Whether you know Oahu as the “Rainbow State,” “The Gathering Place,” or just plain home to Waikiki, paradise always eagerly awaits your arrival. Although you really cannot go wrong in winging it, you can really make the most of your trip by exploring all there’s to see and do well ahead of time. While that might seem like a tall order, we’re here to help you make quick work of it. Simply use this guide on everything you need to know before visiting Oahu to get started on this exciting journey.
All About Oahu
As the third biggest Hawaiian island, Oahu offers seemingly endless opportunities for fun and adventure. At every visit, you have more than 590 square miles of space to explore inland plus over 220 miles of shoreline.
You can go from sea level at the beach all the way up to 4,000 feet with a hike up to the highest point in the Waianae range, Mount Kaala. At the other side of the island, you’re welcome to explore the beauty of the Koolau mountain range, including the ever-popular Diamond Head peak.
In between the Waianae and Koolau shield volcanos, you’ll find the Oahu Plain, which spans from Waialua at the north to Pearl Harbor in the south. You can easily travel to all three distinct sections of the island on the H1, H2, and H3 freeways and their connected highways.
The majority of the tourist activity occurs around Honolulu along the southeastern edge of the island. Other popular places to visit in Oahu include Kaneohe, Haleiwa, Waialua, Hauula, Aiea, and Kailua.
With two shield volcanos dominating its landscape, the majority of Oahu’s most popular landmarks are stunning geological formations, like:
- Halona Blowhole
- Makapuu Point
- Spitting Cave of Portlock
- Kukaniloko Birthing Stones
- Pele’s Chair
- Nuuanu Pali Lookout
- Diamond Head State Monument
In addition to all those wonderful sights, you’ll want to explore the beaches, waterfalls, and botanical gardens across the Waimea Valley. Plus, go visit the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve for a snorkeling experience unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Don’t forget to hit up the white sandy beaches across Waikiki as well, so you can enjoy truly picturesque views while you play in the calm, dazzling blue waters.
As for manmade landmarks, start by climbing the Aloha Tower for breathtaking views of Honolulu and beyond. Then, go visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, Byodo-In Temple, Honolulu Memorial, and Makapuu Point Lighthouse for a whirlwind tour of the magic of Oahu.
Traveling To and From Oahu
Every month, nearly ½ million people jet into Oahu from all over the globe, landing at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Previously known as the Honolulu International Airport, this airport is the largest across all the Hawaiian Islands – and the busiest as well.
In order to keep up with the demand for adventures in paradise, many of the major airlines offer non-stop flights to and from popular locales, like:
- New York
- Vancouver B.C.
You can get to the island from pretty much anywhere in the world, however, although you might just have to make a stop or two before landing at your destination.
Even if you can snag a non-stop flight, you’re likely to spend anywhere from 6 to 12 hours on the plane. Layovers can increase your travel time by an hour or more, depending on the scheduled flight times.
To schedule your flight for the best times, get good seats, and enjoy the lowest prices, book your tickets well ahead of time. Also, plan to visit outside of the peak season, if possible, as prices often go up during the summer and holiday season.
Upon reaching the airport in Honolulu, you have a ton of stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and lounges to enjoy at your leisure. There’s even a hair salon and barbershop in case you want to freshen up before heading out on all your island adventures.
Getting Around Town
If you want to get to all the top attractions without waiting for a taxi, trolley, or bus, then you’ll need a rental car during your stay in Oahu. When you go that route, just keep in mind that many local hotels charge extra for parking. On top of that, heavy traffic is common during the afternoon rush hour, which spans from 3 pm to 7 pm daily.
You can get your desired car delivered right to the airport if you go with Budget, Avis, and Hertz. Prefer to go to the rental office to scope out all the options? Book your car with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and they’ll pick you up and take you to the lot.
When it comes to picking a car, it’s best to go with the smallest vehicle you can manage because island parking is a pain. But if you want to rent surfboards, kayaks, and the like, then you might want an SUV instead.
If you’d rather not worry about traffic and parking, you can rely on public transportation to get you around town, such as:
- TheBus: Travels through the city and countryside seven days a week from 4 am to 10 pm with most stops picking up every 15 to 30 minutes
- Double-Decker Bus: Allows you to reach many of the top attractions in and outside of town while riding in style
- Trolley: Runs through most of downtown Honolulu, so you can just reach your next destination or take the full two-hour tour
You can usually get the best prices on tickets by buying a multi-day pass online. Combo passes allow you to visit key destinations for free, including the Honolulu Museum of Art.
When you simply want to get a ride on-demand, you can call for a taxi or use a ridesharing service app. Uber and Lyft, for example, both usually have rideshare drivers operating seven days a week during most of the day and night. Both rideshare services charge based on the length of the trip and increase their fee during busy times.
