Discover Oahu Travel Guide
Waikiki Beach. Rainforests. “Jurassic Valley.” Waterfalls. Pearl Harbor. North Shore 30ft waves. OAHU has a mix of everything from bustling city life, gorgeous hiking trails, and so many things to do.
Home sweet home: Oahu
I have lived on Oahu for years – about 10 years in Waikiki. Yes, Waikiki. The hub of all the hustle and bustle on Oahu.
by Mariam Beard • Last Updated: July 27, 2023
Table of Contents
- About Oahu
- Island vs. City vs. Neighborhood
- Things to Do on Oahu
- BEST Activities & Tours on Oahu
- Island-hop Packages
- How to Get to Oahu
- Where to Stay | Waikiki (South), Ko Olina (West), North Shore
- Where to Eat
- Packing Lists
- Which island?
- OAHU Articles
- MAUI Articles
- BIG ISLAND Articles
Hawaii is a top tourist spot and Oahu is among the most visited islands. It’s home to world-famous beaches, mountains, hiking trails, shopping centers, and more. However, with thousands of available itineraries and tourist attractions, it can be tricky to plan an unforgettable Oahu trip.
That’s why we created this guide to provide you with tips and tricks on how to make the most out of your Oahu vacation. This guide is also complemented with curated videos from our Yes To Hawaii YouTube channel, one of Hawaii’s top travel video channels, to give you a glimpse of what Oahu has to offer.
Want to binge-read all our OAHU articles?
How to Get to Oahu
HNL is the largest airport in Hawaii and the busiest airport in the state. Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) is named after Hawaii’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, Daniel K. Inouye. It’s the only commercial airport on Oahu.
If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll most likely arrive at HNL. But even if you’re just hopping over to one of the other Hawaiian islands for your vacation, you might have a layover at HNL on your way there. One of the unique things about HNL is its open-air design. HNL is a hub for several major airlines. You’ll find flights from Delta, United, Hawaiian Airlines, and more.
- From Waikiki: 20-30 minutes
- From Ko Olina: 40-60 min
- From North Shore: 45 minutes (Haleiwa), 1.5 hours (Kahuku)
If you’re looking to stay on Oahu but hop to Big Island, some companies offer an all-inclusive 1-day Flyover to visit the Big Island with a helicopter ride over the active volcano too!
Ahoy, matey! Oahu is also a stop for some major cruise lines. The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America is a huge 2100+ capacity cruise ship that connects Oahu, Maui, Big Island and Kauai. Their weeklong cruises go from Saturday to the following Saturday.
Super Ferry (discontinued 2009)
While there’s a lot of blog posts still that explain the Hawaii Superferry, it stopped service in 2009. It was a high-speed ferry service that connected some of the Hawaiian islands. Nowadays, flights are the best option.
Island vs. City vs. Neighborhood
Oahu is Hawaii’s third largest island, and offers a mix of natural beauty, Hawaiian culture, and modern amenities. The island is home to famous sites such as the North Shore’s surfing mecca and Pearl Harbor’s historic naval base. Oahu’s beaches are some of the most beautiful in Hawaii, offering opportunities for swimming, surfing, and diving.
I love it here!
It’s so nice that you can be in a city then drive 15-20 minutes and you’re hiking in a rainforest.
Honolulu is a diverse and cosmopolitan city, offering the energy of a metropolis alongside the laid-back vibe of a beach town. Along with being Hawaii’s capital city, Honolulu is also home to historical landmarks like Iolani Palace and modern attractions like the International Marketplace. Like more cities, there are lots of dining options plus some nightlife.
Waikiki is a neighborhood in Honolulu and is famous for its beautiful beaches and iconic skyline. The neighborhood boasts world-class shopping, dining, and entertainment options, as well as cultural landmarks and the legendary hotels on the beach strip. Waikiki is one of the most tourist-focused areas of Hawaii, which can also mean it’s crowded and traffic can be congested.
Curious about what WAIKIKi looks like? Check out our WAIKIKI NOW series where we take you on a narrated walking tour of Waikiki.
