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Inside: The everything guide to Oahu Hawaii. From where to stay to 7 amazing places you just have to see.
Travel can be tough these days, there’s no doubt about it. Especially international travel.
Thankfully, most countries have finally relaxed their Covid restrictions. Of course, not everyone is ready to dust off their passport just quite yet.
But fear not, fellow U.S. travelers. There’s no passport required to visit some of the world’s most beautiful islands. That’s right, the Hawaiian Islands are open for business and there’s never been a better time to go.
Many visitors to the island of Oahu spend just a few days in Waikiki and then continue on to Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. And that’s a shame.
Sure, Waikiki is fabulous, but there’s so much more to see and do around Oahu.
And once you leave the tradffic of Waikiki behind to explore the rest of the island, it might even take the edge off your international wanderlust (for now).
But before I get to those amazing places to see on Oahu, let’s start with the basics.
How to Visit Hawaii During Covid-19
When Hawaii first reopened to travelers in October of 2020, the Safe Travels Hawaii program required visitors to register in advance and adhere to onerous pre-arrival testing requirements.
However, as of March 26, 2022, all restrictions for travel to Hawaii have been lifted and aligned with the overall rules for travel to the United States.
And as of June 12, 2022, the pre-arrival testing requirement for international passengers flying to the United States has been lifted as well.
The bottom line: There are currently no Covid-related requirements for passengers arriving to Hawaii on either domestic or international flights.
Do I still need a Covid test to travel to Hawaii?
No. This recent relaxing of international entry requirements means the days of pre-arrival testing are finally behind us. Three cheers for that!
Of course, as we all know by now, travel restrictions can change on a dime. For the most up-to-date information on the requirements for travel to Hawaii, check the Hawaii Tourism Authority site.
But enough about global pandemics, let’s get back to the fun stuff!
What is Oahu best known for?
From a historical perspective, the island is most famous as the home to Pearl Harbor, site of the first Japanese attack on the United States during World War II.
But Hawaii’s most visited island is also known for idyllic beaches, delicious Polynesian cuisine, high-end shopping, world-class surfing, and an energetic nightlife scene.
Oahu, Honolulu, Waikiki – are they all the same?
You may have heard all three terms used interchangeably. Here’s the simple breakdown:
- Oahu is the island itself, the 3rd largest of the Hawaiian islands.
- Honolulu is the state capital and largest city in the Hawaiian islands.
- Waikiki is the most famous neighborhood in Honolulu. This 1.5 mile stretch is home to Hawaii’s most famous beach and the majority of resorts, restaurants, shops and nightlife in Honolulu.
Where do you fly into for Oahu?
Daniel K. Inouye (Honolulu) International Airport (HNL) is the primary international airport and the gateway to the Hawaiian islands. There are a number of domestic flights (and a handful of international flights) directly to the Big Island, Maui and Kauai. But most visitors to Hawaii will arrive at Honolulu’s airport.
What’s the best time of year to visit Hawaii?
The Hawaiian islands are one of the few places in the world that truly are a terrific destination any time of year.
Hawaii’s most popular seasons are from June to August and December to March. The summer high season boasts the most sunshine, while the winter months have milder temps and lots of holiday travelers. (Tip: If you’ve never been to Hawaii over Christmas, I highly recommend it!)
My favorite times to visit Hawaii are mid-April to early June and September to early December. Historically, these shoulder seasons offer the best combination of weather and value, but with fewer crowds.
Do I need a rental car in Oahu?
Need? No. Especially if you’re staying in Waikiki where many of the best things to see and do are within walking distance.
If you want to get out and explore the island (and you should!) it definitely helps to have your own wheels. At least for a day or two. Especially since the usual wide variety of day trip options are more limited right now, due to Covid.
To find the best deal on rental cars in Oahu, I like RentalCars.com.
Keep in mind that most hotels in Waikiki have pretty high daily parking fees ($35-45 per day). To dodge that, consider renting a car in town for your last day (or two) in Oahu and returning it at the airport. The cost of overnight parking will be offset by the taxi ride you’ll save to the airport (about $50).
One other Covid-related challenge, rental cars in Hawaii are in short supply currently since many rental car companies sold off much of their fleet during the lockdown. Supply is slowly increasing on the islands but be sure to book your rental car well in advance.
If you do drive in Oahu, you’ll quickly discover that traffic in Honolulu is generally awful. Fortunately, once you get outside the city, driving is easy and carefree. Just allow plenty of time when you head back to the airport.
