One of the most desired places for all types of travelers is the island of O'ahu in Hawaii. This guide covers everything you will need to know before you travel to O'ahu. Whether you are looking for a relaxing vacation at a world class resort, warm year round beach weather, beautiful clear blue ocean waters, or an adventure seeking hike, then the island of O'ahu is the perfect place for you to plan your next vacation.
O’ahu is the most visited and most developed island of the 4 major Hawaiian Islands (O’ahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island). Home to the capital of Honolulu, this city is the only major city in the State with towering apartment buildings and high rise hotels. Check out all of my Hawaiian Blogs for planning a visit to any of the other islands.
GETTING TO O’AHU
Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) is located in Honolulu and is the largest and busiest airport in Hawaii. This airport is only a 20 minute drive from the downtown Waikiki Beach and hotel area. This is the main airport for international travel so you will see tons of airlines going to Canada, Japan, and China.
Hawaiian Airlines (See Full Review) has a hub at this airport and is one of the best airlines to fly when traveling to the islands. You will find the best airplanes and cabins on the routes to Honolulu (HNL) like the wide body Airbus A330 for Hawaiian Airlines or the Boeing 777s on United, Delta, and American Airlines. Southwest Airlines now has many flights to the islands and is one of the best way for inter island travel. Plan ahead and you can get a $39 fare between islands. t
Pro Tip: If you aren’t planning to travel to Hawaii often, plan to visit two or more islands on your trip!
TRAVELING IN O’AHU
If you plan to only stay in downtown Honolulu/Waikiki Beach then you can get away without renting a car as there are tons of taxis and Uber / Rideshare vehicles available. But you should plan to rent a car as you will definitely want to explore the entire island.
Pro Tip - rent a car for a day trip and you won't have to pay expensive overnight parking rates
ABOUT THE ISLAND
O’ahu is the most developed and busiest island making it stand out from the neighboring islands. Downtown Honolulu is filled with high rise apartment complexes and hotels. Honolulu is a very crowded area but if you drive to the East Side or North Shore the crowds dissipate and there is plenty of open space and wild nature to enjoy.
Many people use the crowds on this island as a negative but the big city makes for better shopping, dining, and attractions. Waikiki Beach is home to the majority of the hotels on the island in a small concentrated area. This area is essentially a city on the beach. The beaches are crowded, but you’re still in paradise. Rent a car and adventure out o the city to explore the entire island.
There is so much to do and see on the island. It is best to do several day trips to each side of the island to truly enjoy and experience everything the island has to offer. You can drive around the island in one day but that is not recommended.
One of the most famous parts of O’ahu, and Hawaii, is the famous stretch of Waikiki Beach on the South West side of the island. This concentrated area is filled with world class hotels, shopping, and dining. The majority of the hotels on the island are in this area. A short drive out for the city will bring you to quieter beaches and beautiful mountains for hikes.
PLACES TO SEE:
Honolulu - Crowded but extremely walkable and convent to have everything in a concentrated area. The resorts here are crowded so look elsewhere if you want a quiet beach experience.
Waikiki Beach - Relax on the beach or pools of famous Waikiki Beach. The surf break here is a very long and slow making it the perfect spot to learn how to surf. You will see surfers of all levels at this iconic spot.
Diamond Head Hike - this is one of the most popular hikes on the island. You can see Diamond Head in the backdrop from Honolulu and Waikiki Beach but the opposite view from the top is even more amazing. The size of the crater is massive once you find yourself inside it. Plan to be here for Sunrise or Sunset for an even better experience. [1.5 hours]
Kalākaua Ave - Walk the huge area filled with shopping and dining. Head over to the Ala Moana Center for even more shopping.
PLACES TO STAY:
Hilton Hawaiian Village - is one of the most iconic landmarks in O’ahu. This hotel sits at the end of the Waikiki Beach and has a huge stretch of beach and a salt water lagoon. This hotel is a mega resort with lots of rooms so it will certainly feel a little crowded but definitely is the most spacious of all of the resorts. Check out my full Hilton Hawaiian Village Blog Here.
Prince Waikiki - located in the marina and is a modern luxurious property. Steps away from shops, dining, and the beach
Sheraton Waikiki - a big hotel in the center of Waikiki Beach. Features a small infinity pool that overlooks the water.
Westin Moana Surfrider - A large and classy complex centrally located on the beach of Waikiki
Hilton Garden Inn or Marriott Courtyard are just steps away from the beach
Double Tree by Hilton is steps away from the Hilton Hawaiian Village
PLACES TO EAT:
Katsumidori - hands down my favorite sushi spot in Waikiki. This is a very small restaurant so get here right when it opens and put your name on the list.
