We were lucky to have friends and family who’d lived in Hawaii and shared great advice with us. Hopefully this guide for first time visitors to Oahu will help you plan your trip.
Hawaii has been on our list forever, but from the East Coast it’s easier to fly to Europe than to Hawaii. When we finally made Hawaii a priority, it was worth the 13 hour trip.* Our first decision was how to spend our two weeks in Hawaii – should we stay on Oahu or visit multiple islands? We decided to do both! We booked a one week cruise that would take us to Maui, Kauai, and the big island of Hawaii, but dedicated a week to the fascinating island of Oahu.
Though many visitors spend all their time in the Honolulu area (and there’s plenty there to see!) we recommend splitting your time between the city and the North Shore of Oahu. There is a world of difference between these two locations so spending time at both will give you a good experience on the beautiful and historic island of Oahu.
What to do in Honolulu
Seeing this iconic seascape is a dream come true. How many movies, TV shows, and advertisements have featured the mighty Diamond Head rising behind Waikiki beach? So THIS was our first destination.
We walked the promenade along the beach to Duke’s to have the requisite Mai Tai. This iconic restaurant is named after the Olympic champion swimmer, and man who brought surfing to the world stage, Duke Kahanamoku.
We were tired after the long flight but were renewed and charmed sitting overlooking Waikiki Bay with our cheery umbrella drinks. Vacation time!!!
A must-do. The water on Waikiki was warm and delightful. But the sun is intense. Make sure you have a hat, cover-up, and good reef-safe sunscreen. (Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreen containing coral harming ingredients.)
The beach is very popular, with kayakers, outrigger canoes, etc. all using the water. If you’d like a safer spot to swim, head to the far end, Kūhiō beach, where there’s a protected area for swimmers.
There are lots of great places to grab lunch. Consider bringing a picnic to the beach, and eating in the shade of a banyan tree along the wide beach walkway.
How to Visit– If you are not staying close to the beach (and its miles of hotels!), there is some street parking available and a parking garage at Fort deRussy Park. There are four public restrooms, and several spots to rinse off sand.
Pearl Harbor is just one of the nine sites in World War II Valor in the Pacific national parks, but it is the most well-known and a required stop for any first-time visitor to Oahu. To be honest, we visited out of a sense of requirement, but we were amazed by the site, the presentation, and how emotional the visit was to all of us. There is a sense of solemnity here we hadn’t anticipated. We definitely recommend it for ALL visitors to Oahu.
The park is lovely, with green gardens overlooking the battleship Missouri and the submarine USS Bowfin. But is the quiet boat ride to the site of the USS Arizona marker and the memorial that will take your breath away. The stark white of the memorial, with names of seamen lost etched onto the wall, is an extraordinary monument to that tragic day of December 7, 1941.
How to visit: we booked a tour through our hotel, but you can drive to the park, or take the #20 or #42 public bus from Waikiki. More info on U.S. National Park Service site.
ʻIolani Palace and King Kamehameha statue
The ʻIolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States. It was built in 1882 during the reign of King Kalakaua and was the home, and virtual prison, of his successor, Queen Liliuokalani. In 1893, following the overthrow of the monarchy, the building served as state capital.
The palace, now a national historic landmark, is open for touring. Begin your visit at the small side building where you can watch a video introducing you to the site and its history.
The palace sits in the center of government for the state of Hawaii. The State Capital is opposite the palace, the State library next to it, and across South King street the famous statue of King Kamehameha I, the king who united the Hawaiian islands.
We strongly suggest learning a bit about Hawaiian history before your visit. We have recommended some easy to read historical fiction and some heavier history below.
Kapiʻolani Regional Park
At the east end of Waikiki Beach, under the shadow of Diamond Head, is the Honolulu Zoo and the Kapiʻolani Regional Park. The 300 acre park was a gift to the people of Hawaii from King Kalakaua, and features playing fields, picnic areas, a jogging path and the Waikiki shell.
It’s a wonderful spot to escape the crowds and the sun. If you’re there on a Sunday afternoon, be sure to catch a free concert at the bandstand.
Hike Diamond Head
For those who are able, a hike up Diamond Head, Lē‘ahi in Hawaiian, is a great activity. Though only .8 miles in length to the summit, the hike is steep and difficult, including .1 mile of stairs for the final ascent. Allow 2 hours for the hike and time your visit to be out of the park by 6 p.m. when the gates are locked.
Maybe not a Must-Do but if you’re interested in music, plan a visit to Kamaka Ukeleles. The Kamaka family have been hand-crafting ukeleles since 1916. It is a great opportunity to see how this intrinsically Hawaiian instrument is made. We had the privilege of a tour with Fred Kamaka, son of the founder.
How to visit: Kamaka Ukeleles is located at 550 South Street in Honolulu. Free tours are offered at 10:30 am Tuesday through Friday.
