I did not expect to love Oahu the way I did! After visiting Maui, Kauai, and Big Island, I thought Oahu might feel busy and over touristed. And it’s true there are crowds in Waikiki. But the best Oahu itinerary includes plenty of time out in nature exploring this island’s lush tropical mountains, marveling at the wild North Shore, and swimming in its turquoise water.
Oahu is definitely one of the best vacation spots in Hawaii.
In short, Oahu is a delight. There’s something here for every kind of traveler…from young families to wild adventurers and everyone in between.
One thing that felt unique from the other islands was the abundance of long shallow fringe reefs radiating out from the beaches here.
There are plenty of fringe reefs on the other Hawaiian islands, too, but the abundance of shallow water without a steep drop off into open ocean creates a number of beautiful protected snorkeling coves on Oahu.
And this shallow water is a pale, almost Caribbean blue. Your heart will skip a beat when you spy it on your approach by plane!
This Oahu itinerary is a mix and match approach to seeing the highlights of the island.
If you’re looking to keep kids entertained beyond beaches and hiking—or you like the idea of letting someone else do the driving on a day tour—spend more time on the south shore.
It makes a great base for activities on the windward side of the island too…like Kualoa Ranch (for a Jurassic Park tour) or kayaking in Kailua.
If you’re an outdoor adventurer, beach goer or surfer looking for a wild, rural feel—very much like Kauai—reserve lots of time to explore the stunning North Shore.
With a whole week, I’d recommend basing part of your week on the South Shore in Honolulu, or near Ko Olina as we did, and part on the North Shore.
Where to stay on Oahu’s South Shore
Two suggested options:
1. Honolulu. Looking for great restaurants, nightlife, shopping and easy access to Waikiki Beach? The Moana Surfrider Hotel is just steps from Waikiki with ocean views and a lovely spa.
Guest review: “Magical! The view from my two windows was breathtaking. The hotel itself is located right in the middle of everything. It is a historic building with a modern touch.”— Eyad
Check price and availability at the Moana Surfrider hotel here.
2. Ko Olina. Looking for a South Shore oasis away from the crowds with tropical fantasy lagoons and top tier resorts? Stay in Ko Olina—about a 40 minute drive to Waikiki.
This is where we stayed—at the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club—and we loved it. Our small studio had a private lanai that included an epic view of the resort’s private beach and lagoon. On-site restaurants with family-friendly and adults only pools make this ideal for almost every type of traveler.
Check price and availability at the Marriott Ko Olina Beach Club here.
3 Day Oahu Itinerary
Day 1: Visit Pearl Harbor + See Honolulu
You can’t visit Oahu without paying your respects at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. It’s such a moving experience. Plus, it’s an important Hawaii monument.
When the surprise military attack by 335 Japanese Imperial fighters and bombers struck early on a Sunday morning on December 7, 1941, it was disastrous. More than 2,400 Americans and 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed.
Furthermore, the massive damage to naval vessels on this day allowed the Japanese to dominate for a number of years in the Pacific until the U.S. could rebuild.
The highlight of your visit here will be seeing the USS Arizona Memorial.
You’ll board a navy shuttle boat that zips you out to the memorial on a 10 minute ride for a 30 minute visit to this resting place of 1,102 sailors and marines killed during the attack.
One thing to know is that the Battleship Missouri Memorial is on Ford Island, an eight minute drive from the the USS Arizona, which was unclear.
We didn’t book a guided tour due to COVID and wished we would have. The museum audio guide was sort of skimpy on details. There’s really no substitute for an informed guide sharing insights about this historic day.
This in-depth tour includes tickets to the Arizona Memorial and Missouri Battleship and picks up from any hotel in Ko Olina or Waikiki.
You’ll pass by the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific inside the iconic Punchbowl Crater on the way back.
Spend the second half of your day exploring beautiful Honolulu and nearby beaches. You’ll find famous Waikiki Beach nestled up to a long stretch of skyscrapers here.
This is where Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing once taught surfers on the Waikiki Break. And today, you’ll still see a long line up of beginners here!
Waikiki is home to many world-famous boutiques—think Jimmy Choo and Saks Fifth Avenue—as well as top tier resorts.
Ironically, there’s also a huge homeless problem in Waikiki. (My niece at University of Hawaii now avoids this area at night due to several assaults experienced by friends so be cautious if you’re a solo traveler.)
However, there is so much more to Honolulu beyond Waikiki!