- Waikiki Now | June 2023 (YouTube video)
Things to Do on Oahu
Our first tip is to visit Oahu’s iconic Waikiki Beach, considered Hawaii’s most famous beach.
If you’re looking for instagrammable spots, explore the Diamond Head State Monument. It’s one of Oahu’s famous landmarks, and a popular destination for both tourists and locals. You can hike to the peak and take in the breathtaking ocean views, or explore the tunnels and bunkers that were used during World War II.
Diamond Head Crater trail takes you to the very top of the Diamond Head Crater. The trail is paved then turns rocky and steep towards the end. The hike is 0.8 miles one-way. Is it worth it? Yes. You get a panoramic view of the southern coast of Oahu. And you’re in a volcanic crater.
NOTE: Diamond Head Crater is the only hike on Oahu that requires paid reservations ($5.00 per person).
Another popular location if you’re a family traveling with kiddos is the Honolulu Zoo, home to over animals from all over the world. They have an primates, big cats, and birds, as well as an interactive children’s zoo. The Honolulu Zoo is located on the edge of Waikiki on Kapahulu Avenue.
Are you a history buff? Make sure to visit Pearl Harbor. Take a tour of the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Battleship Missouri Memorial, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, and Aviation Museum. The Visitors Center spans 17-acres. You can explore the museum, watch historic footage, and take the Navy Launch (ferry) to visit the USS Arizona Memorial.
If you’re looking to explore the island’s natural beauty, the Manoa Falls Hike is a 1.8 mile roundtrip hike that is well-maintained and ends at at 150ft waterfall. You go through a bamboo forest and it’s beautiful!
– Makapuu Lighthouse Trail is a fully paved scenic hike that is around 2.5 miles roundtrip. It has incline the entire way with panoramic ocean views.
– Koko Head Crater is the stairmaster. Stairs, stairs, and MORE stairs.
– Aiea Loop Trail is a 4.8 mile loop (or so it says.. though it seemed longer!) that goes through lush forest and scenic ridge lines.
– Makiki Valley Loop Trail is closer to Waikiki and has a few different trails that connect to the loop.
– Top 5 Difficult Hikes on Oahu is a compilation of some longer hikes.
– Hawaii Loa Ridge is a more challenging hike and is inside a residential neighborhood. A Hawaii State ID is required.
There are so many great hikes! It’s always good to bring more water than you think you might need (33 Things to Pack on a Day Hike in Hawaii).
If you’re traveling solo or prefer more narration during your hikes, there are also great hiking tours to take you around the island (5 Reasons You SHOULD Do a Hiking Tour). These work well if you’d like to learn more about the specific area or trail and history – plus typically will offer roundtrip transportation to/from Waikiki.
For an epic sunset view, hike the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, which offers panoramic views of Lanikai Beach and the neighboring islands. You can also take a stroll around the Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden. It’s free and offers miles of walking paths, picnic areas, and beautiful nature views.
Or are you looking to relax? There’s quite a few spas in Waikiki and some area oceanfront spas.
And one of my favorites – How to Make a FLOWER CROWN
When packing for a trip to Hawaii, it’s important to think about the weather and activities you’re planning. Pack light layers that can be easily combined and worn on top of each other. Depending on where you’ll be visiting in Hawaii, temperatures can range from warm during the day to cool at night, so plan accordingly.
Also, consider bringing items such as sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and flip-flops for the beach. Make sure to check what activities you’ll be participating in and pack clothes that are right – such as outdoor gear or water shoes if you plan on doing some hiking or snorkeling.
Finally, don’t forget your camera! A trip to Hawaii is full of beautiful sights that you won’t want to forget, so capture the memories with a camera or your smartphone. Have fun and safe travels!
Ready to get to Hawaii? Some great articles to help with packing:
– 22 Things to Pack to Hawaii | Carry-on
– 33 Things to Pack on a Day Hike in Hawaii
– BEST carry-on personal item
– BEST checked luggage
– 19 BEST Travel Bags
– 6 Tips for Packing Light to Hawaii
BEST Activities & Tours on Oahu
While I absolutely adore exploring new places on my own, I have to admit that a top-notch guided tour in Hawaii can be a game-changing experience. Not only do you get to learn more about the local culture and history, but you’re also doing your part in supporting the local economy. Win-win!
