Oahu is nicknamed ‘The Gathering Place’.
It’s by far the most populated Hawaiian island and functions as sort of an inter-island hub – for both locals and visitors!
Although Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian islands, most people visit Oahu first, because the international airport is located here in Honolulu. While you can definitely use Oahu as a launch pad to visit Maui, Kauai, or the other Hawaiian Islands, I think there’s so much to see and do on Oahu.
You have historic sights like Iolani Palace, home of the last Hawaiian monarchs and world famous Waikiki Beach. You can swim with turtles in the morning, grab a refreshing acai bowl for lunch, shop till you drop for designer goods all afternoon, then hike Diamond Head for sunset views over the island.
I’ve never seen anywhere in the world quite like Oahu, with its mix of mountains, valleys and beaches. Where else can you find a cosmopolitan city built literally on the sand!
And most of all, I love that Oahu isn’t just a beach destination. I know some people love to just relax and getaway, and others prefer to do more and soak up some culture.
Oahu’s become such a melting pot of food and cultures, that you can easily spend a week on the island and do something different every day!
Here’s my travel guide for visiting Oahu.
Oahu has four main regions:
Here’s a quick overview on each!
Honolulu is a vibrant tropical city and the state capital of Hawaii.
It’s home to historic landmarks like Iolani Palace and the Pearl Harbor museum. There’s high end hotels, fine dining and designer shopping.
Within the city, there’s lots of different neighborhoods.
Waikiki is the most well known, kind of like the Times Square or Las Vegas strip of Honolulu. Other popular neighborhoods to visit are Chinatown and Kaka’ako, which underwent a hip revival and have great food, drink spots and cool street art.
If you’re visiting Oahu, you’ll want to stay in Waikiki where all the hotels, restaurants and nightlife is.
Check out Oahu accommodation for your dates here.
P.S. Want to know the difference between Oahu, Honolulu and Waikiki?
Waikiki is a district in Honolulu. Honolulu is a city on Oahu. Both Waikiki and Honolulu are on the island of Oahu.
I was pretty confused about the layout before my trip, and at first even thought the ‘Big Island’ was Oahu, ha. (They’re completely separate islands!)
The North Shore is much more laid back and rustic compared to Oahu’s southern section.
It’s most famous for its 7 mile stretch of world class surf breaks and every winter, it hosts some of the most difficult surf competitions in the world due to its legendary waves. In the summer, the surf subsides and the beaches are great for swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing.
Definitely take a road trip up highway H3 for a scenic road trip along Oahu’s coastline. From Waikiki, head counter-clockwise along the east coast all the way up until you reach the charming surf town of Haleiwa.
The Windward Coast is the name of the eastern side of Oahu. It’s also very popular, as it has some of the softest sandy beaches and azure blue waters in the world.
If you want to escape the crowds in Waikiki, head to the 30 mile long Windward Coast for scenic views and relaxing beaches.
Kailua town and Lanikai Beach are some of the most popular spots!
The Leeward Coast is the name for Oahu’s west side.
Just 30 miles west of Waikiki, you’ll find an almost entirely undeveloped rural region, with picturesque towns and off the beaten path beaches.
This area is relatively undeveloped and has just 2 hotels: the famous Disney Aulani resort and the Four Seasons Oahu.
There’s a huge range of accommodation types on Oahu. Almost all the hotels are in Waikiki, with a few exceptions, so most people stay on the southern shore.
Here are some of the best hotels on Oahu:
For Honeymooners: Turtle Bay or Four Seasons
For Families: Aulani, Disney
For First Time Visitors: Halekulani
For Budget: Kaimana
For more in-depth advice on where to stay, check out my guide on Oahu hotels here.
Read more: Where to Stay on Oahu
If you want to get off the beaten path, you can also try a vacation rental. Airbnb is now banned, so check out VRBO.
Whether you want to surf, paddle board or sun bathe, Oahu has some pristine beaches.
Here are some of the most popular:
Oahu has some really beautiful underwater coral reefs and as a result, there’s great snorkeling along every section of the island!
You can snorkel on your own or join an organized boat tour.
Hanauma Bay is without a doubt the most popular snorkel spot on Oahu and you can easily visit on your own – you just have to reserve tickets in advance.
There’s an entirely new reservation system for 2021, which I cover in more depth here.
If you’re not as comfortable in the water, or really want to see colorful marine life without the hassle of signing up for tickets at 7am in the middle of your vacation.. I’d recommend booking a snorkel tour!
These usually will sail out to a more local spot on the island, where you can swim with turtles or dolphins in the open ocean! Some offer beginner-friendly swim options like submarine tours or underwater ship dives.
[link to options]
You might be tempted to spend all your time in Hawaii on the beach – and I wouldn’t blame you!
But Oahu actually has some incredibly mountain ranges and lush valleys and it’s worth heading inland a bit to get glimpse of all that natural beauty.
There are challenging hikes that climb up old military lookouts, easy flat hikes to look out on the Makapu’u lighthouse and lush hikes that wander through rainforests to reach soothing waterfalls.
Here are some of the most popular legal hikes to do in Oahu:
Hawaii was the last state to be added to the United States, in August 1959. And before I visited, I had no idea that the Kingdom of Hawaii and the state annexation process was quite so… sordid.
Definitely learn more about Hawaiian history, Polynesian culture and why locals don’t quite love tourists to get a more in-depth understanding of Hawaii.
