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Inside: The everything guide to Oahu Hawaii. From where to stay to the amazing places you just have to see.
For my money, there’s no better all-around destination than Hawaii’s magnificent island of Oahu.
Many visitors to the island of Oahu spend just a few days in world-famous Waikiki and then continue on to Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. And that’s a shame.
Sure, Waikiki is fabulous, but there’s so much more to see and do around the island of Oahu.
And once you leave the traffic of Waikiki behind to explore the rest of the island, you’ll quickly discover what most visitors miss. That Oahu is home to a few incredible spots that rival some the best sights anywhere around the world.
What is Oahu best known for?
From a historical perspective, the island is most famous as the home to Pearl Harbor, site of the first Japanese attack on the United States during World War II.
But Hawaii’s most visited island is also known for idyllic beaches, delicious Polynesian cuisine, high-end shopping, world-class surfing, and an energetic nightlife scene.
Oahu, Honolulu, Waikiki – are they all the same?
You may have heard all three terms used interchangeably, but no, they are not all the same.
Here’s the simple breakdown:
- Oahu is the island itself, the 3rd largest of the Hawaiian islands.
- Honolulu is the state capital and largest city in the Hawaiian islands.
- Waikiki is the most famous neighborhood in Honolulu. This 1.5 mile stretch is home to Hawaii’s most famous beach and the majority of resorts, restaurants, shops and nightlife in Honolulu.
Where do you fly into for Oahu?
Daniel K. Inouye (Honolulu) International Airport (HNL) is the primary international airport and the gateway to the Hawaiian islands.
There are a number of domestic flights (and a handful of international flights) directly to the Big Island, Maui and Kauai. But most visitors to Hawaii will arrive at Honolulu’s airport.
What’s the best time of year to visit Oahu?
The Hawaiian islands are one of the few places in the world that truly are a terrific destination any time of year.
Hawaii’s most popular seasons are from June to August and December to March. The summer high season boasts the most sunshine, while the winter months have milder temps and lots of holiday travelers.
(Tip: If you’ve never been to Hawaii over Christmas, I highly recommend it!)
My favorite times to visit Oahu are mid-April to early June and September to early December. Historically, these shoulder seasons offer the best combination of weather and value, but with fewer crowds.
Another tip: Unless you’re coming to Oahu to run the Honolulu Marathon (and you should, it’s awesome!) I’d recommend avoiding the 2nd weekend in December each year. That’s the weekend 10,000+ runners travel to Oahu for the marathon. Not to mention the streets are shut down for hours on race day.
Do I need a rental car in Oahu?
Need? No. Especially if you’re staying in Waikiki where many of the best things to see and do are within walking distance. And most island tours will include a pickup at your hotel.
If you want to get out and explore the island (and you should!) it definitely helps to have your own wheels. At least for a day or two.
To find the best deal on rental cars in Oahu, I like RentalCars.com.
Keep in mind that most hotels in Waikiki have pretty high daily parking fees ($35-45 per day). To dodge that, consider renting a car in town for your last day (or two) in Oahu and returning it at the airport. The cost of overnight parking will be offset by the taxi ride you’ll save to the airport (about $50).
If you do drive in Oahu, you’ll quickly discover that traffic in Honolulu is generally awful.
Fortunately, once you get outside the city, driving is easy and carefree. Just allow plenty of time when you head back to the airport.
Where to Stay in Waikiki – My Top 3 Favorites
There are terrific hotel options all over the island of Oahu. But for the best access to all the top things to do in Oahu, I recommend staying in Waikiki Beach.
Here are my favorite hotels in Waikiki:
1. Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
Best for: Families & Couples (yes, the two can co-exist!)
When I think of Hawaii, the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel is always the first hotel that comes to mind.
Perched on a stretch of white sand along Hawaii’s most famous beach, the towering Sheraton Waikiki is perhaps best known for the sweeping views from 80% of its rooms and suites.
When you imagine a postcard-perfect view of Diamond Head in your mind, chances are you’re thinking of the view from the Sheraton Waikiki.
The Sheraton’s award-winning, adults-only “Edge Infinity Pool” melts magically into the glittering, turquoise waters of the Pacific. It’s been voted the best hotel pool in the USA and with good reason. There’s simply no better place to sip a mai tai and watch the sunset.
Trust me, I speak from experience.
Tip: It’s also a great place for turtle spotting!
On the opposite side of the hotel, families will enjoy the “Helumoa Playground.” I once heard a young boy in the elevator describe this kid’s pool extravaganza as Hawaiian Disneyland. But don’t worry, it’s cleverly separated from the adult crowd keeping all guests in perfect Hawaiian harmony.
Don’t miss sunset happy hour at Rumfire.
2. Moana Surfrider Hotel – A Westin Resort & Spa
Best for: Classic Elegance & Hawaiian History
Opened March 11, 1901, the Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel (originally the Moana Hotel) was the first luxury hotel opened in the deserted area of Waikiki. The original 75 guest rooms featured luxurious amenities like private baths, telephones, and the first electric-powered elevator in Hawaii.
During WWII, the Moana was used as an R&R area for soldiers and sailors. In the years since, the Moana Surfrider has gone through a number of renovations. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s one of Waikiki’s most popular hotels.
If you want to embrace the hotel’s rich history, book a room in the historic Banyan Wing. For more modern amenities and incredible views, choose a Tower ocean-view room.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss a visit to the Beach Bar for one of Waikiki’s best Mai Tais.