My Eye-Opening Experience
The moment I realized the true value of a quality tour was during my trip to Greece in 2016. My friend and I decided to splurge €10 more for a guided tour of the Colosseum, while our other friends went for the cheaper, self-guided option. And let me tell you, that extra cash was worth every penny.
We were assigned a lovely and knowledgeable local guide who knew the ins and outs of the Colosseum like the back of her hand. Thanks to her, we skipped all the lines (everyone knew her by first name), discovered hidden gems around the Colosseum, and got insider tips on the best places to eat and shop. But most importantly, she shared her passion for Greek culture with us, leaving us with a deep appreciation for what we saw.
Ever since that day, I’ve been a firm believer that a quality tour can truly enhance your travel experience. And what better place than Hawaii to embark on a memorable journey with an expert guide?
But, enough about that – let’s get back to OAHU.
Oahu | Relaxation, Adventure, and FOOD!
There are so many things you can do on Oahu! It’s a mix of relaxation, adventure and lots of food options. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to try so many Hawaii activities & tours – so I can provide genuine recommendations based on things I have actually done. And – so you can see for yourself in the articles and YouTube videos if the activity/tour is right for you.
Check out these itinerary ideas:
– 14 Things to Do on Oahu | From a Local Resident
– 7 UNFORGETTABLE Hawaii Experiences (that cost $$$)
– 9 Things to Do on the North Shore
If you’re staying in Waikiki, exploring the rest of Oahu is a must!
There are a few different sightseeing options:
- Rental Car
- Eco-Tour | Small-Group island tour that stops at a waterfall
– 22 Things to Pack to Hawaii | Carry-on
– 33 Things to Pack on a Day Hike in Hawaii
– 6 Tips for Packing Light to Hawaii
– 19 BEST Travel Bags
– BEST carry-on personal item
– BEST checked luggage
WAIKIKI BEACH CATAMARANS
Beach catamaran rides are a fun, easy way to see the Waikiki skyline from the water: snorkel sails, afternoon sails, or sunset sails are offered throughout the day. Some afternoon sails can also be open bar making it the best OPEN BAR in Waikiki! There are so many sunset sails on Oahu.
Beach catamarans are so fun! Many sunset sails are open-bar too! Beach catamarans, as the name states, are catamarans that literally come up on the beach itself – as in, there is no pier or dock. You will need to walk in the water to board the catamaran. If accessibility is a factor, Port Hilton is the only catamaran in Waikiki with a dock/pier. Port Hilton offers both a Hilton sunset sail and a Hilton Friday fireworks sail.
Waikiki Beach catamarans are the perfect adventure for any water lover. Not only do they provide a great way to explore the tropical beauty of Hawaii, but they also offer a unique experience. You can feel the wind in your hair, smell the salty ocean air and take in all the breathtaking sights from the comfort of an open-top boat. Whether you’re looking for an exciting activity to fill an afternoon or just want to take in the awe-inspiring views, Waikiki Beach catamarans are a great way to make your vacation unforgettable
Picture yourself setting out from the iconic Waikiki Beach as the sun begins to dip below the horizon, and taking in the sights of Diamond Head and Honolulu from the deck of a beautiful boat. It’s an unforgettable way to end your day on this gorgeous island. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot a whale or two in the distance (whale season: December-February)! So grab your friends and don’t miss out on this incredible opportunity to sail into the night with a stunning view of Waikiki..
Plus, it’s not just an unforgettable experience—it’s also a great way to relax after a long day of exploring the island. Take in the gentle sea breeze and let all your worries drift away as you watch the sun set. Before you know it, you’ll be feeling like a true sailor as you journey into the night with beautiful views of Waikiki in every direction.
SUNSET SAILS | Kewalo Basin harbor
If you’re looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of Waikiki, there are sunset sails out of Kewalo Basin Harbor. Waikiki is about a 15-minute drive.
