Honolulu Or Kona? Where To Go For Your Hawaiian Vacation?

Honolulu Or Kona
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Having to choose between Honolulu and Kona might not be the worst decision in the world, but it can be a tricky one! These two stunning Hawaiian destinations seem similar on the surface; both offer endless sunshine, stunning beaches, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. But they are actually quite different, and choosing the right one for your holiday is essential.  

For starters, they are on two different islands; Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii, sits in all its cosmopolitan splendor on the island of Oahu. While the Kona region stretches along the west coast of the dramatically beautiful big island, Hawaii, with the seaside resort town of Kailua-Kona, at its center. 

In this article, we’ll point out the main differences and help you decide between a thriving metropolis full of famous beaches and sights or a more relaxed holiday in a region more known for its snorkeling, wildlife, and world-famous coffee! 

Beaches

Waikiki beach is one of the most popular beaches in Hawaii
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Obviously, if we’re talking Hawaii, we’ve got to start with the beaches, and Honolulu is home to one of the most famous of all, Waikiki! Not just the most popular beach in Honolulu but the biggest resort area on the whole island, which tourists flock to in their millions every year. It’s easy to see why, with its miles of powder-soft sand, unreal blue waters, and all the amenities you could wish for, Waikiki is a beach lover’s dream. But if you want something a little less crowded, try Kailua or Diamond Head Beach Park, and families should head to the calm waters of manmade Magic Island or the protected waters of Ala Moana. 

All along the Kona Coast, you’ll find beautiful expanses of soft white sand contrasting with black lava rock alongside crystal clear, coral-filled waters perfect for snorkeling and turtle spotting. Kahalu’u Bay is ideally located near all the amenities of Kona town and has wonderfully calm waters ideal for families with young children. The wide expanse of Makalawena Beach is for anyone wanting to avoid the crowds and explore lava pools, while Honl’s Beach is the spot to watch the sunset surfers in action! 

Conclusion: A draw, Hawaii doesn’t make bad beaches! 

Watersports

Snorkel with Manta Rays in Kona
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You can’t go to Hawaii and not get in the water, whether that means taking a dolphin or whale watching boat trip, going deep-sea fishing, or trying one of the many watersports on offer. But some regions do specialize in some activities over others. In Honolulu, although there’s some beautiful snorkeling available in the protected marine area of Hanauma Bay, it’s really all about surfing! Whether you’re taking your first ever lesson or following in the footsteps of local legend Duke Kahanamoku, you’ll find swell, schools, and surfers to suit your skills.

In Kona, it’s the other way around; while you can always find excellent surf, it’s really all about getting underwater. The coastline is renowned for its water quality, marine life, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with manta rays. Endangered Hawaiian Green Turtles are also regular visitors to Kona, and spotting one on the beach or while snorkeling is always a vacation highlight. 

Conclusion: almost a draw because there are endless water adventures to be had in either spot. But for the chance to swim with manta rays? It’s got to be Kona. 

History And Culture

Visit the Pearl Harbour memorials in Honolulu
Photo by Robert Linder on Unsplash

The Historic Kailua-Kona Village, once the holiday retreat of the Hawaiian Royal Family, is home to many historic Hawaiian buildings. Look out for the Hulihee Palace, now a museum showcasing memorabilia of the royals and Hawaii’s past. Next, visit Hawaii’s oldest Christian church, Mokuaikaua, built from lava rock and coral-lime, with an interior decorated with Koa wood. And then head to Kealakekua Bay, the much-storied site where James Cook first set foot onshore and was later killed. 

Visitors to Honolulu should make their way to Pearl Harbor, where they will find museums and monuments to the tragic events of 1941. Visitors can take a boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial, which floats above the remains of the sunken battleship and displays the names of those who lost their lives on board. 

Head to the Bishop Museum to find exhibits on natural and cultural history and displays of Polynesian artifacts. The Honolulu Museum of Art tells of the creativity of the Hawaiian people, past and present, while in Chinatown, you’ll find a museum displaying the history and struggles of the neighborhood. Round off your trip with a visit to the Iolani Palace, the official residence of the last monarchs of Hawaii. 

Conclusion: Honolulu wins this one for the history surrounding the Pearl Harbour memorials.

Natural Beauty

Climb the volcanic craters in Honolulu
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The Big Island of Hawaii is known for its dramatic landscapes, including tropical rainforests, waterfalls, an active volcano, and a mountain that claims to be the tallest in the world. Unfortunately, most of those sights are a fair drive from the Kona coast, although they can be seen on tours or scenic flights over the island. 

Along the Kona region, you’ll find a stunning coastline and a choice of historic parks to explore. The 180-acre Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park which once offered sanctuary to Hawaiian lawbreakers. Or the 1160-acre Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park, where visitors can learn how ancient Hawaiians ever managed to survive on the rugged Kona Coast.

