If it’s your first time to Hawaii and you’re wondering whether to visit Oahu vs The Big Island, then this blog is the one for you!
If you have yet to decide which Hawaiian island you want to visit at all, then you might also want to read our blog about each of the different islands and which one(s) are perfect for first time visitors.
We loved the beaches and landscapes, the food, the incredible things to do, the vibe, the people… EVERYTHING!
We would love to go back to Hawaii one day to see more of Oahu and The Big Island but also to see some of the other islands too.
We’ve often joked we would even retire to Hawaii if we could because it’s such a beautiful and peaceful place.
But back to you and which island you should visit: Oahu or The Big Island?
We’ve split this blog up into sections based on some of Hawaii’s biggest draws and how each island compares against those things as well as other more practical info.
We hope it helps!
And don’t worry… there is definitely a conclusion at the end. It may have been hard for us to pick a winner out of the two islands but we managed it. Just.
Oahu vs The Big Island
Oahu, or O’ahu, is one of Hawaii’s most well known islands.
It’s actually nicknamed ‘The Gathering Place’ as it’s where the majority of the Hawaiian population live and is usually where you’ll transit through if not flying direct to one of the other islands.
Oahu is also where the state capital of Honolulu can be found, which is home to two of Hawaii’s most famous attractions: Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach.
Although Honolulu would be described as busy, touristy and commercialised, the rest of Oahu is different.
You could say that Oahu blends the traditional with the commercial in perfect harmony to give you an Oahu itinerary of two distinct halves.
Whereas The Big Island, or The Island of Hawaii, is Hawaii’s youngest island but also its largest.
It’s possible to experience as many as ten different climates on The Big Island including Tropical Wet, Tropical Monsoon and Hot Desert.
But this diverse weather is caused by The Big Island’s best features – its volcanoes!
Some of which are still active and bubbling and boiling away with lava today, which you can enjoy from various viewpoints.
While Oahu is touristy in many areas, The Big Island is less so and more in touch with the laid back vibe of the locals, while still allowing you to make the most of incredible bucket list experiences.
Let’s see how Oahu vs The Big Island compare across different categories before we declare the winner!
Easily one of Hawaii’s biggest draws is its golden sandy beaches and glorious sunshine, which are a match made in heaven for sunseekers.
So which island out of Oahu and The Big Island has the best beaches?
To answer this, we’ll first give you our opinion and then we’ll quote an article which ranks Hawaii’s best beaches in a top ten format.
While some say that Waikiki Beach is overrated and “ruined” by the many skyscrapers that look down on it from behind, we had a different experience.
As soon as we turned away from the skyscrapers, we instantly forgot where we were.
The calm bay, which is the perfect temperature and conditions to swim in, matched with a superb sunset meant that we LOVED our time spent on Waikiki Beach.
The beach is clean, sandy and golden… but it also gets better on Oahu.
Head to the north shore and the skyscrapers will be replaced by jungle-like areas and palm trees!
Plus the beaches here are not visited as much by tourists so you’ll sometimes have the beach almost entirely to yourself!
Oahu has its fair share of sandy beaches – but what about The Big Island?
While The Big Island does have some beautiful golden sandy beaches, they are mostly on the west coast of the island, which is fine if you’re staying in the Kona region.
As for the east and other parts of The Big Island, you’ll find less golden beaches and more black sand beaches, as well as manmade beach parks built around volcanic rock and grass.
These may be less picturesque than the golden sandy beaches of Oahu but they’re more unique, which we liked.
Keaukaha Beach Park near Hilo for example sometimes feels like you’re sitting on your own private island!
Finally, according to the USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards and their ‘Best Hawaii Beach’ list, there were three Big Island beaches (Hapuna Beach, Kaunaoa Beach and Punaluu Black Sand Beach) and three Oahu beaches (Lanikai Beach, Waikiki Beach and Hanauma Bay) included.
So it seems it could be a tie? Let’s try to find some kind of conclusion though!
WINNER: If you’re after traditional paradise beaches with golden sand and calm bays then Oahu is the one for you. But if you’re less into sunbathing and more into unique ocean views then try The Big Island for something different.
One of the many reasons to visit Hawaii is to experience the local culture and just how much it differs from mainland USA.
After all, it might be a US state but it’s still so in touch with its Polynesian roots that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s nothing to do with America at all.
So which island out of Oahu and The Big Island has the best vibe?
