No matter where you go in Hawaii, you’re surrounded by pristine beaches, lush greenery, and glowing sunsets. The question is, which of the six main islands should you visit? More specifically, between Oahu vs. Maui, two of Hawaii’s most visited islands, should you visit for your next beach vacation?
NOTE: As of August 2023, Lahaina and West Maui are closed for travel due to the fires. The rest of Maui is open, along with the other islands. Please plan your trip accordingly. Maui County has a list of non-profits you can help support during this devastating time.
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The six main islands of Hawaii
Hawaii is comprised of six main islands: Big Island, Kauai, Lanai, Molokai, Maui, and Oahu. Of all of them, Lanai and Molokai are the least accessible since they are not built for tourists (and the locals prefer to keep it that way). Most of the tourism and hospitality industries are centered in Oahu, Maui, Big Island, and Kauai. Here’s a guide to planning your first Hawaii trip if you haven’t been!
According to a press release from the State of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, there were 3.96 million visitors to Oahu and 2.42 million visitors to Maui from January to October 2022. Kauai attracted 1.12 million visitors and Big Island pulled in 1.39 million during these ten months. There were no data from Lanai and Molokai.
A bit about Oahu
Home to Honolulu, Hawaii’s state capital, Oahu is the most populated island with 1.016 million residents and is nicknamed “The Gathering Place”. Major attractions in Oahu include Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, Dole Plantation, and Polynesian Cultural Center. Waikiki, Honolulu’s most famous neighborhood is where all the action is, from Waikiki Beach to Kalakaua Avenue. Hanauma Bay is Oahu’s most popular snorkling spot, while North Shore is most known for surfers.
A bit about Maui
Maui is the 3rd most populated and 2nd largest (landmass wise) island in Hawaii. Its biggest attractions are Road to Hana and Haleakalā National Park. Lahaina, the main town in Maui, is buzzing with restaurants, art galleries, and shops, with more charm and less chaos than Waikiki. Because Lahaina is right next to the harbor, you can go whale watching or go on a romantic dinner cruise.
Oahu vs. Maui: Which island in Hawaii should you visit?
Whether it’s your first or 15th time in Hawaii, you cannot go wrong visiting Oahu or Maui. The biggest question is, which island should you visit? That all depends on your budget, lifestyle, who you’re traveling with, length of stay, activities, etc.
Hopefully, after reading this guide, you’re ready to book a roundtrip flight to either one of the islands and relax on the beach with a mai-tai (or two)!
Oahu vs. Maui: Beaches
Oh, it’s so hard choosing who wins in the battle of the beaches. Both are fantastic for swimming, whether you are wading on Wailea or Kaanapali Beaches in Maui, or Waikiki Beach in Oahu. Bear in mind that the waves can get pretty strong given that it’s in the Pacific Ocean; we learned this the hard way and underestimated how strong they were when Cecilio suffered an excruciatingly painful leg cramp swimming in Waikiki Beach on our first night! Thankfully, even with how crowded Waikiki gets, there were people extending their hands to help us.
That said, take advantage of the beaches as much as you can when they’re calm! If you really want to be safe, head over to the Ko Olina lagoons on the west side of Oahu, where the waters are calm due to the large rocks creating a barrier for the waves.
If you’re into surfing, North Shore in Oahu is the perfect spot for you. Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach have world-class surfing competitions!
I will say that Maui has better snorkeling spots, but Hanauma Bay is the best in Oahu for snorkeling (just keep in mind that it gets insanely crowded).
Winner: Tie (Oahu for surfing, Maui for snorkeling and whale watching)
Oahu vs. Maui: Nature
Beaches aren’t the ony thing Hawaii has to offer. Both Oahu and Maui are rich in biodiversity, so it’s tough to choose; it’s like asking to pick your favorite child!
That said, I will have to give a slight marginal edge to Maui. You absolutely cannot visit the island without riding the Road to Hana, a 64-mile road that connects Kahului to Hana, a small town in East Maui. But it’s not about the destination; it’s the stops along the way that just make this highway epic. You’ll drive by breathtaking state beaches, waterfalls, gardens, and hiking trails.
Maui is also home to Haleakalā National Park, with the volcanic crater rising 10,000 feet above sea level. Haleakalā has some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world! All around, the red rocks and landscapes make you feel like you’re in Mars.
On the other hand, Oahu is the place to be if you want to go hiking. A steep hike on Diamond Head rewards you with gorgeous views of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Cecilio and I hiked at Manoa Valley when we did a day tour to North Shore, and I would say it was at a moderate intensity. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see the waterfall (which we didn’t get to see because of the drought). Lanikai Pillbox is also a popular trail, but is more for experienced hikers since it’s a tougher one.
Craving to hit more trails? Here are some epic sunrise hiking spots in Oahu!
Oahu vs. Maui: Cost
No matter what, you are going to feel the pinch financially when planning a trip to Hawaii. That said, Maui is significantly more expensive, especially for lodging.
Cecilio and I stayed at Shoreline Waikiki Hotel, a 3-star boutique hotel with a small room and a lanai (balcony). The room was roughly $180/night. As I search for 3-star hotels in Maui, I can’t find anything under $240, even during shoulder or off seasons.
I pulled up some data from Hawaii Tourism Activity’s December 2022 Hotel Performance Report. It states that the average daily rate in Oahu’s Waikiki area is $319.96 whereas Maui’s Wailea is $734.40. Ouch.
If you are more conscious about your budget, you’re probably going to want to stick with staying in Oahu.
Oahu vs. Maui: Couples
Not to say that Oahu isn’t for couples, but there’s something about Maui that is sexy and oozing with romance, especially for honeymooners. Maybe it’s because of the luxurious vibe; maybe it’s just you and your love against the waves and far away from the Waikiki concrete jungle. Maui is the quintessential image people have of Hawaii. With calmer waters, wineries, luxury hotels (offering welcome packages and spa treatments), and lush green forests, Maui is a couples’ oasis.
