A BRIEF LOOK AT O’AHU
The island of O’ahu likes to split people in half when they talk about Hawaii. With an international city and close to a million people living on it, it is by far the most developed island in the chain, though you can still find bits of “old Hawai’i” if you know where to look. Some people stay away from it because of the noise and traffic, while others like how it combines city and country life.
No matter what, everyone can agree on one thing: O’ahu has the most different kinds of people, scenery, and ways of life. O’ahu has a little of everything Hawaii has to offer. From the busy streets of Honolulu to the surf-inspired beaches of Haleiwa, and from the islands off of Kailua to the farmlands of Wahiawa, you can see a bit of it all.
PLACES TO VISIT ON O’AHU
O’ahu is the third-largest island in Hawaii, after the Big Island and Maui. However, about two-thirds of the state’s people live on this island. Its 365 km (227 mi) of beachfront is known for its beautiful white sand beaches and world-class surfing, but there is a lot more to do here.
Each neighbourhood has its own vibe and is worth your time. Here are some quick facts about each of O’ahu’s 5 areas to help you get a sense of the whole island:
Honolulu, Waikīkī, Haleiwa, Kailua, Waianae, and the west (leeward) side of Central O’ahu
1. Honolulu, Waikiki, and the south shore
Visit Honolulu on the south shore of O’ahu to feel like you’re in a big city. Some interesting neighbourhoods in Honolulu are Kakaako, Chinatown, and Waikīkī. Waikīkī is the most famous and touristy area in Hawaii, known for its beginner-friendly surf culture and mix of city and sand. It doesn’t matter what, you can learn to longboard and buy a Rolex in Waikīkī in the same block.
The town of Hawai’i Kai is farther down the coast, where the south shore meets the east coast. It is built around a port that is used for both business and pleasure. Around it are volcanic craters (Koko Head), natural wonders (Halona Blowhole), surf spots (Sandy’s Beach), and one of the most beautiful stretches of shoreline on the whole island, right next to Hanauma Bay.
Diamond Head, or Waikiki Beach, is in the background. Thanks to Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) and Vincent Lim
If you want to spend some time on the south shore, check out our list of our favourite things to do in Honolulu. It includes a sample one-day schedule and A LOT of our favourite restaurants and bars.
2: THE NORTH SHORE AND HALEIWA
If you ever want to know why Hawaii is so often associated with surfing, just go to the North Shore of O’ahu in the winter. Huge swells make waves that are known all over the world. Those breaks slow down in the summer, which makes it a great time for water sports like scuba diving, snorkelling, free diving, paddling, and stand-up paddleboarding.
Even though Haleiwa is the “main hub,” not many places will be open late. There are two famous places on the island that are on the North Shore: Ted’s Bakery and Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.
If you want to spend some time on the North Shore, check out our list of our favourite things to do there, which includes a sample one-day schedule as well as our picks for the best beaches and prawn trucks.
3: KAILUA AND THE EAST SIDE (WINDWARD)
On the east side of the island, which faces the wind, you’ll find a tropical Hawaii that is less busy than Honolulu but not as quiet as the North Shore. Around the town of Kailua, there are lush woods and a great string of beaches (Kailua Beach, Lanikai).
People here live more like they’re in a beach town than a city, but there’s still enough going on in the evenings to keep you busy, with speakeasies (Gaslamp) and beachside restaurants (Buzz’s). It’s called Lanikai Brewing and Grace in Growlers.
If you want to spend some time in Kailua, check out our list of our favourite things to do there, which includes a sample one-day schedule and our picks for the best restaurants and bars.
4. WAIANAE AND THE WEST SIDE
People don’t visit the west side of O’ahu very often, but that will change at some time. The western coast of O’ahu has many beautiful spots, such as
Below the dry hills of the Waianae range (Waianae), there are small Hawaiian farming and fishing towns.
There is a great place to surf (Makaha);
Nanakuli and Yokohama both have beautiful sandy beaches;
Ka’ena Point is a seabird sanctuary and nature park that can be reached from the far north of the west side.
If you want to spend some time on the western shore, check out our list of our favourite things to do on the leeward coast. It includes a sample one-day schedule as well as our picks for the best restaurants and beaches.
