Our Ultimate Guide to Oahu: The Gathering Place

Sunset at Turtle Bay.

Our Ultimate Guide to Oahu: The Gathering Place

When we booked our first trip to Hawaii, my plan was to avoid Oahu as much as possible.
My expectations of Oahu were very low. I always pictured it as Hawaii’s tourist-hub, over commercialised, full of high rise condos and tacky tourists attractions; and to be honest, this was also our opinion of Hawaii in general, and it stopped us from heading there for ages.

But the reality is very different. Yes, Oahu is the most populated Hawaiian Island. Yes, its capital Honolulu is just another big city. And yes, Waikiki Beach is so packed with people, that if you can find a spot to lay your towel down, you’re one of the lucky ones!

But if you think Oahu is just about Waikiki, then think again! Oahu has so much more to offer. Head out of that big city and you’ll find yourself surrounded by breathtaking scenery, waterfalls, world-class surf beaches, and friendly locals. You can totally avoid Waikiki if you want to! But you probably wouldn’t right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit one of the world’s most famous beaches?

Here are your must-do activities, while you’re on Oahu:

Drive around the Island

The first thing you need to do is rent a car and drive right around the island. The island itself is not huge, but because there are so many beautiful places to stop along the way, you’ll want to set aside a full day for it. On this drive, the island’s incredible scenery will be the main attraction!

Beautiful coastal views on the windward side.

Beautiful coastal views on the windward side.

The view from the Nu'uanu Pali lookout.

The view from the Nu’uanu Pali lookout.

You can drive around the perimeter of most of the island, before cutting through the middle. As you drive around the island you’ll be treated to stunning coastal and mountain views. You’ll also pass by plenty of pineapple plantations. Make sure you stop at the Dole Plantation for a refreshing Dole Whip!

Yummy Dole whip at Dole Plantation

Be sure to spend a few hours on the north shore, and don’t forget to stop at the quaint historic town of Haleiwa.

Welcome to Haleiwa!

Welcome to Haleiwa!

Waimea Bay on the North Shore.

Waimea Bay on the North Shore.

Pay your respects at the Pearl Harbor Memorial

Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial are the top tourist destinations in Oahu. They attract over 1,500,000 visitors every year. You can visit the harbor area and war museum first, before taking a short boat ride over to the Arizona Memorial. A visit to the Memorial is a sobering experience. After suffering a direct hit during the attack, the Arizona sank and is now the final resting place for 1,102 sailors.

The museum is a great resource for learning everything about the attack. Pearl Harbor should be on every Oahu itinerary.

Pearl Harbor.

Hike Diamond Head Crater

Head to the Diamond Head State Monument, and hike to the top of the iconic Diamond Head. The hike to the top is only 0.8 miles and offers the best panoramic views over Honolulu and Waikiki. Just make sure you get up early to avoid both the crowds and the heat. We didn’t find the hike overly difficult; there are a few steps but people from all ages were doing it.

Click here to read our detailed post about this hike.

Beautiful view over Waikiki and Honolulu

Beautiful view over Waikiki and Honolulu from Diamond Head.

Hike Koko Head Crater

This hike’s a tough one. If you struggled with Diamond Head then you might want to give this one a miss! The Koko Head Crater hike consists of 1,048 steps, or to be more specific, railroad sleepers. The steps are quite steep and for short people like me, that makes it even tougher. But all the sweat and tears are worth it when you get to the top, as you are rewarded with incredible panoramic views, all the way from Diamond Head to Makapu’u Pt. It’s a great way to burn some calories, which means you can reward yourself with a few more Lava Flow cocktails in the evening!

Click here to read our detailed post about this hike.

The many steps of the Koko Head Crater trail.

The many steps of the Koko Head Crater trail.

The view from the exhausting Koko Head Crater trail.

The view from the top of the exhausting Koko Head Crater trail.

Visit the Byodo-In Temple

The Byodo-In Temple is located at the base of the Ko’olau Mountains, which provides it with an amazing backdrop. When you first see it, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Japan. This non-practicing Buddhist temple was built to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the first Japanese arrivals in Hawaii. It’s a great place to visit during your drive around the island.

The Byodo-In Temple.

The Byodo-In Temple.

Go Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and Shark’s Cove

We love to snorkel, especially in Hawaii. So whenever we get a chance, we’re straight into the water with our snorkels on! Our two favourite spots to snorkel on Oahu are Hanauma Bay and Shark Cove.

The beautiful view over Hanauma Bay.

The beautiful view over Hanauma Bay.