Stop by Skull & Crown, Hawaii’s cutest tiki bar for a world-class Mai Tai.
Truth be told, we need to spend more time in Honolulu on our next visit. Tops on my list are the 10th floor observation deck from the Aloha Tower and a wander and a meal through Chinatown.
Tantalus Lookout in nearby Puu Ulakaa State Park is tops for sunset if you’ve got a rental car. It’s a 30 minute drive from Honolulu.
And finally, if you’ve never been to a luau, tonight’s a great night. Chief’s Sielu is the world fire knife dance champion so this luau is one of the best shows around.
You’ll enjoy a traditional lei ceremony, learn to hula, feast on a traditional Hawaiian luau buffet, and enjoy a memorable high energy show.
We also spent a lovely afternoon at nearby Sans Souci Beach.
It was less crowded than Waikiki and included a sleeping monk seal not far from where we were lounging. (Hawaiian monk seals are endangered so it’s illegal to approach them.)
If you’d rather skip Honolulu and get in more snorkel time, book a snorkel excursion to Turtle Bay from Waikiki today.
It’s one of the best places to swim with Hawaiian green sea turtles…as well as spinner dolphins, flying fish, and in winter, humpback whales.
Day 2: Hike Diamond Head + Snorkel Hanauma Bay
Hiking to the summit of the Diamond Head State Monument is great to pair with a half day at Hanauma Bay. It’s about a 25 minute drive between the two.
However, these two experiences may be the most popular two on the island with travelers and require careful planning to avoid frustration and disappointment. (Everything you need to know is below.)
Diamond Head is one of the best hikes on Oahu! And that’s because of the killer view of Honolulu and the sweeping coast from the summit.
Because this is such a popular hike, you’ll want to get here early. If you arrive here much past 8 am, you’re likely to find the 300 parking spots at the park all full.
You can circle the lot and get lucky (which *is* a viable strategy here to snag a spot if you’re patient).
Otherwise, you’ll be driving down to the bottom of the mountain to look for street parking…adding another half mile (up hill) to the beginning of your hike.
That’s fine if you’re fit…not fine in the humidity for others a little less sure about their ability to manage this hike. Taking a bus here is also a convenient option!
This hike itself is rated easy by All Trails, but I beg to differ. Maybe I was just jet lagged on the day we did this but I found it a bit challenging, especially at the end.
You’ll wind your way gradually, up, up up through a lush valley—the interior of the crater itself—and then ascend the rest of the way via switchbacks. It’s all stunningly beautiful.
A double set of steep stairs at the end towards the summit was what challenged me. Just take it slow, making way for faster hikers, as you go. It’s worth it!
Ready to cool off? Head to epic Hanauma Bay! But only with an advance reservation or prepare to be disappointed.
Hanauma Bay is near the tip of the southeast end of the island. It’s a protected nature preserve and also one of the most popular places to snorkel on Oahu.
As a result, in spring 2021, the state of Hawaii introduced a new reservation system to limit visitors to 1,400 per day to combat over tourism. (Locals can walk in without a ticket at certain times.)
This new reservation system is happening at popular tourist spots all over Hawaii and honestly, is a good thing to preserve these special places. But just remember: No reservation, no entrance!
How to Make a Reservation for Hanauma Bay
Here’s the thing: You can only reserve a date and time for your visit 48 hours in advance. Tickets go on sale at 7 am and sell out quickly for the day so be organized.
Your ticket includes a mandatory viewing of a 9 minute orientation video. Bring your own snorkel gear or rent there. Be aware that your ticket does not include guaranteed parking. (There’s an ample lot but no guarantees for an afternoon visit.)
You can reserve your Hanauma Bay ticket here.
Don’t have a car or prefer to skip the ticket hassle? You can reserve transportation from Honolulu (includes ticket) here.
The snorkeling is pretty wonderful in Hanauma Bay!
If you’re going to be snorkeling, I highly recommend a rash guard to keep your back from getting sunburned. My favorite rash guard is here.
Day 3: Drive the Windward Coast to the North Shore
Leave at least one day to explore the beautiful windward side of Oahu. This is best done with a car but you can see many of these spots on a day tour as I’ll share below.
If you’re doing this as a full day drive from the southeastern tip of the island, here are some suggestions, in order of how you’ll come across them.
- Hike Koko Head.
Koko Head Crater Trail is just 1.6 miles out and back, but it gains 885 feet in elevation, making it a very strenuous trail even though it’s short.
