Visiting a Hawaiian island is on what seems like almost everyone’s travel bucket list. Oahu is one of the most popular of the islands, home to many of the state’s top attractions and some of the most beautiful beaches. Enjoy everything from epic surfing to swimming and snorkeling among abundant marine life, including colorful fish, sea turtles, and occasionally even dolphins.
When you visit Oahu for the first time, you’ll want to make the most of your experience. Having explored all the major islands on numerous visits over the years, I’ve put together this Oahu travel guide to help you plan your trip. You’ll find all you need to know, from where to stay and what to pack, to how to get around and what to do.
Where to Stay
- Honolulu/Waikiki Beach: Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa; Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort
- Diamond Head: Lotus Hotel at Diamond Head; Penthouse Over the Pacific
- North Shore: Turtle Bay Resort; Ke Ilki Bungalows North Shore
- West Side (Leeward Coast): Ko Olina Resort/Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club; Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina
- East Side (Windward Coast): Chinaman’s Oceanfront Beach House; Beautiful Windward Oahu
The vast majority of accommodations are in and around Honolulu, although there are also some ultra-luxe hotels along the west side, known as the Leeward Coast, along with a high-end resort on the North Shore. Properties on the east side of the island (Windward Coast) primarily include vacation rental homes and apartments. The Diamond Head area at the eastern end of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu also hosts a couple of hotels and rental options.
What to Pack/Weather
- Comfortable footwear (walking or hiking shoes)
- Sandals or flipflops for the beach (called slippers in Hawaii)
- Water shoes
- 2 swimsuits (one to wear while the other is drying)
- Summerwear (shorts, t-shirts, sundresses, sarongs, etc., think cool & casual)
- 1 or 2 smart casual outfits for fine dining if applicable (Aloha or polo shirt, slacks, loafers for men/cocktail or maxi dress for women)
- Sun protection (sunglasses, sun hat, mineral-based sunscreen)
- Rashguard (if you’ll be spending lots of time in the water or get sunburned easily)
- Sweater or sweatshirt for mornings/evenings when visiting in the winter
- Small backpack or daypack
- LARQ Bottle PureVis™
It’s easy to pack for Oahu with high temperatures ranging from the mid-70s to mid-80s year-round. In the middle of winter, nights dip down to the low 60s, so if you come during that season, you might need a sweater or a sweatshirt for early mornings and evenings. You’ll want mostly summer-type attire, bathing suits, and sun protection. A rashguard is highly recommended for those who burn easily or anyone who plans to spend lots of time in the water. Visitors who will be dining at an upscale restaurant might want to bring one smart casual outfit.
Packing a reusable water bottle is a must as plastic is highly frowned upon in this pristine environment and you’ll need to stay hydrated for all your activities. The tap water is considered safe to drink but quality tests by the Environmental Working Group have detected some contaminants above acceptable levels. Things like chlorine, lead, heavy metals, and PFOS/PFOA can be an issue, which makes the
LARQ Bottle Filtered™ an ideal solution for filtering and purifying water.
What to Do in Oahu
When it comes to what to do in Oahu, Pearl Harbor is not to be missed. Over two million visitors head here every year. The site where the Second World War began for the United States on December 7, 1941, is a sobering but essential experience to stand over a gravesite where nearly 1,200 men lost their lives. The loss of life represents over half the Americans killed during the worst naval disaster in U.S. history.
Your admission includes the USS Arizona Memorial, the Submarine Museum and Park, the Oklahoma Memorial, the Battleship Missouri, the Pacific Aviation Museum, and the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. You’ll take a US Navy-operated boat to the memorial, built over the remains of the sunken battleship, with transportation to and from Ford Island in the middle of the harbor also included.
Discover the Most Beautiful Beaches
Of course, no Hawaii travel guide for Oahu would be complete without the beaches. Some of the most famous and picturesque beaches in the world can be found here, like Waikiki Beach. There’s always lots of action on this stretch, – it’s internationally renowned for surfing, making it a great place to watch the pros and amateurs ride the waves, or try it yourself. Canoe races, hula dancing, and live outdoor music are all held here too.
Waimea Bay Beach Park sits along the north shore, one of the less developed parts of the island. Fans of the hit TV series “Lost” are likely to recognize it as the beach where Oceanic Flight 815 crashed. It’s also one of Oahu’s most famous big-wave surfing beaches, the place where many surfers first started riding the massive waves. In the winter, the swells become monsters, drawing the pros, many of whom come for February’s Quiksilver Big Wave Invitational. During the summer months, the water is much calmer, ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
Another one of the best beaches on Oahu is Lanikai Beach. Located on the Windward Coast, it’s so stunning that it’s often used for photoshoots, and the Travel Channel once ranked it among the best in all of Hawaii. The white sands beautifully contrast against the azure water which is ideal for swimming and kayaking, complete with a gorgeous mountain backdrop. Spectacular sunrises and moonrises can also be seen from this vantage point.
