A vacation in dreamy Hawaii may be a no-brainer, but choosing which island to visit is a tougher call.
When it comes to choosing between its two most popular islands, Maui and Oahu, you’ll want to know what makes each one unique — and which best matches your travel style.
In this post, we take a deep dive into both the data points and our own impressions based on personal experiences while visiting both islands. Armed with this information, we’ll help you decide which island is the better fit for your Hawaiian getaway.
Get to know Maui
Maui may score second place in size when compared to Oahu, but its smaller size certainly doesn’t keep vacationers away. On the contrary, Maui has consistently been voted as the best island in Hawaii by Conde Nast readers — by all accounts, savvy and sophisticated travelers.
Once known for sugar and pineapple plantations, the “Valley Isle” today has a reputation for catering to couples and babymooners seeking a romantic escape from the crowds. In reality, the island offers plenty that appeals to all ages.
On Maui, you’ll check off all the bucket list experiences you’re looking for in Hawaii: pristine beaches and water for snorkeling, farm-to-table dining, luau dinners, a road trip through a tropical rainforest, and plenty of hiking opportunities.
But there’s one thing you won’t find on the island: an active nightlife. Instead, the popular beach destination offers a laid-back vibe that focuses on relaxation and tranquility. In our opinion, Maui strikes the perfect balance between adventure and relaxation.
Get to know Oahu
Oahu, also known as “The Gathering Place,” is a must-visit destination for those seeking a vibrant and active Hawaiian experience. This popular island offers a diverse range of attractions, including historic sites like Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl Cemetery, the Polynesian Cultural Center, the North Shore, and bustling Waikiki.
While Oahu can get crowded and traffic can be heavy in popular areas, the island’s popularity also means that there are plenty of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. Whether you want to catch a surf competition on the North Shore, immerse yourself in Polynesian culture at the cultural center, or enjoy the electrifying nightlife in Waikiki, Oahu offers something for everyone.
Beyond the bustling tourist areas, Oahu also offers breathtaking natural beauty. Visitors can hike to the top of Diamond Head for panoramic views of the island, explore the lush Manoa Valley, or relax on one of the island’s many beaches. And with a thriving food scene that includes everything from local favorites like poke and shave ice to gourmet fresh catch meals, Oahu is a culinary destination in its own right.
Overall, Oahu boasts and exciting, diverse, and unforgettable destination that offers something for every type of traveler. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or a little bit of both, you’ll find it on Oahu.
Maui vs Oahu: What the data tells us
Here’s what the numbers tell us about Maui versus Oahu.
|Island size (square miles)||735||597|
|Population, 2022 U.S. Census||164,351||995,638|
|Visitors in 2022||2.9M||4.8M|
|Return visitors in 2022||70.5%||63.5%|
|Average daily hotel rate in 2022||$606.92||$267.77|
|Mean average temperature||77.1°F||78.0°F|
|Annual precipitation||16.21 in.||16.41 in.|
Maui isn’t as crowded as Oahu. Although Maui is larger in size than Oahu, its population is a whopping 83% less than Oahu’s. Even taking into consideration tourist traffic, the smaller island garners 1.9 million more visitors annually than Maui. So you’ll encounter fewer people on Maui than Oahu.
More people return to Maui than Oahu. In 2022, 70.5% of visitors surveyed were coming back to the island, versus 63.5% of visitors on Oahu. Perhaps it’s a sign that travelers prefer Maui to Oahu?
It’s more expensive to stay on Maui. On average, visitors to Maui spent 126% more on their daily hotel rate than in Oahu. Some of that price difference may have to do with the number of high-end resorts Maui offers. Also, the Waikiki high rises give visitors more lodging options than what’s available on Maui (which has no high rise buildings).
The weather on the two islands is pretty similar — sort of. The data shows that annual rainfall on Maui is slightly less than Oahu, and Maui is just slightly cooler — by less than one degree. But these figures don’t illustrate the tropical microclimates on each island. For example, the temperature at Haleakala National Park on Maui is often much cooler (by 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, easily) than at the beach in South Maui. And the leeward side of Oahu (west) averages less rainfall than the windward side (east).
Hawaiian island throwdown: our take on Maui vs Oahu
While data can help guide your decision, some factors can’t be quantified. These are our opinions on which is better and why, broken down by category.
Choosing which island has the best beaches is akin to choosing a favorite child — for most people, it can’t be done.
Both islands have stunning beaches to choose from, from the white sands at Lanikai Beach to the breathtaking surf and sand at Makena State Park’s Big Beach.
Which is better: Tie. Both islands have equally stunning beaches. Oahu may have more beaches to choose from, but they’re more crowded. While Maui may not have as many beaches as Oahu, they’re just as beautiful — and have fewer crowds.
You won’t be at a loss for snorkeling, scuba diving, paddle boarding, and other water sports on either island. Both Maui and Oahu boast some of the state’s most popular sites.
Notable snorkeling spots around Maui include Molokini Crater, Honolua Bay, and Turtle Town. Surfers are known to congregate on the island’s north shoreline, particularly in the winter months — particularly at Peahi, also known as “Jaws.”
Like Maui, active water enthusiasts flock to Hanauma Bay, Shark’s Cove, and Electric Beach. Scuba divers have access to both colorful marine life and underwater artifacts such as the Corsair plane and YO-257 shipwreck.
