The Ultimate Oahu Travel Guide, Updated for 2023
How To Use The Ultimate Oahu Travel Guide
This Oahu travel guide has been divided into 10 sections to make it easier to navigate. Start by choosing one of the categories below to explore the best of Oahu and useful travel tips to help you make your trip an enjoyable and memorable vacation.
- About Oahu: A brief introduction to Oahu, Hawaii.
- Regions: Exploring the different areas of Oahu and highlighting popular locations.
- Accommodations: Recommended hotels, hostels and rentals.
- Activities: Tours and things to do on Oahu
- Bars And Restaurants: The best things to eat and drink during your stay.
- Best Times To Visit Oahu: When to visit Oahu.
- Getting to Oahu: Which airport do you fly into?
- Transportation: How to get around Oahu.
- Travel Costs And Budgeting: Save money as you explore the island.
- COVID-19: Oahu’s COVID-19 Requirements.
Between the nearly one million residents and some six million yearly visitors, Oahu is by far the most populated of all the Hawaiian Islands. Since the days of King Kamehameha’s unification in 1810, Oahu has long operated as a hub between islands, countries and shipping routes. As an intersection of so many different travel itineraries, industries, cultures and even history, Oahu is uniquely positioned as a perfect jumping off point for your adventures in Hawaii.
Whether you are just starting to explore your first island or stopping by on your way deeper into the jungle, there’s plenty to explore and discover on Oahu.
Want even more help planning your trip to Oahu? Check out this episode of Hawaii's Best Podcast featuring Shaka Guide's Co-Founder, Andrew Fowers!
There are 5 main regions on Oahu:
- Central Oahu
- Honolulu and the South Shore
- Haleiwa and the North Shore
- Windward Shore (East Coast)
- Leeward Shore (West Coast)
Most visitors breeze through Central Oahu as it’s mostly made up of homes, apartments, townhomes and a few condominiums. There are a few attractions in Central Oahu such as restaurants, shopping malls and unique shops, but they tend to target the local market.
Most likely you’ll become very familiar with Honolulu and Oahu’s southern shore during your stay. This is where world-famous Waikiki can be found, buzzing with visitors, hotels, shops, attractions and the sandy Waikiki beaches. Honolulu is by far the most popular area to stay on Oahu. You’ll find affordable prices comparable to other areas on Oahu and also be right at the center of an awesome city with delicious food, a fun culture and something to do everywhere you look.
Some things to do in Waikiki and Honolulu:
- Do some shopping in Waikiki at the boutique shops and department stores.
- Learn to surf because the waves at Waikiki are perfect for beginners.
- Take a walking tour to discover the history of Waikiki or Downtown Honolulu.
- Hike Diamond Head - one of Hawaii’s most popular attractions.
- Visit the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium.
- Learn about Hawaii’s past at Bishop Museum, home to the state’s largest history collection and Hawaii’s largest collection of Hawaiian history.
Usually referred to as the “North Shore”, this hotspot is a never-ending drive along beautiful sandy beaches, sunsets, sunbathing turtles and is most famous for surfing. During the winter months is when some of the world’s most famous surf competitions happen - drawing wave chasers and spectators alike.
There is plenty to do on the North Shore so you might even consider staying here for a few days as you discover this side of the island. Beaches are the main attraction, but you’ll still have plenty of hikes, restaurants and boutique shopping to do.
Some things to do on Oahu’s North Shore:
- Visit Haleiwa, the North Shore’s surf town famous for shave ice and lunch trucks.
- Camp out on the beach and watch the sun go down (reservations required).
- Book a surfing lesson and ride a wave.
- Eat at the shrimp trucks in Kahuku.
- Visit Dole Plantation to learn about Hawaii’s pineapple industry.
RELATED: Winter on Oahu’s North Shore
If you are looking to stay out of the rain and find some off-the-beaten-path adventures, Leeward Oahu is a great place to stay. Often referred to as West Oahu, this side of the island tends to stay hot and dry and rain is rarely a factor. There are some fantastic beaches and snorkeling spots to discover here, but you’ll need to keep an eye out on your surroundings as lifeguards are few and far between.
