The top things to see and do in Oahu; Our Oahu itinerary

The second stop on our Hawaii trip last month was on the island of Oahu. After spending six days on Maui (check out our Maui itinerary here), we traveled to Oahu where we spent another six days. Oahu felt very different than Maui. It was much more industrial and urban. It is also much more crowded- especially near the downtown Honolulu and Waikiki Beach areas. Even though it was a bit more fast-paced, we really enjoyed our time on Oahu. Below I share our six-day Oahu itinerary and an overview of the top things to see and do in Oahu.

Haleiwa Beach Park
Haleiwa Beach Park

Day One – Arrival in Oahu

We chose to fly into Oahu in the middle of the afternoon. This allowed us time to travel to our hotel and get settled prior to our dinner reservation. If Oahu is your first stop, you will most likely arrive in the middle of the day or late afternoon. I recommend spending the first day exploring your resort or rental and getting settled and if you have time- take advantage of some amazing Hawaiian food. 

Our Hawaiian Airlines flight from Maui to Oahu was short, quick, and inexpensive. They offer tons of flights daily between the two islands. We found that the Hawaiian airlines check-in desk was very understaffed, but otherwise had a good experience flying with them.

Most visitors to Oahu stay near Waikiki Beach in south central Oahu. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. On one hand, it is close to many of the top attractions including the beach itself, Diamond Head State Park, and Pearl Harbor. On the other hand, it is very crowded and felt much the same as every other crowded beach resort area we have visited. We decided to stay in Ko Olina, which is southwestern Oahu. The primary reason for this is because I am a crazy Disney person (which you know if you read this blog regularly) and Aulani, the Disney resort, is located there.

So we traveled from the Honolulu Airport to Ko Olina, checked in, and checked out all that the resort had to offer. I plan to write another post reviewing our visit to Aulani in the near future.

Day Two – Haleiwa

On our first full day on Oahu, we visited Haleiwa, a small town on Oahu’s North Shore. We traveled up to the North Shore where we did the Haleiwa Anahulu River kayak tour through Coastal Kayaks in the morning before exploring the town in the afternoon. We have kayaked before (but never on the ocean). I found the ocean kayaking very unnerving. Even though our guide described the waves as only one or two feet high, they felt much higher and I was certain we were going to tip over. Noting my fear, our guide diverted us to the nearby river a bit earlier than planned. While in the Anahulu River we had a much easier time kayaking and were able to spot numerous turtles swimming and sunbathing. 

After that, we traveled to the downtown Haleiwa area and checked out some of the shops. We had lunch at a really great food truck and enjoyed shaved ice at Matsumoto’s. Haleiwa isn’t too big so after a couple of hours we headed back to our resort to enjoy the resort’s lazy river and pools.

Day Three – Honolulu Museums

There were three major museums/historical sites that I wanted to visit on Oahu. Because they were all located in the greater Honolulu area, I thought it made sense to visit all three in one day. This ended up working out pretty well, but we were definitely tired at the end of the day. 

Pearl Harbor

We started the day at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. We arrived around 7:15am and we were able to park without difficulty (parking is free, but limited). As recommended, we booked the earliest ticket (8am) for the boat ride to the Arizona Memorial. I felt that this was the most impactful part of the National Memorial and consider it a must-see. The museum galleries and exhibits are free, but if you want to take the boat to the Arizona Memorial, you will need to make a reservation. Reservations for the boat are officially free, but there is a $1 processing fee. We also chose to rent the audio guide which was $7.50 per person. I highly recommend doing this online before your trip which you can at 3pm HST eight weeks in advance. There was a very long line for stand-by passengers that I was very happy we did not have to wait in.

The Memorial was lovely and the museums were very informative. It is hard not to feel emotional when learning about the suffering of the individuals who experienced the attack. Due to a small wardrobe issue we departed the park earlier than scheduled, but I recommend planning for about two or three hours here even if you aren’t a history or military buff.

Iolani Palace

Our next stop was the Iolani Palace. We ate a quick lunch at a downtown Hawaiian BBQ restaurant before arriving at the palace. We had made our reservations for the docent-led tour at the Iolani Palace for 12:30. As with Pearl Harbor, I recommend purchasing tickets in advance. While checking in for our tour another couple asked about purchasing tickets and were told that all tickets (for both docent-led and audio-guided tours) were sold out for the day. Adult admission for a docent-led tour was $30 for adults and $12 for children. Several other tours are also available.

