Last updated on January 22, 2023 by Wandering our World

One of the number one questions when considering your next trip is how much variety you like in a vacation, and what type of scenery you want to experience.

Do you want to spend time in a lush, foreign jungle, or do you want to be able to explore multiple different landscapes and cities? Do you want to take international flights, or stay local?

These are some of the questions that might come up for you when deciding if you want to spend your next vacation in California or Hawaii. But the reality is they offer vastly different experiences.

For example, if you’re looking for a more tropical and laid-back vacation and a chance to experience a different culture then Hawaii may be the right choice. However California offers a more diverse range of experiences for the traveler wanting to see it all, and is the better destination for cities.

Of course that’s barely scratching the surface when it comes to how these two can differ. But that’s where we can help!

Below we look at what Hawaii and California do best, compare their beaches, food, weather, national parks, discuss which is better for culture, road trips and more. All so you can make the right decision!

CONTENTS:

  1. What Does California Do Best?
  2. What Does Hawaii Do Best?
  3. How Do The Beaches Compare?
  4. Which Has Better Cities?
  5. Which Is More Expensive?
  6. Where To Stay According To Your Budget
  7. Which Has Better Parks?
  8. Which Is Better For Road Trips?
  9. Which Has Better Food & Drink?
  10. Which Has More Cultural Experiences?
  11. Which Is The Better Choice?
An infographic pitting California vs Hawaii and showing some of the key differences that will be discovered later in the article.

What Does California Do Best?

California’s main attraction is that it is such a diverse state with a wide range of vacation options.

The beaches of Southern California, such as those in Los Angeles and San Diego, offer a warm, temperate experience, while the rugged northern coast is the perfect place to take in breathtaking cliffs and towering redwoods.

Inland, visitors can explore the famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions, or take a trip to Yosemite National Park to see some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the country.

If cities and urbanscapes are up your alley, California has San Francisco, known for its iconic Golden Gate Bridge and steep hills, or Los Angeles, home of Hollywood and the world’s most famous celebrities.

Classic view of famous Golden Gate Bridge in beautiful golden evening light on a sunny day with blue sky and clouds in summer, San Francisco, California, USA
iStock.com/bluejayphoto

What Does Hawaii Do Best?

Hawaii does a few things incredibly well: jaw dropping views of lush, tropical forests, endless ocean activities, and enriching cultural activities.

Unlike California, you won’t be able to experience multiple climates within one state; Hawaii’s tropical weather doesn’t vary much, although you will find that on any given island there may be rain showers in one area, and sun in another.

For some, though, the consistently temperate weather might be preferable to California’s slightly more volatile tendencies.

Hawaii also offers a glimpse into a distinct culture; although part of the US, Hawaii is heavily influenced by its native and Polynesian culture. This might appeal to those traveling from the mainland who want to see something beyond what they are used to in the States.

Additionally, those wanting to concentrate on ocean activities like surfing, snorkeling, and swimming, will find the water much warmer in Hawaii than the often frigid temperatures of the Californian coast.

Diamond Head Crater,Honolulu, HI
iStock.com/Vito Palmisano

How Do The Beaches Compare?

When it comes to beaches, it all comes down to whether you want a beach solely for the tanning and the heat, or whether you want to be able to experience variety and explore different terrain.

There is no doubt that Hawaii has beautiful beaches— think of the pristine white sands in Honolulu, or the famous Maui beaches of Wailea and Ka’anapali.

All these beaches, while beautiful, lend themselves primarily to warm weather activities, like snorkeling, surfing, wading, and sunbathing.

California has those too, especially in San Diego on the famous Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach, but the beaches dwindle further up the coast and turn to the rugged shores of Big Sur.

Therefore, it’s worth considering how long of a vacation you are planning for, and how long of that vacation you want to spend in and out of the water.

Surfer girl surfing walking with surfboard on Waikiki Beach, Oahu, Hawaii. Female bikini woman walking with surfboard living healthy active lifestyle on Hawaiian beach.
iStock.com/Maridav

While Southern California and Los Angeles can be notorious for the hot weather, the water of the Pacific can be ice cold and not for the faint of heart.

Additionally, if you’re visiting during the off seasons, you’re more likely to find favorable beach temperatures and warm waters in Hawaii, which is warm year round.

