Hawaii is one of the most popular (and most beautiful) destinations in the world. From top rated beaches, to waterfalls, to the best restaurants and shopping, Hawaii has no shortage of things to do. I recently traveled to Oahu, Hawaii and it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. When people think of Oahu, many only think about Honolulu and Waikiki. However, there are so many hidden gems around the entire island that you do NOT want to miss out on. Whenever I travel, I try to stay away from the “touristy” things and find more of the experiences that are “off the beaten path”. This travel guide will help you learn about the hidden gems and most popular destinations to visit to have The Ultimate Hawaii Vacation.
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Getting To Hawaii
Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) is the largest airport in the state of Hawaii. It is typically the cheapest to fly here from the continental US and is the central hub to get to all the other islands. Coming from Michigan, it took me 11 hours and 2 different planes to get to Oahu Hawaii. Being six hours behind Eastern time (EST), it was a difficult adjustment for my body to get used to and the Jet Lag was definitely tough. If you are coming from the Continental U.S, I would highly recommend parking near the US airport using Park ‘N Fly. I have found it to be the cheapest parking and you can even get up to 50% your parking using this link. Temperature wise, the best time to go to Oahu Hawaii is April, May, September, or October.
Plane Essentials For Your Flight to Hawaii
Since flying to Hawaii is typically a long journey for most people, I wanted to include some of my favorite plane essentials to help make the trip more manageable:
- Bcozzy Neck Pillow
- Airplane In-Flight Phone Mount
- Digital Luggage Scale
- Cord and Charger Carrying Case
- Favorite Travel Laptop Backpack
Where to Stay in Oahu Hawaii
When it comes to where to stay on the Oahu island, there are many different options to choose from. If you want to be in a big city, I would recommend staying in Waikiki or Honolulu. If you are more like me and want to get away from the “hustle and bustle” of city life, there are many other great options around the island as well. We stayed on the East side of the Island in Hawaii Kai and loved it. We were very close to beautiful Hawaii beaches, grocery stores, and restaurants, and it kept us away from the traffic that was constant near Honolulu and Waikiki.
- VRBO / AIRBNB Properties: There are many great VRBO or Airbnb properties on the island. This is going to be your best bet if you want to stay somewhere like Hawaii Kai or near the North Shore.
- Moana Surfrider: This hotel is very historic and opened in 1901, but guests can still stay there today, and many do! It is a very highly rated hotel in Waikiki.
- Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Resort: Another very popular resort to stay at near Waikiki. It has very high ratings and people love it!
Find Other Places to Stay in Oahu Hawaii
Things to Do in Oahu Hawaii
There are so many amazing things to see and do in Hawaii that it is almost impossible to get bored. I was in Oahu for a week, and I left feeling like there was so much more to see and do. What I have listed in the Ultimate Hawaii Vacation guide is really only the tip of the iceberg of things to do while in Oahu Hawaii. Check out a few of my favorite tours from GetYourGuide below.
Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Tour
There is no doubt that going to Pearl Harbor and seeing the USS Arizona is one of the most popular things to do on Oahu. Although I am not big into history, it was still very cool to see and being on the USS Arizona memorial is a feeling I will never forget. The tour is very well worth your time and is a must see for the traveler who is looking for the ultimate hawaii vacation.
Afternoon Glass Bottom Boat Tour
This afternoon glass bottom boat tour is one of the most highly rated (and most popular) tours in Oahu, Hawaii. On this tour you will enjoy the clear view of the bottom of the Pacific Ocean as you sail over live tropical reefs and even see one of Hawaii’s shipwrecks.
Turtle Canyons Snorkel Excursion
This excursion allows you the rare opportunity to snorkel alongside endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles and colorful reef fish off of the Waikiki Coast. If you are looking for the ultimate Hawaii vacation, I would highly recommend taking some type of snorkel excursion while in Oahu.
Waikiki Sunset and Cocktail Cruise
Enjoy watching a beautiful sunset and sipping on cocktails while sailing near the Waikiki coast. This tour takes place on the ship called Majestic, Hawaii’s only full-service bar and lounge at sea.
Famous Hikes in Oahu to take on your Hawaii Vacation
If staying active is on the top of your list for an ultimate Hawaii vacation, you should definitely check out some of Oahu’s best hikes. The Hikes in Oahu have varying difficulty levels, so be sure to research the hike before taking off on the trails. My favorite hike that I took while on my Ultimate Hawaii Vacation was the hike to the top of Koko Head. It was not an easy hike, but I definitely recommend taking on the challenge.