Some things to do in Leeward Oahu:
- Stay in the popular resort area of Ko Olina.
- Look for whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds along Oahu’s long west coast.
- Do a beach day at Pokai Bay Beach Park.
- Hike to Kaʻena Point State Park for an amazing view of the ocean
Windward Oahu is where you go for white sandy beaches, eclectic eateries and boutique shopping. Small businesses line the shopping malls so if you like supporting local businesses, this is the place to check out. There are a lot of outdoor activities to do on this side of the island, but most especially out on the water.
Fans of kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, windsurfing and swimming will love Windward Oahu. The waves aren’t so big here and the sandy-bottom beaches feel delicious on the toes.
Some things to do on Windward Oahu:
- Visit Kailua Beach, which was voted best beach in America in 2019.
- Camp at Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden, Hawaii’s largest botanical garden.
- Check out Lanikai Beach, one of the most stunning locations on Oahu.
- Go shopping at Windward Mall in Kaneohe.
- Visit Byodo-In Temple for its peace and tranquility.
- Snorkel at Hanauma Bay if you’re interested in learning how to snorkel.
- Hike Makapuʻu Point Lighthouse Trail for an amazing panoramic view.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA)
As the most popular island for travelers to visit, Oahu has plenty of choices when it comes to accommodation. Head to iconic Waikiki for oceanside views and luxury suites. Or, if you’re on a budget, look for accommodation inland where you can find studios and room shares if all you need is a place to sleep for the night.
Hotels And Resorts
If you want fancy restaurants, high-end room service, and a concierge to help you book your activities during your stay on Oahu, Waikiki (South Shore), Ko Olina (West Oahu) and the Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore is where you’ll want to go.
Waikiki has almost an endless supply of hotels, fun and entertainment. If you want to have the freedom to walk outside your hotel and explore, Waikiki has it. Ko Olina is better for those who want the resort experience, but don’t want to deal with all of the people. There are only 4 resorts that make up Ko Olina and the entire area feels like you’re staying on private grounds.The Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore of Oahu is the only large-scale hotel in the area, but you’ll have access to its beautiful beaches and facilities while there.
Short-term Vacation Rentals
Vacation rentals such as Airbnb, Vrbo and B&Bs have been popular in Hawaii, but like many tourist-heavy locations, they’ve been having a negative impact on local residents. There have been many changes to the law regarding short-term rentals recently so it’s important to not only make your reservation early, but also keep up with any changes and updates to the rules so you aren’t blindsided a few days before your trip.
Things you should know about short-term vacation rentals:
- Short-term rentals are less than 90 days and are limited to certain areas on Oahu.
- Many short-term rentals have or will transition to long-term rentals in 2022.
- Short-term rentals tend to be in tourist-heavy areas so expect the price to go up.
LEARN MORE: City & County of Honolulu Short-Term Rentals
Long-term Vacation Rentals
For those who are lucky enough to stay in Hawaii for 90 days or more, you’ll find that the rules and regulations surrounding vacation rentals have remained largely unchanged in recent years. These rentals have significantly more leeway than short-term rentals do and you may even find that prices are comparably cheaper when you break it down. The downside is that there is a demand for these rentals, typically among transient visitors such as traveling nurses.
If you’re interested in alternate lodging styles that are easy on the wallet, hostels are a great way to save money and experience something new. The dorm rooms are your cheapest option and some hostels provide weekly or even monthly rates. Private rooms are sometimes available depending on the hostel, but the price jumps up significantly since space is a premium.
One option for budget travelers to consider for accommodation on Oahu is camping. Camping is only allowed on certain days of the week, requires advance registration and a camping permit, but it can be done and you’ll save a significant amount of money if you can pull it off. Some recommended places to reserve a campsite are:
- Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden
- Kualoa Regional Park
- Bellows Field Beach Park
RELATED: Oahu Camping Guide
Camper Van Rentals
Camper van rentals in Hawaii have been gaining in popularity in recent years. Unfortunately, what many visitors don’t realize until they get here is that sleeping or living in a vehicle on a public road from 6 pm to 6 am is illegal, which can make for a poor night’s sleep and a stressful vacation.
