One of the toughest decisions when planning a trip to Hawaii is choosing which island to visit. If you have limited time and must choose between Oahu and the Big Island, you’ll need to decide which is best for you based on your interests and preferences.
Oahu is best if you want a beach vacation with numerous nightlife and dining options and insights into Hawaii’s history and culture. If you prefer a more secluded, unusual, and diverse natural environment with volcanoes to explore, plus numerous outdoor adventures, then Big Island is best for you.
Let’s dive into the main features and highlights of both islands, allowing you to assess the extent to which either of them will provide the vacation that meets your expectations and is aligned with your interests.
Oahu vs Big Island: An Overview
The volcanoes and the stark black lava fields of the Big Island are its most unique features and make it a target for volcano tourists from all over the globe. But the island’s biodiversity means that beach lovers and outdoor adventurers will also find plenty to enjoy.
The variety of ecosystems you’ll encounter on the Big Island is extraordinary, and you can experience them within a day or two. You’ll find tropical rainforests, temperate zones, deserts, black sand beaches, and snow-capped mountain peaks. This diversity is because the Big Island contains eight of the thirteen different climate zones on earth, so conditions vary across the island.
If volcanoes are not your main interest, you’ll find plenty of beaches where you can relax and enjoy water activities. There are also a lot of other fun outdoor activities you can participate in such as amazing hiking trails, horseback and ATV tours, ziplining, and fluming down historic sugar cane irrigation channels (if heights don’t deter you).
And for an unforgettable snorkeling tour, swimming with manta rays is highly recommended. Night dives allow viewers to see manta rays feeding on plankton attracted by spotlights. You can dive in and swim alongside these enormous rays as they glide past. (Manta Rays are harmless to humans despite their size; some have wingspans of up to 20 feet or 6 meters and weigh up to 3500 lbs. or 1600 kg.)
Oahu, on the other hand – while smaller than the Big Island – is home to over two-thirds of the population of Hawaii, making it the most densely inhabited of the islands. As a result, you could find queues and crowds on hikes and on the most popular beaches. There’s also rush hour traffic to contend with.
While it is a beautiful island with world-famous beaches that surfers from all parts of the globe visit, Oahu doesn’t have as much unspoiled nature as Big Island and doesn’t feel as peaceful and secluded.
On the positive side, Oahu has the best nightlife, with the most restaurants and bars. It is home to the state capital of Honolulu and its cosmopolitan surroundings. And there are numerous museums and sites of great historical significance.
History And Culture: Oahu vs Big Island
If you’re interested in the history and culture of Hawaii, then a visit to Oahu will be best for you. Several sites on Oahu offer rich and rewarding experiences to those seeking a deeper understanding of the islands. Highlights include Pearl Harbor, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Iolani Palace, Bishop Museum, Hawaii’s Plantation Village, and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Pearl Harbor, Oahu: This is the site of the 1941 Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet that catapulted the U.S. into WW2. You can learn more at the Visitor Center before entering the USS Missouri battleship and the USS Arizona Memorial, which straddles the sunken hull of the battleship, and was built to honor the 2,388 Americans who died during the attack.
Iolani Palace: Hawaii was an independent kingdom, with Oahu being the home of the Hawaiian monarchy, before the royalty was overthrown and the islands became part of the US. This palace was built in 1882 by King Kalakaua and has been meticulously restored so you can immerse yourself in Hawaii’s royal heritage.
Bishop Museum: This museum in Oahu is the largest in Hawaii and is the Pacific’s premier natural and cultural history institution. One of the world’s largest natural history specimen collections can be found here. Royal family heirlooms and artifacts, photographs, and cultural collections from Hawaii and other Pacific islands provide fascinating insights into their indigenous cultures.
The Polynesian Cultural Center: This center, voted the number one attraction in Hawaii in 2017 by USA Today, is located on 42 acres of tropical land in Oahu, with six villages that represent different Pacific island nations.
There are live shows and luaus: dining feasts featuring delicious authentic dishes such as kalua pork cooked in an imu (underground oven) and laulau (meat or fish wrapped in taro leaves), as well as lively music and vibrant cultural performances that represent Hawaii and greater Polynesia.
Children and adults will enjoy the activities fostering interactive experiences. These include games, hula dance lessons, boat rides, and performances. Visitors can try traditional Hawaiian activities such as the art of lauhala weaving in which dried leaves from the hala trees are woven into table and floor mats, baskets, etc.
Hawaii’s Plantation Village: This village on Oahu provides insights into life on Hawaii’s sugar plantations from around 1850 to 1950. When agriculture was booming in the late 19th century and plantation owners experienced a labor shortage, immigrants from Japan, China, Korea, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Russia, and the Philippines arrived in Hawaii to work on the plantations. The intermingling of these plantation-era ethnicities is the source of Hawaii’s multicultural population.
There are some historical and cultural sites on Big Island. For example, there’s Hulihe’e Palace, a former summer home of Hawaii’s royal families, which is today a museum featuring beautiful koa wood furniture, royal portraits, kapa (fabric made from tree fibers), feather work, quilts, and artifacts from Hawaii’s royal past.
Nightlife and Food: Oahu vs Big Island
Oahu is the seat of food, drink, and a vibrant nightlife in Hawaii, with restaurants and bars open after midnight and late-night events taking place in Waikiki, Chinatown, and Kokako. You won’t find this on any of the other islands. Restaurants are open after ten, even in the more secluded towns like Kailua.