Here are some great sights to check out:
One of the most fun things to do in Oahu is to spend a day at Kualoa Ranch. The 4,000 nature retreat was the scene for a ton of Hollywood movies and tv shows, like Jurassic Park, Hawaii Five-O and 50 First Dates.
The park offers a ton of activities, like zip lining, ATV tours, horseback riding and behind-the-scenes movie tours.
Everyone whose taken the ATV tour raves about it so definitely check it out!
If you’re thinking of trying a couple of the most popular activities on Oahu, check out the Go Oahu Card!
The all-inclusive card gets you free admission to the most popular spots on the island, including Pearl Harbor, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Iolani Palace, the Bishop Museum, Kualoa Ranch, and many others.
It’s available in 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 day passes and if you plan to do 2 or more big experiences, the card can save you a ton of money.
Check it out here.
For more on what to do in Oahu, read my full post!
Read more: The Best Things to Do in Oahu
Anytime is a great time to visit Hawaii!
Oahu has two main seasons: a dry season from April to September and a wet winter from October to March.
Oahu has beautiful weather year round. But, if you’re visiting the island for a particular activity, or want to avoid the crowds, certain months are more ideal than others.
Crowds: Oahu is busiest in the winter, from November to March, as people flock to the islands to escape the cold.
It’s also quite busy in summer from mid-June to August, when schools are out and families come to the islands.
Golden Week: Hawaii is incredibly popular with Japanese tourists, as it’s actually closer to Japan than the mainland US!
Japan has a major national holiday called Golden Week from the end of April to early May, and it’s a very popular time since the Japanese love visiting Oahu.
Whale Watching: the winter months of February and March are when the whales migrate to Oahu
Surfing: December to April is prime surfing season, when the North Shore gets massive waves. You can watch surf competitions at this time!
If you want to swim in Oahu in winter, stick to the calmer waters of the south and eastern sections closer to Waikiki.
Hawaii follows Hawaii Standard Time (GMT-10 hours).
The island is five hours behind Eastern Standard Time and two hours behind Pacific Standard Time.
Note: Hawaii doesn’t follow Daylight Saving Time, so if you’re visiting during this time (roughly March through November), add an extra hour!
Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on Oahu is Hawaii’s major airport. It’s how most people arrive to Hawaii and from there they either stay on Oahu or island hop to Maui, Kauai, the Big Island, etc.
The international airport is roughly a 20 minute drive (40 minutes during rush hour) to Waikiki.
There’s lots of options to take!
It’s difficult to really explore any island in Hawaii without a car, so we definitely recommend renting a car for at least part, if not your entire, trip.
We found that local company Hawaiian Discount Car Rentals offered the best rate of them all.
Rental cars are almost always in high demand, so you should reserve a car before you arrive to the islands.
You can also take a shuttle! Car rental shuttles are outside baggage claim on the ground level, in the center medium area.
Roberts Hawaii shuttle is ~$16 and will take you to any hotel in Waikiki.
The airport taxi system isn’t the most efficient. You have to line up by the taxi wrangle, who will then radio for a car.
Taxis to most hotels in Waikiki will cost about $40-45.
You can also use Lyft and Uber in Oahu, but personally we found it to be very hit or miss. Sometimes it works great, and other times it’s impossible to find any available drivers.
From the airport, Lyft should cost ~$30. If it’s any more $50, just get a cab!
Oahu does have a bus transportation system called The Bus. Fares are a very reasonable $2.75, but the inconvenient thing is you’ll need exact change.
The bus serves a pretty extensive route throughout downtown, Waikiki, and even up to the North Shore and coasts. But, because the bus stops very frequently, it can be extremely slow going.
If you plan to use the bus often, there is a 5 day bus pass that offers some savings.
You can find taxi stands at the major tourist spots in Oahu, like the large shopping centers and business district.
Instead of hailing a cab on the street, you typically have to look for a taxi stand or call for pick up via phone. You can also ask your hotel concierge to call a taxi for you.
Most US mobile carriers will cover Hawaii, so Americans should have no problem using their regular cell phones.
Food is a huge reason why people return to Oahu year after year. Hawaiian cuisine is a melting pot of 5 distinct cuisines, reflecting the history and diversity of Hawaii.
Here are some local dishes to try during your visit to Oahu:
Kalua pig or kalua pork is the centerpiece of a traditional Hawaiian luau. A whole pig is smoked underground in a pit called an ‘imu’, wrapped in banana leaves or coconut palm fronds along with koa wood.
It’s seasoned only with Hawaiian sea salt but because it’s slow roasted, the meat is incredibly juicy and tender, with a smoky salty flavor.
Book a Hawaiian luau to try the full experience or grab a small plate of it at Helena’s Hawaiian Food restaurant.
Malasadas are a Portuguese style donut. It’s fluffy, eggy donut deep fried and coated in sugar.
Leonard’s is one of the most popular bakeries on the island – make sure to try both the regular and custard filled varieties!
Poi is a traditional Polynesian staple made from starchy vegetables. The varieties made from taro have a purplish brownish color and are pounded into a smooth, sticky pudding-like texture.
Poi comes in a variety of consistencies and can be sweet or sour, depending on how it’s made. It’s one of those dishes you have to try for yourself to see if you like it!
Poke is a native Hawaiian cuisine of diced raw fish. You can find it all over the island at restaurants dedicated to it, as well as in Foodland, the chain supermarket!
That’s just a sample, of course!
There’s so many great Hawaiian foods to try and phenomenal restaurants, food trucks and dessert spots that I wrote an in-depth Oahu food guide.
Read more: The Best Foods & Restaurants to Try on Oahu