I absolutely LOVE snorkeling. If you’re looking for an unforgettable snorkeling experience in Oahu, then you have to visit Turtle Canyon. Located off the coast of Waikiki, this spot is known for its incredible array of vibrant sea life and crystal-clear waters that are perfect for exploring. From colorful reef fish and coral gardens to green sea turtles, there’s a lot to see. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced snorkeler, you’ll find something interesting during your visit to Turtle Canyon. The friendly staff and knowledgeable guides make it easy for anyone to enjoy the beauty of this amazing underwater paradise
Visiting Turtle Canyon for snorkeling is a must when in Oahu. Turtle Canyon is located off the coast of Waikiki. The best part about snorkeling in Turtle Canyon is that it’s accessible to all ages and levels of experience, making it a great option for families looking to explore the underwater world together. Take your time and check out the marine life!
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, there are also diving tours available at Turtle Canyon. Divers can explore the depths of this underwater paradise and observe an entirely different kind of marine life. Whether you’re an experienced diver or just starting out, Turtle Canyon has something exciting to offer!
We have been to Turtle Canyon tons of times and I absolutely LOVE it!
Check out these articles for some boats
TURTLE CANYON | Great options in Waikiki
– Holokai Catamaran | Located by the Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort, fun beach catamaran, love this boat!
– Port Hilton | The only docked catamaran in Waikiki at the Hilton Hawaiian Village
– Most affordable Waikiki catamaran | Beach catamaran by Duke Statue, no-frills beach catamaran
Another popular spot for snorkeling is the west side of Oahu (Ko Olina). The West Side also has great snorkeling where you can snorkel and see wild dolphin pods. It’s. a great way to see more of the island.
But if snorkeling isn’t for you, you can also check out the marine life in a submarine ride. Atlantis Submarine is located in Waikiki – right at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. You catch a short boat ride to the submarine drop zone, board the submarine, then go underwater 100ft (30 meters).
Dinner cruises are a great out-of-the-box way to have dinner and see a Polynesian Show. This one is one of my favorites and offers different menu choices: Buffet, 3-Course (steak/crab/chicken), 5-Course (steak/lobster), and Fine Dining. If you’d like something later in the evening, Prince Kuhio Dinner Cruises leaves later. Prince Kuhio Dinner Cruises also is a dinner cruise only (no entertainment on-board) and is a smaller boat.
Water sports are another great fun way to spend the day. On Oahu, there are so many choices – stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, parasailing, jet skiing. You can opt to choose some activities and stay close to Waikiki. The East Side (Hawaii Kai) is also a popular option for water sports where you can jet ski too!
Pearl Harbor is the most visited historic site on Oahu. The most notable site is the USS Arizona Memorial, honoring the lives lost during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces in 1941. In the same vicinity, you can also explore the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, which highlights submarine warfare during World War II. Another site, the Battleship Missouri Memorial, marks the location where the Japanese surrender was signed, effectively ending World War II. The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, with lots of vintage aircraft, provides insights into the evolution of aviation during the war. Each site carries its own stories and significance, making Pearl Harbor a compelling destination for history enthusiasts.
While some think that Pearl Harbor is only the USS Arizona, there’s actually four (4) historic sites to visit:
- USS Arizona
- USS Missouri Battleship
- Aviation Museum
- USS Bowfin Submarine
Culture | Luau
“Luau” is the Hawaiian word for “feast” and includes dinner plus a show. Hawaiian Luaus are the best way to celebrate special occasions in the islands! Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, or just an excuse for friends and family to get together and have fun, there’s no better way to spend your time than at a luau.
You’ll find that the traditional food served at a Hawaiian luau is always delicious and plentiful, with dishes like poi, laulau, kalua pig, and haupia. You can also expect live entertainment in the form of hula dancers, as well as other activities that will have you laughing and having a good time. It’s no wonder why these festive gatherings are so popular among locals and visitors alike – everyone loves to get together and celebrate!