3. Queen Kapiolani Hotel
Best for: Anyone on a Budget (who still wants a great view!)
Located at the other (Diamond Head) end of Waikiki Beach, the Queen Kapiolani Hotel is a solid choice if you’re on a budget. Rooms here have Diamond Head or ocean views for about half the price of the Sheraton or Surfrider.
In fact, you can even score a Junior Suite with a Diamond Head View or a Premier Ocean View Balcony Room for a reasonable rate by Waikiki standards.
Tip: For an affordable splurge, book a Penthouse Suite! Also, don’t miss the excellent Happy Hour at the poolside bar, Deck.
Now that we’ve covered how to get to Hawaii, where to stay, and whether or not to rent a car…let’s move on to the good stuff!
Top Things to See and Do on Oahu
There are amazing places to see and fun things to do all over Oahu.
Here are a few of the must-see sights:
1. Explore Waikiki Beach
This brilliant combination of spectacular beach meets cosmopolitan city is the place to see and be seen on Oahu. Waikiki is full of history and historic hotels and there’s plenty to see and do.
While there may be better, and certainly less crowded, beaches on Oahu, Waikiki Beach is still a must for any visitor to Hawaii.
From the glamorous shops of Waikiki’s magnificent mile (Kalakaua Avenue) to surfing lessons or a sunset catamaran sail, you’ll find plenty to do in Oahu’s central hotspot. Honestly, you could spend a week just exploring Waikiki alone.
Oh, and be sure to make plenty of time for mai tai taste testing around town!
This will help:
2. Remember Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona Memorial
In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, as the 185 vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay calm and serene, the first wave of Japanese aircraft entered Hawaiian airspace and began what would be the U.S. Navy’s greatest defeat.
It was a “day that will live in infamy.”
Decades later, the USS Arizona Memorial was established at Pearl Harbor to honor those who died in the attack. Like the beaches of Normandy or the concentration camps of Auschwitz, a visit to Pearl Harbor is an important but somber glimpse into World World II history.
3. Snorkel the marine park of Hanauma Bay
It’s one of the best snorkeling sites in the world and considered the jewel of Oahu. The pristine marine ecosystem of Hanauma Bay was formed within a volcanic cone creating a natural marine park.
The curved bay has been a favorite of Native Hawaiians for thousands of years and is etched deeply in Hawaiian history.
These days, Hanauma Bay often sees 3000 visitors per day. Since the 1990’s, a concerted effort has been made to reduce mass tourism and limit damage to marine life. Limiting visitors and educating tourists on the bay’s natural wildlife is a big part of the conservation plan.
First-time visitors to Hanauma Bay must first watch a 9-minute video to understand the marine life, preservation, and safety rules for the park. Reservations are now required to visit and must be made in advance online through the Hawaii Parks and Recreation Department.
4. Take a Sunrise Hike up Diamond Head Crater
Believed extinct for more than 150,000 years, the volcanic tuff cone known as Diamond Head crater defines the skyline of Hawaii’s most famous beach, Waikiki.
But this U.S. State Monument is more than just the anchor to an iconic view. Visitors to Oahu can hike the interior of Diamond Head crater up to Fire Control Station Diamond Head at the summit.
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1908, the historic trail features tunnels, underground command posts, and steep switchbacks along the mile and a half journey to the top.
It’s a challenging climb but not overly strenuous. Hikers who persevere are rewarded at the summit with dazzling views over Waikiki and all of downtown Honolulu.
Fun fact: My husband and I got engaged at the top of Diamond Head at sunrise!
5. Visit Oahu’s Best Beach – Lanikai Beach
Located near the town of Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Lanikai Beach is widely considered Oahu’s best beach. With silky white sands and gentle turquoise seas, Lanikai rivals any beach I’ve seen in more far-flung South Pacific destinations.
The calm waters of Lanikai Beach are perfect for watersports, swimming, or just lounging about on your favorite float.
6. Drive Oahu’s North Shore
Less than an hour’s drive from the glitzy crowds of Waikiki Beach, Oahu’s laid-back North Shore is known for big waves, daredevil surfers and garlic shrimp served from a truck.
Considered the surfing mecca of the world, every December the North Shore hosts 3 major surfing competitions known collectively as the Triple Crown of Surfing. In the summer months, this relaxed surfing community is a great place to escape the throngs in Waikiki.
Don’t miss a visit to the charming town of Haleiwa. From surf shops to local art galleries, Haleiwa Town is the heart of the North Shore.
Waimea Bay is one of the best beaches in the area. In the summer months, the water here is often calm enough for swimming. And of course, take your time discovering all the best food trucks in this part of the island.
7. Go Hollywood at Kualoa Ranch
Just as Mount Aspiring National Park is New Zealand’s most popular movie backlot, Kualoa Ranch is considered “Hollywood central” in the Hawaiian Islands.
This 4000-acre private nature reserve has served as the filming location for a wide variety of movies and TV shows. From Hawaii Five-0 and LOST to Jumanji and the Jurassic Park series (though most of the films were shot on Kauai), Kualoa Ranch is a fun detour when visiting Oahu.
Visitors can tour popular movie sites by ATV, glide down a zipline, bike or hike nature trails, or take a horseback ride to explore the ranch’s incredible natural beauty.
And there you have it!
If you’re desperately in need of a tropical getaway with epic sunsets, stunning beaches, verdant landscapes, and turquoise waters teeming with marine life, Oahu can definitely help you scratch that travel itch.