There are a few camper van companies out there, but just keep in mind that you are breaking the law and can be fined. There have been talks in the community regarding allowing camper vans, but so far there hasn’t been any legislation on this topic.
One of the biggest reasons why Oahu is so popular for visitors is because the activities and things to do on Oahu are endless. From family-friendly activities with children to thrill seekers looking for wild adventure, you have access to everything you would ever want to try in Hawaii from Oahu.
Most of Oahu’s beaches are very accessible and your biggest problem will be choosing which one to go to. A few things to consider as you narrow down your beach choices are safety, snorkeling opportunities, sand vs. rocks/coral, waves, beach activities and parking. Each beach is different and you’ll want to take all of these into account as you plan your beach day. Typically, the more crowded beaches are sandy, have some sort of bathroom/shower facility and have decent parking.
Popular beaches to spend a beach day at:
- Waikiki Beaches: The sand on Waikiki may seem like one long beach, but there are actually 9 different beaches on Waikiki - some with different rules and activities. Great for safety and facilities.
- Kailua Beach: A world-famous beach that draws a crowd with its pretty view of the Mokulua Islands and white sand. Famous Lanikai Beach is right next door, too.
- Waimea Bay: Get here early to grab a parking spot and you’ll have access to one of the most beautiful beaches on Oahu. The view here is spectacular and you may chance upon some dolphins and see whales in the distance if you’re lucky.
- Pearl Harbor is one of Oahu’s most visited locations where you can learn about this pivotal moment in history.
- Iolani Palace is a unique historical stop near the Honolulu business district.
- Polynesian Cultural Center is highly recommended if you want to experience the different Polynesian cultures including Hawaiian.
Pair your visit to Iolani Palace with our Historic Downtown Honolulu Walking Tour. Don’t miss out on the palace’s audio tour when you get in.
Most visitors to Oahu will do a hike or two during their stay and Oahu has plenty to choose from. Hikes through the forest are particularly popular on Oahu and many have a beautiful ocean view as you make your way uphill.
Some hikes on Oahu to try are:
- Diamond Head State Monument: A family-friendly hike that ends with an incredible view of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu from the top of a volcanic crater. We’ll guide you there on our East Oahu Shoreline Drive.
- Koko Head: Trek up old railway tracks for an inspirational view of south-eastern Oahu. This is rated difficult because you’ll be climbing stairs all the way to the top. Stay hydrated and take frequent breaks when necessary.
- Manoa Falls: A rewarding hike that takes you up to Manoa Waterfall. This hike is a stop on our Honolulu Backyard Rainforest Tour!
RELATED: Seven Oahu Waterfall Hikes
Lush scenery at Ho’omaluhia; Darren Lawrence / Unsplash
There are many botanical gardens spread across most parts of Oahu. Some of them have species you can’t find anywhere else on earth, so they are definitely something to check out if botany interests you!
In addition to Hoʻomaluhia Botanical Garden, check out:
- Waimea Valley
- Foster Botanical Garden
- Liliʻuokalanai Botanical Garden
- Koko Crater Botanical Garden
- Wahiawa Botanical Garden
- Lyon Arboretum at University of Manoa
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Ben Ono
Unless you’ve somehow avoided all Hawaii-related pop culture, you probably already know that Hawaii is hugely important to the world of surfing. You can find some of the world’s most famous breaks on Oahu, and if you’re here at the right time, you might even be able to watch a competition on the North Shore!
There are loads of places to rent boards from if you’re looking to surf. If you’re in Honolulu you can rent from Hawaii Surfboard Rentals LLC, Moku Hawaii or Quality Surfboards Hawaii. On the North Shore, Tropical Rush Surf Co is a great option.
Waikiki has some of the best surfing in the world for beginners. In fact, many world-renowned surfers first learned how to surf right here in downtown Honolulu. Pipeline (Banzai), Sunset and Waimea have some of the most famous surf breaks in the world; however, these spots are for experts only.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Mark Kushimi
If you’re a shopper, you’ve come to the right island. Waikiki will have just about any business you might want to patronize from designer storefronts and boutiques to surf and comic book shops. If you’re interested in specialty shops, give Kailua, the North Shore and farmers’ markets a try.