That being said, for the adventurous, or those who have more time for exploring, California offers an unparalleled experience of climate and coastal variety.

As you work your way up the coast, you’ll find beaches of jaw-dropping beauty, hidden gems below 200 feet of colorful cliffs and green hills.

North of San Francisco, you can find towering forests down to the water, and see redwoods and the beaches on the same day.

Blue bicycle, cruiser bike by sandy ocean beach, pacific coast near Oceanside pier, California USA. Summertime vacations, sea shore. Vintage cycle, tropical palm trees, lifeguard tower watchtower hut
iStock.com/DogoraSun

Which Has Better Weather?

When it comes to weather, Hawaii has a tropical climate, with warm temperatures and fairly high humidity year-round, while California has a more varied climate, with cool, rainy winters in the north and hot, dry summers in the south.

While the assumption is that most people seek a warm vacation, there are those for whom the tropical humidity of Hawaii might not be ideal.

But California, with its widely varying climates, allows a traveler to pick and choose the temperature and weather they desire.

However, it is worth noting that while Southern California may have a reputation for unfluctuating temperatures, that is not always true. In recent years, Southern California has seen an uptick in heat waves and freak storm events, so traveling there is not always a guarantee for good weather.

If consistency is the name of the game for you, then Hawaii will offer that. And if you only have a certain time of year when you are able to travel, California might not have the weather you desire, since it is certainly more seasonal than Hawaii.

For example, the spring is known as one of the best times to visit Hawaii, while the usually sunny San Diego suffers from “May Grey, June Gloom”: cloudy cooler weather during those months.

Hawaii beach Honolulu city travel landscape of Waikiki beach and Diamond Head mountain peak at sunset, Oahu island, USA vacation.
iStock.com/Maridav

Which Has Better Cities?

For those wanting to experience all the things that big cities have to offer, California may have Hawaii beat.

Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu, is possibly the only true city on all of the islands; for the most part, the Hawaiian islands are more likely to have small dispersed towns rather than large metropolitan areas.

California, on the other hand, has multiple large cities and as such may offer more variety. The three most popular and well known cities in California are San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco–which we describe below!

San Diego, only 20 minutes from the border of Mexico, offers a laid back, small town vibe even though it’s a large metropolitan area.

With Balboa Park at its center, each corner of the park has its own neighborhood with different atmospheres and attractions.

Hillcrest is known for having some of the best bars, dancing, and an eclectic mix of vegan and asian ethnic food. Gaslamp, close to the baseball stadium and convention center, is a well known tourist area with tequila bars on every corner and delicious Mexican food.

North Park has endless art, thrift, and plant shops, along with some of the best coffee in San Diego–check out Holsem for inventive coffee cocktails.

Aerial view of the business district in Downtown of Los Angeles in background from Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
iStock.com/shalunts

Los Angeles, perhaps one of the best known cities in California, will appeal to those wanting a glimpse into the quintessential Hollywood experience.

Replete with well known and iconic shopping centers, restaurants, and famous beaches, LA is perfect for those who don’t shy from the crowds.

Folks wanting to splurge and celebrity-spot at the same time can check out Rodeo Drive and the Grove for endless high end stores, restaurants, and movie theaters.

Those wanting to save money but still experience LA’s vibrant fashion scene can check out Santee Avenue, a massive flea market where bargaining is encouraged.

Finally, from downtown, take a guided bus tour up through Hollywood, and keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of celebrities and their extravagant homes.

And last, you can’t discuss California without discussing San Francisco. City lovers will find no shortage of incredible music, food, and other activities in the steep hills.

For a glimpse of American history, take a tour of Alcatraz Island or Golden Gate Park. Both have museums and are easy to walk to take in the scenery.

Fisherman’s Wharf is a haven for good seafood, and after your dinner you can take a stroll up Lombard street, known for being “the crookedest street in the world”.

All told, California has no shortage of famous cities to explore. The best part of visiting any of the cities is the variety–there truly is something for everyone in each of them.

San francisco Hyde Street Cable Car Tram of the Powell-Hyde in California USA
iStock.com/LunaMarina

Which Is More Expensive?

In terms of cost, both Hawaii and California can be expensive vacation destinations, but there are options for budget-friendly travel in both places.

Accommodations in Hawaii tend to be more expensive than in California, but there are also many vacation rental options available, especially in the off season. Also, it’s worth considering that travel to Hawaii is generally more expensive, especially from the United States.

If you want to keep your travel budget small to leave money left over for activities, then domestic travel to California might make more sense. In addition, California’s larger population and more developed infrastructure make it easier to find deals and discounts on activities and accommodations.

On the other hand, if seeing multiple parts of California appeals to you, such as a road trip up the coast on Highway 1, then your budget for travel and accommodations may be larger.

One advantage of  all the Hawaiian islands is that you can do many activities all in one place, since many resorts are all inclusive.

Ultimately, it comes down to how much of your budget you want to spend on active traveling, and how much variety in your vacation you want.

Poka'i Bay in Oahu from above
iStock.com/Phil Davis

Where To Stay According To Your Budget

California:

Shoestring: Finding a modern and nice shoestring place in San Fran is a difficult task, but Staypineapple, which is a renovated hotel in a historic building is gorgeously decorated, just minutes from Union Square and happens to have one of the price/quality ratios in the city. See photos and rates!

Budget: For a budget place by the beach, but still with a luxury feel, check out Hyatt’s Mission Pacific Hotel. Set in Oceanside with gorgeous sea views, and a pool that looks out on the Pacific, this place is hard to beat on price. See photos and rates!

Luxury: The Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills is the type of hotel where you’ll rub shoulders with the rich and famous. This gorgeous hotel located in the heart of Los Angeles County is known for its world class service where you’ll feel like a celebrity. See photos and rates!

pool villa terrace resort
iStock.com/runna10

Hawaii

Shoestring: Just one minute from the beach and with free bike rental, Hakuna Matata Hostel on Maui is fun, cheap and friendly. You’ll be making memories in no time here, and without damaging your bank account. See photos and rates!

Budget: Located in the heart of Waikiki, 2 minutes walk to the famous Waikiki Beach and surrounded by shopping and dining is the luxury boutique Halepuna Waikiki hotel.

This four-star hotel will stretch budgets, but the panoramic views of the ocean and city – alongside the gorgeous infinity pool – will be worth it. See photos and rates!

Luxury: Montage Kapalua Bay on Maui is one of those hotels we all wish to stay in one day. It’s extravagant beachfront luxury on a 24-acre landscaped resort with unparalleled views to the sea and beach access. It’s everything you’d expect of a five-star resort and more. See photos and rates!

Couple enjoying beach vacation holidays at tropical resort with swimming pool and coconut palm trees near the coast with beautiful landscape at sunset, honeymoon destination
iStock.com/NicoElNino

Which Has Better Parks?

Both Hawaii and California have no shortage of national parks, but the primary difference is that California’s national parks offer a much wider variety of terrain and ecosystems.

Three of the most famous national parks, Redwood, Joshua Tree, and Yosemite, are a perfect trio of national parks for a tour if you want to experience all that California has to offer.

Hawaii, on the other hand, is sort of in and of itself a national park–all the beaches are free, along with all the hiking areas, and travel to all areas of the island is relatively easy.

That being said, Hawaii does have a few areas that are known as designated nature areas that are worth visiting. Keep reading for a detailed breakdown of the national parks in both vacation destinations!

View towards Yosemite Falls
iStock.com/AndrewSoundarajan

California’s Best National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park, located inland of San Diego, is a nature lover’s paradise. The park is so named because it is home to the iconic Joshua tree, a type of yucca plant unique to the area.

The landscape is characterized by towering rock formations, from the massive granite monoliths of Hidden Valley to the towering pillars of the Wonderland of Rocks.

The park is a popular destination primarily for rock climbing, hiking, and camping. There are a wide range of trails ranging from easy nature walks to more strenuous routes, and even world famous rock-climbing routes.

Campsites are available throughout the park, but they fill up quickly, so it’s best to make reservations in advance.

Whether you’re looking for a peaceful hike in nature or an adrenaline-pumping rock climbing adventure, Joshua Tree National Park is a must-visit destination.

Hidden Valley Campground in Joshua Tree National Park in California in the USA
iStock.com/Karel Stipek

Redwood National Park is a true natural wonder. The park is home to some of the tallest and oldest trees on Earth, and a hike on any of the park’s trails will transport you to a different, ancient world.

One of the best ways to experience the park is to take a leisurely drive along the scenic Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which winds its way through the heart of the redwoods and offers breathtaking views at every turn.

