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The Ultimate Oahu Travel Guide (Part 1): Island Overview

Oahu, often referred to as "The Gathering Place”, is home to approximately 75% of Hawaii's diverse population, a fusion of East and West cultures rooted in the values and traditions of the Native Hawaiian people.  It's unique that you experience both town and country by only taking a short drive away from bustling Honolulu and Waikiki Beach.

This family travel guide to Oahu is broken up into five different parts that go over the island, the best places to stay, what you need to experience, our favorite places to eat and shop and how to maximize value for your next trip.

You'll find plenty of different options for exploring Oahu's different regions, the island's many activities, its world-class restaurants, accommodations and much more from this guide.  

Island Overview

Oahu can be split up into 5 different regions: Honolulu & Waikiki Beach, the Leeward Coast, the Windward Coast, Central Oahu and the North Shore.  Each area has a different feel to it and offers something a little different for visitors with unique things to do and see.


Honolulu & Waikiki Beach

The world-famous Waikiki Beach was once a playground for Hawaiian royalty and was first introduced to the world when its first hotel, the Moana Surfrider, was built on its shores in 1901.  Fast forward to today and Waikiki is still Oahu’s main hotel and resort area - a vibrant gathering place for visitors from around the world. Along the main strip of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki you'll find world-class shopping, dining, entertainment, activities and resorts.

The Duke Kahanamoku Statue, located on Waikiki Beach, has become an iconic symbol of Waikiki and the surf culture of Oahu.  Legendary Hawaiian waterman (and Olympic gold medalist) Duke Kahanamoku grew up surfing the waves of Waikiki and was instrumental in sharing the values and sport of surfing to the world and came to be known and respected globally as 'the father of modern surfing'.

Waikiki Beach is almost entirely man-made, but there’s more to Waikiki than just the beach. Attractions near Waikiki like the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium offer fun for the whole family. You can learn about the history of Waikiki by reading the surfboard markers along the Waikiki Historical Trail. Among the various things to do, high-end boutiques, shops, and restaurants can be found all along Kalakaua and Kuhio Avenues.

Best of all, Waikiki is within a half hour of a variety of Oahu attractions, including Pearl Harbor, Iolani Palace, the Nuuanu Pali Lookout, the Ko Olina area and Hanauma Bay. Other notable points of interest nearby include Ala Moana Center (a massive outdoor shopping center), the local neighborhood of Kapahulu and the arts district of Chinatown.

There is much more to Oahu than Waikiki Beach and if you don't venture out from the big city of Honolulu, you have not truly seen or experienced everything Oahu has to offer.

Central Oahu

Gain a unique perspective on World War II with a visit to Pearl Harbor, or explore the island's agricultural traditions at the Dole pineapple plantation.

The most important landmark in Central Oahu sits to the south in historic Pearl Harbor, the largest natural harbor in Hawaii. This active naval base is home to five historic sites that you can visit. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is a free attraction at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, a unit of the US National Park Service (NPS). The Pearl Harbor National Memorial includes the USS Arizona Memorial, USS Oklahoma Memorial, and USS Utah Memorial. The visitor center is also the gateway to the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites:  Battleship Missouri Memorial, Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum, and the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum. These special monuments commemorate the historic events that changed the course of history during World War II.

The fertile central valley between the Waianae Mountains and Koolau range offers a peek back to Oahu’s history. Agriculture on the island was booming in the late 19th century, attracting immigrants from around the world to work on plantations. On your way from Honolulu to the North Shore, you’ll pass the Leilehua Plateau in Wahiawa and see sprawling fields of pineapples. Get a closer look by stopping at the Dole Plantation, where you can learn about the spiky-but-sweet fruit’s legacy on Oahu and cool down with a delicious frozen Dole whip treat. Kids will love running through the huge three-acre shrub maze. 

Leeward Coast 

On the Leeward Coast of Oahu (West side of the island), you'll find lots of sunny and dry weather as well as more rural towns, off-the-beaten-path beaches and the luxurious resort area of Ko Olina.  

The sunny and dry Leeward Coast of Oahu lies at the foot of the Waianae mountain range and ia approximately thirty miles from Waikiki (depending on traffic), but the contrast between the regions is striking. Where Waikiki offers urban hustle and bustle, the Leeward side of Oahu is less developed, with picturesque towns like Kaploei, beautiful off-the-beaten-path beaches and rural landscapes to explore.

If you plan to stay on the Leeward Coast, you’ll have three major major resorts to choose from in the beautiful Ko Olina resort area that include the luxurious Four Seasons Oahu, Marriott Ko Olina Beach and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa.  

Windward Coast

Located just a short drive from Honolulu, you can enjoy the highlights of Oahu’s lush Windward Coast, including the peaceful Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden and adventurous Kualoa Ranch.

As you drive over the sloping Pali Highway, skyscrapers and the sprawling city of Honolulu give way to lush valleys and country landscapes. Exiting the tunnels east of the Koolau Mountain Range, it feels as if you’re entering a different world and a turquoise ocean shimmers in the distance. A trip to the Windward Coast reveals a slower-paced side of Oahu, and some of the most stunning natural beauty anywhere in Hawaii. 

From Kailua town, you can head in two directions. Go clockwise down the coast towards Makapuu Point Lighthouse and eventually Diamond Head and Waikiki. Or drive north and spend a day exploring the Windward Coast as it winds lazily around the island toward the North Shore, offering interesting stops along the way, like the serene Valley of the Temples, which is home to a stunning Japanese Buddhist temple. 

Driving along the two-lane highway you can't miss Mokolii, the tiny island pointing up from the sea.  Stop at the park and stretch your legs or have a picnic. 

Just across the highway you’ll find one of Hawaii’s most seen but least-recognized locations: Kualoa Ranch. A generations-old family-owned ranch, its scenic valley has provided the backdrop for countless movies and TV shows, including "Jurassic Park" and "Lost". Fortunately, it’s not just for the stars; visitors can enjoy horseback riding, ziplining, ATV tours and host of other activities. 

From here, Kamehameha Highway meanders past Kaaawa, Kahana Bay and around the northernmost tip of the island to Oahu’s North Shore, home of the best surf spots in Hawaii, and some say, in the whole world.

North Shore

Roughly a one-hour drive from Waikiki, the North Shore is also home to a variety of accommodation options, including condo rentals and the exclusive beachside Turtle Bay Resort. Take a little road trip to the charming surf town of Haleiwa Town, where you can shop, eat like a local and cool off with rainbow-flavored shave ice. Continue your drive to Laie to visit the Polynesian Cultural Center and the old plantation town of Kahuku.

If the perfect wave exists, you’ll find it on Oahu’s North Shore. The towering, glassy winter waves of this legendary surf mecca draw the best surfers in the world, while smaller and gentler summer waves are better for beginners. You can also explore Waimea Valley and hike to Waimea Falls. 

Next up in The Ultimate Oahu Travel Guide: