Best Places to Visit in Oahu

Oahu, a tropical vacation paradise, is the most popular and well known of the Hawaiian Islands. While we think every visitor to the Islands should see Oahu, we recommend that you also plan to spend some time in Maui or the Big Island to experience what some call the “real” Hawaii.  Perhaps more to the point, Hawaii is a great place for those seeking to get away but, perhaps, not to get away from everything.  Honolulu is the Capital of Hawaii and is the state’s business center.  Oahu is the most urban of the islands and that means it is  just a little less paradise than some travelers expect.

The island’s principal attraction is its beaches and everyone who visits Oahu focuses their plans on sunbathing, swimming and generally lazing about – after all, it is the tropics! The more adventurous will play golf, go snorkeling, surf or windsurf, but almost everyone prefers to find an outdoor activity that takes advantage of Oahu’s delightful climate.

Most visitors to Oahu make reservations in one of the many hotels along Waikiki, the island’s primary resort area. As you might suspect, the resorts in Waikiki offer a variety of amenities and pampering, but you will spend the majority of your time sunbathing at the white sand beaches, or at the pool – thinking about taking a nap or where to eat your next delicious meal. After a few day of sunning, tanning, swimming and eating too much, you or your kids may want to break the monotony and find something else to do. Of course, Waikiki is, also, a honeymoon capital and for newlyweds, there appears to be no chance of boredom on a honeymoon in Hawaii. Our recommendation for the Best Places to Visit in Oahu cover the Island’s leading attractions. There are only a few attractions in Oahu that are “must see”, but there are a number of things to do that are fun, pleasant and unique to this island or the Hawaiian culture.

Waikiki

Waikiki Beach
Waikiki Beach

Waikiki at one time referred to a relatively small area of luxury beach resorts. Developed by the steamship lines and the original “Big Five” companies that “controlled Hawaii”, Waikiki was set-up near the port of Honolulu to attract cruisers sailing on the era’s luxury liners (and to help develop the tourism industry of Hawaii). Today, while close to something less than an extravaganza, Waikiki has expanded while evolving into a vacation area of international renown that offers all of the amenities that one could hope for in a resort area.

How would you describe Waikiki?

Waikiki is a beach resort area located on the western side of Oahu, south of Pearl Harbor and about ten miles south of the Honolulu airport. The Hilton Hawaiian Village next to the Kahanamoku Lagoon marks the north end of tourist Waikiki and Diamond Head mark the southern extent. The western edge of Waikiki is two and half miles of beautiful white sand beaches that nestle against the Pacific Ocean. From the Hilton Hawaiian Village south, along Waikiki’s beautiful beaches, the area is densely packed with hotels that begin to thin near Kapahula Ave and Kapiolani Park. Waikiki is bounded by the Ala Wai Canal on the east. Stretching from both ends of Waikiki is a series of parks, conceived as a ‘Lei of Green’ that may not live up to its name, but you can get to the shore fee-free all along this part of the city’s waterfront.

What makes Waikiki Special?

What makes Waikiki Special?

Waikiki’s beaches are peaceful and the waters of the Pacific here are warm, making them great for swimming and recreational use. Surfing, windsurfing, stand-up paddle boarding and sea kayaking entice many.  This is a great place to learn technique, although other locations in Oahu offer more challenging conditions.

Many of the larger hotels are mini-cities that feature multiple restaurants with diverse cuisines. When you tire of hotel fare, the Waikiki area offers a variety of restaurants within walking distance of the hotels. If your are worried that you might see menus filled with rice and fish items, don’t be concerned as most restaurants serve all types of cuisine, including international and Hawaiian fare. When the hotel restaurants don’t meet your needs, just take a short walk and you will find most of the “chain” restaurants you can find most anywhere in the U.S.

Waikiki has an active nightclub scene, so if you like dining, dancing and a little drinking, there will be no shortage of opportunities for fun.  If you need a place to get started, try Duke’s Canoe Club Restaurant and Bar (the Barefoot Bar) located at the Outrigger Waikiki Hotel (2335 Kalakaua Avenue).

If you want to shop, there are stores in the hotels and countless opportunities to shop in surrounding areas. When you really need a fix, the nearby Ala Moana Center  (within walking distance) includes 260 shops and 70 restaurants (1450 Ala Moana Boulevard). Alternatively, you can head to the closer but smaller Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center  at 2201 Kalakaua Avenue  .

Next, if you want to take a quick tour of Honolulu, the city center is just north of Waikiki. If you want to explore the island, your hotel can arrange tours of most of the important attractions in Oahu.  If you prefer, rent a car and explore Oahu’s famed surfing beaches along the North Shore.