5: THE CENTRE OF O’AHU
Take a drive through Central O’ahu and see the farm areas. The island has grown in some places, but it still remembers what it was like many years or even hundreds of years ago.
Its fields now grow pineapples and coffee, and it makes a lot of local goods. The Dole Pineapple Plantation tells you more about the past of pineapples on the island. The Green World Coffee Farm serves local coffee, and the Manulele Distilleries shows you how sugar cane is used today.
THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO ON O’AHU
O’ahu has a huge number of fun things for tourists to do, and many of them are listed on our website. However, since this is an outline, we will only list the top 5 things to do on O’ahu:
Hanauma Bay, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbour, Iolani Palace, and the Bishop Museum are some of the places to see.
Read our list of the 25 most famous places to visit and see on O’ahu to get more ideas on where to go. Searching for
THE BAY OF HANAUMA
Families with young children who want to snorkel in a safe and beautiful place should check out this state-run nature park. Hanauma Bay has some of the best coral and sea life on the island. It is calm, shallow, and controlled by the state. There are also lifeguards there most of the time.
Tip: Come early to escape the crowds, and don’t forget to bring sunscreen that is safe for reefs.
Hanauma Bay is a great place to swim.
2: A DIAMOND HEAD
Diamond Head is Waikīkī’s most famous volcano crater, and it stands tall over the city. Visitors can walk to the top along a paved path and get a 360-degree view of Honolulu. The history of the mountain shows how the Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanoes.
3. PEARL HARBOUR
Hawaii wasn’t even a state yet when Pearl Harbour was attacked in 1941; it wouldn’t become one until 1959! Some places to see in Hawaii that are important to its wartime past are Pearl Harbour, the Arizona Memorial, the U.S.S. Bowfin, and the U.S.S. Missouri.
The monument at Pearl Harbour is free, but you have to get a ticket to see a movie and ride on a boat. This movie does a great job of summarising World War II and what was going on in Hawaii during that time. There is a tourist centre from which you can get a good view of the Arizona Memorial, the Missouri battleship, and the Bowfin submarine.
At the Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre, you can buy tickets for all three places. On Ford Island, which is close by, you can find the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pearl Harbour Aviation Museum. People often take a bus to get to Ford Island, and the price of the bus ride is included in the price of tickets for these places. At the Pearl Harbour Visitor Centre, you can find the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park.
It would take a day to see everything on-site, so pick and choose what to see if you don’t have a lot of time. The “passport package” is what you should get if you want to see everything. There are also more organised (but more expensive) tours that come with pick-up and an expert guide. For example, this website has some options.
Want to find out more? Check out our full Pearl Harbour tourist guide to learn how to plan your trip and make the most of your time there.
4. The Iolani Palace and the Bishop Centre
The Bishop Museum is the best place to get a broad view and a good understanding of Hawaii. It focuses on Hawaiian history and Pacific travel.
Hawaii used to be a separate country with a royal family. It is now a U.S. territory, but the Iolani house is still the only royal house in the country. When you go on a tour, you can learn more about how people lived in Hawaii when Britain ruled.
There are many other culture sites on O’ahu, such as fishponds that have been fixed up (Heʻeia) and preserved temples, or heiaus (Kukaniloko Birth Site).
5 CENTRE FOR POLYNESIAN CULTURE
For history lessons, adults and single travellers should go to the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum. For families, the Polynesian Cultural Centre (PCC) is a better choice because it has a theme park-like setting that helps kids understand Polynesian culture. The PCC is divided into villages that represent different island countries, such as Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, and more. The villages have colourful displays, live games, dances, boat rides, performances, and movies that make the experience more interactive.
6. SECRET OʻAHU: 7 THINGS TO DO “OFF THE BEATEN PATH”
This is an extra spot for people who want to do something when it’s not too loud or busy.
There are no longer any real “secret spots” on Oʻahu. Places that used to only be open to locals are now packed with tourists. Instead, we show you places that we think aren’t as popular or aren’t as well known as others. The kind of place that has more to offer than its name lets on and where you can still avoid the crowds:
Watching whales and dolphins at Kaena Point, Yokohama Beach on the west side, Waimanalo Beach, and Kahuku Point on the northeast side.