It’s also worth noting that there are many different types of Hawaiian luaus. Some are more traditional, while others may feature modern twists or local specialties. For example, in addition to classic Hawaiian dishes, you might be served poke bowls, pupus (appetizers) or even shave ice. No matter what type of luau you attend, one thing’s for sure – it’s guaranteed to be a fun time filled with delicious food and great entertainment. So if you’re planning on visiting the islands any time soon, make sure to add a Hawaiian luau to your list of things to check out.
Another great out-of-the-box option for a unique Hawaii cultural experience on the water is with Kamouli.
While Kualoa Ranch is known for their “Jurassic Valley” ATVs and Horseback, they are not the only ones in town! There’s a few options on the North Shore: Gunstock Ranch and North Shore Stables. There’s even DOORS-OFF helicopters that will do a helicopter landing at Kualoa Ranch! My personal favorite at Kualoa ranch is the “Jurassic Valley” e-bikes – it is a WAY QUIETER way (instead of the loud rawr of the ATVs) to explore part of the 4,000 acre nature preserve “Jurassic Valley.” Kualoa Ranch also has a fun “Jurassic Valley” zipline tour too!
If you’re heading up to the North Shore and want a zipline with ocean views, the North Shore zipline ClimbWorks at Keana Farms is a fun one. There’s also a shark cage dive you can do where you can see reef sharks.
So much of Oahu is best viewed by air! Helicopter rides are popular on Oahu and can originate from the Honolulu airport heliport as well as other heliports. You can do doors-on or doors-OFF helicopter rides. If you’re a real adrenaline seeker, there’s also a “Navy Seal Experience” where you get to jump out of a helicopter (yes….JUMP!) and then go scuba diving after. While helicopters are an option, you can also go on a private scenic airplane flight around Oahu too!
Check out these articles:
– 7 UNFORGETTABLE Hawaii Experiences (that cost $$$)
– 3…2…1…LET’S GO | Helicopter JUMP
If you’re staying in Waikiki and looking for a luau dinner with a Vegas-style Elvis Presley show, Rock-a-Hula is a popular option.
In Honolulu, there’s also a Rage Room. It’s pretty wild – you get to break stuff and paint.
- Rent a private yacht with a hot tub for you & 11 friends
- You can also check Kaneohe Sandbar too
- If you’re looking for a sailing yacht, the Vanessa sailing yacht has great options too.
While pricey, if you’d like a “done for you” option – there are tours for a 1-day Flyover to visit the Big Island. This one included roundtrip airfare, full-day Land Tour of the Hilo side of Big Island, and a 45-minute helicopter ride over the active volcano.
Where to Stay
This beautiful beach is home to some of the most pristine white sand beaches in Hawaii, perfect for catching some waves and soaking up the sun. Plus, when you’re done catching waves and swimming in crystal-clear blue waters, there’s plenty to do here. From exploring historical sites to enjoying a delicious meal on the beach, Waikiki has something for everyone. And when you’re done with your day of adventure, there’s plenty of cozy accommodations right on the beachfront – perfect for taking in all the scenery! Whether you’re looking to relax and take in the sights or explore and find adventure, there’s no better place than Waikiki. So grab your sunblock and get ready for the ultimate beachfront vacation!
Waikiki Block Festivals
Waikiki has LOTS of festivals throughout the year. These festivals typically take place on KALAKAUA AVE in the evening from 4pm-10pm. Road closures start as early as 1pm. These events can have food vendors, arts & crafts, live music and more!
The Hilton Hawaiian Village also has a weekly Friday fireworks show at 7:45pm. It’s a quick 5-minute show.
We have made monthly Waikiki Now narrated walking tours videos.