Where to Stay in Waikiki – My Top 3 Favorites
There are terrific hotel options all over the island of Oahu. But for the best access to all the top things to do in Oahu, I recommend staying in Waikiki Beach. Here are my favorite hotels in Waikiki:
1. Sheraton Waikiki Hotel
Best for: Families & Couples (yes, the two can co-exist!)
When I think of Hawaii, the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel is always the first hotel that comes to mind. Perched on a stretch of white sand along Hawaii’s most famous beach, the towering Sheraton Waikiki is perhaps best known for the sweeping views from 80% of its rooms and suites.
When you imagine a postcard-perfect view of Diamond Head in your mind, chances are you’re thinking of the view from the Sheraton Waikiki.
The Sheraton’s award-winning, adults-only “Edge Infinity Pool” melts magically into the glittering, turquoise waters of the Pacific. It’s been voted the best hotel pool in the USA and with good reason. There’s simply no better place to sip a mai tai and watch the sunset.
Trust me, I speak from experience.
Tip: It’s also a great place for turtle spotting!
On the opposite side of the hotel, families will enjoy the “Helumoa Playground.” I once heard a young boy in the elevator describe this kid’s pool extravaganza as Hawaiian Disneyland. But don’t worry, it’s cleverly separated from the adult crowd keeping all guests in perfect Hawaiian harmony.
Don’t miss sunset happy hour at Rumfire. And on the 30th floor, the spectacular Leahi Club Lounge capitalizes on the hotel’s best feature – the view.
2. Moana Surfrider Hotel – A Westin Resort & Spa
Best for: Classic Elegance & Hawaiian History
Opened March 11, 1901, the Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel (originally the Moana Hotel) was the first luxury hotel opened in the deserted area of Waikiki. The original 75 guest rooms featured luxurious amenities like private baths, telephones, and the first electric-powered elevator in Hawaii.
During WWII, the Moana was used as an R&R area for soldiers and sailors. In the years since, the Moana Surfrider has gone through a number of renovations. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s one of Waikiki’s most popular hotels.
If you want to embrace the hotel’s rich history, book a room in the historic Banyan Wing. For more modern amenities and incredible views, choose a Tower ocean-view room.
3. Queen Kapiolani Hotel
Best for: Anyone on a Budget (who still wants a great view!)
Located at the other (Diamond Head) end of Waikiki Beach, the Queen Kapiolani Hotel is a solid choice if you’re on a budget. Rooms here have Diamond Head or ocean views for about half the price of the Sheraton or Surfrider.
In fact, you can even score a Junior Suite with a Diamond Head View or a Premier Ocean View Balcony Room for a reasonable rate by Waikiki standards.
Tip: For an affordable splurge, book a Penthouse Suite!
Now that we’ve covered how to enter Hawaii, where to stay, and whether or not to rent a car…let’s move on to the good stuff!
7 Amazing Places on Oahu to Satisfy Your Globe-Trotting Wanderlust
I’ve visited Oahu more than 20 times (10 of those to run the Honolulu Marathon), so I consider myself a bit of an aficionado of all the best things to do on Oahu.
Read More: Eat, Pray, Run: A Honolulu Marathon Diary
I’ve also traveled to more than 175 countries so I’m pretty well versed in awesome places to visit around the world.
And I contend that there are some amazing places on Oahu that compare quite favorably to some of the world’s best destinations. So yes, my friends, a trip to Oahu can help take the sting out of the layer of dust that may have collected on your passport.
Humor me as I make a few loose global comparisons…off we go!
1. Soak up the glitz and glam of Waikiki Beach
There are few cities in the world that combine a brilliant beach with a cosmopolitan downtown vibe like Waikiki.
Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Miami also make the cut.
Read More: 48 Hours in Sydney
While there may be better, and certainly less crowded, beaches on Oahu (see #5 below ), Waikiki Beach is a must-see for any visitor to Hawaii.
You could spend a week just exploring Waikiki alone. But if you only have a week, spend half your time here and the rest exploring further afield. Here are a few of my favorite things to do in Waikiki:
1. Shop Waikiki’s magnificent mile
Kalakaua Avenue is the premier shopping destination on the island of Oahu. Known as the “Heart of Waikiki,” you’ll find everything from Chanel and Gucci to surf shops and the uniquely Hawaiian ABC Stores along Kalakaua Avenue.
While most flock to the high-end boutiques, I am a sucker for an ABC Store. Conveniently, there’s one located on literally every block. I’m serious, you cannot swing a ukelele in Waikiki without hitting an ABC Store.
The ABC Stores have you covered for everything from affordable Hawaiian souvenirs and sunscreen to adult beverages, snacks, and over-the-counter medications.