Taxi companies always offer 24/7 service, too, plus they don’t typically charge surge pricing. The most popular taxi companies in Oahu include:
- Charley’s Taxi
- Honolulu Taxi
- Yellow Cab Honolulu
- Hello Cab Hawaii
When traveling around town by taxi, expect to pay an initial fee plus a mileage rate, bag fees, and tip. Trips to and from the airport often cost a lot more since drivers have to account for all the extra traffic and waiting around.
Depending on where you’re staying, you can also travel on foot to nearby destinations. When staying in Waikiki, for example, you never have to go far for excellent food, drinks, and fun. If you’d like to go a bit further but without all the fuss of driving around, consider getting a bicycle, scooter, or skateboard rental.
As it’s the most popular place to stay in Oahu, most of the major hotels and resorts sit right in the Waikiki area, such as:
- The Royal Hawaiian
- Alohilani Resort
- Aston Waikiki Beach Tower
- Moana Surfrider
- Embassy Suites by Hilton
- Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa
Since it’s tremendously busy with tourist activities, staying in Waikiki puts you right in the middle of the action. You have nightclubs, bars, restaurants, snorkeling tours, parasailing adventures, and so much more all within walking distance.
If you prefer something a little more lowkey, you might like The Kahala Hotel & Resort in east Honolulu. Or you can head west to the Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club or the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. Looking for something a little bit more memorable for the whole family? Set your sights on the Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa instead.
To truly get away from it all, go up to the northern edge of the Koolauloa range and stay at the gorgeous Turtle Bay Resort. If you’re on a budget, consider staying at the nearby Courtyard by Marriott Oahu North Shore instead.
Where to Eat
When in Oahu, you definitely want to eat like a local. To do that, you have to seek out the hidden gems and make every meal and snack count. Otherwise, you could end up filling up on chain restaurant fare and miss out on the top spots around town.
To help you get your fill of local delicacies while in Honolulu, plan to eat at:
- Sunrise Shack: Start your day out right with a taste of bulletproof coffee, smoothies, and more all infused with superfood delights
- Koko Head Café: Get classic Hawaiian breakfast food kicked up a notch with fresh, local ingredients and creative preparations
- Moku Kitchen: With a trip to this restaurant, you can treat yourself to all the best local ingredients prepared with flair over an open fire
- Rainbow Drive-In: Go here when you want to enjoy comfort food done right in a chill, homelike atmosphere
- Helena’s Hawaiian Food: When only the full Hawaiian plate experience will do, get on over to this restaurant for classic eats and friendly service
In between your meals, you absolutely cannot miss the chance to get a taste of the award-winning malasadas from Leonard’s Bakery. These sweet treats have plain sugar, cinnamon sugar, or li hing powder on the outside and a decadent filling inside, like guava, macadamia nut, or haupia. They’re easier than ever to get, too, since they now have Malasadamobiles on the prowl. Look for them at shopping centers all around town, including at Koko Marina and Windward Mall.
If you need medical care while visiting Oahu, you can visit a walk-in urgent care clinic or go to a nearby emergency room, depending on the severity of your illness or injuries. For minor problems, like lacerations, earaches, and infections, visit a nearby urgent care center to save both time and money.
When in the Honolulu area, you can go to one of the Queen’s Island Urgent Care centers by simply walking in and asking to be seen. While on the west side of the island, you’ll want to visit Braun Urgent Care Kailua. The north, west, and central sides of the island do not have their own urgent care centers, so you’ll need to travel south for care.
When experiencing a major medical emergency, you’ll need to visit the emergency department at a local hospital instead. You can either travel there on your own, have someone drive you, or call for an ambulance. The majority of the hospitals lie in the Honolulu area, although you can find emergency departments along all four shores of the island.
When you need an ER, go to:
Kahuku Medical Center: 56-117 Pualalea St, Kahuku, HI 96731
Adventist Health Castle: 640 Ulukahiki St, Kailua, HI 96734
Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center: 86-260 Farrington Hwy, Waianae, HI 96792
Wahiawa General Hospital: 128 Lehua St, Wahiawa, HI 96786
Pali Mom Medical Center: 98-1079 Moanalua Rd, Aiea, HI 96701
Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center: 3288 Moanalua Rd, Honolulu, HI 96819
Kuakini Emergency Services: 347 N Kuakini St, Honolulu, HI 96817
The Queen’s Medical Center: 1301 Punchbowl St, Honolulu, HI 96813
Straub Emergency Room: 888 S King St, Honolulu, HI 96813
Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children: 1319 Punahou St, Honolulu, HI 96826
Shriner’s Children’s Hospital: 1310 Punahou St, Honolulu, HI 96826
At all these hospitals, the emergency care centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you call 911 for an ambulance, they will take you to the nearest hospital that can provide the proper level of care.