Popular Waikiki Hotels:
Waikiki Hotel Walkthroughs
Curious about what a certain Waikiki hotel looks like? Check out these videos below:
- Royal Hawaiian Hotel (the “Pink Palace”)
Or click here for Royal Hawaiian Hotel at night
- Hilton Hawaiian Village
- Ilikai Hotel & Luxury Suites
- Hale Koa Hotel
- Halekulani Hotel
- Queen Kapiolani Hotel
- The Modern Honolulu Hotel
- Waikiki Beach Marriott (not to be confused with Courtyard by Marriott)
- Ala Moana Hotel
- Prince Waikiki Hotel
Ko Olina (West)
You can also spend a 1/2 day on the North Shore. From Waikiki to Haleiwa, it is about a 45-60 minute drive depending on traffic. On the way up, you’ll pass by the Dole Pineapple Plantation (try the Dole whip!) and the Green World Coffee Farms. There’s also other Coffee Farms, Chocolate Farms, and a Soap Factory (click here for a YouTube video).
Where to Eat
If you’re looking for an unforgettable dining experience on Oahu, there’s no better place to start than Honolulu. In the city centre, visitors can sample some of Hawaii’s most mouth-watering dishes.
If you’re in the North Shore area, stop by Ted’s Bakery on Sunset Beach for their famous chocolate haupia pie. It’s been voted one of the best desserts in Hawaii, and it’s sure to make your taste buds dance with delight. For something a bit more savory, check out Haleiwa Joe’s for their excellent seafood dishes. Enjoy the views of the beautiful coastline while you eat! Whether on the beach or in the city centre, Oahu has plenty of delicious places to dine. Bon appétit!
If you prefer to cook your own food while in Oahu, there are plenty of opportunities to buy fresh produce. There’s popular Farmers Markets around the island.
Packing for Hawaii can be made more manageable with the right tips and tricks. Think lightweight, breathable fabrics, sunscreen, waterproof gadgets and plenty of swimwear.
– 6 Tips for Packing Light to Hawaii | TRAVEL TIPS
– 22 Things to Pack to Hawaii | Carry-on | TRAVEL TIPS
– 33 Things to Pack on a Day Hike in Hawaii | TRAVEL TIPS
– 19 BEST Travel Bags | TRAVEL TIPS
– BEST carry-on personal item | TRAVEL TIPS
– BEST checked luggage | TRAVEL TIPS
Oahu, Hawaii, is a destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list. There’s so much to do and see, from historic sites and museums to beaches and mountain trails. To make the most out of your trip, make sure to plan ahead and consider our tips. And if you want to see more, make sure to check out Yes To Hawaii’s video series of must-see locations on the island. Have a great trip!
- OAHU | 1/2 Day on the North Shore
- OAHU | 6 Must See Things on North Shore
- BIG ISLAND | How to See LAVA in Hawaii | 24 Hours on Big Island
- Waikiki THEN, 2020 (click here for video)
- BEST Snorkel Tour on MAUI | Molokini Crater | Alii Nui Charters | MAUI
- Lahaina + Haleakala Sunset | MAUI
- BEST Helicopter ride on Maui WITH landing | MAUI
- Maui ATV Tour
- 12 Hours on Maui | Itinerary ideas | Molokini Crater | MAUI
BIG ISLAND Articles
- How to See LAVA in Hawaii | 24 hours on Big Island
- DOORS OFF Helicopter | Checking out KILAUEA VOLCANO’s lava flow | BIG ISLAND
- Kona 4K Walk | Big ISLAND
- 8 Must Do TIPS for Snorkeling with Manta Rays
- 1-Day Flyover OAHU to BIG ISLAND | Airfare + Land Tour + 45-minute Helicopter Ride
- 9 Ways to Get Excited for Your Hawaii Trip | TRAVEL TIPS
- 13 Ways to Save for Your Hawaii Trip | TRAVEL TIPS
- 7 Tips for Your Early Morning Flight | TRAVEL TIPS
- NARRATED Waikiki walking tour | End-to-End (or click here for the YouTube video)
- How I Use the Hawaii Vacation Planner | FREE PRINTABLE! (or click here for the YouTube video)
- 5 Questions to Ask BEFORE Booking an Island Tour
- 7 Ways to get to Waikiki from Honolulu (HNL)
- How I Plan Hawaii Vacations for 1st Timer
- 11 Tips for Winter Travel in Hawaii | Dec/Jan/Feb