Here are a few popular places to shop:
- Ala Moana Center
- Waikele Outlets
- Haleiwa Town
- Kailua Farmers’ Market
- Olive Boutique
- Global Village
RELATED: Best Farmers Markets in Oahu
Derek Owens / Unsplash
There are hundreds of different tours to take on Oahu, so you should be able to find something that interests you. Boat tours and helicopter tours are common. Those who enjoy the outdoors can opt for a guided backpacking or hiking tour that can take you into the more remote areas of the island.
During the winter season, whale watching tours are available from both land and sea. If you want an all-around experience, visit Kualoa Ranch for fun movie tours, kayaking tours, and horseback riding tours.
Don't forget about Shaka Guide's self-guided tours, we have six on Oahu.
You can also check out our driving tours:
- Grand Circle Island
- East Oahu Shoreline Drive
- Honolulu Backyard Rainforest
- Legendary North Shore Loop.
With a simple app downloaded to your smartphone, you’ll have your own personal storytelling guide to Oahu’s attractions, sights and history as you explore and drive around the island.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Dana Edmunds
The first lu’au as we think of them today happened in 1819 when King Kamehameha II and Queen Ka'ahumanu ended centuries of social injustice by sitting together to enjoy their meal. Traditionally, men and women were not allowed to eat together, but this move abolished the taboo and since then, luaus have claimed a significant part in Hawaiian history and culture.
As you probably know by now, luaus are also a bunch of fun! The luaus on Oahu vary in how much they adhere to Hawaiian culture, but there are several that do an awesome job of keeping things as authentic as possible. In Hawaiian, luʻau means feast, so when we talk about traditional luaus we’re looking for a culturally accurate experience such as traditional hula. Hula is a fantastic medium for exploring Hawaiian folklore about the gods and goddesses of ancient Hawaii and a good luau will highlight these unique stories.
Some of our favorite luaus include:
- Paradise Cove and Germaine’s Luau in Ko Olina
- Polynesian Cultural Center luau and evening show
RELATED: Oahu Luau Guide
Snorkeling And Diving
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson
There are some pretty great snorkeling and diving spots on Oahu if you know where to look. Keep in mind that certain snorkeling sites are better suited for advanced snorkelers and strong swimmers. If you’re a beginner, do your research in advance so you don’t end up in a dangerous situation out among the waves. Most snorkeling areas on Oahu do not have a lifeguard on duty.
Popular snorkeling locations on Oahu:
- Shark’s Cove on the North Shore (Advanced)
- Hanauma Bay (Beginner-friendly)
- Electric Beach (Advanced)
- Shark Cage Diving
- Scuba Diving: Oahu Diving and Reef Pirate Diving
- Snorkeling tours (Great for beginners and children)
Eating and drinking is such an important part of travel especially in Hawaii. With so many unique cultures converging on the island of Oahu, you have a chance to explore Hawaii with your taste buds. Make it a point to try some authentic Hawaiian food during your trip such as poi, pipikaula and lau lau. There are also modern local foods to try like saimin, malasadas and spam musubi!
Some recommended bars and restaurants on Oahu are:
- Leonard’s Bakery
- Helena’s Hawaiian Food
- Rainbow Drive-In
- Waiahole Poi Factory
- Highway Inn
- Liliha Drive Inn
- Musubi Cafe Iyasume
- Off the Hook Poke
- Kono’s North Shore
- Kahuku Shrimp Trucks (take your pick - they’re all great!)
- Matsumoto’s Shave Ice
Oahu gets the most tourists during the months of June, July, August, and December. The slowest months are January, February, April, September, October, and November. Peaks and lulls both have their advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re looking to miss the crowds, October, November, April and the beginning of May are great months to visit as you’ll be missing the peak travel times and the rain. The weather tends to be a little cooler with the tradewinds kicking in to keep the temperature pleasant as you explore the outdoors.
June, July, and August have the most traffic since there are a lot of families traveling during their summer break. In general, the weather is mostly hot and sunny on Oahu and you’ll probably get a nice tan during your stay. Oahu really only has two seasons, a dry summer from April thru September and a wet winter from October thru March.
