Oahu vs Maui: Which Island is the Best to Visit?

Planning a trip to Hawaii includes the difficult decision of deciding which island to visit. It took me almost a full week to decide if I wanted to visit Maui or Oahu on my first ever trip to Hawaii.

Oahu vs Maui: Oahu is the destination for you if you want to travel on a budget, have the option to walk around the city, enjoy the nightlife, enjoy surfing & love historical and cultural activities. 

Maui is the best option for you if you are mainly focused on relaxation, looking for a romantic getaway, or some of the best snorkeling in the world. 

If you are still unsure of which island to visit, keep reading this article to help you decide.

Let’s start off by giving an overview on both islands.

Brief Summary of Oahu

Oahu, nicknamed “The Gathering Place”, is the third-largest of the Hawaiian islands and home to the vast majority of the state’s population.

Oahu is where the majority of the state’s visitors stay each year. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the U.S market continued to have the most visitors to Oahu in 2019.

When most people think of Oahu they probably think of Waikiki and Honolulu, but there is so much more than Oahu offers other than the world-famous Waikiki. 

Keep reading below to learn more about each specific region.

Waikiki & Honolulu Region

Honolulu is the capital of Hawaii and is the primary tourist attraction. Waikiki is best known for its famous white sand beach. A lot of beginner surfers come here to learn to surf as well.

You will also find a lot of vacation rentals in or near Waikiki that are very affordable. When I told my friends I was going to Hawaii, a lot of them asked how in the world I was able to afford a month-long trip to a luxury island.

To be honest, I didn’t know at the time, but with proper planning, I was able to find affordable accommodations with Airbnb. I was also able to score some cheap flights with travel hacking.

Hawaii is expensive, but it can be done on a budget.

East side of Oahu

Also known as the windward side, you will find quiet coastal neighborhoods and charming small towns on this side of the island.

The east shore is located about 30 minutes from Waikiki and I highly suggest taking the coastal drive as it’s very scenic and varied. This is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever taken and this is coming from someone who does this a lot.

Best Outdoor Activity. Pali Lookout Oahu
Sunny day at Pali Lookout in Oahu

The east side is where you will find some of the best beaches of Oahu such as Waimanalo Beach, Bellows Beach, and Hanauma Bay – which offers some of the best snorkeling on the eastern side.

The best tip when visiting Hanauma Bay is to go early on a Wednesday as it’s closed on Tuesdays, making the water very clear Wednesday morning.

The famous Kualoa Regional Park is also located on the east side. TripAdvisor offers some great deals on tours if you are interested in getting a full and guided experience. Here are some tours I highly recommend if you are looking to visit Kuaola Regional Park.

The North Shore

This side of the island is famous for its surfing and the amazing picturesque beaches. If you are looking for some of the most epic sunsets, then this is the place for you.

The famous Sunset Beach (one of the longest surfing shores in the entire world) and Waimea Beach are located on this side of the island.

If you are into snorkeling be sure to stop by Shark’s Cove for some of the best snorkeling.

While on the north shore, be sure to check out The Sunrise Shack for some of the best and healthiest superfood snacks.

The Leeward Side

There is not much to do on this side of the island as its home to rural towns and one luxury resort.

Central Region

This area mainly consists of pineapple plantations and residential areas. This is where the Dole Plantation is located, where you can walk through the pineapple garden maze.

Brief Summary of Maui

Maui is the second-largest island in Hawaii and is also the second most visited island in Hawaii.

When I think of Maui, I envision a luxury tropical paradise; it has a good variety of quality beaches, volcanoes, and lots of agriculture.  Maui is a bit more relaxing compared to Oahu and has such a chill vibe.

Part of the reason why Maui is less crowded and chill is due to the lack of a big city like Honolulu in Oahu.

Here are four highlights of Maui

Haleakala Summit

Maui is home to the first astronomical research observatory in Hawaii – the famous Haleakala National Park. This is a must if you ever visit Maui.

Make sure to bring warm winter clothes if you are planning on visiting the summit. At 10,000 feet above sea level, it gets extremely cold.