Other beaches to visit include Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, Sunset Beach, Waimanalo Beach, Kailua Beach Park, and Kahana Bay Beach Park.
Hit the Trails
If you like to hike, Oahu offers miles and miles of routes like the Koko Crater trail. It’s a steep and challenging trek, but it’s only 1.6 miles round-trip, taking about 90 minutes to cover. It will bring you to the top of the Koko Head Crater, revealing panoramic views of Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve. Sunrises are breathtaking from here – you can enjoy one and beat the heat if you reach the trailhead by 5 a.m.
The 1.8-mile round-trip Diamond Head hike is closer to Honolulu and leads to Diamond Head Lookout. It’s much easier than Koko Head, ascending 560 feet, with most of the route made up of stairs. From here, you can look out over the entire cityscape and Waikiki. If you visit Lanikai Beach, consider taking the Lanikai Pillbox hike. Short yet incredibly rewarding, it’s just 1.5 miles round-trip and rises just above the beach, providing some of the most breathtaking vistas of the island’s windward side.
As you research the hiking options, you’ll probably come across the Stairway to Heaven hike. Once one of Oahu’s most popular, it is now illegal as the stairs are no longer safe. Not only can you be fined $1,000 or more, but you might have to pay for your own rescue, requiring a $2,500 per hour helicopter airlift that typically takes about two hours.
Kualoa Ranch is worth planning a day around. A 4,000-acre nature preserve that’s been used as a setting for many Hollywood films, including “Jurassic Park” and “50 First Dates,” it features lush, hidden valleys and tropical forests, dramatic cliffs, and unspoiled beaches. The ranch has been owned and operated by the same family for over 150 years and offers a variety of activities for visitors.
ATV tours will bring you to see some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes on the island while providing insight into ancient Hawaiian culture. Horseback riding excursions range from one-hour to full-day rides, and there’s also a thrilling zipline course that winds across the ranch, with four over 1,000-foot-long ziplines reaching speeds of up to 50 mph. A variety of kayaking trips are available too.
Visit a Botanical Garden
Oahu’s beaches might be the star attraction, but you should make time to visit a botanical garden.
Waimea is a north shore gem across from Waimea Bay. A botanical garden/sacred historical site, it’s filled with interesting and rare plants with over 40 themed gardens. It also includes a 45-foot waterfall and information on Native Hawaiian history.
Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden has become Instagram famous with a magnificent palm-lined entrance and towering mountains in the backdrop. The 400-acre park not only includes gardens themed on the world’s major tropical regions, but also picnic areas, campgrounds, and a lake.
Downtown Honolulu is worth exploring with attractions like Iolani Palace in the historic district. Built in the late 19th century for King Kalakaua, self-guided and guided tours are available for exploring the elegant rooms. The Imprisonment Room is a highlight as the place where a former queen was held under house arrest. Other historic landmarks include the King Kamehameha I Statue and the Kawaiaha’o Church.
Bustling Chinatown is a popular place to visit on the western side of the city’s financial district. One of the oldest of its kind in the country, there are fresh local produce vendors (ideal for picking up ingredients if you have a self-catering rental with a kitchen), and an array of outstanding eateries offering everything from Chinese Dim Sum to Malaysian and international fare. Tea and herbal shops, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners, and all sorts of temples and shrines are here too.
How to Get Around Oahu
If you stay in Waikiki and plan on sticking right around your hotel, resort, or other accommodation, you probably don’t need a rental car, but it would be a shame not to take advantage of the opportunity to explore. Some rent a vehicle for just part of their stay, relying on their own two feet, the bus, or hotel shuttles the rest of the time. The bus is economical, but it’s also slow and can be difficult to navigate, other than the route between the airport and Waikiki. If renting a car, be warned that free street parking is rarely allowed overnight, so look into parking at your hotel, or a paid garage nearby to avoid collecting any parking tickets.
Taxis are also an option but they tend to be more expensive than rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft. In Honolulu and the surrounding area, wait times are minimal, but it can take longer in more remote places on the island.
Concluding our Oahu travel guide is one of the most important things to do – embrace the Aloha spirit! It’s the welcoming philosophy you’ll notice throughout your stay, with native Hawaiians treating everyone, including visitors and the land itself, with deep care and respect.