Nicknamed “The Gathering Place”, Oahu is nothing short of a foodie paradise. In fact, a survey examining the specific states home to the highest-rated cuisines in the US revealed that the winner was Hawaii, a “top-five state” for Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, sushi, and Thai food. (California came in second.)
By contrast, you’ll find less on offer on the Big Island and places close earlier. In Hilo, for example, there are some great places to eat, and Kona also has an abundance of bars and restaurants. But if you enjoy nightlife and think that your trip won’t be complete without it, then the Big Island is not for you.
Beaches: Oahu vs Big Island
Oahu is said to have the best beaches in Hawaii, with 227 miles of shoreline. This is due to many protected bays, with reefs surrounding the island, gold sand, and calm waters year-round in many areas.
Big Island also has some excellent white sand beaches, although not as famous as Oahu’s. If volcanic geology interests you, you’ll find several black sand beaches and a green sand beach, which is one of only four in the entire world.
Beaches On Oahu
On the North Shore, you’ll find more than seven miles of the iconic beaches that surfers from around the world visit, especially during the winter months when the waves are massive and challenging. CNN named Oahu’s Pipeline the world’s number one surfing spot, with ideal surf for experts to ride the famous 6-meter waves.
Fortunately, for the less experienced surfers, there are also plenty of other much more tame surfing spots on the island. The calmer waters at Waikiki allow for surfing lessons for beginners. On Kailua, Makapu’u, and Lanikai beaches, which are on the east coast of Oahu, you’ll find white sand and good conditions for surfing, snorkeling, and bodyboarding.
If you enjoy snorkeling, you could head out to the nature preserve known as Hanauma Bay which has calm, shallow water making it easy to see the corral and sea life. This bay offers the best snorkeling for all ages. Note: reservations are typically required.
Big Island Beaches
The various types of beaches on the Big Island make it unique in this category.
Sure, there are beautiful, pristine, white sand beaches, some of the most popular being on the Kohala Coast on the northwestern side of the island. Hapuna Beach State Park, for example, has often been ranked by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the best beaches in the US, while the reef-protected waters at the Samuel M. Spencer Beach Park make it a safe beach where children can swim and adults relax.
But if you’re keen to venture onto a black sand beach, you’ll find a number of these. Punalu’u is the most famous, accessible, and largest of these beaches. Visitors should note that black sand soaks up the sun faster than white sand, so remember to take suitable protective footwear.
The endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles enjoy basking in the heat of the black sand, and you may be fortunate to see these fascinating creatures on the sand or swimming in the sea.
For an even more unusual beach, you’ll find one of only four green sand beaches in the world at Papakolea. A crystal called olivine, formed millions of years ago during a volcanic eruption, was deposited onto the beach, making the sand an olive-green color. Note that it’s not safe to swim at this beach due to rough surf and strong currents.
Volcano tourism: Oahu vs Big Island
If you’re interested in exploring volcanoes, the Big Island – the youngest Hawaiian island – will offer you superb and memorable experiences.
Oahu’s volcanoes are extinct, and what remains are the cones (hills created by lava with craters or depressions on top), the most famous cones being Diamond Head, Punchbowl, and Koko Head. You can hike to the top of these for great views of the island.
On the other hand, the Big Island has active volcanoes and is still growing. You can visit Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano, which continues to pour out lava, and Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano. Both these volcanoes are located in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which covers 505 square miles (1308 sq. km.), and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A visit to the Park offers opportunities to see and learn more about all aspects of volcanic activity, such as lava tubes, steam vents, caldera lookouts, and much more. Of particular interest are the changes seen after the eruptions in 2018. You can select self-guided tours or choose tour guides to help navigate the park.
Another volcano on Big Island, Mauna Kea, is the world’s tallest. A trip up to the summit (at 13,796 feet) provides spectacular views of the contrasts and diversity on the Big Island while stargazing after sunset can be enhanced by powerful telescopes (if you’re on a tour).
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is the best time of year to visit Oahu?
During winter, which is from December through March, it’s slightly cooler than the summer months and there’s a bit more rain. During the shoulder seasons of mid-April to early June, or between September and mid-December, the island is less crowded, and room rates and airfares are at their lowest. The most popular time to visit is typically late June and all of July.
Which is the best time to visit Big Island?
The summer months are best because there’s less rain and temperatures are highest. However, unlike other parts of Hawaii, the rainfall in the Kona district is highest in summer, and it has a dry winter. The Kohala Coast on Big Island is the most popular area because it’s the driest and sunniest.
Do you need to rent a car on Oahu and Big Island?
If you plan to explore and see the most unusual and interesting sights on the Big Island, you need to rent a car. On the other hand, Oahu has the best public transportation of all the islands; buses travel numerous routes providing wide island coverage. Cab services are plentiful, as well as rideshares like Uber and Lyft. We still prefer to rent a car though.
Which is the cheapest: Oahu or Big Island?
Oahu is the cheapest Hawaiian island to visit.
The Wrap Up
Both Oahu and Big Island are appealing in specific ways. If you prefer to spend time on the beach, enjoy nightlife and multiple dining options, and want greater insight into the history and culture of Hawaii, then Oahu is best for you. But if you want to explore volcanoes, and you like variety in your environment and opportunities for outdoor adventures, then the Big Island will be best.
Mahalo for reading our post! Until next time, Aloha!