Doraku Sushu - a fun and good sushi spot in the heart of all the action in Waikiki
SOUTH SIDE: Outside of Honolulu
Take a drive 20 minutes outside of Waikiki and you will get to Maunalua Bay. From here you will see the beautiful waters and begin to see the quieter areas of the island. Here you will find many more great beaches and hikes. The following destinations are perfect for a quick half day trip from Waikiki.
PLACES TO SEE
China Walls - Behind some beautiful neighborhood homes is the China Walls. This is a great spot for cliff jumping or body surfing/surfing but can be extremely dangers. Coming here to watch and enjoy sunset is a great idea.
Koko Crater - The 2nd famous stair hike on the island. This is a great spot if you’re looking for a quick workout for some literal breathtaking views. Start your morning with a hike workout and then go cool off at the beaches down below.
Hanauma Bay - Get your snorkel and head to the most protected and beautiful bay on the island. There is a lot of parking here ($1) but plan to get here early. This is a great place to spend an entire day with food and bathrooms readily accessible.
Head up to the top of the Hanauma Ridge Hike to enjoy the views of the bay.
Pro Tip - buy and bring a snorkel to Hawaii as you will want to jump in and snorkel at many places along your exploration.
Halona Blowhole - A beautiful blow hole steps away from the road. Don't get too close! Bonus - there is a little beach next to the parking lot called Cockroach Cove [.5 - 1 hour]
Sandy’s Beach - A great public beach where you will find tons of locals. The waves here are very strong and crash close to the shore so be careful! You will find many body surfers enjoying these waves. [1-4 hours]
PLACES TO STAY
No hotels over here but you can find a luxurious Airbnb
PLACES TO EAT
Roy’s - a classic Hawaiian Restaurant (but it is also a chain found on the mainland)
Kona Brewing Co - a great brewery / casual dining spot
Sophie’s Gourmet Hawaiian Pizzeria - build your own pizza spot
EAST SIDE (Windward Side)
The eastern side of O'ahu is my favorite. Get up before dawn and head over here to enjoy the sun rise over the horizon. Here you will will find Lanikai, the best beach town on the island.
PLACES TO SEE
Lanikai Beach - one of the best beaches on the island and the BEST place to watch sunrise on O’ahu. Check out my Lanikai blog post.
Lanikai Pillbox Hike - one of my favorite hikes on the island. A quick moderate hike will take you to the top of the ridge overlooking the cute beach neighborhood below and the perfect blue waters. This is the best spot to catch a sunrise on the island. Check out my Lanikai Pillbox Hike post. [1- 1.5 hours]
Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden - Take a break from the beach and drive 15 minutes towards the big mountain ridges behind Lanikai to find the lush and beautiful gardens. [1-2 hours]
China Man’s Hat - Rent a canoe or paddle board and head out to China Man’s Hat. A little island that you can hike up to will give you a different perspective when looking back at the beautiful island views. [2-3 hours]
Makapu’u Light House Trail - a moderate hike but convenient due to the paved walkway up the steep hill. You will experience some incline but the paved walkway makes it manageable. Come here early to beat the heat and more importantly to get a coveted parking spot. Once you get to the top you will see the lighthouse and wide open views. Depending on the time of the year you may even be able to see many of the migrating whales. [1-2 hours]
Makapu’u Tide Pools -head down from the lighthouse and scale the mountain down to the beach. A 20 minute hike down will take you to a bunch of deep freshwater tide pools (BE SURE TO CHECK THE TIDE - ONLY COME AT LOW TIDE). Water shoes are recommended as there are sea urchins. [1-2 hours]
Kuloa Ranch - ridges, oceans, and dinosaurs? Check out one of the places they filmed Jurassic Park! Home to one of the best views!
Kaneohe Sandbar - one of the most beautiful views of the water with sandbars out in the middle of the ocean. You need a boat to get out here but if you do then you will enjoy one of the best days on the water.
Crouching Lion Hike - A super short hike but super beautiful. This hike is technically closed due to safety issues so exercise extreme caution!
Hauula Beach - A super picturesque beach just on the side of the road! Worth a quick stop to enjoy a quick dip in the waters.
6AM Sunrise at the Lanikai Pillbox hike
8AM Post hike breakfast in town
9AM Drive to the botanical garden and be there as it opens at 9AM. Get in and explore quickly before the crowds.
10:30 Makapu’u Tide Pool hike (Tide Depending).
12:30 Grab Lunch and head to the beach
1:00 Relax at Hanauma Bay for the rest of the afternoon and evening
PLACES TO STAY
No Hotels but you can find an Airbnb
PLACES TO EAT
Sunrise Shack in Lanikai - perfect spot for coffee, acai bowls, or smoothies
Up Roll Cafe in Kailua - perfect spot for poke / sushi
Get in the car and drive about 1 hour outside of Waikiki to get to the Westside of the island. This side of the island has some beautiful and spacious resorts but this area is much quieter with less attractions.
