Tropical Oahu serves up great food and city life alongside rainforests and volcanic craters. With 112 miles of coastline, there are 125 beaches and endless scenic hikes. It’s the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands. Welcome to the Rainbow State.
Get the lay of the land
Oahu is broken up into a few different sections — Honolulu / Waikiki, North Shore, Leeward Coast (West Shore), Windward Coast (East Shore), and Central Oahu. The vast majority of visitors stay in Waikiki. It has the most hotels and restaurants and is walkable. The North Shore is a surf mecca, but has few restaurants and only 1 real resort. The Leeward side has a lot of family friendly resorts, but it’s somewhat remote. The Windward side is greener, but also windier. Central Oahu is home to Pearl Harbor.
Waikiki / Honolulu is where the majority of visitors stay. About 95% of Oahu hotels are here. It’s definitely more crowded and touristy, but everything is close to Waikiki Beach (which is actually made up of several beaches) and you’ve got the most options for food, nightlife, spas, plus museums, a zoo, and an aquarium. It’s a good home base.
North Shore is known as the surfing capital of the world. The winter brings huge waves and surf competitions. During the summer, things are calm enough for great snorkeling and swimming. There are only a couple hotels and one major resort (Turtle Bay Resort), but you can make a day of visiting the North Shore without staying here. There aren’t a ton of restaurants, but there are some good ones along with their iconic food trucks and shave ice. It’s very laid back.
Leeward Coast (West Shore) is away from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and is considered the sunny side of the island, with little rain. There are just a couple resorts in the Ko Olina resort area, but they’re top notch, including Disney’s Aulani and Four Seasons. There’s not much do do outside of the resorts, but you will find the Paradise Cove Luau, an 18-hole golf course, and plenty of beaches and hikes that are off the beaten path. It’s about 45 minutes from Waikiki.
Windward Coast (East Shore) is about 20-30 minutes from Waikiki, but you feel completely removed. It’s much slower paced and tradewinds keep it cool most of the year. There are no resorts, but you’ll find some cottages and B&Bs. There are several gorgeous, quieter beaches. Kailua is a cool little beach town. Kualoa Ranch and the Polynesian Cultural Center are also on this side. It’s warm year round, but this side of the island gets more rain and wind during the winter.
Central Oahu is home to Pearl Harbor with several monuments dedicated to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the US into WWII. It’s about 25 minutes from Waikiki.
COVID QUICK FACTS
Last updated April 25, 2022. We'll regularly update whenever there are changes. For all the specifics, check out Hawaii's Travel Restrictions - Explained Simply.
As of March 25, 2022, Oahu no longer requires masks indoors and as of April 20, 2022, masks are not required on public transportation (including domestic flights, taxis, Ubers, Lyfts,etc.)
On March 6, 2022, Oahu ended their Safe Access Oahu program. That means you no longer need to show proof of vaccine or a negative Covid test to dine indoors or enter businesses, like museums, movie theatres, etc.
If you're traveling to Hawaii from within the US, you no longer need proof of vaccination, a negative test result, or to register with the Safe Travels Program. Just buy your ticket and go.
specifics about quarantine and traveling from countries outside the U.S.
TIPS + TRICKS
Reef Safe Sunscreen.
In 2018, Hawaii passed a statewide law banning reef-harming sunscreen to limit the pollution to their beaches. [FYI: be sure to wear sunscreen. The Hawaiian sun can be intense.]
Everything is more expensive but you can always stock up on groceries from Costco or Foodland. Plate lunches are a very economical meal option too. Restaurants and bars are more expensive in resort areas.
Resort Fees. A good number of resorts and hotels charge a daily resort fee. Be sure to find out how much it is so you’re not taken by surprise when you check out. It tends to be between $30 - $45 / day.
Save Money. 1) Get a GO Oahu Pass to get discounts on tons of attractions and activities (and in some cases, skip the lines). 2) Purchase a Hawaii Entertainment Book (book or digital) for 100s of coupons. 3) At the airport or rental car companies, check the brochures for coupons.
Beaches are all public. That’s right. No private beaches in Oahu.
