People sometimes have a tendency to lump all areas of Hawaii together. For example, the Hawaiian islands as a whole: Kauai, Big Island, Maui, Oahu, Lanai, Molokai, Niihau. They all actually have extremely different atmospheres and temperaments.
The island of Oahu also has drastically different areas to enjoy. The South Shore (where Honolulu is located) vs the North Shore (big waves of Waimea Bay & Banzai Pipeline) are both awesome places with a lot of awesome stuff to do.
At core, they both have the Hawaiian flavor, that indescribable aloha feeling that everyone falls in love with. For the most part, the landscape will always be beautiful, tropical, and appealing no matter what. But on a more detailed basis, the two areas are vastly different. (Same with East Side vs West Side, but we'll save that for another post.)
South Shore / Honolulu is known as "town" by the locals. Lots of hotels, condominiums, shops and restaurants. All the trademarks of a busy city, with a beachy twist. For the mainlanders - it might remind you a bit of Southern California or Florida.
The North Shore is also known as "country." It's a bit slower paced, a bit more disconnected. Lots of open space, with no chain restaurants or commercialized shopping centers. Life basically revolves around surfing and that's it.
And anyways, take this all with a grain of salt. Anywhere in Hawaii is complete dream. But if you ever plan to visit Oahu (post-pandemic of course) here's a summary of what you can look forward to on each shore:
NORTH SHORE Best for: nature, big-name surfers, walkability.
Activities: camping, watching surfers, exploring farms.
Photo by Blue Vision Drones
On the North Shore, surfing isn't a hobby -- it's a lifestyle. You'll find plenty of this on the South Shore as well, but winter on the North Shore is where the professional surfers flock to. The swells that come through are some of the best in the world. Last week we watched some brave souls surf historical 40ft waves in Waimea Bay -- it's an amazing experience to be a part of, even just as a bystander.
North Shore has a much more small town vibe than Honolulu. It's relatively walkable, without many huge name brand shops. If you want a Target or Walmart, you'll have to come to town.
The North Shore has less development as a whole, so you'll see a lot of fruit stands, shorter buildings, and farmland. It feels a bit more like the Hawaii of the '80s you'll hear about in surf documentaries -- untouched in a way that feels blissful.
If you're drawn more to the rural, natural elements of Hawaii, North Shore may be your place. There are plenty of work-trade opportunities (WWOOF) on organic farms that may be your cup of tea if you're on a budget. WWOOF-ing is also a great way to connect to your surroundings. I know some people who have loved the connections and sustainability practices that they've been able to learn about in those areas.
North Shore is also an incredibly fun place to go camping. Beach campfires are more acceptable, and you can definitely find a place to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars. That's one of my favorite experiences in Hawaii, and one that's much less available on the South Shore.
As the North Shore tends to have a little less polish than the dressed-up areas of Honolulu, you also might have to adjust your standards of living a bit more i.e. get used to the bugs.
SOUTH SHORE Best for: nightlife, access to work & healthcare, varied activities.
Activities: eating out, shopping, socializing.
Photo by Blue Vision Drones
South Shore tends to be more urban. It's where you most likely live if your job requires being in person, or if you have a commute. There's a bit more modern convenience, in that you're probably 5-10 minutes away from any errands you may have to run.
In the summer, waves are great. In the winter, they may be a tad harder to find, as South Shore will definitely have days or weeks in which it's pretty flat. That being said, those periods can be perfect for snorkeling!
If your idea of the perfect vacation involves shopping and restaurants, town is probably more your vibe. There's a plethora of different restaurants and concepts with enough to satisfy any craving. On that note, Honolulu has never been the biggest foodie scene but it's definitely growing, and we have so many spots we love now! If you care about nightlife (again, post-pandemic!), South Shore is your zone.
There are a ton of people clustered in town (as it's an actual city) so you'll likely be able to meet and encounter more people in your day to day life. Meanwhile, as North Shore is a small town full of the biggest names in surfing, it can feel a little more insular and more difficult to meet people. That likely depends on your interests, level of extroversion, and any connections you may have had before coming to Hawaii.
Because it's oriented more around the city, South Shore can also be more expensive in terms of housing, although there is more available. You'll also see more homeless folks around town, especially if you're based in Waikiki. That being said, there's a tradeoff, in that you do have easy access to doctors, shops, the grocery, and have a bit more flexibility in solving any of life's problems that might impair your day-to-day. On the North Shore, you sometimes have to get creative.
THE OVERALL SUMMARY
Both shores are relatively unbeatable in terms of quality of life. Living in Hawaii is truly a dream, and visiting either can give you a plethora of valued experiences and beauty. As a whole, your desire to go to Hawaii will still be completely fulfilled on either side of the island.
The pros and cons of each side of the island can marginally persuade you one way or the other. Living here, we do become accustomed to the differences in personality. But for the most part, everyone on South Shore can find many things to love about the North Shore and vice versa. There are certain activities we associate exclusively with one or the other, like campfires on the North Shore or bar hopping on South Shore.
If you like slow living and small town vibes, opt for North Shore. If you crave the hustle and bustle of a beachy city, opt for South Shore.
Which shore would you prefer to live on? Drop a comment below!