Basically, you’ll climb 1,000 steps up a long set of railroad ties leftover from when the U.S. military used them to transport supplies during WWII.
This hike is very close to Hanauma Bay so also makes a nice sunrise hike to the summit before a day out snorkeling.
This is also an exposed hike so it’s best at sunrise or sunset to avoid heat. Bring water and sunscreen!
If Koko Head is not quite your speed, consider the much easier Lanikai Pillbox (Kaiwa Ridge) in Kailua. It’s aslo very popular for sunrise and easy!
2. Eat a malasada at Leonard’s Bakery Food Truck
Have you ever had a malasada? Much like a donut, it’s Hawaii’s favorite fried treat. It’s actually Portuguese in origin.
And the undisputed malasada champion is Leonard’s Bakery Malasada Truck which is right by Koko Head! Popular flavors are Haupia (coconut cream), custard, and salted caramel. Expect a line here.
3. Skip China Walls and Spitting Rock
These are beautiful rock formations at the edge of the ocean near Koko Head and Hanauma Bay.
Unfortunately, to access them, you’ll be in residential neighborhoods where residents are exhausted and angry due to all the tourists parking illegally. (Expect to be towed.)
More importantly, it’s just plain dangerous to be jumping, swimming, and sunning on rocks here. Rogue waves routinely wash over these areas taking unwitting sunbathers out to sea. Several have died here.
4. Relax at Lanikai Beach or Kailua Beach Park
These are incredibly beautiful beaches! While the beaches here can be windier than near Honolulu (hence the name “windward side”), they are just so lovely.
The sand is sugary white and the water near the shore is that clear, pale blue that you probably associate with the Caribbean.
As mentioned earlier, Lanikai Beach (and the pillbox hike) make a great spot to take in sunrise.
Parking here can be challenging as there’s no lot. You’ll have to find residential street parking so plan accordingly if you’re heading here in the afternoon.
We preferred nearby Kailua Beach Park. The beach was just as beautiful but there was shade, scenic sand dunes for a wind break, a convenient parking lot, showers, and restrooms.
5. Stop in Kailua
Cute little Kailua makes a great stop just after Lanaikai or Kailua Beach Park for a snack or a treat. There’s a Whole Foods in town, which is a great place to pick up a picnic.
And President Obama, who owns a home not far away in Waimanalo, has been spotted stopping for a shave ice here in Kailua at Island Snow.
6. Visit Byodo-In Temple.
Since I haven’t been to Asia yet, I’ve never seen a temple like this in person before. It was quite the wow factor nestled up at the base of the lush green Ko’olau mountains.
This beautiful temple was established in 1968 in honor of the first Japanese immigrants to arrive in Hawaii. It’s a smaller replica of a 950 year old Byodo-in-temple in Uji, Japan.
If you arrive in the morning before the tourist buses arrive, you can enjoy the serenity of walking the gorgeous tropical grounds here, sitting in one of the meditation niches, and the serenity of the Koi pond. Tickets are $5.
My favorite part? The sound bath I enjoyed as I heard visitors strike the huge gong near the entrance.
While the temple is mesmerizing, you’ll need under an hour to enjoy a visit here.
7. Drive through Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden
Visiting botanical gardens is one of my favorite activities when I’m in Hawaii. And this one didn’t disappoint!
While some of those other gardens came with hefty admission fees, Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden is free to enter.
And again, it’s easy to see in under an hour although perfect for walks with more time.
You’ll find it just off the main road in Kane’ohe…an incredibly scenic drive through the botanical collections. Choose your adventure…From Phillippines and Malaysia to Polynesia and Africa, these plants are all here.
8. Eat Dinner at Haleiwa Joe’s.
If you find yourself near Kaneohe in late afternoon or early evening, plan to eat dinner at Haleiwa Joe’s.
There’s another location in, as you might guess, Haleiwa, on the North Shore but this one comes with this unbelievable view of Haiku Gardens!
People get married here in the gardens all the time and you can see why…it’s just incredibly scenic. The seafood here is delicious too and the ambiance is delightful as the whole place is open air.
Typically, when I’m traveling in Hawaii, I book dinner reservations at just a few special spots, to ensure an outsized budget for sunset cocktails.
I’ll picnic, eat breakfast in my hotel room or vacation rental and frequent the food trucks the rest of the time.
Haleiwa Joe’s was one of three fancier dinners out that we enjoyed during our 10 days on Oahu and it was lovely! The only challenge is that it’s a popular place and they don’t take reservations.