Beach Conditions. The ocean can be unpredictable and dangerous. Check out the MSW Surf Forecast app, Magic Seaweed app, or HIOceanSafety.com to see what to expect at different beaches. They’re meant for surfers, but it helps to know what the wave, wind, and swell reports are.
Beach Safety. Most beach areas don’t have lifeguards. Know that 1) it’s best to swim and snorkel with a buddy, 2) don’t turn your back on the ocean, and 3) if you get caught in a rip current, don’t fight it and exhaust yourself. Instead, stay calm and if you can, wave your arms and yell. Let it wash you farther away until the rip current ends or try swimming parallel to the beach to get away from the rip current.
Rent Beach and Kid Gear. Beach Boy Hale can deliver surf, SUP, snorkel, bodyboard, and kayaking gear to you if you’re staying in Waikiki. They can also hook you up with Umbrellas & Loungers. They’ll deliver to your hotel or to an agreed upon location. Hawaii Beach Time will also deliver gear to you, but they also have coolers, hammocks, beach chairs, life vests, and kids snorkels ($60 minimum). Baby Quip is like Airbnb for baby gear. Oahu families rent out everything from strollers and pack n plays to sand toys and beach tents. It’s great if you want to leave your bigger, bulkier stroller at home and rent one when you get there.
Leptospirosis Bacteria. All untreated fresh water in Hawaii (like waterfall pools or streams) could possibly contain this bacteria. Don’t drink the water from these areas or put your head under water and don’t go in if you have any cuts or broken skin.
Airbnbs. In 2019, Oahu signed a bill meant to limit short term rentals (like Airbnb). Bottom line is that in certain areas (like Waikiki), Airbnbs can operate pretty much as normal, but on most of the island, they can only allow stays of 30 days or more. So when you see listings that say “legal rental,” that’s what they’re referring to.
Expect traffic just about everywhere. Tourists are traveling to more parts of the island than ever before. Oahu residents are very friendly on the road and they also tend to drive like they’re not in a rush, so no honking if the person in front of you is driving a little slow. [FYI: Be sure to check the traffic to make sure you’re not going to be late getting to the airport.]
Taxes. Hawaii has a general excise tax (GET) that businesses have to pay based on their gross receipts. What that means is that you may pay more for items, because they’ve already factored in that additional cost. Hotels, etc are subject to the Hawaii Transient Accommodations Tax (currently 10.25%) which you’ll see added to your daily lodging cost (in addition to the GET). Oahu’s sales tax is 4.5%.
Clothing. The entire island is pretty laid back and casual. You can certainly get dressed up for a fancy dinner, but even the fancier restaurants are ok with sundresses and nice pants.
It’s illegal to touch a turtle.The best rule of thumb is don’t bother the sea life.
What you can’t bring home.You can bring home flower leis, macadamia nuts, rocks, stones, sand, and shells. You can’t bring home fresh fruit and vegetables, cactus plants, soil, or insects
No Daylight Savings Time. There isn’t much of a variation of daylight hours throughout the year.
It’s more humid in the morning and the humidity decreases a bit as the day goes on.
Daniel K. Inoyu International Airport (HNL) is just 10 miles from Waikiki.
Interstate H-1 runs along the southern side of Oahu, basically from Diamond Head to (almost) Aulani and Ko Olina on the west side.
Interstate H-2 takes you through Central Oahu. This is the most direct (but missing the coastal views) route to the North Shore.
Interstate H-3 / John A. Burns Freeway takes you through lush green mountains to the Windward (East) side of the island. There aren’t any places to stop, but it’s a scenic drive.
Kalaniana’ole Highway / Route 72 is an extension of H-1. It’s a scenic drive along the southeast shoreline. You’ll take this to get to Hanauma Bay. There aren’t many businesses beyond that point, (mostly farms and ranches), so make sure you stock up on drinks and snacks before you go.
Kamehameha Highway / Route 83 hugs the eastern coastline all the way to the North Shore. Yes, it’s technically a highway but it’s still a 2 lane road in many spots so bring some patience because cars often slow down to make beach stops or park on the side of the road. The views are incredible though.
