Updated: February 1, 2024
When most people plan a trip to Hawaii, they’re looking for tropical vibes, great beaches, and good eats. However, with six Hawaiian islands to choose from, it can be tough to know where to go!
Oahu is Hawaii’s most popular island, famous for great hikes like Diamond Head and stunning white sands like Waikiki Beach. On the other hand, Kauai is Hawaii’s most tropical island and is a paradise for those after rugged coastlines and vibrant rainforests.
So, with both islands offering great activities, which one do you pick? In this Oahu vs Kauai guide, we’ll cover all the basics of both islands. Plus, we’ll break down what to know about each island’s beaches, activities, nightlife, and more!
Oahu: A Brief Overview
Oahu is Hawaii’s most populated island and is most people’s first pick when planning a Hawaiian vacation. Known as ‘The Gathering Place,’ this island has a diverse urban culture with people from all over the world calling it home.
The state’s capital, Honolulu, also lies in Oahu, which means that it’s a hub for domestic and international flights. As a result, it’s a great place to visit if you want to island hop to places like Maui or Big Island.
Oahu is also well-known as a surf haven. This is largely thanks to its North Shore, where you can get some of the bigger waves in the Pacific Ocean. Or, if you’re after calmer waters, you can head to Waikiki Beach on the South Shore.
This beach is surrounded by high-rise buildings and gives you a taste of the outdoors without having to leave the big city.
Plus, don’t forget that Oahu also has outstanding dining options and the best nightlife scene—one you won’t experience in other islands in Hawaii.
Kauai: A Brief Overview
If you’re not a fan of big crowds and bustling city life, Kauai is a much quieter option. Kauai is known as the Garden Isle and is a tropical paradise ideal for those wanting to explore nature.
In fact, Kauai has quite a few building restrictions in place, which means you won’t find tall buildings on the Garden Island. Instead, this place has a rural vibe and is known for small towns such as Waimea, Hanalei, and Hanapepe.
Besides the relaxed nature of Kauai, many visitors enjoy coming here for breathtaking views and unique landscapes. In fact, its landscapes are so unique that they were even used in Jurassic Park movies!
You can also spot sea life from Kauai, such as humpback whales, during migrating season. All these things make it one island that’s bound to leave an impression.
Kauai vs. Oahu: The Faceoff
Now that you’ve got a feel for what Kauai and Oahu are like let’s get into the details of each one. Here’s a rundown of what to know about Oahu vs. Kauai in terms of everything from location to nightlife.
Oahu and Kauai are actually pretty close to each other, with only 63 miles between them. And in fact, Oahu is just 35 miles bigger than Kauai, making it pretty similar in size.
Despite that, Oahu is much more densely populated. It’s also a bit easier to access because there are plenty of direct flights heading into the busy international airport in Honolulu.
On the other hand, if you’re going to Kauai, be prepared for an adventure. For starters, nonstop flights are fewer, especially from the East Coast. And because it’s not as developed as the other Hawaiian islands, not all roads are accessible by car.
As a result, many times, to get to the island, you’ll have to take multiple flights and go down some pretty bumpy roads.
Both Oahu and Kauai offer various accommodations. However, because of Oahu’s size, there tends to be a bit more variety.
Oahu has everything from budget options on the North Shore to sprawling beach resorts on the south shore near Waikiki Beach. Many of these places have on-site shopping and dining, making them super convenient as well.
A couple of these hotels include:
With Kauai, although the island is known for natural beauty and not resorts, it still gives Oahu a run for its money in terms of hotels.
Kauai features five-star hotels that offer beautiful tropical views of the beach and world-class hotel amenities for kids. Or, there are more affordable stays, such as hostels, that budget travelers can take advantage of.
Hawaii has some of the most beautiful beaches in the United States, whether you’re headed to the black sand beaches of Big Island or the so-called perfect beach at Waikiki.
Oahu is the best island for both surfing and lounging. On the north east shore, you’ll find Lanikai Beach, a beach with clear blue waters and gentle waves that is ideal for just hanging out, swimming, and paddleboarding. If you head south to Waikiki Beach, however, you’ll find calm waters on the inside and smaller waves on the outside that are great for learning how to surf.
Just note that Oahu beaches tend to be crowded. So, make sure to get there early in order to grab a spot for the day.