If you need it, the nearest ABC Store probably has it.
2. Take a sunset catamaran sail
One of my absolute favorite things to do in Waikiki is to get out on the water for a sunset catamaran sail.
A number of companies offer nightly trips departing from Waikiki Beach. Most cruises last approximately 2 hours, include free-flowing mai tais, and offer a stunning view of the Waikiki skyline at sunset.
3. Honor Waikiki’s own Duke Kahanamoku & learn to surf
On any given morning in Waikiki, you’ll find dozens of early morning surfers looking to catch the perfect wave. For centuries surfing has been part of the ancient Polynesian culture. But in the early 1900’s, an Olympic swimmer from Hawaii introduced the sport to the world.
A 5-time Olympic medalist in swimming from 1912 to 1932, Duke Kahanamoku was also an actor, lawman, beach volleyball player, and businessman. Between Olympic competitions and after his retirement, he traveled the world giving swimming and surfing exhibitions.
His surfing exhibition at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach in 1914 is widely credited with jump-starting the sport in Australia. Today, Duke’s legacy is alive and well in Hawaii.
The Duke Kahanamoku Statue stands watch over Waikiki Beach adorned with leis placed daily on his outstretched arms. Honor Duke by trying your hand at surfing while in Waikiki (you know you want to!).
Surf lessons are readily available along Waikiki Beach and there’s no better place in the world to learn.
Or, just do what I do and honor Duke’s memory with a mai-tai at the Waikiki landmark – Duke’s Canoe Club & Barefoot Bar.
2. Remember Pearl Harbor at the USS Arizona Memorial
In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, as the 185 vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay calm and serene, the first wave of Japanese aircraft entered Hawaiian airspace and began what would be the U.S. Navy’s greatest defeat.
It was a “day that will live in infamy.”
At 8:06am, the USS Arizona exploded when an armor-piercing bomb slammed through its deck. In less than 9 minutes, it sank with 1,177 of its crew, a total loss. The attack on Pearl Harbor continued in waves throughout the day hammering the harbor and surrounding airfields.
In the end, 21 vessels were sunk or damaged and 2,390 Americans were dead with countless wounded. World War II had come to America.
Decades later, the USS Arizona Memorial was established at Pearl Harbor to honor those who died in the attack. Its construction was completed in 1961 and it was dedicated in 1962.
In the words of its architect, Alfred Preis, the design of the memorial “which sags in the center but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory. The overall effect is one of serenity.”
Like the beaches of Normandy or the concentration camps of Auschwitz, a visit to Pearl Harbor is an important but somber glimpse into World World II history.
Read More: Awed by Auschwitz
Need to Know Info: Tickets to visit the Arizona Memorial are free. However, they are timed and frequently book up. Reservations can now be made online up to 8 weeks in advance (an increase from the previous 1 week) and are highly recommended. Plan to arrive 1-hour before your reservation time. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is open daily from 7:00am-5:00pm and admission is free. The theater remains closed but the film is currently being shown in an open-air lanai nearby.
3. Snorkel the marine park of Hanauma Bay
It’s considered the jewel of Oahu and one of the best snorkeling sites in the world, on par with colorful coral heavyweights like Moorea and the Maldives.
The pristine marine ecosystem of Hanauma Bay was formed within a volcanic cone creating a natural marine park. The curved bay has been a favorite of Native Hawaiians for thousands of years and is etched deeply in Hawaiian history. In fact, records show that even Hawaiian royalty often stayed at the bay in the 1800s for recreation.
These days (prior to Covid), Hanauma Bay often sees 3000 visitors per day. Since the 1990’s, a concerted effort has been made to reduce mass tourism and limit damage to marine life. Limiting visitors and educating tourists on the bay’s natural wildlife is a big part of the conservation plan.
First-time visitors to Hanauma Bay must first watch a 9-minute video to understand the marine life, preservation, and safety rules for the park. Reservations are now required to visit and must be made in advance online through the Hawaii Parks and Recreation Department.
Tip: Make your reservations early, the limit on the number of daily visitors to Hanauma Bay (1000 people per day) means it is often fully booked a few days in advance.
Need to Know Info: Closed Mondays & Tuesdays, all other days open 6:45am-4:00pm (last entry at 2:00pm). The entry fee for adults is $25 (locals and kids 12 and under are free). Parking is $3 (cash only) and the lot fills quickly. Bring your own snorkel gear, snacks, and beverages. Find the latest info for Hanauma Bay State Park here.
4. Take a Sunrise Hike up Diamond Head Crater
Believed extinct for more than 150,000 years, the volcanic tuff cone known as Diamond Head crater defines the skyline of Hawaii’s most famous beach, Waikiki.
