Oahu Hawaii Travel Guide

When a person talks about paradise, it’s hard not to immediately think of Hawaii. The consistent weather, the laid-back island vibe, the proximity of beaches and hikes to everything else – it’s really perfection! I just got back from a nine day trip with a few good friends and we could not have had a better time. This was one of the first long trips I had ever taken that I was in charge of planning, so I did a TON of research. Let me tell you, this seriously paid off!

I think our trip was the best of all that Hawaii has to offer. We had time at the beach and time in the mountains. There were adventurous moments pushing our limits and days lying around doing nothing at all. We even snuck in some museum time, shopping, and plenty of foodie adventuring.

Check out some of my favorite moments from our trip along with my recommendations! We had the pleasure of participating in some amazing excursions, so I made sure to link to the sites for the companies we worked with (not sponsored!!). If you are looking for advice on packing, make sure to check out my Hawaii packing list and how to pack for a week in a carry on.

Sites and Activities

Even though Oahu is only the third largest island in the Hawaii chain, there is more than enough to do and see in a week. There were places we didn’t even get to on my trip that we had on our list, even though we were there for nine days. Though some of my favorite memories from the trip did cost some money, it’s possible to have an incredible time and stick to the mostly free activities as well.

Free Activities

Pearl Harbor – Amazingly enough, you can see the best of Pearl Harbor for free. You have to be committed, though, as there are only 1,400 tickets to see the Arizona Memorial given out each day, and they tend to run out early. We arrived at 8:15 AM on a Sunday and managed to get tour tickets for the 1:15 PM time slot. The museum is small but packed with information and is totally free as well. We were able to see everything by about 11:00 AM, grab lunch nearby, and then come back to tour the memorial. There are other sites to see that you can pay for, but we felt like we had seen a ton without buying any extra tickets. Make sure to also note that absolutely no bags are permitted.

Dole Plantation – Similarly to Pearl Harbor, there is a lot to see at the Dole Plantation for free. There are gardens and a huge visitor spot where you can try out their amazing Dole Whip (dairy free pineapple soft serve)!! We watched someone teach us how to correctly cut a pineapple and sampled a bunch of food. It’s a good spot to stop through on your way from Honolulu to the North shore.

Beaches – Very obviously, Oahu has a ton of free beaches to take advantage of. What we noticed from our time on the island was that the beaches on the western  and southern sides of the island were more of a cobalt blue, while the beaches on the eastern side of the island were more turquoise. Both were absolutely stunning and offered different fun activities:

  • Kailua Beach – We went kayaking at Kailua beach since there is a great place to rent from nearby and there are multiple islands that you can paddle out to from the beach (see the paid activities section below), but the beach itself is also stunning. It is very long and offers gorgeous turquoise waters that are very calm and perfect for families. This beach also offers ample parking.
  • Lanikai Beach – Just to the south of Kailua Beach lies Lanikai beach which is very similar, but smaller and a bit more picturesque since there is more tropical foliage. Parking is more limited, so you may find yourself down the road at Kailua instead.
  • Makapu’u Beach – This is a smaller beach, but it is stunning and has tons of waves for body surfing! Though a little intimidating, the waves were really fun to play in for a while. This beach seemed to be filled with more local people which was also a nice change from the touristy spots. Try out this beach in the afternoon, followed by a later hike up Makapu’u Lighthouse trail!
  • Waikiki Beach – The most touristy beach of them all, but it is lovely. This is a great place to try surfing lessons. Though we didn’t get to this on our trip, we had a friend who went the week before us and had had an amazing time learning with a bunch of other beginners.
  • Waimea Bay – Though we didn’t spend time on the actual beach, we did swim in the incredible coral reefs here with sea turtles! Check out the paid activities section for more on that.

Hikes – I’m going to start by saying that the hiking in Hawaii is no joke. This Midwestern girl who now lives in the flattest city of all time has not gone on many hikes through intense elevation change. That being said, I also work out 3-4 times a week… so take my difficulty judgement on these hikes with a grain of salt. I absolutely loved the few hikes we went on and really wished we could have done even more. We had planned a couple of other hikes but had to skip them due to some minor injuries, sunburns, and overall laziness to not wake up at the crack of dawn! Make sure to do at least one on your trip.

  • Kuliouou Ridge Trail – Difficult hike, mostly shaded, WORTH THE WORK! – This hike, though only 5 miles total, travels about 1,800 feet up in elevation. Talk about the ultimate stair stepper. My legs were actually shaking by the end of it, but I was so glad that we did it! The views are incredible, spanning from one side of the island to the other, and the vegetation completely changes as you make your way up the ridge. Make sure to leave yourself about 4 hours to hike before dark since it is not well marked.
  • Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail – Easy/moderate, paved hike with no shade – This was a great hike to do after a day at the beach. We started around 5:00 PM which allowed it to cool down a bit as we hiked up the mountainside. I liked that this hike gave a few beautiful views of different beaches, and the paved trail made it accessible to anyone.
  • Other hikes we had planned to try but didn’t get to include Diamond Head, the Pilloboxes, and Kokohead Stairs. All of them had come highly recommended, but we missed out on the first two due to some mishaps, and decided that we had already had enough stair stepping after the ridge trail for the last one.

Paid (and worth it!) Activities

Dolphin and Sea Turtle Excursion – $130, 3 hour snorkeling and boat ride, MUST DO! – This was my favorite thing we did on the entire trip!! Though the price tag is high, you get to see and do so much in one day and it does include a meal. This company takes you out in a boat to find packs of dolphins swimming in the wild and they will swim right beneath you. You then move on to coral reefs to snorkel with sea turtles and tons of tropical fish. I saw four turtles and got to swim right along side one. It was truly amazing and I so wished I had had a waterproof camera to capture the beauty of these animals.