Hanauma Bay is a nature preserve just thirty minutes drive from Waikiki, and it offers the best snorkeling on Oahu, with an estimated four hundred species of friendly fish. The only drawback is that it’s extremely popular. Plan to arrive there first thing in the morning, to fit in a couple of hours of snorkeling before the crowd arrives. The park opens at 6 am. You will also get the best visibility in the morning.

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay

Shark Cove is on the North Shore and is another great snorkeling spot. In this little cove, you’ll see friendly turtles and many kinds of fish while you’re snorkeling. Be sure to note when high tide is, as it’s better for snorkeling.

Visit Lanikai Beach

Lanikai beach has been rated many times as the best beach in Oahu, and it’s easy to see why. Lanikai is located on the windward side, and it’s just gorgeous! Because it has an offshore reef, the water is calm all year round, making it perfect for swimming, and stand-up paddle boarding. You can even kayak to the nearby islands if you’re feeling up for it.

Lanikai beach.

Lanikai beach.

Enjoy a Hawaiian sunset

After a full day spent exploring the island, there is nothing better to do than sit down with a Mai Tai, while watching an incredible Hawaiian sunset. That’s one of my favourite things to do while in the Hawaiian islands. Every sunset is an incredible spectacle. Our favourite places to watch the sunset on Oahu were Waikiki Beach, Magic Island, Sunset beach on the North Shore, and from the pool deck at the Turtle Bay resort.

A Waikiki sunset.

A Waikiki sunset.

A North Shore sunset.

A North Shore sunset.

Watch some big wave surfing on the North Shore

If you happen to visit Oahu during the Hawaiian Winter, you really should spend some time checking out the surf on the North Shore. We had never seen such big waves before, crashing so close to shore. We stood there for a while just admiring the surfers out there battling the waves. They seemed to be having a real blast. Banzai-Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach are some popular North shore surf beaches. If you are an experienced surfer you should have a go yourself! If not, learning to surf is a popular activity on Oahu. Note however, the calmer Waikiki is a much better place for beginners!

Crazy surf!

Crazy surf!

Many surf board on Waikiki beach.

Many surf boards on Waikiki beach.

Sign up for an ATV tour at the Kualoa Ranch

The Kualoa Ranch is home to four thousand acres of incredible terrain, and offers an array of activities for the entire family. You can choose from zip-lining, a movie tour, horse riding, ATV tours, and more. We took a tour on their new raptor ATVs, and it was heaps of fun! The scenery was incredible, and we drove past several parts of the ranch that had been featured in movies, such as Jurassic Park, Lost, and Godzilla to name a few.

Raptor tour at the Kualoa Ranch.

A Raptor tour at the Kualoa Ranch.

Relax at the world famous Waikiki Beach

The iconic Waikiki Beach is a must see when you’re on Oahu. Yes it’s crowded, but it is the world’s most famous beach; so it’s worth finding out why that is! Even if you aren’t one for crowds, Waikiki’s lively atmosphere is still fun to experience for a few hours. Kick back and relax on the sand, take a swim in the crystal clear water, and grab a Mai Tai at one of the popular beach bars; and do all of this while you enjoy the breathtaking views of Diamond Head in the distance. It’s not all that bad in the end!

The famous Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

The famous Waikiki Beach in Honolulu with the crater in the background.

Early morning on Waikiki. Much less crowds!

Check out the Ala Moana Beach Park

While most of the tourists head to Waikiki, the locals prefer the Ala Moana Beach Park, where they catch up with each other over a charcoal BBQ. This beautiful beach park is a much less busy than Waikiki, the water is beautiful, and you’ll be able to mix with the locals. A walk to Magic Island next-door provides a great view back towards Waikiki beach and the Diamond Head crater.

The Ala Moana Beach Park.

The Ala Moana Beach Park.

Shop until you drop at the Ala Moana Centre

The Ala Moana Centre is the world’s largest open-air shopping centre. If you’re a shopaholic, then this is the place for you. You can find anything at the Ala Moana centre, from expensive designers, smaller boutiques, and international and local brands. Just make sure you bring an extra suitcase!

Where to stay on Oahu

Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort or Outrigger Reef Waikiki Beach Resort

We’ve stayed at both Outriggers, and they both provided us with outstanding service. They are both located right on the beach and have been recently upgraded. They have great restaurants and bars, and Waikiki’s shopping strip is just a short walk away.

The Outrigger beach Waikiki.

The Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort.