We’ve already touched on how commercialised Honolulu on Oahu has become.
While some tradition still remains, much of it seems to have become less of a focus in this area to make way for the commercial rentals, skyscrapers, businesses and touristy restaurants looking after its trendy clientele.
Even other parts of Oahu still have some element of commercialisation involved in them such as the souvenir shops found around the plantations.
The Big Island on the other hand is so, so, so different.
Although it’s home to some of Hawaii’s biggest most famous attractions including Mauna Kea and Volcanoes National Park, we can’t describe it as touristy in any way (at least based on our experience).
Even in downtown Hilo, which is home to big hotels and restaurants, it just had such a different vibe. The people we met on The Big Island were more chilled than those we met in Honolulu too.
The Big Island is three islands away from Oahu but feels like such a different country entirely.
WINNER: If you’re after a more relaxed vibe then The Big Island is for you. However, if you like to be looked after with topnotch services for tourists then Oahu would be best as it’s better catered towards tourists.
Things To Do
While your Hawaii bucket list will never run out of incredible things to do, both Oahu and The Big Island differ a lot in this area too.
On Oahu, it’s a must to visit the site of Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, which are just a short bus ride away from downtown Honolulu.
The Diamond Head Trail is also another popular thing to do on Oahu, and if you’re a fan of the TV show Lost, then Oahu is most definitely the island for you as so much of it was filmed there.
We also loved our visit to Byodo-In Temple, which is a beautiful Japanese Buddhist temple in Kaneohe (roughly 30 minutes away from Honolulu).
As for The Big Island; it’s dominated by Mauna Kea, which is a 1 million year old dormant volcano towering at over 13,000 feet and home to over a dozen telescopes and the world’s largest astronomical observatory.
Given its height, you’ll be able to see a sunset above the clouds and millions of stars (and even the Milky Way) – even when looking at them with the naked eye. Incredible!
The Big Island is also home to Volcanoes National Park, which is a large national state park and UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
Not only can you see the lava bubbling and boiling away from various viewpoints but you can also hike through a volcanic crater and even walk through lava tubes!
WINNER: Without question – The Big Island. Although Oahu offers some really interesting things to do and places to see, The Big Island ticks off all kinds of incredible bucket list activities that Oahu simply can’t compete with.
Access & Convenience
While the above sections of this blog were all about how to spend your time once you’re on Oahu or The Big Island, this section speaks to the practical side of getting there.
This is equally important especially if you’re new to travelling, can’t get huge amounts of time off work or have a smaller budget.
Given Oahu’s nickname of ‘The Gathering Place’, it should come as no surprise that this is one of the easiest islands to get to.
Once you’re on Oahu, you can also choose from several daily domestic flights to other islands like Maui and The Big Island.
As for The Big Island, direct flights to Kona exist for major West Coast USA cities, while flying to Hilo would involve a quick change somewhere like Maui or Oahu.
WINNER: Because of the larger choice of flights and more direct flight options, Oahu is the easiest to get to. However, it’s easy enough to arrange travel to The Big Island from Oahu if you want to go there too.
Oahu vs The Big Island: Overall Winner
The trouble with choosing an even number of categories to include in this blog post means we technically have a tie.
BUT as you’re asking us whether you should visit Oahu vs The Big Island, here’s the final answer we’ll give you in addition to everything we’ve said above…
If you can only pick one of these islands for your visit then we’d seriously suggest considering The Big Island.
Not only is it beautiful and home to such a relaxed vibe, but it’s also chock-full of incredible bucket list opportunities.
Thanks in large part to its volcanoes, a trip to The Big Island is like no other trip you’ll take elsewhere.
That said, most visitors to Hawaii spend 1-2 weeks exploring two Hawaiian islands in that time, which we would definitely recommend doing.
And thanks to lots of options of domestic flights between Oahu and The Big Island, it’s definitely possible to see both during your first trip.
Although we would say to spend longer on The Big Island if you can as there is quite a lot more to see there.
You’ll want to spend a few days on each island at least, which will give you a flavour for what they’re all about, but will probably make you dream of Hawaii years later and want to return… just like us!
Check out our 7 day Hawaii itinerary for some inspiration.
We hope this blog post has helped you to make your mind up over whether you should visit The Big Island vs Oahu.
Is there anything else you want to know? Write us a comment below and we’ll reply asap!
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