Haleiwa is a small beach town (but sort of the main town) in the North Shore with casual restaurants, galleries, surf shops, and some boutiques. There’s a very laid back, country vibe here. It’s a good spot to grab some food and provisions before or after the beach (of which there are plenty nearby) as well as some famous food trucks, like Giovanni’s for garlic shrimp and Matsumoto for shave ice.
Waimea Valley is a beautiful, 1800 acre botanical garden on the North Shore. There are over 5000 different plants from around the world. It’s known for its 45-foot waterfall that you can swim in. It’s paved and easy to walk and explore.
Pupukea is for beach lovers. It’s a town a little ways south of Turtle Bay, on the east side. This is the entrance to the Banzai Pipeline and where you’ll find Waimea Valley, Sharks Cove, ‘Ehukai Beach Park, and Pupukea Beach Park. It’s also home to Waimea Bay where “The Eddie,” a huge surf competition, takes place each year. Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay aren’t far.
Kapolei includes places like Disney’s Aulani, Ko Olina, Kapolei Golf Club, Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii, Chief’s Luau, and Coral Crater Adventure Park (for zip lining). With lots for kids to do in the area, it’s a very family friendly spot. It’s being developed as an urban center, similar to Honolulu.
Ko Olina, within Kapolei, is an oceanfront resort community on the west side. It’s home to Disney’s Aulani and the Four Seasons. There are lots of beaches and lagoons and it stays pretty dry and sunny on this side of the island. Most restaurants are within the resorts, but there are a few in the Ko Olina Center across from Aulani. It’s a remote part of the island, away from Waikiki. You’ll definitely need a car if you want to venture out beyond your resort.
Kailua is a cute little beach town on the Windward (East) side of the island. Most people come for the beaches. Lanikai is beautiful and not overly crowded and Kailua Beach has been ranked one of the best beaches in the world many times. There aren’t any hotels or resorts, but there are cute boutiques, healthy restaurants, and you’ll find a Target and a Whole Foods too. It’s about 20-30 minutes from Waikiki.
Dole Plantation is on your way to the North Shore. Here you can try their famous Dole Whip, walk the world’s largest maze, take a ride on the Pineapple Express train, and learn about the history of pineapple growing in Hawaii.
If you’re planning to stick to the Honolulu / Waikiki area or stay close to your resort on the Leeward (West) side, then you can skip renting a car. Honolulu has great public transportation and ride shares. Several tour companies will pick you up and take you to wherever your excursion is. But if you think you’ll want to explore the island on your own or spend a day on the North Shore, then you’ll want to rent a car at least for the days you’ll be out and about.
Roberts Hawaii is a good option. You can book your return shuttle at the same time that you book your airport pickup if you want. It’ll cost you about $21 to be dropped off at your Waikiki hotel (in a shared shuttle, but there are private car options too) and it includes 2 bags per adult.
Oahu is a really popular destination for people looking to travel post Covid and as a result, car rentals are expensive. FYI that renting a car in Waikiki will probably cost more than renting it at the airport, but might make the most sense if you only need it for a day. Know that parking is pretty expensive in Waikiki and also hard to find. Expect to pay around $30 - $40 a night for a spot at your hotel or resort. FYI that rush hour in Waikiki is between 5am - 8am and 3pm - 6pm. You’ve got your choice of all the regular car rental companies as well as Lucky Owl Car Rental, a Honolulu based car rental.
It's like Airbnb for cars. People rent out their cars to people who want to borrow them. It’s a great alternative to regular car rentals and sometimes you can get some really cool cars. You can either have the car delivered or you can pick it up.
Biki are public bikes. Their distinctive light blue color is easy to spot all over Waikiki, Ala Moana, and Downtown Honolulu. Just pay at the kiosk with your credit card and return it to another Biki Stop. Download the app to unlock the bike or find bike stops. They’ve got 100 stops throughout Honolulu. You can also drive around Kailua on a Pedego electric bike. They’re like a beach cruiser but with some oomph.
