When it comes to conversations about Hawaii, Oahu tends to divide the room in half. Though it still harbors pockets of “old Hawaii” if you know where to look, it is by far the most developed island in the chain, with an international city on its shoreline and a population approaching a million people. Some shy away from it for its traffic and hustle; others appreciate its combination of urban and outdoor lifestyles.
Either way, there’s one thing everyone can agree on: Oahu is the most diverse of the islands, with a wide-range of people, landscapes, and lifestyles. From the city streets of Honolulu to the surf-inspired shores of Haleiwa, from the islands off Kailua to the farm fields of Wahiawa, it’s possible to experience a little bit of everything Hawaii has to offer on Oahu.
Destinations on Oahu
Waikiki, Honolulu, and the South Shore
If you’re looking for Oahu’s metropolitan vibe, head to Honolulu on the south shore. Its neighborhoods of interest include Kakaako, Chinatown, and Waikiki, the latter being the most famous and the hub of tourism in Hawaii, renowned for its beginner-friendly surf culture and city-sand combination. For better or worse, you can learn to longboard and buy a Rolex within a block of each other in Waikiki.
Farther down the coast, where the south shore meets the east coast, is the town of Hawaii Kai, centered around a residential and commercial marina. The landscape surrounding it combines volcanic craters (Koko Head), natural wonders (Halona Blowhole), surf spots (Sandy’s Beach), and one of the most scenic stretches of coastline on the entire island adjacent to Hanauma Bay.
Haleiwa and the North Shore
If you ever wonder why surfing is so synonymous with Hawaii, look no further than the North Shore of Oahu, where huge swells deliver world-renowned waves every winter. In summer, those breaks mellow out, offering many opportunities for water sports – scuba diving, snorkeling, free diving, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding. Haleiwa is the “main hub,” but don’t expect many places to stay open late. The North Shore is home to two of the island’s institutions, Ted’s Bakery and Giovanni’s shrimp truck.
Kailua and the East (Windward) Side
If you’re looking for a tropical Hawaii that’s more low-key than Honolulu but not quite as sleepy as the North Shore, head to the east side, or windwardside, of the island. Here you will find lush jungles and an excellent string of beaches (Kailua Beach, Lanikai) surrounding the town of Kailua. The lifestyle here feels more like a beach town than a city, but it also has enough of a pulse to entertain you in the evening, from breweries (Lanikai Brewing) and beer bars (Grace in Growlers) to speakeasies (Gaslamp) and beachside restaurants (Buzz’s).
Waianae and the West (Leeward) Side
The west side is by far the least visited of areas on Oahu, but at some point that’s going to change. Below the dry peaks of the Waianae range are small, Hawaiian farming and fishing communities (Waianae), a world-class surf break (Makaha), and beautiful sandy beaches (Nanakuli/Yokohama). The far north of the west side provides access to Kaena Point, a seabird sanctuary and nature preserve.
A drive through Central Oahu and its farm fields show that the island, while developed in places, still remembers what it was once like in decades and centuries past. Today, its fields grow pineapple and coffee, and it produces a number of local products. You can learn more about the island’s pineapple history at the Dole Pineapple Plantation, taste local coffee at Green World Coffee Farm, or sample the modern-day use of sugar cane at Manulele Distilleries.
Things To Do On Oahu
This state-run nature preserve is excellent for families with small kids who want to snorkel in a safe, beautiful environment. Calm, shallow, and regulated by the State, Hanauma Bay is home to some of the island’s best coral and sea life, with usually-calm conditions and lifeguards to boot. Get there early to avoid the inevitable crowds.
Diamond Head is the iconic volcanic crater that hangs over the skyline of Waikiki. A paved hiking trail allows visitors to walk to the top for panoramic views of Honolulu, and its history reveals the volcanic activity that formed the Hawaiian Islands.
Hawaii was not even a state when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 (and wouldn’t become one until 1959!). A visit to Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Memorial, the U.S.S. Bowfin, and the U.S.S. Missouri help retrace the wartime history of Hawaii. The free video (tickets required) at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center does a great job of recapping World War II and what was happening in Hawaii during this historic era.
Iolani Palace and the Bishop Museum
The place to get an overview and a solid foundation of Hawaii is at the Bishop Museum, which specializes in Hawaiian history and Pacific wayfaring. Before it came a U.S. territory, Hawaii was a sovereign nation with a royal family, and today, the Iolani Palace is the only royal palace in the United States. Take a tour to learn more about life in Hawaii in the days of the monarchy.
Oahu is loaded with other cultural sites, from restored fishponds (Heeia) to preserved temples, or heiaus (Kukaniloko Birth Site).
Polynesian Cultural Center
While adults and single travelers should head to the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum for their history lesson, families should consider the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC), where a theme-park-esk atmosphere helps children digest Polynesian culture. Broken up into villages that represent different island nations (Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, etc), the PCC has colorful exhibits, live games, dances, boat rides, performances, and movies that foster an interactive experience.