The whale watching season officially runs from November through April, but January thru March tends to be the best months to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures. Surfing is also big during the winter with surfing competitions happening in December and big surf through April - although you can catch a wave all year round.
Taiki Ishikawa / Unsplash
If you’re headed to Hawaii, more often than not you’ll be flying into Oahu’s Honolulu International Airport. Oahu may not be the largest island, but it does have the highest population and concentration of people. Island hopping is relatively easy from Oahu, too. Flights to every neighbor island can be arranged on Oahu and there are even island hopping day trip tours you can book as well.
Thomas Ashlock / Unsplash
Most people rent a car to explore Oahu, but you have plenty of options when it comes to getting around the island. In fact, if you’re staying in Waikiki or downtown Honolulu, you may be surprised that you can get by without renting a car.
From the Honolulu Airport, there are several car rental companies at your disposal. This is the most popular choice for visitors to Oahu as it provides them with an easy way to explore the island at their pace. Your best bet if you are looking to rent a car at the airport is going to be Hertz. But if you have the time and patience to go further into Honolulu, you’ll have more options such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental.
One popular rental option is with the Turo App where you can rent vehicles from local residents. This is great for anyone looking for a specific type of car or riding experience, or for those on a budget and don’t need anything fancy.
Uber and Lyft are rideshare options that are popular and available on Oahu. They work well in the city and most populated areas. During peak hours, you might have to pay a pretty penny though.
Another type of rideshare is our Biki Bike program where you can rent a bike and park it at one of the many Biki Bike share stations located all over Honolulu and even as far as Pearl Harbor.
RELATED: Hawaii Uber and Lyft Guide
The Bus is Oahu’s public transportation service and it is extremely convenient and budget-friendly. The fare is $2.75 a ride, but the $5.50 fare for all-day use is the much better option if you plan on riding the bus at least twice a day. There’s also a monthly bus pass you can purchase for $70 if you plan on being on Oahu for an extended amount of time.
For those staying in Waikiki, the Waikiki Trolley is a paid service that takes you straight to popular sightseeing spots, attractions and famous locations. Their routes occur all throughout the day so once you’re done exploring, just head back to your drop off location and ride the trolley back to Waikiki (or your next destination).
Drive Hui lets you book cars by the hour or day right from your smartphone! This is a great option for people who don’t need a car for a full day. Added bonus: when you choose Hui you’ll get a FREE Shaka Guide driving tour.
Many people use Oahu as a diving board to explore the other islands. Visiting 2 or 3 other islands during one vacation is common for many visitors and it’s convenient because Oahu works very well as a home base. Everything is easily accessible on Oahu and it’s not complicated to arrange another flight or boat trip in a city where there are so many tours and services available at your disposal. If you are flexible, there are often awesome deals on interisland flights out of Honolulu, so don’t be afraid to throw an overnight minivacation or day trip into your Oahu itinerary.
Sung Shin / Unsplash
Oahu can be expensive if you aren’t paying attention to where your money is going. Here are some costs you should be aware of and budget tips to help you make this a worry-free vacation.
When it comes to food, Oahu tends to be a little cheaper compared to the outer islands. Food costs on Oahu can seem steep especially if you’re coming from a more rural or suburban area on the U.S. mainland. For instance, milk can cost anywhere from $5 to $8 and a dozen large eggs will cost about $4. Fast food joints and mainland franchises also typically cost more compared to their mainland locations and some coupons and deals are not valid on the islands.
Eating out will cost you about $15 to $20 per meal for breakfast and lunch, and closer to $20 to $30 for dinner. You can save by visiting some local groceries or restaurants. Explore the store deals, check out the to-go meals near closing time, and try out locations that aren’t on prime real estate.
Lodging costs will mostly depend on what type of accommodation you choose, but the time of year you come to Oahu will also have a big impact on how much you’ll pay per night. For a beachfront hotel in Honolulu, you’ll be looking at about $250+ a night. However, you can also find hotels a little further inland for around $150 a night. During peak travel times you’ll pay an additional $50 to $150 depending on demand and location. Short-term rentals also have a similar price point, with most hosts charging anywhere from $50 to $300 a night, plus additional fees.
