The Ultimate Guide to Hawaii’s Idyllic Island of Oahu

Waikiki Beach Diamond Head Oahu Hawaii

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.

For many visitors to Hawaii Oahu is the first stop. But most of those 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. Oahu is home to a few incredible spots that rival some of the best sights anywhere around the world.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will likely blow on mai tais, poke, and shave ice.  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

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.

So, if you were wondering, “What island is Honolulu on?” Now you know!

Where do you fly into for Oahu island?

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.

How to get from the Honolulu Airport to Waikiki hotels

If you’re not renting a car, there are several ways to get to your hotel in Waikiki once you arrive. From shared shuttles to private transfers, they vary in price and duration (shared transfers will make multiple hotel stops).

For a special and stress-free arrival after a long flight, my favorite airport transfer option to recommend is the Honolulu Airport to Waikiki Private Transfer with Lei Greeting.

Contrary to popular belief, you won’t be greeted with a lei when you land at the airport…unless you arrange it in advance! This private transfer service is a great way to end a long day of travel. Especially if this trip is your first visit to Hawaii or it’s your honeymoon or anniversary.

Can you visit other Hawaiian islands from Oahu?

Absolutely! In fact, island hopping is easiest if you’re based in Oahu due to the frequent direct flights to all the other islands.

Living in Waikiki, we actually take advantage of day trips to the other islands all the time. Hotels on the other islands are pricey and a day trip is a great way to see a bit of Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, or even Molokai and fly back after dinner.

Here’s more information on the other islands if you do want to take a day trip during your visit to Oahu:

How to Take a Day Trip from Oahu to Molokai

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Kauai Hawaii (2024)

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Maui Hawaii (2024)

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!)

Christmas views from the Sheraton Waikiki
Christmas views from the Sheraton Waikiki

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.

Read More: 3 Reasons the Honolulu Marathon is the Best US Marathon for First Timers

When is whale watching season in Oahu?

While the islands of Maui and Kauai are more famous for incredible whale watching, we do spot them here in Oahu as well between the Hawaiian whale season months of December to April.

In fact, this 2-hour whale-watching tour from Ala Wai Harbor guarantees whale sightings during the season (or you get to go again for free). But like on Maui and Kauai, you don’t even have to get out on the water to spot whales, there are a few great spots like the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail and the Halona Blowhole where you can often see them from shore.

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.

BUT

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.

Tip: Don’t worry, you can still arrange for a fun Traditional Welcome with a Lei Greeting at the airport even if you don’t need transportation to your hotel.

To find the best deal on rental cars in Oahu (and all over Hawaii!), it pays to go local. I love Discount Hawaii Car Rental.

MY Pick

Discount Hawaii Car Rental

For car rentals in Hawaii, go to the local experts. They’ll find you the best rate among the major car rental companies. Plus, their customer service is top-notch.

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. (Trust me on this, we live in Waikiki and my husband commutes daily to central Oahu.)

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 4 Favorite Hotels

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 the Waikiki Beach area.

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!

Sheraton Waikiki The Edge Pool
The Edge Pool – Sheraton Waikiki

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 cocktails at Rumfire.  

Read More: The Dazzling Sheraton Waikiki Beach Resort

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.

Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel Waikiki Hawaii
Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel – Waikiki, 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.

Queen Kapiolani Hotel Waikiki Oahu
Queen Kapiolani Hotel – Waikiki, Oahu

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!

4. The Hilton Hawaiian Village

Commanding 22 acres of prime beachfront property, the sprawling Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort is a beacon of luxury and relaxation in the heart of Waikiki. Since opening in 1955, it has gradually evolved into Oahu’s largest resort by a mile with more than 2,800 rooms. 

Hilton Hawaiian Village Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon Hawaii
Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Duke Kahanamoku Lagoon

If you’re looking for a big resort vibe with every possible amenity from several pools to dozens of dining options, the Hilton Hawaiian Village is the best choice on this island. The resort’s incredible Duke Kahamanoku lagoon is also perfect for younger kids to swim safely and enjoy the ocean.

The Hilton is also the place to be every Friday night for the weekly fireworks show.

Tip: For incredible views of the Friday Night Fireworks display, book a room in the Rainbow Tower with a Diamond Head view.

Read More: The Ultimate Hilton Hawaiian Village Review (2024)

Top 10 Things to See and Do on Oahu

There are amazing places to see and fun things to do all over Oahu.

Read More: The 7 Absolute Best Things to Do on Oahu (if you’re short on time!)