Be sure to make a stop at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, a quiet and peaceful grove of redwoods more than a thousand feet above sea level (named after the former first lady!). The park also offers a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and fishing, as well as ranger-led tours and educational programs.

Whether you’re a nature lover or just looking to take in some natural history, Redwood National Park is a must-see destination.

Early morning walking in the Rotorua Redwoods forest
iStock.com/Rod Hill

Hawaii’s Best National Parks

As mentioned previously, at times Hawaii itself can feel like one giant park, since all beaches are public, as is most of the land.

That being said,Hawaii is home to several national parks that offer visitors the chance to explore the diverse landscapes of the islands.

Haleakalā National Park, located on Maui, is primarily known for its large volcano crater and the fact that it is home to several endangered species of plants.

Visitors can camp in the park to fully immerse themselves in nature, and even witness the sunrise or sunset from the summit, an unforgettable experience for those who like exercise before coffee.

One of the most popular and well-known parks is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, located on the Big Island. The park is home to the active Kilauea volcano and offers visitors the opportunity to witness the power of nature up close.

Even the tiny island of Molokai has a beautiful park – Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a jaw-droppingly beautiful area known primarily for its fascinating history as being a site for banished people with leprosy.

All of these parks are fascinating and beautiful in their own way, but fairly similar in terrain and scenery – making California a better choice if you want more variety.

A series of lava flows spill into the ocean over a cliff at dusk, on the Big Island, Hawaii
iStock.com/Ken McCurdy

Which Is Better For Road Trips?

For road trip fanatics, Hawaii and California are both wonderful destinations.

The island of Maui has the famous “Road to Hana” which is an epic highway connecting Kahalui to Hana; while California has Highway 1, a steep, winding road along the coast known for breathtaking drops and cliffs.

Both are incredible and unique in their own way, but the primary difference will be the accommodations along the way and the type of scenery.

The road leading to Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, California, USA with the Half Dome in the background.
iStock.com/Tomas Nevesely

California’s Highway 1

Highway 1 is one of the longest state highways in the United States, running 656 miles along the California Coast.

Starting in Capistrano Beach in Orange County, you drive up through many quaint towns like Seal Beach, and then more well known surf areas like Santa Monica. One of the most picturesque areas south of Big Sur is Pismo Beach – a stunning area with hills dotted with wineries running down to the expansive beach.

Those who like to celebrity-watch will love driving through Malibu. It’s worth it to turn down one of the side streets and drive up into the hills just to see some of the houses.

Once you reach Big Sur, the terrain rapidly starts changing, one of Highway 1’s unique and special qualities.

The road begins to climb higher onto the hillsides until you are driving next to towering cliffs and crossing enormous bridges running over deep ravines all the way to the redwoods of Northern California.

Those who love to camp can enjoy a stay at some of the numerous campsites underneath the trees and be lulled by the sound of the nearby ocean.

All in all, Highway 1 has something for everyone, whether it’s the cities and beach towns of the south, camping, or the peaceful redwoods of the north. However, to properly see Highway 1 is a trip in and of itself, so it’s not ideal for travelers short on time.

Pacific coastline, view from Highway number 1, California
iStock.com/markue

Hawaii’s Road to Hana

The Road to Hana is a similarly stunning road that runs primarily along the eastern coast of Maui, although it’s possible to make a complete loop of the island if you so desire.

With 620 curves and 59 narrow bridges, this road is not for the faint of heart and is nicknamed “divorce highway” for how many arguments it starts!

The road primarily runs through the wet rainforest of Eastern Maui, which receives more rain than the western side, so expect towering trees, wet cliffs, and steep waterfalls – but not necessarily stops for sunbathing.

Start your journey in Paia, one of the highest recommended towns for its excellent food, culture, and beaches, and then head on to Pua’a Ka’a for a scenic double waterfall.

Although frequent rain showers are common, there are still some beaches along the Road to Hana that are worth visiting. Perhaps the two most famous are Honokalani and Kaihalulu – black and red sand beaches respectively that showcase some of Maui’s most spectacular color contrasts.

Overall, for those who want a shorter road trip that can be squeezed into a couple days, Maui will offer a better road trip experience.