Where to Shop for Essentials
When you need to shop for groceries, clothes, and other essentials, all you have to do is travel down any of the major freeways. All along the way, you’ll find shopping centers galore filled with mom-and-pop shops plus plenty of big chain stores.
For groceries, you can always count on Safeway, Sam’s Club, and Costco for what you need or keep it local with a trip to the Times Supermarket or Foodland. If you’d like to visit specialty Asian markets instead, visit downtown Honolulu for many excellent options, such as Lao Asian Market, Yuan Feng Groceries, and Hong Fa Market. When shopping for fresh produce, consider going to a nearby farmer’s market to enjoy the best local fare around.
If you need to go shopping for clothing, shoes, jewelry, or souvenirs, visit the shopping malls all around the island, like:
- Ka Makana Alii: 91-5431 Kapolei Pkwy, Kapolei, HI 96707
- Pearlridge Center: 98-1005 Moanalua Rd, Aiea, HI 96701
- Waianae Mall: 86-120 Farrington Hwy, Waianae, HI 96792
- Waikele Center: 94-849 Lumiaina St, Waipahu, HI 96797
- Laie Shopping Center: 55-510 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie, HI 96762
- North Shore Marketplace: 66-250 Kamehameha Hwy, Haleiwa, HI 96712
- Koko Marina Center: 7192 Kalanianaʻole Hwy A-143, Honolulu, HI 96825
- Windward Mall: 46-056 Kamehameha Hwy, Kaneohe, HI 96744
In addition to all their stores, these shopping centers have many entertainment venues, including movie theaters and arcades.
Best Beaches on the Island
Although you could easily spend the day tooling around town to your heart’s content, you haven’t really experienced Oahu until you’ve spent time on the beach. Every beach on the island has its own unique personality, giving you good reason to explore them all over the years.
Beyond Waikiki, the most popular beaches include:
- Lanikai Beach: A top spot for swimming, paddleboarding, surfing, and many other water sports
- Turtle Bay: The protected bay serves as a great place to leisurely swim and snorkel around
- Waimanalo Beach: The small waves bring in avid bodysurfers who want to practice awesome tricks
- Hanauma Bay: An excellent place to go snorkeling and see beautiful marine life up close
- Waimea Bay: Large waves make this beach the best spot for surfing in Oahu, especially in the winter
- Kailua Beach: Pristine waters and gentle waves attract swimming enthusiasts from far and wide
- Sunset Beach: The ever changing waves keep surfers guessing, helping them perfect their moves
With so many beautiful beaches all around, you could easily put your finger down on the map and land somewhere spectacular. So, take a chance and see what you find.
Staying Safe on Your Travels
Whether you decide to hike the trails, spend your days on the beach, or simply stay in town, you’ll need to keep safety in mind at all times. With that move, you can enjoy your Oahu travels to the fullest without worrying about something going awry.
On the Trails
With over 50 hiking trails across the two shield volcanos, you could easily spend day after day exploring the natural landscape. In order to do so safely, you need to gear up for your travels by wearing waterproof hiking boots, moisture-wicking clothing with lots of layers, and a sunhat. Also, bring a flashlight, whistle, reef-safe SPF 50+ sunscreen, locally-made bug spray, protein-rich snacks, and plenty of water.
Remember to check the weather before you go and stay in town if it’s expected to be stormy outside. When you do get a chance to go out on the trails, always stay on the marked paths and watch for signs warning you about dangerous areas. If you come across waterfalls, never swim at their base because rocks could fall from above and cause serious injuries.
Near the Water
Across its hundreds of miles of shoreline, Oahu has over 125 beaches to enjoy on your travels. No matter which beach you end up at, it’s important to remember the number one rule of visiting Hawaiian beaches: Never turn your back to the waves. The surf can take a violent turn in a second and send a nasty wave that knocks you right off your feet and even pulls you into the ocean.
So, keep one eye on the water at all times even if it looks calm and clear as far as you can see. Also, get the inside scoop about the conditions by checking the weather and the surf forecast before you head out the door.
If possible, stick to the beaches with lifeguards, including:
- Hanauma Bay
- Bellows Field Beach
- Kualoa Regional Park
- Laniakea Beach
- Pokai Beach
- Maili Beach
- Keawaula Beach
If you don’t see any lifeguards on duty when you arrive at your beach of choice, you can always come back later or choose another spot nearby.
Despite being paradise through and through, Oahu still sees its fair share of crime. The hotspots for theft, assault, and other crimes happen to be where people gather the most, including the ever-popular Waikiki.
