Are you planning a trip to the Hawaiian islands? Whether you are interested in a single-destination vacation or an island-hopping adventure, the island of Oahu is the perfect place to kick off your time in paradise.
This post will cover everything you should know before planning your Oahu vacation, including essential trip planning information, top attractions, recommendations, and tips for first-time visitors.
At the bottom of this page, you can view my 5-day Oahu itinerary.
Best Time of Year to Visit?
Hawaii is known for its beautiful, sunny weather year-round so you really can’t go wrong when it comes to deciding when you want to plan your trip. Depending on your priorities (and budget), however, some factors might be worth considering before making this decision.
The summer months (roughly May-August) are the busiest for tourism on the islands. During this time, flights and accommodations may be pricier and you might find yourself surrounded by tourists in the more popular locations on the island. However, the weather is warmest and the island experiences the least amount of rainfall during these months.
During the winter months, humpback whales can be spotted as they reach their gathering place in the Pacific near the Hawaiian islands. The whale-watching season runs from December through April, so if this experience is on your bucket list, consider visiting during these months. In addition to getting to experience these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, there will be fewer crowds around the island and you will be more likely to find travel deals if you choose to visit during this time.
If your goal is to stay away from crowds of tourists and avoid inflated prices, but you still want to experience the feel of a Hawaiian summer, I recommend visiting during May or September.
Where to Stay?
If you plan to travel all over the island during your stay, I’d recommend booking a hotel room or Airbnb downtown Honolulu or near Waikiki beach. This prime location is centrally located and in close proximity to an abundance of amenities including local cuisine, shopping, cultural activities, beaches, and other attractions.
Regardless of where you stay, you should be able to get anywhere on the island in as little time as about an hour, so it is very doable to remain in one location and see everything, especially if you get a rental car for a portion of your trip.
If you choose not to rent a car, I would recommend either staying at a resort property on the beach (such as Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club or Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa) or making your home base within walking distance to downtown Honolulu or Waikiki Beach for easy access to some of the best things Oahu has to offer.
1. Experience a Jurassic Park Adventure at Kualoa Ranch
From guided tours of agriculture and historic sites to ATV tours, zip-lining, ocean adventures, and horseback riding, there is something for everyone at Kualoa Ranch. However, this popular spot is most known for being the real-life filming location of both Jurassic Park and Jurassic World movies. Not only that but over 300+ TV shows and movies that are set in Hawaii were filmed here as well and visitors are able to tour these famous filming sites!
Explore Kualoa Ranch tours & activities HERE.
2. Snorkel With Sea Turtles at Hanauma Bay
Known for being one of the very best places for snorkeling on the entire island, a visit to Hanauma Bay is a must. The calm, turquoise waters make this an excellent location for snorkeling. Visitors can experience firsthand the beautiful coral reefs that are home to a wide array of tropical fish and even sea turtles! Snorkel gear is available for rent, but make sure you reserve your spots online, as tickets sell out days in advance!
Click HERE to reserve your tickets now.
3. Visit the Home of Hawaiian Monarchs at Iolani Palace
After construction was completed in 1882, Iolani Palace became the official home of the Hawaiian monarchs, until the monarchy was overthrown. The palace was later used as a government building. Now, visitors can tour this historic building and learn about the history of Hawaiian royalty.
Click HERE to learn more about touring Iolani Palace
4. Experience a Luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Located on the island’s northern side, the Polynesian Cultural Center and visitor center is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the island for the first time. Experience authentic Polynesian art, culture, history, food, and entertainment all based out of one location. Not only is Hawaiian culture displayed, but the cultures of five other island nations are as well (including Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, and Aotearoa). If you decide to visit, be sure to make reservations for a traditional Hawaiian Luau ahead of time!
Explore the Polynesian Cultural Center HERE.
5. Visit Pearl Harbor National Memorial
However you choose to experience it, there is so much to see and learn about at Pearl Harbor National Memorial. Make sure you allow plenty of time to explore the museum as well as take a short boat ride out to visit the USS Arizona Memorial. Before visiting, I recommend looking at the different options online and reserving your tickets in advance, as this is a popular tourist destination.
Plan your visit HERE.
6. Go for a Hike at Diamond Head or Koko Head
Two of the most popular hikes on the island are located at Diamond Head and Koko Head. Not sure which hike is best for you? Koko Head is considered to be a more challenging hike, consisting of 1000+ very steep steps. The hike up this volcanic crater offers views of Hanauma Bay, while the hike up Diamond Head Crater overlooks the area around Waikiki and Honolulu. For the best views and the smallest crowds, come for sunrise and get there as early as possible! Diamond Head opens at 6:00 am and Koko Head opens at 4:00 am.