Lolani Palace – $15, ~1 hour audio tour – Did you know that Hawaii used to have a royal family? I found it incredibly interesting to learn about Hawaii’s history through this tour of the palace with a very well done audio tour. Since it’s located in Honolulu, this is a perfect quick activity or something to do if it’s raining.

Kayaking in Kailua – $59, 4 hour kayak rental – If you want to feel really adventurous, head out to sea and explore some remote islands by kayak! We rented two 2 person kayaks and one 1 person kayak and spent about two hours actually kayaking out to the bird sanctuaries off of Kailua beach. The rental place provides life vests, a cart to carry the kayaks to the beach, and has the exclusive rights to allow you to land on the islands.

ATV Tour of Kualoa Park – $85, 1 hour tour – Every vacation deserves a very touristy activity, and an ATV tour of Kualoa Park where they have shot movies like Jurassic Park, Godzilla, 50 First Dates, and many more fit the bill perfectly! The one hour tour only allowed us to stop in one place to take photos, but it was a ton of fun zipping through the stunning landscapes. We missed meeting Chris Pratt by one week… so needless to say that was a little tragic. Overall worth the visit to see a new side of the island!

Where to Eat and Drink

Waiola Shave Ice – Shave Ice, Dessert – Instead of traveling up to the north side to stand in line for an hour at Matsumoto*, get some shaved ice closer to town at Wailoa Shave Ice! Make sure to order Obama’s Rainbow style which has passion fruit in it. SO YUMMY! (*Note, we tried to go here and it closed before we could make it through the line. I’ve heard it is great but am really not a big fan of long queues.)

Legend Seafood – Chinese, Lunch – This China town spot serves up fantastic dim sum. If you’ve never been, it can be intimidating since the servers just rush around with carts asking if you want things that you may have never had before. It’s served family style, so order up a bunch to try! My personal favorites are the steamed pork buns, shrimp dumplings, pork siu mai, beef noodle rolls, garlic pea sprouts, egg tarts, and mango pudding.

JJ Squared Bakery – Taiwanese, Breakfast or Dessert – For a quick bite for breakfast, try out a pineapple bun (or any of the many bun options) at this bakery in Korea town. They are slightly sweet, almost like a Hawaiian roll, and are really quite beautiful.

BYO Bowls – Asian, Lunch or Dinner – At this build  your own bowl restaurant you can get a casual bite to eat. I tried the spicy poke bowl and loved it (Note: food that is labeled very spicy in Hawaii is nothing compared to the spicy Asian food I’ve had in Houston). My friends got some of the rice bowls and liked those too!

Teddy’s Bigger Burgers – Burgers, Lunch or Dinner – I eat a lot of burgers in Houston and have had my fair share of mediocre to great options. These burgers are honestly amazing. Really fun burger options, awesome milkshakes, great sweet potato fries and onion rings.

Shirokiya Japan Village Walk – Japanese, Lunch or Dinner – This is like a food court mixed with an Asian market with more options for Japanese food than you could possibly imagine. Located at the mall, this spot is always hopping but with plenty of space. We tried a ton of different things – make sure to try spam musubi! Oh, did I mention the $1 beers?

Goma Tei – Japanese Ramen, Lunch or Dinner – Another great spot at the mall is this ramen restaurant. The ramen craze has been huge in Houston and I thought their ramen was really great. Try the char siu tan tan with an egg!

Jewel or Juice – Acai Bowls, Breakfast or a Snack – Another trendy food that’s prevalent in Oahu is acai bowls. We got HUGE bowls for $10 here right after we got off the plane and they were absolutely delicious.

Sura Hawaii – Korean BBQ, Dinner – Definitely check this place out if you’re looking for a fun dining experience. The food was delicious and they cook it right in the middle of your table for you. It also comes with salad, soup, sides, etc. Great for people who like to try a little of everything.

The Edge of Waikiki – Bar – If you need to get that tiki drink while in Hawaii, this is place to go. Split the guava mojito carafe with a few friends and you will not be disappointed. The seats next to the infinity pool and the ocean aren’t bad either.

RumFire – Bar/Club – We had some fun drinks here on our last night and the DJ was bumping! Definitely a tourist scene, but really fun nonetheless.

Traveling Tips for Hawaii

  • Rent a car so that you can see the entire island. Though it only takes about one hour to get anywhere you want to go, there isn’t much public transit to take. If you participate in paid excursions some of them come with transportation from Waikiki or you can purchase it for an extra cost, as well.
  • Make sure you see more of the island than just Waikiki. Waikiki is a lot of fun for having drinks, shopping, and hanging out by the pool, but if you want to see some true culture and a bit of what the locals do, you have to check out the other parts of the island.
  • Most of our normal sunscreens will bleach the coral reefs! Make sure to only bring zinc based sunscreens since these don’t include the ingredients that kill the reef.
  • For a great packing list for a week in Hawaii, check out my must haves here!

Things You Might not Know about Oahu Hawaii

  • The clouds move so fast! It might be raining in one part of the island and sunny in another and it can change in just a few minutes.
  • Because of the ever changing weather, you will be hard pressed to not see a rainbow while you are there.
  • You are supposed to rinse pineapple fruit after you cut it to avoid getting that weird tingling feeling on your tongue. I had always thought I was mildly allergic, and now I know otherwise!
  • If you get sea sick on boats, the same may happen while snorkeling and kayaking. This should have seemed obvious to me before we went, but after about 1.5 hours doing either activity I was needing to head back to shore for some on-land time.
  • Service is great pretty much everywhere. Since Hawaii has such a large tourist economy, we found that we had spectacular service everywhere we went. People also tend to be in a good mood and want to know about where you are from.

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