PLACES TO SEE
Ko Olina and Disney Aulani Lagoons - If you were lucky enough to fly into the island on a window seat you might have been able to catch a view of these amazing lagoons. There are some beautiful resorts on this side of the island with these gorgeous break water beaches. A great place for paddle boarding or enjoying the calm waters. [1 hour]
Electric Beach - A short drive up the coast will bring you to the Hawaiian Electric Park. You will see the large Hawaiian Electric Kahe Power Plant across the street. There is a large pipe from the Power Plant delivering hot water into the ocean which attracts tons of fish and sea life. Enjoy some great deep snorkeling here! [1-3 hours]
Mermaid Caves - Walk along the rocks and you will see some holes in the ground. Go through the hole and you will find yourself inside this beautiful cave with beautiful rocks and blue waters. Do not attempt during high tide! [1 hour]
Pillbox Hike in Maili / “The Pink Pillbox Hike” - Hike to the top to find the two pink pillboxes. The hike is moderate in difficulty but worth it for the views. [1-2 hours]
Makua Cave - There are two caves - , the upper and lower cave. The lower is right adjacent to the road. The Upper cave requires a steep unpaved trek up the hills. The views are worth it.
My Itinerary suggestion:
Tide Dependent - go to Mermaid Cave at low tide. Plan the rest of the spots around that time. The hike will be less crowded earlier as well as will be easier in cooler temps but it's always hot and humid on the island so don’t expect to not sweat either way!
PLACES TO STAY
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa - the perfect family friendly destination for Disney enthusiasts
Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club - located with a private lagoon, this is a great place if you’re looking to stay and enjoy the resort
Four Seasons Resort at Ko Olina - the ultimate luxurious destination on the island. With the private lagoon and spacious property, this is the best place to splurge for a vacation on the island
PLACES TO EAT
My Cafe - a great quick and cheap breakfast
Mina’s Fish House - fine dining experience at the Four Seasons Resort
NORTH SIDE - THE NORTH SHORE!
North Shore is the “quiet” side of the island and the surfer's paradise. Come late fall and winter to see the monster waves home to many surf competitions. Get here early if you plan to come as parking is very limited!
Peace Hike Pillbox - a moderate hike which will bring you to the top of the ridge behind many of those famous North Shore Surf Breaks. In the Winter time you will be able to see the lineup set of waves which makes for a great photo and view.
Pipeline - One of the most well-known surf breaks and beaches known to people who are surfers and not. This is home to one of the major surf competitions and produces some beautiful waves to be admired by fans and spectators alike.
Sunset Beach - Another stop on the surf competition circuit and home to the Vans Triple crown is Sunset Beach. The waves here turn up very quickly in the winter time. Be sure to get here early to catch the competition.
Sunrise Shack - a famous instagram spot which lives up to the hype with amazing Acai bowls and smoothies.
Waimea Bay - a beautiful large beach on the north shore which will bring the body surfer / boogie boarders out in droves. There is also a great spot for cliff jumping where there surely will be a large crowd of adventure enthusiasts and scaredy cats admiring the jumpers.
Turtle Bay - A famous resort from Forgetting Sarah Marshall is home to one of the few resorts on the North Shore. The resort is obviously for guests only but there is a nice public beach here as well. Stop in for a nice dinner as well after a long day at the beach.
Dole Plantation - more exciting for kids but a great place to get some dole whip or pineapples!
CENTER OF ISLAND
You most likely will pass through here when driving from Waikiki to the East side but it is certainly worth a stop and adventure. You will find some amazing waterfalls in this area which you know will be good as this area is often cloudy or rainy with the climate and topography of the island.
Lulumahu Falls - the ultimate waterfall hike on the island. This easy hike brings you through bamboo jungles and climbing up some rocks to get to this amazing waterfall. Bring a raincoat as you will most likely get soaked on the way in or out of this adventure. [3 hours]
Stairway to Heaven - The stairs are ILLEGAL. People still do it. There is a much longer way to get there that is legal. But technically, once you step foot on the stairs, you are trespassing. [4 hours to forever]
Wa’ahila Ridge Trail - An Easy 2 mile hike with stunning views [2 hours]
1. Go to the Hilton Hawaiian Village for the free fireworks show every Friday evening
2. Eat all the poke and sushi
3. Spend time at Pearl Harbor
4. Shaved Ice is a must
If you are an adventurer, get an airbnb or cheaper hotel on the days you will be exploring the North, West, and East sides of the island and save money for a nicer hotel when you are ready to enjoy Waikiki (or save for the west side resorts). If you are doing day trips you don’t need to spend for a hotel those days
Buy a snorkel and bring it with you!
Bring a Shammy Towel and Rain Coat if you’re going to be doing hikes
O’ahu is the perfect island for those looking to adventure and relax. Be sure to check out the other islands as well which are very different experiences like Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island.