If you are in search of some civilization, the charming old town of Lahaina is perfect for window shopping, dining out, sunset cruises by the harbor, and sharing each others’ shave ice.
Oahu vs. Maui: Kid-friendly activities
Oahu has the upper hand when it comes to family and kid-friendly activities. Sure, you can go snorkeling and hiking with your little ones in Maui, but Oahu will keep them entertained with much more stimuli. Attractions for kids include Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium, Polynesian Cultural Center, and Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Let’s not forget about the Disney Aulani Resort in the Ko Olina area! If it’s too expensive for you to stay there, you can dine in at one of their many restaurants, cafes and bars, and meet some of the characters! The resort also hosts the KA WA’A Luau, which you have to book months in advance.
Oahu vs. Maui: Luxury
With Maui’s high price tags, you better expect top-notch treatment to match. And you will get that with their luxury hotels!
My first trip to Maui was with my mom and sisters in 2014. We stayed at Fairmont Kea Lani and I will say that that is one of the nicest (and most expensive!) resorts we have stayed in. We had Wailea Beach as our backyard, and we swam and swam letting the waves overtake us. We rented a large cabana by the pool (which was HUGE), and ordered anything we wanted to our hearts’ content. We even got massages in our cabana!
There were a variety of fitness classes offered, and I got a chance to take the morning yoga class (for a few minutes because Cecilio called me about an emergency and I had to step outside). We took advantage of the award-winning Willow Steam Spa, and felt oh-so-rejuvenated.
When we drove back to the airport, my mom realized she left a bag of things at the resort. She called them and immediately the staff drove to to the airport and gave her back her stuff. If that’s not excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.
Oahu vs. Maui: Shopping
With high-end shops lining Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian Center, and Ala Moana Center, it’s no brainer that Oahu has the upper hand for shopping. Ala Moana Center is an open-air, 4-story mall with over 350 shops, ranging from luxury brands to mainstream shops (like Abercrombie & Fitch!) to small Hawaiian business. There’s even a Target, which Cecilio and I went to a few times to stock up on essentials. Ala Moana also over 160 eateries, such as sit-down restaurants, casual dining, and prepared meals from the ABC stores.
There are shopping centers and strip malls in Maui, and some even sell designer stuff. But it is nowhere near the level of Oahu’s shopping experience.
Oahu vs. Maui: Nightlife
Oahu’s nightlife is unmatched, with the nightclubs and bars open late in Waikiki. Meanwhile, while there are some late-night restaurants and bars in Maui, they are few and far between. Lahaina is a sleepy town, where doors close around 9–10. However, Halloween in Maui is a huge deal, especially with a big parade celebrating the holiday in Lahaina. The locals go all out partying and dressing in full costume.
Still, for night out on the town, Oahu (especially in Waikiki) is your best bet.
Oahu vs. Maui: For First-Timers
Honestly, for your first trip to Hawaii, whether you go to Oahu or Maui is completely up to you based on your preference, lifestyle, activities, and budget.
If you come from a big city (or a cushy suburb) and you want all the familiar comforts in the mainland US, I recommend Oahu for your first time in Hawaii. However, if you want something a little more rural (but not overly so compared to the other islands), nature-y with the quintessential (not stereotypical) Hawaiian experience with pure bliss, then definitely visit Maui as a first-timer!
Winner: Tie…it all comes down to your preference.
Oahu might be for you if…
- You want a blend of city and beach life with all the conveniences the mainland US has
- You are a young family and are seeking kid-friendly activities
- You want to party it up
- You have a little money to spend but are trying to stay prudent
- You want to do intense activities like hiking steep trails or surfing
Maui might be for you if…
- You want to do some outdoor activities, but not as intense (sightseeing is more of your thing)
- You’re going on a honeymoon or a baecation
- You want to go snorkeling and/or whale watching
- You’re craving for a luxurious Hawaiian experience
- You’re seeking relaxation and pampering
- You have the budget to it and are ready to pay a pretty penny
What about visiting both Oahu and Maui?
If you have the budget, you can absolutely visit both islands! Most people who do this spend a few days at each island. It is possible to also choose one as your main base and go island hopping on a day trip. There are so many guided tours you can go on for island hopping from one island to another.
- Day Trip from Oahu to Maui: Haleakalā & Best of Maui
- Full Day Pearl Harbor and Famous Waikiki Beach Tour From Maui
- Day Trip From Maui to Oahu: Pearl Harbor & City
Both Oahu and Maui are wonderful islands to visit for a trip to Hawaii, whether you are going on a honeymoon, having fun in the sun with your family, doing a solo trip, or even celebrating your 50th birthday! You can’t go wrong with either or, and I hope this guide helps you with your decision on which island to visit! Happy planning?
Have you been to Hawaii before? More specifically, Oahu or Maui?
Resources to Help You Plan Your Hawaii Trip
- 18 Fun Things to do in Oahu for 4 Days
- Shoreline Waikiki Hotel: What to expect at this colorful boutique stay
- Don’t make these 9 mistakes I made in Oahu, Hawaii
- Manoa Chocolate Tour & Tasting | a Unique Experience in Hawaii
- Sun protecting summer essentials
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Hannah is a travel writer, graphic designer, and the founder/editor of Hannah on Horizon. She is based in Sacramento, California, living with her husband and two adorable dogs. She shares tips on how to experience luxury travel on any budget, and how to maximize time at each trip or destination, no matter what your budget or amount of vacation time at work. She enjoys making you feel like you have visited each destination with her through her storytelling and informative writing style.