But this U.S. State Monument is more than just the anchor to an iconic view. Visitors to Oahu can hike the interior of Diamond Head crater up to Fire Control Station Diamond Head at the summit.
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1908, the historic trail features tunnels, underground command posts, and steep switchbacks along the mile and a half journey to the top.
It’s a challenging climb but not overly strenuous. Hikers who persevere are rewarded at the summit with dazzling views over Waikiki and all of downtown Honolulu.
My best international comparison is the hike up Table Mountain for the panoramic views over Cape Town, South Africa. Though, that hike is considerably more difficult (Tip: take the cable car in Cape Town).
Read More: Cape Town, Fabulous Cape Town
How to beat the sunrise crowds at Diamond Head…a personal success story
I hike Diamond Head for sunrise every time I visit Oahu. But for years I was frustrated by the throngs of tour groups. Until I finally figured out how to beat them.
And yes, I’m going to share.
I’m an east-coaster, so I typically do the hike on my first day on Oahu since I’m wide awake at 4:00am anyway. Normally, I jog or walk from the Waikiki hotel zone (it’s only 2-3 miles depending on your hotel location) and arrive between 6-6:30am.
One year, while visiting Oahu for the Honolulu Marathon, I decided to start a little earlier than usual and arrived at the still-locked entrance gate at 5:45am.
I cringed as I rounded the corner and spotted dozens of tour buses lined up waiting for the tunnel gate to open. But then, miraculously, at 5:50am the guard opened the gate only for walkers (there were half a dozen of us). The cars had to wait until 6:00am.
I jogged up to the ticket booth, paid my park entrance fee, and hit the trail 10 minutes before the tour buses even entered the parking lot.
It was enough of a lead to enjoy a solid 15-20 minutes at the top all by myself (a first) before any other hiker reached the peak. I enjoyed a magnificent Diamond Head sunrise and on my way back down, passed a sea of Japanese tourists heading up.
For my money, there’s simply no better way to start your day in paradise.
Tip: If you want to try this strategy but are not game for adding 2-3 miles to an already ambitious hike, have an Uber or taxi drop you at the entrance to the tunnel at 5:45am and walk from there. The walk back to Waikiki later is a lovely stroll downhill.
And on a personal note…
I’m especially partial to this hike since getting engaged up there during a particularly beautiful sunrise in 2014. Yes, it was incredibly romantic. And yes, the Japanese tour groups cheered. Bless them.
BONUS: Hike Diamond Head on a Saturday & catch the KCC Farmers’ Market
Every Saturday morning from 7:30am-11:00am, you’ll find the island’s best tasty treats and natural products at the KCC Farmer’s Market. Set up in the parking lot of Kapiolani Community College, it’s just across the street from Diamond Head State Monument. If you hike at sunrise, the timing is perfect to hit the market on your way back to town.
The KCC Farmers’ Market is one of my favorite things to do on Oahu, yet most visitors don’t know about it (it’s a favorite for locals, though!). Food, music, fun, what more could you ask for?
Try a fresh tropical fruit smoothie, a delicious Hawaiian plate breakfast, or shop for authentic local products. Come hungry, you’ll thank me later.
And hey, after that hike, you deserve it!
Need to Know Info: Diamond Head State Monument is currently open daily, 6:00am-4:00pm (gates close at 6:00pm). Entrance fee for pedestrians – $5, Parking – $10. CREDIT CARD ONLY, no cash accepted. Masks are still required in indoor structures and congested areas along the hike. Bring water, if you walk from Waikiki, there’s a gas station about halfway where I usually grab a bottle so I don’t have to carry it for the entire walk. The latest updates can be found here.
Update 4/25/22! – As of May 12, 2022, all out-of-state visitors will need a reservation to visit Diamond Head State Monument. The reservation system will be available beginning 4/28/22 and reservations can be made up to 14 days in advance.
5. Lounge 0n Oahu’s Best Beach – Lanikai Beach
Located near the town of Kailua on Oahu’s windward coast, Lanikai Beach is considered Oahu’s best beach. In fact, these silky white sands and gentle turquoise seas rival those in more far-flung Pacific destinations like Tahiti or Fiji.
Don’t believe me?
And then this: The Song of the South Pacific: Fiji & the Mamanuca Islands
The calm waters of Lanikai Beach are perfect for watersports, swimming, or just lounging about on your favorite float.
Need to Know Info: The drive from Waikiki takes 35-45 minutes depending on traffic. There’s no “official” parking lot at Lanikai so go early or street parking in this residential neighborhood can be a challenge.