A First Time Visitors Guide to the North Shore of Oahu
The North Shore of Oahu has a completely different feeling than the Honolulu area. The incredible surf in the waters off the North Shore have made it a surfer’s paradise. This area is laid back and focused on nature. The stores here are not the tony ones found on Honolulu’s streets, but more likely to feature art or Endless Summer t-shirts.
On the way: The Dole Plantation
A visit to the Dole Plantation is free, and you’ll surely enjoy a visit even if only for a DoleWhip on the patio. But if you’re traveling with kids there are a lot of activities – world’s largest maze, train tour, etc. – that incur a charge. For adults, there’s a lovely garden tour, a cafe, and a gift shop with all things pineapple.
If You Go – From H2 take exit 8 onto rt. 99, the Kamehameha highway.
Continue your trip towards the town of Hale’iwa. There are lots of casual restaurants in this town, but the highlight of Hale’iwa is Matsumoto Shave Ice. Family owned, this shop has be serving shave ice since 1951. Try some with azuki beans!
North Shore Beaches: Snorkeling, Surfing, and the Banzai Pipeline
The Banzai Pipeline. in Pupukea, is famous around the world. The waves that break on the shallow reef off shore are picture perfect. We suggest heading there to WATCH the surfers; this is not the place for beginners. The shallow reef will do a number on you if you fall. Visit in winter to see the biggest waves and the most amazing surfers. Surf competitions occur every December.
In late spring and summer, the North Shore is a great spot for snorkeling. If you’re lucky you will see a Hawaiian Sea Turtle while you swim. These animals are protected by Hawaiian law so give them space. Don’t touch them and don’t chase them if you see one swimming.
Waimea Valley Nature Center
In the same area as the Banzai Pipeline is a botanical garden and nature center – Waimea Valley. Artifacts dated to 1092 AD show this area has long been dedicated to the Kahuna Nui, the High Priests of Hawaiian culture. It is still considered a sacred space. Do not remove rocks or other objects from the park.
The park occupies a ahupua‘a, a pie-shaped slice of land encompassing all terrains This was a traditional way to divide land, ensuring people had access to all they needed to survive – fresh water, trees, high ground, and abundant ocean access.
Today, there is a paved walking trail through this spectacular area, with waterfalls, native plants, and birds to enjoy.
If you go: there is a small admission cost – $12-18 for non-Hawaii residents
Polynesian Cultural Center
A visit to the Polynesian Culture Center is fun for all ages. There are villages representing six different Pacific nations, each with activities and shows specific to its culture. You can enjoy a few hours there, or make a full day of it, opting for the Luau and/or evening show – Hā Breath of Life.
If you go: located on the North Shore with shuttle service available from Waikiki.
55-370 Kamehameha Hwy, Laie. , plenty of parking available
Admission charge varies, with some packages include the evening Luau.
Closed on Sunday.
Read before you go.
For a general guidebook, we recommend Oahu Revealed: the ultimate guide to Honolulu, Waikiki, and Beyond by Andrew Doughty.
We found the following books helpful in understanding Hawaiian history and culture. (My education was woefully lacking on this subject…)
Book synopsis from flyleaf or Amazon.
|MEMOIR/||Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Liliuokalani
The Hawaiian kingdom’s last monarch wrote her biography in 1897, the year before the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States. Her story covers six decades of island history told from the viewpoint of a major historical figure.
|MEMOIR/||All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor by Donald Stratton.
In this extraordinary never-before-told eyewitness account of the Pearl Harbor attack—the only memoir ever written by a survivor of the USS Arizona—ninety-four-year-old veteran Donald Stratton finally shares his unforgettable personal tale of bravery and survival on December 7, 1941, his harrowing recovery, and his inspiring determination to return to the fight.
|The Last Aloha by Gaelien Quinn
How did Hawaii become part of America? n 1886, Laura Jennings travels to Hawaii to live with missionary relatives. When she arrives in Honolulu, she’s surprised to find her relatives are among the wealthy elite plotting to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. The last Queen, Lili-uokalani, wages a tragic struggle to save the Kingdom.
|FICTION||Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport
Beginning with the fateful meeting of a nineteenth-century Yankee sailor and the runaway daughter of a Tahitian chief, and sweeping over a century and a half of passionate, turbulent Hawaiian history, Shark Dialogues takes its place as the first novel to do justice to the rich heritage and cruel conflicts of the beautiful and beleaguered islands and their people. At its center are Pono, the magnificent pure-blooded matriarch and seer, and her four mixed-blood granddaughters seeking to come to terms with the contradictions of their ancestries and the hungers of their hearts.
|FICTION||Moloka’i by Alan Brennert(not Oahu, but an important piece of Hawaiian history)
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i.
* As of May 2019, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue are offering nonstop flights to Honolulu, saving several hours for the trip!
What did we miss?? Are there other places you’d recommend to a first time visitor to Oahu?