The restaurant opens at 4:30 pm and people in the know often arrive 30 minutes before that to secure a table. So if you arrive later, just anticipate a 30 minute (or longer) wait. Go walk the gardens!
5 Day Oahu Itinerary
Day 4: Beach Day, Kayaking or Polynesian Cultural Center
If you’re spending your fourth night near Honolulu, Ko’Olina or somewhere south on the island, stop in at a local snorkel shop and ask about local snorkeling conditions for a relaxing day at the beach.
There are literally dozens of lovely beaches and beautiful coves on the southeast side of the island, around the southeastern tip, and along the windward coast.
And which beach is the best just depends on the ocean conditions that day. So instead of googling “best snorkeling”, go talk to someone in the know!
Or kayak to the Mokolua Islands. This is one of the most popular things to do in Kailua Bay on the windward side.
You’ll meet your guide in Kailua for a half day eco-adventure and some basic kayaking instruction in a small group.
And then you’ll kayak over to the Mokula Islands or Flat Island to see bird sanctuaries, pristine beaches and hidden coves.
Queen’s Bath—not to be confused with Queen’s Bath on Kauai which is totally dangerous to swim in—is a freshwater pool in a lava tube on Mokula Island! It’s a wonderful day out. Deli lunch included.
Otherwise, if today’s the day you are relocating to the North Shore (highly recommended for a weeklong stay on Oahu), this is a great day to tour the Polynesian Cultural Center on your way up the windward side. It’s at the top of the island, near Kahuku.
Plan three hours to do a visit here justice. Depending on the ticket you buy, (if you book direct), you’ll tour three island villages, enjoy a live buffet dinner, and a flower lei greeting.
You can also see the Polynesian Cultural Center as part of a full day guided tour that includes a visit to Pearl Harbor to see the Arizona Memorial. The tour includes lunch and transfers from Waikiki.
So again, if you’d rather leave the driving to someone else, book this combined Pearl Harbor + Polynesian Cultural Center tour.
Day 5: Helicopter Tour or Kualoa Ranch
If you’re still staying on the south end of the island, now’s your chance for one of Hawaii’s best experiences: a helicopter tour!
Fly aboard an open-door helicopter for island views you just can’t get any other way. You’ll feel the wind in your hair as your pilot narrates sites like Pearl harbor, Hanauma Bay and the Halona Blowhole.
Think lush valleys, fascinating coral formations, and waterfalls. You’ll see the world’s largest agricultural maze at Dole Plantation…from the air. It’s truly a bucket list experience and Oahu is the place to do it!
Or take a tour of Kualoa Ranch on the windward side. Kualoa Ranch is a 4,000 private nature reserve and popular filming location on Oahu.
Unfortunately, you can’t really see much on an independent drive here beyond the gift shop and on-site restaurant.
You can book a tour directly with Kualoa Ranch. ATV tours are a family favorite here. I opted for more beach time over Kualoa Ranch but many travelers love their time here!
If you’ve got a few days left on your itinerary, you’ve simply got to get to Oahu’s gorgeous North Shore! Personally, as someone who loves wild and rural Hawaii, I spent 7 of my 10 days on the island there and didn’t regret a moment.
Where to stay on Oahu’s North Shore
For travelers, North Shore is mostly ramshackle vacation rentals! However, here are two excellent options.
1. Sunset Beach Oasis—We spent a week in this luxe studio and couldn’t recommend it more highly. Just a 5 minute walk over to famous Sunset Beach, it felt like a private treehouse with the bamboo rustling past the lanai. Most comfortable bed ever.
Check price and availability on the Sunset Beach Oasis here.
2. The Turtle Bay Resort—This oceanfront resort near Kahuku is the only resort on the North Shore and it’s stunning! It includes two championship golf courses, a private beach, and several restaurants, including Roy’s Beach House, which I highly recommend.
Check price and availability at The Turtle Bay Resort here.
7 Day Oahu Itinerary
With two days left in your itinerary, it’s time to relax into the snorkeling, beach, hiking and glorious food truck scene on the North Shore.
Be sure to try one of the shrimp trucks. They are everywhere on North Shore! Giovanni’s and Fumi’s are some island favorites.
In summer, the ocean on the North Shore is calm, making the swimming and snorkeling conditions ideal. In winter, you’ll need to be more cautious but you’ll still have options. That’s when the big waves roll in.