Which is better: The jury’s still out. But we’re leaning on a tie for this one. Both islands offer plenty of choice spots (along with equipment rentals) for snorkeling, paddling, surfing, scuba, and more.
Maui vs Oahu: Food and Restaurants
Both Maui and Oahu feature award-winning restaurants and renowned chefs, so you can’t go wrong with either island. Some chefs — such as Peter Merriman and Roy Yamaguchi — even have restaurants on both islands. Whether you’re a self-proclaimed foodie or just looking for the most convenient place to grab a bite, you’ll find plenty of options.
Maui has become known for its farm-to-table cuisine, and many restaurants on the island source ingredients from local farms and producers. Some notable restaurants on Maui include Mama’s Fish House, Lahaina Grill, and Merriman’s Kapalua.
Oahu also has a diverse range of food options, from fine dining to food truck offerings. The island may be best known for its fusion cuisine that blends local flavors with international influences. Some notable eateries on Oahu include Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck,
Which is better: Oahu. You’ll have more restaurants to choose from because of the island’s larger population.
While Maui beats Oahu on size, the smaller island supports its larger population with a more developed infrastructure. Quite simply, more people on the smaller island support a greater variety and number of sights and activities. Not to mention the fact that Hawaii’s capital city of Honolulu lies on the island of Oahu.
On the other hand, Maui is best known for its natural beauty and outdoor activities — not for major historical landmarks or metropolitan attractions.
These are some of the more popular attractions on the two islands.
Popular places to visit on Maui:
- Haleakala National Park
- Old Lahaina Luau
- Molokini Crater snorkeling
- Road to Hana (includes the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park)
Popular places to visit on Oahu:
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial
- Diamond Head State Monument
- Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve
- Polynesian Cultural Center
Which is better: Oahu. There’s simply more to see on Oahu.
Whether you’re planning to splurge on souvenirs or gifts, both islands offer plenty of shopping choices.
On Maui, find both high-end and casual shops at one of the two popular shopping destinations: The Shops at Wailea and Whaler’s Village in Lahaina. You’ll also find a number of local, independent stores and boutiques to peruse when venturing out to smaller towns, such as Paia and Makawao. These smaller shops are ideal for sourcing locally made goods.
Oahu’s Waikiki area in particular is renowned for its high-end luxury brands and international retailers. The island boasts a variety of specialty shops, local boutiques, and open-air markets. Despite being the smaller of the two islands, Oahu’s larger population supports more shopping opportunities than Maui.
Which is better: Oahu, hands down. You can’t beat Oahu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, the world’s largest open-air shopping center, for all the retail therapy you need.
We find that many Maui visitors are either safely tucked into bed or quietly enjoying that last glass of wine on an oceanside lanai well before midnight. Maui nightlife? You’ll be hard pressed to find anything open after 10 p.m. Even the island’s Friday Town Parties shut down by 9 p.m.
Head to Waikiki for any number of bars and nightclubs. Check out Bar 35 in Honolulu or Sky Waikiki for late night drinks with friends.
Which is better: Oahu. Head to Waikiki for late night excitement. Maui has virtually no nightlife to speak of.
Cultural and historical activities
On Maui, you can explore the island’s rich history at the Bailey House Museum, Lahaina Historic Trail, and Haleakala National Park. The island is also known for its traditional Hawaiian festivals and events, such as the Maui County Fair and the Celebration of the Arts.
On Oahu, visitors can explore the historic Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial, Iolani Palace, and the Bishop Museum. The island also offers cultural experiences, such as the Polynesian Cultural Center and the Waikiki Historic Trail.
Which is better: Oahu. While you can attend a luau and see a few museums on Maui, the island doesn’t compare to Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center or the historical Pearl Harbor visitor center.
Maui may be best known for its world-renowned hiking trails and diverse microclimates — from the lush rainforest along the East Maui coastline to the barren desert landscape of the dormant Haleakala volcano. Whether you’re seeking waterfalls or distant ocean views, Maui’s strength lies in its wild and natural landscape.
Oahu also offers plenty of trails to choose from, particularly moderate to challenging hikes with stunning vista payoffs. From the volcanic crater view at the Diamond Head Trail or the lush trail at Manoa Falls, Oahu has plenty to keep outdoor enthusiasts busy.
Which is better: Maui. While Oahu offers equally stunning hikes, we’ve found that the more popular trails on Oahu become way too crowded with tourists to properly enjoy the scenery.
The decision: Which island should you visit?
Here at Maui Trip Guide, we aren’t afraid to admit that we’re biased toward Maui. But we also realize that not everyone agrees with our opinion. In that spirit, here’s our advice if you’re on the fence:
Are you visiting Hawaii for the first time? And are you an active vacationer who’s always on the go? You want a bit of everything, from hiking to shopping to water sports to nightlife — and you don’t mind the crowds. Choose Oahu for your Hawaiian vacation.
Or do you crave a slower, quieter, and more laid-back pace when you’re on vacation? Sure, you enjoy heading outdoors, but you savor relaxation beach vibes and a country feel over city and nightlife. Then choose Maui.
Go crazy and visit both! It’s a short plane ride from one island to the other. Just remember that whatever your final decision, neither of these Hawaiian islands will fail to provide a magical backdrop for your tropical getaway.