Uber + Lyft
We love Uber and Lyft in places like this because you get to chat with someone who’s local and get great tips and recommendations. Oh, and bonus, Honolulu capped surge pricing. The downside though is that not all the drivers have come back following Covid. In June 2021, we usually had to wait around 15 minutes or so in Waikiki in Honolulu for a driver to get to us. And in more remote areas, like Kailua, they’re even fewer and farther between. Midday in Kailua it took about 10 minutes before a driver was found (and apparently he had just come back online, so not sure how long the wait could have been) and at 10:30pm in Kailua, we almost weren’t able to get a ride home. We always lucked out and found someone, but it was dicey at times watching the app search for someone endlessly for 10+ minutes. If you need a ride late at night or early in the morning, make sure you schedule it ahead of time. We had no problems scheduling Ubers and Lyfts.
Here's a fun way to see the city. It’ll take you to most major attractions (like Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and Ala Moana Center). There are plenty of stops along Waikiki Beach. Cost starts at $5 per day depending on where you’re going. It’s a lot cheaper if you buy multi day passes (starting at $45). Once you buy your pass, you can hop on and off the trolley. There are over 40 stops.
You don’t need any special license to ride a moped, but you do need to be 18+. They’re fun if you’re staying kinda close to Waikiki, but keep in mind that they don’t go super fast, so you can’t take them on the interstate. Hawaiian Style Rentals is one option for moped rentals.
Honolulu’s bus system is it actually pretty great. A one-way fare is $2.75 and a 1-day pass is just $5.50. Make sure you ask for the 1-Day Pass before you put your cash in the box. The Google Maps app is super handy for navigating the bus system here.
Oahu’s major cab companies have 24-hour service. There are a few different companies. Give Charley’s Taxi (1-877-531-13333) a try.
Private Town Car or LimousineThere are plenty of private car or limousine services to get around or to get to and from the airport.
TIME OF YEAR
Oahu’s weather doesn’t change much throughout the year. Even in the coldest months, it rarely dips below 60°. To save some money, visit Feb - Mar (minus Spring Break), mid Apr - Jun or Sept - mid Dec. From Dec to May, you’ll see humpback whales migrating off the coast.
From Apr - Jun, it will be warming up, but not as hot as summer, and the crowds haven’t arrived yet. The waves are calmer in the spring.
This is the busy season for Oahu, so plan to get an early start on hikes and anything that might draw a crowd. Book hotels and car rentals early before things get snatched up. Expect more traffic. Jul - Sept is the hottest time to go, but the water is the warmest too. August tends to be the hottest, but that means it’s also the least humid. The North Shore waves are calm during the summer.
This is the time to get deals on hotels and activities. The weather is nice and the crowds are smaller. It’s also a good time to surf the North Shore if you’re not a pro.
It rains more during the winter, but still gets into the 80s during the day. The winter brings huge waves to the North Shore — great for advanced surfers and fun to watch, even if you don’t surf. It’s not so great for swimming and snorkeling though. Head to Waikiki for that. The last two weeks over the holidays are possibly the most expensive time to visit.
Hawaiian Plate Lunch is both economical and tasty. It’s usually 2 scoops of white rice, macaroni salad, and an entree
Poke. Raw fish (usually ahi) cut up into small pieces and seasoned or marinated with things like sea salt, green onion, sesame oil, shoyu, etc.
Spam Musubi. Sushi rice topped with spam and wrapped in seaweed. Although most places get pretty inventive with all sorts of different flavors and ingredients.
Kalua Pork.Traditionally it’s pork that’s wrapped in banana leaves and buried in the ground to slow cook.
Loco Moco. White rice, topped with a hamburger patty, then a fried egg, then smothered in brown gravy.
Malasadas are like Portuguese donuts (without holes), deep fried, and then rolled in sugar or other flavors. Oahu’s Leonard’s probably has the most famous malasadas in all of Hawaii.
Haupia. A slightly sweet, coconut dessert with a consistency that’s like jello meets pudding. It’s great with a plate lunch, but also in pies (like at Ted’s Bakery).