7. Take a Day Trip to Oahu’s North Shore
Rent a car and dedicate a day to taking a road trip up to the North Shore of Oahu. There are multiple routes that you could take, depending on where you are staying, but no matter how you get there, it is sure to be a scenic drive. The North Shore is known for having more of a local, laid-back feel. The beaches here are known for great surfing and there are food trucks all over the place. Located on the North Shore, Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is one of the most popular food trucks on the island. The charming beach town of Haleiwa is a great place to shop, grab a bite to eat, and explore.
8. Take a Guided Tour of the Dole Plantation
Whether you choose to take a tour of this historic pineapple plantation or participate in one of the many free activities offered, everyone in your group is sure to have a great time at the famous Dole Plantation. Be sure to stop by The Plantation Grille for a cup of Dole Whip or some fresh pineapple!
Explore tour & activity options HERE.
9. Spend a Day (or many) at One of Oahu’s Beautiful Beaches
Whether you like to lay out on the sandy beach or play in the waves, Oahu is the perfect place to get your tropical fix. Make sure you make it to one of the beaches on the western side of the island for sunset at some point during your trip! Though there are many others to choose from, here are a few of the best beaches on the island:
- Sunset Beach
- Lanikai Beach
- Kailua Beach
- Waimanalo Beach
Check out Our Complete Guide to Oahu’s Best Beaches for more information!
10. Learn About Hawaiian Culture & History at the Bishop Museum
A visit to this museum of history and science is a great way to learn about the natural, cultural, and environmental history of the islands. This is also a great spot to learn about the history of the Polynesian people and explore thousands of years’ worth of documents, artifacts, and heirlooms.
Plan your visit HERE.
4 Tips for First-Time Visitors
1. Reserve a rental car (but be strategic).
Unless you plan on staying at a resort property or spending your trip in one location, you’ll need transportation to explore the island. However, if you’re staying in a prime location and the attractions that you are interested in are located close by, it may be more cost-effective to only rent a car for a few days during your stay.
2. Be realistic about how much you can do in a day.
While the island really isn’t all that big, it still takes time to travel from location to location and you want to make sure you have enough time at each attraction. Choose your top priorities and build your itinerary around what is most important. If using my sample 5-day itinerary, I would not recommend trying to cram more into the schedule, but rather making substitutions to create your ideal trip.
3. Take a red-eye flight home.
This is certainly a personal preference, but to make the most of your time (and money!), I recommend taking an overnight flight back to the continental United States. These flights are usually cheaper and allow you to take advantage of an extra day on the island! This works best if you have a rental car on your final day so you don’t have to worry about storing your luggage and making it to the airport in time for your flight.
4. Book popular attractions in advance.
This is definitely the most important tip for travelers visiting Oahu for the first time. After you decide on an itinerary, book the attractions that are most important to you in advance to ensure you are able to do them. Some of the more popular things (such as snorkeling at Hanauma Bay) become fully booked days in advance, so make sure to get your tickets early!
5 Day Oahu Itinerary
- Start your morning with a hike at Diamond Head State Park.
- Head to Waikiki for lunch. See my list of local Oahu food recommendations HERE!
- Pack your beach bag and spend the afternoon at Waikiki beach.
- Spend the evening in downtown Honolulu for beautiful views, dining, and shopping!
- Take a day trip up to Oahu’s North Shore.
- Stop at the Dole Plantation for a tour and some fresh pineapple.
- Have lunch at the food trucks in Haleiwa (Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is a popular one!).
- Experience Waimea Falls before spending the afternoon at Waimea Bay Beach Park (don’t forget to pack your beach bag!)
- As you make your way back south (if staying in the Honolulu area), be sure to grab a coffee or dessert at Green World Coffee Farm.
- Start your day early to get a great spot at the beautiful and relaxing Lanikai beach. For boogie boarding and wave-jumping, head over to Waimanalo beach park for a few hours.
- Experience a traditional Luau (and traditional Hawaiian dining!) and spend the evening exploring and learning about Polynesian history at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
- Spend an adventure-filled morning at Kualoa Ranch, whether you choose to zip-line, take an ATV tour, or experience the world of Jurassic Park.
- After lunch (check out Rainbow Drive-In for traditional Hawaiian food!), spend the afternoon touring Honolulu and learning about the history of Polynesian culture.
- Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum are great places to learn more about Hawaiian Culture.
- Start your day with snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.
- After lunch, head to Pearl Harbor National Memorial (make sure to give yourself enough time to visit the museum!)
- End your final day with dinner at Duke’s Waikiki.