Trust me on this one, I thought I was well prepared with warm clothes but somehow managed to get too cold.

Haleakala Summit Sunset Maui
Haleakala Summit Maui

The Road to Hana

The famous Road to Hana (which I highly recommend) is also a must when in Maui. There are so many activities to do for everyone. Make sure to plan ahead and remember to slow down and enjoy the journey.  

The Beach

Maui has some of the best beaches in the world. Be sure to explore the beaches on the south and west side of the island. 

Whale Watching 

Whale season in Maui usually begins in November and ends in May. This time of year offers some of the best scenery and wildlife. Be sure to add this to your list of things to do in Maui.

Whale watching in Maui is a popular activity and some people come to Maui specifically for this reason.

Be sure to come during the right season to have the best experience.

Oahu vs Maui: Adventures and Activities

When it comes to the number of activities to do, Oahu wins this one since there is so much variety of things to do. 

As mentioned multiple times in this post, Maui is much quieter than Oahu. Maui does offer activities, but it does not compare to the many activities that Oahu offers.

Outside of the normal beach, snorkeling and hiking, Oahu offers more activities such as Pearl Harbor, exploring the city of Honolulu, Iolani Palace, the amazing Chinatown, and the zoo that’s very close to Waikiki.

If you have kids, I strongly recommend taking them to the zoo to change up the scenery a bit. Trust me, they will not be disappointed.

Even though Oahu wins this section, that’s not to say that Maui is boring. You can still find amazing activities such as whale watching, exploring the Haleakala summit and so much more.

Oahu vs Maui: Beaches and Snorkeling

This is a tough one because both places have some of the best beaches in the world. I will give this one a tie on the best beaches section, however, Maui wins when it comes to snorkeling.

When it comes to beaches in Maui or Oahu there is so much variety. I was fully impressed on my first ever visit to Oahu and I thought nothing else in Hawaii could ever compare, but I was totally wrong. Maui’s beaches are just as spectacular. 

Maui offers a lot more variety like the black and red sand beaches, but that does not necessarily mean that the beaches in Maui are better. 

By the way, if you are looking for some of the best black sand beaches in Hawaii, be sure to check out the Big Island.

One thing to add is that the beaches in Oahu – such as Lanikai, Waikiki, and Waimea Bay – tend to be overly crowded. Depending on the person, this can take away from the experience a bit. If you are curious about visiting some of the best beaches on the north shore of Oahu, this article might be helpful.

To me, this wasn’t a big deal as I don’t mind the crowds. Also, I am usually a morning person and try to get to tourist attractions as early as possible.

Both times we went to Lanikai Beach, it wasn’t crowded at all since we got there around 8:30-9:00 AM.

Lanikai beach is one of the beaches in Oahu
The Mokes view on Lanikai beach

There were so many options for good snorkeling in Maui and it was a lot easier to see turtles here as compared to Oahu, however, if you research and plan ahead you will see turtles in Oahu as well. 

Here are some of my favorite snorkeling places in Maui: Kaanapali Beach (Black Rock), Napili Bay, and Honolua Bay. 

Here are some of our favorite places to snorkel in Oahu: Hanauma Bay, Sharks Cove, and Turtle Bay and Turtle Beach.

RELATED ARTICLES: 25 Best Beaches in Hawaii For A Spectacular Trip

Oahu Vs Maui: Nightlife

In my opinion, this one is a no-brainer. Oahu is filled with so much culture and entertainment compared to the quietness of Maui. A big part of this is due to the city of Honolulu (a large metropolitan city). 

In Oahu, most restaurants in the downtown area and Waikiki are open late. We had no issues finding places to eat around 10 PM. Also, if you are into bars then Oahu is for you.

Maui on the other hand is very mellow and a lot of restaurants close by 10 PM. I didn’t see a lot of nightlife in Maui, but if you find it be sure to let me know!  

Oahu Vs. Maui: Cost

As many of you know, a trip to Hawaii comes with a hefty price tag. If you are looking for a budget-friendly vacation to Hawaii, then you need to go to Oahu.