The 'Road to Hana' is an adventure. Many parts of this winding road narrow to just one lane as it goes through one of the truly last undeveloped tropical areas of the island of Maui, Hawaii. You can see the road winding around the sea cliffs of this picture, as the powerful ocean waves create a misty spray.
iStock.com/ironrodart

Which Has Better Food & Drink?

Simply by sheer size, California is hard to beat for the absolutely jaw-dropping variety and amount of incredible restaurants.

Hawaii has Mama’s Fish House and Roy’s Hawaii Kai, but California has Napa, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

For oenophiles, a visit to Napa Valley may be the entire vacation – you can spend weeks exploring the vineyards that stack neatly up the golden hills.

Taste wine at Domaine Carneros and Stags Leap and then dine at French Laundry, and you will have hit some of the most iconic institutions in California all in one day.

City-goers and food enthusiasts will know California’s San Francisco’s reputation as one of the best cities in the world for cuisine, and will likely want to try Acquerello (two Michelin stars), and Californios (one Michelin star).

Sunset over vineyards with red wine grapes in late summer
iStock.com/AH fotobox

Another thing to consider when it comes to food and drink on vacation is budget. In this realm, California may also have a leg up on Hawaii.

While it boasts many world-renowned fine-dining locations, California, and Los Angeles in particular, is home to some of the best “cheap eats” in the world.

Famous for its Mexican street food, LA has Tacos Los Palomos to satisfy even the pickiest eaters. Its “al pastor” tacos are sliced, sizzling, right off the spit and served on authentic masa tortillas.

And although Mexican may be the most well known, no cuisine goes unrepresented in Los Angeles, whether it be Memphis Grill for barbecue, or Golden Deli for Vietnamese.

All of this is not to say the cuisine of Hawaii is poor – there is no shortage of incredible meals to be had on any of the islands. What you sacrifice in Hawaii, though, is a tiny bit of variety and the slightly higher price points of many restaurants which are located at resorts.

That being said, lovers of Polynesian food, fresh caught fish, and fusion cuisine will not go hungry in Hawaii, and there are more than enough delicious restaurants to be found with a little bit of searching.

A girl eating and enjoying Hawaiian Ahi Poke Bowl on Waikiki Beach
iStock.com/mirnet

Which Has More Cultural Activities?

While Hawaii undoubtedly is primarily known for being a destination for snorkeling, tanning, and surfing, it packs a surprising amount of history into each tiny island.

Those wanting to leave their home country’s bubble will find Hawaii to be a fascinating destination, with its complex blend of Polynesian and native culture.

Each island has its own unique history and cultural landmarks. The Bailey House Museum, located on Maui, has a large collection of pre-western-contact historical artifacts, and is worth a trip for anyone looking to learn more about Hawaiian culture.

Iolani Palace, located on Oahu, is a trip for any Hawaii history buffs–it was the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchy in the late 1800s and is an excellent way to experience the grandeur of ancient Hawaii.

Kauai Museum is also worth a trip; the museum hosts many cultural events and has numerous revolving exhibits regarding Kauai’s rich history.

Hawaiian style wood carving Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, Big Island, Hawaii
iStock.com/Damien Verrier

While Hawaii may have California beat for unique cultural activities, it’s certainly not devoid of enriching and educational activities.

California’s most well known cities–San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles, all have world-class art museums (LA’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art is now the largest in the Western United States) along with history museums, natural science, and even one of the most well known space observatories.

Ultimately, if culturally enriching activities are important to you, you will be able to find those in both California and Hawaii – just in different ways.

Those wanting a less Western-centric experience and a chance to explore a different culture will fare better in Hawaii, while those who want to explore more traditional and extensive museums will find themselves very happy in California.

Mediterranean style of Santa Barbara
iStock.com/Damien Verrier

California vs Hawaii: Which Is The Better Choice?

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either location – both Hawaii and California will offer unique and beautiful vacation experiences.

Hawaii has stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and towering volcanoes, making it the perfect destination for those looking to relax and soak up the natural beauty.

California, on the other hand, offers a slightly more diverse range of experiences, from the bustling hubbub of San Francisco to the laid-back vibes of Los Angeles and the numerous national parks in between.

At the end of the day, the decision between Hawaii and California for a vacation will depend on personal preferences and what type of experience you are looking for.

If you’re looking for a more tropical and laid-back vacation, Hawaii may be the right choice, while California offers a more diverse range of experiences for the traveler wanting to see it all.