Kauai also has several postcard-looking beaches on the island. And because it’s a quieter and less developed place, you can find fewer crowds. This means the chances of relaxing by the beach alone are higher.
What’s interesting about Kauai’s beaches, however, is that many of them can only be accessed via four-wheel drive.
In terms of the best beaches, the west side is home to some of the more popular areas. This includes the Kalalau Trail, a strenuous hike that leads to a picturesque white sand bay.
Things to Do and Activities
Besides the many beaches, both Kauai and Oahu offer outdoor adventures and other activities to keep you entertained on your trip.
Oahu definitely does not disappoint with its wide range of thrilling yet enjoyable activities for exploration. For starters, Hanauma Bay is famous for snorkeling because of its calm blue waters. Or, another popular pick is Shark’s Cove or Lanikai Beach on the windward side of Oahu.
If water activities are not your thing, you can also explore hiking trails at Diamond Head. Reaching the volcano’s crater gives you a glimpse of Honolulu in a beautiful panoramic view.
Besides outdoor activities, there are also a number of tourist attractions that will immerse you in the island’s history. These include a mix of historical landmarks and local museums.
You can visit Pearl Harbor and check out the USS Arizona Memorial or other historic sites in the area. For example, the USS Missouri and USS Bowfin are also both located at Pearl Harbor. Or, you can head to places like Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum around town.
Finally, there’s the Polynesian cultural center, where you can learn more about the island’s culture and Polynesian heritage.
Whereas Oahu is a great place to learn about Hawaiian culture, Kauai is a great place to go to reconnect with nature.
For instance, Kokee State Park features hiking trails, lookout points, and birdwatching. Or, there’s the Na Pali Coast, a sacred shoreline on the northern part of the island.
You can also visit Waimea Canyon, which is often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It’s known as the Grand Canyon thanks to its craggy geography. Besides being one of the most famous spots in Hawaii, Waimea Canyon features geological featured in the Jurassic Park films.
Another unique adventure is the Plantation Railway, where you can experience a train ride across the tropical forest. The Plantation Railway takes you through plantation-era farms where you can get a feel for what life was once like in Hawaii.
Another must-visit tourist attraction is Allerton and McBryde Gardens by the National Tropical Botanical Garden network. The gardens provide a closer look at indigenous Hawaiian plants, flowers, and trees. Both these places are located on the west side of Kauai.
Experience a chance to view coastal views at the Kilauea Point Lighthouse. It’s also an excellent spot for birdwatching, especially birds like shearwaters, local frigates, and Laysan albatrosses.
Or, you can take a sunset sail or book a helicopter tour of the island to get a different view of this tropical oasis.
Nightlife is pretty different on both Kauai and Oahu.
Oahu is home to Honolulu, which is a central location for after-dark entertainment. Aside from crowded dance bars, you can also find wine bars, rooftop lounges, nightclubs, and karaoke nights.
On the other hand, Kauai does not offer that much of a wild nightlife experience. Because it’s more rural and closer to nature, establishments close earlier. This means you won’t see nightclubs and wine bars open late at night to unwind and have fun.
Still, you’re welcome to treat yourself to a drink in your hotel room!
When it comes to dining, both Oahu and Kauai have some great options.
Being the center of the city and nature, nothing compares to the wide variety of restaurants Oahu offers. From authentic local cuisine to international dishes, there’s a particular food option for every traveler.
There are fine-dining options as well as unique experiences, such as sunset cruises or private beach dinners, available in addition to cheap eats.
With Kauai, developments and improvements to its dining scene have occurred over the recent years. From serving local cuisine, the island has branched out to the international scene. As a result, it still has some great places to eat, just like Oahu.
Choosing between Oahu vs Kauai honestly boils down to what you want to do on your trip to Hawaii.
Visit Oahu if partying is part of your itinerary. The island’s vibrant nightlife includes everything from bar hopping to sunset cruises. Or, head to this island if you’re after great surfing for everyone from beginner to advanced!
On the contrary, visit Kauai if you’re looking for outdoor adventures. With everything from birdwatching to botanical gardens, there are tons of ways to connect with nature and unwind on this island.
At the end of the day, either of these could be the right island for your next trip. It’s time to visit Hawaii and discover what the Aloha State has in store for your vacation.