Essential Oahu Guide for Your First Trip to Hawaii

Hawaii has been on our list forever, but from the East Coast it’s easier and faster to fly to Europe than to Hawaii. We can enjoy a long weekend in London or Paris, but this U.S. destination stays out of reach. When we finally booked our first trip to Hawaii, it was worth the 13 hour trip.* We were lucky to have friends and family who’d lived in Hawaii and shared great advice with us. Their suggestions, and our research, helped us create a great itinerary for us visiting Hawaii for the first time. For our first timers’ Hawaii itinerary, we spent a week in Oahu, and then a week island hopping. I hope our experience as first time visitors to Oahu will help you plan your trip.

Many visitors spend all their time in the Honolulu area but we recommend splitting your week between the city and the North Shore. 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.

Visiting Hawaii for the First Time – Head to Honolulu

Seeing this iconic land and 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.

First stop on our first time visit to Oahu - Waikiki beach!

We walked the wide sidewalk along the beach to Duke’s to have the requisite Mai Tai. We were tired after the long flight but felt renewed (and charmed) as we sat overlooking Waikiki Bay with our cheery umbrella drinks. Vacation time!!!

Umbrella drinks at Duke's Waikiki, a must for any first time visitor to Oahu

Waikiki Beach

Another first time Hawaii 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.

Statue of Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Olympic champion and father of modern surfing

Pearl Harbor

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.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial, a must see for a first time visitor to Honolulu

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 memorial marker and the site 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.

USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, a must see for a first time visitor to Oahu

How to visit Pearl Harbor:

  • We booked a Viator tour to Pearl Harbor which included a brief city tour and a stop at the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery.
  • Take an uber – ~$40
  • Take the #20 or #42 public bus from Waikiki.
  • With a rental car, drive to the park, though the parking is limited.

Iolani Palace, home to Hawaii's last monarchs

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.

This building, 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.

statue of King Kamehameha, a must see for a first time visitor to Honolulu

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. 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 Diamondhead

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 close.

Diamond Head

Kamaka Ukuleles

Maybe not a Must-Do but if you’re interested in music, plan a visit to Kamaka Ukuleles. The Kamaka family have been handcrafting koa ukuleles since 1916. It is a great opportunity to see how this most spectacular instrument is made. We had the privilege of a tour with Fred Kamaka, son of the founder.

Fred Kamaka of Kamaka Ukeleles, Honolulu

How to visit: Kamaka Ukuleles is located at 550 South Street in Honolulu. Free tours at 10:30 am Tuesday through Friday.

Visiting Hawaii for the First Time? – Head 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 carry Endless Summer t-shirts, and board shorts.

How to get to the North Shore of Oahu:

  • With a rental car, take the H1 highway west to the H2 north towards Haleiwa.
  • Book a tour. This Viator tour from Waikiki includes stops at the Dole Plantation and the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Dole pineapple, a fun stop on the way to the North Shore of Oahu

The Dole Plantation

From H2 take exit 8 onto rt. 99, the Kamehameha highway.

A visit to the Dole Plantation (advertised as Hawaii’s Complete Pineapple Experience!) is free, but there are a lot of activities for kids – maze, train tour, etc. – that incur a charge. For adults, there’s a lovely garden tour, or you can just order a DoleWhip and enjoy the gardens from the patio.

Continue your trip towards the town of Haleiwa. There are lots of artsy shops and casual restaurants in this town, but the highlight of Haleiwa is Matsumoto Shave Ice. Family owned, this shop has be serving shave ice since 1951. Try some with azuki beans!

Surfing – the Banzai Pipeline

The Banzai Pipeline. in Pupukea, is famous around the world. The waves that break on the shallow reef offshore are picture perfect. We suggest heading there to WATCH the surfers, but this is not the place for beginners. The shallow reef will do a number on you if you fall. Best time to visit to watch the surfers is winter or early spring.

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 law so give them space. Don’t touch and don’t chase them if you catch one swimming.

Hawaiian Hibiscus

Waimea Valley Nature Center

In the same area of the Banzai Pipeline is a beautiful botanical garden and nature center – Waimea Valley. This slice of natural perfection is a sacred spot for the Kahuna Nui, the High Priests of Hawaiian culture. Since 1092 AD this has been home to members of the Kahuna line, and is still considered a sacred space. Do not remove rocks or other objects from the park

The park occupies a ahupua‘a, a traditional division of land encompassing all terrains and thus giving access to all a person needs 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. This is a wonderful way to familiarize yourself with the natural wonders of the islands if you’re visiting Hawaii for the first time.

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 and a must for people visiting Hawaii for the first time. There are villages representing six different Pacific nations, each with activities and shows specific to its culture. There are options for a Luau, and an evening show – Hā Breath of Life.

If you go: admission charge varies, some packages include the evening Luau which is a lot of fun, closed on Sunday.

Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu, a great stop for a first time visitor to Oahu

TV and Film Locations

You will see iconic film sights everywhere you go in Honolulu – from Elvis Presley’s classic movies to the opening credit images from Hawaii 5-0.

Jurassic Park fans might want to include a visit to the film location – read How to Visit Kualoa Ranch

Visiting Hawaii for the First Time? Read before you go.

For a general Oahu travel guide, 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.
Very readable!
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.
FICTIONShark 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.
FICTIONMoloka’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.

What did we miss?? Are there other places in Oahu you’d recommend to a first time visitor?

* As of May 2019, Hawaiian Airlines and JetBlue are offering nonstop flights to Honolulu, saving several hours for the trip!

What to do on you first visit to Oahu. Image of the U.S.S. Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor.
Essential guide to Oahu
First timers guide to Oahu Hawaii
Essential guide for first time visitors to Oahu, Hawaii. Sunset on the North Shore
Sea turtle off the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Essential guide for visiting Hawaii for the first time
Sunset off the North Shore of Oahu. Essential guide for first time visitors to Oahu.
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9 thoughts on “Essential Oahu Guide for Your First Trip to Hawaii

  1. We’ve been to Hawaii a number of times, but not Oahu. Finally putting it on our itinerary, mainly for Pearl Harbor – but thank you for the other excellent ideas to round out our time!

  2. Loved Hawaii & this is a great post for the highlights of Oahu. Clearly need to revisit for a few of these! Thanks for sharing

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