6. Drive Oahu’s North Shore
Less than an hour’s drive from the glitzy crowds of Waikiki Beach, Oahu’s laid-back North Shore is known for big waves, daredevil surfers and fish tacos served from a truck.
Considered the surfing mecca of the world, every December the North Shore hosts 3 major surfing competitions known collectively as the Triple Crown of Surfing. In the summer months, this relaxed surfing community is a great place to escape the throngs in Waikiki.
In fact, the empty beaches and beach bum vibe of the North Shore remind me a bit of some of Thailand’s more laid-back islands like Koh Lipe and Koh Lanta.
Read More: Thailand’s Best Islands – Koh Lipe
But unlike the calm waters of those Thai islands, don’t attempt a swim here unless your big wave skill level is somewhere in the neighborhood of expert.
Here are a 3 can’t miss stops on a driving tour of the North Shore:
1. Haleiwa Town
Start your visit to the North Shore in the charming surf town of Haleiwa. Oozing with island history, Haleiwa is the hub of the North Shore. From surf shops to local art galleries, a stroll through Haleiwa Town is a must.
Be sure to stop for a shave ice (Hawaii’s tasty twist on the snow cone).
2. Waimea Bay
The North Shore is known for picturesque, empty beaches and Waimea Bay is one of the best. In the summer months, the water here is often calm enough for swimming.
If you like to live dangerously, you can even try your hand at cliff jumping off Waimea Bay’s big rock. Full disclosure, I do not live that dangerously, but I enjoy photographing those who do!
3. The BEST North Shore Food Trucks!
Now that you’ve built up an appetite, you’ve come to the right place. Head straight for Kahuku and one of the North Shore’s numerous food trucks for fresh garlic shrimp or tantalizing fish tacos.
Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck is one of the most popular. But it’s also typically the one with the longest wait. I’ve yet to have a bad meal at a North Shore food truck so feel free to avoid the crowd and sniff around.
Bonus Find: Leonard’s Malasada Truck, “MalasadaMobile.” Portuguese in origin, a malasada is basically a fried donut without a hole, often containing a delicious filling. Leonard’s Bakery is Hawaii’s original malasada bakery and has been making malasadas in the Portuguese tradition since 1953. The popular red and white striped truck travels all over the island and you can track the MalasadaMobile’s current location here.
Tip: If your relaxed day on the North Shore inspires a permanent change of scenery from the high energy of Waikiki, book a room at the Turtle Bay Resort. There’s no better place to truly get away from it all on Oahu.
Need to Know Info: The drive up to the North Shore takes about an hour from Waikiki. On the way, don’t miss a stop at the Dole Pineapple Plantation. Take a spin through the maze and cool down with an iconic “Dole Whip.”
7. Go Hollywood at Kualoa Ranch
Just as Mount Aspiring National Park is New Zealand’s most popular movie backlot, Kualoa Ranch is considered “Hollywood central” in the Hawaiian Islands.
This 4000-acre private nature reserve has served as the filming location for a wide variety of movies and TV shows. From Hawaii Five-0 and LOST to Jumanji and the Jurassic Park series (though most of the films were shot on Kauai), Kualoa Ranch is a fun detour when visiting Oahu.
Visitors can tour popular movie sites by ATV, glide down a zipline, bike or hike nature trails, or take a horseback ride to explore the ranch’s incredible natural beauty.
Need to Know Info: Currently, open daily from 8:00am-6:00pm. Check the latest information on Kualoa’s Covid-19 procedures here.
And there you have it!
The 7 most awesome places in Oahu to help you forget your passport withdrawal.
So, did I convince you that this beautiful Hawaiian island is an excellent temporary substitute for some of the world’s most amazing destinations?
The bottom line: If you’re desperately in need of a tropical getaway with epic sunsets, stunning beaches, verdant landscapes, and turquoise waters teeming with marine life, Oahu can definitely help you scratch that travel itch.
So book those flights, swap your mask for an aloha shirt and enjoy your Hawaiian holiday. After all, you’ve earned it!
And if you’re looking for other passport-free vacation options, there are plenty of incredible places to explore right here the United States:
But if you’re itching to dust off your passport…
More and more international destinations are opening their doors to US travelers and (and this is key) providing easy access to pre-departure Covid testing for your return to the US.
Here are two I recommend:
So, whether you stick to U.S. destinations or venture to the Caribbean, don’t be afraid to get back out there and travel. Especially if you’ve already been vaccinated.
The shattered travel industry needs you. And after surviving 2020, you’ve earned it.