In Honolulu, the volcanos are more accessible. Visitors can hike to the top of the Diamond Head Crater or climb the steep, disused railway tracks leading up to Koko Crater and enjoy the incredible panoramic views from the top. For a more leisurely excursion, try strolling around the 200 acres of Lyon Arboretum, where you’ll find 194 acres of tropical plant life and indigenous trees. If it’s too hot to climb or hike, cool off with a swim in Manoa Falls instead. 

Conclusion: Honolulu takes this one for having more accessible natural attractions. 

Food

Traditional Hawaiian food is delicious
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Hawaiian food is a blend of Polynesian, Japanese, and American influences. This can be quite strange, like when spam – a relic from the war years – pops up on a sushi roll, but the results are mostly delicious. We recommend trying Poke Bowls – light, healthy dishes of fresh vegetables and raw fish, Poi – made from the uniquely flavored taro root, or Kalua Pig – the whole roasted pig traditionally served at luaus. And, of course, shaved ice for dessert! 

In cosmopolitan Honolulu, you can find restaurants serving traditional Hawaiian fare or any number of global cuisines, plus you have the option of eating in Chinatown. There you’ll find authentic food from all over Asia and can shop for delicacies at the traditional markets.

In Kona too, you’ll find an excellent choice of restaurants serving both traditional Hawaiian and a wide range of global cuisines. And you can also try the world-famous Kona coffee! Take a trip to a Kona coffee farm and learn what it is about the Kona climate that makes these beans so unique.

Conclusion: it’s a draw for food, but for the addition of signature coffee, we’re giving this one to Kona. 

Nightlife

Honolulu has a more lively nightlife than Kona
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You’ll find plenty of nightlife in Honolulu, but the hub of it all is Waikiki. Here, you’ll find the latest of late-night venues, the biggest clubs, and the loudest parties. Although if you want to get a little edgy, it’s worth heading to Chinatown where the nightlife has a raw energy and the bars rub shoulders with the red light district.

If you want something more family-friendly, try one of the cabaret nights, tribute bands, or traditional entertainments held at the big resorts. Or, for a laid-back evening, go for sunset mai tais along the waterfront or in one of Honolulu’s many rooftop lounges.

Kona has the best of the Big Island’s nightlife, and while it can’t really compare to the wild nights of Waikiki, it does have plenty to keep you entertained after dark. Most of the nightlife venues are restaurants that turn into party spots after dark with local musicians, traditional entertainment, or karaoke equipment popping up. But you can also enjoy drinks everywhere from a 5-star resort to a craft brewery to an LGBTQ+ bar to a laid-back beach club.

Conclusion: Kona is fun, but if you want the best party, it has to be Honolulu. 

Budget

A vacation to Hawaii is not a cheap choice.
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Unfortunately, a vacation in Hawaii doesn’t come cheap. The islands consistently rank as one of the most expensive places to visit in the US. Neither Honolulu nor Kona are noticeably more affordable; the average daily vacation costs are around 200 USD for both regions. However, Booking.com lists over 700 accommodation choices for Honolulu, with over 200 4 and 5-star options. There are only 260 for Kailua-Kona with around 80 luxury choices. So although neither of these regions is a budget-friendly destination, if you want to go high-end, Honolulu has got the edge. 

This situation continues with the shops and restaurants. Honolulu embraces its role as capital and caters to its hordes of international visitors with excellent shopping and dining options, including the world’s largest outdoor shopping center Ala Moana, the vibrant Kalakaua Avenue, and the Royal Hawaiian Center specializing in luxury giftshops. 

In Kona, shopping is less about malls and more about local craft bazaars and open-air farmer’s markets. They may not offer as many luxury items as the shops in Honolulu, but you’ll find some wonderful traditional souvenirs and will definitely be able to stock up on Kona Coffee before you leave! 

Conclusion: A draw because neither Kona nor Honolulu is a good budget option. However, high-end vacationers should probably choose Honolulu.

Honolulu or Kona? The Conclusion

Hawaiian Green Turtles can be spotted on the beaches in Kona.
Photo by Destiny Wiens on Unsplash

We think it’s too close to call. Honolulu might win most of our categories but Kona was close and it really depends on what you are looking for from your vacation. Both of these stunning Hawaiian destinations will wow you with their natural beauty, stunning beaches, delicious food, and endless sunshine.

But there are a few clear distinctions. For instance, if you want your beach holiday to come with a side of international glamour, a developed city with pumping nightlife and high-end luxury, then it had better be Honolulu. Similarly, head there if you want to visit Pearl Harbour, hike volcanic craters, or surf in the footsteps of the greats.

But if you visit Kona, you’ll find a thriving resort region offering everything you need for a fantastic holiday, just a little less developed, less crowded, and less famous than Honolulu. You’d find more traditional Hawaiian experiences in place of shopping malls and high rises, and you’d be ideally placed to explore the incredible natural wonders of the Big Island. And if you want the chance to turtle spot and swim with manta rays, then you’d better head to Kona! 

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.