Finally, you can visit nearby islands in the Hawaiian chain, on day trips, but these will be all-day trips.

We cover the attractions in Honolulu , Oahu’s beaches, luaus and the World War II memorials later in this guide.

Where to Stay?

Hilton Hawai'ian Village
Hilton Hawaiian Village

Resort properties range from the cozy and affordable to the spectacular and extremely expensive. Some of the properties are small while others, like the Hilton Hawaiian Village, are spectacles, but comfortable, entertaining and worthy of an exploration, Undoubtedly there will be a hotel , resort or a condominium rental that appeals to you. The only advice we give here is that you should stay in Waikiki on your first visit to Oahu. Of course, if you do, you may come back again and again.

What Should We See In Waikiki?

The Royal Hawai'ian Hotel
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel

You’ve been working too hard!  Hit the beach, rent a float, eat great food, but along the way take time to tour some of the classic hotels

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel (Sheraton),  known as the “Pink Palace of the Pacific”, is one of Oahu’s well known icons, almost as identifiable as Diamond Head. The hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places and was one of Waikiki’s “early” hotels when opened in 1927. It has a glamorous, star studded history (you can also throw in a few presidents). You may want to stop by for a drink at the Mai Tai Bar (which is reputed to have the best Mai Tai in Hawaii) or an elegant dinner in the Surf Room. (2258 Kalakaua Avenue)

The Sheraton Moana Surfrider, the first resort hotel in Waikiki opened in 1901 and is called the “First Lady of Waikiki”. Be sure to take a look as the building is architecturally very interesting.

Eventually, you will start walking down Waikiki to see what else it has to offer.

Waikiki looking north  – The pink building is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel

Atlantis submarine

Atlantis submarine
Atlantis submarine

If you are in the mood to “take a dive” but don’t want to get your feet wet, we recommend that you consider a ride on the Atlantis Submarine that features views of tropical fish, underwater shipwrecks, sunken airplanes and artificial reefs.  The Atlantis submarine that operates out of Waikiki seats 64 and is 100 feet in length. It features large viewports for panoramic undersea views and descends to a maximum depth of approximately 100 feet.

Kid must be at least 36 inches tall to ride the submarine. All riders must be able to descend a near vertical ladder to ride the submarine.

The trip is about 90 minutes in length.  It starts with a cruise out to the submarine, followed by an exciting underwater descent.  Time is evenly split with 45 minutes on the submarine and the rest being shuttled to and from the Atlantis dock, located beach side of the Hilton Hawaiian Village.  Guests must check-in at the Atlantis Submarines ticket booth located at the Hilton Hawaiian Village’s  Ali’i Tower, next to the Tropics Café.

The ride is pricey but very interesting.   Atlantis and variety of outlets sell tickets online and you may find a discount available at the official website.

Diamond Head (Lē ‘Ahi) State Monument

Diamond Head (Lē ‘Ahi) State Monument

Open 6am  to 6 pm.

Diamond Head, the most well known icon for Oahu, is more attractive from a distance than up close. Diamond Head is a volcanic cone comprised of tuffa volcanic rock formed of extremely small volcanic fragments that resulted from a volcanic eruption.  The tuff settled, compacted and solidified surrounding its volcanic vent.  Diamond Head is thought to have formed during an eruption approximately three hundred thousand years ago. The southwestern rim of Diamond Head is higher than the rest of the cone due to the prevailing winds redistributing the ejecta of the eruption. Since that time, erosion by wind and water has cut gullies into the cone, but it remains today looking much like it was in the past.

In the 18th century, explorers thought the reflection of the sun off the minerals embedded in the volcanic cone were diamonds and the area was given the name Diamond Head. Due to its strategic location, Diamond Head was purchased by the United States Department of Defense early in the 20th century and fortified over the following years.

The Kahala Tunnel runs through the south side of the cone and into the crater.  There is a parking lot  and a trail to the summit that rewards hikers with a  panoramic view of Waikiki and the Pacific.

The hike to the rim from the floor of the cone is less than a mile long, but  the majority of the hike is vertical.  In addition, Diamond Head is a hot environment with little shade, so bring plenty of water for the ascent.  Unless you are in good shape, you might want to skip the ascent, as it is quite a workout!.  Also, take a flashlight, as you will pass through long, dark tunnels to overlooks that once served  artillery fire control stations (spotters) on Diamond Head.  If you do take the hike, please stay on the trail and help protect the fragile environment from further erosion.

For more Information about Diamond Head State Monument, see the official website.