other, but overall, the Big Island is where you’ll find the largest variety of terrain, towns, and experiences. From the blue waters and hot, lifeless lava fields of the Kona Coast, to the upcountry coffee fields, to the ranch lands of Kohala, to the big banyan trees of Hilo, to the hippie town of Pahoa, to the 13,803-foot summit of Mauna Kea, to the green and black sand beaches, to the dramatic valleys of the north, to the towering waterfalls… you get the idea.
The Big Island contains almost all of the world’s ecosystems and offers a wide variety of environments to explore.
Getting started: sample itineraries for the Big Island and Oahu:
Hopefully this guide has helped you decide what island(s) you want to spend your well-earned vacation on. Being a very popular travel guide we also have prepared some sample itineraries for the Big Island and Oahu for you that will help you plan out the specifics of your holiday.
For the Big Island we recommend you have a look at our 7-day itinerary. We also have written shorter itineraries (from half a day to five days), have a look at our itinerary overview if those vibe better with your travel plans.
For Oahu our Oahu overview article and our series of things to do in Kailua, Honolulu, the rugged leeward coast, the tropical and lush windward coast, and the north Shore articles are a good place to start planning your trip.