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After finally choosing to go to Hawaii, you’ll have to make the most challenging decision yet: settling on which Hawaiian island will make for a better vacation. Honolulu and Kauai have found themselves in the middle of many disagreements between prospective visitors who can’t pick one spot, but which one is better will boil down to personal taste.
A Honolulu vacation is better for people who want to stay in a convenient city with all of the best attractions and restaurants just a quick walk away. Kauai is best for people who wish to visit a less touristy island with plenty of secluded beaches and outdoor activities.
So, let’s get to the bottom of this and discuss what you can expect from a vacation in Honolulu and Kauai. I’ll break down all the reasons you might want to choose one or the other, then offer my opinion to help you make the best decision.
Why You Should Visit Kauai
Kauai, often called “The Garden Island,” is a gorgeous small island with vibrant green mountains, secluded beaches, and small towns.
You Are an Outdoors Person
Kauai’s most significant difference from other locations in Hawaii is its rugged, wild landscape. Although you’ll still find plenty of resort-town comforts in Poipu and Princeville, if you venture out from them, you’ll enjoy the remote, rural tropical jungles of Kauai.
Kauai’s well-known for its remote locations, and one of the best ways to illustrate that is by watching Jurassic Park, which was filmed there. If you visit Kauai, you’ll see those jagged green mountains on the horizon, waterfalls, white beaches, and very few businesses outside the most popular resort towns.
Still, since most of Kauai is densely forested and undeveloped, it is ideal for visitors who plan on hiking, swimming, kayaking, surfing, snorkeling, and other outdoor activities during their stay.
This island is also fantastic for people who want to sit on the beach for the duration of their vacation, especially considering that the water’s always warm here.
You Want a Quiet and Laid Back Vacation
Kauai’s naturalistic atmosphere attracts only a specific type of person, which makes it less populated than cities like Honolulu, even during peak season.
Kauai is the least-populated major Hawaiian island, making for huge open spaces and fewer crowds.
Kauai is one of the best islands for honeymooners, people who want privacy and alone time on their vacation, or those who want to spend quality time with their families.
So, if you need a break from the sounds of the city, want to fill your visit with relaxing outdoor activities, or want to find an empty, clean beach to be alone, this is the place to go.
You Don’t Plan on Spending Much Time in Town
The bars in Kauai have a mandatory 2 AM closing time, and you won’t find a downtown strip for drinks and dancing here, so it’s not the place to go if you are looking for some late-night partying.
However, you’ll still find plenty of beachside cabanas and restaurants in the resort towns – you just won’t be able to find many 24-hour conveniences.
You Don’t Mind Renting a Car
You will likely need to rent a car if you want to get out of the hotel in Kauai. Kauai’s rural atmosphere, wide open spaces, and outdoor attractions make it difficult to see anything without a vehicle.
Likewise, Uber and Lyft rides are challenging to get on this island, and there are few taxis.
If you want to learn more about getting around on the island, you might find my article, Do You Need a Rental Car in Kauai? helpful. In it, I discuss the transportation available on Kauai and weigh the pros and cons of renting a car here.
Why You Should Visit Honolulu
Honolulu is one of the most significant urban centers in Hawaii. This bustling city is a cultural and tourist hub, where you’ll find a little of everything you could ever want from your stay on the islands.
You Appreciate the Conveniences of Urban Areas
If you are the kind of person who likes an urban landscape and the conveniences that come with it, Honolulu is the best place for you to visit in Hawaii.
Honolulu has a fast-paced atmosphere with businesses surrounding the beaches. You’ll be spoiled for choice when deciding what to do here!
You Want a Place With a Great Nightlife
With a full spectrum of bars, Honolulu has everything you could want to keep your vacation going all night long.
You’ll find taverns, pubs, beachside bars, karaoke clubs, and local breweries on almost every street in Honolulu. So, having a great time after dusk won’t be challenging. Plus, since the city is walkable, you won’t have to hold yourself back for the drive home.
With nightlife like this, you may never get over your jet lag!
You Want To Experience a Little Bit of Everything
Alongside the jubilant night scene, there’s plenty to enjoy during the day.
The Arts District and Chinatown feature many theaters, galleries, shops, restaurants, and bars. Walking around these districts makes for a fabulous day in the city.
Honolulu also has plenty of excellent museums, from the Bishop Museum to the Honolulu Aquarium and Zoo. Honolulu is the city for you if you want to take in a well-curated representation of Hawaiian wildlife, history, and culture.
Plus, even if you are an outdoorsy person in search of your next hike or marine adventure, there are some great spots near Honolulu for you. Diamond Head Crater Park is just a short uber away from Waikiki, and Puu Ualakaa State park is just north of the city.
Then, of course, you can’t mention Honolulu without taking note of its famous beaches. With the quintessential Hawaiian beach, Waikiki Beach, just minutes away from most Honolulu hotels and resorts, and others such as Ala Moana, Fort DeRussy, and Kuhio nearby, you’ll be able to soak up some sun here.
There are also many restaurants here, with Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, American, Indian, Chinese, and so much more just outside your hotel lobby.
Waikiki and Honolulu proper have excellent parks for a stroll after dinner when you want a taste of the outdoors. Be sure to stop by the Foster Botanical Garden and Fort DeRussy Park while you’re here, two of the most popular spots for a picnic or walk in town.
So, Honolulu has everything you could want from a Hawaiian vacation, all nearby. That’s why it’s such a big city and a popular destination.
You Don’t Want To Rent a Car
Why pay to get around when you can use your own two feet? The best part about a city vacation is that everything is within walking distance. Whether you take a cab or hoof it, you’ll be able to experience all the food, shopping, and wonder that Honolulu offers.
If you want to learn more about some of the best ways to get around in Honolulu, you might want to give my article, Do You Need a Car in Honolulu? a skim.
The Verdict: Is a Kauai or Honolulu Vacation Better?
A Kauai vacation is better for people who hope to spend their vacation in less touristy areas, adventuring in the mountains, or relaxing on clean, empty beaches. In contrast, Honolulu is better for people who want to stay in a convenient spot with plenty of things to do without having to drive.
Still, these destinations have plenty in common. Although Kauai might not have a hopping urban center, it still has plenty of high-rated restaurants, bars, and attractions.
Likewise, Honolulu’s beaches attract people for a good reason, and there are hiking options available outside the city.
So, you can’t go wrong, but to help you decide, think about what you want from your vacation.
For example, I am an introvert who loves hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, and catching sight of wildlife. So, for me, Kauai is a natural choice. However, Honolulu might be best for you if you love going out at night, love museums and attractions, or want an action-packed vacation.
Hopefully, this guide has helped to make your decision between Honolulu and Kauai easy. While neither vacation is objectively better, one might fill your expectations more than the other. So, consider your tastes and preferences when weighing the pros and cons.
However, if it comes to the line and you still can’t decide, I recommend opting for Honolulu since it has a little bit of everything.