After checking in at the Halekoa barracks to pick up our tickets, we were directed to the back side of the palace where we were given a brief overview and instructed to remove our hats and leave any beverages behind. We also had to wear disposable shoe covers on our feet. The tour was only about 45 minutes as the palace isn’t that large, but if you enjoy history or historical architecture, it is definitely worth a visit. In addition to learning about Hawaiian history, you can see recreations of a few of the queen’s gowns and some of the original palace furniture and décor. The Iolani Palace is also just across the street from the King Kamehameha statue on one side and the Queen Liliuokalani on the other, so it is convenient to get photos with these landmarks.

Bishop Museum

Our final museum of the day was the Bishop Museum. We booked tickets for entry between 2pm-3pm. This worked well. Although the museum closes at 5pm, I knew that we would be tired at this point and could just spend a couple of hours perusing the exhibits. The main gallery of the museum is stunning with a giant whale, shark, and double-hulled canoe hanging from the ceiling of the three-story atrium. There were seemingly endless exhibits. Some we stopped and read and some we browsed briefly in passing.

The museum was a treasure trove of Hawaiian and Polynesian history. Plan ahead and bring some headphones (I somehow missed this in my planning). The museum has a free audio tour on its website that allows you to learn even more about the exhibits on your visit. Admisssion is $25 for adults and $17 for children.

Day Four – Diamond Head and Waikiki

We had originally planned to visit the Diamond Head State Monument first thing in the morning, but decided to move our reservation to later in the day because we missed the window to make a reservation for Hanauma Bay which we had also planned to visit that day. 

Diamond Head

After sleeping in for a bit, we drove to the Diamond Head State Monument for a scenic hike. This was a fairly intense hike up the side of a volcano. There is a fairly steep incline the entire 1.5 miles without any significant breaks. And the path is very uneven and requires concentration to ensure that you don’t trip. Our reservation was for entry between 2-4pm. The disadvantage to doing this in the middle of the day was that it was really hot. There isn’t really any shade on this hike so you are really exposed. After a fairly challenging hike up, you have the choice to take a flight of 99 very steep steps to the lookout point. We opted for the slightly longer and less intense path (which still made me wish I had done more cardio to prepare). I recommend this as it is less strenuous and has several additional lookout points.

The view at the top is pretty amazing. You can see Waikiki Beach and Honolulu to the west and Moloka’i to the east. You also have a pretty stunning view of the southeastern part of the island. It was pretty crowded on top so we didn’t stay long, but it was a fun adventure. The cost to enter the Diamond Head State Monument is $5 per person for non-Hawaii residents plus $10 per car. Be sure to make your reservation 14 days in advance to ensure the entry time that fits your schedule.

Hanauma Bay

The original plan was to visit Hanauma Bay to enjoy some snorkeling after a morning Diamond Head hike. However, reservations are required at Hanauma Bay and you can only make them two days in advance. Reservations open at exactly 7am HST. And although I set multiple reminders, once you are on vacation it is easy to get distracted. Which is exactly what happened. And since this top snorkeling spot and wildlife preserve is one of the most in-demand attractions on Oahu, that meant that when I remembered several hours later, all of the reservations were gone. 

So, unfortunately we missed out on this attraction. I strongly encourage you to set an alarm (as I should have) to remind yourself to log in and reserve your desired time slot exactly at 7am. And best of luck to you. Entry to Hanauma Bay is $25 per person plus $3 to park. You must watch a video before entering the bay, but all the reviews suggest that it is worth it. Hanauma Bay is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach is beautiful, but it isn’t very big and it is insanely crowded. It is lined with seemingly endless resorts and endless people. Since we were staying on the other side of the island, we scheduled an afternoon to visit the infamous beach. We enjoyed observing from afar and spent some time shopping along the main stretch of Kalakaua Avenue.

The shops vary from the overly touristy minimarts to premium luxury brands like Chanel, Gucci, and Dior.  We ate dinner at one of the oldest hotels and enjoyed watching some hula, but didn’t feel the need to spend more than a half day at Waikiki. Obviously, if you enjoy beach activities, and don’t mind crowds, you will want to budget more time here.