Oahu has a lot of budget-friendly accommodations compared to Maui. Maui is the most expensive Hawaiian island to visit and if money is a huge factor for you, consider Oahu.

With that being said, there are still ways to afford a budget-friendly vacation in Maui if you are completely set on the destination.

Follow the tips we provide in the above article to learn more about how you can save money in Oahu, Maui, or any other Hawaiian island.

Oahu vs Maui: Hiking

This is a hard one too because both Maui and Oahu are unique in their own ways. If I had to pick one, then I would have to say Oahu has the better hiking. I also loved going on some of the best waterfall hikes in Oahu while on the island.

I might be a little biased in my opinion as part of the reason I came to Hawaii was for the hiking. I was blown away by how beautiful the hikes were in Oahu.

The views were breathtaking and unlike anything I had ever seen before. I have said this countless times, but I felt like I was in a movie the entire time I was hiking in Oahu.  

Lanikai Pillbox is one of the best views in Oahu
Sunrise at Lanikai Pillbox

You can find all levels of difficulty when hiking in Oahu. You can hike the famous Diamond Head Crater with your entire family (including your kids) or you can do the more challenging hikes like Koko Head.

Trust me, you will be impressed regardless of whichever hike you choose. Also, make sure you check out the Lanikai pillbox hike. You will thank me later. It’s an intermediate hike and one of the top hikes in Oahu.

Even though Oahu wins this section, there is one hike I recommend everyone should do in Maui – the Pipiwai Trail hike on the famous Road to Hana.

Is it Cheaper to Fly to Oahu or Maui?

Generally speaking, there are more deals flying into Honolulu, Oahu compared to Maui.

When I was in the process of booking my flight,  I noticed that the cheapest option were flying into HNL.

This is not to say that Oahu will always be cheaper to fly into than Maui. Make sure to compare flights to the different airports to confirm you are getting the best deal.

This might also depend on where you are flying from and the time of year you are flying.

Which is better for families: Maui or Oahu?

This really depends on the type of vacation you are looking for. As I have mentioned multiple times in this post, Oahu offers a lot more activities while Maui offers a lot more luxury resorts and is much quieter.

In my opinion, I think Oahu is better for families (especially if you have kids). There is so much to do in Oahu and the kids will never be bored.

I think Maui is too relaxed for kids and Oahu would be a better choice. However, if you have opted for Maui, there are still some great activities to do with the entire family.

Honestly, though, Hawaii is such a beautiful place and you will be glad you came regardless of which island you choose to go to.

Maui or Oahu for your Honeymoon?

If you are specifically going to Maui for your honeymoon or babymoon, Maui is the best choice for you. 

Compared to Oahu, Maui offers a lot more luxury resorts, is much quieter and the weather is more reliable.

When I was in Oahu, I found Waikiki to be very crowded. Maui on the other hand was shockingly laid back and peaceful in comparison to the busy city life of Honolulu.

What Makes Oahu Stand Out?

Oahu offers such a variety of things to do and the beaches there are spectacular. The North shore is what most people consider to be “surfer heaven”; beaches like Sunset Beach, Sandy Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline are why most people come here to surf. 

The North Shore of Oahu also has some of the best food trucks on the island.

On the east side of Oahu, you will find charming small towns such as Kailua and some of the best hiking. 

Lanikai Pillbox hike is one of the best outdoor activities in Oahu
View of Lanikai beach from the Pillbox hike

What Makes Maui Stand Out?

Maui is such a laid-back island and offers so much nature all around. If you are looking to unwind and slow down, Maui is the answer you have been looking for.

A lot of people would also argue that Maui has some of the best snorkeling in the world and they might just be right.

Oahu Vs Maui: Is one better than the other?

For many, a trip to Hawaii is like a dream come true. You can’t go wrong by choosing either of these destinations.

If you are looking for a romantic getaway, quiet/peaceful vacation, and/or whale watching then look no further than Maui.

If you are into budget travel, the nightlife, the city, the hiking – then go to Oahu. Either way, you will be thrilled you came to Hawaii!


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