During our February stay at Sunset Beach, we walked across the street and watched the World Surfing Championships at the Bonzai Pipeline! What a bucket list experience.
The day before, surfing legend Kelly Slater celebrated his 50th birthday crushing the competition of kids half his age to win the men’s title.
We watched Hawaii’s Moana Jones—a wild card entrant—beat out a five time champion in the women’s finals.
Day 6: Snorkel Shark’s Cove + Sunset at Sunset Beach
I have snorkeled plenty of legendary Hawaiian coves…from Molokini Crater off the coast of Maui to Poipu on Kauai and Kealakekua Bay near Kona on the Big Island.
My experience at Shark’s Cove on Oahu’s North Shore beat them all in terms of colorful fish swimming everywhere. It was even better than Hanauma Bay in Southeastern Oahu!
I’ve heard that Shark’s Cove can be dangerous in winter due to big waves so use caution. Ocean conditions change constantly.
We were fortunate though that during our week here, Shark’s Cove snorkeling was glorious…if a bit crowded.
Several days in a row we swam through a school of hundreds of silver fish catching the sunlight that seemed to hover around us. Ahhhh! Magnificent.
Arrive early in the day at Shark’s Cove to avoid the afternoon crowds and parking troubles. (There’s a Foodland grocery store across the street with a parking lot though…and someone who looks like he’s vaguely watching for trespassers. Great pre-made salads to-go here too!)
Then hit the North Shore food trucks for lunch. There are “pods” of them all around, but a big group right at Shark’s Cove makes a convenient stop today.
Be sure to check food truck hours as they vary widely. They’re open different days. Some are open morning and afternoon and others only at night.
Spend the afternoon taking a hike on the North Shore. My favorite was the Hau’ula Loop Trail, just south of Kahuku near Hauula. It’s about a 90 minute moderate hike that climbs through beautiful forests, over a small stream and to a waterfall.
The best part? It’s shaded, making this a great choice for an afternoon activity, even if it’s warm.
And to wrap up your day, celebrate sunset at famous Sunset Beach. We made this a nightly ritual during our stay on the North Shore.
Just breath in the sea air and fill your heart with gratitude that you are here sitting in the sand as this beautiful day comes to a close.
Day 7: Visit Waimea Valley + Haleiwa
If you’re up early, begin your day with a hike on the Ka’ena Point Trail in Ka’ena Point State Park, just past Haleiwa on the northwestern part of the island.
This is a gorgeous coastal walk along Oahu’s rugged volcanic coast with views like you just won’t find anywhere else. You’ll see tidepools, wildfowers, and sometimes dolphins, if you’re lucky.
Just know that this is a very exposed hike. It’s really only suitable in the morning. You’ll need lots of water, sunscreen and a good hat to make it enjoyable.
The people we saw hiking under an umbrella had the right idea!
Then, as you head back towards Haleiwa after your hike, take a dip at the absolutely lovely beach here at the more northern section of Kaena State Beach Park. We stopped near a beach marked as the “Mokule’ia Section” and I think it was my favorite beach on the island!
There was literally no one there…we made the only footprints in the sand that morning.
I had a magical “pinch me” moment standing in the turquoise ocean water looking back at the green, green mountains. Wowza.
Head into cute little Haleiwa and browse the boutiques. You’ll find some really wonderful independent bikini and clothing shops here.
And don’t forget to stop at Matsumoto Shave Ice! Yes, the line snakes practically down the block but it’s worth it.
Whatever you do, reserve a few hours to explore the absolutely unmissable Waimea Valley botanical garden this afternoon just north of Haleiwa before Pupukea.
The lush valley here was the chosen home of the Kahuna Nui (high priests) from Polynesia as early as 1902 AD.
And when you walk this lush valley, you’ll see the historic homes and religious sites that have been preserved from this era which is magical.
The highlight of the visit is an easy, flat and scenic 2 mile walk on a paved road—transport is availble to those who need assistance as well—to Waimea Falls. Wear a bathing suit as you can swim in the falls!
To close out your week on Oahu, I recommend reserving your last night for a fancy dinner at Beach House by Roy Yamaguchi at the Turtle Bay Resort. The service, food, and beachside ambiance were lovely.
Please be reverent of all that you encounter when on the island. Slow down to island time when you drive.
Protect fragile ecosystems by using established trails. Bring home treasured memories instead of coral.
This is the spirit of Malama (“to take care”) that is truly a way of life in Hawaiian culture. When you tread lightly, you help to preserve this beauty for the next generation.