Day Five- Polynesian Cultural Center

We decided to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) on our last full day on Oahu because this was the activity that was scheduled to end the latest. Because the PCC (which is located on the North Shore) doesn’t open until 12:45pm, we made a few stops on our way up to visit. The Hukilau Marketplace- a shopping center with several restaurants located outside the PCC, opens at 11am.

Coffee Farm and Kualoa Beach

Our first stop on the way to the PCC was the Green World Coffee Farm. We wanted to be sure to purchase some local coffee before the end of our trip. This store also had a little café with pastries and coffee (obviously). Our next stop on the way up to the PCC was the Kualoa Regional Park. This park appeared to be frequented primarily by locals and was uncrowded. This is also a great place to view Chinaman’s Hat (officially Mokoli’i), a small island off the coast of Oahu vaguely shaped like a hat.  This would be a lovely spot to have a beach day away from the crowds and traffic or to plan a kayaking trip out to Chinaman’s Hat. After enjoying a quick walk along the beach, we continued our journey to the PCC.

The Polynesian Cultural Center

The PCC is often compared to Disneyland because it has a number of different ‘lands’ representing  six different Polynesian Islands; Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and Aotearoa (New Zealand). Each island has several buildings demonstrating historic architecture, along with some shows and activities that are native to each culture.

We enjoyed our time at the PCC, but we felt somewhat rushed. There definitely isn’t enough time to enjoy all of the shows, demonstrations, and exhibits in a single day, but we enjoyed our time and felt like we learned a lot. Some of my favorites were the haka performance in Aotearoa and the palm tree climbing in Samoa. Our tickets also included the luau and an evening show. The luau was lovely and told the story of Hawaiian history in front of a picturesque backdrop. We really enjoyed the buffet and pineapple smoothie served in a pineapple. The food was delicious and the show was fun and entertaining.

After the luau, we had a few minutes to shop in the Hukilau Marketplace before it was time for the evening show HA: Breath of Life. This was a much bigger production than we initially anticipated with significant lighting, video, and special effects throughout. All in all, it was a lovely way to celebrate Polynesian culture and to wrap up our trip.

Day Six – East Oahu Driving Tour

On our final day in Oahu, we packed up our bags and checked out of our hotel room. Since our flight didn’t leave until 8:45pm, we had the entire day to enjoy the island before our departure. Our original plan was to take an ATV tour at the Kualoa Ranch. When we originally scheduled this tour, we planned to take advantage of the Aulani Luana Lounge. This lounge is designed for use by hotel guests who have late flights and offers a place to shower, change, and relax. Unfortunately the lounge had not yet reopened following COVID. Because we didn’t want to be sweaty and dirty on our return flight, we felt that we had no choice but to cancel our ATV reservations. However, if we return to Oahu in the future, this activity will be at the top of our to-do list. 

Instead, we decided to do a driving tour of eastern Oahu. Our exploring hadn’t yet taken us to that side of the island. In Maui, we had downloaded an audio tour for our Road to Hana trip, that we really enjoyed, so we decided to download their East Oahu Shoreline driving guide and set out. The tour took us to several picturesque sites and gave a bit of insight into local life.  The highlights included Halona Blowhole (where we also saw a monk seal sunning itself on the beach), Sandy Beach (a local beach with intense waves that a young Barrack Obama used to frequent), and the Makapu’u Scenic Lookout (we unfortunately ran out of time to do the lighthouse hike). It was a nice, low-key conclusion to our trip- which was great because at this point we were pretty tired.

Additional Attractions

If we had more time on Oahu, I would (as mentioned above) definitely have visited the Kualoa Ranch. In addition to ATV tours, they also offer bus, horseback riding, and zipline tours. Several blockbuster movies were filmed on its grounds. We also might have done a bit more hiking. The Manoa Falls Trail and Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail are highly recommended. Other highly rated attractions include the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Dole Pineapple Plantation, and the Hawaii Plantation Village.

Have you visited Oahu before? What are your favorite attractions on Oahu? 

I anticipate having multiple posts about our trip to Hawaii and specifically to Maui in the near future. In the meantime, if you are looking for travel inspiration, you might want to check out my posts on tips for visiting Nashville, Tennessee or New York City.

I am so glad you visited us at Jack and Bax. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter (sign up available either on the right sidebar or at the bottom of the page). And please follow me on Instagram and Facebook so that you don’t miss any of my upcoming projects!

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