Beaches in Oahu Hawaii
I am someone who likes to stay away from crowds so I personally chose to stay away from the more popular beaches (such as Waikiki). In this Hawaii Vacation Travel Guide I am sharing some of my favorite, more quaint, beaches that I went to while in Oahu. Check out the list below:
- Sandy Beach (A beautiful beach, but can be very dangerous to swim in)
- Waimanalo Beach
- Lanikai Beach
- Banzai Pipeline (To watch surfers)
Other Top Things to Do in Oahu
- Zip Lining: We absolutely LOVED Zip Lining at Climbworks Keana Farms
- Ala Moana Beach Park: Great for sunset viewing!
- Waikiki: Go for a day/evening for shopping and eats
- Kualoa Ranch: I did not go here, but many people love to visit. They say it is beautiful and a few different films were shot here (Jurassic World, Soul Surfer, Jumanji).
Transportation in Hawaii
The best way to get around the island of Oahu is renting your own car (Save 10% on a Weekend or Weekly Rental. Use code 101604). You can rent a car near the airport, or you can go through a company such as Turo, which is very popular on Oahu. They also have a pretty good public transportation system on the island. You can typically take the bus around for $5/day. I would not recommend relying on Uber or Lyft to get you anywhere unless you are in the heart of Honolulu or Waikiki. Traffic is typically pretty bad near these big cities, so I would stay away from the highways during rush-hour if at all possible.
If you are looking to travel from island-to-island, there are many flight options that are relatively cheap. Many tourists call this “island hopping” and it is a very common occurrence while visiting Hawaii.
Where to Eat & Drink in Oahu
There are some amazing places to eat and drink in Oahu. Rather than talking about all of the touristy restaurants, I wanted to share some of my favorite treats below.
This would not be a complete travel guide about Oahu if we did not talk about their fresh Acai bowls. I tried many different Acai Bowls while on the island, and my absolute favorite was from Hale’iwa Bowls. This spot is located on Kamehameha Hwy in Haleiwa (towards the North Shore). They also had great smoothie options that a few of my family members tried and loved.
Another treat that Hawaii is known for is Shave Ice. Two of the most popular Shave Ice locations on Oahu are Matsumoto and Aoki. However, my favorite spot on the island is found downtown Waikiki, called Island Vintage Shave Ice (pictured above). This shave ice is absolutely worth the wait in line. The line goes fast and there is some excellent people-watching while you are waiting. We went back to Waikiki just to get this yummy treat, and it absolutely deserves a shout-out on this Oahu Travel Guide.
The North Shore of Oahu is famous for their many food trucks, mainly shrimp trucks. Although the Famous Kahuku Shrimp truck (pictured above) was my personal favorite, I also enjoyed North Shore Tacos and Big Wave food trucks.
Photo courtesy of KoKo Marina Center
Although I never got the chance to wait in line for a tasty Malasada from Leonard’s Bakery, it was recommended to me over and over again. So, I wanted to make sure to include it on this travel guide of Oahu. Although I missed it last time, I will definitely be trying these Malasada’s on my next trip to Oahu!
Breakfast in Oahu
I can’t recommend the Moena Cafe in Hawaii Kai enough. Their breakfast was phenomenal, especially the french toast with berries on top. Their coffee and smoothies were also very good. We ended up here for breakfast two times during our stay, but if we had found it earlier in the week, I am sure we would have been there more times.
Island Vintage Coffee was an amazing coffee shop to try. They also had great breakfast options – the line can be long at times, but it was definitely a go-to in the mornings!
Getting Married in Oahu Hawaii
One of the reasons we were visiting Oahu is because we were attending a wedding ceremony and reception. They had their ceremony at Lanikai Estate (pictured above) and it was absolutely gorgeous! Afterwards we went over to the original Roys Hawaii Kai for the reception. They had a great room for rent that had a beautiful view of the sunset.
Tips & Tricks for Your Hawaii Vacation
- Get to the beaches early! The popular beaches fill up fast, and parking is typically limited.
- Talking about parking… it is prohibited near Lanikai Beach during the week. We were recommended to park in Kailua Beach Park and walk to Lanikai (it is about a 15 minute walk each way).
- Hanauma Bay – It is super expensive and packed in like sardines. I would stay away from this if possible. If you do want to go – make sure you arrive early to beat the crowds.
What to Pack
The main item of clothing that you will want in Hawaii is comfortable swimsuits. I would always put a swimsuit on every morning with a cover-up or comfortable clothes. Almost everything you do in Hawaii revolves around water – from going to beaches, to hiking, to waterfalls.
Check out my favorite swimsuits to take to Hawaii:
Here are some of my favorite cover-ups!
Check out these other relevant blog posts: Ways to plan a frugal vacation