To stay safe on your trip, you should always:
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times
- Travel with a companion, especially after dark
- Never leave your purse and belongings in the car
- Lock your vehicle while driving and when parked
- Keep your hotel room locked at all times
- Don’t leave your bags unattended while shopping
Above all else, trust your instincts and leave any situation that feels dicey to you. If you feel like someone is acting suspicious, you can alert a security guard or even call the police to come check it out.
By keeping safety at the forefront of your mind at all times, your efforts will go a long way in ensuring you have the time of your life on your trip to Oahu.
Coping with Jet Lag
If you’re coming to Oahu from several time zones away, jet lag could leave you feeling woozy for a day or more into your trip. Thankfully, that’s easy to avoid by preparing your mind and body for the change well before you leave.
You’ll want to start by moving your bedtime earlier by 30 minutes per night if you’re traveling east. If you’re heading west, shift your bedtime later and later. Stop once you hit the time that you’ll end up going to bed once you arrive in Oahu.
Then, before you get on your flight, change your watch to island time and start adjusting to your new time zone at that moment. If it’s nighttime when you’re traveling, try to get in a nap. Otherwise, stay up and enjoy the flight, so you’ll be ready to hit the ground running once you arrive.
If you’re having a hard time sleeping either on the flight or during your first night on the island, consider taking a little bit of melatonin. With that boost of natural sleep hormones, your circadian rhythms will fall into the ideal pattern, making it easier to enjoy the rest of your trip. If you’d rather not take melatonin, hop into a hot bath right before bed instead to enjoy a similar effect.
While going about your day, stay well hydrated and avoid consuming too many caffeine drinks. Just keep guzzling the water down all day and you’ll start to feel your normal energy levels return before you know it.
Best Practices in Respecting Local Culture
With millions of tourists visiting Oahu every year, the constant flow of visitors can prove tiresome to locals, especially when people don’t respect the local culture and landscape. Fortunately, it’s actually quite easy to show your respect by simply following these rules:
Leave the Beaches and Trails in Better Shape Than When You Arrived
As you go on all your island adventures, pack out what you pack in – and look for opportunities to pick up any other trash you find. Also, resist the urge to take home rocks, seashells, and other souvenirs. If every visitor took just one item out of the parks and beaches, it wouldn’t be long until there’d be nothing left for future generations to enjoy.
Only Take Photos When It’s Safe and Considerate of Other People Around You
While you might want to capture every moment on film, it’s not always respectful to snap photo after photo. To figure out if you have the green light, look for signs warning you not to take flash photography. Also, wait for other people to pass by in their own time, so you can snag that perfect shot. Beyond all that, never climb up structures, lean over railings, or otherwise risk your safety to get dramatic photos.
Don’t Wear Swimwear in Restaurants, Stores, and Movie Theaters
Even though it’s tempting to go straight from the beach to your other activities, it’s not considered good form to wear your beachwear all around town. Instead, you’ll want to bring a change of clothing with you, so you can change after showering off at the beach. Barring that, you can put clothes on over your swimwear after taking some time to dry off a bit.
Take Off Your Shoes Before Entering People’s Homes
If you have the opportunity to visit with friends and family on the island, make sure to always take your shoes off before entering their homes. Many hotels appreciate it if you do the same before going into your hotel room. By taking your shoes off, you not only show respect to island culture but also keep the floors quite clean.
If you do end up making a faux pas, you might end up on the wrong side of the locals. If that happens, just be sure to genuinely apologize and strive to make it right. If you’re not sure how to correct your mistake, just ask. Many people are happy to offer their advice on how to behave while enjoying the island to the fullest.
Although relatively rare, it’s possible for disagreements to escalate. If that happens, you should try to leave the area to diffuse the situation or call for help if that’s not possible.
How to Save Money on Your Trip to Oahu
On average, expect a seven-day trip to Oahu to cost about $2,300 per person, all expenses included. If that’s a bit outside your budget, it’s possible to bring the costs down a bit by:
- Visit during the spring and fall when fewer travelers have their sights set on paradise
- Book your airfare and accommodations together to get a favorable package deal
- Skip the rental car and taxis in favor of taking public transportation and walking to your destinations
- Go out to eat at inland restaurants without an ocean view for a lower price per plate
- Spend the day relaxing at the beach and playing in the surf instead of more expensive activities
- Get discount tickets to popular activities by buying the Go Oahu Card for at least one day of your trip
You can also save a lot of money by shopping for groceries at Sam’s Club, Costco, and local grocery stores. Then, use your supplies to make your own food instead of going to restaurants for every single meal. With the right ingredients, you can make a fantastic meal in your hotel room or even at the grills right on the beach.
Before heading out on your trip to Oahu, don’t forget to bookmark this guide for quick reference as you jet all around the gorgeous island. You’ll never have to guess on where to go, what to do, and how to get around with our guide on your side. You can then simply focus on having a blast as you savor every last moment in paradise.