Shave Ice. They shave large blocks of ice into a fluffy cloud and then top with tropical juices or syrups. They’ve evolved a bit, with some places offering ice cream on the bottom or “snowcap” them with a drizzle of condensed milk or coconut milk on top. You may even find fresh fruit or mochi malls as toppings.
Acai Bowl. Antioxidant packed, frozen acai, blended up and topped with fruits, nuts, or all sorts of other things.
Saimin. Wheat noodles served in a broth and topped with green onions, pork or fish cake.
Poi is a pale purple paste that people either love or hate. It’s made from the root of the taro plant, then mashed into a paste. You’ll find plenty of breads and baked goods with it baked into them, turning them purple.
POG. That’s passion-orange-guava juice.
Cacao. Hawaii is the only US state that grows cacao commercially. You’ll find artisanal, small-batch Hawaiian chocolate.
Tropical Fruit. There’s an abundance of delicious fruit — Liliko’i (passion fruit), Mango (in season during the summer), Pineapple, and so much more.
Li Hing Mui is made out of ground plum skin and it’s sweet and salty and sour all at the same time. It’s a very distinct flavor that’s not for everyone, but if you want to try something very local, this is it.
SPAM is super popular in Hawaii (thanks to it being served to GIs during WWII). It’s in musubi, breakfast dishes, and all sorts of other things.
Chinatown sits on the western end of Honolulu. What used to be a pretty shady area has been rejuvenated over the last few decades. Here you’ll find lei stands and authentic Chinese markets as well as eclectic shops and galleries. There are incredible restaurants and several bars within walking distance of each other. On the first Friday of every month, there’s an art walk where the streets are shut down to become pedestrian walkways with live music. It’s still pretty gritty, especially compared to Waikiki, but there’s a lot worth checking out.
Kaka’ako might be Honolulu’s coolest neighborhood. What used to be warehouses and auto body shops is now known for its street art, craft breweries, boutiques, trendy coffee shops and hipster bars. The food scene ranges from street food to fine dining. But the big draw is the colorful murals. Once a year, Pow! Wow! Hawaii brings street artists from all over the world to paint new ones. It also encompasses a couple beaches, including Ala Moana.
Diamond Head Area is great for anyone who wants to be close to the city, but feel like they’re in the countryside. It’s basically part of Waikiki, down the eastern end, so you could walk to some parts of Waikiki or take a short ride there, but it’s more peaceful without all the heavy tourist traffic and noise. Of course you’ll find the Diamond Head crater here, but also the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art and a few beaches.
Kaimuki is a small, mostly residential neighborhood just 10 minutes from Waikiki. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of boutiques, bakeshops, cafes, farmers markets, parks, and so many good food options. It’s also home to the KCC Farmers’ Market, the biggest in Honolulu and right across from Diamond Head.
WHEN IN OAHU...
Surfing is such a big part of Hawaii’s DNA. Oahu is the perfect place to learn to surf. The North Shore should be left to the pros during the winter, but Waikiki is a good place for beginners year round.
Hiking. Oahu is loaded with scenic hikes that let you trek through rain forests, climb volcanic craters, and take in the most incredible ocean (and city) views.
Luau. Eat authentic Hawaiian foods and enjoy traditional hula dancing in an evening show that weaves Hawaiian legends and stories throughout.
Whales, Sea Turtles, and Dolphins. From Dec - May humpback whales migrate to warmer waters and can be seen from the coast. Dolphins can be spotted any time of year and there are also excursions where you can see them up close. Laniakea Beach is a good place to spot sea turtles.
Kalakaua Avenue is the super touristy street that runs through the center of Waikiki. Here you’ll find hotels, restaurants, and bars. From end to end, it’s about a 30 minute walk. This throughway is also home to “Luxury Row” which is like the Rodeo Drive of Oahu, with Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and more within steps of each other.
Kuhio Avenue runs parallel to Kalakaua but prices for hotels and restaurants are a little lower here (mainly because Kalakaua Ave is closer to the ocean).
Kapahulu Avenue has every type of food you could be in the mood for, including the famous Rainbow Drive In and Leonard’s Bakery. It’s becoming one of Oahu’s up and coming neighborhoods.