Get your day started right with a terrific breakfast and then head out to explore!

Read More: 7 Divinely Delicious Waikiki Breakfast Spots You Can’t Miss

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: 5 Best Mai Tais in Waikiki (Do NOT Leave Hawaii Without Trying #3)

2. Visit Pearl Harbor and 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 is 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.

Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve Snorkeling Oahu Hawaii
Hanauma Bay – Oahu, Hawaii

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.

There’s also a new reservation system in place so it can be tricky to score an ideal morning time slot. But don’t worry, I’ve got everything you need to know about that right here…

Read More: The Foolproof Guide to Hanauma Bay for Snorkeling

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. 

Honolulu View from Diamond Head
Views over Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

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!

Read More: Why Hiking Diamond Head Crater is an Oahu Must-Do

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.

Lanikai Beach Oahu Hawaii
Lanikai Beach Oahu Hawaii

The calm waters of Lanikai Beach are perfect for watersports, swimming, or just lounging about on your favorite float.

Tip: Parking in this residential neighborhood is limited so opt to park nearby at the equally lovely Kailua Beach State Park if you can’t find a legal spot.

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.

Tip: On the way up, don’t miss a stop by the Dole Plantation for a creamy Dole Whip.

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.

Swimming in Waimea Falls North Shore Oahu
Swimming in Waimea Falls

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. Oh, and don’t miss the easy hike to Waimea Falls for a swim.

Read More: 5 Easy Oahu Hikes for Those Who Love Nature But Hate Hiking

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.

Kualoa Ranch UTV Movie Tour
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour

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.

8. Hike the Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail

This fully-paved trail on Oahu’s beautiful windward side is free and open daily. It’s one of the most scenic trails on the island and it’s easy enough for all ages and ability levels.

There are plenty of gorgeous lookout points to stop for a breather on the way up and during whale season you might even spot a few humpbacks in the distance!

Read More: This Family-Friendly Lighthouse Hike is Oahu’s Best Trail for Spotting Whales

9. Escape to the Byodo-In Temple

Honestly, this is one of my favorite places on Oahu and I love to bring visitors here for a different side of the island.

Oahu Things to Do Byodo In Temple
One of Oahu’s Things to Do – Byodo-In Temple

Nestled within the peaceful confines of the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park, the Byodo-In Temple is a breathtaking demonstration of traditional Japanese architecture right here on Oahu. 

The temple’s stunning location at the base of the Koolau Moutain Range is a truly serene escape from the crowds of Waikiki.

Read More: Escape the Oahu Crowds with a Visit to the Byodo-In Temple

10. Ho’omaluhia Botantial Gardens

Nestled in the lush landscape of Oahu, the Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens offer a tranquil retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. This 400-acre oasis in Kaneohe is not just a garden but a sanctuary for tropical plants from around the world.

Hoomaluhia was designed in the 1980s with a noble goal—to provide a place of peace and tranquility on Oahu. Its name, meaning “to make a place of peace and tranquility,” perfectly captures its essence.

Hoomaluhia Botanical Gardens Oahu Hawaii
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Gardens

In recent years, the lush entrance to the gardens has become a bit of an Instagram craze (leading to “no parking” signs along the entrance road). But it’s still one of the best free things to do on the island of Oahu. Don’t miss a walk down to the lake to see the bright orange midas cichlid fish.

Read More: A Guide to Oahu’s Insta-Famous Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden

Bonus: Attend a Luau!

Attending a traditional Hawaiian Luau is a terrific way to experience the local culture and enjoy a great meal at the same time. Here are a few of my favorite Luaus on Oahu:

  • Germaine’s Luau – Located right on the beach, this is Oahu’s longest-running Luau and my top pick for a “toes-in-the-sand” Luau experience.
  • Hale Koa Luau – This one is restricted to active duty military and veterans, but if you’re eligible, it’s Oahu’s most affordable Luau and a fabulous evening.
  • Mauka Warriors Luau – This popular Luau is my #1 pick for both delicious food and an amazing show.
Oahu Hawaii Ultimate Travel Guide
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And there you have it!

If you’re looking for the perfect Hawaiian island for a tropical getaway, Oahu truly has it all. With epic sunsets, stunning beaches, verdant landscapes, and turquoise waters teeming with marine life, you’ll find everything you need here for an idyllic Hawaiian vacation.

And if you’re island hopping…

The Top 5 Best Things to do on Kauai (#1 is a must!)

Yes, Go to Maui. But Here’s What NOT to Do on Your Visit

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