Ticketing and Airfare
As with any destination, your ticket price is going to depend a lot on where you’re traveling from, when you’re going, and how early you get your ticket. A trip from Seattle might cost anywhere between $350 to $750 for an economy seat, for instance. From Chicago, you can expect to spend $550 to $900 for a similar seat. From New York and Boston, prices run from about $600 to $1,500. Using travel points to book your airfare (and hotel) is a great way to save money.
Other Transportation Costs
Transportation costs will also depend mostly on how you choose to get around. If you take the bus you can get to and from each adventure for $5.50 per person or spend $70 per person for a month-long pass.
If you’d prefer to have your own transportation always available, you can rent a standard vehicle for about $60 to $70 a day. However, if you’re staying at a major hotel, it’s important to note that you will most likely have to pay for parking.
Island hopping from Oahu can be surprisingly affordable (depending on the season). If you’re flexible, you can get from island to island for around $60 per ticket.
The great thing about Hawaii is that once you’re on the island, you have plenty of activities and things to do that are free. Upon arrival, feel free to hit as many beaches and hikes as you can fit into your stay. Tours and attractions do offer discounts, so hunt around for the best prices and prioritize your wishlist.
If you are looking to save everywhere you can, we’ve got a few more tips you might consider. Mix and match as you see fit!
- Stay in a hostel: Many hostels feature dorm rooms and shared bathrooms. If you travel light and only need a place to sleep, hostels are a great way to save on your accommodation. Book early because hostel bookings go fast!
- Plan with a friend or group: Traveling with a group can bring down your cost quite a bit. You can split your accommodation expenses, car rentals and rideshares. Some activities will even have a discount or added bonus for groups.
- Alternatively, travel alone: If you are a minimalist traveler and enjoy seeing the sights rather than booking tours, then traveling alone might be a better option for you to save money. Eating out, standby tickets, and waiting lists are also much easier to navigate alone.
- Package deals: Figure out what you want to do in advance and search for a package deal online or with a local travel agency. You might be able to save big by booking several or all of your adventures through a single company.
- Military, senior, resident, children discounts: There are several different types of discounts you might be eligible to receive depending on your situation. Almost every activity will have military, senior, and discounts for children. If you happen to be traveling from another island, there’s also the kamaʻaina discount for residents of Hawaii.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Ben Ono
Currently, there are no pre-entry requirements if you are visiting Hawaii. However, if you've been to Oahu before, please note that many of your beloved restaurants may have closed and many attractions may still be closed or have modified hours. Make reservations in advance if there's something you'd really like to do or a restaurant you'd love to try.
Also, please remember to practice aloha on your trip. Understand that Oahu is an isolated island with limited medical resources. Respect the local residents by adhering to local mask mandates, social distancing and following all state protocols. For more on the latest Covid-19 travel updates for Hawaii, click here.
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Daeja Faris
Planning a trip to Hawaii is going to take some time, but hopefully this guide will help make things easier. Keep in mind that although it is great to have a plan, plans don’t always pan out.
If you wake up to rain or bad conditions one day, don’t sweat it - there are a ton of other great activities and adventures to find. Some of your best days on Oahu might be the days that your plans fell apart and you went where the island took you.
Like this article? Share it on Pinterest!
OAHU TRAVEL GUIDES:
- Oahu Maps
- The Ultimate Oahu Travel Guide
- Top 5 Money Saving Tips for Traveling to Oahu
- Oahu Camping Guide
- Which Oahu Tour Is The Best?
- 39 Things To Do On Oahu
- 19 Family-Friendly Activities in Oahu
- 10 Things to Do on a Rainy Day in Oahu
- 4 Botanical Gardens on Oahu
- 10 Things to Do on Oahu With Kids
- 20 Must-Visit Historic Sites on Oahu
- The Best Snorkel Spots On Oahu
- Seven Oahu Waterfall Hikes
- Best Shark Dives on Oahu
- Best Places to Catch a Sunset on Oahu
- Best Farmers Markets in Oahu
- Must-See Scenic Spots in Oahu
- Where to Drive and Sightsee Around Oahu