When thinking of Hawaii, most imagine beautiful sunsets, pristine white beaches, and just relaxing while working on your tan. Perhaps there’s a lovely hula dancer swaying to the sounds of a ukulele serenade. And then—boom!—your boss slams down that next report, jolting you back to your cubicle. Whatever your idea of paradise, it’s likely you can find something close enough to suit your Hawaiian fantasy while visiting the islands.
However, modern-day Oahu is so much more. Home to over a million residents, Honolulu is a thriving metropolitan city—albeit one with gorgeous year-round weather and killer views. There’s a vibrant arts scene, nightlife, fine dining, and a multicultural population—many working multiple jobs to afford the high cost of living in paradise. Here’s your insider’s guide to finding the best of where to stay, what to eat, and what to do on Oahu.
Where to Stay
Your choice of where to stay on Oahu pretty much boils down to a simple choice—Waikiki vs. everywhere else.
Waikiki Beach is a two-mile stretch of white sand beach on Oahu’s sunny south shore. Your accommodation options here are varied—from budget hostels to high-end hotels and oceanfront resorts. To save a bit, opt for properties that are not right on the beach—nothing in Waikiki is more than a few blocks from the beach, and prices drop significantly when you move a few blocks inland. Since a majority of visitors to Oahu stay in the Waikiki area, there is a built-in round-the-clock infrastructure here for just about anything you might need—lots of great restaurants, shopping, nightlife and organized tour options. A small enough area to get around via bus, trolley, or on foot, you’ll likely find enough here to keep you busy your entire trip. That being said, Waikiki tends to be a bit crowded and, some might argue, a bit less “authentic” than the rest of the island, and it is always advisable to get outside of Waikiki if you’re able to rent a car or even to book a tour. There is so much more to see than just Waikiki!
If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, or simply dislike crowds, you may want to steer clear of the tourist Mecca that is Waikiki beach and consider other parts of the island. The Ko Olina resort area on the island’s west shore is quickly growing as an alternative to Waikiki and is home to newly opened Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa as well as a few other large resort properties and villas. For more small-town charm, consider vacation rentals in smaller towns like Kailua on the windward side, or Haleiwa on the North Shore. Keep in mind that if you stay anywhere outside of Waikiki, you will definitely want to rent a car in order to get around. The bus system covers the entire island but is not ideal for getting around if you have any kind of time constraints, especially during rush hour.
What to Do
If you really want to experience Oahu like a local, you’ll want to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Land-lovers will enjoy hiking trails like Diamond Head for a beautiful view over Waikiki Beach or Manoa Falls for a relatively easy stroll where you’re rewarded with a waterfall photo op at the end. More advanced hikers will find ridge hikes and trails for any skill level—just be sure to heed all warning signs and stay on the designated paths. Oahu is home to many great botanical gardens, many which have free entry, that showcase many indigenous Hawaiian plants and flowers.
Who comes to an island and ignores the beaches, right? Whether you’d prefer to lounge on the sand in Lanikai, visit with the turtles up on the North Shore, take Oahu surfing lessons from the pros, or try out the stand-up paddle craze out in Waikiki, there is something for everyone as Oahu is surrounded by miles and miles of coastline. Whatever you do, don’t forget the sunscreen! Nothing will put a damper on your vacation quicker than a bad case of sunburn.
If you have the time, you’ll definitely want to get out and explore all around the island. Microclimates vary depending on whether you are on the Leeward side (usually more arid and dry) or the Windward (lush, more passing showers) and temperatures can drop as you move up in elevation. Pack light layers for comfort and get out there to explore!
Eating and Drinking
Honolulu is a foodie paradise! Here you can enjoy local pupu (appetizers) like ahi poke—fresh, raw cubes of ahi tuna tossed lightly with onions, limu (seaweed), shoyu, and sesame oil. Change it up and try the creamy spicy tuna version, especially if you like heat! Traditional Hawaiian staples like lau lau, lomi salmon, and poi are typical Oahu luau fare although you can also find them ready-made at local joins such as Ono Hawaiian Food in Kapahulu or Highway Inn. (Ono is the word for “delicious” in Hawaiian!)
Hawaii’s sugar plantations brought waves of migrant workers to the islands, especially from Asia and the Pacific. A typical “plate lunch” here includes rice, macaroni salad and one or more protein options that reflect the ethnic diversity in the islands. Teriyaki chicken, misoyaki butterfish, luau stew, kalbi ribs, hamburger steak, or a loco moco can all be options for a great mixed plate. Yes, at most traditional plate lunch stops you’ll probably be weighted down with the huge portions and many carbs, although lighter options are out there as well. Gourmet plate lunches can be found at places such as Kakaako Kitchen or Diamond Head Market and Grill. For lighter fare, check out a variety of ethnic restaurants—we’ve got great Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipino and Korean options which offer up lots of vegetable dishes and unique flavors.
If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll be in heaven in Honolulu with some of the best sushi and fresh fish options right off the dock. Head down to Nico’s at Pier 38, a great restaurant right next to the Honolulu Fish Auction for the freshest possible catch of the day. For great sushi, check out Sansei or Doraku Sushi in Waikiki, or visit the “sushi nazi” for the omakase menu at Sushi Sasabune on King St.
If you’re here on the last Friday of the month, don’t miss the monthly food truck gathering called Eat the Street. Although many of the trucks are parked all over the island on a regular basis, this is your best opportunity to sample a large variety at once. Another trend is the “pop up restaurants” around town, which come and go frequently, many created by chefs who’ve been raised on local flavors, trained at some of the top restaurants in the state, and are now committing to quality, locally grown ingredients on their own terms. Farmers markets are another great place for checking out tropical fruits and produce as well as picking up ready-made dishes to go.
The best free thing to do: Catch a sunrise on the east side of the island. Beautiful sunsets in Hawaii are a dime a dozen, so much so that you run the risk of taking them for granted; but how often are you up early enough to catch a beautiful sunrise? If you’re coming from the mainland US or Europe, you’ll likely be up early anyway due to the time difference, so you might as well get an early start. Beaches, like Sandy Beach on the east side or Lanikai on the windward side, are beautiful at first light; or get up extra early and plan a sunrise hike to greet the day.
If you only have one day: Sure there are lots of “must see” sights on Oahu—Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, and Diamond Head all come to mind. But sometimes just slowing down and relaxing into things at and island pace is the best way to go. Rather than trying to pack your itinerary, get out and explore what calls to you. If it were me, I’d wake up with something active with a view—for example, a run at Kapiolani Park, a hike up Diamond Head, or a swim or surf session. Then it’s road trip time! Head up the Pali Highway for a drive out to the Windward side. Continue up the coast, perhaps with a stop along the way at Giovanni’s shrimp truck in Kahuku, then cruise out to Haleiwa for some shave ice or perhaps the famous prime rib at Haleiwa Joe’s. If you’ve still got energy to spare, head back to Waikiki for some live music or a nightcap before calling it a night—umbrella drink optional, of course.
The best thing to eat: For a sweet treat from a little “hole in the wall” bakery (now made famous by an appearance on Hawaii Five-O) visit Liliha Bakery for their famous cocoa puffs. This cream puff pastry shell is filled with a light chocolate pudding and then topped with a dollop of heavenly chantilly frosting. They sell thousands of these per day, and once you try one you’ll understand why! Freezer packs are available for those on their way to the airport. When you arrive at your destination, they’ll be perfectly defrosted and ready for you to relive your delicious Hawaiian holiday.
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Oahu adventures!