If you prefer a quieter part of the beach, then choose the Outrigger Reef. But if you like to be where the action is, book the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort.

The view from the Outrigger Reef.

The view from the Outrigger Reef.

Book your stay at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort here.

Book your stay at the Outrigger Reef here.

Turtle Bay Resort

If you prefer to avoid the bustle of Waikiki, then the quieter North Shore is the place for you. The Turtle Bay Resort is the best accommodation on the legendary North Shore, with every room offering an ocean view. If you’re into golf, the resort offers the best golf courses on the North Shore. Plus during the summer, you can snorkel right in front of the resort for your chance to see one of the famous Hawaiian Honus (turtles).

The view from our room at the Turtle Bay.

The view from our room at the Turtle Bay.

Book your stay at the Turtle Bay Resort here.

Where to eat and drink

Dukes

You’ll find Dukes in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort; it’s right on the beach. With live music, incredible views, lovely island food, and delicious cocktails, this quickly became our favourite place to hang out.

Live Music at Dukes.

Live Music at Dukes.

Mai Tai and beer flight at Duke's!

A Mai Tai and a beer flight at Duke’s!

Tiki’s Grill and Bar

Tiki’s Grill and bar is another great restaurant with a Hawaiian flare, a relaxed atmosphere, and pleasant beach views. Try the Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

Hula Grill

Also found in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach resort, the Hula grill offers beautiful views of Waikiki beach and Diamond Head. We especially loved having breakfast at the Hula Grill. Their breakfast burritos were the best ever!

View for breakfast at the Hula Grill.

Your view for breakfast at the Hula Grill.

Haleiwa Joe’s

There are two Haleiwa Joe’s, one in historic Haleiwa town on the North Shore, and one nestled beneath the majestic Ko‘olau Mountains in Haiku Gardens. Both offer incredible views, great food, and lovely cocktails.

Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck

Food trucks are a thing on the North Shore of Oahu, and Giovanni’s has the best shrimps around. Lemon shrimp, garlic shrimp, or spicy shrimp; the choice is yours.

Garlic shrimps at Giovanni's - Photo credit flickr.

Garlic shrimps at Giovanni’s – Photo credit Flickr.

So as you can see, along with the famous Waikiki, there are many other wonderful things to experience on Oahu. We’ve spent nowhere near as long as we should have there, and we’d love to return someday.

So If you’ve visited Oahu, please write and let us know your favourite experience, so we can add them to our list for next time. Mahalo for reading!

Read more:

The Hawaiian Islands – Which One is Best for you? 

The Top 12 Things to do on Kauai 

Our Week on the Big Island of Hawaii 

Our Complete Guide to Oahu

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7 Comments

  • Lorelle

    Great post. Very informative. There is so much to do in Oahu and your suggestions are great. Next time we get to visit Hawaii, I’m definitely checking out the rest of Oahu! 🙂

    November 13, 2017 at 8:52 pm
  • JJ Johnson

    Truly a beautiful destination, I would definitely love Kualoa Ranch and all that beautiful sea water!!

    November 19, 2017 at 12:06 am
  • Jenn and Ed Coleman

    There is a lot to do on Oahu once you get out of the city. I really like Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head. The North Shore was cool. I just went surfing today but those waves would scare the dickens out of me. I loved going to the Dole plantation and hiking in the highland jungles.

    November 19, 2017 at 6:07 am
  • Katie

    Oahu is a really special place! I have been a few times with my family- we especially love Kailua Beach (and the shaved ice!), the North Shore, and some of the hikes. Also agree that all visitors should spend time at Pearl Harbour, and the museums there are fantastic as well.

    November 19, 2017 at 9:12 am
  • knycx.journeying

    Great beaches and views and it’s just amazing to drive around. Would love to visit the Pearl Harbour memorial and museums, and walk along the famous beaches like Waikiki beach!! @ knycx.journeying

    November 19, 2017 at 11:03 pm
  • Monika

    It’s always much better if you can drive a car around – even if the island itself is touristy, with a car you’re able to reach more peaceful places and then you might even forget you’re in a touristy place 😉

    November 20, 2017 at 9:13 am
  • Vlad

    Oahu actually looks pretty amazing, it’s good to know there are so many things to do and it’s not just a tourist trap. (Though to be fair, tourist trap or not, I still want to visit every island in Hawaii). I’d love to photograph Waimea Bay and the Japanese temple, they’re both gorgeous. Seems like I need to get in shape before visiting Hawaii, to get ready for all these awesome hikes, haha.

    November 21, 2017 at 12:01 am

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